When the Stars Fall Down

When the Stars Fall Down

Anne Stuart

August 2017 #16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-779-3


 
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Rita Award winning title

"Desert Isle Keeper” – All About Romance Reviews


Jessica Hansen’s success and icy calm hide painful secrets and a past that shapes her life. That is, until she meets Springer MacDowell, her best friend’s son. One decision sets off a series of cataclysmic events that rip apart her safe life.

Retreating to an old summer house in Vermont, Jessica slowly learns to accept friendship, the past, and the new family she’s made. She’s building a hopeful future, until Springer comes back into her life, ready to shatter her new-found peace.

Will these two survivors ever learn how to belong? Can they heal enough to make a family theirs?

Anne Stuart recently celebrated her forty years as a published author. She has won every major award in the romance field and appeared on the bestseller list of the NY Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and USA Today, as well as being featured in Vogue, People Magazine, and Entertainment Tonight. Anne lives by a lake in the hills of Northern Vermont with her fabulous husband.

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Excerpt


Chapter One

The Slaughterer, vol. 87: Tombs of Blood

MATT DECKER SURVEYED the carnage around him. He was a man’s man, out to battle injustice and destroy it wherever he found it, with no weak-kneed government giving him limp excuses. Decker was judge and justice, an avenging jury, better known as the Slaughterer.

Slowly, carefully Decker picked his way over the bodies that lit­tered the El Salvador sidewalk, his trusty companion, best friend and lover, the Smith & Wesson .45 by his side. His job was done here; it was time to move on.

Back to the real world, back to the compound hidden deep in the bowels of the ugliest, best city in the world: New York. He rubbed a bloody hand across his sweat-streaked face and looked north. It was good to be a man, in a man’s world, he thought.

Who knows where his next assignment might come from? Wher­ever evil stalked the world, wherever injustice flourished. Matt Decker was there to combat it, to wipe it out in a blaze of gunfire. Someone once said there were eight million stories in every city. As of the last census they might be down to seven million, but Matt Decker, the Slaughterer, could seek out and find that one story that needed his own particular brand of expertise. He gave his smoking Smith & Wesson a fond look and moved into the shadows. It was time to start.

JESSICA HANSEN dropped the cheap paperback thriller onto her desk and looked down at her thin fingers as they tapped the teak-and-glass surface in front of her. Her hands were curiously small for someone of her height, the fingers narrow and nervous-looking, the discreetly elegant rings hanging loosely. A perfect pearly shade of pink adorned the long nails, nails that were expensively maintained at a Madison Avenue salon for a price that didn’t bear thinking about. For a mo­ment Jessica stared at her fingertips, a sign of pampered affluence that proclaimed her free of mundane activities such as dishwashing, typing or gardening. Like a Chinese empress, she thought distantly, turning her thin hands over to survey the soft, useless palms. Not a sign of the cal­luses of her childhood, not a mark anywhere, except for the faint, spi­dery tracing of scars across her delicate wrists. So faint that no one else had noticed them or come up with difficult questions she’d rather not answer.

She turned her palms back down toward the desk, banishing the thought of those scars from her mind with her customary efficiency. She leaned forward and pressed the intercom buzzer. "Jilly, hold all my calls.” Her voice had its usual smooth, self-controlled calm, never hint­ing at the turmoil that kept her stomach knotted and her hands clenched in fists.

"Mr. Kinsey is expecting you in half an hour, Jessica.” Jilly’s effi­cient British voice returned, but beneath it Jessica could hear the soft note of concern.

So much for the efficacy of her mask, she thought wearily. "Which Mr. Kinsey? Peter or his father?”

"The old man himself. I don’t know if it’s important or not.”

"A word to the wise, Jilly,” Jessica managed in a perfect drawl. "When the president of the company wants to see you it’s always im­portant.”

"Even if he’s going to be your father-in-law?”

"Especially if he’s going to be your father-in-law,” Jessica said. "Though you know as well as I do that nothing’s official.”

"Not yet.” Jilly’s voice left little doubt that it was just a matter of time. Whether that voice approved or not was another matter. "Shall I tell the old man you’ll be up?”

Jessica hesitated. Never had she made a decision based on emotion rather than professionalism in her enormously successful career at Kinsey Enterprises. Indeed, there’d been no room in her life for emotion at all. Until recently, when she’d been unable to fight the crushing depres­sion that was hobbling her.

"Call Peter for me, Jilly,” she said suddenly, giving in to temptation and despising herself for it. "Tell him... tell him something’s come up. Have him head his father off.”

"Something concerning the Lincoln merger?” Jilly suggested, under­standing far too well.

"Yes... no. Then they’d want to know what it is. Tell him I’ll ex­plain later. He’ll cover for me.”

"Of course he will. Is there anything I can do, Jessica?” The con­cern wasn’t even masked at this point, and at the other end of the disem­bodied voice, alone in her spacious office, Jessica grimaced in sudden pain.

"No, thanks, Jilly. I just... have a wretched headache and too much work to get done to deal with interruptions. I owe you one.”

"Anytime.”

The intercom went dead. It was already late Friday after­noon—almost everyone had left the headquarters of Kinsey Enter­prises, everyone but the workaholics. Her desk was clear, spotlessly neat, not a trace of work in sight, with Hamilton MacDowell’s latest install­ment of The Slaughtererbeckoning with all its gory glory. She turned to look out the wide windows, past the Turner landscape that hung on her walls, to the New York skyline, never noticing that her hands had once more clenched into fists.

At the age of thirty-one Jessica had her life ruthlessly under control. She had climbed to just within reach of the top of her profession, that summit shimmering in sight, about to drop into her lap like a ripe plum. Vice-president of Kinsey Enterprises, Inc., she was about to become engaged to the president’s charming, intelligent, cultured son, she was the pampered protégé of old Jasper Kinsey himself and she was in the midst of overseeing a merger with the Lincoln Corporation that would pull them back from a dangerous precipice and quite possibly double their already substantial profits. So why was she sitting at her desk, her hands clenched in front of her, wondering how in the world she was going to escape?

Could it be burnout? Jessica had taken seminars on the subject, deter­mined to avoid anything that could derail her corporate success. Financial and personal triumph loomed directly ahead, her past put firmly, completely behind her. The taste of success was sweet, she told herself, ignoring the hint of ashes in her mouth.

Her hand unclenched to push through her hair. What there was left of it. The wheat-colored tendrils were beginning to reach just below her small ears, and thoughtlessly, nervously, her hand clutched at the razored strands. She’d have to have it trimmed again, she thought ab­sently, pushing it back as she ignored the sudden rebellious thought. She didn’t want to go in for her biweekly trim, she didn’t want Felipe nagging at her, forcing food on her, clucking in that maddening way as he sculpted the shining honey-blond cap.

"Only you could wear your hair this short and still look feminine, dar­ling,” he’d fussed last week. "But don’t you think it’s time for a change? Here, eat some cannoli.” He’d shoved the rich pastry in front of her, and it had taken all her resolve not to throw up in his face. It would have served him right. "You’re beginning to have a faintly concentra­tion-camp kind of look to you, and the hair doesn’t help. Eat, for heaven’s sake!”

Even now, the thought of food made her gag. She hadn’t eaten enough in the last few weeks to keep a bird alive, and she knew it. But knowing it wasn’t enough to work up an appetite. Jessica had spent so much of her life fighting to keep off the extra pounds that could so easily creep up and turn her five-foot-eight-inch frame into a graceless lump that the thought of being too thin was incomprehensible.

Restlessly she pushed back from the desk to stride over to the win­dows. New York was dark and dirty that summer afternoon, the op­press­siveheat and humidity trapping the smog and smothering the city with it. Up on the thirty-seventh floor Jessica could feel the darkness invade her light, airy office, and not even the lemon-yellow carpet, her one concession to frivolity in the past ten years, could dispel it. Her feet were silent as they crossed the room, the tap of the leather shoes muffled in the deep buttery pile. The heavy weighted door to her private bath­room opened silently beneath her thin nervous hands and shut just as silently behind her. Leaning against the marble sink, she stared at her reflection.

The Snow Queen stared back. The Ice Princess, encased in her imper­vious calm. Large, assessing, chilly blue eyes filled her thin face, shadowed by pale mauve shadows that Elizabeth Arden couldn’t quite disguise. The ruthlessly short blond hair stood in spikes around her head, setting off her small ears, delicately pointed chin and nose. Her mouth was large and pale and unused to smiling, and the face she turned to the world was one of unruffled calm and control.

Her Ralph Lauren suit was hanging loosely around her tall, slender frame. Felipe, damn him, was right; she was getting too thin. At this rate anorexia was right around the corner. But somehow nothing could make her eat. And Peter seemed to find her slimness—no, her skinni­ness— attractive. Maybe she should gain weight, she thought, with a flash of mocking, uncustomary humor.

It must simply be nerves about the merger. A great deal rested on its outcome. Her career, perhaps, her relationship with Peter, the future of Kinsey Enterprises. Once it was safely wrapped up, she’d feel more like herself again. Although who that self was, she couldn’t quite say.

She looked up from her slender, elegant body. Concentration camp in­deed! The ice-blue eyes looked into their mirrored partner; the cool, controlled, distantly amused false smile that she had perfected over the years played about her pale lips. And then, to her absolute horror, the face in the mirror crumpled suddenly in uncontrollable grief and despair. And Jessica quickly turned away, unable to witness her own naked pain, and remembered.

NO ONE COULD have called it a happy childhood, not by the wildest stretch of the imagination. And yet Jessica had always comforted herself and her sisters with the doubtful assurance that others had it far, far worse. After all, their parents stuck together, through thick and thin, on the wagon or off, clinging to each other with what surely must be a deep, abiding love. Many of their friends’ parents were divorced, the children forced to shuttle back and forth between two stilted, guilt-ridden house­holds. At least they still all had one another.

They weren’t beaten, or abused. Certainly, Daddy had knocked Maren against the wall one night when he’d been drinking and she’d come in late from a date. He’d called her a tramp, ordered her from the house, and it had taken all Jessica’s tact and diplomacy to soothe the raging belligerence of her father, the tearful defiance of her seventeen- year-old sister, while their mother kept silent behind the locked guest- room door. The little peacemaker, her father had called her during his sober days. The little mother, trying desperately to make things all right, he’d said, laughing and promising to change. And he would change, for weeks, months—even, on one glorious occasion, for two miraculous years of sobriety. But then something would happen and he’d be back again, the tearful, bellicose, sodden heap of a man taking over her father’s charm­ing persona.

And Jessica would tell her older sister, Maren, and her younger sis­ter, Sunny, that they were better off. Some people’s parents never stopped drinking, never even tried. Look at Uncle Bob Lemming’s fam­ily. Not that he was really their uncle, just a drinking crony of their father’s from way, way back. And at least it wasn’t all bad. Mother and Daddy were never down at the same time. Once Daddy started drinking, Mother would become strong and maternal, the wage earner, the domi­nant force, relying on Jessica to keep the home going, the meals on time, her sisters in school. Until Daddy would begin to pull himself up again, go back to AA meetings and then Mother’s nerves would shatter, and it would be time for Daddy to be sober and strong. All the while the three children would cling to one another for comfort and safety.

At least there was enough money. Daddy’s drinking was never so bad that he lost a job. He was a very bright man, was Lars Hansen, a talented, charming engineer with an astounding ability to get the job done. Employers gladly overlooked his periods of diminished effective­ness,knowing from long experience that they didn’t last for­ever.

Except that sometimes they seemed to. There were no dates for Jessica, who was too tall and too fat and too caught up in trying to hold her family together, in soothing her father’s insecurities, in healing her mother’s fears, in bringing up the family that would fall to pieces without her. There were no friends for Jessica, who spent her spare time reading and daydreaming when she wasn’t struggling with the bland, packaged carbohydrate-laden food her mother bought for Jessica to prepare. There was no peace for Jessica, who balanced her maternal concern between her parents and her rebellious sisters, Jessica who tried so desper­ately to make everything all right and who couldn’t help but fail in the face of overwhelming odds, time and time again.

There was only this life and this family she had been born into, was trapped in. She used to daydream about going off to boarding school, being with other girls, away from the constant demands that over­whelmed her. She knew she could never go, even if her parents would part with the money. She wouldn’t even go to college, not until Sunny and Maren had escaped and her parents had come to some sort of peace. They couldn’t make it without her, could they? None of them could. No, her life could wait, just a few more years. She was only fifteen—Maren was going to the University of Minnesota that fall, Sunny was their high school’s most promising track star. Jessica knew exactly what she was running from.

But when Jessica was fifteen everything changed.

Maren was away at college, and there were only the two of them. For a while things were more peaceful. Daddy wasn’t drinking, and Mother, though lost in a chronic depression, seemed to have controlled her rages. Maren still bore the scar from one of those rages—the time their mother had smashed all the china, a large shard flying across the room and embedding itself in Maren’s right leg.

And Jessica allowed herself to breathe a tiny sigh of relief, until the af­ternoon when she came home from school and found her father passed out on the sofa, and Uncle Bob Lemming waiting for her, his reddened face wreathed in a smile, the look that she had come to expect and dread in his bloodshot eyes, the smell of Scotch on his breath.

SPRINGER MACDOWELL slid his long, long legs back down into the cramped confines of his 1963 Lotus Europa and started the engine, listening to the instant purr with a distant satisfaction. Satisfaction with his car, but not his life. Why was he doing this again? Why did he let himself in for the complete, unutterable weariness of driving cross-country every year, and for what? For the dubious pleasure of seeing the old man who by some accident had fathered him and then betrayed him, that twenty-year-old betrayal still raw in Springer’s soul. Returning to New York every summer only brought back all the pain and doubt and anger that he usually managed to squash down, and even the presence of his mother couldn’t prevent it all from spilling over. So why did he come?

The western Pennsylvania highway stretched out in front of him, heat shimmering from the pavement, the lush greenery passing in a blur. His eyes were trained on the road with single-minded concentration, a concentration necessary after three days on the road with only the bare minimum of stops. He knew that if he took his time he might never make it to New York, might turn around and head back to the West Coast, and to hell with everything. But he’d promised his mother, prom­ised Elyssa that he’d try one more time to heal the broken ties with his bastard of a father. Too many people had broken their promises to her—he wasn’t going to be another one, even if it killed him.

It wouldn’t. He’d seen his father too many times in the past twenty years; he knew full well he could deal with it, even managing to be pleas­ant if the situation called for it. But Hamilton MacDowell wasn’t fooled. He knew his son hated him, he knew why, and there was absolutely nothing he could or would do about it except stumble through Elyssa’s periodic attempts at reconciliation with the same miserable grace that Springer mustered and breathe the same sigh of relief that Springer did when they finally were released from each other’s onerous presence.

Releasing some of the pressure from the accelerator, Springer stretched the long legs that had given him the nickname that still clung to him. John Springer MacDowell, king of the Princeton basketball court, second only to Bill Bradley in the college’s history, Springer MacDowell of the mile-long arms and legs and the devastating hook shot that had made more than one professional recruiter drool and then weep, as Springer calmly and resolutely turned his back on their lucrative offers. Hamilton had been too proud of his son, too eager for Springer to succeed. Once aware of his father’s belated paternal pride, Springer had done the only thing he could think of to punish the old man. He’d enlisted in the marines with the express purpose of rubbing the liberal old man’s nose in it.

But that, too, had backfired. It wasn’t Hamilton MacDowell who suf­fered from the deprivation, the soulless, violent agony that was war. It was Springer, who since his father’s betrayal had done everything he could to squash down any signs of sensitivity, Springer who had to deal with the soul-destroying despair warfare brings. Still had to deal with it.

Reaching up, he pushed the mirrored sunglasses up to rub the bridge of his nose. It was a definitive nose, not quite Hamilton’s impos­ing beak, but a determined, hawklike blade nonetheless, giving his face a brutal look not tempered by the high cheekbones, deep-brown—almost black—eyes and thick straight, silky black hair. His mother had likened him to an Indian, knowing full well he got his spectacular looks from her, not the father who had bequeathed him the bladelike nose and a legacy of pain and hatred.

Women had always responded to those looks, to Springer’s im­mensely tall, wiry body, the distant, beautiful face and those dark, unfath­omable, lost eyes. And Springer had always taken advantage of that response, taking what was offered with pleasure and irresponsibility and a complete disregard for commitment. Even his brief marriage hadn’t curtailed his activities.

Only a reluctant maturity had done that, so that now, at age thirty-five, he’d gone for the longest period of celibacy since the discov­ery of his father’s betrayal. It had been five months since he’d slept with a woman, and he was in no mood to remedy that situation. He was mortally tired of faceless bodies, of casual sex, of the ritual mating dance that ended before it even began, ended in a tangle of sheets and limbs and performances. Maybe he was more like his father than he wanted to believe.

He’d promised Elyssa he’d stay for a month. Already the time loomed ahead like a prison sentence. He wouldn’t get in till well past midnight—that would kill one day. Only twenty-nine after that. His strong hands clenched around the leather-covered steering wheel, and once more the large foot in the well-worn Nikes pressed down on the accelerator. The sooner he got there, the sooner he could be gone. The Lotus sped along the Pennsylvania highway like an arrow, straight and true to the heart.

ONLY A TRACE of redness marred the cool blue beauty of Jessica’s eyes as she slid behind the empty desk once more and waited, waited for God knows what. It must simply be stress, she told herself firmly. Under­standable stress, caused by the upcoming merger that depended so much on her initiative and her ability to charm Rickford Lincoln during the upcoming weekend, not to mention the changes her expected success would wreak in her life. The vice-presidency was everything she had worked for, everything she had longed for. Peter Kinsey, charming, passive, clever, would propose marriage. It would be a good match for her, a sensible, advantageous mating of brains and blue blood and ruth­less ambitions. They would both supply the brains—her determina­tion would more than make up for her Scandinavian blood, which wasn’t quite WASPish enough. In the past few months Peter had been devoted, charming and diffident enough to allow her to keep the relationship on a platonic level. But once the merger went through, the engagement formalized, she’d have no more excuses. None that he would believe, anyway.

It was going to be a busy weekend, no doubt of that, and she’d have felt a lot better able to face it if she’d had more than a few hours of sleep every night during the past week, if she’d managed to eat more than a mouthful or two at her irregular meals. Rickford Lincoln was a recently divorced man in his late sixties, a big, powerful bull of a man eager to celebrate his new freedom, and Jessica had the distinctly uneasy impres­sion that he wanted to celebrate that freedom with her. What had started out as sly glances and comments during the early part of the negotiations several months ago had quickly graduated to semiserious propositions, seemingly innocent touches that always managed to graze her flat buttocks or the gentle swell of her breasts. She’d used that attrac­tion, played with it with masterful cleverness, stringing him along to the point of agreeing to the merger with no more than a promising smile, just the right amount of reluctance in moving out of the way of his damp, clutching fingers, and the hint of wonders to come in her cool blue eyes.

It had worked, as it had worked so often in the past during her climb up the corporate ladder. A smile here, a word there, always stop­ping just short of cementing it with an affair. Not that anyone had real­ized she did stop there—she had the reputation of being a cool cus­tomer, ready to discreetly sleep her way to the top. So far she had man­aged to avoid it with practiced skill, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could do so.

Her priorities were clear, and sooner or later she’d have to pay the price. Her ambitions and talents had stood her in good stead, leading her to Jasper Kinsey’s table, Peter Kinsey’s side, a vice-presidency in Kinsey Enterprises, Inc., and a future as part of that wealthy, safe family. And if that future included trading her body for Peter’s practiced caresses, then it could have been far worse. He was never rough, never inconsiderate in their restrained petting, and she was very skilled in simulating responses that left him convinced she would be a mass of passion when they finally made love, and that he would be capable of satisfying her as no man had ever had. And in a way, he would. She loved the holding part of sex, the gentle stroking that preceded and followed the act, the feeling of safety cradled in his arms. If her limited experience in making love had left her cold and removed, she knew well enough how to disguise that fact, could always disguise that fact with her actress’s ability.

Or at least she had been up till now. Her one experience a few years earlier had been unpleasant and undignified, but her partner, a self-satisfied lawyer named Philip Mercer, had been convinced of his prowess. She could convince Peter just as easily. Rickford Lincoln might prove to be a different matter.

"Jessica, are you in there?” Jasper Kinsey’s bluff tones were unmis­tak­able, and for a brief, mad moment Jessica considered diving under the desk. Jilly was long gone, no longer able to run interference for her, and Peter must have failed in his bid to distract his father’s atten­tion.

Quickly she ran a nervous hand across her dry face. Just what she needed—a confrontation with old Jasper’s far-too-observant eyes.

Of course she had no time to duck. She dropped her hand, raised her head and presented her cool, Snow Queen smile to her future fa­ther-in-law and current boss as he strode into her office.

"There you are, Jessica,” he said in an accusing voice. "Peter was try­ing to tell me some nonsense about you being tied up. This is an important weekend; I don’t need to tell you that.”

"No, Jasper, you don’t need to tell me that,” she said evenly. "I’ll be coming out to the Hamptons tomorrow morning, definitely before noon. I have a few things to clear up.”

"Rick Lincoln is coming out tonight.”

A small shiver of distaste ran across her backbone, but her face was impassive as always. "I know, Jasper. And he’ll be there for the entire weekend. I’m sure I won’t be missed for the first night.”

"I wouldn’t be sure of any such thing, Jessica. You’ve handled this merger very nicely, very nicely indeed. Lincoln is ready to be landed like a fish on a line, and we need to be certain you don’t let him wriggle off.”

Jasper gave her what passed for a benevolent smile, but Jessica wasn’t fooled, even for a moment. No one had said a word, not even the slightest hint had escaped that anything more than corporate wheeling and dealing was expected of her. But somehow, somewhere she had gotten the uneasy feeling that she was the sacrificial lamb to be offered to Lincoln’s aging libido, with Jasper and Peter Kinsey the benevolent bystanders. And the idea was destroying her almost nonexistent appe­tite, robbing her of her sleep, and stringing her nerves out until she was ready to scream.

But damn it, it wasn’t their decision. It was her body. It had always been her choice how she used it. It still would be. She wasn’t going out to the Hamptons until she decided how she was going to handle things if push came to shove. After all, what did one night mean when balanced with millions of dollars’ profit, security and power for the rest of her life? She was more than adept at turning her mind into a peaceful blank when the situation called for it.

"I know what’s expected of me, Jasper,” she said in the cool, tran­quil voice that was one of her greatest assets, not sure of any such thing. "You can trust me to handle this. Have I ever let you down?”

"No.” He granted her that. "But what the hell’s keeping you from coming out to the house tonight?”

Jessica’s thin fingers clenched around the paperback book, and sud­den inspiration struck. "I promised Elyssa I’d see her,” she improvised quickly, always a gifted liar when the situation called for it. "Of course, I can always call her and cancel.”

Jasper Kinsey had two ambitions in life. One, to found a financial em­pire beyond his most avaricious dreams. The realization of that ambition was tantamount to impossible, given the scope of his greedy fantasies, and his second goal was just as farfetched. He wanted to marry Elyssa MacDowell, a woman he’d coveted for almost thirty years. He was no closer to her bed than he had been when he first met her, when she was the child-bride of Hamilton MacDowell, but he never gave up hope. His almost doglike devotion hadn’t interfered with his voracious sex life, but Elyssa was still a weak point in Jasper Kinsey’s stalwart defenses.

"No, no.” It was an immediate about-face. "You go see Elyssa. But be with us in time for lunch, Jessica. I’m going to have a hard enough time making excuses to Lincoln about tonight.”

"Have Peter make them for me,” she suggested.

Jasper gave her a sharp, suspicious look, but she merely continued her distant composure. "I’ll do that,” he said finally. "By eleven tomor­row, Jessica. I’m depending on you.”

"You know that you can.”

Jasper specialized in abrupt departures. Jessica sat there, watching the empty doorway, listening to the sound of his footsteps echoing down the deserted hallways of Kinsey Enterprises on a late Friday after­noon.

The reprieve made her almost dizzy with relief. She leaned back in her chair, weakly grateful that fate had allowed her that last-minute inspira­tion. Elyssa had already told her she was spending the weekend at her ex-husband’s town house. Her calm, good sense and undemanding warmth would soothe away Jessica’s rough edges, and Hamilton’s acer­bic wit would brighten her up again. And she could continue out to the Kinseys tomorrow morning feeling far more able to face the decisions the coming night might or might not bring.

She picked up The Slaughterer again, smiling fondly at Hamilton MacDowell’s bearded photograph on the back cover. Matt Decker’s creator would provide the perfect haven of rest and reflection that she so badly needed. Tossing the novel in her purse, she pushed away from the desk and headed out into the dubious freedom of the weekend.


 

 

Chapter Two

HAMILTON MACDOWELL was a big, bluff, hearty bear of a man, witha mane of thick gray hair, a full beard, a stomach that attested to a life of enjoying good food and the wit and soul of a bon vivant. He greeted Jessica with an exuberant hug, crushing her against his body, towering over her Nordic height, held her away and clucked his tongue.

"You looked starved, my girl. Doesn’t Kinsey let you get anything to eat? I’m all for pleasures of the flesh, but food is one of them. Woman cannot live by sex alone.” He released her, long enough to turn to his ex-wife with the same welcome, tinged with a melancholy sadness that always seemed to edge his dealings with Elyssa MacDowell. "Elyssa, my love. You look absolutely ravishing, as always.”

Elyssa smiled faintly, used to Ham’s hyperbole, returned his kiss and settled comfortably against him as he flung one beefy arm around her narrow shoulders to lead her into the compact little town house they had shared for more than fifteen years. Though in this case, Hamilton’s words were no exaggeration. Elyssa MacDowell was quite simply stun­ning, her fifty-six years sitting on her with a grace and beauty that magi­cally seemed to increase with time. She was small, fine-boned and slender, with silver-gray hair, cropped close to her head that had once been silky black. Her eyes were a dark, liquid brown, her faintly lined brow serene, her mouth gentle, her nature solid as a rock. She smiled up at her ex-husband with real, uncomplicated love.

"I hope we didn’t disrupt any plans, Ham,” she said in the low, well- modulated voice that was part and parcel of her charm. "But Jessica has a case of terminal gloom, and I decided it was our duty to try to cheer her up.”

"My pleasure, darling, but how will young David feel about losing your company?”

"He’ll survive,” Elyssa replied dryly, pulling out of his embrace with a grimace. "As long as old Johnson doesn’t mind.”

"Touché,” Hamilton said lightly. "It’s your business if you choose to become involved with a man not much older than your son.”

"Yes, it is,” she replied, matching his lightness. "Just as it’s your busi­ness if you choose to become involved with a man old enough to be your father.”

Ham let out a short bark of laughter. "Don’t let Johnson hear you say that. He prides himself on his youthful appearance.”

"Is he here?” Elyssa looked about her with distant curiosity.

"Heavens, no. Have you forgotten that Springer is due sometime in the next few days? I have no intention of rubbing salt into old wounds.”

Jessica looked up, startled, from her perusal of the Picasso that adorned one wide, white wall of the eclectic town house. "Your son is coming? I had no idea, Elyssa, or I never would have intruded. I know how seldom you see him.”

"Hush, hush, little one,” Hamilton murmured, the only human be­ing who could call her that and get away with it. "If he does happen to show up an added presence will only ease matters. Springer and I have never gotten along, despite Elyssa’s best efforts, and he’s only here un­der duress. I don’t really expect him for another day or two, anyway. In the meantime, your presence this evening will be a delightful respite. But you must promise to eat. When Elyssa called to tell me you were coming along, I became positively inspired, and I won’t have you insulting my boeuf en daube.”

"You know perfectly well I don’t eat boeuf in any language,” Jessica replied tartly, her first real smile of the day taking the sting out of her words. "I’ll have to settle for cottage cheese and canned peaches.”

Hamilton shuddered theatrically. "Try it and I’ll force-feed you, and I have little doubt Elyssa will help. Have you ever heard of anorexia nervosa, darling? It’s looming on the horizon if you don’t watch your­self.”

"Yes, I would love a drink,” Jessica said firmly, flinging her ex­hausted body down on the white sofa that somehow never seemed to show a mark.

"Dubonnet Blonde?” At her nod Hamilton bustled off in the direc­tion of the kitchen. He already knew Elyssa’s taste from their years of marriage. "And I’ve made a nice little mustard chicken for you, darling. Nothing to compromise your high morals.” With a little wave his burly figure disappeared into the kitchen.

"Why the stricken face?” Elyssa questioned softly, ever observant.

"Just Ham’s choice of words,” Jessica replied, giving herself a tiny shake. "My morals don’t feel very uncompromised right now.”

Elyssa nodded, used to Jessica’s frank speaking, knowing full well that she spoke so openly to no one else. They had become friends when Jessica had first arrived at Kinsey Enterprises, a cool, determined Snow Queen, just out of college and ready to conquer the world. Elyssa was a major stockholder and one of Jasper Kinsey’s oldest friends, a warm, bright lady with capabilities far exceeding her limited social duties as the token woman on the board of trustees. For some reason Jessica’s cool­ness and Elyssa’s warmth had blended, and their unlikely friendship was the one real relationship Jessica could count on.

"Some problem with the Lincoln merger?” Elyssa probed gently.

"Not necessarily. Perhaps I’m just being paranoid,” Jessica said mo­rosely, then swiveled in her seat to look beseechingly up at her friend. "You don’t suppose Peter and his father are planning to have me sleep with old Lincoln just to cement the deal, do you?”

Elyssa hesitated, clearly torn between honesty and a desire to reas­sure her. That hesitation was answer enough, and her words did little to improve matters. "I don’t really know. I think Jasper’s capable of turning a blind eye if it helps business, but I don’t know about Peter. I do think he really loves you, and I can’t believe he’d want anyone to hurt you. But my opinion isn’t the point. What do you think?”

Jessica shrugged, the familiar black gloom and indecisiveness set­tling down around her. "I don’t know. I suppose I’ll find out soon enough. We’re all going to be out at the summer house this weekend; things should be pretty obvious by the time we get back to the city. I don’t suppose I could talk you into coming with me.” It was a forlorn hope, and reluctantly Elyssa shook her head.

"David’s got all sorts of plans for this weekend, and you know how possessive he can be,” she said apologetically.

Jessica knew full well how possessive David Linnell could be, and not for the first time she wondered how Elyssa could stand his petulant displays of temper. Of course, David Linnell was thirty-nine years old, arrogant and extremely attractive. And after Hamilton’s dereliction Elyssa somehow needed that demanding possessiveness that Jessica found infuriating. She managed a tight smile. "Of course. But what about your son, if and when he shows up?”

A small frown wrinkled Elyssa’s wide, usually serene brow. "We’ll work it out,” she said vaguely, and Jessica repressed a disbelieving snort. If David had his way, Elyssa would sever all her relationships with friends and family, existing only for his selfish wants. He and Jessica frankly and quietly detested each other, he recognizing her as a major threat to his control, and she despising his petty demands. How the introduction of Elyssa’s adored son into the ten-month-long relation­ship would change it remained to be seen.

Hamilton bustled in, his imposing paunch swathed in a white apron, bearing a tray of drinks with a silver frame tucked under one arm. Serving the drinks with a flourish, he whipped out the framed picture, setting it on the polished cherry end table with a fond swipe at an imagi­nary speck of dust. "Have you ever seen my son, Jessica?” he inquired with intense paternal pride.

Jessica stared at the silver-framed photograph, her mouth hanging open. "That’s Springer?” she inquired faintly. He was laughing at the photographer, the black hair ruffled by a brazen wind, the eyes crinkled against the bright sunlight, a warmth and light love in those immensely dark eyes. You could fall into those eyes, she thought dazedly, fall into those arms, get lost in that beautiful mouth.

She quickly summoned forth her coolest smile. "He’s very good- looking,” she said distantly. "How come you don’t keep his picture around?”

Hamilton laughed. "Are you kidding? If any of my friends took a look at that picture, they’d be showing up at any hour of the day or night, and somehow I don’t think Springer would take to that too well. He only comes here under duress as it is—I doubt he’d care for the kind of atten­tion my friends would give him.”

"I take it he doesn’t approve of you,” she said delicately.

Hamilton shrugged. "You could say so, indeed.” Immediately he changed the subject. "That’s a great photograph, isn’t it? Elyssa took it a couple of years ago when she went out to visit him. That’s why he looks so loving.” There was no bitterness in Ham’s voice, only a deep sadness, and Elyssa reached out a slender, ring-less hand to touch his arm in silent, loving sympathy.

"Don’t, darling,” she said softly, and Ham smiled, his ruddy face ac­cepting. "You’ll make peace with him. Sooner or later,” she added.

He nodded, placing one meaty hand over her slender one. "Ever the trusting, loving one, eh, Elyssa? I’ll have to believe you’re right in this case. I just hope it’s sooner, rather than later.” He gave himself a shake, rather like a massive Saint Bernard shedding water, and beamed at Jessica. "We’re doing a fine job of cheering Jessica up. What do you say the three of us kill a couple of bottles of champagne? We need to celebrateyour upcoming engagement, at the very least, and my upcoming rap­prochement with my son. And what do we have to celebrate for you, Elyssa?”

"I’m thinking of moving in with David,” she said, her calm, even voice unruffled.

Ham winced, and even Jessica was hard put to look properly enthusi­astic. "Champagne sounds like a wonderful idea,” she said finally.

"And you’ll sleep over, Jessica? Elyssa was planning on spending to­night anyway, and you know there’s always room for you. I don’t want a drunken lady wandering around town unescorted.”

She had done it often enough, with the entertaining addition of Hamilton’s current lover, the elderly and charmingly malicious Johnson Endicott, and Jessica nodded her agreement. "But we’ll have to send out for more champagne, Ham,” Elyssa warned. "It’ll take more than that to put a dent in the sobriety of two hard-boiled women like us.”

"Hard-boiled,” Ham scoffed. "Maybe you are, Elyssa, but Jessica’s a frail lamb beneath her disguise.” His voice was absolutely serious, and Jessica stared at him sharply, her eyes narrowed. But all Ham did was smile back at her blandly. "Don’t give me that icy look, my Norse god­dess. You don’t fool me for a moment. And when you get back from cavorting with your soulless fiancé, I want you to come over and meet my son. Maybe he can put some color in your cheeks and some meat on your bones. Of course, I’m not saying whose meat.”

"Ham!” Elyssa reproved on a muffled laugh. "Besides, I think you’ll find Springer’s changed.”

"What, he’s no longer screwing every woman in sight?” his father scoffed. "I thought he’d still be trying to prove he’s not the man his father is.”

"I think, I hope, I pray he’s coming to terms with who and what you and he are,” Elyssa said slowly.

"He’s had more than enough time,” Hamilton grumbled. "I’ll order more champagne. Moet or Piper?”

"Royalties still as good as ever, Ham?” Jessica inquired lazily from her perch on the comfortable sofa.

Ham shrugged self-deprecatingly. "What can I say? The world seems to be enamored of the Slaughterer and his bloodthirsty adven­tures. As long as I turn out one every two months I can safely keep us all in imported champagne.”

Jessica lifted her glass. "Here’s to the Slaughterer.”

Ham responded. "And here’s to my favorite ladies.”

Elyssa raised her white wine. "And here’s to happy endings.”

"Unrealistic, my dear,” said her ex-husband.

"Wishful thinking,” said her friend. And they both drank.

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