Kicking off our week with more looks into Judith McNaught’s incredibly awesome books! This time we have Miracles, Once and Always, Perfect and Someone to Watch Over Me.
I remember the first time I read Perfect … McNaught had both my heart and stomach in knots, especially with the ending. That was when I knew her contemporary stories were going to be just as good as her historicals.
If you haven’t already make sure you check out the previous excerpt stops. You’re bound to find something that’ll make you happy.
Miracles (in A Holiday of Love)
Now available for the first time ever as an e-novella, New York Times bestselling author Judith McNaught’s short historical romance Miracles—which ties up ends left open in the Westmoreland Dynasty Saga—is available for the first time ever as a standalone e-novella. In Regency London, world-weary lord Nicki du Ville receives an outrageous proposal from Julianna Skeffington, who is Sheridan Bromleigh’s charge from Until You.
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THE ROAR OF MUSIC AND voices began to recede as Julianna Skeffington fled down the terraced steps of a brightly lit country house in which 600 members of Polite Society were attending a masquerade ball. Ahead of her, the formal gardens were aglow with flaring torches and swarming with costumed guests and liveried servants. Beyond the gardens, a large hedge maze loomed in the shadows, offering far better places to hide, and it was there that Julianna headed.
Pressing the hooped skirts of her Marie Antoinette costume closer to her sides, she plunged into the crowd, wending her way as swiftly as possible past knights in armor, court jesters, highwaymen, and an assortment of kings, queens, and Shakespearean characters, as well as a profusion of domestic and jungle creatures.
She saw a path open through the crowd and headed for it, then had to step aside to avoid colliding with a large leafy “tree” with red silk apples dangling from its branches. The tree bowed politely to Julianna as it paraded past her, one of its branches curved around the waist of a lady decked out as a milkmaid complete with bucket.
She did not have to slow her pace again until she neared the center of the garden, where a group of musicians was stationed between a pair of Roman fountains, providing music for dancing couples. Excusing herself, she stepped around a tall man disguised as a black tomcat who was whispering in the pink ear of a petite gray mouse. He stopped long enough to cast an appreciative eye over the low bodice of Julianna’s white ruffled gown, then he smiled boldly into her eyes and winked before returning his attention to the adorable little mouse with the absurdly long whiskers.
Staggered by the abandoned behavior she was witnessing tonight, particularly out here in the gardens, Julianna stole a quick glance over her shoulder and saw that her mother had emerged from the ballroom. She stood on the terraced steps, holding an unknown male by the arm, and slowly scanned the gardens. She was looking for Julianna. With the instincts of a bloodhound, her mother turned and looked straight in Julianna’s direction.
That familiar sight was enough to make Julianna break into a near run, until she came to the last obstacle in her route to the maze: a large group of particularly boisterous men who were standing beneath a canopy of trees, laughing uproariously at a mock jester who was trying unsuccessfully to juggle apples. Rather than walk in front of their line of vision, thus putting herself in plain view of her mother, she decided it was wiser to go around behind them.
“If you please, sirs,” she said, trying to sidle between the trees and a row of masculine backs. “I must pass.” Instead of moving quickly out of her way, which common courtesy dictated they should, two of them glanced over their shoulders at her, then they turned fully around without giving her any extra space.
“Well, well, well, what have we here?” said one of them in a very young and very inebriated voice as he braced his hand on the tree near her shoulder. He shifted his gaze to a servant, who was handing him a glass brimming with some sort of liquor, then he took it and thrust it toward her. “Some ’freshment for you, ma’am?”
At the moment Julianna was more worried about escaping her mother’s notice than being accosted by a drunken young lord who could barely stand up and whose companions would surely prevent him from behaving more abominably than he was now. She accepted the glass rather than make a scene, then she ducked under his arm, walked quickly past the others, and hurried toward her destination, the drink forgotten in her hand.
“Forget about her, Dickie,” she heard his companion say. “Half the opera dancers and the demimonde are here tonight. You can have most any female who takes your eye. That one didn’t want to play.”
Julianna remembered hearing that some of the Ton’s high sticklers disapproved of masquerades—particularly for gently bred young ladies—and after what she’d seen and heard tonight she certainly understood why. With their identities safely concealed behind costumes and masks, members of Polite Society behaved like . . . like common rabble!
INSIDE THE MAZE, JULIANNA TOOK the path to the right, darted around the first corner, which happened to turn right, then she pressed her back into the shrubbery’s prickly branches. With her free hand, she tried to flatten the layers of white lace flounces that adorned the hem of her skirts and the low bodice of her gown, but they stood out like quivering beacons in the breezy night.
Her heart racing from emotion, not exertion, she stood perfectly still and listened, separated from the garden by a single tall hedge but out of sight of the entrance. She stared blindly at the glass in her hand and felt angry futility at her inability to prevent her mother from disgracing herself or ruining Julianna’s life.
Trying to divert herself, Julianna lifted the glass to her nose and sniffed, then she shuddered a little at the strong aroma. It smelled like the stuff her papa drank. Not the Madeira he enjoyed from morning until supper, but the golden liquid he drank after supper—for medicinal purposes, to calm his nerves, he said.
Julianna’s nerves were raw. A moment later she heard her mother’s voice come from the opposite side of the leafy barrier, making her heart hammer with foreboding.
“Julianna, are you out here, dear?” her mother called.
“Lord Makepeace is with me, and he is most eager for an introduction . . .”
Julianna had the mortifying vision of a reluctant Lord Makepeace—whoever he was—being dragged mercilessly by the arm through every twist and turn, every corner and cranny, of the twisting maze and torch lit gardens by her determined mother. Unable to endure the awkwardness and embarrassment of one more introduction to some unfortunate, and undoubtedly unwilling, potential suitor whom her mother had commandeered, Julianna backed so far into the scratchy branches that they poked into the pale blond curls of the elaborate coiffure that had taken a maid hours to create.
Overhead, the moon obligingly glided behind a thick bank of clouds, plunging the maze into inky darkness, while her mother continued her shamelessly dishonest monologue—a few feet away on the other side of the hedge.
“Julianna is such a delightfully adventurous girl,” Lady Skeffington exclaimed, sounding frustrated, not proud. “It is just like her to wander into the gardens to do a bit of exploring.”
Julianna mentally translated her mother’s falsehoods into reality: Julianna is an annoying recluse who has to be dragged from her books and her scribbling. It is just like her to hide in the bushes at a time like this.
“She was so very popular this Season, I cannot think how you haven’t encountered her at some tonnish function or another. In fact, I actually had to insist she restrict her social engagements to no more than ten each week so that she could have enough rest!”
Julianna hasn’t received ten invitations to social events in the past year, let alone in a single week, but I need an excuse for why you haven’t met her before. With a little luck, you’ll believe that rapper.
Lord Makepeace wasn’t that gullible. “Really?” he murmured, in the noncommittal voice of one who is struggling between courtesy, annoyance, and disbelief. “She sounds an odd—er . . . unusual female if she doesn’t enjoy social engagements.”
“I never meant to imply such a thing!” Lady Skeffington hastened to say. “Julianna enjoys balls and soirees above all things!”
Julianna would rather have a tooth extracted.
“I truly believe the two of you would deal famously together.”
I intend to get her off our hands and well wed, my good man, and you have the prerequisites for a husband: You are male, of respectable birth, and adequate fortune.
“She is not at all the sort of pushing female one encounters too often these days.”
She won’t do a thing to show herself off to advantage.
“On the other hand, she has definite attributes that no male could miss.”
To make certain of it tonight, I insisted she wear a costume so revealing that it is better suited to a married flirt than to a girl of eighteen.
“But she is not at all fast.”
Despite the low décolletage on her gown, you must not even try to touch her without asking for her hand first.
Lord Makepeace’s desire for freedom finally overcame the dictates of civility. “I really must return to the ballroom, Lady Skeffington. I—I believe I have the next dance with Miss Topham.”
The realization that her prey was about to escape—and into the clutches of the Season’s most popular debutante—drove Julianna’s mama to retaliate by telling the greatest lie of her matchmaking life. Shamelessly inventing a nonexistent relationship between Julianna and the most eligible bachelor in England, she announced, “It’s just as well we return to the ball! I believe Nicholas DuVille himself has claimed Julianna’s next waltz!”
Lady Skeffington must have hurried after the retreating lord because their voices became more distant. “Mr. DuVille has repeatedly singled our dear Julianna out for particular attention. In fact, I have reason to believe his sole reason for coming here this evening was so that he could spend a few moments with her! No, really, sir, it is the truth, though I shouldn’t like for anyone but you to know it. . . .”
Further down the maze, the Baron of Penwarren’s ravishing young widow stood with her arms wrapped around Nicholas DuVille’s neck, her eyes laughing into his as she whispered, “Please don’t tell me Lady Skeffington actually coerced you into dancing with her daughter, Nicki. Not you, of all people. If she has, and you do it, you won’t be able to walk into a drawing room in England without sending everyone into whoops. If you hadn’t been in Italy all summer, you’d know it’s become a game of wits among the bachelors to thwart that odious creature. I’m perfectly serious,” Valerie warned as his only reaction was one of mild amusement, “that woman would resort to anything to get a rich husband for her daughter and secure her own position in Society! Absolutely anything!”
“Thank you for the warning, chérie,” Nicki said dryly. As it happens, I had a brief introduction to Lady Skeffington’s husband shortly before I left for Italy. I have not, however, set eyes on the mother or the daughter, let alone promised to dance with either of them.”
She sighed with relief. “I couldn’t imagine how you could have been that foolish. Julianna is a remarkably pretty thing, actually, but she’s not at all in your usual style. She’s very young, very virginal, and I understand she has an odd habit of hiding behind draperies —or some such.”
“She sounds delightful,” Nicki lied with a chuckle.
“She is nothing like her mama, in any case.” She paused for an eloquent little shudder to illustrate what she was about to say next. “Lady Skeffington is so eager to be a part of Society that she positively grovels. If she weren’t so encroaching and ambitious, she’d be completely pathetic.”
“At the risk of appearing hopelessly obtuse,” Nicki said, losing patience with the entire discussion, “why in hell did you invite them to your masquerade?”
“Because, darling,” Valerie said with a sigh, smoothing her fingers over his jaw with the familiarity of shared intimacies, “this past summer, little Julianna somehow became acquainted with the new Countess of Langford, as well as her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Claymore. At the beginning of the Season, the countess and the duchess made it known they desire little Julianna to be welcome amongst the Ton, then they both left for Devon with their husbands. Since no one wants to offend the Westmore lands, and since Lady Skeffington offends all of us, we all waited until the very last week of the Season to do our duty and invite them to something. Unluckily, of the dozens of invitations Lady Skeffington received for tonight, mine was the one she accepted—probably because she heard you were going to be here.”
She stopped suddenly, as if struck by a delightful possibility. “Everyone has been longing to discover how Julianna and her obnoxious mama happened to become acquainted with the countess and the duchess, and I would wager you know the answer, don’t you! Gossip has it that you were extremely well acquainted with both ladies before they were married.”
To Valerie’s astonishment, his entire expression became distant, shuttered, and his words conveyed a chilly warning. “Define what you mean by ‘extremely well acquainted,’ Valerie.”
Belatedly realizing that she had somehow blundered into dangerous territory, Valerie made a hasty strategic retreat to safer ground. “I meant only that you are known to be a close friend of both ladies.”
Nicki accepted her peace offering with a slight nod and allowed her to retreat in dignity, but he did not let the matter drop completely. “Their husbands are also close friends of mine,” he said pointedly, though that was rather an exaggeration. He was on friendly terms with Stephen and Clayton Westmoreland, but neither man was particularly ecstatic about their wife’s friendship with Nicki—a situation that both ladies had laughingly confided would undoubtedly continue “until you are safely wed, Nicki, and as besotted with your own wife as Clayton and Stephen are with us.”
“Since you aren’t yet betrothed to Miss Skeffington,” Valerie teased softly, pulling his attention back to her as she slid her fingers around his nape, “there is nothing to prevent us from leaving by the side of this maze and going to your bedchamber.”
From the moment she’d greeted him in the house, Nicki had known that suggestion was going to come, and he considered it now in noncommittal silence. There was nothing stopping him from doing that. Nothing whatsoever, except an inexplicable lack of interest in what he knew from past trysts with Valerie would be almost exactly one hour and thirty minutes of uninhibited sexual intercourse with a highly skilled and eager partner. That exercise would be preceded by a glass and a half of excellent champagne, and followed by half a glass of even better brandy. Afterward, he would pretend to be disappointed when she felt obliged to return to her own bed “to keep the servants from gossiping.” Very civilized, very considerate, very predictable.
Lately, the sheer predictability of his life—and everyone in it, including himself—was beginning to grate on him. Whether he was in bed with a woman or gambling with friends, he automatically did and said all the proper—and improper—things at the appropriate time. He associated with men and women of his own class who were all as bland and socially adept as he was.
He was beginning to feel as if he were a damned marionette, performing on a stage with other marionettes, all of whom danced to the same tune, written by the same composer.
Even when it came to illicit liaisons such as the one Valerie was suggesting, there was a prescribed ritual to be followed that varied only according to whether the lady was wed or not, and whether he was playing the role of seducer or seduced. Since Valerie was widowed and had assumed the role of seducer tonight, he knew exactly how she would react if he declined her suggestion. First she would pout—but very prettily; then she would cajole; and then she would offer enticements. He, being the “seduced,” would hesitate, then evade, and then postpone until she gave up, but he would never actually refuse. To do so would be unforgivably rude—a clumsy misstep in the intricate social dance they all performed to perfection.
Despite all that, Nicki waited before answering, half expecting his body to respond favorably to her suggestion, even though his mind was not. When that didn’t happen, he shook his head and took the first step in the dance: hesitation. “I should probably sleep first, chérie. I had a trying week, and I’ve been up for the last two days.”
“Surely you aren’t refusing me, are you, darling?” she asked. Pouting prettily.
Nicki switched smoothly to evasion. “What about your party?”
“I’d rather be with you. I haven’t seen you in months, and besides, the party will go on without me. My servants are trained to perfection.”
“Your guests are not,” Nicki pointed out, still evading since she was still cajoling.
“They’ll never know we’ve left.”
“The bedchamber you gave me is next to your mother’s.”
“She won’t hear us even if you break the bed as you did the last time we used that chamber. She’s deaf as a stone.” Nicki was about to proceed to the postponement stage, but Valerie surprised him by accelerating the procedure and going straight to enticements before he could utter his lines in this trite little play that had become his real life. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed him thoroughly, her hands sliding up and down his chest, her parted lips inviting his tongue.
Nicki automatically put his arm around her waist and complied, but it was an empty gesture born of courtesy, not reciprocity. When her hands slid lower, toward the waistband of his trousers, he dropped his arm and stepped back, suddenly revolted as well as bored with the entire damned charade. “Not tonight,” he said firmly.
Her eyes silently accused him of an unforgivable breach of the rules. Softening his voice, he took her by the shoulders, turned her around, and gave her an affectionate pat on the backside to send her on her way. “Go back to your quests, chérie.” Already reaching into his pocket for a thin cheroot, he added with polite finality, “I’ll follow you after a discreet time.”
UNAWARE THAT SHE WAS NOT alone in the cavernous maze, Julianna waited in tense silence to be absolutely certain her mother wasn’t going to return. After a moment she gave a ragged sigh and dislodged herself from her hiding place.
Since the maze seemed like the best place to hide for the next few hours, she turned left and wandered down a path that opened into a square grassy area with an ornate stone bench in the center.
Morosely, she contemplated her situation, looking for a way out of the humiliating and untenable trap she was in, but she knew there was no escape from her mother’s blind obsession with seeing Julianna wed to someone of “real consequence”—now, while the opportunity existed. Thus far all that had prevented her mother from accomplishing this goal was the fact that no “eligible” suitor “of real consequence” had declared himself during the few weeks Julianna had been in London.
Unfortunately, just before they’d left London to come here, her mother had succeeded in wringing an offer of marriage from Sir Francis Bellhaven, a repulsive, elderly, pompous knight with pallid skin, protruding hazel eyes that seemed to delve down Julianna’s bodice, and thick pale lips that never failed to remind her of a dead goldfish. The thought of being bound for an entire evening, let alone the rest of her life, to Sir Francis was unendurable. Obscene. Terrifying.
Not that she was going to have any choice in the matter. If she wanted a real choice, then hiding in here from other potential suitors her mother commandeered was the last thing she ought to be doing. She knew it, but she couldn’t make herself go back to that ball. She didn’t even want a husband. She was already eighteen years old, and she had other plans, other dreams, for her life, but they didn’t coincide with her mother’s and so they weren’t going to matter. Ever. What made it all so much more frustrating was that her mother actually believed she was acting in Julianna’s best interests and that she knew what was ultimately best for her.
The moon slid out from behind the clouds, and Julianna stared at the pale liquid in her glass. Her father said a bit of brandy never hurt anyone, that it eased all manner of ailments, improved digestion, and cured low spirits. Julianna hesitated, and then in a burst of rebellion and desperation, she decided to test the latter theory. Lifting the glass, she pinched her nostrils closed, tipped her head back, and took three large swallows. She lowered the glass, shuddering and gasping. And waited. For an explosion of bliss. Seconds passed, then one minute. Nothing. All she felt was a slight weakness in her knees and a weakening of her defenses against the tears of futility brimming in her eyes.
In deference to her shaky limbs, Julianna stepped over to the stone bench and sat down. The bench had obviously been occupied earlier that evening, because there was a half-empty glass of spirits on the end of it and several empty glasses beneath it. After a moment she took another sip of brandy and gazed into the glass, swirling the golden liquid so that it gleamed in the moonlight as she considered her plight.
How she wished her grandmother were still alive! Grandmama would have put a stop to Julianna’s mother’s mad obsession with arranging a “splendid marriage.” She’d have understood Julianna’s aversion to being forced into marriage with anyone. In all the world, her father’s dignified mother was the only person who had ever seemed to understand Julianna. Her grandmother had been her friend, her teacher, her mentor.
At her knee Julianna had learned about the world, about people; there and there alone she was encouraged to think for herself and to say whatever she thought, no matter how absurd or outrageous it might seem. In return, her grandmother had always treated her as an equal, sharing her own unique philosophies about anything and everything, from God’s purpose for creating the earth to myths about men and women.
Grandmother Skeffington did not believe marriage was the answer to a woman’s dreams, or even that males were more noble or more intelligent than females! “Consider for a moment my own husband as an example,” she said with a gruff smile one wintry afternoon just before the Christmas when Julianna was fifteen. “You did not know your grandfather, God rest his soul, but if he had a brain with which to think, I never saw the evidence of it. Like all his forebears, he couldn’t tally two figures in his head or write an intelligent sentence, and he had less sense than a suckling babe.”
“Really?” Julianna said, amazed and a little appalled by this disrespectful assessment of a deceased man who had been her grandmother’s husband and Julianna’s grandsire.
Her grandmother nodded emphatically. “The Skeffington men have all been like that—unimaginative, slothful clods, the entire lot of them.”
“But surely you aren’t saying Papa is like that,” Julianna argued out of loyalty. “He’s your only living child.”
“I would never describe your papa as a clod,” she said without hesitation. “I would describe him as a muttonhead!”
Julianna bit back a horrified giggle at such heresy, but before she could summon an appropriate defense, her grandmother continued: “The Skeffington women, on the other hand, have often displayed streaks of rare intelligence and resourcefulness. Look closely and you will discover that it is generally females who survive on their wits and determination, not males. Men are not superior to women except in brute strength.”
When Julianna looked uncertain, her grandmother added smugly, “If you will read that book I gave you last week, you will soon discover that women were not always subservient to men. Why, in ancient times, we had the power and the reverence. We were goddesses and soothsayers and healers, with the secrets of the universe in our minds and the gift of life in our bodies. We chose our mates, not the other way around. Men sought our counsel and worshiped at our feet and envied our powers. Why, we were superior to them in every way. We knew it, and so did they.”
“If we were truly the more clever and the more gifted,” Julianna said when her grandmother lifted her brows, looking for a reaction to that staggering information, “then how did we lose all that power and respect and let ourselves become subservient to men?”
“They convinced us we needed their brute strength for our protection,” she said with a mixture of resentment and disdain. “Then they ‘protected’ us right out of all our privileges and rights. They tricked us.”
Julianna found an error in that logic, and her brow furrowed in thought. “If that is so,” she said after a moment, “then they couldn’t have been quite so dull-witted as you think. They had to be very clever, did they not?”
For a split second her grandmother glowered at her, then she cackled with approving laughter. “A good point, my dear, and one that bears considering. I suggest you write that thought down so that you may examine it further. Perhaps you will write a book of your own on how males have perpetrated that fiendish deception upon females over the centuries. I only hope you will not decide to waste your mind and your talents on some ignorant fellow who wants you for that face of yours and tries to convince you that your only value is in breeding his children and looking after his wants. You could make a difference, Julianna. I know you could.”
She hesitated, as if deciding something, then said, “That brings us to another matter I have been wishing to discuss with you. This seems like as good a time as will come along.”
Grandmother Skeffington got up and walked over to the fireplace on the opposite wall of the cozy little room, her movements slowed by advancing age, her silver hair twisted into a severe coil at her neck. Bracing one hand on the evergreen boughs she’d arranged on the mantel, she bent to stir the coals. “As you know, I have already outlived a husband and one son. I have lived long, and I am fully prepared to end my days on this earth whenever my time arrives. Although I shall not always be here for you, I hope to compensate for that by leaving something behind for you . . . an inheritance that is for you to spend. It isn’t much.”
The subject of her grandmother’s death had never come up before, and the mere thought of losing her made Julianna’s chest tighten with dread.
“As I said, it isn’t much, but if you are extremely thrifty, it could allow you to live very modestly in London for quite a few years while you experience more of life and hone your writing skills.”
In her heart Julianna argued frantically that life without her grandmother was unthinkable, that she had no wish to live in London, and that their shared dream that she might actually become a noteworthy writer was only an impossible fantasy. Afraid that such an emotional outburst would offend the woman, Julianna remained seated upon the footstool in front of her grandmother’s favorite overstuffed chair, inwardly a mass of raw emotions, outwardly controlled, calmly perusing a book. “Have you nothing to say to my plans for you, child? I rather expected to see you leap with joy. Some small display of enthusiasm would be appropriate here in return for the economies I’ve practiced in order to leave you this tiny legacy.”
She was prodding, Julianna knew, trying to provoke her into either a witty rejoinder or an unemotional discussion. Julianna was very good at both after years of practice, but she was as incapable of discussing her grandmother’s death with humor as she was with impersonal calm. Moreover, she was vaguely wounded that her grandmother could talk of leaving her forever without any indication of regret.
“I must say you don’t seem very grateful.”
Julianna’s head snapped up, her violet eyes sparkling with angry tears. “I am not at all grateful, Grandmama, nor do I wish to discuss this now. It is nearly Christmas, a time for joyous—”
“Death is a fact of life,” her grandmother stated flatly. “It is pointless to cower from it.”
“But you are my whole life,” Julianna burst out because she couldn’t stop herself. “And—and I don’t like it in the least that you—you can speak to me of money as if it’s a recompense for your death.”
“You think me cold and callous?”
“Yes, I do!”
It was their first harsh argument, and Julianna hated it.
Her grandmother regarded her in serene silence before asking, “Do you know what I shall miss when I leave this earth?”
“I shall miss one thing and one thing alone.” When Julianna didn’t ask for an explanation, her grandmother provided it: “I shall miss you.”
The answer was in such opposition to her unemotional voice and bland features that Julianna stared dubiously at her.
“I shall miss your humor and your confidences and your amazing gift for seeing the logic behind both sides of any issue. I shall particularly miss reading what you’ve written each day. You have been the only bright spot in my existence.”
As she finished, she walked forward and laid her cool hand on Julianna’s cheek, brushing away the tears trickling from the corner of her eye. “We are kindred spirits, you and I. If you had been born much sooner, we would have been bosom friends.”
“We are friends,” Julianna whispered fiercely as she placed her own hand over her grandmother’s and rubbed her cheek against it. “We will be friends forever and always! When you are . . . gone, I shall still confide in you and write for you—shall write letters to you as if you had merely moved away!”
“What a diverting idea,” her grandmother teased. “And will you also post them to me?”
“Of course not, but you’ll know what I have written nonetheless.”
“What makes you think that?” she asked, genuinely puzzled.
“Because I heard you tell the vicar very bluntly that it is illogical to assume that the Almighty intends to let us lie around dozing until Judgment Day. You said that, having repeatedly warned us that we shall reap what we sow, God is more likely to insist we observe what we have sown from a much wider viewpoint.”
“I do not think it wise, my dear, for you to put more credence in my theological notions than in those of the good vicar. I shouldn’t like for you to waste your talent writing to me after I’m gone, instead of writing something for the living to read.”
“I shan’t be wasting my time,” Julianna said with a confident smile, one of their familiar debates over nonsense lifting her spirits. “If I write you letters, I have every faith you will contrive a way to read them wherever you may be.”
“Because you credit me with mystical powers?”
“No,” Julianna teased, “because you cannot resist correcting my spelling!”
“Impertinent baggage,” her grandmother huffed, but she smiled widely and her fingers spread, linking with Julianna’s for a tight, affectionate squeeze.
The following year, on the eve of Christmas, her grandmother died, holding Julianna’s hand one last time. “I’ll write to you, Grandmama.” Julianna wept as her grandmother’s eyes closed forever. “Don’t forget to watch for my letters. Don’t forget.”
Once and Always
Victoria Seaton, a blithe and fiercely independent orphan, leaves her home in America to travel across the vast Atlantic to claim her long-lost inheritance: a labyrinthine English estate named Wakefield. There she encounters her distant cousin, the notorious, proud, and mysterious Lord Jason Fielding. Drawn to his magnetic charisma, Victoria can’t help but suspect that like her, he harbors a dark and painful past. Neither Victoria or Jason are able to resist one another’s charm but, in a moment of blinding anguish, Victoria discovers the shocking truth that lays at the heart of their love—a love she had dreamed would triumph.
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“VICTORIA, ARE YOU ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN your mother never mentioned either the Duke of Atherton or the Duchess of Claremont to you?”
Victoria tore her thoughts from aching memories of her parents’ funeral and looked at the elderly, white-haired physician seated across from her at the kitchen table. As her father’s oldest friend, Dr. Morrison had taken on the responsibility of seeing the girls settled, as well as of trying to care for Dr. Seaton’s patients until the new physician arrived. “All Dorothy or I ever knew was that Mama was estranged from her family in England. She never spoke of them.”
“Is it possible your father had relatives in Ireland?”
“Papa grew up in an orphans’ home there. He had no relatives.” She stood up restlessly. “May I fix you some coffee, Dr. Morrison?”
“Stop fussing over me and go sit outside in the sunshine with Dorothy,” Dr. Morrison chided gently. “You’re pale as a ghost.”
“Is there anything you need, before I go?” Victoria persisted.
“I need to be a few years younger,” he replied with a grim smile as he sharpened a quill. “I’m too old to carry the burden of your father’s patients. I belong back in Philadelphia with a hot brick beneath my feet and a good book on my lap. How I’m to carry on here for four more months until the new physician arrives, I can’t imagine.”
“I’m sorry,” Victoria said sincerely. “I know it’s been terrible for you.”
“It’s been a great deal worse for you and Dorothy,” the kindly old doctor said. “Now, run along outside and get some of this fine winter sunshine. It’s rare to see a day this warm in January. While you sit in the sun, I’ll write these letters to your relatives.”
A week had passed since Dr. Morrison had come to visit the Seatons, only to be summoned to the scene of the accident where the carriage bearing Patrick Seaton and his wife had plunged down a riverbank, overturning. Patrick Seaton had been killed instantly. Katherine had regained consciousness only long enough to try to answer Dr. Morrison’s desperate inquiry about her relatives in England. In a feeble whisper, she had said, “. . . Grandmother . . . Duchess of Claremont.”
And then, just before she died, she had whispered another name—Charles. Frantically Dr. Morrison had begged her for his complete name, and Katherine’s dazed eyes had opened briefly. “Fielding,” she had breathed. “. . . Duke . . . of . . . Atherton.”
“Is he a relative?” he demanded urgently.
After a long pause, she’d nodded feebly. “Cousin—”
To Dr. Morrison now fell the difficult task of locating and contacting these heretofore unknown relatives to inquire whether either of them would be willing to offer Victoria and Dorothy a home—a task that was made even more difficult because, as far as Dr. Morrison could ascertain, neither the Duke of Atherton nor the Duchess of Claremont had any idea the girls existed.
With a determined look upon his brow, Dr. Morrison dipped the quill in the inkwell, wrote the date at the top of the first letter, and hesitated, his brow furrowed in thought. “How does one properly address a duchess?” he asked the empty room. After considerable contemplation, he arrived at a decision and began writing.
Dear Madam Duchess,
It is my unpleasant task to advise you of the tragic death of your granddaughter, Katherine Seaton, and to further advise you that Mrs. Seaton’s two daughters, Victoria and Dorothy, are now temporarily in my care. However, I am an old man, and a bachelor besides. Therefore, Madam Duchess, I cannot properly continue to care for two orphaned young ladies.
Before she died, Mrs. Seaton mentioned only two names—yours and that of Charles Fielding. I am, therefore, writing to you and to Sir Fielding in the hope that one or both of you will welcome Mrs. Seaton’s daughters into your home. I must tell you that the girls have nowhere else to go. They are sadly short of funds and in dire need of a suitable home.
Dr. Morrison leaned back in his chair and scrutinized the letter while a frown of concern slowly formed on his forehead. If the duchess was unaware of the girls’ existence, he could already foresee the old lady’s possible unwillingness to house them without first knowing something about them. Trying to think how best to describe them, he turned his head and gazed out the window at the girls.
Dorothy was seated upon the swing, her slim shoulders drooping with despair. Victoria was determinedly applying herself to her sketching in an effort to hold her grief at bay.
Dr. Morrison decided to describe Dorothy first, for she was the easiest.
Dorothy is a pretty girl, with light yellow hair and blue eyes. She is sweet-dispositioned, well-mannered, and charming. At seventeen, she is nearly of an age to marry, but has shown no particular inclination to settle her affections on any one young gentleman in the district. . . .
Dr. Morrison paused and thoughtfully stroked his chin. In truth, many young gentlemen in the district were utterly smitten with Dorothy. And who could blame them? She was pretty and gay and sweet. She was angelic, Dr. Morrison decided, pleased that he had hit upon exactly the right word to describe her.
But when he turned his attention to Victoria, his bushy white brows drew together in bafflement, for although Victoria was his personal favorite, she was far harder to describe. Her hair was not golden like Dorothy’s, nor was it truly red; rather, it was a vivid combination of both. Dorothy was a pretty thing, a charming, demure young lady who turned all the local boys’ heads. She was perfect material for a wife: sweet, gentle, soft-spoken, and biddable. In short, she was the sort of female who would never contradict or disobey her husband.
Victoria, on the other hand, had spent a great deal of time with her father and, at eighteen, she possessed a lively wit, an active mind, and a startling tendency to think for herself.
Dorothy would think as her husband told her to think and do what he told her to do, but Victoria would think for herself and very likely do as she thought best.
Dorothy was angelic, Dr. Morrison decided, but Victoria was . . . not.
Squinting through his spectacles at Victoria, who was resolutely sketching yet another picture of the vine-covered garden wall, he stared at her patrician profile, trying to think of the words to describe her. Brave, he decided, knowing she was sketching because she was trying to stay busy rather than dwell on her grief. And compassionate, he thought, recalling her efforts to console and cheer her father’s sick patients.
Dr. Morrison shook his head in frustration. As an old man, he enjoyed her intelligence and her sense of humor; he admired her courage, spirit, and compassion. But if he emphasized those qualities to her English relatives, they would surely envision her as an independent, bookish, unmarriageable female whom they would have on their hands forever. There was still the possibility that when Andrew Bainbridge returned from Europe in several months, he would formally request Victoria’s hand, but Dr. Morrison wasn’t certain. Victoria’s father and Andrew’s mother had agreed that, before the young couple became betrothed, their feelings for one another should be tested during this six-month period while Andrew took an abbreviated version of the Grand Tour.
Victoria’s affection for Andrew had remained strong and constant, Dr. Morrison knew, but Andrew’s feelings for her were apparently wavering. According to what Mrs. Bainbridge had confided to Dr. Morrison yesterday, Andrew seemed to be developing a strong attraction to his second cousin, whose family he was currently visiting in Switzerland.
Dr. Morrison sighed unhappily as he continued to gaze at the two girls, who were dressed in plain black gowns, one with shining golden hair, the other’s gleaming pale copper. Despite the somberness of their attire, they made a very fetching picture, he thought fondly. A picture! Seized by inspiration, Dr. Morrison decided to solve the whole problem of describing the girls to their English relatives by simply enclosing a miniature of them in each letter.
That decision made, he finished his first letter by asking the duchess to confer with the Duke of Atherton, who was receiving an identical letter, and to advise what they wished him to do in the matter of the girls’ care. Dr. Morrison wrote the same letter to the Duke of Atherton; then he composed a short note to his solicitor in New York, instructing that worthy gentleman to have a reliable person in London locate the duke and the duchess and deliver the letters to them. With a brief prayer that either the duke or the duchess would reimburse him for his expenditures, Dr. Morrison stood up and stretched.
Outside in the garden, Dorothy nudged the ground with the toe of her slipper, sending the swing twisting listlessly from side to side. “I still cannot quite believe it,” she said, her soft voice filled with a mixture of despair and excitement. “Mama was the granddaughter of a duchess! What does that make us, Tory? Do we have titles?”
Victoria sent her a wry glance. “Yes,” she said. “We are ‘Poor Relations.’ ”
It was the truth, for although Patrick Seaton had been loved and valued by the grateful country folk whose ills he had treated for many years, his patients had rarely been able to pay him with coin, and he had never pressed them to do so. They repaid him instead with whatever goods and services they were able to provide—with livestock, fish, and fowl for his table, with repairs to his carriage and to his home, with freshly baked loaves of bread and baskets of juicy, handpicked berries. As a result, the Seaton family had never wanted for food, but money was ever in short supply, as evidenced by the oft-mended, hand-dyed gowns Dorothy and Victoria were both wearing. Even the house they lived in had been provided by the villagers, just as they provided one for Reverend Milby, the minister. The houses were loaned to the occupants in return for their medical and pastoral services.
Dorothy ignored Victoria’s sensible summation of their status and continued dreamily, “Our cousin is a duke, and our great-grandmother is a duchess! I still cannot quite believe it, can you?”
“I always thought Mama was something of a mystery,” Victoria replied, blinking back the tears of loneliness and despair that misted her blue eyes. “Now the mystery is solved.”
Victoria hesitated, her sketching pencil hovering above her tablet. “I only meant that Mama was different from every other female I have ever known.”
“I suppose she was,” Dorothy agreed, and lapsed into silence.
Victoria stared at the sketch that lay in her lap while the delicate lines and curves of the meandering roses she’d been drawing from her memory of last summer blurred before her moist eyes. The mystery was solved. Now she understood a great many things that had puzzled and troubled her. Now she understood why her mother had never mingled comfortably with the other women of the village, why she had always spoken in the cultured tones of an English gentlewoman and stubbornly insisted that, at least in her presence, Victoria and Dorothy do the same. Her heritage explained her mother’s insistence that they learn to read and speak French in addition to English. It explained her fastidiousness. It partially explained the strange, haunted expression that crossed her features on those rare occasions when she mentioned England.
Perhaps it even explained her strange reserve with her own husband, whom she treated with gentle courtesy, but nothing more. Yet she had, on the surface, been an exemplary wife. She had never scolded her husband, never complained about her shabby-genteel existence, and never quarreled with him. Victoria had long ago forgiven her mother for not loving her father. Now that she realized her mother must have been reared in incredible luxury, she was also inclined to admire her uncomplaining fortitude.
Dr. Morrison walked into the garden and beamed an encouraging smile at both girls. “I’ve finished my letters and I shall send them off tomorrow. With luck, we should have your relatives’ replies in three months’ time, perhaps less.” He smiled at both girls, pleased at the part he was trying to play in reuniting them with their noble English relatives.
“What do you think they’ll do when they receive your letters, Dr. Morrison?” Dorothy asked.
Dr. Morrison patted her head and squinted into the sunshine, drawing upon his imagination. “They’ll be surprised, I suppose, but they won’t let it show—the English upper classes don’t like to display emotion, I’m told, and they’re sticklers for formality. Once they’ve read the letters, they’ll probably send polite notes to each other, and then one of them will call upon the other to discuss your futures. A butler will carry in tea—”
He smiled as he envisioned the delightful scenario in all its detail. In his mind he pictured two genteel English aristocrats—wealthy, kindly people—who would meet in an elegant drawing room to partake of tea from a silver tray before they discussed the future of their heretofore unknown—but cherished—young relatives. Since the Duke of Atherton and the Duchess of Claremont were distantly related through Katherine they would, of course, be friends, allies. . . .
“HER GRACE, THE DOWAGER DUCHESS of Claremont,” the butler intoned majestically from the doorway of the drawing room where Charles Fielding, Duke of Atherton, was seated. The butler stepped aside and an imposing old woman marched in, trailed by her harassed-looking solicitor. Charles Fielding looked at her, his piercing hazel eyes alive with hatred.
“Don’t bother to rise, Atherton,” the duchess snapped sarcastically, glaring at him when he remained deliberately and insolently seated.
Perfectly still, he continued to regard her in icy silence. In his mid fifties, Charles Fielding was still an attractive man, with thick, silver-streaked hair and hazel eyes, but illness had taken its toll on him. He was too thin for his tall frame and his face was deeply etched with lines of strain and fatigue.
Unable to provoke a response from him, the duchess rounded on the butler. “This room is too hot!” she snapped, rapping her jeweled-handled cane upon the floor. “Draw the draperies and let in some air.”
“Leave them!” Charles barked, his voice seething with the loathing that the mere sight of her evoked in him.
The duchess turned a withering look in his direction. “I have not come here to suffocate,” she stated ominously.
“Then get out.”
Her thin body stiffened into a rigid line of furious resentment. “I have not come here to suffocate,” she repeated through tightly clenched teeth. “I have come here to inform you of my decision regarding Katherine’s girls.”
“Do it,” Charles snapped, “and then get out!”
Her eyes narrowed to furious slits and the air seemed to crackle with her hostility, but instead of leaving, she slowly lowered herself into a chair. Despite her advanced years, the duchess sat as regally erect as a queen, a purple turban perched upon her white head in place of a crown, a cane in her hand instead of a scepter.
Charles watched her with wary surprise, for he had been certain she’d insisted upon this meeting only so she could have the satisfaction of telling him to his face that the disposition of Katherine’s children was none of his business. He had not expected her to sit down as if she had something more to say.
“You have seen the girls’ miniature,” she stated.
His gaze dropped to the miniature in his hand and his long fingers tightened convulsively, protectively around it. Naked pain darkened his eyes as he stared at Victoria. She was the image of her mother—the image of his beautiful, beloved Katherine.
“Victoria is the image of her mother,” her grace snapped suddenly.
Charles lifted his gaze to hers and his face instantly hardened. “I am aware of that.”
“Good. Then you will understand why I will not have that girl in my house. I’ll take the other one.” Standing up as if her business had been concluded, she glanced at her solicitor. “See that Dr. Morrison receives a bank draft to cover his expenses, and another draft to cover ship passage for the younger girl.”
“Yes, your grace,” her solicitor said, bowing. “Will there be anything more?”
“There will be a great deal more,” she snapped, her voice strained and tight. “I shall have to launch the girl into society, I shall have to provide a dowry for her. I shall have to find her a husband, I—”
“What about Victoria?” Charles interrupted fiercely. “What do you plan to do about the older girl?”
The duchess glowered at him. “I’ve already told you—that one reminds me of her mother, and I won’t have her in my house. If you want her, you can take her. You wanted her mother rather badly, as I recall. And Katherine obviously wanted you—even when she was dying, she still spoke your name. You can shelter Katherine’s image instead. It will serve you right to have to look at the chit.”
Charles’s mind was still reeling with joyous disbelief when the old duchess added arrogantly, “Marry her off to anyone you please—anyone except that nephew of yours. Twenty-two years ago, I wouldn’t countenance an alliance between your family and mine, and I still forbid it. I—” As if something had just occurred to her, she broke off abruptly, her eyes beginning to gleam with malignant triumph. “I shall marry Dorothy to Winston’s son!” she announced gleefully. “I wanted Katherine to marry the father, and she refused because of you. I’ll marry Dorothy to the son—I’ll have that alliance with the Winstons after all!” A slow, spiteful smile spread across her wrinkled face, and she laughed at Charles’s pinched expression. “After all these years, I’m still going to pull off the most splendid match in a decade!” With that, she swept out of the room, followed by her solicitor.
Charles stared after her, his emotions veering between bitterness, hatred, and joy. That vicious old bitch had just inadvertently given him the one thing he wanted more than life itself—she had given him Victoria, Katherine’s child. Katherine’s image. A happiness that was almost past bearing surged through Charles, followed almost immediately by boiling wrath. That devious, heartless, conniving old woman was going to have an alliance with the Winstons—exactly as she had always wanted. She had been willing to sacrifice Katherine’s happiness to have that meaningless alliance, and now she was going to succeed.
The rage Charles felt because she, too, was gaining what she had always wanted nearly eclipsed his own joy at getting Victoria. And then suddenly a thought occurred to him. With narrowed eyes, he contemplated it, mulled it over, studied it. And slowly he began to smile. “Dobson,” he said eagerly to his butler. “Bring me quill and parchment. I want to write out a betrothal announcement. See that it is delivered to the Times at once.”
“Yes, your grace.”
Charles looked up at the old servant, his eyes burning with feverish jubilation. “She was wrong, Dobson,” he announced. “That old bitch was wrong!”
“Wrong, your grace?”
“Yes, wrong! She’s not going to pull off the most splendid match in a decade. I am!”
It was a ritual. Each morning at approximately 9 o’clock, Northrup the butler opened the massive front door of the Marquess of Wakefield’s palatial country mansion and was handed a copy of the Times by a footman who had brought it from London.
After closing the door, Northrup crossed the marble foyer and handed the newspaper to another footman stationed at the bottom of the grand staircase. “His lordship’s copy of the Times,” he intoned.
This footman carried the paper down the hall and into the dining room where Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield, was customarily finishing his morning meal and reading his mail. “Your copy of the Times, my lord,” the footman murmured diffidently as he placed it beside the marquess’s coffee cup and then removed his plate. Wordlessly, the marquess picked up the paper and opened it.
All of this was performed with the perfectly orchestrated and faultlessly executed precision of a minuet, for Lord Fielding was an exacting master who demanded that his estates and townhouses run as smoothly as well-oiled machines.
His servants were in awe of him, regarding him as a cold, frighteningly unapproachable deity whom they strove desperately to please.
The eager London beauties whom Jason took to balls, operas, plays—and bed—felt much the same way about him, for he treated most of them with little more genuine warmth than he did his servants. Nevertheless, the ladies eyed him with unveiled longing wherever he went, for despite his cynical attitude, there was an unmistakable aura of virility about Jason that made feminine hearts flutter.
His thick hair was coal black, his piercing eyes the green of India jade, his lips firm and sensually molded. Tough, rugged strength was carved into every feature of his sun-bronzed face, from his straight dark brows to the arrogant jut of his chin and jaw. Even his physical build was overpoweringly masculine, for he was six feet two inches tall, with wide shoulders, narrow hips, and firmly muscled legs and thighs. Whether he was riding a horse or dancing at a ball, Jason Fielding stood out among his fellow men like a magnificent jungle cat surrounded by harmless, domesticated kittens.
As Lady Wilson-Smyth once laughingly remarked, Jason Fielding was as dangerously attractive as sin—and undoubtedly just as wicked.
That opinion was shared by many, for anyone who looked into those cynical green eyes of his could tell there wasn’t an innocent or naive fiber left in his lithe, muscular body. Despite that—or more accurately, because of it—the ladies were drawn to him like pretty moths to a scorching flame, eager to experience the heat of his ardor or bask in the dazzling warmth of one of his rare, lazy smiles. Sophisticated, married flirts schemed to occupy his bed; younger ladies of marriageable age dreamed of being the one to thaw his icy heart and bring him to his knees.
Some of the more sensible members of the ton remarked that Lord Fielding had good reason to be cynical where women were concerned. Everyone knew that his wife’s behavior when she first came to London four years ago had been scandalous. From the moment she arrived in town, the beautiful Marchioness of Wakefield had indulged in one widely publicized love affair after another. She had repeatedly cuckolded her husband; everyone knew it—including Jason Fielding, who apparently didn’t care. . . .
The footman paused beside Lord Fielding’s chair, an ornate sterling coffeepot in his hand. “Would you care for more coffee, my lord?”
His lordship shook his head and turned to the next page of the Times. The footman bowed and retreated. He had not expected Lord Fielding to answer him aloud, for the master rarely deigned to speak to any of his servants. He did not know most of their names, or anything about them, nor did he care. But at least he was not given to ranting and raving, as many of the nobility were. When displeased, the Marquess merely turned the chilling blast of his green gaze on the offender and froze him. Never, not even under the most extreme provocation, did Lord Fielding raise his voice.
Which was why the amazed footman nearly dropped his silver coffeepot when Jason Fielding slammed his hand down on the table with a crash that made the dishes dance and thundered, “That son of a bitch!” Leaping to his feet, he stared at the open newspaper, his face a mask of fury and disbelief. “That conniving, scheming—He’s the only one who would dare!” With a murderous glance at the thunder-struck footman, he stalked out of the room, grabbed his cloak from his butler, stormed out of the house, and headed straight for the stables.
Northrup closed the front door behind him and rushed down the hall, his black coattails flapping. “What happened to his lordship?” he demanded, bursting into the dining room.
The footman was standing beside Lord Fielding’s recently vacated chair, staring raptly at the open newspaper, the forgotten coffeepot still suspended from one hand. “I think it was somethin ’ he read in the Times,” he breathed, pointing to the announcement of the engagement of Jason Fielding, Marquess of Wakefield, to Miss Victoria Seaton. “I didn’t know his lordship was plannin’ to wed,” the footman added.
“One wonders if his lordship knew it either,” Northrup mused, gaping in astonishment at the newspaper. Suddenly realizing that he had so forgotten himself as to gossip with an underling, Northrup swept the paper from the table and closed it smartly. “Lord Fielding’s affairs are no concern of yours, O’Malley. Remember that if you wish to stay on here.”
Two hours later, Jason’s carriage came to a bone-jarring stop in front of the Duke of Atherton’s London residence. A groom ran forward and Jason tossed the reins to him, bounded out of the carriage, and strode purposefully up the front steps to the house.
“Good day, my lord,” Dobson intoned as he opened the front door and stepped aside. “His grace is expecting you.”
“I’ll bet he damned well is!” Jason bit out scathingly. “Where is he?”
“In the drawing room, my lord.”
Jason stalked past him and down the hall, his long, quick strides eloquent of his turbulent wrath as he flung open the drawing room door and headed straight toward the dignified, gray-haired man seated before the fire. Without preamble, he snapped, “You, I presume, are responsible for that outrageous announcement in the Times?”
Charles boldly returned his stare. “I am.”
“Then you will have to issue another one to rescind it.”
“No,” Charles stated implacably. “The young woman is coming to England and you are going to marry her. Among other things, I want a grandson from you, and I want to hold him in my arms before I depart this world.”
“If you want a grandson,” Jason snarled, “all you have to do is locate some of your other by-blows. I’m sure you’ll discover they’ve sired you dozens of grandsons by now.”
Charles flinched at that, but his voice merely lowered ominously. “I want a legitimate grandson to present to the world as my heir.”
“A legitimate grandson,” Jason repeated with freezing sarcasm. “You want me, your illegitimate son, to sire you a legitimate grandson. Tell me something: with everyone else believing I’m your nephew, how do you intend to claim my son as your grandchild?”
“I would claim him as my great-nephew, but I would know he’s my grandson, and that’s all that matters.” Undaunted by his son’s soaring fury, Charles finished implacably, “I want an heir from you, Jason.”
A pulse drummed in Jason’s temple as he fought to control his wrath. Bending low, he braced his hands on the arms of Charles’s chair, his face only inches away from the older man’s. Very slowly and very distinctly, he enunciated, “I have told you before, and I’m telling you for the last time, that I will never remarry. Do you understand me? / will never remarry!”
“Why?” Charles snapped. “You aren’t entirely a woman-hater. It’s common knowledge that you’ve had mistresses and that you treat them well. In fact, they all seem to tumble into love with you. The ladies obviously like being in your bed, and you obviously like having them there—”
“Shut up!” Jason exploded.
A spasm of pain contorted Charles’s face and he raised his hand to his chest, his long fingers clutching his shirt. Then he carefully returned his hand to his lap.
Jason’s eyes narrowed, but despite his suspicion that Charles was merely feigning the pain, he forced himself to remain silent as his father continued. “The young lady I’ve chosen to be your wife should arrive here in about three months. I will have a carriage waiting at the dock so that she may proceed directly to Wakefield Park. For the sake of propriety, I will join the two of you there and remain with you until the nuptials have been performed. I knew her mother long ago, and I’ve seen a likeness of Victoria—you won’t be disappointed.” He held out the miniature. “Come now, Jason,” he said, his voice turning soft, persuasive, “aren’t you the slightest bit curious about her?”
Charles’s attempt at cajolery hardened Jason’s features into a mask of granite. “You’re wasting your time. I won’t do it.”
“You’ll do it,” Charles promised, resorting to threats in his desperation. “Because if you don’t, I’ll disinherit you. You’ve already spent half a million pounds of your money restoring my estates, estates that will never belong to you unless you marry Victoria Seaton.”
Jason reacted to the threat with withering contempt. “Your precious estates can burn to the ground for all I care. My son is dead—I no longer have any use for legacies.”
Charles saw the pain that flashed across Jason’s eyes at the mention of his little boy, and his tone softened with shared sorrow. “I’ll admit that I acted precipitously in announcing your betrothal, Jason, but I had my reasons. Perhaps I can’t force you to marry Victoria, but at least don’t set your mind against her. I promise you that you’ll find no fault with her. Here, I have a miniature of her and you can see for yourself how beautiful . . . Charles’s voice trailed off as Jason turned on his heel and stalked from the room, slamming the door behind him with a deafening crash.
Charles glowered at the closed door. “You’ll marry her, Jason,” he warned his absent son. “You’ll do it if I have to hold a gun to your head.”
He glanced up a few minutes later as Dobson came in carrying a silver tray laden with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. “I took the liberty of selecting something appropriate for the occasion,” the old servant confided happily, putting the tray on the table near Charles.
“In that case you should have selected hemlock,” Charles said wryly. “Jason has already left.”
The butler’s face fell. “Already left? But I didn’t have an opportunity to felicitate his lordship on his forthcoming nuptials.”
“Which is fortunate indeed,” Charles said with a grim chuckle. “I fear he’d have loosened your teeth.”
When the butler left, Charles picked up the bottle of champagne, opened it, and poured some into a glass. With a determined smile, he lifted his glass in a solitary toast: “To your forthcoming marriage, Jason.”
A rootless foster child, Julie Mathison has blossomed under the love showered upon her by her adoptive family. Now a lovely and vivacious young woman, she is a respected teacher in her small Texas town and is determined to give back all the kindness she has received, believing that nothing can ever shatter the perfect life she has fashioned. Zachary Benedict is an actor whose Academy Award-winning career was shattered when he was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. After the tall, ruggedly handsome Zack escapes from a Texas prison, he abducts Julie and forces her to drive him to his Colorado mountain hideout. She’s outraged, cautious, and unable to ignore the instincts that whispers of his innocence. He’s cynical, wary, and increasingly attracted to her. Desire is about to capture them both in its fierce embrace but the journey to trust, true commitment, and proving Zack’s innocence is just beginning.“A mixture of virtue and passion that is almost—ahem—perfect” (Kirkus Reviews) this is a captivating tale that fans will adore.
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…Chapter 16 – 20
Snow clung to Zack’s hair and swirled around his feet as he bent his head into the wind. Several trucks roared past him, the drivers ignoring his upraised thumb, and he fought down a panicky premonition of impending doom. Traffic was heavy on the highway, but everybody was evidently in a hurry to reach their destination before the storm struck, and they weren’t stopping for anything. Up ahead at the intersection was an old-fashioned gas station/cafe with two cars in the large parking lot—a blue Blazer and a brown station wagon. Carrying his duffel bags, he walked up the driveway and when he passed the cafe, he glanced carefully through the large front window at the occupants. There was a lone woman in one booth and a mother with two young children in the other. He swore under his breath because both cars belonged to women, and they weren’t likely to pick up hitchhikers. Without slowing his pace, Zack continued toward the end of the building, where their two cars were parked, wondering if the keys were in the ignitions. Even if they were, he knew it was insanity to steal one of those cars because he’d have to drive it right past the front window of the cafe in order to get out of the parking lot. If he did that, whoever owned the car would have the cops on the phone, describing him and his vehicle, before he got out of the damned parking lot. What’s more, from up here, they could see which way he went on the interstate. Maybe he could try to bribe one of the women in the cafe to give him a ride when she came out.
If money didn’t persuade her to agree, he had a gun that could convince her. Christ! There had to be a better way to get out of here than that.
In front of him and below, trucks roared down the interstate making mini blizzards with their wheels. He glanced at his watch. Nearly an hour had passed since Hadley had gone into his meeting. He didn’t dare try hitchhiking on that interstate any more. He’d be visible down there from the overpass for a mile. If Sandini had followed instructions, Hadley would be sounding an alert to the local cops in about five minutes. As if his thought had caused it to happen, a local sheriff’s car suddenly appeared on the overpass, slowed down, then turned into the cafe’s parking lot fifty yards away from Zack’s hiding spot, coming toward him.
Instinctively, Zack crouched down, pretending that he was inspecting the tire on the Blazer, and then inspiration struck—too late perhaps, but maybe not. Yanking the switchblade out of the duffel bag, he rammed it into the side of the Blazer’s tire, ducking to one side to avoid the explosion of air. From the corner of his eye, he watched the patrol car glide to a stop behind him. Instead of demanding to know what Zack was doing loitering around the cafe with duffel bags, the local sheriff rolled down his car window and drew the obvious conclusion. “Looks like you got a flat there—”
“Sure as hell,” Zack agreed, slapping the side of the tire, careful not to look over his shoulder. “My wife tried to warn me this tire had a leak—” The rest of his words were drowned out by the sudden frantic squawking of the police radio, and without another word, the cop wheeled the patrol car into a screeching turn, accelerated sharply, and roared out of the parking lot with its siren wailing. A moment later, Zack heard more sirens coming from every direction, and then he saw the patrol cars racing across the overpass, their warning lights revolving.
The authorities, Zack knew, were now aware that an escaped convict was on the loose. The hunt had begun.
Inside the cafe, Julie finished her coffee and groped in her purse for money to pay the check. Her visit with Mr. Vernon had gotten her more than she’d expected, including an invitation to spend more time with his wife and him that she hadn’t been able to refuse. She had a five-hour drive in front of her, longer with all this snow, but she had a fat check in her purse and enough excitement about that to make the miles fly past. She glanced at her watch, picked up the thermos she’d brought in from the car to be filled with coffee, smiled at the children eating with their mother in the adjoining booth, and walked up to the cash register to pay her bill.
As she emerged from the building, she stopped in surprise as a squad car suddenly made a frantic U-turn in front of her, turned on its siren, then shot out of the parking lot onto the highway, its rear end fishtailing in the thin blanket of snow. Distracted by that, she didn’t notice the dark-haired man squatting beside the rear wheel of her car on the driver’s side until she almost stumbled over him. He stood up abruptly, towering over her from a height of about 6’2”, and she took a startled, cautious step backward, her voice shaky with alarm and suspicion. “What are you doing there?” she demanded, frowning at her own image as it was reflected back at her from the silvery lenses of his aviator sunglasses.
Zack actually managed a semblance of a smile because his mind had finally started working, and he now knew exactly how he was going to get her to offer him a ride. Imagination and the ability to improvise had been two of his biggest assets as a director. Nodding toward her rear tire, which was very obviously flat, he said, “I’m planning to change your tire for you if you have a jack.”
Julie’s breath came out in a rush of chagrin. “I’m sorry for being so rude, but you startled me. I was watching that squad car tearing out of here.”
“That was Joe Loomis, a local constable,” Zack improvised smoothly, deliberately making it sound as if the cop was a friend of his. “Joe got another call and had to leave, or he’d have given me a hand with your tire.”
Julie’s fears were completely allayed, and she smiled at him. “This is very kind of you,” she said, opening the tailgate of the Blazer and looking for a jack. “This is my brother’s car. The jack is somewhere in here, but I’m not sure where.”
“There,” Zack said, quickly locating the jack and taking it out. “This will only take a few minutes,” he added. He was in a hurry, but no longer fighting down panic. The woman already thought he was friendly with the local sheriff, so she’d naturally think he was trustworthy, and after he changed her tire, she’d owe him a ride. Once they were on the road, the police wouldn’t give them a second glance because they’d be looking for a man who was traveling alone. For now, if anyone noticed him, he would appear to be an ordinary husband changing a tire while his wife looked on. “Where are you headed?” he asked her, using the jack.
“East toward Dallas for a long way and then south,” Julie said, admiring his easy skill with the heavy vehicle. He had an unusually nice voice, uncommonly deep and smooth, and a strong, square jawline. His hair was dark brown and very thick, but poorly cut, and she wondered idly what he looked like without the concealing barrier of those reflective sunglasses. Very handsome, she decided, but it wasn’t his good looks that kept drawing her eyes back to his profile, it was something else, something illusive that she couldn’t pinpoint. Julie shrugged the feeling off, and cradling the thermos in her arm, she embarked on polite conversation. “Do you work around here?”
“Not any more. I was supposed to start a new job tomorrow, but I have to be there by seven in the morning or they’ll give it to someone else.” He finished jacking the car up and began loosening the lug bolts on the tire, then he nodded toward the nylon duffel bags that Julie hadn’t seen before because they had somehow gotten shoved under her car. “A friend of mine was supposed to pick me up here two hours ago and give me a ride part of the way,” he added, “but I guess something happened and he isn’t going to make it.”
“You’ve been waiting out here for two hours?” Julie exclaimed. “You must be frozen.”
He kept his face averted, apparently concentrating on his task, and Julie restrained the peculiar urge to try to bend down and get a longer, closer look at him. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“I’d love one.”
Rather than use up what was in the thermos, Julie headed back into the cafe. “I’ll get it for you. How do you drink it?”
“Black,” Zack said, fighting to keep his frustration in check. She was heading southeast from Amarillo, whereas his destination was four hundred miles to the northwest. He stole a glance at his watch and began working even faster. Nearly an hour and a half had passed since he walked away from the warden’s car, and his risk of capture was increasing every moment he stayed around Amarillo. Regardless of which way the woman was going, he had to go with her. Putting some miles between himself and Amarillo was all that mattered now. He could ride with her for an hour and double back via a different route later.
The waitress needed to brew another pot of coffee, and by the time Julie returned to her car with the steaming paper cup, her rescuer had nearly finished changing the tire. Snow was already two inches deep on the ground and the biting wind was gathering force, whipping the sides of her coat open and making her eyes water. She saw him rub his bare hands together and thought of the new job that was waiting for him tomorrow—if he could get there. She knew jobs in Texas, especially blue-collar jobs, were scarce, and based on his lack of a car, he was probably badly in need of money. His jeans were new, she realized, noticing for the first time the telltale vertical crease down the front of the legs when he stood up. He had probably bought them in order to make a good impression on his future employer, she decided, and the thought of him doing that sent sympathy pouring through her.
Julie had never before offered a hitchhiker a ride; the risks were far too high, but she decided to do it this time, not only because he’d changed her tire or because he seemed nice, but also because of a simple pair of jeans—new jeans. New jeans, stiff and spotless, obviously purchased by a jobless man who was pinning all his hopes on a brighter future that wasn’t going to materialize unless someone gave him a ride at least partway to his destination so he could start to work.
“It looks like you’re finished,” Julie said, walking up to him. She held the cup of coffee out to him and he took it in hands that were red from the cold. There was an aloofness about him that made her hesitate to offer him money, but on the chance he’d prefer that to a ride, she offered anyway. “I’d like to pay you for changing the tire,” she began, and when he curtly shook his head, she added, “In that case, can I give you a ride? I’m going to take the interstate east.”
“I’d appreciate the ride,” Zack said, accepting her offer with a brief smile as he quickly reached down and pulled the nylon duffel bags out from under the car. “I’m heading east, too.”
When they got into the car, he told her his name was Alan Aldrich. Julie introduced herself as Julie Mathison, but to make certain he realized she was offering him a ride and nothing more, she carefully addressed him the next time she spoke as Mr. Aldrich. He picked up her cue and thereafter called her Miss Mathison.
Julie relaxed completely after that. The formality of Miss Mathison was completely reassuring, and so was his immediate acceptance of their situation. But when he remained absolutely silent and distant thereafter, she began to wish she hadn’t insisted on formality. She knew she wasn’t good at hiding her thoughts, therefore he’d probably realized at once that she was putting him in his place—a needless insult, considering that he’d shown her only gallant kindness by changing her tire.
THEY’D KEN ON THE ROAD for fully ten minutes before Zack felt the strangling tension in his chest begin to dissolve, and he drew a long, full breath—his first easy breath in hours. No, months. Years. Futility and helplessness had raged in him for so long that he felt almost lightheaded without them. A red car roared past them, cut across their lane to exit the interstate, lost traction, and spun around, missing the Blazer by inches—and then only because the young woman beside him handled the four-wheel-drive vehicle with surprising skill. Unfortunately, she also drove too damned fast, with the daredevil aggressiveness and fearless disregard of danger that was uniquely and typically Texan in his experience.
He was wishing there was some way he could suggest she let him drive, when she said in a quietly amused voice, “You can relax now. I’ve slowed down. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I wasn’t afraid,” he said with unintentional curtness.
She glanced sideways at him and smiled, a slow, knowing smile. “You’re holding onto the dashboard with both hands. That’s usually a dead giveaway.”
Two things struck Zack at once: He’d been in prison so long that lighthearted banter between adult members of the opposite sex had become completely awkward and alien to him and Julie Mathison had a breathtaking smile. Her smile glowed in her eyes and lit up her entire face, transforming what was merely a pretty face into one that was captivating. Since wondering about her was infinitely preferable to worrying about things he couldn’t yet control, Zack concentrated on her. She wore no makeup except for a little lipstick, and there was a freshness about her, a simplicity in the way she wore her thick, shiny brown hair, all of which had made him think she was in her late teens or very early twenties. On the other hand, she seemed too confident and self-assured for a twenty-year-old. “How old are you?” he asked bluntly, then winced at the brusque tactlessness of the question. Obviously if they didn’t catch him and send him back to prison, he was going to have to relearn some things he’d thought were bred into him—like rudimentary courtesy and conversational etiquette with women.
Instead of being irritated by the question, she flashed him another one of those mesmerizing smiles of hers and said in a voice laced with amusement, “I’m twenty-six.”
“My God!” Zack heard himself blurt, then he closed his eyes in disgusted disbelief at his gaucheness. “I mean,” he explained, “you don’t look that old.”
She seemed to sense his discomfiture, because she laughed softly and said, “Probably because I’ve only been twenty-six for a few weeks.”
Afraid to trust himself to say anything spontaneous, he watched the windshield wipers carve a steady half-moon in the snow on the windshield while he reviewed his next question for any trace of the tastelessness that had marred his previous words. Feeling this one was safe, he said, “What do you do?”
“I’m a schoolteacher.”
“You don’t look like one.”
Inexplicably, the laughter rekindled in her eyes and he saw her bite back a smile. Feeling completely disoriented and confused by her unpredictable reactions, he said a little curtly, “Did I just say something funny?”
Julie shook her head and said, “Not at all. That’s what most older people say.”
Zack wasn’t certain whether she’d referred to him as being “older” because he actually looked like an antique to her or if it was a joking retaliation for his ill-advised remarks about her age and appearance. He was puzzling over that when she asked what he did for a living, and he answered with the first occupation that seemed to suit what he’d already told her about himself.
“I’m in construction.”
“Really? My brother’s in construction work, too—a general contractor. What sort of construction work do you do?”
Zack barely knew which end of a hammer to use on a nail, and he sorely wished he’d picked a more obscure job or, better yet, had remained completely silent. “Walls,” he replied vaguely. “I do walls.”
She took her eyes from the road, which alarmed him, and regarded him intently, which alarmed him even more. “Walls?” she repeated sounding puzzled. Then she explained, “I meant, do you have a specialty?”
“Yes. Walls,” Zack said shortly, angry with himself for having begun such a conversation. “That’s my specialty. I put up walls.”
Julie realized she must have misunderstood him the first time. “Drywall!” she exclaimed ruefully. “Of course. You’re a drywall taper?”
“In that case, I’m surprised you have any trouble finding work. Good tapers are usually in great demand.”
“I’m not a good one,” Zack stated flatly, making it clear he wasn’t interested in continuing that conversation.
Julie choked back a startled laugh at his answer and his tone and concentrated on the road. He was a very unusual man. She couldn’t decide whether she liked him and was glad of his company . . . or not. And she couldn’t get over the uneasy feeling that he reminded her of someone. She wished she could see his face without those sunglasses so she could figure out who it was. The city vanished in the rearview mirror and the sky turned the heavy, ominous gray of an early dusk. Silence hung in the car and fat snow smacked her windshield, slowly gaining an edge on the car’s windshield wipers. They’d been on the road for about a half hour when Zack glanced in the outside rearview mirror on his side—and his blood froze. A half mile behind them, and closing fast, was a police car with its red and blue lights rotating furiously.
A second later, he heard the siren begin to wail.
The woman beside him heard it, too; she glanced in the rearview mirror and took her foot off of the gas pedal, slowing the Blazer and angling it onto the shoulder. Zack reached into his jacket pocket, his hand closing on the butt of the automatic, although he had no precise idea at that moment exactly what he meant to do if the cop tried to pull them over. The squad car was so close now, he could see there were not one, but two cops in the front seat. They pulled around the Blazer . . .
And kept going.
“There must be an accident up there,” she said as they crested the hill and came to a stop behind what looked like a five-mile traffic jam on the snowy interstate. A moment later two ambulances came tearing around them.
Zack’s rush of adrenalin subsided, leaving him shaken and limp. He felt as if he’d suddenly exceeded his capacity to react with violent emotion to anything whatsoever, which was probably due to his having been trying to execute for two days a carefully thought-out escape plan that should have been a guaranteed success by virtue of its sheer simplicity. And would have been if Hadley hadn’t postponed his trip to Amarillo. Everything else that had gone wrong was a result of that. He wasn’t sure even now if his contact was still in his Detroit hotel, waiting for Zack’s call before he rented a car to drive to Windsor. And until Zack was further away from Amarillo, he didn’t dare stop to find a telephone. Moreover, although Colorado was only 130 miles from Amarillo, with a tiny piece of Oklahoma’s Panhandle in between, he needed to be traveling northwest to get there. Instead, he was now heading southeast. Thinking his Colorado map might also contain a small piece of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, he decided to occupy his time productively by looking for a new route from here to there. Twisting around in his seat, he said, “I think I’ll have a look at a map.”
Julie naturally assumed he was checking his route to whatever Texas town his new job was located in. “Where are you heading?” she asked.
“Ellerton,” he replied, sending her a brief smile as he reached past the folded down back seat for his duffel bag near the tailgate. “I interviewed for the job in Amarillo, but I’ve never been out to the site,” he added so she wouldn’t ask questions about the place.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Ellerton.” Several minutes later, when he neatly refolded the map with its typewritten sheet on the top, Julie said, “Did you find Ellerton?”
“No.” To dissuade her from asking any further questions about the location of a nonexistent town, he flashed the typewritten sheet at her as he bent over the seat to put it back into his duffel. “I have detailed instructions right here, so I’ll find it.”
She nodded, but her gaze was on the exit up ahead. “I think I’ll get off the interstate here and take a side road to get past the accident.”
“Good idea.” The exit turned out to be a rural road that ran roughly parallel with the interstate then began angling off to the right. “This might not have been a good idea after all,” she said several minutes later when the narrow blacktop road began to wind steadily further away from the main highway.
Zack didn’t immediately reply. At the intersection up ahead, there was a deserted gas station and at the edge of the empty lot near the road was an open phone booth. “I’d like to make a phone call if you wouldn’t mind stopping. It won’t take more than a couple of minutes.”
“I don’t mind at all.” Julie pulled the Blazer to a stop underneath the street lamp near the phone booth and watched him walk across the headlight’s beams. Dusk had descended even earlier than usual, and the storm seemed to be outrunning them, dumping snow with surprising force, even for the blustery Texas Panhandle. Deciding to exchange her bulky coat for a cardigan sweater that would be more comfortable while she drove, she turned on the radio, hoping for a weather forecast, then she got out of the car, walked around to the tailgate, and opened it.
With the tailgate down she could hear the Amarillo announcer extolling the wisdom of buying a new car at Wilson Ford:
“Bob Wilson will meet any price, anywhere, anytime . . .” he enthused.
Listening for a mention of the weather, she took off her coat, pulled her tan mohair sweater out of her suitcase, and glanced at the map that was sticking out of his duffel bag. Since she didn’t have a map with her and wasn’t entirely sure what route would intersect with the interstate or if she was taking her passenger so far out of his way that he’d prefer to try to hitchhike with someone else, she decided to look at his map. She glanced at him in the phone booth, intending to hold up the map and ask his permission, but his shoulder was turned to her and he seemed to be speaking into the phone. Deciding he couldn’t possibly object, Julie folded the typewritten instructions back and opened the map he’d been studying. Spreading it across the tailgate, she held the ends down while the wind tried to whip them out of her hands. It took a full moment before she realized it wasn’t a map of Texas, but of Colorado. Puzzled, she glanced at the neatly typed instructions attached to the map: “Exactly 26.4 miles after you’ve passed the town of Stanton,” it said, “you’ll come to an unmarked crossroads. After that, begin looking for a narrow dirt road that branches off from the right and disappears into the trees about fifteen yards off the highway. The house is at the end of that road, about five miles from your turnoff, and is not visible from the highway or any side of the mountain.”
Julie’s lips parted in surprise. He was heading not for a job in some unknown Texas town, but for a house in Colorado?
On the radio, the announcer finished his commercial and said, “We’ll have an update on the storm coming our way, but first, here’s some late breaking news from the sheriffs department . . .”
Julie scarcely heard him, she was staring at the tall man using the phone, and she felt again that strange, slithering unease . . . of shadowy familiarity. He’d kept his shoulder turned to her, but he’d removed his sunglasses and was holding them in his hand now. As if he sensed she was staring at him, he twisted his head toward her. His eyes narrowed on the open map in her hands at the same instant Julie had her first clear, brightly lit view of his face without the concealing sunglasses.
“At approximately four o’clock this afternoon,” said the voice on the radio, “Prison officials discovered that convicted murderer Zachary Benedict escaped while in Amarillo—”
Momentarily paralyzed, Julie stared at that rugged, harsh face of his.
And she recognized it.
“No!” she cried as he dropped the phone and started running toward her. She bolted around her side of the car, yanking her door open and diving across the front seat, slapping at the lock on the passenger door a split second after he yanked the door open and grabbed for her wrist. With a strength born of pure terror, she managed to wrench her arm free and throw herself sideways through her open door. She hit the ground on her hip, scrambled to her feet, and started running, her feet sliding on the slippery snow, screaming for someone to help, knowing there was no one around to hear her. He caught her before she’d run five yards and yanked her around and back, trapping her against the side of the Blazer. “Hold still and shut up!”
“Take the car!” Julie cried. “Take it and leave me here.”
Ignoring her, he looked over his shoulder at the map of Colorado that had blown against a rusty trash container fifteen feet away when she dropped it. As if in slow motion, Julie watched him remove a shiny black object from his pocket and point it at her, while he backed toward the map and picked it up. A gun. God in heaven, he had a gun!
Her entire body began to tremble uncontrollably while she listened in a kind of hysterical disbelief to the newscaster’s voice belatedly confirming that fact as the news bulletin came to an end: “Benedict is believed to be armed and he is dangerous. If seen, his whereabouts should be reported immediately to the Amarillo police. Citizens should not attempt to approach him. A second escaped convict, Dominic Sandini, has been apprehended and taken into custody . . .”
Her knees threatened to buckle as she watched him coming toward her with a gun in one hand and the map and directions blowing from his other hand. Headlights crested the hill a quarter of a mile away, and he slid the gun back into his pocket to keep it out of sight, but he kept his hand there with it. “Get into the car,” he ordered.
Julie flashed a look over her left shoulder at the approaching pickup truck, frantically calculating the impossible odds of outrunning a bullet or even being able to attract the notice of the vehicle’s driver before Zachary Benedict shot her down. “Don’t try it,” he warned in a deadly voice.
Her heart thundering against her ribs, she watched the pickup turn left at the crossroads, but she didn’t disobey his order. Not here, not yet. Instinct warned her that this deserted stretch of road was too isolated to succeed in anything but getting killed.
“Get moving!” He took her arm and headed her to the open door on the driver’s side. Cloaked in the deepening dusk of a snowy winter evening, Julie Mathison walked unsteadily beside a convicted murderer who was holding a gun on her. She had the chilling sensation they were both living a scene from one of his own movies—the one where the hostage got killed.
HER HANDS SHOOK SO VIOLENTLY she had to grope for the keys in the ignition, and when she tried to start the car she nearly flooded the engine because even her legs were jerking with fright. He watched her unemotionally from the passenger seat. “Drive,” he snapped when the engine was started. Julie managed to turn the car around and guide it to the end of the parking lot, but she stopped at the main road, her mind so paralyzed with terror that she couldn’t think of the words to ask the obvious question.
“I said drive!”
“Which way?” she cried, hating the timid, pleading sound of her voice and loathing the animal beside her for making her experience this uncontrollable terror.
“Back the way we came.”
“You heard me.”
Rush hour traffic on the snowbound interstate near the city limits was moving at a crawl. Inside the car, the tension and silence were suffocating. Trying desperately to calm her rampaging nerves while she watched for some chance to escape, Julie lifted her shaking hand to change the radio station, fully expecting him to order her not to do it. When he said nothing, she turned the dial and heard a disk jockey’s voice exuberantly introducing the next country/ western song. A moment later the car was filled with the cheerful sounds of “All My Ex’s Live in Texas.”
While George Strait sang, Julie looked around at the occupants of the other cars, homeward bound after a long day. The man in the Explorer beside her was listening to the same radio station, his fingers tapping on the steering wheel, keeping time with the melody. He glanced her way, saw her looking at him, and nodded sociably, then he returned his gaze to the front. She knew he hadn’t seen anything abnormal. Everything looked perfectly normal to him, and if he were sitting where she was in the Blazer, it would have seemed perfectly normal. George Strait was singing, just like normal, and the expressway was crowded with motorists who were eager to get home, just like normal, and the snow was beautiful, just like normal. Everything was normal.
Except for one thing.
An escaped murderer was sitting in the seat beside her, holding a gun on her. It was the cozy normalcy of appearances juxtaposed against the demented reality of her situation that suddenly shoved Julie from paralysis to action. Traffic began to move, and her desperation gave birth to inspiration: They’d already passed several cars in ditches on both sides of the road. If she could fake a skid toward the ditch on the right and if she could throw the steering wheel to the left just as they went into the ditch, her door should remain usable while his might very well be trapped. It would work in her own car, but she wasn’t sure how the Blazer’s four-wheel drive would respond.
Beside her, Zack saw her gaze flick repeatedly to the side of the road. He sensed her mounting panic and knew that fear was going to drive her to try something desperate at any moment. “Relax!” he ordered.
Julie’s capacity for fear suddenly reached its limits and her emotions veered crazily from terror to fury. “Relax!” she exploded in a shaking voice, whipping her head around and glaring at him. “How in God’s name do you expect me to relax when you’re sitting there with a gun aimed at me? You tell me that!”
She had a point, Zack thought, and before she attempted something else that might actually get him captured, he decided that helping her to relax was in both of their best interests. “Just stay calm,” he instructed.
Julie stared straight ahead. Traffic was thinning out slightly, picking up some speed, and she began to calculate the feasibility of ramming the Blazer into the cars around her in an attempt to cause a major pileup. Such an action would cause the police to be summoned. That would be very good.
But she and the other innocent motorists involved in the collision would likely end up being shot by Zachary Benedict.
That would be very bad.
She was wondering if his gun had a full clip of nine shells in it and whether he would actually massacre helpless people, when he said in a calm, condescending voice that adults use on hysterical children, “Nothing is going to happen to you, Julie. If you do as you’re told, you’ll be fine. I need transportation to the state line, and you have a car, it’s as simple as that. Unless this car is so important to you that you want to risk your life to get me out of it, all you have to do is drive and not attract anyone’s attention. If a cop spots us, there’s going to be shooting, and you’ll be in the middle of it. So just be a good girl and relax.”
“If you want me to relax,” she retorted, goaded past all endurance by his patronizing tone and her strained nerves, “then you let me hold that gun, and I’ll show you relaxed!” She saw his brows snap together, but when he didn’t make a retaliatory move, she almost believed that he truly didn’t intend to harm her—so long as she didn’t jeopardize his escape. That possibility had the perverse effect of subduing her fears and simultaneously unleashing her frustrated fury at the torment he’d already put her through. “Furthermore,” she continued wrathfully, “don’t speak to me like I’m a child and don’t call me Julie! I was Ms. Mathison to you when I thought you were a nice, decent man who needed a job and who’d bought those d-damned jeans to impress your em-employer. If it hadn’t been for those damned j-jeans, I wouldn’t be in this mess—” To Julie’s horror, she felt the sudden sting of tears, so she shot him what she hoped was a disdainful look and then glared fixedly out the windshield.
Zack lifted his brows and regarded her in impassive silence, but inwardly he was stunned and reluctantly impressed by her unexpected show of courage. Turning his head, he looked at the traffic opening up ahead of them and at the thick, falling snow that had seemed like a curse a few hours ago but had actually diverted the attention of the police who had to deal with stranded motorists before they could begin to search for him. Last, he considered the stroke of luck that had put him not in the small rented car that had been towed away while he watched, but in a heavy four-wheel-drive vehicle that could easily navigate in the snow without getting bogged down on the less traveled route he intended to take up into the Colorado mountains. All of the delays and complications that had infuriated him for the last two days had turned out to be bonuses, he realized. He was going to make it to Colorado—thanks to Julie Mathison. Ms. Mathison, he corrected himself with an inner grin as he relaxed back in his seat. His flash of amusement vanished as quickly as it had come, because there was something about that newscast he’d heard earlier that was belatedly beginning to worry him: Dominic Sandini had been referred to as “another escaped convict” who “was apprehended and taken into custody.” If Sandini had stuck to the plan, then Warden Hadley should have been crowing to the press about the loyalty of one of his trustees rather than referring to Sandini as an apprehended convict.
Zack told himself that the information on the newscast had simply been jumbled, which accounted for the mistake about Sandini, and he forced himself to concentrate on the irate young teacher beside him instead. Although he desperately needed her and her car right now, she was also a serious complication to his plans. She probably knew he was heading for Colorado; moreover, she might have seen enough of that map and the directions with it to be able to tell the police the vicinity of Zack’s hideaway. If he left her at the Texas-Oklahoma border or a little further north at the Oklahoma-Colorado border, she’d be able to tell the authorities where he was going and exactly what kind of car he was driving as well. By now, his face was already plastered all over every television screen in the country, so he couldn’t possibly hope to rent or buy another car without being recognized. Furthermore, he wanted the police to believe he’d managed to fly to Detroit and cross into Canada.
Julie Mathison seemed to be both a godsend and a disastrous kink in his plans. Rather than curse fate for saddling him with her and the deadly threat to his freedom that she represented, he decided to give fate an opportunity to work out this problem and to try to help them both relax. Reaching behind him for the thermos of coffee, he thought back to her last remarks and came up with what seemed like a good conversational opening. In a carefully offhand, nonthreatening tone, he inquired sociably, “What’s wrong with my jeans?”
She gaped at him in blank confusion. “What?”
“You said something about my ‘damned jeans’ being the only reason you offered me a ride,” he explained, filling the top of the thermos with coffee. “What’s wrong with my jeans?”
Julie swallowed an hysterical surge of angry laughter. She was concerned about her life, and he was concerned about making a fashion statement!
“What,” he repeated determinedly, “did you mean?”
She was on the verge of an angry retort when two things occurred to her at once—that it was insane to deliberately antagonize an armed man and that if she could make him relax his guard by indulging in small talk with him, her chances to either escape or get out of this alive would be vastly improved. Trying to inject a polite, neutral tone into her voice, she drew a long breath and said without taking her eyes from the road, “I noticed your jeans were new.”
“What did that have to do with your deciding to offer me a ride?”
Bitterness at her own gullibility filled Julie’s voice. “Since you didn’t have a car and you implied you didn’t have a job, I assumed you must be having a hard time financially. Then you said you were hoping to get a new job, and I noticed the crease in your jeans . . .” Her voice trailed off when she realized with a disgusted jolt that instead of the nearly destitute man she’d thought him to be he was actually a mega millionaire movie star.
“Go on,” he prodded, his voice tinged with puzzlement.
“I leapt to the obvious conclusion, for heaven’s sake! I figured you’d bought new jeans so you could make a good impression on your employer, and I imagined how important that must have been to you while you were buying them in the store and how much hope you must have been feeling when you bought them, and I-I couldn’t bear the thought that your hope was going to be trashed if I didn’t offer you a ride. So even though I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker in my life, I couldn’t stand to see you miss having your chance.”
Zack was not only stunned, he was unwillingly touched. Kindness like hers, a kindness that also required some kind of personal risk or sacrifice, had been absent from his existence for all the years he’d spent in prison. And even before that, he realized. Shoving the unsettling thought aside, he said, “You envisioned all that from a crease in a pair of jeans? You’ve got one hell of an imagination,” he added with a sardonic shake of his head.
“I’m obviously a bad judge of character, too,” Julie said bitterly. From the corner of her eye, she saw his left arm swing toward her and she jumped, muffling a scream before she realized he was only holding out a cup of coffee from the thermos. In a quiet tone that almost seemed to carry an apology for adding to her fright, he said, “I thought this might help.”
“I’m not in the slightest danger of falling asleep at the wheel, thanks to you.”
“Drink some anyway,” Zack ordered, determined to ease her terror even while he knew his presence was the source of it. “It will—” he hesitated, feeling at a loss for words, and added, “It will make things seem more normal.”
Julie turned her head and gaped at him, her expression making it eloquently clear she found his “concern” for her not only completely revolting, but insane. She was on the verge of telling him that, but she remembered the gun in his pocket, so she took the coffee in a shaking hand and turned away from him, sipping it and staring at the road ahead.
Beside her, Zack watched the telltale trembling of the coffee cup as she raised it to her lips, and he felt a ridiculous urge to apologize for terrifying her like this. She had a lovely profile he thought, studying her face in the light of the dashboard, with a small nose and stubborn chin and high cheekbones. She also had magnificent eyes, he decided, thinking of the way they’d shot sparks at him a few minutes ago. Spectacular eyes. He felt a sharp stab of guilty shame for using and frightening this innocent girl who’d been trying to be a good Samaritan—and because he had every intention of continuing to use her, he felt like the animal everybody believed he was. To silence his conscience, he resolved to make things as easy on her as he possibly could, which led him to decide to engage her in further conversation.
He’d noticed she wore no wedding ring, which meant she wasn’t married. He tried to remember what people—civilized people on the “outside”—talked about for idle conversation, and he finally said, “Do you like teaching?”
She turned again, her incredible eyes wide with suppressed antagonism. “Do you expect me,” she uttered in disbelief, “to engage in polite small talk with you?”
“Yes!” he snapped, irrationally angry at her reluctance to let him make amends. “I do. Start talking!”
“I love teaching,” Julie shot back shakily, hating how easily he could intimidate her. “How far do you intend for me to drive you?” she demanded as they passed a sign that said the Oklahoma border was twenty miles away.
“Oklahoma,” Zack said, half-truthfully.
WE’RE IN OKLAHOMA,” JULIE POINTED out the instant they drove past the sign announcing they were there.
He shot her a look of grim amusement. “I see that.”
“Well? Where do you want to get out?”
“Keep driving?” she cried in nervous fury. “Now look, you miserable—I’m not driving you all the way to Colorado!”
Zack had his answer, she knew where he was going.
“I won’t do it!” Julie warned shakily, unaware that she had just sealed her fate. “I can’t.”
With an inner sigh at the battle she was bound to wage, he said, “Yes, Ms. Mathison, you can. And you will.”
His unflappable calm was the last straw. “Go to hell!” Julie cried, swinging the steering wheel hard to the right before he could stop her and sending the vehicle careening onto the shoulder as she slammed on the brakes and brought it to a lurching stop. “Take the car!” she pleaded. “Take it and leave me here. I won’t tell anyone I’ve seen you or where you’re going. I swear I won’t tell anyone.”
Zack reined in his temper and tried to soothe her with an attempt at levity. “In the movies, people always promise that same thing,” he remarked conversationally, glancing over his shoulder at the cars flying past. “I’ve always thought it sounded asinine.”
“This isn’t the movies!”
“But you do agree that it is an absurd promise,” he argued with a slight smile. “You know it is. Admit it, Julie.”
Shocked that he was apparently trying to tease her as if they were friends, Julie stared at him in furious silence, knowing he was right about the promise being ridiculous, but refusing to admit it.
“You can’t really expect me to believe,” he continued, his voice softening a little, “that you’d let me get away with kidnapping you and stealing your car and then be so grateful to me for doing both that you’d keep a promise to me you made under extreme duress? Doesn’t that sound a little insane to you?”
“Do you expect me to debate psychology with you when my whole life is at stake!” she burst out.
“I realize you’re afraid, but your life isn’t at stake unless you put it there. You aren’t in any danger unless you create it.”
Perhaps it was exhaustion or the low timbre of his voice or the steadiness of his gaze, but as Julie looked at his solemn features, she found herself almost believing him.
“I don’t want you to get hurt,” he continued, “and you won’t, as long as you don’t do anything that attracts attention to me and alerts the law—”
“In which case,” Julie interrupted bitterly, snapping out of her trance, “you will blow my brains out with your gun. That’s very comforting, Mr. Benedict. Thank you.”
Zack held his temper in check and explained, “If the cops catch up with me, they’ll have to kill me, because I’m not going to surrender. Given the vigilante mentality of most cops, there’s a good chance you’ll be hurt or killed in the fray. I don’t want that to happen. Can you understand that?”
Furious with herself for being subdued by empty gentle words from a ruthless murderer, Julie jerked her gaze from his and stared out the front window. “Do you actually think you can convince me you’re Sir Galahad and not a depraved monster?”
“Evidently not,” he said irritably.
When she refused to look at him again, Zack gave an impatient sign and said curtly, “Stop sulking and start driving. I need to find a roadside telephone at one of these exits.”
The moment his voice chilled, Julie realized how foolish she’d been to ignore his “friendly” overture and antagonize him. What she probably ought to be doing, she belatedly decided as she pulled back out onto the highway, was fooling him into believing she was resigned to going along with him. As the snowflakes danced in front of her headlights, her mind began to calm and she thought carefully about possible ways out of her predicament, because it now seemed horribly likely that he was going to force her to drive him through Colorado as well as Oklahoma. Finding a means to foil his plan and get away became not only a necessity, but a downright challenge. To do that, she knew she had to be objective and to keep all traces of fright and fury from clouding her thoughts. She should be able to do that, Julie reminded herself bracingly. After all, she was no sheltered, unworldly, pampered hothouse flower. She’d spent the first eleven years of her life on the streets of Chicago and done just fine! Chewing on her lower lip, she decided to try to think of her ordeal as if it were merely a plot in one of the mystery novels she loved to read. She’d always felt some of the heroines in those novels behaved with sublime stupidity, which was what she’d been doing by antagonizing her captor, she decided. A clever heroine would do the opposite, she’d be devious and find ways to make Benedict relax his guard completely. If he did that, her chances to escape—and get him returned to prison where he belonged—would be dramatically increased. To accomplish that goal, she could try to pretend she was coming to think of this nightmare as an adventure, maybe she could even pretend to be on the side of her captor, which would require a stellar performance, but she was willing to try.
Despite her grave misgivings about her ability to succeed, Julie suddenly felt a welcome calm and determination sweep through her, banishing her fear and leaving her head clearer. She waited several moments before speaking, so that her capitulation wouldn’t seem too sudden and suspicious to him, then she drew a steadying breath and tried to inject a rueful note into her voice: “Mr. Benedict,” she said, actually managing to cast him a slight, sideways smile, “I appreciate what you said about not intending to hurt me. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic. I was afraid, that’s all.”
“And now you aren’t afraid?” he countered, his voice laced with skepticism.
“Well, yes,” Julie hastened to assure him. “But not nearly so much. That’s what I meant.”
“May I inquire what brought about this sudden transformation? What were you thinking about while you were so quiet?”
“A book,” she said because it seemed safe. “A mystery.”
“One you’ve read? Or one you’re thinking about writing?”
Her mouth opened, but no words came out, and then she realized he’d inadvertently handed her the perfect means to his own defeat. “I’ve always wanted to write a mystery someday,” she improvised madly, “and it occurred to me that this could be, well, first-hand research.”
She darted another glance at him and was startled by the warmth of his smile. This devil could charm a snake, she realized, recalling that same smile from the days when it had flashed across movie screens and raised the temperature of the entire female audience.
“You are a remarkably brave young woman, Julie.”
She choked her irate demand to be called Ms. Mathison. “Actually, I’m the world’s greatest coward, Mr.—”
“My name is Zack,” he interrupted, and in his impassive tone she sensed a return of his suspicion.
“Zack,” she hastily agreed. “You’re quite right. We ought to use first names, since we’re apparently going to be together for—?”
“A while,” he provided, and Julie made a Herculean effort to conceal her frustrated fury at his oblique reply.
“A while,” she agreed, careful to keep her tone neutral. “Well, that’s probably long enough for you to help me with some preliminary research,” she hesitated, thinking of what to ask him. “Would you, well, consider giving me some insight into what prison is really like. That would be helpful for my story.”
He was scaring the hell out of her with the subtle, ever-changing nuances in his voice. Never before had she known a man or woman who could convey so much with imperceptible changes in his voice, nor had she heard a voice like his in her life. It had a rich baritone timbre that could switch instantly and unaccountably from polite to amused to icy and ominous. In answer to his question, Julie nodded vigorously, trying to counteract his skeptical tone by injecting energy and conviction in her own. “Absolutely.” In a flash of inspiration, she realized that if he thought she might be on his side, he’d be even more likely to lower his guard. “I’ve heard that a lot of innocent people get sent to prison. Were you innocent?”
“Every convict claims he’s innocent.”
“Yes, but are you?” she persisted, dying for him to say he was so she could pretend to believe him.
“The jury said I was guilty.”
“Juries have been wrong before.”
“Twelve honest, upstanding citizens,” he replied in a voice suddenly iced with loathing, “decided I was.”
“I’m sure they tried to be objective.”
“Bullshit!” he said so furiously that Julie’s hands tightened on the steering wheel under a fresh onslaught of fear and dread. “They convicted me of being rich and famous!” he snapped. “I watched their faces during the trial, and the more the district attorney raved about my privileged life and the amoral standards of Hollywood, the more that jury wanted my blood! The whole damned, sanctimonious, God-fearing bunch of them knew there was a ‘reasonable doubt’ I didn’t commit that murder and that’s why they didn’t recommend the death penalty. They’d all watched too much Perry Mason—they figured if I didn’t do it, I should be able to prove who did.”
Julie felt the perspiration break out on her palms at the rage in his voice. Now, more than ever before, she realized how imperative it was to make him believe she sympathized with him. “But you weren’t guilty, were you? You just couldn’t prove who really murdered your wife, is that it?” she persevered in a trembling voice.
“What difference does it make?” he snapped.
“It m-makes a difference to me.”
For a moment he studied her in frozen silence and then his voice made one of its abrupt, compellingly soft turns. “If it truly makes a difference to you, then no, I didn’t kill her.”
He was lying, of course. He had to be. “I believe you.” Trying to heap more reassurances on him, she added, “And if you are innocent, then you have every right to try to escape from prison.”
His answer was an uncomfortably long silence during which she felt his piercing gaze examining every feature on her face, then he said abruptly, “The sign said there’s a phone up ahead. Pull over when you see it.”
The telephone was beside the road and Julie pulled off into the drive. She was watching the outside rearview mirror in hopes of seeing a trucker or some other driver she could flag down but there was little traffic on the snowy road. His voice made her snap her head around just as he pulled her car keys from the ignition. “I hope,” he said in a sardonic voice, “you won’t think I doubt your word about believing I’m innocent and wanting to see me escape. I’m simply taking the car keys because I happen to be a very cautious man.”
Julie amazed herself by managing to shake her head and say convincingly, “I don’t blame you.” With a brief smile, he got out of the car, but he kept his hand in his pocket with the gun as a deliberate menacing reminder to her, and he left the passenger door open, undoubtedly so he could see what she was doing while he made his call. Short of trying to outrun him and a possible bullet, Julie had no hope of escaping right now, but she could start preparing for the future. As he stepped into the snow, she said with all the meekness she could muster, “Would you mind if I get a pen and paper out of my purse so that I can make some notes while you’re on the phone—you know, jot down feelings and things so that I can use them in my book?” Before he could refuse, which he looked about to do, she reached cautiously for her purse on the back seat while pointing out reasons he shouldn’t deny her request. “Writing always calms my nerves,” she said, “and you can search my purse, if you like. You’ll see I don’t have another set of keys or any weapons.” To prove it she opened the purse and handed it to him. He gave her an impatient, preoccupied look that made her feel as if he didn’t believe her story about writing a novel for a moment and was simply going along with it to keep her docile.
“Go ahead,” he said, handing the purse to her. As he turned away, Julie pulled out a small note pad and her pen. Keeping an eye on his back, she watched him pick up the telephone and put coins in it, then she quickly wrote the same message on three different slips of paper: CALL POLICE. I’VE BEEN KIDNAPPED. From the comer of her eye, she saw him watching her and she waited until he turned away to talk to whoever he was calling, then she tore off the first three sheets, folded them in half and tucked them into the outside pocket of her purse where she could easily reach them. She opened the notebook again and stared at it, her mind frantically searching for ways to pass the notes to people who could aid her. Struck with a plausible idea, she stole a glance at him to be sure he wasn’t looking, then she quickly took one of the notes from her purse and folded it into a ten-dollar bill from her wallet.
She had a plan, she was executing it, and the knowledge that she was now taking some control of her future banished much of her lingering fear and panic. The rest of her newfound calm owed itself to something besides having a plan in mind. The feeling came from an instinctive but unshakable conviction that one thing Zachary Benedict had said was true: He did not want to harm her. Therefore, he wasn’t going to shoot her in cold blood. In fact, if she tried to escape now, she was certain he would chase her, but he wouldn’t shoot her unless it looked as if she were going to flag down a passing car. Since there were no cars coming, Julie saw no point in flinging open her door and making a break for it right now—not when he could outrun her, and all she would gain was to put him permanently on his guard. Better by far to appear to cooperate and lull him into relaxing as much as possible. Zachary Benedict might be an ex-con, but she wasn’t the gullible, easily intimidated coward she’d been acting like until now. Once, she’d had to live by her wits, she reminded herself bracingly. While he was a pampered teenage movie idol, Julie was lying and stealing and surviving on the streets! If she concentrated on that now, she’d be able to hold her own with him, she was absolutely positive! Well, almost positive. So long as she kept her head, she had an excellent chance of winning this contest of wits. Taking her notebook out, she began jotting down saccharine comments about her kidnapper in case he asked to see what she’d written. Finished, she reread her absurd commentary:
Zachary Benedict is fleeing from unjust imprisonment caused by a biased jury. He seems to be an intelligent, kind, warm man—a victim of circumstances. I believe in him.
The commentary was, she decided with an inner grimace, the worst piece of pure fiction ever written. So engrossed was she that she experienced only a momentary jolt of dread when she realized he’d finished his call and was climbing into the car. Quickly closing the notebook and shoving it into her purse, she asked politely, “Did you talk to whoever it is you’re trying to call?”
His eyes narrowed sharply on her smile and she had an uneasy feeling she was overdoing her “comradely” performance. “No. He’s still there, but he isn’t in his room. I’ll try again in a half hour or so.” Julie was digesting that tidbit of useless information when he reached for her purse and took out her notebook. “Just a precaution,” he said in a sardonic voice as he flipped open the notebook. “You understand, I’m sure?”
“I understand,” Julie averred, caught between nervous hilarity and chagrin as she watched his jaw slacken when he read what she’d written.
“Well?” she said, widening her eyes with sham innocence. “What do you think?”
He closed the notebook and slid it back into her purse. “I think you’re too gullible to be turned loose in the world if you actually believe all that.”
“I’m very gullible,” she eagerly assured him, turning on the ignition and pulling out onto the highway. If he thought her stupid and naive, that was great, terrific.
FOR THE NEXT HALF HOUR, they drove in silence with only an occasional desultory comment about the bad weather and worsening driving conditions, but Julie was watching the side of the road for a billboard that would enable her to put her plan into action. Any billboard that advertised a fast food restaurant at an approaching exit would do. When she finally saw one, her heart doubled its beat. “I know you probably don’t want to stop and go into a restaurant, but I’m starving,” she said carefully, pleasantly. “That sign says there’s a McDonald’s up ahead. We could get some food at the drive-through window.”
He glanced at the clock and started to shake his head, so she hastily added, “I have to eat something every couple of hours because I have . . .” she hesitated a split second, thinking frantically for the right medical term for a problem she didn’t have “ . . . hypoglycemia! I’m sorry, but if I don’t eat something, I get very ill and faint and . . .”
“Fine, we’ll stop there.”
Julie almost shouted with nervous triumph when she pulled off on the exit ramp and the McDonald’s golden arches came into view. The restaurant was between two open lots with a kiddy playground on the side of it. “We’re stopping just in time,” she added, “because I’m feeling so dizzy that I won’t be able to drive much longer.”
Ignoring his narrowed look, Julie flipped on the turn indicator and pulled into the McDonald’s entrance. Despite the storm, there were several cars in the parking lot, though not nearly so many as Julie wished there were, and she could see a few families seated at the tables inside the restaurant. Following the directions on the sign, she drove around behind the restaurant to the drive-through window and stopped at the speaker. “What would you like?” she asked.
Before his imprisonment, Zack wouldn’t have stopped at a fast-food restaurant like this if he had to go all day without eating. Now he discovered his mouth was watering at the thought of a simple hamburger and french fries. Freedom did that, he decided after telling Julie what he wanted to eat. Freedom made the air smell fresher and food sound better. It also made a man more tense and suspicious, because there was something about his captive’s over bright smile that was making him extremely wary. She looked so fresh and ingenuous with those big blue eyes and soft smile, but she’d switched much too quickly from terrified captive to furious hostage to her current attitude of friendly ally.
Julie repeated their order into the microphone—two cheeseburgers, two french fries, two Cokes.
“That’ll be $5.09,” the voice said over the microphone. “Please drive around to the first window.”
As she pulled up alongside the first window, she saw him dig into his pocket for money, but she shook her head adamantly, already reaching into her purse. “I’ll buy,” she said, managing to look straight into his eyes. “It’s my treat. I insist.”
After a moment’s hesitation, he took his hand out of his pocket, but his dark brows drew together into a baffled frown. “That’s very sporting of you.”
“That’s me. I’m a good sport. Everyone always says so,” she babbled mindlessly, removing the folded ten-dollar bill with her handwritten note saying that she was being kidnapped folded inside of it. Unable to meet his unnerving gaze any longer, Julie hastily looked away and focused all her attention on the teenage girl in the drive-through window, who was regarding her with bored impatience. The girl’s name tag said her name was Tiffany.
“That’ll be $5.09,” Tiffany said.
Julie held out the ten-dollar bill and stared hard at the girl, her face beseeching. Her life depended on this bored-looking teenager with a frizzy ponytail. As if in slow motion, Julie saw her unfold the ten-dollar bill . . . The small notepaper floated to the ground . . . Tiffany bent and picked it up, popping her gum . . . She straightened . . . She glanced at Julie . . . “This yours?” she asked, holding it up, peering into the car without reading what it said.
“I don’t know,” Julie said, trying to force the girl to read the words. “It might be. What does it say—” she began, then stifled a scream as Zachary Benedict’s hand clamped on her arm and the barrel of the pistol dug into her side. “Never mind, Tiffany,” he said smoothly, leaning around Julie and holding out his hand. “That’s my note. It’s part of a joke.” The cashier glanced at the note, but it was impossible to tell if she’d actually read it in the instant before she held it in her outstretched hand toward the car. “Here you are, sir,” she said, leaning forward past Julie and handing it to him. Julie ground her teeth as Zachary Benedict gave the girl a phoney, appreciative smile that made Tiffany blush with pleasure as she counted out the change due them from Julie’s ten-dollar bill. “Here’s your order,” she said. Julie automatically reached for the white bags of food and Cokes, her frightened face silently pleading with the girl to call the police or the manager or someone! She passed the bags to Benedict without daring to meet his gaze, her hands trembling so violently she nearly dropped the Cokes. As she drove away from the window, she expected some sort of repercussions from him, but since her plan had failed miserably, Julie was not prepared for the eruption of raw rage she heard: “You stupid little bitch, are you trying to get yourself killed? Pull over in the parking lot, right there where she can see us, she’s watching.”
Julie obeyed automatically, her chest rising and falling in sharp, shallow little breaths. “Eat this,” he commanded, shoving the cheeseburger in her face. “And smile with every bite, or so help me God . . .”
Again, Julie obeyed. She chewed without tasting, every fiber of her being concentrated on calming her shattered nerves so that she could think again. The tension in the car grew into a taut, living thing that added to her strained nerves. She spoke simply to break the silence. “C-could I have m-my Coke,” she said, reaching for the white sack of drinks on the floor near his feet. His hand clamped on her wrist in a vice that threatened to break the fragile bones. “You’re hurting me!” Julie cried, assailed by a fresh onslaught of panic. His hand tightened more painfully before he flung her wrist away. She reared back in her seat, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes, swallowing and rubbing her throbbing arm. Until a few moments ago, he hadn’t actually tried to inflict pain on her, and she’d lulled herself with the misconception that he wasn’t a depraved indiscriminate killer but rather a man who’d taken revenge on his unfaithful wife in an act of jealous insanity. Why, she wondered desperately, had she allowed herself to think that he wouldn’t be just as likely to murder a woman whom he’d taken captive or a teenager who could sound an alarm and get him captured. The answer was that she’d been fooled and deluded by her memories—memories of all those glamorous stories about him in magazines, memories of countless hours spent in theaters with her brothers and, later, with her dates admiring him and even fantasizing about him. At eleven years old, she hadn’t understood why her brothers and all their friends thought Zack Benedict was so special, but within a few years, she’d understood it perfectly. Ruggedly handsome, unattainable, sexy and cynical, witty and tough. And since Julie had been away on a summer scholarship in Europe during his famous trial, she had no knowledge of any of the sordid details, nothing concrete to offset all those lovely on-screen images that had seemed so real to her in theaters. The shameful truth was that when he’d told her he was innocent, she’d believed it might be possible he was telling the truth because it then made sense for him to try to escape so he could prove it. For some incomprehensible reason, a tiny part of her still clung to that possibility, probably because it helped her control her fear, but it didn’t lessen her desperation to get away from him. Even if he was innocent of the crime for which he was sent to prison, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t kill to prevent being sent back there, and that was if he was innocent—a very big, highly unlikely if.
Her whole body jerked in alarm when the bag on the floor crackled. “Here,” he snapped, shoving a Coke toward her.
Refusing to look at him, Julie stretched her hand out and took it, her gaze fastened on the view through the front windshield. She now realized her only hope of escaping without getting anyone hurt or killed was to make it easier for him to take off in her car and leave her behind than it was to stick around and try to shoot his way out of his predicament. Which meant she had to be out of the car and in full view of onlookers. She’d blown her first attempt to escape; he knew now she was desperate enough to try again. He’d be waiting. Watching. When she tried again, everything would have to be exactly right. She knew instinctively she wasn’t likely to live to have a third chance. At least there was no further need to carry on any nauseating charade that she was on his side.
“Let’s get going,” he snapped.
Wordlessly, Julie turned on the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot.
A quarter of an hour later, he ordered her to pull over at a roadside phone again, and he made another phone call. He had not spoken a word except to tell her to pull over, and Julie suspected he knew that silence wreaked more havoc on her nerves than anything else he could do to intimidate her. This time when he made his phone call, he never took his eyes off her. When he got back into the car, Julie looked at his impassive features and couldn’t endure the silence another moment. Giving him a haughty stare, she nodded at the phone booth and said, “Bad news, I hope?”
Zack bit back a grin at her rigid, unremitting rebellion. Her pretty face belied a stubborn courage and acid wit that continually caught him off guard. Instead of replying that the news was very good, he shrugged. Silence ate at her, he’d noticed. “Drive,” he said, leaning back in his seat and stretching out his legs, idly watching her graceful fingers on the steering wheel.
In a few short hours, a man who looked very much like Zack would drive from Detroit through the Windsor Tunnel into Canada. At the border, he would make enough of a nervous spectacle of himself to cause the customs officials there to remember him. When Zack remained at large for a day or two, those customs officials should remember him and notify U.S. authorities that their escaped convict had probably crossed into Canada. Within a week, the hunt for Zack Benedict should be mostly centered in Canada, leaving Zack much more free to continue with the rest of his plan. For now, for the next week, it rather looked as if he had nothing whatsoever to do except relax and revel in his freedom. It seemed like a delightful notion and it would have put him rather in charity with the world if it weren’t for his troublesome hostage. She was the only kink in his relaxation. A very big kink, since she apparently wasn’t half so easily subdued as he’d thought she would be. At the moment, she was driving unnecessarily slow and casting angry looks at him. “What’s the problem?” he clipped.
“The problem is that I need to use a bathroom.”
“But—” He looked at her then and Julie realized it was useless to argue.
An hour later, they crossed the Colorado state line and he spoke for the first time. “There’s a truck stop up ahead. Get off at the exit and if it looks all right, we’ll stop there.”
That truck stop turned out to be too busy to suit him, and it was another half hour before he found a service station that was relatively empty and laid out to please him with an attendant positioned in the island between the pumps so he could pay for gas without going inside and with rest rooms on the outside of the building. “Let’s go,” he said. “Take it slow,” he warned as she got out of the car and started toward the rest room door. He grasped her elbow as if to help her walk through the snow, his feet crunching the crusty powder in perfect rhythm with hers as he matched her stride for stride. When they reached the rest room. instead of letting go of her arm, he reached out and opened the door, and Julie’s temper exploded. “Do you intend to come in here with me and watch?” she burst out in furious disbelief.
Ignoring her, he looked around the tiny tiled room, checking for windows, she supposed, and finding none, he let go of her arm. “Make it quick. And, Julie, don’t do anything stupid.”
“Like what?” she demanded. “Hang myself with toilet paper? Go away, damn you.” Yanking her arm free, she marched inside, and it was as she was closing the door, that the obvious solution of locking the door and staying inside hit her. With an inner cry of triumph, she turned the lock with her fingertips and slammed the door at the same time, throwing her shoulder against it. The door slammed into the jamb with a satisfying metallic thud, but the lock didn’t seem to catch, and she had a sickening feeling he was holding the doorknob on the other side to prevent it from happening.
From the other side of the door, he twisted the knob and it turned in her hand at the same time his tone of amused resignation told her she was right. “You have a minute and a half before I open this door, Julie.”
Great. He was undoubtedly a pervert too, she thought as she hastily finished what she’d gone in there to do. She was washing her hands in freezing water in the sink when he opened the door and said, “Time’s up.”
Instead of getting into the Blazer, he hung back, his hand in his pocket with the gun. “Put gas in the car,” he instructed, lounging against the side of the car and watching her while she obeyed. “Pay for it,” he ordered when she was done, keeping his face turned away from the man in the booth.
Julie’s outraged sense of thrift momentarily overrode her frustration and fear, and she started to object when she realized he was holding two twenty-dollar bills in his outstretched hand. Her resentment was compounded a dozen times by the realization that he was biting back a half-smile. “I think you’re starting to enjoy this!” she snapped bitterly, yanking the money out of his hand.
Zack watched her rigid shoulders as she turned away and reminded himself that it would be far wiser and far more beneficial if he could neutralize some of her hostility as he’d intended to do earlier. If he could put her in a decent humor, that would be even better. And so he said with a low chuckle, “You’re absolutely right. I think I am beginning to enjoy this.”
“Bastard,” she replied.
Dawn was edging the gray sky with pink when Julie decided he might have fallen asleep. He’d made her stick to the back roads, avoiding the interstates, which made traveling in the deep snow so treacherous that she’d only averaged thirty miles per hour for long stretches. Three times they’d been held up for hours because of accidents on the highway, and still he made her go on. All night long, the radio had been filled with news bulletins about his escape, but the further into Colorado they traveled, the less was being made of his disappearance, no doubt because no one expected him to be traveling north, away from major airports, trains, and buses. The sign she’d passed a mile back said there was a picnic-rest area five miles ahead, and Julie was praying that this one, like the last one they’d passed, would have at least a few trucks pulled off into it, their drivers asleep in the cab. The most feasible idea she’d been able to come up with during the endless, exhausting drive was the only one that fulfilled the dual criteria of forcing him to take the car while leaving her behind. It seemed as foolproof as anything under the circumstances: She was going to pull into the rest area and when she was alongside the parked trucks, she would slam on the Blazer’s brakes and jump out of the car, screaming for help in a voice loud enough to wake up the trucks’ occupants. Then, if her entire fantasy came true, several burly truck drivers—preferably gigantic men holding guns and wearing brass knuckles—would lurch awake and jump out of the trucks, racing to her rescue. They would wrestle Zachary Benedict to the ground, with Julie pitching in to help, then they’d disarm him and call the police on their CB radios.
That was the best possible scenario, Julie knew, but even if only a fraction of that happened—if only one driver woke up and got out to investigate the cause of her screams—she was still relatively certain she’d be free of Zachary Benedict. Because from the moment she raised an alarm and attracted notice, his only sensible choice would be to take off in the Blazer. He’d have nothing to gain by hanging around to shoot her and then walking from truck to truck to shoot the drivers, not when the first gunshot would only alert all the other drivers. Any attempt on his part to reenact the final scene from Gunfight at the O.K. Corral would be just plain stupid, and stupid was one thing Benedict was not.
Julie was so certain of that, that she was going to bet her life on it.
She slanted another searching look at him to make certain he was sleeping; His arms were crossed over his chest, his long legs were stretched out in front of him, his head rested against the side window. His breathing was steady and relaxed.
He was asleep.
Elated, Julie gently eased her foot off the accelerator slowly, imperceptibly, watching the speedometer drop from forty-five miles per hour to forty-two, then very slowly to forty. In order to pull into the rest area without a sudden change in speed that would alert her passenger, she needed to be traveling at no more than thirty miles an hour when she reached the exit. She held the speed at forty for a full minute, then she eased up on the accelerator again, her leg trembling with the effort to make each change undetectable. The car slowed to thirty-five miles an hour, and Julie reached out and turned the radio a little louder to compensate for what seemed like a quieter atmosphere inside the car.
The rest area was still a quarter mile away, shielded from view of the highway by a stand of pine trees, when Julie reduced her speed to thirty and turned the steering wheel a fraction of an inch at a time to begin angling off the highway. Uttering a disjointed prayer that she’d find trucks there, she held her breath as she drove around the trees, then expelled it in a silent rush of gratitude and relief. Up ahead, three trucks were parked across from the small building that housed the rest rooms, and although there was no one moving about in the early dawn, she thought she could hear one of the diesel engines running. Her heart racing like a trip hammer, she ignored the temptation to make her move now. To maximize her chances, she needed to be directly beside the trucks, so that she could reach the door of one before Benedict could catch her.
Fifteen yards behind the first truck, Julie was absolutely certain she heard the engine, and her toe angled stealthily toward the brake, all her other senses so focused on the cab of the truck that she yelped in shock when Zachary Benedict suddenly sat up. “Where the hell—” he began, but Julie didn’t give him a chance to finish. Slamming on the brake, she grabbed the door handle and flung open the door, throwing herself out of the moving car, landing on her side in the snowy ruts. In a blur of pain and terror she saw the Blazer’s rear tire roll past, missing her hand by inches before the car lurched to a jarring stop. “HELP ME!” she screamed, scrambling to her knees, her feet sliding as they fought for traction in the slush and snow. “HELP ME!”
She was on her feet, running toward the cab of the closest truck when Zachary Benedict exploded from the Blazer, cutting around the rear of it and running straight toward her, blocking her path to help. Julie changed direction to avoid him, “PLEASE SOMEONE,” she screamed, cutting across the snow in an effort to make it into the rest room and lock the door. Off to her left, she saw a truck door being flung open and a driver stepping down, frowning at the commotion; close behind her she heard Benedict’s feet pounding into the snow. “HELP ME!” she yelled at the driver, and she glanced over her shoulder just in time to see Zachary Benedict scoop up a handful of snow.
A snowball hit her hard in the shoulder and she screamed as she ran, “ ‘STOP HIM! He’s—”
Zachary Benedict’s laughing shout a few feet behind her drowned out her words: “CUT IT OUT, Julie,” he yelled at the same time he launched himself at her in a running tackle. “YOU’RE WAKING EVERYONE UP!”
Trying to drag in enough air to scream again, Julie twisted, landing underneath his sprawled body in the snow, the breath knocked out of her, her terrified blue eyes only inches from his enraged ones, his teeth clenched into a fake smile designed to fool the truck driver. Panting, Julie jerked her head aside to scream, just as he smashed a handful of wet snow onto her face. Choking and blinded, she heard his savage whisper as he caught her wrists and yanked them above her head. “I’ll kill him if he comes any closer,” he bit out, tightening his grip on her hands. “Damn you, is that what you want! Does someone have to die for you?”
Julie whimpered, unable to speak, and shook her head, her eyes clenched shut, unable to bear the sight of her captor, unable to endure knowing she’d come within a few feet of freedom, and all for nothing, for this—to end up on her back in the snow with his body crushing her, her hip throbbing from her deliberate fall from the Blazer. She heard his swift intake of breath, the furious urgency. “He’s walking over here. Kiss me and make it look good, or he’s dead!”
Before she could react, his mouth crushed down on hers. Julie’s eyes flew open, her gaze riveting on the truck driver who was cautiously walking toward them, frowning as he tried to peer at their faces. “Goddammit, put your arms around me!”
His mouth was imprisoning hers, the gun in his pocket was jabbing into her stomach, but her wrists were free now. She could struggle, and very possibly, the truck driver with the jovial face beneath a black cap that said PETE on it would see that something was very wrong and come to her rescue.
And he would die.
Benedict had ordered her to put her arms around him and “make it look good.” Like a puppet, Julie moved her leaden wrists from the snow and let them drop limply onto his shoulders, but she could not make herself do more than that.
Zack tasted her stiff lips beneath his; he felt her body, rigid as stone beneath his weight, and he assumed that she was trying to gather her strength for the next moment when she, with the help of three truck drivers, would put an end to his brief freedom and his life. From the corner of his eye, he saw the driver slow down, but he was still coming toward them, and his expression was growing increasingly cautious and skeptical. All this and more raced through Zack’s mind in the space of the three seconds they lay there, pretending —unconvincingly—to kiss.
In a last helpless effort to stop the inevitable from happening to him, Zack dragged his mouth to her ear and whispered a single word he hadn’t let himself use in years: “Please!” Tightening his arms around the rigid woman, he said it again with a groaning urgency he couldn’t suppress. “Please, Julie . . .”
Feeling as if the world had suddenly gone insane, Julie heard the plea wrench from her captor as if it were torn from his chest a moment before his lips seized hers and he said in a tormented whisper, “I didn’t kill anyone, I swear it.” The pleading and desperation she’d heard in his voice were eloquently alive in this kiss, and it accomplished what his threats and anger could not: It made Julie hesitate and waver; it made her believe that what she heard in his voice was truth.
Dazed by the confusing messages racing through her brain, she sacrificed her immediate future for the safety of a truck driver. Driven by the need to spare the man’s life and by something less sensible and completely inexplicable, Julie blinked back tears of futility, slid her hands tentatively over Zachary Benedict’s shoulders, and yielded to his kiss. The moment she did, he sensed her capitulation; a shudder ran through him and his lips gentled. Unaware of the footsteps crunching to a stop in the snow, Julie let him part her lips and of their own volition, her fingers curved around his neck, sliding into the soft, thick hair at his nape. She felt his swift, indrawn breath when she tentatively returned the kiss, and suddenly everything began to change. He was kissing her in earnest now, his hands shifting, sliding over her shoulders, and then burying in her wet hair, lifting her face closer to his hungry, searching mouth.
Somewhere far above her, a man’s bewildered Texas drawl called out, “Lady, you need help or not?”
Julie heard him, and she tried to shake her head, but the mouth that was slanting fiercely over hers now had robbed her of the ability to speak. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew this was only a performance for the driver’s benefit; she knew it as clearly as she knew she had no choice but to participate in the performance. But if that was true, then why couldn’t she at least shake her head or open her eyes.
“I guess you don’t,” the Texas drawl said on a lewd chuckle. “How ’bout you, mister? You need any help with what you’re doin’? I could spell you for a bit down there . . .”
Zack’s head lifted just enough to break contact with her mouth, his words husky and soft. “Find your own woman,” he joked with the driver. “This one is mine.” The last word was breathed against Julie’s lips before his mouth touched hers, his arms sweeping around her, his tongue sliding tentatively across her lips, urging them to part, his hips hard and demanding against hers. With a silent moan of surrender, Julie gave herself up to what became the hottest, sexiest, most insistent kiss she’d ever tasted.
Fifty yards away, a truck door opened and a new male voice called, “Hey, Pete, what’s goin’ on over yonder in the snow?”
“Hell, man, what does it look like? A couple of grown-ups is playin’ at bein’ kids, having snowball fights and neckin’ in the snow.”
“Looks to me like they’re goin’ to be makin’ a kid if they don’t slow down.”
Perhaps it was the new male voice or the sudden realization that her captor was becoming physically aroused that snapped Julie into reality or perhaps it was the slamming of the truck door followed by the roar of an engine as the big semi began to pull away from the rest area. Whatever the cause, she put her hands against his shoulders and exerted pressure, but it took an unnatural effort for her to move, and her shove was puny at best. Panicked by her inexplicable lethargy, Julie shoved harder. “Stop it!” she cried softly. “Stop it. He’s gone!”
Stunned by the sound of tears in her voice, Zack lifted his head, staring at her dewy skin and soft mouth with a hunger that he was finding difficult to control. The exquisite sweetness of her surrender, the way she felt in his arms, and the gentleness of her touch almost made the notion of making love in the snow at dawn seem plausible. Slowly, he looked around at where they were and reluctantly levered himself up off her. He didn’t completely understand why she’d decided not to warn the truck driver, but whatever her reasons, he owed her more than an attempted rape in the snow as repayment. Silently, he held his hand out to her, suppressing a smile when the same woman who’d melted in his arms a moment ago rallied her defenses, pointedly ignored his gesture, and shoved herself up and out of the snow. “I’m soaking wet,” she complained, scrupulously avoiding his gaze and swatting at her hair, “and covered with snow.”
Automatically, Zack reached out to brush the snow off her, but she jumped out of his reach, avoiding his touch as she brushed off her arms and the back of her jeans.
“Don’t think you can touch me just because of what happened just now!” she warned him, but Zack was preoccupied with admiration for the results of their kiss: Her huge, dark-lashed eyes were lustrous, her porcelain skin tinted with roses at the high cheekbones. When flustered and a little aroused, as she was now, Julie Mathison was absolutely breathtaking. She was also courageous and very kind, for although he’d not been able to subdue her with threats or cruelty, she’d somehow responded to the desperation in his plea.
“The only reason I let you kiss me was because I realized you were right—there’s no need for anyone to get killed just because I’m scared. Now, let’s get going and get this ordeal over with.”
Zack sighed. “I gather from that sour tone of yours that we’re adversaries again, Ms. Mathison?”
“Of course we are,” she replied. “I’ll take you wherever you’re going without any more tricks, but let’s get one thing straight: As soon as I get you there, I’ll be free to leave, right?”
“Right,” Zack lied.
Someone to Watch Over Me
Leigh Kendall is relishing her stellar Broadway acting career in her marriage to Logan Manning, scion of an old New York family, when her husband finds the perfect mountain property for their dream house. But while driving upstate on a winter’s night, Leigh is run off the road in the midst of a blinding blizzard. When she awakes in the local hospital, seriously injured, the police inform her that her husband has mysteriously disappeared, and Leigh becomes the focus of their suspicions. The more she discovers about her husband and his business affairs, the less she realizes she knew about Logan Manning. Now, Leigh is heading deeper and deeper into unknown territory—where friends and enemies are impossible to distinguish, and the truth becomes the most terrifying weapon of all in this thrilling tale filled with unrelenting suspense, unforgettable characters, and powerful traces of greed, ambition, and desire.
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…Chapters 2 – 4
Bravo! Bravo!” Six curtain calls and the applause was still at a deafening roar. The cast was lined up onstage, taking their bows one at a time, but when Leigh stepped forward, the cheers rose to a wild crescendo. The houselights were up, and Leigh could see Logan in the front row, on his feet, clapping and cheering with enthusiastic pride. She smiled at him, and he gave her a thumbs-up.
When the curtains closed, she walked to the wings where Jason was standing, his face beaming with triumph. “We’re a smash hit, Jason!” she said, giving him a hug.
“Let’s take another bow, just you and me this time,” he said.
Jason would have taken curtain calls all night until the last theatergoer left his seat. “Nope,” Leigh said with a grin. “We’ve both taken enough bows.”
He tugged on her hand, a happy thirty-five-year-old child—brilliant, insecure, sensitive, selfish, loyal, temperamental, kind. “C’mon, Leigh,” he cajoled. “Just one more little bow. We deserve it.” The crowd began chanting, “Author! Author!” and his grin widened. “They really want to see me again.”
He was in an ecstatic mood, and Leigh looked at him with a mixture of maternal understanding and awe. Jason Solomon could dazzle her at times with his intellect, hurt her with his insensitivity, and warm her with his gentleness. Those who didn’t know him thought of him as a glamorous eccentric. Those who knew him better generally regarded Jason as a brilliant, irritating egocentric. To Leigh, who knew him, and loved him, he was a complete dichotomy.
“Listen to that applause,” he said, tugging on her hand. “Let’s go out there . . .”
Helpless to resist him in this mood, Leigh relented, but stepped back. “Go for it,” she said. “I’ll stay here.”
Instead of releasing her hand, he tightened his grip and dragged her with him. She was off balance when they emerged from the wings, and her surprised resistance was plain to see. The moment of unplanned confusion struck the crowd as wonderful. It made the two biggest names on Broadway seem endearingly human, and the riotous applause was joined with shouts of laughter.
Jason would have tried to coax her into taking yet another bow after that one, but Leigh freed her hand this time and turned away, laughing. “Don’t forget the old adage—” she reminded him over her shoulder, “Always leave them wanting more.”
“That’s a cliché,” he retorted indignantly.
“But true, nonetheless.”
He hesitated a moment, then followed her backstage, down a hallway crowded with elated cast and busy crew members, who were all trying to congratulate and thank each other. Jason and Leigh stopped several times to participate in the congratulatory hugging.
“I told you the twenty-eighth was always my lucky day.”
“You were right,” Leigh agreed. Jason insisted on opening all his plays on the twenty-eighth including Blind Spot, even though as a general rule, Broadway plays did not open on Saturdays.
“I feel like champagne,” Jason announced as they finally neared Leigh’s dressing room.
“So do I, but I need to change clothes and get this makeup off right away. We have a party to attend, and I’d like to get there before midnight.”
A theater critic was congratulating the play’s director, and Jason watched him closely for a moment. “No one will mind if we’re late.”
“Jason,” Leigh reminded him with amused patience, “I’m the guest of honor. I should make an effort to get there before the party is over.”
“I suppose so,” he agreed, dragging his gaze from the critic. He followed her into her flower-filled dressing room, where the dresser was waiting to help Leigh out of the cheap cotton skirt and blouse she’d been wearing in the last act.
“Who are these from?” Jason asked, strolling over to a gigantic basket of huge white orchids. “They must have cost a fortune.”
Leigh glanced at the immense bouquet. “I don’t know.”
“There’s a card attached,” Jason said, already reaching for the florist’s envelope. “Shall I read it?”
“Could I stop you?” Leigh joked. Jason’s nosiness was legendary. Behind the folding screen, Leigh stepped out of her clothes and into a robe; then she hurried over to her dressing table and sat down in front of the big lighted mirror.
With the open envelope in his hand, Jason caught her gaze in the mirror and gave her a sly smile. “You’ve evidently acquired a serious suitor with big bucks. Come clean, darling, who is he? You know you can trust me with your sordid secrets.”
His last sentence made Leigh laugh. “You’ve never kept a secret in your life, sordid or otherwise,” she told his reflection in the mirror.
“True, but tell me who he is, anyway.”
“What does the card say?”
Instead of telling her, Jason handed it to her so she could read it herself. “LOVE ME,” it said. Leigh’s brief frown of confusion gave way to a smile as she put down the card and began removing her stage makeup. “It’s from Logan,” she told him.
“Why would your husband send you one thousand dollars’ worth of orchids with a card asking you to love him?”
Before replying, Leigh finished spreading cream over her face and began wiping off her makeup with tissues. “When Logan told the florist what to write on the card, the florist obviously misunderstood and forgot to put a comma after the word ‘love.’ It should have read, ‘Love comma Me.’ ”
A bottle of Dom Pérignon was chilling in a bucket, and Jason spotted it. “Why would Logan call himself ‘me’ instead of calling himself ‘Logan’?” he asked as he lifted the bottle from its icy nest and began unpeeling the black foil from the bottle’s neck.
“That’s probably my fault,” she admitted with a quick, rueful glance at him. “The Crescent Plaza project has been consuming Logan for months, and I asked him to relax a little. He’s trying to be more playful and spontaneous for my sake.”
Jason gaped at her in laughing derision. “Logan? Spontaneous and playful? You can’t be serious.” He poured champagne into two flutes and put one on the dressing table for her; then he settled himself onto the little sofa at her left, propped his legs on the coffee table, and crossed his feet at the ankles. “In case you haven’t noticed, your husband thinks a five-star restaurant is just a badly lit conference room with forks. He thinks a briefcase is an indispensable fashion accessory, and he depreciates his golf clubs.”
“Stop picking on Logan,” she told him. “He’s a brilliant businessman.”
“He’s a brilliant bore,” Jason retorted, clearly enjoying the rare opportunity to joke about someone he actually admired and even envied. “If you wanted playfulness and spontaneity in a man, you should have had an affair with me instead of turning to this orchid guy for those traits.”
She flashed him an amused, affectionate look and ignored his reference to the orchids. “You’re gay, Jason.”
“Well, yes,” he agreed with a grin. “I suppose that could have been an impediment to our affair.”
“How’s Eric?” Leigh asked, deliberately changing the subject. Eric had been Jason’s “significant other” for over six months—which almost set a longevity record where Jason was concerned. “I didn’t see him out front tonight.”
“He was there,” Jason said indifferently. He shifted his foot from side to side, studying his shiny black tuxedo loafers. “Eric is becoming a bit of a bore, too, to tell you the truth.”
“You are very easily bored,” Leigh said with a knowing look.
“If you want my opinion—”
“Which, of course, I don’t,” Jason interrupted.
“And which, of course, I’m going to give anyway—If you want my opinion, maybe you should try to find someone who isn’t so much like you that he seems predictable and boring. Try going with someone who depreciates his golf clubs for a change.”
“Someone who is so gorgeous that I could overlook his boring traits? As a matter of fact, I do know someone like that!”
He was being so agreeable that Leigh shot him a suspicious look before she tossed a tissue into the wastebasket and began putting on her regular makeup. “You do?”
“Yes, indeed,” Jason said with a wicked grin. “He has thick light brown hair streaked blond from the summer sun, beautiful eyes, and a great physique. He’s a little too preppy-looking for my tastes, but he’s thirty-five, and that’s a good age for me. He’s from an old aristocratic New York family that ran out of money long before he was born, so it was up to him to restore the family fortune, which he’s managed to do single-handedly . . .”
Leigh finally realized he was describing Logan, and her shoulders began to shake with laughter. “You’re a lunatic.”
Jason’s short attention span led him from romance to business without a pause between. “What a night!” he sighed, leaning his head back against the sofa. “I was right to change your lines in the last scene of the second act. Did you notice how strongly the audience reacted? One minute everyone was laughing; then they realized what you were actually going to do and they ended up crying. In the space of a few lines, they went from mirth to tears. Now that, my darling, is brilliant writing—and brilliant acting, of course.” He paused for a sip of champagne and, after a moment of thoughtful silence, added, “After I see the matinee tomorrow, I may want to change a little of the dialogue between you and Jane in the third act. I haven’t decided.”
Leigh said nothing as she quickly applied the rest of her makeup, brushed her hair, and then disappeared behind the screen to change into the dress she’d brought to the theater. Outside the dressing room, the noise level had risen dramatically as actors, crew members, and people with enough influence to obtain backstage passes all began leaving the theater by the rear door, laughing and talking as they headed off to celebrate the night’s triumph with friends and families. Ordinarily, Jason and she would be doing the same thing, but today was Leigh’s thirty-fifth birthday, and Logan was determined that it not take second place to the play’s opening night.
She emerged from behind the screen wearing a deceptively simple red silk sheath with tiny beaded straps at the shoulders, matching high heels, and a jeweled Judith Leiber evening bag that dangled from her fingers by a narrow chain.
“Red?” Jason said, grinning as he slowly stood up. “I’ve never seen you wear red before.”
“Logan specifically asked me to wear something red to the party tonight.”
“Probably because he’s being playful,” Leigh said smugly; then uncertainty replaced her jaunty expression. “Do I look all right in this?”
Jason passed a slow, appraising glance over her gleaming, shoulder-length auburn hair, large aquamarine eyes, and high cheekbones; then he let it drop to her narrow waist, and down her long legs. She was pretty, but certainly not gorgeous, and not even beautiful, he observed. And yet in a roomful of women who were, Leigh Kendall would have drawn notice and attracted attention the moment she moved or spoke. In an attempt to define her powerful presence onstage, critics likened her to a young Katharine Hepburn or a young Ethel Barrymore, but Jason knew they were wrong. Onstage, she had Hepburn’s incomparable glow and she had Barrymore’s legendary depth, but she had something else, too, something infinitely more appealing and uniquely her own—a mesmerizing charisma that was as potent when she was standing in her dressing room, waiting for his opinion about her attire, as when she was onstage. She was the most even tempered, cooperative actress he’d ever known; and yet there was a mystery about her, a barrier, that no one was allowed to cross. She took her work seriously, but she did not take herself seriously, and at times her humility and sense of humor made him feel like a towering, temperamental egotist.
“I’m starting to wish I had a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt on,” she joked, reminding him that she was waiting for an opinion.
“Okay,” he said, “here it is—the unvarnished truth: Although you aren’t nearly as gorgeous as your husband, you are remarkably attractive for a woman.”
“In the unlikely event that that was meant to be a big compliment,” Leigh said, laughing as she opened the closet door and removed her coat, “thanks a lot.”
Jason was truly stunned by her lack of perspective. “Of course it was a compliment, Leigh, but why would you care how you look right now? What matters is that an hour ago, you convinced four hundred people that you are actually a thirty-year-old blind woman who unknowingly holds the key to solving an unspeakable murder. You had every member of that audience squirming in his seat with terror!” Jason threw up his hands in bewildered disgust. “My God, why would a woman who can do all that give a damn how she looks in a cocktail dress?”
Leigh opened her mouth to reply; then she smiled and shook her head. “It’s a girl thing,” she said dryly, glancing at her watch.
“I see.” He swept the dressing room door open and stepped aside in an exaggerated gesture of gallantry. “After you,” he said; then he offered her his arm and she took it, but as they started down the back hall, he sobered. “When we get to the party, I’m going to ask Logan if he sent you those orchids.”
“I’d rather you didn’t worry yourself or Logan about that tonight,” Leigh said, keeping her tone light. “Even if Logan didn’t send them, it doesn’t really matter. We’ve taken precautions—I have a chauffeur-bodyguard now. Matt and Meredith Farrell lent him to me for six months while they’re away. He’s like a member of their family when they’re home in Chicago. I’m very well protected.”
Despite Leigh’s reassuring words, she couldn’t completely suppress a tremor of anxiety about the orchids. Recently, she’d received some anonymous gifts, all of them expensive and several with blatant sexual overtones, like a black lace garter belt and bra from Neiman Marcus and a sheer, extremely seductive nightgown from Bergdorf Goodman. The small, white cards that accompanied the gifts bore short, cryptic messages like, “Wear this for me” and “I want to see you in this.”
She’d received a phone call at home the day after the first gift was delivered to the theater. “Are you wearing your present, Leigh?” a man’s soft, cajoling voice had asked on the answering machine.
Last week, Leigh had visited Saks, where she’d purchased a robe for Logan and a little enamel pin for herself, which she’d tucked into her coat pocket. She had been about to step off the curb at Fifth and Fifty-first Street with a crowd of other pedestrians when a man’s hand reached forward from behind her, holding a small Saks bag. “You dropped this,” he said politely. Startled, Leigh automatically took the bag and dropped it into the larger one containing Logan’s robe, but when she looked around to thank him, either he’d retreated farther back into the crowd of pedestrians or he was the man she saw walking swiftly down the street, his overcoat turned up to his ears, head bent against the wind.
When she got home with her purchases, Leigh realized her own small bag from Saks was still in her coat pocket, where she’d originally put it. The bag the man had handed her on the street contained a narrow silver band, like a wedding ring. The card said “You’re mine.”
Despite all that, she was certain the orchids in her dressing room were from Logan. He knew they were her favorite flower.
IN THE ALLEY BEHIND THE theater, Leigh’s new chauffeur-bodyguard was standing beside the open door of a limousine. “The show was a big hit, Mrs. Manning, and you were terrific!”
“Thank you, Joe.”
Jason settled into the luxurious automobile and nodded with satisfaction. “Everyone should have his very own bodyguard-chauffeur.”
“You may not think so a moment from now,” Leigh warned him with a rueful smile as the chauffeur slid behind the steering wheel and put the car into gear. “He drives like a—” The car suddenly rocketed forward, throwing them back against their seats and barging into heavy oncoming traffic.
“Maniac!” Jason swore, grabbing for the armrest with one hand and Leigh’s wrist with the other.
Leigh and Logan’s apartment occupied the entire twenty-fourth floor. It had a private elevator lobby that functioned as an exterior “foyer” for their apartment, and Leigh inserted her key into the elevator lock so that the doors would open on her floor.
As soon as the elevator opened, the sounds of a large party in full swing greeted them from beyond her apartment’s front door. “Sounds like a good party,” Jason remarked, helping her out of her coat and handing it to Leigh’s housekeeper, who materialized in the outer foyer to take their coats. “Happy birthday, Mrs. Manning,” Hilda said.
“Thank you, Hilda.”
Together, Jason and Leigh stepped into the apartment onto a raised marble foyer that offered a clear view of rooms overflowing with animated, elegantly dressed, beautiful people who were laughing, drinking, and nibbling canapés from trays being passed around by a battalion of waiters in dinner jackets. Jason instantly spotted people he knew and headed down the steps, but Leigh remained where she was, struck suddenly by the beauty of the setting, its portrayal of the success and prosperity that Logan and she had achieved together in their individual careers. Someone spotted her then and started a loud chorus of “Happy Birthday to You!”
Logan arrived at her side with a drink that he placed in her hand and a kiss that he placed on her mouth. “You were fantastic tonight. Happy birthday, darling,” he said. While their guests watched, he reached into his tuxedo jacket pocket and produced a Tiffany box tied with silk ribbon. “Go ahead and open it,” he prodded.
Leigh looked at him uncertainly. “Now?” Normally Logan preferred privacy for sentimental moments, but he was in a boyishly carefree mood tonight.
“Now,” he agreed, his eyes smiling into hers. “Absolutely, now.”
It was either a ring or earrings, Leigh guessed, judging from the size and shape of the cream leather box that slid out of the robin’s egg blue outer box. Inside was a spectacular ruby-and-diamond pendant in the shape of a heart. Now she understood why he’d wanted her to wear something red. “It’s magnificent,” she said, incredibly touched that he had spent so much money on her. No matter how much money Logan made, he felt almost guilty about spending it on anything that wasn’t likely to become a profit-making asset or at least a tax deduction.
“I’ll help you fasten the chain,” he said, lifting the glittering pendant from its case. “Turn around.” When he finished, he turned her back around so that their guests could see the magnificent pendant, lying just below her throat. The gift earned a round of applause and cries of approval.
“Thank you,” Leigh said softly, her eyes shining.
He looped his arm around her shoulders and laughingly said, “I’ll expect a more appropriate thank-you later, when we’re alone. That bauble cost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”
Stunned and amused, Leigh whispered back, “I’m not sure I know how to express a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of gratitude.”
“It won’t be easy, but I’ll make some helpful suggestions and recommendations, later tonight.”
“I’d appreciate that,” she teased, watching his gaze turn warm and sexy.
He sighed and put his hand under her elbow, guiding her down the marble steps to the living room. “Unfortunately, before we can take care of that very important matter, we have a few hours of obligatory socializing to perform.” On the bottom step, he paused and looked around. “There’s someone here I want you to meet.”
As they wended their way slowly through the noisy, crowded rooms, greeting their guests, Leigh was struck anew by the almost comic contrast between Logan’s friends and business acquaintances and her own. Most of Logan’s friends were members of New York’s oldest and most influential families; they were bankers and philanthropists, judges and senators, all of them with “old” money. Quiet money. They were expensively but conservatively attired and impeccably behaved, with wives who matched them perfectly.
In comparison to them, Leigh’s friends seemed absolutely flamboyant; they were artists, actors, musicians, and writers—people who equated “fitting in” with being overlooked, and that was anathema to them. The two groups didn’t avoid each other, but neither did they mingle. While Leigh’s friend Theta Berenson expounded on the merits of a new art exhibit to her group, the huge yellow feathers on her hat continually brushed against the ear of the investment banker behind her. The banker, who was a friend of Logan’s, irritably brushed the feathers aside while he continued discussing a new strategy for portfolio reallocations with Sheila Winters, a highly respected therapist. Leigh and Logan had met with Sheila a few times to smooth out conflicts in their relationship a couple of years earlier; in the intervening time she had become a dear friend. When she looked over for a moment and saw Leigh, she blew a kiss and waved.
Although Logan and Leigh stopped frequently to chat with their guests, Logan didn’t allow his wife to linger long. He was searching for whoever it was that he wanted her to meet. “There he is, over there,” Logan said finally, and immediately began guiding Leigh toward a tall, dark-haired man who was standing completely by himself at the far end of the living room, looking at an oil painting that was hanging on the wall. His bored expression and aloof stance made it very obvious he wasn’t interested in the artwork, or in the party, for that matter.
Leigh recognized him at once, but his presence in her home was so unlikely that she couldn’t believe her eyes. She stopped short, staring at Logan in horrified disbelief. “That can’t be who I think it is!”
“Who do you think it is?”
“I think it’s Michael Valente.”
“You’re right.” He urged her forward, but Leigh was rooted to the floor, staring at Valente, aghast. “He wants to meet you, Leigh. He’s a big fan of yours.”
“Who let him in here?”
“I invited him,” Logan explained patiently. “I haven’t mentioned him to you before, because the deal isn’t finalized, but Valente is considering putting up all the venture capital for the entire Crescent Plaza project. I’ve had several meetings with him. He has a genius for putting together highly lucrative business deals.”
“And for avoiding prosecution afterward,” Leigh retorted darkly. “Logan, he’s a criminal!”
“He’s only been convicted of wrongdoing once,” Logan said, chuckling at her indignant reaction. “Now he’s a respectable billionaire with an incredible track record for turning risky commercial projects, like Crescent Plaza, into wildly successful ones that make a fortune for everyone.”
“He’s a felon!”
“That was a long time ago, and it was probably a bum rap.
“No it wasn’t! I read that he pleaded guilty.”
Instead of being annoyed, Logan gazed at her mutinous expression with amused admiration. “How have you done it?”
“Maintained the same rigid, wonderful values you had when we first met?”
“ ‘Rigid’ doesn’t sound like a good thing to me.”
“On you,” he said softly, “ ‘rigid’ is a wonderful thing.”
Leigh scarcely heard that as she looked around the room. She spotted Judge Maxwell and Senator Hollenbeck, who were standing against the wall behind the buffet—as far as they could physically get from where Valente was standing. “Logan, there isn’t a man in this house with a reputation to safeguard who is anywhere near Michael Valente. They’ve gotten as far away from him as they can.”
“Maxwell is no saint, and Hollenbeck’s closets have barely enough room for all his skeletons,” Logan said emphatically, but as he looked around, he reached the same conclusion that Leigh had reached. “It probably wasn’t wise to invite Valente.”
“What made you do it?”
“It was an impulse. I phoned him this afternoon to discuss some contractual details for Crescent Plaza, and I mentioned that your play was opening tonight and we were having a party afterward. He mentioned the play, and he said he was a big fan of yours. I knew there wasn’t a seat to be had in the theater tonight, so I compromised and invited him to the party instead. I had so many things going on I didn’t stop to consider that his being here might be awkward, particularly for Sanders and Murray. Will you do me a favor, darling?”
“Yes, of course,” Leigh replied, relieved that Logan was at least acknowledging the problem.
“I’ve already spoken with Valente tonight. If you don’t mind introducing yourself to him, I’ll go over and soothe Sanders’s and Murray’s offended sensibilities. Valente drinks Glenlivet—no ice, no water. See that he gets a fresh drink, and play hostess for a few minutes. That’s all you have to do.”
“And then what? Leave him there by himself? Who can I possibly introduce him to?”
Logan’s dry sense of humor made his eyes gleam as he glanced around the room, looking for possible candidates. “That’s easy. Introduce your friend Claire Straight to him; she’ll tell anyone who’ll listen about her divorce. Jason and Eric already look ready to strangle her.” At that moment, Claire, Jason, and Eric all looked up, and Logan and Leigh waved to them. “Claire—” Logan called, “don’t forget to tell Jason and Eric all about your lawyer and how he sold you out. Ask them if you should sue him for malpractice.”
“You are an evil man,” Leigh said with a giggle.
“That’s why you love me,” Logan replied. “It’s too bad that Valente isn’t gay,” he joked. “If he was, you could fix him up with Jason. That way, Jason would end up with a lover and a permanent backer for all his plays. Of course, that would make Eric jealous and even more suicidal than usual, so that’s probably not a good idea.” He resumed his thoughtful surveillance of their guests until Theta’s yellow-feathered hat captured his notice. “I suppose we could introduce him to Theta. She’s ugly as sin, but Valente has a fabulous art collection, and she’s an artist—allegedly.”
“Her last canvas just sold for one hundred seventy-five thousand dollars. There’s nothing ‘alleged’ about that.”
“Leigh, she painted that thing with her elbows and a floor mop.”
“She did not.”
Logan was laughing in earnest, and he covered it by lifting his glass to his mouth. “Yes, she did, darling. She told me so.” Suddenly his delighted gaze shifted to an attractive blonde standing with the same group. “The Valente problem is solved. Let’s introduce him to your friend Sybil Haywood. She can tell his fortune—”
“Sybil is an astrologer, not a fortune-teller,” Leigh put in firmly.
“What’s the difference?”
“That depends on whom you ask,” Leigh said, feeling a little put out with Logan’s blanket joking dismissal of her friends, and Sybil in particular. Leigh paused to nod and smile graciously at two couples nearby; then she added, “Sybil has many famous clients, including Nancy Reagan. Regardless of whether you believe in astrology, Sybil is as committed to her field and her clients as you are to yours.”
Logan was instantly contrite. “I’m sure she is. And thank you for not pointing out that my friends and I are as boring as dust, and our conversations are predictable and tedious. Now, do you think Sybil would take Valente off our hands as a favor and spend a little time with him tonight?”
“She will if I ask her to,” Leigh said, already deciding that the plan was a viable one.
Satisfied that a compromise had been worked out, Logan gave her shoulders a light hug. “Don’t stay away from me too long. This is your big night, but I’d like to be as much a part of it as I can.”
It was such an openly sentimental thing to say that Leigh instantly forgave him for joking about her friends and even for inviting Valente. As Logan brushed a kiss on her cheek and left, Leigh glanced in Valente’s direction and discovered he was no longer looking at the painting. He had turned and had been staring directly at them. She wondered uneasily how much of their debate he had witnessed and if he’d guessed that he was the cause of it. It wouldn’t have taken much imagination on his part, Leigh decided. She suspected that whenever Valente managed to intrude on respectable social gatherings, most hostesses probably reacted with the same resentment and reluctance that Leigh felt right now.
Hastily smoothing the expression of distaste from her face, Leigh moved sideways through the crush of guests until she reached Sybil Haywood’s group. “Sybil, I need a favor,” she said, drawing the astrologer aside. “I have an awkward social problem—”
“You certainly do,” Sybil agreed with a knowing grin. “Virgos can be very difficult to deal with, especially when Pluto and Mars are—”
“No, no. It’s not an astrological problem. I need someone I can trust who can deal with a particular man—”
“Who happens to be a Virgo—” Sybil stated positively.
Leigh adored Sybil, but at the moment, the astrologer’s fixation on astrology was driving her crazy. “Sybil, please. I have no idea what his astrological sign is. If you’ll take him off my hands and chat with him for a few minutes, you can ask him your—”
“Valente is a Virgo,” Sybil interjected patiently.
Leigh blinked at her. “How did you know?”
“I know, because when the Senate was investigating him last September Valente was asked to give his full name and date of birth. The Times reported on his testimony, and the reporter noted that Valente was actually testifying on his forty-third birthday. That told me he was a Virgo.”
“No, I mean how did you know that Valente is my ‘awkward social problem?”
“Oh, that,” Sybil said with a laugh as she passed a slow, meaningful glance over all the other guests within view. “He does stand out in this crowd of politicians, bankers, and business leaders. There’s not another criminal in the entire place for him to socialize with—Actually there are probably a lot of criminals here, but they haven’t been caught and sent to prison like he was.”
“You could be right,” Leigh said absently. “I’m going to introduce myself to him. Would you get him a drink and bring it over in a couple of minutes so I can escape gracefully?”
Sybil grinned. “You want me to socialize with a tall, antisocial, semi handsome man who happens to have a murky past, a questionable present, and fifteen billion dollars in assets, probably all from ill-gotten gains? Is that it?”
“Pretty much,” Leigh admitted ruefully.
“What shall I bring him to drink? Blood?”
“Glenlivet,” Leigh said, giving her a quick hug. “No ice, no water, no blood.”
She watched Sybil begin working her way toward one of the bars, and with reluctant resignation, Leigh pasted a smile on her face and wended her way toward Valente. He studied her with detached curiosity as she approached, his expression so uninviting that Leigh doubted he was actually “a fan” of hers or even that he particularly wanted to meet her. By the time she was close enough to hold out her hand to him, she’d noted that he was at least six feet three inches tall with extremely wide, muscular shoulders, thick, black hair, and hard, piercing amber eyes.
Leigh held out her hand. “Mr. Valente?”
“I’m Leigh Manning.”
He smiled a little at that—a strange, speculative smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. With his gaze locked onto hers, he took her hand in a clasp that was a little too tight and lasted a little too long. “How do you do, Mrs. Manning—” he said in a rich baritone voice that was more cultured than Leigh had expected it to be.
Leigh exerted enough pressure to indicate she wanted her hand released and he let it go, but his unnerving gaze remained locked on hers as he said, “I enjoyed your performance very much tonight.”
“I’m surprised you were there,” Leigh said without thinking. Based on what she knew of him, he didn’t seem the type to enjoy a sensitive theatrical drama with a lot of subtleties.
“Perhaps you thought I’d be knocking off a liquor store, instead?”
That was close enough to the truth to make Leigh feel exposed, and she didn’t like it. “I meant that opening night tickets were virtually impossible to get.”
His smile suddenly reached his eyes, warming them a little. “That’s not what you meant, but it’s charming of you to say so.”
Leigh clutched at the first topic of common interest that came to mind. With an over bright smile, she said, “I understand you’re thinking of going into some sort of business venture with my husband.”
“You don’t approve, of course,” he said dryly.
Leigh felt as if she were being maneuvered into a series of uncomfortable corners. “Why would you think that?”
“I was watching you a few minutes ago when Logan told you I was here, and why I’m here.”
Despite the man’s unsavory background, he was a guest in her home, and Leigh was a little mortified that she’d let her negative feelings about him show so openly. Relying on the old adage that the best defense is a good offense, she said very firmly and politely, “You’re a guest in my home, and I’m an actress, Mr. Valente. If I had any negative feelings about any guest, including you, you would never know it because I would never let them show.”
“That’s very reassuring,” he said mildly.
“Yes, you were completely mistaken,” Leigh added, pleased with her strategy.
“Does that mean you don’t disapprove of my business involvement with your husband?”
“I didn’t say that.”
To her shock, he smiled at her evasive reply, a slow, strangely seductive, secretive smile that made his eyes gleam beneath their heavy lids. Others might not have noticed the nuances of it, but Leigh’s career was based on subtleties of expression, and she instantly sensed peril lurking behind that come-hither smile of his. It was the dangerously beguiling smile of a ruthless predator, a predator who wanted her to sense his power, his defiance of the social order, and to be seduced by what he represented. Instead, Leigh was repelled. She jerked her gaze from his, and gestured to the painting on the wall, a painting that Logan wouldn’t have let hang even in a closet under ordinary circumstances. “I noticed that you were admiring this painting earlier.”
“Actually, I was admiring the frame, not the painting.”
“It’s early seventeenth century. It used to hang in Logan’s grandfather’s study.”
“You can’t be referring to that painting,” he said scornfully.
“I was referring to the frame. The painting,” she advised him with a twinge of amused vengeance, “was actually done by my husband’s grandmother.”
His gaze shifted sideways, from the painting to her face. “You could have spared me that knowledge.”
He was right, but Sybil’s arrival saved Leigh from having to reply. “Here’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she said a little too eagerly, and introduced the couple. “Sybil is a famous astrologer,” Leigh added, and immediately resented his look of derision.
Undaunted by his reaction, Sybil smiled and held out her right hand, but he couldn’t shake it because she was holding a drink in it. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” she said.
“I’m not sure yet,” Sybil replied, extending her hand farther toward him. “This drink is for you. Scotch. No ice. No water. It’s what you drink.”
Eyeing her with cynical suspicion, he reluctantly took the drink. “Am I supposed to believe you know what I drink because you’re an astrologer?”
“Would you believe that if I said it was true?”
“In that case, the truth is that I know what you drink because our hostess told me what you drink and asked me to get this for you.”
His gaze lost some of its chill as it transferred to Leigh. “That was very thoughtful of you.”
“Not at all,” Leigh said, glancing over her shoulder, wishing she could leave. Sybil gave her the excuse she needed. “Logan asked me to tell you he needs you to settle some sort of debate about the play tonight.”
“In that case, I’d better go and see about it.” She smiled at Sybil, avoided shaking Valente’s hand, and gave him a polite nod instead. “I’m glad to have met you,” she lied. As she walked away, she heard Sybil say, “Let’s find somewhere to sit down, Mr. Valente. You can tell me all about yourself. Or, if you prefer, I can tell you all about yourself.”
IT WAS AFTER 4 A.M. when the last guest departed. Leigh turned out the lights, and they walked across the darkened living room together, Logan’s arm around her waist. “How does it feel to be called ‘the most gifted, multitalented actress to grace a Broadway stage in the last fifty years’?” he asked softly.
“Wonderful.” Leigh had been running on excitement until they walked into their bedroom, but at the sight of the big four-poster bed with its fluffy duvet, her body seemed to lose all its strength. She started yawning before she made it into her dressing room, and she was in bed before Logan was out of the shower.
She felt the mattress shift slightly as he got into bed, and all she managed to muster was a smile when he kissed her cheek and jokingly whispered, “Is this how you thank a man for a fabulous ruby-and-diamond pendant?”
Leigh snuggled closer and smiled, already half asleep. “Yes,” she whispered.
He chuckled. “I guess I’ll have to wait until tonight in the mountains for you to properly express your gratitude.”
It seemed like only five minutes later when Leigh awoke to find Logan already dressed and eager to leave for the mountains.
That had been Sunday morning.
This was Tuesday night.
Logan was lost somewhere out in the snow . . . probably waiting for Leigh to do something to rescue him.
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