Here’s the last of our Chapter Reveals from several of Judith McNaught’s novels that are finally available in e-book format! ENJOY!! 🙂
Propped upon a mountain of satin pillows amid rumpled bed linens, Helene Devernay surveyed his bronzed, muscular torso with an appreciative smile as Stephen David Elliott Westmoreland, Earl of Langford, Baron of Ellingwood, Fifth Viscount Hargrove, Viscount Ashbourne, shrugged into the frilled shirt he’d tossed over the foot of the bed last night. “Are we still attending the theatre next week?” she asked.
Stephen glanced at her in surprise as he picked up his neck cloth. “Of course.” Turning to the mirror above the fireplace, he met her gaze in it while he deftly wrapped the fine white silk into intricate folds around his neck. “Why did you need to ask?”
“Because the Season begins next week, and Monica Fitzwaring is coming to town. I heard it from my dressmaker, who is also hers.”
“And?” he said, looking steadily at her in the mirror, his expression betraying not even a flicker of reaction.
With a sigh, Helene rolled onto her side and leaned on an elbow, her tone regretful but frank. “And gossip has it that you’re finally going to make her the offer she and her father have been waiting for these three years past.”
“Is that what the gossips are saying?” he asked casually, but he lifted his brows slightly, in a gesture that silently, and very effectively, managed to convey his displeasure with Helene for introducing a topic that he clearly felt was none of her concern.
Helene noted the unspoken reprimand and the warning it carried, but she took advantage of what had been a remarkably open—and highly pleasurable—affair for both of them for several years. “In the past, there have been dozens of rumors that you were on the verge of offering for one aspiring female or another,” she pointed out quietly, “and, until now, I have never asked you to verify or deny any of them.”
Without answering, Stephen turned from the mirror and picked up his evening jacket from the flowered chaise longue. He shoved his arms into the sleeves, then he walked over to the side of the bed and finally directed all his attention to the woman in it. Standing there, looking down at her, he felt his annoyance diminish considerably. Propped up on her elbow, with her golden hair spilling over her naked back and breasts, Helene Devernay was a delectable sight. She was also intelligent, direct, and sophisticated, all of which made her a thoroughly delightful mistress both in and out of bed. He knew she was too practical to nurture any secret hopes of a marriage offer from him, which was absolutely out of the question for a woman in her circumstances, and she was too independent to have any real desire to tie herself to someone for life—traits that further solidified their relationship. Or so he had thought. “But now you are asking me to confirm or deny that I intend to offer for Monica Fitzwaring?” he asked quietly.
Helene gave him a warm, seductive smile that normally made his body respond. “I am.”
Brushing back the sides of his jacket, Stephen put his hands on his hips and regarded her coolly. “And if I said yes?”
“Then, my lord, I would say that you are making a great mistake. You have a fondness for her, but not a great love nor even a great passion. All she has to offer you is her beauty, her bloodlines, and the prospect of an heir. She hasn’t your strength of will, nor your intelligence, and although she may care for you, she will never understand you. She will bore you in bed and out of it, and you will intimidate, hurt, and anger her.”
“Thank you, Helene. I must count myself fortunate that you take such an interest in my personal life and that you are so willing to share your expertise on how I ought to live it.”
The stinging set down caused her smile to fade a little but not disappear. “There, you see?” she asked softly. “I am duly chastened and forewarned by that tone of yours, but Monica Fitzwaring would be either completely crushed or mortally offended.”
She watched his expression harden at the same time his voice became extremely polite, chillingly so. “My apologies, madame,” he said, inclining his head in a mockery of a bow, “if I have ever addressed you in a tone that is less than civil.”
Reaching up, Helene tugged on his jacket in an attempt to make him sit down on the bed beside her. When this failed, she dropped her hand, but not the issue, and widened her smile to soothe his temper. “You never speak to anyone in an uncivil tone, Stephen. In fact, the more annoyed you are, the more ‘civil’ you become—until you are so very civil, so very precise and correct, that the effect is actually quite alarming. One might even say . . . terrifying!”
She shivered to illustrate, and Stephen grinned in spite of himself.
“That is what I meant,” she said, smiling back at him. “When you grow cold and angry, I know how—” Her breath caught as his large hand slipped down beneath the sheet and covered her breast, his fingers tantalizing her.
“I merely wish to warm you,” he said, as she reached her arms around his neck and drew him down on the bed.
“And distract me.”
“I think a fur would do a far better job of that.”
“Of warming me?”
“Of distracting you,” he said as his mouth covered hers, and then he went about the pleasurable business of warming, and distracting, both of them.
It was nearly five o’clock in the morning when he was dressed again.
“Stephen?” she whispered sleepily as he bent and pressed a farewell kiss upon her smooth brow.
“I have a confession.”
“No confessions,” he reminded her. “We agreed on that from the beginning. No confessions, no recriminations, no promises. That was the way we both wanted it.”
Helene didn’t deny it, but this morning she couldn’t make herself comply. “My confession is that I find myself rather annoyingly jealous of Monica Fitzwaring.”
Stephen straightened with an impatient sigh, and waited, knowing she was determined to have her say, but he did not help her do it. He simply regarded her with raised brows.
“I realize you need an heir,” she began, her full lips curving into an embarrassed smile, “but could you not wed a female whose looks pale a little in comparison with mine? Someone shrewish too. A shrew with a slightly crooked nose or small eyes would suit me very well.”
Stephen chuckled at her humor, but he wanted the subject closed permanently, and so he said, “Monica Fitzwaring is no threat to you, Helene. I’ve no doubt she knows of our relationship and she would not try to interfere, even if she thought she could.”
“What makes you so certain?”
“She volunteered the information,” he said flatly, and when Helene still looked unconvinced, he added, “In the interest of putting an end to your concern and to this entire topic, I’ll add that I already have a perfectly acceptable heir in my brother’s son. Furthermore, I have no intention of adhering to custom, now or in future, by shackling myself to a wife for the sole purpose of begetting a legal heir of my own body.”
As Stephen came to the end of that blunt speech, he watched her expression change from surprise to amused bafflement. Her next remark clarified the reason for her obvious quandary: “If not to beget an heir, what other possible reason could there be for a man such as you to wed at all?”
Stephen’s disinterested shrug and brief smile dismissed all the other usual reasons for marriage as trivial, absurd, or imaginary. “For a man such as I,” he replied with a mild amusement that failed to disguise his genuine contempt for the twin farces of wedded bliss and the sanctity of marriage—two illusions that flourished even in the brittle, sophisticated social world he inhabited, “there does not seem to be a single compelling reason to commit matrimony.”
Helene studied him intently, her face alight with curiosity, caution, and the dawning of understanding. “I always wondered why you didn’t marry Emily Lathrop. In addition to her acclaimed face and figure, she is also one of the few women in England who actually possesses the requirements of birth and breeding in enough abundance to make her worthy of marrying into the Westmoreland family and of producing your heir. Everyone knows you fought a duel with her husband because of her, yet you didn’t kill him, nor did you marry her a year later, after old Lord Lathrop finally keeled over and cocked up his toes.”
His brows rose in amusement at her use of irreverent slang for Lathrop’s death, but his attitude toward the duel was as casual and matter-of-fact as her own. “Lathrop got some maggot into his head about defending Emily’s honor and putting a stop to all the rumors about her, by challenging one of her alleged lovers to a duel. I will never understand why the poor old man chose me from amongst a legion of viable candidates.”
“Whatever method he used, it’s obvious age had addled his mind.”
Stephen eyed her curiously. “Why do you say that?”
“Because your skill with pistols, and your skill on the dueling field, are both rather legendary.”
“Any child of ten could have won a duel with Lathrop,” Stephen said, ignoring her praise of his abilities. “He was so old and frail he couldn’t steady his own pistol or hold it level. He had to use both hands.”
“And so you let him leave Rockham Green unscathed?”
Stephen nodded. “I felt it would be impolite of me to kill him, under the circumstances.”
“Considering that he forced the duel on you in the first place, by calling you out in front of witnesses, it was very kind of you to pretend to miss your shot, in order to spare his pride.”
“I did not pretend to miss my shot, Helene,” he informed her, and then he pointedly added, “I deloped.”
To delope constituted an apology and therefore implied an admission of guilt. Thinking he might have some other explanation for standing twenty paces from his opponent and deliberately firing high into the air instead of at Lord Lathrop, she said slowly, “Are you saying you really were Emily Lathrop’s lover? You were actually guilty?”
“As sin,” Stephen averred flatly.
“May I ask you one more question, my lord?”
“You can ask it,” he specified, struggling to hide his mounting impatience with her unprecedented and unwelcome preoccupation with his private life.
In a rare show of feminine uncertainty, she glanced away as if to gather her courage, then she looked up at him with an embarrassed, seductive smile that he might have found irresistible had it not been immediately followed by a line of questioning so outrageous that it violated even his own lax standards of acceptable decorum between the sexes. “What was it about Emily Lathrop that drew you to her bed?”
His instant aversion to that question was completely eclipsed by his negative reaction to her next. “I mean, was there anything she did with you—or for you—or to you, that I do not do when we’re in bed together?”
“As a matter of fact,” he replied in a lazy drawl, “there was one thing Emily did that I particularly liked.”
In her eagerness to discover another woman’s secret, Helene overlooked the sarcasm edging his voice. “What did she do that you particularly liked?”
His gaze dropped suggestively to her mouth. “Shall I show you?” he asked, and when she nodded, he bent over her, bracing his hands on either side of her pillow so that his waist and hips were only inches above her head. “You’re absolutely certain you wish to take part in a demonstration?” he asked in a deliberately seductive whisper.
Her emphatic nod was playful and inviting enough to take the edge off his annoyance, leaving him caught somewhere between amusement and exasperation. “Show me what she did that you particularly liked,” she whispered, sliding her hands up his forearms.
Stephen showed her by putting his right hand firmly over her mouth, startling her with a “demonstration” that matched his smiling explanation: “She refrained from asking me questions like yours about you or anyone else, and that is what I particularly liked.”
She gazed back at him, her blue eyes wide with frustrated chagrin, but this time she did not fail to notice the implacable warning in his deceptively mild voice.
“Do we have an understanding, my inquisitive beauty?”
She nodded, then boldly attempted to tip the balance of power into her favor by delicately running her tongue across his palm.
Stephen chuckled at her ploy and moved his hand, but he was no longer in the mood for sexual play or for conversation, and so he pressed a brief kiss on her forehead and left.
Outside, a wet gray fog blanketed the night, broken only by the faint eerie glow of lamplights along the street. Stephen took the reins from the relieved footman and spoke soothingly to the young pair of matched chestnuts who were stamping their hooves and tossing their manes. It was the first time they had been driven in the city, and as Stephen loosened the reins to let them move into a trot, he noted that the curb horse was extremely skittish in the fog. Everything unnerved the animal, from the sound of his own hooves clattering on the cobbled streets to the shadows beneath the streetlamps. When a door slammed off to the left, he shied, then tried to break into a run. Stephen automatically tightened the reins, and turned the carriage down Middleberry Street. The horses were moving at a fast trot and seemed to be settling down a bit. Suddenly an alley cat screamed and bolted off a fruit cart, sending an avalanche of apples rumbling into the street. At the same time the door of a pub was flung open, splashing light into the street. Pandemonium broke loose: dogs howled, the horses slipped and bolted frantically, and a dark figure staggered out of the pub, disappeared between two carriages drawn up at the curb . . . and then materialized directly in front of Stephen’s carriage.
Stephen’s warning shout came too late.
DIANA, ARE YOU STILL AWAKE? I’d like to talk to you.”
Diana stopped in the act of turning off the lamp beside her bed and leaned back against the pillows. “Okay,” she called.
“How’s the jet lag, honey?” her father asked as he walked toward her bed. “Are you exhausted?” At forty-three, Robert Foster was a tall, broad-shouldered Houston oilman with prematurely gray hair who normally exuded self-assurance, but not tonight. Tonight, he looked distinctly uneasy, and Diana knew why. Although she was only fourteen, she wasn’t silly enough to think he’d come there to talk about whether she had jet lag. He wanted to talk to her about her new stepmother and stepsister, whom she’d met for the first time this afternoon when she arrived home from a vacation in Europe with school friends. “I’m okay,” she said.
“Diana—” he began; then he hesitated, sat down on the bed beside her, and took her hand in his. After a moment, he began again. “I know how strange it must have seemed to you to come home today and find out I’d remarried. Please believe that I would never have married Mary without giving you a chance to get to know each other if I hadn’t been positive, absolutely positive, that the two of you will learn to love each other. You do like her, don’t you?” he asked anxiously, searching her face. “You said you did—”
Diana nodded, but she didn’t understand why he’d married someone he hardly knew and she’d never met until today. During the years since her mother died, he’d dated some really beautiful and very nice Houston women, but before things got too serious, he’d always introduced them to Diana and insisted the three of them spend time together. Now he’d actually married someone, but it was a lady she’d never set eyes on before. “Mary seems really nice,” she said after a moment. “I just don’t understand why you were in such a hurry.”
He looked sheepish, but his answer was unquestionably heartfelt. “There will be a few times in your life when all your instincts will tell you to do something, something that defies logic, upsets your plans, and may even seem crazy to others. When that happens, you do it. Listen to your instincts and ignore everything else. Ignore logic, ignore the odds, ignore the complications, and just go for it.”
“And that’s what you did?”
He nodded. “I knew within hours of meeting Mary that she was just what I wanted for myself, and for you, and I knew when I met Corey that the four of us were going to be an exceptionally happy family. However, all my instincts warned me that if I gave Mary more than a little time to decide, she’d start thinking about all the obstacles and agonizing over them, and that in the end she’d turn me down.”
Loyalty and common sense made that possibility seem entirely unlikely to Diana. Previous women had gone to absurd lengths to attract and hold her father’s interest. “It seems to me that practically every woman you’ve taken out has wanted you.”
“No, honey, most of them wanted what I could give them in the form of financial security and social acceptance. Only a few have truly wanted me.”
“But are you sure that Mary truly wanted you?” Diana asked, thinking of his statement that Mary would have turned him down.
Her father grinned, his eyes warming with affection. “I’m completely sure she did, and she does.”
“Then why would she have turned you down?”
His smile widened. “Because she’s the opposite of mercenary and status conscious. Mary is very intelligent, but she and Corey have led a simple life in a tiny little town where no one is wealthy, not by Houston standards. She fell in love with me as quickly and deeply as I fell in love with her, and she agreed to marry me within a week, but when she realized what sort of life we live here, she started trying to back out.
“She was worried that Corey and she wouldn’t fit in, that they’d make some sort of inexcusable social blunder and embarrass us. The longer she thought about it, the more convinced she became that she’d fail us.”
He reached out and gently smoothed a lock of shining chestnut hair from Diana’s cheek. “Just imagine—Mary was willing to toss away all the material things I can give her, all the things everyone else was so anxious to grab, because she didn’t want to fail me as a wife or you as a mother. Those are the things that are important to her.”
Diana had liked her new stepmother well enough when she met her today, but the tenderness in her father’s eyes and the love in his voice when he talked of Mary carried an enormous amount of additional weight with Diana. “I like her a lot,” she confessed.
A smile of relief dawned across his face. “I knew you would. She likes you, too. She said you’re very sweet and very poised. She said you’d have had every right to get hysterical this afternoon when you walked in the front door and met a stepmother you’d never heard about before. And wait till you meet your new grandparents,” he added enthusiastically.
“Corey said they’re really neat,” Diana replied, thinking back over all the information her thirteen-year-old stepsister had provided during their first day together.
“They are. They’re good, honest, hardworking people who laugh a lot and love each other a lot. Corey’s grandfather is an excellent gardener, an amateur inventor, and a skillful carpenter. Her grandmother is very artistic and very talented at handcrafts. Now,” he said, looking a little tense again, “tell me what you think about Corey.”
Diana was quiet for a moment, trying to put her feelings about her new stepsister into words; then she leaned forward, wrapped her arms around her knees, and smiled. “Well, she’s different from the other girls I know. She’s . . . friendly and honest, and she says what’s on her mind. She hasn’t been anywhere but Texas, and she doesn’t try to act cool and sophisticated, but she’s done lots of things I never have. Oh, and she thinks you’re practically a king,” Diana added with a grin.
“What a clever, discerning young lady!”
“Her own father ran out on her mom and her when Corey was just a baby,” Diana said, sobered by the thought of such an unspeakable act by a parent.
“His stupidity and irresponsibility are my good luck, and I intend to make certain Mary and Corey feel lucky, too. Want to help me pull that off?” he asked, standing up and smiling at her.
Diana nodded. “You bet,” she said.
“Just remember, Corey hasn’t had a lot of the advantages you’ve had, so take it slow and teach her the ropes.”
“Okay, I will.”
“That’s my girl.” He leaned over and kissed the top of her head. “You and Mary are going to be wonderful friends.”
He started away, but Diana’s quiet announcement made him turn back and stop. “Corey would like to call you Dad.”
“I didn’t know that,” Robert Foster said, his voice turning gruff with emotion. “Mary and I hoped she might want to someday, but I thought it might take a long, long time before she came around to that.” He studied Diana for a long moment, and then hesitantly asked, “How do you feel—about Corey calling me Dad—I mean?”
Diana grinned. “It was my idea.”
* * *
Across the hall, Mary Britton Foster was seated on her thirteen-year-old daughter’s bed and running out of small talk. “So you had a nice time with Diana today?” she asked Corey for the third time.
“And you enjoyed going over to the Hayward children’s house and riding their horses when Diana took you there this afternoon?”
“Mom, we’re all teenagers; you aren’t supposed to call us children.”
“Sorry,” Mary said, idly rubbing Corey’s leg beneath the blankets.
“And it wasn’t what you’d call a house; it’s so big, it’s practically a motel!”
“That big?” Mary teased.
Corey nodded. “It’s about the size of our house.”
The fact that she’d referred to Diana and Robert’s house as “our house” was very revealing and immensely reassuring to Mary. “And do the Haywards have a barn at their house?”
“They call it a stable, but it’s the same as a barn, only it looks like a beautiful stone house from the outside, and it’s as clean as one on the inside. They even have a guy who lives down at the stable and looks after the horses. They call him a groom, and his name is Cole, and the girls think he’s a complete hunk. He’s just gotten out of college at—I forget where—but I think he said it’s here in Houston.”
“Imagine that,” Mary said, shaking her head in amazement. “Now it takes a college degree just to get a job looking after horses in a barn—er—stable.”
Corey suppressed a laugh. “No, I meant he’s just finished the semester, and pretty soon he starts another one. The horses are just awesome!” Corey added, switching to the topic of primary interest to her. “I get to ride again at Barb Hayward’s birthday party next week. Barb invited me, but I think Diana asked her to do it. I met a bunch of Barb and Diana’s friends today. I didn’t think they liked me very much, but Diana said I was just imagining it.”
“I see. And what do you think of Diana?”
“Diana’s . . .” Corey hesitated, thinking. “Diana’s cool. She told me she’s always wanted a sister, and maybe that’s why she’s being so nice to me. She’s not a snob at all. She even told me I could borrow any of her clothes that I want.”
“That’s very nice of her.”
Corey nodded. “And when I told her I liked the way she wears her hair, she said we could practice different styles on each other.”
“And . . . um . . . did she say anything about anyone else?”
“Like who?” Corey asked with sham confusion.
“Like me, and you know it.”
“Let me think. Oh, yeah, I remember now! She said you looked mean and sneaky, and she said you’ll probably make her stay home and scrub floors while I get to go to balls and dance with princes. I told her she was probably right, but that I’d ask you to let her wear the glass slipper as long as she didn’t leave the house.”
Laughing, Corey leaned forward and hugged her mother as she finally told the truth. “Diana said you seemed very nice and she likes you. She asked if you were strict, and I said you were sometimes, but then you feel guilty and bake up batches of cookies to make up for it.”
“Did she really say she likes me?”
Sobering, Corey nodded emphatically. “Diana’s mother died when she was only five. I can’t imagine what life would be like if I didn’t have you, Mom—”
Mary hugged her daughter close and laid her cheek on Corey’s blond hair. “Diana hasn’t had a lot of the advantages you have. Try to remember that. Having lots of clothes to wear and a big bedroom isn’t the same as having Grandpa and Grandma to love you and teach you all the things you learned when we lived with them.”
Corey’s smile faded a little. “I’m going to miss them something terrible.”
“I told Diana about them, and she was really interested. Could I take her to Long Valley sometime soon so she can meet them?”
“Yes, of course. Or maybe we could ask Robert to let them come for a visit.”
Mary stood up and started to leave, but Corey’s hesitant voice stopped her. “Mom, Diana said I could call Robert, Dad. Do you think he’d mind?”
“I think he’d love it!” She looked a little sad then and added, “Maybe someday Diana might want to call me Mom.”
“Tomorrow,” Corey said with a knowing smile.
“She’s going to call you Mom, starting tomorrow.”
“Oh, Corey, isn’t she wonderful?” Mary said, her eyes filling with tears.
Corey rolled her eyes, but she didn’t deny it. “It was my idea that she call you Mom. All she did was say she wanted to do it.”
“You’re wonderful, too,” Mrs. Foster said with a laugh as she kissed her daughter. She turned out the light and closed the door when she left. Corey lay there, thinking about the conversation and wondering if Diana was asleep. After several moments, she scrambled out of bed and pulled on an old plaid flannel robe over her nightshirt emblazoned with “SAVE THE TURTLES” across the front.
The hallway was dark as pitch as she groped her way across the hall toward the door of Diana’s room. Her fingertips finally encountered the doorframe, and she raised her hand to knock just as the door flew open, startling a muffled squeal from her. “I was just coming over to see if you were awake,” Diana whispered, backing up and beckoning Corey into her room.
“Did your dad have a talk with you tonight?” Corey asked, perching on the edge of Diana’s bed and admiring the cream lace ruffles at the throat and wrists of Diana’s high-waisted, pale rose robe and the delicate lace trim on her matching quilted slippers.
Diana nodded and sat down beside her. “Yes. Did your mom have one with you?”
“I think they were afraid we weren’t going to like each other.”
Corey bit her bottom lip and then blurted, “Did you happen to ask your dad about me calling him Dad?”
“I did, and he loved the idea,” Diana said, keeping her voice low so that this cozy pajama party for two wouldn’t be ended by parental decree.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. In fact, he got all choked up.” Diana looked down at her lap and drew a long breath, then lifted her eyes to Corey’s. “Did you mention to your mom about me calling her Mom?”
“Did she say anything?”
“She said you’re wonderful,” Corey replied, rolling her eyes in feigned disagreement.
“Did she say anything else?”
“She couldn’t,” Corey replied. “She was crying.”
The two girls eyed one another in smiling silence, then, as if by mutual agreement, flopped onto their backs. “I think,” Diana said after a moment’s contemplation, “this could turn out to be really, really cool!”
Corey nodded with absolute conviction. “Totally cool,” she proclaimed.
Yet later that night, as she lay in her own bed, Corey found it hard to believe that things had turned out so well with Diana.
Earlier that day, she would never have believed it was possible. When Diana’s father had married Corey’s mother after a two-week courtship and brought his new wife and daughter to his Houston home, Corey had dreaded meeting her stepsister. Based on what little she’d already discovered about Diana, Corey figured they were so different they were probably going to hate each other. Besides being born rich and growing up in this huge mansion, Diana was a year older than Corey and a straight-A student; and when Corey took a peek into Diana’s feminine bedroom, everything was so neat it gave her the creeps. Based on what she’d heard and seen, she felt sure that Diana was going to be disgustingly perfect and a complete snob. She was even more sure Diana was going to think Corey was a dumb hick and a slob.
Her first glimpse of Diana when she walked into the foyer this morning had confirmed Corey’s worst fears. Diana was petite, with a narrow waist, slim hips, and real breasts, which made Corey feel like a deformed, flat-chested giant by contrast. Diana was dressed like a model from Seventeen. magazine, in a short tan skirt, cream-colored tights, and a tan-and-blue plaid vest topped off by a jaunty tan blazer with an emblem on the front. Corey was wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.
And yet, despite Corey’s absolute conviction that Diana would be a conceited snob, Diana had been the one who broke the ice. It was Diana who had admired Corey’s hand-painted sweatshirt with the horse on the front, and Diana who’d first admitted that she’d always wanted a sister. Later that afternoon, Diana had taken Corey over to the Haywards’ house so Corey could take pictures of the Haywards’ horses with the new camera Diana’s father had given her.
Diana didn’t seem to resent the fancy camera her father had bought for Corey or hate the idea of sharing him with Corey. And if she thought Corey was a dumb hick, she definitely hadn’t shown it. Next week, Diana was taking her to Barb Hayward’s birthday party, where everyone was going to ride horses. Diana said her friends would become Corey’s friends, too, and Corey hoped she was right.
That last part didn’t matter nearly as much as having a sister so close to her own age to spend time with and talk to—and Corey wouldn’t be doing all the taking either—she had some things to give Diana. For one thing, Diana had led an awfully sheltered life, in Corey’s opinion. Earlier that day, she’d admitted she’d never climbed a really big tree, never eaten berries right off the vine, and never skipped rocks across a pond.
Closing her eyes, Corey sighed with relief.
He’d been following her for three days, watching. Waiting.
By now, he knew her habits and her schedule. He knew what time she got up in the morning, whom she saw during the day, and what time she went to sleep. He knew she read in bed at night, propped up on pillows. He knew the title of the book she was reading, and that she laid it face down on the nightstand to keep her place before she finally turned off the lamp.
He knew her thick blond hair was natural and that the startling blue-violet color of her eyes was not the result of the contact lenses she wore. He knew she bought her makeup at the drugstore and that she spent exactly twenty-five minutes getting ready to go to work in the morning. Obviously, she was more interested in being clean and neat than in enhancing her physical assets. He, however, was very interested in her considerable physical assets. But not urgently and not for the “usual” reasons.
At first, he’d taken great care to keep her in sight while ensuring that she didn’t notice him, but his precautions were more from habit than necessity. With a population of 150,000 people, 15,000 of them college students, the little city of Bell Harbor on Florida’s eastern seaboard was large enough that a stranger could move unnoticed among the population, but not so large that he would lose sight of his prey in a jumble of metropolitan expressways and interchanges.
Today he’d tracked her to the city park, where he’d spent a balmy but irksome February afternoon surrounded by cheerful, beer-drinking adults and shrieking children who’d come there to enjoy the Presidents’ Day picnic and festivities. He didn’t like children around him, particularly children with sticky hands and smudged faces who tripped over his feet while they chased each other. They called him, “Hey, mister!” and asked him to throw their errant baseballs back to them. Their antics called attention to him so often that he’d abandoned several comfortable park benches and was now forced to seek shelter and anonymity beneath a tree with a rough trunk that was uncomfortable to lean against and thick gnarled roots that made sitting on the ground beneath it impossible. Everything was beginning to annoy him, and he realized his patience was coming to an end. So was the watching and waiting.
To curb his temper, he went over his plans for her while he turned his full attention on his prey. At the moment, Sloan was descending from the branches of a big tree from which she was attempting to retrieve a kite that looked like a black falcon with outstretched wings tipped in bright yellow. At the base of the tree, a group of five- and six-year-olds cheered her on. Behind them stood a group of older adolescents, all of them boys. The young children were interested in getting their kite back; the adolescent boys were interested in Sloan Reynolds’s shapely suntanned legs as they slowly emerged from the thick upper branches of the tree. The boys elbowed each other and ogled her, and he understood the cause of the minor male commotion: if she were a twenty-year-old coed, those legs of hers would have been remarkable, but on a thirty-year-old cop, they were a phenomenon.
Normally, he was attracted to tall, voluptuous women, but this one was only five feet four with compact breasts and a slender body that was appealingly graceful and trim although far from voluptuous. She was no centerfold candidate, but in her crisp khaki shorts and pristine white knit shirt, with her blond hair pulled up in a ponytail, she had a fresh wholesomeness and prim neatness that appealed to him—for the time being.
A shout from the baseball diamond made two of the older boys turn and look his way, and he lifted the paper cup of orange soda toward his mouth to hide his face, but the gesture was more automatic than necessary. She hadn’t noticed him in the past three days as he watched her from doorways and alleys, so she wasn’t going to find anything sinister about a lone man in a park crowded with law-abiding citizens who were enjoying the free food and exhibits, even if she did notice him. In fact, he thought with an inner smirk, she was incredibly and stupidly heedless whenever she was off duty. She didn’t look over her shoulder when she heard his footsteps one night; she didn’t even lock her car when she parked it. Like most small-town cops, she felt a false sense of safety in her own town, an invulnerability that went with the badge she wore and the gun she carried, and the citizens’ sleazy secrets that she knew.
She had no secrets from him, however. In less than seventy-two hours, he had all her vital statistics—her age, height, driver’s license number, bank account balances, annual income, home address—the sort of information that was readily available on the Internet to anyone who knew where to look. In his pocket was a photograph of her, but all of that combined information was minuscule in comparison to what he now knew.
He took another swallow of lukewarm orange soda, fighting down another surge of impatience. At times, she was so straight, so prim and predictable, that it amused him; at other times, she was unexpectedly impulsive, which made her unpredictable, and unpredictable made things risky, dangerous, for him. And so he continued to wait and watch. In the past three days he’d collected all the mysterious bits and pieces that normally make up the whole of a woman, but in Sloan Reynolds’s case, the picture was still blurry, complex, confusing.
Clutching the kite in her left fist, Sloan worked her way cautiously to the lowest branch; then she dropped to the ground and presented the kite to its owner amid shouts of “Yea!” and the sound of small hands clapping excitedly. “Gee, thanks, Sloan!” Kenny Landry said, blushing with pleasure and admiration as he took his kite. Kenny’s two front teeth were missing, which gave him a lisp, both of which made him seem utterly endearing to Sloan, who had gone to high school with his mother. “My mom was scared you’d get hurt, but I’ll bet you never get scared.”
Actually, Sloan had been extremely afraid during her downward trek through the sprawling branches that her shorts were snagging on the limbs, hiking up, and showing way too much of her legs.
“Everyone is afraid of something,” Sloan told him, suppressing the urge to hug him and risk embarrassing him with such a show of public affection. She settled for rumpling his sandy brown hair instead.
“I fell out of a tree once!” a little girl in pink shorts and a pink-and-white T-shirt confessed, eyeing Sloan with awed wonder. “I got hurted, too, on my elbow,” Emma added shyly. She had short, curly red hair, freckles on her small nose, and a rag doll in her arms.
Butch Ingersoll was the only child who didn’t want to be impressed. “Girls are supposed to play with dolls,” he informed Emma. “Boys climb trees.”
“My teacher said Sloan is an honest-to-goodness hero,” she declared, hugging the rag doll even tighter, as if it gave her courage to speak up. She raised her eyes to Sloan and blurted, “My teacher said you risked your life so you could save that little boy who fell down the well.”
“Your teacher was being very kind,” Sloan said as she picked up the kite string lying on the grass and began winding it into a spool on her fingers. Emma’s mother had been another classmate of Sloan’s, and as she glanced from Kenny to Emma, Sloan couldn’t decide which child was more adorable. She’d gone to school with most of these children’s parents, and as she smiled at the circle of small faces, she saw poignant reminders of former classmates in the fascinated faces looking back at her.
Surrounded by the offspring of her classmates and friends, Sloan felt a sharp pang of longing for a child of her own. In the last year, this desire for a little boy or little girl of her own to hold and love and take to school had grown from a wish to a need, and it was gaining strength with alarming speed and force. She wanted a little Emma or a little Kenny of her own to cuddle and love and teach. Unfortunately her desire to surrender her life to a husband had not increased at all. Just the opposite, in fact.
The other children were eyeing Sloan with open awe, but Butch Ingersoll was determined not to be impressed. His father and his grandfather had been high school football stars. At six years old, Butch not only had their stocky build, but had also inherited their square chin and macho swagger. His grandfather was the chief of police and Sloan’s boss. He stuck out his chin in a way that forcibly reminded Sloan of Chief Ingersoll. “My grandpa said any cop could have rescued that little kid, just like you did, but the TV guys made a big deal out of it ’cause you’re a girl cop.”
A week before, Sloan had gone out on a call about a missing toddler and had ended up going down a well to rescue it. The local television stations had picked up the story of the missing child, and then the Florida media had picked up the story of the rescue. Three hours after she climbed down into the well and spent the most terror-filled time of her life, Sloan had emerged a “heroine.” Filthy and exhausted, Sloan had been greeted with deafening cheers from Bell Harbor’s citizens who’d gathered to pray for the child’s safety and with shouts from the reporters who’d gathered to pray for something newsworthy enough to raise their ratings.
After a week, the furor and notoriety was finally beginning to cool down, but not fast enough to suit Sloan. She found the role of media star and local hero not only comically unsuitable but thoroughly disconcerting. On one side of the spectrum, she had to contend with the citizens of Bell Harbor who now regarded her as a heroine, an icon, a role model for women. On the other side, she had to deal with Captain Ingersoll, Butch’s fifty-five-year-old male-chauvinist grandfather, who regarded Sloan’s unwitting heroics as “deliberate grandstanding” and her presence on his police force as an affront to his dignity, a challenge to his authority, and a burden he was forced to bear until he could find a way to get rid of her.
Sloan’s best friend, Sara Gibbon, arrived on the scene just as Sloan finished winding the last bit of kite string into a makeshift spool, which she presented to Kenny with a smile.
“I heard cheering and clapping,” Sara said, looking at Sloan and then at the little group of children and then at the kite-falcon with the broken yellow-tipped wing. “What happened to your kite, Kenny?” Sara asked. She smiled at him and he lit up. Sara had that effect on males of all ages. With her shiny, short-cropped auburn hair, sparkling green eyes, and exquisite features, Sara could stop men in their tracks with a single, beckoning glance.
“It got stuck in the tree.”
“Yes, but Sloan got it down,” Emma interrupted excitedly, pointing a chubby little forefinger toward the top of the tree.
“She climbed right up to the top,” Kenny inserted, “and she wasn’t scared, ’cause she’s brave.”
Sloan felt—as a mother-to-be someday—that she needed to correct that impression for the children. “Being brave doesn’t mean you’re never afraid. Being brave means that, even though you’re scared, you still do what you should do. For example,” she said, directing a smile to the little group, “you’re being brave when you tell the truth even though you’re afraid you might get into trouble. That’s being really, really brave.”
The arrival on the scene of Clarence the Clown with a fistful of giant balloons caused all of the children to turn in unison, and several of them scampered off at once, leaving only Kenny, Emma, and Butch behind. “Thanks for getting my kite down,” Kenny said with another of his endearing, gap-toothed smiles.
“You’re welcome,” Sloan said, fighting down an impossible impulse to snatch him into her arms and hug him close—stained shirt, sticky face, and all. The youthful trio turned and headed away, arguing loudly over the actual degree of Sloan’s courage.
“Miss McMullin was right. Sloan is a real-life, honest-to-goodness hero,” Emma declared.
“She’s really, truly brave,” Kenny announced.
Butch Ingersoll felt compelled to qualify and limit the compliment. “She’s brave for a girl,” he declared dismissively, reminding an amused Sloan even more forcibly of Chief Ingersoll.
Oddly, it was shy little Emma who sensed the insult. “Girls are just as brave as boys.”
“They are not! She shouldn’t even be a policeman. That’s a man’s job. That’s why they call it policeman.”
Emma took fierce umbrage at this final insult to her heroine. “My mommy,” she announced shrilly, “says Sloan Reynolds should be chief of police!”
“Oh, yeah?” countered Butch Ingersoll. “Well, my grandpa is chief of police, and he says she’s a pain in the ass! My grandpa says she should get married and make babies. That’s what girls are for!”
Emma opened her mouth to protest but couldn’t think how. “I hate you, Butch Ingersoll,” she cried instead, and raced off, clutching her doll—a fledgling feminist with tears in her eyes.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” Kenny warned. “You made her cry.”
“Who cares?” Butch said—a fledgling bigot with an attitude, like his grandfather.
“If you’re real nice to her tomorrow, she’ll prob’ly forget what you said,” Kenny decided—a fledgling politician, like his father.
…Chapter 1 & 2
Standing in brooding silence at the windows of the elegant penthouse apartment, the tall dark man gazed at the panorama of twinkling lights fanning out across the dusky St. Louis skyline. Bitterness and resignation were evident in Ramon Galverra’s abrupt movements as he jerked the knot of his tie loose, then raised his glass of Scotch to his mouth, drinking deeply.
Behind him, a blond man strode quickly into the dimly lit living room. “Well, Ramon?” he asked eagerly. “What did they decide?”
“They decided what bankers always decide,” Ramon said harshly, without turning. “They decided to look out for themselves.”
“Those bastards!” Roger exploded. In angry frustration, he raked his hand through his blond hair, then turned and headed determinedly for the row of crystal decanters on the bar. “They sure as hell stayed with you when the money was pouring in,” he gritted as he splashed bourbon into a glass.
“They have not changed,” Ramon said grimly. “If the money was still pouring in, they would still be with me.”
Roger snapped on a lamp, then scowled at the magnificent Louis XIV furnishings, as if their presence in his spacious living room offended him. “I was so certain, so absolutely certain, that when you explained about the state of your father’s mental health before he died the bankers would stand by you. How can they blame you for his mistakes and incompetence?”
Turning from the windows, Ramon leaned a shoulder against the frame. For a moment he stared at the remaining Scotch in his glass, then he tipped it up to his mouth and drained it. “They blame me for not preventing him from making fatal mistakes, and for not recognizing the fact of his incompetence in time.”
“Not recognizing the—” Roger repeated furiously. “How were you supposed to recognize that a man who always acted like he was God Almighty, one day started believing it? And what could you have done if you’d known? The stock was in his name, not yours. Until the day he died, he held the controlling interest in the corporation. Your hands were tied.”
“Now they are empty,” Ramon replied with a shrug of broad, muscled shoulders on his six-foot-three-inch frame.
“Look,” Roger said in desperation. “I haven’t brought this up before because I knew your pride would be offended, but I’m a long way from being poor, you know that. How much do you need? If I don’t have it all, maybe I can raise the rest.”
For the first time, a glint of humor touched Ramon Galverra’s finely sculpted mouth and arrogant dark eyes. The transformation was startling, softening the features of a face that lately looked as if it had been cast in bronze by an artist intent on portraying cold, ruthless determination and ancient Spanish nobility. “Fifty million would help. Seventy-five million would be better.”
“Fifty million?” Roger said blankly, staring at the man he had known since they were both students at Harvard University. “Fifty million dollars would only help?”
“Right. It would only help.” Slamming his glass down on the marble table beside him, Ramon turned and started toward the guest room he had been occupying since his arrival in St. Louis a week before.
“Ramon,” Roger said urgently, “you have to see Sid Green while you’re here. He could raise that kind of money if he wanted to, and he owes you.”
Ramon’s head jerked around. His aristocratic Spanish face hardened with contempt. “If Sid wanted to help, he would have contacted me. He knows I am here and he knows I am in trouble.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know. Until now, you’ve managed to keep it quiet that the corporation is going under. Maybe he doesn’t know.”
“He knows. He is on the board of directors of the bank that is refusing to extend our loan.”
“No! If Sid was willing to help, he would have contacted me. His silence speaks for itself, and I will not beg him. I have called a meeting of my corporation’s auditors and attorneys in Puerto Rico for ten days from now. At that meeting I will instruct them to file bankruptcy.” Turning on his heel, Ramon strode from the room, his long purposeful strides eloquent of restless anger.
When he returned, his thick black hair was slightly damp from a shower, and he was wearing Levi’s. Roger turned and watched in silence as Ramon folded the cuffs of his white shirt up on his forearms. “Ramon,” he said with pleading determination, “stay another week in St. Louis. Maybe Sid will contact you if you give him more time. I tell you, I don’t think he knows you’re here. I don’t even know if he’s in town.”
“He is in town, and I am leaving for Puerto Rico in two days, exactly as I planned.”
Roger heaved a long, defeated sigh. “What the hell are you going to do in Puerto Rico?”
“First, I am going to attend to the corporation’s bankruptcy, and then I am going to do what my grandfather did, and his father before him,” Ramon replied tautly. “I am going to farm.”
“You’re out of your mind!” Roger burst out. “Farm that little patch of ground with that hut on it where you and I took those two girls from . . . ?”
“That little patch of ground,” Ramon interrupted with quiet dignity, “is all I have left. Along with the cottage on it where I was born.”
“What about the house near San Juan, or the villa in Spain, or the island in the Mediterranean? Sell one of your houses or the island; that would keep you in luxury for as long as you live.”
“They are gone. I put them up as collateral to raise money for the corporation that it cannot repay. The banks who loaned the money will be swarming over everything like vultures before the year is out.”
“Dammit!” Roger said helplessly. “If your father weren’t already dead, I’d kill him with my own two hands.”
“The stockholders would have already beaten you to it.” Ramon smiled without humor.
“How can you just stand there and talk as if you don’t even care?”
“I have accepted defeat,” Ramon said calmly. “I have done everything that can be done. I will not mind working my land beside the people who have worked it for my family for centuries.”
Turning to hide his sympathy from the man Roger knew would reject it and despise him for it, he said, “Ramon, is there anything I can do?”
“Name it,” Roger said, looking hopefully over his shoulder. “Just tell me and I’ll do it.”
“Will you loan me your car? I would like to go for a drive alone.”
Grimacing at such a paltry request, Roger dug in his pocket, then tossed his keys to his friend. “There’s a problem in the fuel line and the filter keeps clogging, but the local Mercedes dealer can’t take it in for another week. With your luck the thing will probably quit in the middle of the street tonight.”
Ramon shrugged, his face wiped clean of emotion. “If the car stops, I will walk. The exercise will help me get into condition for farming.”
“You don’t have to farm that place and you know it! In the international business community you’re famous.”
A muscle clenched in Ramon’s jaw as he made an obvious effort to control his bitter anger. “In the international business community, I have been party to a sin no one will forgive or forget—failure. I am about to become its most notorious failure. Would you have me beg my friends for a position on that recommendation? Shall I go to your factory tomorrow and apply for a job on your assembly line?”
“No, of course not! But you could think of something. I’ve seen you build a financial empire in a few short years. If you could build it, you could find a way to save a piece of it for yourself. I don’t think you give a damn anymore! I—”
“I cannot work miracles,” Ramon cut in flatly. “And that is what it would take. The Lear is in a hangar at the airport waiting for a minor part for one of the engines. When the jet mechanics have finished with it, and my pilot returns Sunday night from his weekend off, I will be flying to Puerto Rico.” Roger opened his mouth to protest, but Ramon silenced him with an impatient look. “There is dignity in farming. More dignity, I think, than in dealing with bankers. While my father was alive, I knew no peace. Since he died, I have known no peace. Let me find it in my own way.”
The huge bar at the Canyon Inn near suburban Westport was packed with the usual Friday night crowd. Katie Connelly glanced surreptitiously at her watch, then let her gaze slide over the laughing, drinking, talking groups, searching for a particular face among them. Her view of the main entrance was obscured by the profusion of lush plants suspended from macrame hangers and the tiffany lamps hanging beneath the stained-glass ceiling.
Keeping the bright smile fixed on her face, she returned her attention to the knot of men and women standing around her. “So I told him never to call me again,” Karen Wilson was saying to them.
A man stepped on Katie’s foot while stretching around her to get his drink from the bar. In the process of reaching into his pocket to extract some money, he jabbed her in the side with his elbow. He offered no apology, nor did Katie really expect one. It was every man, and every woman, for themselves in here. Equal rights.
Turning away from the bar with his drink in his hand, he noticed Katie. “Hello,” he said, pausing to flick an interested glance over her slender, curving figure draped in a clingy blue dress. “Nice,” he concluded aloud as he considered everything about her, from the shining reddish blond hair tumbling around her shoulders, to the sapphire blue eyes regarding him beneath long curling lashes and delicately arched brows. Her cheeks were elegantly curved, her nose small, and as he continued to survey her, her creamy complexion took on a becoming tint of pale rose. “Very nice,” he amended, unaware that the reason for her heightening color was irritation, not pleasure.
Although Katie resented him for looking at her as if he had paid for the privilege, she could not really blame him. After all, she was here, wasn’t she? Here in what was, despite what the owners and patrons preferred to think, nothing more than a huge singles’ bar attached to a tiny dining room to give it dignity.
“Where’s your drink?” he asked, lazily reexamining her beautiful face.
“I don’t have one,” Katie replied, stating the perfectly obvious.
“I’ve already had two.”
“Well, why don’t you get yourself another one and meet me over in that corner? We can get acquainted. I’m an attorney,” he added, as if that one piece of information should make her eager to snatch a drink and leap after him.
Katie bit her lip and deliberately looked disappointed. “Oh.”
“I don’t like attorneys,” she said straight-faced.
He was more stunned than annoyed. “Too bad.” Shrugging, he turned and wended his way into the crowd. Katie watched him pause near two very attractive young women who returned his considering glance with one of their own, looking him over with blatant interest. She felt a surge of shamed disgust for him, for all of them in this crowded place, but especially for herself for being here. She was inwardly embarrassed by her own rudeness, but places like this automatically made her feel defensive, and her natural warmth and spontaneity atrophied the moment she crossed the threshold.
The attorney had, of course, forgotten Katie in an instant. Why should he bother spending two dollars to buy her a drink, then put forth the effort to be friendly and charm her? Why should he exert himself when it wasn’t necessary? If Katie, or any other woman in the room, wanted to get to know him, he was perfectly willing to let her try to interest him. And if she succeeded sufficiently, he would even invite her to come to his place—in her own car, of course—so that she could indulge her equal, and much publicized, need for sexual gratification. After which he would have a friendly drink with her—if he wasn’t too tired—walk her to his door, and allow her to drive herself back to wherever she lived.
So efficient, so straightforward. No strings attached. No commitments made or expected. Today’s woman, of course, had equal rights of refusal; she didn’t have to go to bed with him. She didn’t even have to worry that her refusal might hurt his feelings. Because he had no feelings for her. He might be slightly annoyed that he had wasted an hour or two of his time, but then he would simply make another selection from the numerous willing women available to him.
Katie raised her blue eyes, again scanning the crowd for Rob, wishing she had arranged to meet him somewhere else. The popular music was too loud, adding its clamor to the din of raised voices and forced laughter. She gazed at the faces around her, all different, yet all similar in their restless, eager, bored expressions. They were all looking for something. They hadn’t found it yet.
“It’s Katie, isn’t it?” An unfamiliar male voice spoke behind her. Startled, Katie turned and found herself looking into a confidently smiling male face above an Ivy League button-down shirt, well-tailored blazer and coordinated tie. “I met you with Karen at the supermarket, two weeks ago.”
He had a boyish grin and hard eyes. Katie was wary and her smile lacked its normal sparkle. “Hello, Ken. It’s nice to see you again.”
“Listen, Katie,” he said, as if he had suddenly devised a brilliant and original scheme. “Why don’t we leave here and go somewhere quieter.”
His place or hers. Whichever was closest. Katie knew the routine and it sickened her. “What did you have in mind?”
He didn’t answer the question, he didn’t need to. Instead he asked another. “Where do you live?”
“A few blocks from here—the Village Green Apartments.”
“Two lesbians,” she lied gravely.
He believed her, and he wasn’t shocked. “No kidding? It doesn’t bother you?”
Katie gave him a look of wide-eyed innocence. “I adore them.” For just a fraction of a second he looked revolted, and Katie’s smile widened with genuine laughter.
Recovering almost immediately, he shrugged. “Too bad. See you around.”
Katie watched his attention shift across the room until he saw someone who interested him and he left, slowly shoving his way through the crowd. She had had enough. More than enough. She touched Karen’s arm, distracting her from her animated conversation with two attractive men about skiing in Colorado. “Karen, I’m going to stop in the ladies’ room, and then I’m leaving.”
“Rob didn’t show up?” Karen said distractedly. “Well, look around—there’s plenty more where he came from. Take your pick.”
“I’m going,” Katie said with quiet firmness. Karen merely shrugged and returned to her conversation.
The ladies’ room was down a short hall behind the bar, and Katie worked her way through the shifting bodies, breathing a sigh of relief as she squeezed around the last human obstacle in her path and stepped into the relative quiet of the hallway. She wasn’t sure whether she was relieved or disappointed that Rob hadn’t come. Eight months ago, she had been wildly, passionately dazzled by him, by his clever mind and teasing tenderness. He had everything: blond good looks, confidence, charm and a secure future as the heir to one of St. Louis’s largest stockbrokerage firms. He was beautiful and wise and wonderful. And married.
Katie’s face saddened as she recalled the last time she had seen Rob. . . . After a marvelous dinner and dancing they had returned to her apartment and were having a drink. For hours she had been thinking of what was going to happen when Rob took her in his arms. That night, for the first time, she was not going to stop him when he tried to make love to her. During the last months he had told her a hundred times, and shown her in a hundred ways, that he loved her. There was no need for her to hesitate any longer. In fact, she had been about to take the initiative when Rob had leaned his head back against the sofa and sighed. “Katie, tomorrow’s paper is going to have a story about me in the society section. Not just about me—but also about my wife and son. I’m married.”
Pale and heartbroken, Katie had told him never to call her again or try to see her. He did—repeatedly. And just as tenaciously, Katie refused his calls at her office and hung up the phone at home whenever she heard his voice.
That was five months ago, and only rarely since then had Katie allowed herself the bittersweet luxury of thinking of him, even for a moment. Until three days ago, she had believed she was entirely over him, but when she answered her phone on Wednesday, the sound of Rob’s deep voice had made her whole body tremble: “Katie, don’t hang up on me. Everything’s changing. I’ve got to see you, to talk to you.”
He had argued vehemently against Katie’s choice of this for a meeting place, but Katie held firm. The Canyon Inn was noisy and public enough to discourage him from trying to use tender persuasion, if that was his intention, and Karen came here every Friday, which meant Katie would have feminine moral support if she needed it.
The ladies’ room was crowded and Katie had to wait in line. She emerged several minutes later, absently digging in her shoulder purse for her car keys as she walked down the hall, then stopped at the crowd blocking her reentry into the bar. Beside her at one of the pay telephones on the wall, a man spoke with a trace of a Spanish accent: “Pardon—could you tell me the address of this place?”
On the verge of pushing her way into the tightly packed mass of humanity, Katie turned to look at the tall, lithe male who was regarding her with faint impatience while holding the telephone to his ear. “Were you speaking to me?” Katie asked. His face was deeply tanned, his hair vitally thick and as black as his onyx eyes. In a place filled with men who always reminded Katie of IBM salesmen, this man, who was wearing faded Levi’s and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up on his forearms, definitely did not belong. He was too . . . earthy.
“I asked,” the Spanish-accented voice repeated, “if you could tell me the address of this place. I have had car trouble and am trying to order a towing vehicle.”
Katie automatically named the two intersections at the corner of which the Canyon Inn was located, while mentally recoiling from the narrowed black eyes and patrician nose in a foreign, arrogant face. Tall, dark foreign-looking men reeking of coarse masculinity might appeal to some women, but not to Katherine Connelly.
“Thank you,” he replied, removing his hand from the mouthpiece of the telephone and repeating the names of the streets Katie had given him.
Turning away, Katie confronted a dark green Izod sweater stretched across the masculine chest that was blocking her way back into the bar area. Eyeball to alligator, she said, “Excuse me, may I get by?” The sweater obligingly moved out of the doorway.
“Where are you going?” its wearer inquired in a friendly voice. “It’s still early.”
Katie raised her deep blue eyes up to his face and saw his smile broaden with frank admiration. “I know, but I have to leave. I turn into a pumpkin at midnight.”
“Your chariot turns into a pumpkin,” he corrected, grinning. “And your dress turns into rags.”
“Planned obsolescence and poor workmanship, even in Cinderella’s time,” Katie sighed in mock disgust.
“Clever girl,” he applauded. “Sagittarius, right?”
“Wrong,” Katie said, extracting her keys from the bottom of her purse.
“Then what is your sign?”
“Slow Down and Proceed with Caution,” she flipped back. “What’s yours?”
He thought for a moment. “Merge,” he replied with a meaningful glance that faithfully followed every curve of her graceful figure. Reaching out, he lightly ran his knuckles over the silky sleeve of Katie’s dress. “I happen to like intelligent women; I don’t feel threatened by them.”
Firmly repressing the impulse to suggest that he try making a pass at Dr. Joyce Brothers, Katie said politely, “I really do have to leave. I’m meeting someone.”
“Lucky guy,” he said.
Katie emerged into the dark, sultry summer night feeling lost and depressed. She paused beneath the canopied entrance, watching with a suddenly pounding heart as a familiar white Corvette ran the red light at the corner and turned into the parking lot, screeching to a stop beside her. “I’m sorry I’m late. Get in, Katie. We’ll go somewhere and talk.”
Katie looked at Rob through the open car window and felt a surge of longing so intense that she ached with it. He was still unbearably handsome, but his smile, normally so confident and assured, was now tinged with an endearing uncertainty that wrung her heart and weakened her resolve. “It’s late. And I don’t have anything to say to you if you’re still married.”
“Katie, we can’t talk here like this. don’t give me a hard time about being late. I’ve had a lousy flight and it was delayed getting into St. Louis. Now, be a good girl and get in the car. I don’t have time to waste arguing with you.”
“Why don’t you have time?” Katie persisted, “Is your wife expecting you?”
Rob swore under his breath, then accelerated sharply, swinging the sports car into a shadowy parking space beside the building. He got out of the car and leaned against the door, waiting for Katie to come to him. With the breeze teasing her hair and tugging at the folds of her blue dress, Katie reluctantly approached him in the darkened parking lot.
“It’s been a long time, Katie,” he said when she stopped in front of him. “Aren’t you going to kiss me hello?”
“Are you still married?”
His answer was to snatch her into his arms and kiss her with a combination of fierce hunger and pleading need. He knew her well enough, however, to realize that Katie was only passively accepting his kiss, and by avoiding her question he had told her that he was still married. “Don’t be like this,” he rasped thickly, his breath warm against her ear. “I’ve thought of nothing but you for months. Let’s get out of here and go to your place.”
Katie drew an unsteady breath. “No.”
“Katie, I love you, I’m crazy about you. don’t keep holding out on me.”
For the first time, Katie noticed the smell of liquor on his breath and was unwillingly touched that he had apparently felt the need to bolster his courage before seeing her. But she managed to keep her voice firm. “I’m not going to have a sleazy affair with a married man.”
“Before you knew I was married, you didn’t find anything ‘sleazy’ about being with me.”
Now he was going to try cajolery, and Katie couldn’t bear it. “Please, please don’t do this to me, Rob. I couldn’t live with myself if I wrecked another woman’s marriage.”
“The marriage was ‘wrecked’ long before I met you, honey. I tried to tell you that.”
“Then get a divorce,” Katie said desperately.
Even in the darkness, Katie could see the bitter irony that twisted his smile. “Southfields do not divorce. They learn to live separate lives. Ask my father and my grandfather,” he said with angry pain. Despite the doors opening and closing as people drifted in and out of the restaurant, Rob’s voice remained at normal pitch, and his hands slid down her back caressing her, then cupping her hips, forcing her against his hardened thighs. “That’s for you, Katie. Only for you. You won’t be wrecking my marriage; it was over long ago.”
Katie couldn’t stand any more. The sordidness of the situation made her feel dirty, and she tried to pull away from him. “Let go of me,” she hissed. “Either you’re a liar, or you’re a coward, or both, and—”
Rob’s hands tightened around her arms as she struggled. “I hate you for acting like this!” Katie choked. “Let me go!”
“Do as she says,” a faintly accented voice spoke from the darkness.
Rob’s head snapped up. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded of the white-shirted figure that materialized from the shadows beside the building. Retaining his grip on one of Katie’s arms, Rob glowered menacingly at the intruder and snapped at Katie, “Do you know him?”
Katie’s voice was hoarse with mortification and anger. “No, but let go of me. I want to leave.”
“You’re staying,” Rob gritted. Jerking his head toward the other man, he said, “And you’re going. Now move, unless you want me to help you on your way.”
The accented voice became extremely courteous, almost frighteningly so. “You may try if you wish. But let her go.”
Pushed past all endurance by Katie’s continued implacable stubbornness, and now this unwanted intrusion, Rob vented all his frustrated wrath on the intruder. He dropped Katie’s arm and, in one smooth continuous motion, swung his huge fist directly at his opponent’s jaw. A second’s silence was followed by the terrible crack of bone connecting with bone, and then a resounding thud. Katie opened her tear-brightened eyes to find Rob unconscious at her feet.
“Open the car door,” the foreign voice ordered with an insistence that brooked no argument.
Automatically, Katie opened the door of the Corvette. The man unceremoniously shoved and folded Rob inside, leaving his head lolling over the steering wheel as if he were passed out in a drunken stupor. “Which is your car?”
Katie stared at him blankly. “We can’t leave him like this. He might need a doctor.”
“Which is your car?” he repeated impatiently. “I have no wish to be here in the event someone saw what happened and called the police.”
“Oh, but—” Katie protested, looking over her shoulder at Rob’s Corvette as she hurried toward her car. She drew up stubbornly at the driver’s door. “You leave. I can’t.”
“I did not kill him, I only stunned him. He will wake up in a few minutes with a sore face and loose teeth, that is all. I will drive,” he said, forcibly propelling Katie around the front of her car and into the passenger seat. “You are in no condition.”
Flinging himself behind the steering wheel, he banged his knee on the steering column and uttered what Katie thought must have been a curse in Spanish. “Give me your keys,” he said, releasing the seat back into its farthest position to accommodate his very long legs. Katie handed them over. Several cars were coming in and leaving, and they had to wait before finally backing out of the space. They swooped down the rows of parked cars, past a battered old produce truck with a flat tire, which was parked at the rear of the restaurant.
“Is that yours?” Katie asked lamely, feeling that some conversation was required of her.
He glanced at the disabled produce truck, then slid her an ironic sideways look. “How did you guess?”
Katie flushed with mortification. She knew, and he knew, that simply because he was Hispanic she had assumed he drove the produce truck. To save his pride she said, “When you were on the telephone you mentioned that you needed a tow truck—that’s how I knew.”
They swung out of the parking lot into the stream of traffic while Katie gave him the simple directions to her apartment, which was only a few blocks away. “I want to thank you, er—?”
“Ramon,” he provided.
Nervously, Katie reached for her purse and searched for her wallet. She lived so close by, that by the time she had extracted a five-dollar bill they were already pulling into the parking lot of her apartment complex. “I live right there—the first door on the right, under the gaslight.”
He maneuvered the car into the parking space closest to her door, turned off the ignition, got out, and came around to her side. Katie hastily opened her own door and scrambled out of the car. Uncertainly, she glanced up into his dark, proud, enigmatic face, guessing him to be somewhere around thirty-five. Something about him, his foreignness—or his darkness—made her uneasy.
She held out her hand, offering him the five-dollar bill. “Thank you very much, Ramon. Please take this.” He looked briefly at the money and then at her face. “Please,” she persisted politely, thrusting the five-dollar bill toward him. “I’m sure you can use it.”
“Of course,” he said dryly after a pause, taking the money from her and jamming it into the back pocket of his Levi’s. “I will walk you to your door,” he added.
Katie turned and started up the steps, a little shocked when his hand lightly but firmly cupped her elbow. It was such a quaint, gallant gesture—particularly when she knew she had inadvertently offended his pride.
He inserted her key into the lock and swung the door open. Katie stepped inside, turned to thank him again, and he said, “I would like to use your phone to find out if the towing vehicle was sent as they promised.”
He had physically come to her rescue and had even risked being arrested for her—Katie knew that common courtesy required that she allow him to use her phone. Carefully concealing her reluctance to let him in, she stepped aside so that he could enter her luxurious apartment. “The phone’s there on the coffee table,” she explained.
“Once I have called, I will wait here for a short while to be certain that your friend”—he emphasized the word with contempt—“does not awaken and decide to come here. By then the mechanic should have finished his repairs and I will walk back—it is not far.”
Katie, who had not even considered the possibility that Rob might come here, froze in the act of taking off her slim-heeled sandals. Surely Rob would never come near her again, not after being verbally rejected by her and physically discouraged by Ramon. “I’m sure he won’t,” she said, and she meant it. But even so, she found herself trembling with delayed reaction. “I—I think I’ll make some coffee,” she said, already starting for the kitchen. And then because she had no choice, she added courteously. “Would you like some?”
Ramon accepted her offer with such ambivalence that most of Katie’s doubts about his trustworthiness were allayed. Since meeting him, he had neither said nor done anything that was in any way forward.
Once she was in the kitchen, Katie realized that in the anxiety about seeing Rob tonight she had forgotten to buy coffee, and she was out of it. Which was just as well, because she suddenly felt the need for something stronger. Opening the cabinet above the refrigerator, she took out the bottle of Rob’s brandy. “I’m afraid all I have to offer you is brandy or water,” she called to Ramon. “The Coke is flat.”
“Brandy will be fine,” he answered.
Katie splashed brandy into two snifters and returned to the living room just as Ramon was hanging up the telephone. “Did the repair truck get there?” she asked.
“It is there now, and the mechanic is making a temporary repair so that I can drive it.” Ramon took the glass from her outstretched hand, and looked around her apartment with a quizzical expression on his face. “Where are your friends?” he asked.
“What friends?” Katie questioned blankly, sitting down in a pretty beige corduroy chair.
Katie choked back her horrified laughter. “Were you close enough to hear me say that?”
Gazing down at her, Ramon nodded, but there was no amusement in the quirk of his finely molded lips. “I was behind you, obtaining change for the telephone from the bartender.”
“Oh.” The misery of tonight’s events threatened to drag her down, but Katie pushed it fiercely to the back of her mind. She would think about it tomorrow when she would be better able to cope. She shrugged lightly. “I only made the lesbians up. I wasn’t in the mood for—”
“Why do you not like attorneys?” he interrupted.
Katie stifled another urge to laugh. “It’s a very long story, which I’d rather not discuss. But I suppose the reason I told him that was because I thought it was vain of him to tell me he was one.”
“You are not vain?”
Katie turned surprised eyes up to him. There was a childlike defenselessness to the way she had curled up in her chair with her bare feet tucked beneath her; an innocent vulnerability in the purity of her features and clarity of her wide blue eyes. “I—I don’t know.”
“You would not have been rude to me, had I approached you there and said that I drive a produce truck?”
Katie smiled the first genuine smile of the night, soft lips curving with a winsome humor that made her eyes glow. “I would probably have been too stunned to speak. In the first place, no one who goes to the Canyon Inn drives a truck, and in the second place, if they did they’d never admit it.”
“Why? It is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“No, I realize that. But they would say they were in the transportation business, or the trucking business—something like that, so that it would sound as if they owned a railroad, or at least an entire fleet of trucks.”
Ramon stared down at her as if the words she spoke were a hindrance, not a help, to his understanding her. His gaze drifted to the red gold hair tumbling over her shoulders, then abruptly he jerked his eyes away. Raising his glass, he tossed down half the brandy in it.
“Brandy is supposed to be sipped,” Katie said, then realized that what she had meant as a suggestion sounded more like a reprimand. “I mean,” she amended clumsily, “You can gulp it down, but people who are accustomed to drinking brandy usually prefer to sip it slowly.”
Ramon lowered his glass and looked at her with an absolutely unfathomable expression on his face. “Thank you,” he replied with impeccable courtesy. “I will try to remember that if I am ever fortunate enough to have it again.”
Squirming with the certainty that she had now thoroughly offended him, Katie watched him stroll over to the living-room window and part the nubby beige curtain.
Her window afforded an uninspiring view of the parking lot and, beyond that, the busy four-lane suburban street in front of her apartment complex. Leaning a shoulder against the window frame, he apparently heeded her advice, for he sipped his brandy slowly while watching the parking lot.
Idly, Katie noticed the way his white shirt stretched taut across his broad, muscled shoulders and tapered back whenever he lifted his arm, then she looked away. She had only meant to be helpful, instead she had sounded condescending and superior. She wished he would leave. She was mentally and physically exhausted, and there was absolutely no reason for him to be guarding her like this. Rob would not come here tonight.
“How old are you?” he asked abruptly.
Katie’s gaze flew to his. “Twenty-three.”
“Then you are old enough to have a better sense of priorities.”
Katie was more perplexed than annoyed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you think it is important that brandy be drunk in the ‘proper’ way, yet you do not worry if it is ‘proper’ to invite any man you meet into your apartment. You risk soiling your reputation and—”
“Invite any man I meet!” Katie sputtered indignantly, no longer feeling the slightest obligation to be courteous. “In the first place, I only invited you in here because you asked to use the phone, and I felt I had to be polite after you had helped me. In the second place, I don’t know about Mexico, or whatever country you come from, but—”
“I was born in Puerto Rico,” he provided.
Katie ignored that. “Well, here in the United States, we do not have such antiquated, absurd ideas about women’s reputations. Men have never worried about their reputations, and we no longer worry about ours. We do as we please!”
Katie absolutely could not believe it. Now, when she wanted to insult him, he was on the verge of laughter!
His black eyes were warm with amusement, and a smile was hovering at the corner of his mouth. “Do you do as you please?”
“Of course I do!” Katie said with great feeling.
“What is it that you do?”
“What is it that you do that pleases you?”
“Whatever I want.”
His voice deepened. “What do you want . . . Now?”
His suggestive tone made Katie suddenly and uncomfortably aware of the raw sensuality emanating from his long muscular frame outlined in the revealing Levi’s and closely fitted white shirt. A shudder ran through her as his gaze moved over her face, lingering on her soft full lips, before dropping to leisurely study the thrusting curves of her breasts beneath the clinging fabric of her dress. She felt like screaming, laughing, or weeping—or a combination of all three. After everything else that had happened to her tonight, Katie Connelly had managed to latch onto a Puerto Rican Casanova who thought he was now going to make himself the answer to all her sexual needs!
Forcing herself to sound brisk, she finally answered his question. “What do I want now? I want to be happy with my life and myself. I want to be—to be—free,” she finished lamely, too distracted by his dark, sensual gaze to think clearly.
“Of what do you wish to be free?”
Katie stood up abruptly. “Of men!”
As she came to her feet, Ramon started toward her with a slow deliberate gait. “You want to be free of so much freedom, but not of men.”
Katie continued backing toward the door as he advanced on her. She had been crazy to invite him in here, and he was deliberately misunderstanding her reason for doing so, because it suited his purpose. She gasped as her back bumped into the door.
Ramon stopped six inches away from her. “If you wished to be free of men as you say, you would not have gone to that place tonight; you would not have met that man in the parking lot. You do not know what you want.”
“I know that it’s late,” Katie said in a shaky voice. “And I know I want you to leave now.”
His eyes narrowed on her face, but his voice gentled as he asked, “Are you afraid of me?”
“No,” Katie lied.
He nodded with satisfaction. “Good, then you will not object to going to the zoo with me tomorrow, will you?”
Katie could tell that he knew she was acutely uneasy with him and that she had no desire to go anywhere with him. She considered saying that she had other plans for tomorrow, but she was positive he would only press her to name another time. Every instinct she possessed warned her that he could become extremely persistent if he chose. In her tired, overwrought state, it seemed more expedient to simply make the date and then not be here when he came. That rejection even he would understand and accept as final. “Okay,” she feigned. “What time?”
“I will come for you at ten o’clock in the morning.”
When the door closed behind him, Katie felt like a spring that was being wound tighter and tighter by some fiend who wanted to see how far she could be twisted before she snapped. She crawled into bed and stared at the ceiling. She had enough problems without having to cope with some amorous Latin who invites her to the zoo!
Rolling over onto her stomach, Katie thought of the sordid scene with Rob and squeezed her eyes closed, trying to escape her tired misery. Tomorrow she would spend the day at her parents’ house. In fact, she would spend the entire Memorial Day weekend there. After all, her parents always complained that they didn’t see enough of her.
PHILIP WHITWORTH GLANCED UP, HIS attention drawn by the sound of swift footsteps sinking into the luxurious Oriental carpet that stretched across his presidential office. Lounging back in his maroon leather swivel chair he studied the vice-president who was striding toward him. “Well?” he said impatiently. “Have they announced who the low bidder is?”
The vice-president leaned his clenched fists on the polished surface of Philip’s mahogany desk. “Sinclair was the low bidder,” he spat out. “National Motors is giving him the contract to provide all the radios for the cars they manufacture, because Nick Sinclair beat our price by a lousy thirty thousand dollars.” He drew in a furious breath and expelled it in a hiss. “That bastard won a fifty-million-dollar contract away from us by cutting our price a fraction of one percent!”
Only the slight hardening of Philip Whitworth’s aristocratic jawline betrayed the anger rolling inside him as he said, “That’s the fourth time in a year that he’s won a major contract away from us. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?”
“Coincidence!” the vice-president repeated. “It’s no damn coincidence and you know it, Philip! Someone in my division is on Nick Sinclair’s payroll. Some bastard must be spying on us, discovering the amount that goes into our sealed bid, then feeding the information to Sinclair so that he can undercut us by a few dollars. Only six men who work for me knew the amount we were going to bid on this job; one of those six men is our spy.”
Philip leaned farther into his chair until his silvered hair touched the high leather back. “You’ve had security investigations made on all six of those men, and all we learned was that three of them are cheating on their wives.”
“Then the investigations weren’t thorough enough!” Straightening, the vice-president raked his hand through his hair, then let his arm drop. “Look Philip, I realize Sinclair is your stepson, but you’re going to have to do something to stop him. He’s out to destroy you.”
Philip Whitworth’s eyes turned icy. “I have never acknowledged him as my ‘stepson,’ nor does my wife acknowledge him as her son. Now, precisely what do you propose I do to stop him?”
“Put a spy of your own in his company, find out who his contact here is. I don’t care what you do, but for God’s sake, do something!”
Philip’s reply was cut off by the harsh buzzing of the intercom on his desk, and he jabbed his finger at the button. “Yes, what is it, Helen?”
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, sir,” his secretary said, “but there’s a Miss Lauren Danner here. She says she has an appointment with you to discuss employment.”
“She does,” he sighed irritably. “I agreed to interview her for a position with us. Tell her I’ll see her in a few minutes.” He flicked the button off and returned his attention to the vice-president, who, though preoccupied, was regarding him with curiosity.
“Since when are you conducting personnel interviews, Philip?”
“It’s a courtesy interview,” Philip explained with an impatient sigh. “Her father is a shirttail relative of mine, a fifth or sixth cousin, as I recall. Danner is one of those relatives my mother unearthed years ago when she was researching her book on our family tree. Every time she located a new batch of possible relatives, she invited them up here to our house for a ‘nice little weekend visit’ so that she could delve into their ancestry, discover if they were actually related and decide if they were worthy of mention in her book.
“Danner was a professor at a Chicago university. He couldn’t come, so he sent his wife—a concert pianist—and his daughter in his place. Mrs. Danner was killed in an automobile accident a few years later, and I never heard from him after that, until last week when he called and asked me to interview his daughter, Lauren, for a job. He said there’s nothing suitable for her in Fenster, Missouri, where he’s living now.”
“Rather presumptuous of him to call you, wasn’t it?”
Philip’s expression filled with bored resignation. “I’ll give the girl a few minutes of my time and then send her packing. We don’t have a position for anyone with a college degree in music. Even if we did, I wouldn’t hire Lauren Danner. I’ve never met a more irritating, outrageous, ill-mannered, homely child in my life. She was about nine years old, chubby, with freckles and a mop of reddish hair that looked as if it was never properly combed. She wore hideous horn-rimmed eyeglasses, and so help me God, that child looked down her nose at us. . . .”
* * *
Philip Whitworth’s secretary glanced at the young woman, wearing a crisp navy blue suit and white ascot-style blouse, who was seated across from her. The woman’s honey-blond hair was caught up in an elegant chignon, with soft tendrils at her ears framing a face of flawless, vivid beauty. Her cheekbones were slightly high, her nose small, her chin delicately rounded, but her eyes were her most arresting feature. Beneath the arch of her brows, long curly lashes fringed eyes that were a startling, luminous turquoise blue.
“Mr. Whitworth will see you in a few minutes,” the secretary said politely, careful not to stare.
Lauren Danner looked up from the magazine she was pretending to read and smiled. “Thank you,” she said, then she gazed blindly down again, trying to control her nervous dread of confronting Philip Whitworth face to face.
Fourteen years had not dulled the painful memory of her two days at his magnificent Grosse Pointe mansion, where the entire Whitworth family, and even the servants, had treated Lauren and her mother with insulting scorn. . . .
The phone on the secretary’s desk buzzed, sending a jolt through Lauren’s nervous system. How, she wondered desperately, had she landed in this impossible predicament? If she’d known in advance that her father was going to call Philip Whitworth, she could have dissuaded him. But by the time she knew anything about it, the call had been made and this interview already arranged. When she’d tried to object, her father had calmly replied that Philip Whitworth owed them a favor, and that unless Lauren could give him some logical arguments against going to Detroit, he expected her to keep the appointment he’d arranged.
Lauren laid the unread magazine in her lap and sighed. Of course, she could have told him how the Whitworths had acted fourteen years ago. But right now money was her father’s primary concern, and the lack of it was putting lines of strain into his pallid face. Recently the Missouri taxpayers, caught in the vise grip of an economic recession, had voted down a desperately needed school-tax increase. As a result, thousands of teachers were immediately laid off, including Lauren’s father. Three months later he had come home from another fruitless trip in search of a job, this time to Kansas City. He had put his briefcase down on the table and had smiled sadly at Lauren and her stepmother. “I don’t think an ex-teacher could get a job as a janitor these days,” he had said, looking exhausted and strangely pale. Absently he’d massaged his chest near his left arm as he had added grimly, “Which may be for the best, because I don’t feel strong enough to push a broom.” Without further warning, he had collapsed, the victim of a massive heart attack.
Even though her father was now recovering, that moment had changed the course of her life. . . . No, Lauren corrected herself, she had been on the verge of changing the course herself. After years of relentless study and grueling practice at the piano, after obtaining her master’s degree in music, she had already decided that she lacked the driving ambition, the total dedication needed to succeed as a concert pianist. She had inherited her mother’s musical talent, but not her tireless devotion to her art.
Lauren wanted more from life than her music. In a way, it had cheated her of as much as it had given her. What with going to school, studying, practicing and working to pay for her lessons and tuition, there’d never been time to relax and enjoy herself. By the time she’d turned twenty-three she’d traveled to cities all over the United States to play in competitions, but all she’d seen of the cities themselves were hotel rooms, practice rooms and auditoriums. She’d met countless men, but there was never time for more than a brief acquaintance. She’d won scholarships and prizes and awards, but there was never enough money to pay all her expenses without the added burden of a part-time job.
Still, after investing so much of her life in music, it had seemed wrong, wasteful, to throw it away for some other career. Her father’s illness and the staggering bills that were accruing had forced her to make the decision she’d been postponing. In April he had lost his job, and with it his medical insurance; in July he had lost his health as well. In past years he had given her a great deal of financial help with school and lessons; now it was her turn to help him.
At the thought of this responsibility, Lauren felt as if the weight of the world was resting on her shoulders. She needed a job, she needed money, and she needed them now. She glanced around at the plush reception area she was seated in, and felt strange and disoriented as she tried to imagine herself working for a huge manufacturing corporation like this one. Not that it mattered—if the pay was high enough, she would take whatever job was offered to her. Good jobs with advancement opportunities were practically nonexistent in Fenster, Missouri, and those that were available paid pitifully low in comparison to similar jobs in huge metropolitan areas like Detroit.
The secretary hung up the phone and stood up. “Mr. Whitworth will see you now, Miss Danner.”
Lauren followed her to a richly carved mahogany door. As the secretary opened it, Lauren uttered a brief, impassioned prayer that Philip Whitworth wouldn’t remember her from that long-ago visit, then she stepped into his office. Years of performing in front of an audience had taught her how to conceal her turbulent nervousness, and now it enabled her to approach Philip Whitworth with an outward appearance of quiet poise as he got to his feet, an expression of astonishment on his aristocratic features.
“You probably don’t remember me, Mr. Whitworth,” she said, graciously extending her hand across his desk, “but I’m Lauren Danner.”
Philip Whitworth’s handclasp was firm, his voice tinged with dry amusement. “As a matter of fact, I remember you very well, Lauren; you were rather an . . . unforgettable . . . child.”
Lauren smiled, surprised by his candid humor. “That’s very kind of you. You might have said outrageous instead of unforgettable.”
With that, a tentative truce was declared, and Philip Whitworth nodded toward a gold velvet chair in front of his desk. “Please sit down.”
“I’ve brought you a résumé,” Lauren said, removing an envelope from her shoulder purse as she sat down.
He opened the envelope she handed him and extracted the typewritten sheets, but his brown eyes remained riveted on her face, minutely studying each feature. “The resemblance to your mother is striking,” he said after a long moment. “She was Italian, wasn’t she?”
“My grandparents were born in Italy,” Lauren clarified. “My mother was born here.”
Philip nodded. “Your hair is much lighter, but otherwise you look almost exactly like her.” His gaze shifted to the résumé she had given him as he added dispassionately, “She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.”
Lauren leaned back in her chair, a little dazed by the unexpected direction the interview had taken. It was rather disconcerting to discover that, despite his outwardly cold, aloof attitude fourteen years before, Philip Whitworth had apparently thought Gina Danner was beautiful. And now he was telling Lauren that he thought she was, too.
While he read her résumé, Lauren let her gaze drift over the stately splendor of the immense office from which Philip Whitworth ruled his corporate empire. Then she studied him. For a man in his fifties, he was extremely attractive. Though his hair was silvering, his tanned face was relatively unlined, and there was no sign of excess weight on his tall, well-built body. Seated behind his huge, baronial desk in an impeccably tailored dark suit, he seemed surrounded by an aura of wealth and power, which Lauren reluctantly found impressive.
Seen now through the eyes of an adult, he didn’t seem the cold, conceited snob’ she remembered. In fact, he seemed every inch a distinguished, elegant socialite. His attitude toward her was certainly courteous, and he had a sense of humor too. All things considered, Lauren couldn’t help feeling that her prejudice against him all these years might have been unfair.
Philip Whitworth turned to the second page of her résumé, and Lauren caught herself up short. Exactly why was she having this sudden change of heart about him, she wondered uncomfortably. True, he was being cordial and kind to her now—but why wouldn’t he be? She was no longer a homely little nine-year-old; she was a young woman with a face and figure that made men turn and stare.
Had she really misjudged the Whitworths all those years ago? Or was she now letting herself be influenced by Philip Whitworth’s obvious wealth and smooth sophistication?
“Although your university grades are outstanding, I hope you realize that your degree in music is of no value to the business world,” he said.
Lauren instantly pulled her attention to the subject at hand. “I know that. I majored in music because I love it, but I realize there’s no future in it for me.” With quiet dignity she briefly explained her reasons for abandoning her career as a pianist, including her father’s health and her family’s financial circumstances.
Philip listened attentively, then glanced again at the résumé in his hand. “I noticed that you also took several business courses in college.”
When he paused expectantly, Lauren began to believe he might actually be considering her for a job. “Actually, I’m only a few courses short of qualifying for a business degree.”
“And while attending college, you worked after school and during the summers as a secretary,” he continued thoughtfully. “Your father didn’t mention that on the telephone. Are your shorthand and typing skills as excellent as your résumé claims?”
“Yes,” Lauren said, but at the mention of her secretarial background her enthusiasm began to fade.
He relaxed in his chair and, after a moment’s thought, seemed to come to a decision. “I can offer you a secretarial position, Lauren, one with challenge and responsibility. I can’t offer you anything more than that unless you actually get your business degree.”
“But I don’t want to be a secretary,” Lauren sighed.
A wry smile twisted his lips when he saw how discouraged she looked. “You said that your primary concern right now is money—and right now there happens to be a tremendous shortage of qualified, top-notch executive secretaries. Because of this they’re in demand and very highly paid. My own secretary, for example, makes almost as much money as my middle-management executives.”
“But even so . . .” Lauren started to protest.
Mr. Whitworth held up a hand to silence her. “Let me finish. You’ve been working for the president of a small manufacturing company. In a small company, everyone knows what everyone else is doing and why they’re doing it. Unfortunately, in large corporations such as this one, only high-level executives and their secretaries are aware of the overall picture. May I give you an example of what I’m trying to say?”
Lauren nodded, and he continued. “Let’s say you’re an accountant in our radio division, and you’re asked to prepare an analysis of the cost of each radio we produce. You spend weeks preparing the report without knowing why you’re doing it. It could be because we’re thinking of closing down our radio division; it could be because we’re thinking of expanding our radio division; or it could be because we’re planning an advertising campaign to help sell more radios. You don’t know what we’re planning to do and neither does your supervisor or his supervisor. The only people who are aware of that sort of confidential information are division managers, vice-presidents, and,” he concluded with smiling emphasis, “their secretaries! If you start out as a secretary with us, you’ll get a good overview of the corporation, and you’ll be able to make an informed choice about your possible future career goals.”
“Is there anything else I could do in a corporation such as yours that would pay as well as being a secretary?” Lauren asked.
“No,” he said with quiet firmness. “Not until you get your business degree.”
Inwardly Lauren sighed, but she knew she had no choice. She had to make as much money as she possibly could.
“Don’t look so glum,” he said, “the work won’t be boring. Why, my own secretary knows more about our future plans than most of my executives do. Executive secretaries are privy to all sorts of highly confidential information. They’re—”
He broke off, staring at Lauren in stunned silence, and when he spoke again there was a triumphant, calculating quality in his voice. “Executive secretaries are privy to highly confidential information,” he repeated, an unexplainable smile dawning across his aristocratic features. “A secretary!” he whispered. “They would never suspect a secretary! They wouldn’t even run a security check on one. Lauren,” he said softly, his brown eyes gleaming like topaz, “I am about to make you a very unusual offer. Please don’t argue about it until you hear me out completely. Now, what do you know about corporate or industrial spying?”
Lauren had the queasy feeling that she was hanging over the edge of a dangerous precipice. “Enough to know that people have been sent to prison for it, and that I want absolutely nothing to do with it, Mr. Whitworth.”
“Of course you don’t,” Philip said smoothly. “And please call me Philip; after all, we are related, and I’ve been calling you Lauren.”
Uneasily, Lauren nodded.
“I’m not asking you to spy on another corporation, I’m asking you to spy on mine. Let me explain. In recent years, a company called Sinco has become our biggest competitor. Every time we bid on a contract, Sinco seems to know how much we’re going to bid, and they bid just a fraction of a percent less. Somehow, they’re finding out what we’re putting into our sealed bids, then they cut the price of their bid so that it’s slightly lower than ours and steal the contract from us.
“It just happened again today. There are only six men here who could have told Sinco the amount of our bid, and one of them must be a spy. I don’t want to dismiss five loyal business executives just to rid myself of one greedy, treacherous man. But if Sinco continues to steal business from us this way, I’m going to have to begin laying people off,” he continued. “I employ twelve thousand people, Lauren. Twelve thousand people depend on Whitworth Enterprises for their livelihoods. Twelve thousand families depend on this corporation so that they can have roofs over their heads and food on their tables. There’s a chance you could help them keep their jobs and their homes. All I’m asking you to do is to apply for a secretarial position at Sinco today. God knows they’ll need to increase their staff to handle the work they just stole from us. With your skills and experience, they’d probably consider you for a secretarial position with some high-level executive.”
Against her better judgment, Lauren asked, “If I get the job, then what?”
“Then I’ll give you the names of the six men who might possibly be the spy, and all you have to do is listen for mention of their names by anyone at Sinco.”
He leaned forward in his chair and folded his hands on his desk. “It’s a long shot, Lauren, but frankly, I’m desperate enough to try anything. Now, here’s my part of the bargain: I was planning to offer you a secretarial position with us at a very attractive salary. . . .”
The figure he named amazed Lauren, and it showed. It was considerably more than her father had been making as a teacher. Why, if she lived frugally she could support her family and herself.
“I can see that you’re pleased,” Philip chuckled. “Wages in big cities like Detroit are very high compared to smaller places. Now, if you apply at Sinco this afternoon and they offer you a secretarial position, I want you to take it. If the salary there is lower than the one I just offered you, my company will write you a monthly check to make up the difference. If you are able to learn the name of our spy, or anything else of real value to me, I will pay you a bonus of $10,000. Six months from now, if you haven’t been able to learn anything important, then you can resign from your job at Sinco and come to work as a secretary for us. As soon as you complete the courses for your business degree, I’ll give you any other position here you want, providing of course that you can handle it.” His brown eyes moved over her face, searching her troubled features. “Something is bothering you,” he observed quietly. “What is it?”
“It all bothers me,” Lauren admitted. “I don’t like intrigue, Mr. Whitworth.”
“Please call me Philip. At least do that much for me.” With a tired sigh, he leaned back in his chair. “Lauren, I know I have absolutely no right to ask you to apply at Sinco. It may surprise you to learn that I’m aware of how unpleasant your visit with us fourteen years ago was. My son, Carter, was at a difficult age. My mother was obsessed with researching our family tree, and my wife and I . . . well, I’m sorry we weren’t more cordial.”
Under normal circumstances, Lauren would have turned him down. But her life was in a state of complete upheaval, and her financial responsibilities were staggering. She felt dazed, uncertain and incredibly burdened. “All right,” she said slowly. “I’ll do it.”
“Good,” Philip said promptly. Picking up his telephone he called Sinco’s number, asked for the personnel manager, then handed Lauren the phone to make an appointment. Lauren’s secret hope that Sinco might refuse to see her was instantly dashed. According to the man she spoke to, Sinco had just been awarded a large contract and was in immediate need of experienced secretaries. Since he was planning to work late that night, he instructed Lauren to come at once.
Afterward Philip stood up and put out his hand, clasping hers. “Thank you,” he said simply. After a moment’s thought, he added, “When you fill out their application form, give your home address in Missouri, but give them this phone number so that they can reach you at our house.” He wrote a number on a note pad and tore off the sheet. “The servants answer it with a simple hello,” he explained.
“No,” Lauren said quickly. “I wouldn’t want to impose. I . . . I’d much rather stay in a motel.”
“I don’t blame you for feeling that way,” he replied, making Lauren feel rude and ungracious, “but I would like to make up for that other visit.”
Lauren succumbed to defeat. “Are you absolutely certain that Mrs. Whitworth won’t object?”
“Carol will be delighted.”
When the door closed behind Lauren, Philip Whitworth picked up his telephone and dialed a number that rang in his son’s private office, just across the hall. “Carter,” he said. “I think we’re about to drive a spike into Nick Sinclair’s armor. Do you remember Lauren Danner . . . ?”