Authors: Elizabeth Bevarly
Oh,Mama, what have you gone and done now?
Kit McClellan clapped a hand over her open mouth and marveled at what her mother's attorney was telling the family she had left behind. Although the reading of a will wasn't usually performed these days with the formality it once was, Hatton Abernathy had gathered the remaining McClellans together to do so, thereby fulfilling the late Lena Hensley McClellan's final wishes.
And, evidently, to let fly a couple of the late Lena Hensley McClellan's final zingers, too.
"The entire estate is to be placed in trust for two years," Mr. Abernathy repeated, directing his words toward Kit's father, Holt McClellan, Sr. "No one—neither you nor your children, nor anyone else for that matter—will be receiving an inheritance any time soon."
To Kit, the announcement was immaterial. Frankly, she couldn't care less about her mother's money, and would gladly surrender every nickel if it meant bringing Mama back. Being rich had never made any of them particularly happy, anyway. Except, maybe, her father. She turned her attention to him to see how he was handling the news.
Oooh. Not well. She'd never seen hisfaceturn quite that color before.
"I'm afraid I don't understand," he told Mr. Abernathy. "Why would she put the entire estate into trust?"
"She never stated a reason," the lawyer said blandly, "and I never asked for one. But at the end of that two years, she indicated that one of two things should happen."
Kit's father narrowed his eyes but said nothing, waiting for the attorney to continue.
"Mrs. McClellan had a rather strong fondness for six local charities, and she expressed a desire for those charities to inherit the entirety of her estate."
Kit flinched at the sound of the word, thundering throughout the room as it was when shouted by her four brothers in addition to her father. She glanced down the row of chairs to her left, to see how the rest of the McClellans were handling the news.
About as well as her father was, she decided. Bart, the youngest of her older brothers, looked dazed and stiff. Dirk, next up the line, looked dazed and surly. Mick, the second born, looked dazed and distracted. And Holt, Jr., the oldest, looked dazed and drunk. Yep. All of them seemed to be handling this pretty much the way she would have expected them to.
Mr. Abernathy went on as if no one had spoken. "One possible scenario of your wife's wishes would be that, at the trust's expiration, the business would be sold, the holdings would be dissolved, the assets would be liquidated, and all of it would be distributed to the organizations Mrs. McClellan indicated. One donation in your name, Mr. McClellan, and one in the names of each of your children."
Kit's father paled. "We, uh, we're talking about a hundred million dollars here, Abernathy."
"Ninety-nine-point-four, actually," the attorney corrected him.
No one said another word. In fact, the silence was so profound that Kit could scarcely hear a thing. Even the surly April wind outside seemed to have stopped blowing in light of the attorney's announcement.
Her father finally interrupted the silence, voicing, Kit was sure, what was of utmost importance in his life. "I was under the impression thatLena's money would come directly to me," he told Mr. Abernathy. "Why would she change her will this way?"
The attorney eyed her father coolly as he offered, "She never said."
"Well, when did she do it?"
"Almost three years ago."
"Three years ago?"Holt, Sr. roared. "My wife changed her entire will, stripped her family of everything, and no one bothered to inform me forthree years?"
"Mrs. McClellan asked me to keep the change confidential," Mr. Abernathy said smoothly. "And frankly, Mr. McClellan, it was none of your business."
"None of my business."
Uh-oh, Kit thought. Her father was getting way too calm now. Then again, so was Mr. Abernathy. He actually appeared to dislike her father, which was very surprising. Not the part about him disliking her father—that was no surprise at all. There weren't that many people whodidlike her father. But itwassurprising that Mr. Abernathy would make no secret of his animosity. People always at leastpretendedto like her father.
"I don't think I need to remind you, Mr. McClellan," the attorney said, "that the money was never yours to begin with."
A muscle in her father's jaw twitched. Hoo-boy, was he mad.
"No. You don't need to remind me. My father-in-law, God rest his miserable soul, always made it clear that I would never get my hands on the Hensley fortune as long as he—and his daughter—were alive. But after he died,Lenaagreed that if she went before I did, I was to inherit the bulk of the estate. And I made damned sure things were in order."
Mr. Abernathy's mouth tightened into a thin line. "Yes, well, the money was still hers to do with as she pleased until she died. And it pleased her to give it to charity."
Holt, Sr. emitted a derisive snort. "And she never gave you a reason for why she wanted the change?" he asked again.
"None." Mr. Abernathy seemed to weigh his options for a moment, then added, "Although she appeared to be quite angry about something at the time."
"Angry?" her father echoed. "What the hell didLenaever have to be angry about? She had a perfect life."
Oh, nowthat,Kit thought, was open to debate. Naturally, her father would think her mother's life was perfect. Hey, what had he ever bothered to learn about Mama's experiences, anyway? Jack, that's what. Although to all outward appearances, the McClellans of Louisville, Kentucky, certainly seemed to have it all—wealth, prominence, education, fame, you name it—Mama would've had a thing or two to say about the actual quality of life in the McClellan household. Starting with the quality of her own.
What on earth could have happened between her parents "almost three years ago" that would have made Mama do something like this? Knowing her parents, it could have been anything.
Only four days had passed since her mother's death, but Kit felt an emptiness inside herself that seemed to go on forever. She felt lost without her mother. Mama had always been the one stable force in her life. She'd been the only person who had ever stood up for Kit, the only one who had ever even tried to understand her. The only person who'd ever really loved her. And her only advocate during that whole Michael Derringer thing almost three years—
Like an iridescent bubble, realization popped in Kit's head, and suddenly she understood. Almost three years ago. Her mother quite angry. Thinking back now, Mama had been more furious than Kit had ever seen her in her life the night Daddy had paid off Michael Derringer in exchange for abandoning his only daughter.
"The second scenario of your wife's final wishes," Mr. Abernathy continued then, stirring Kit from her thoughts, "would, at the trust's expiration in two years, have the family inheriting the entirety of Mrs. McClellan's estate."
Six McClellan heads snapped up at the announcement.
"Well, hell, Abernathy," Holt, Sr. said, "why didn't you say so in the first place?"
Ignoring the question, the attorney continued, "For the family to inherit, one criterion must be met before the trust's expiration."
"Name it," Holt, Sr. stated emphatically.
"Miss McClellan," Mr. Abernathy said, dipping his head toward Kit, "must be married."
"What?"This time the exclamation came from Kit.
The attorney glanced over at her and smiled warmly in spite of the bombshell he had just dropped. "If you are legally married within two years' time, Miss McClellan, then your family will inherit your mother's estate, in full. However, should you choose to remain single, then the estate—every last penny—will go to charity. It's that simple."
He turned his attention back to the McClellan men and added, "Mrs. McClellan also indicated that no one in the family should marry until her daughter does. Should one of the boys—or you, Mr. McClellan, for that matter—marry before Miss McClellan does, then the estate would go to charity."
"But—" Kit started to object. Unfortunately, no other words emerged to join that one. Because she had absolutely no idea what to say.
Interpreting her silence as understanding, instead of the total confusion it really was, Mr. Abernathy continued. "For two years, the business and holdings shall continue on as usual, but they and the other assets will be managed by me and my firm, as Mrs. McClellan indicated they should be. The family will continue to reside here at Cherrywood, and all will receive their normal allowances. Really, your lifestyles will remain virtually unchanged. At least, until the trust's expiration.After that, well…What happens then will be entirely up to Miss McClellan."
Somehow, the words sank into Kit's muddled brain until she understood what her mother had done. Whether her family kept or lost their fortune was entirely up to Kit, and no one would be getting married until she did herself. When she glanced up, she wasn't surprised to find every set of eyes in the room directed her way, and she could only imagine what they were all thinking.
Holt, Jr. was probably wondering how prudent he'd been to let his wife divorce him last year. Mick, on the other hand, had always made it clear that he preferred adventure to matrimony anyway. And Dirk was far too morose for dating. Bart was going to be upset, though—he'd gotten pretty tight with Donna lately.
All of them, however, doubtless had one thought circling in their heads over all the others. There was no question that they were all wishing they hadn't chased off Kit's date for prom night. Or for the Spring Fling. Or homecoming. Or Dorian Asquith's twenty-first birthday party. Or on any of the other aborted attempts she'd made to have a social life.
Her father's thoughts, however, were the ones that Kit found most interesting. Mainly because she pretty much knew what was going through his head.
"Gee, Daddy," she said, her voice emerging as little more than a croak. "Guess you're feeling pretty silly now about paying off Michael Derringer the night before my wedding, aren't you?"
Her father said nothing, just turned that odd shade of purple once again.
"But you know what'sreallyironic in all this?" she ventured further, amazed at her nerve. "Michael's happily married now with a baby on the way, and the business he started with the money you gave him is absolutelybooming.I'm not sure I couldeverfind another man like him. Even if I had two whole years to look."
Almost two years later…
His life fit very nicely into seven boxes. Three of those boxes contained books. Two held his music collection. One housed the sort of small appliances that made a single man's life complete—digital alarm clock, coffee maker, wet/dry razor, portable CD player. And one box—the biggest one—held all the designer suits and pointy-toed Italian shoes a man could ever use in one lifetime. All in all, he had everything he needed to start a new life.New city. New house. New job. New wardrobe.
He was a new man.
Restlessly, he scrubbed a hand over his nape, still not quite comfortable feeling the brush of frigid February air on a part of his body that hadn't been exposed for almost half a decade. The heat and electricity were working fine in the house in Old Louisville on which he had closed three days before. But thanks to the ice and wind of his first Kentucky winter that currently pelted his new home, the radiators in the old brick Victorian were taking their time warming up the roomy three-story structure. And because he hadn't yet bought any new furniture to furnish his new life, save a mattress and box springs to sleep on, there were no lamps for him to light to keep the darkness at bay.
A chill wound through him in spite of the leather jacket hugging his shoulders, so he puffed briefly on his bare hands and shoved them deep into the pockets of his blue jeans. Then, unable to tolerate the darkness any longer, he crossed the empty living room, continued without slowing through the dining room, and entered the kitchen, where he flipped on the overhead light. The sputter of the bare fluorescent bulb spilled a perfect bluish-white rectangle of illumination into the dining room, creating at least the illusionofwarmth. And in spite of all the misgivings eating him up inside, he sighed with much satisfaction.
Tomorrow he would start his new job as executive vice president in charge of finances at Hensley's Distilleries, Inc.,Kentucky's premiere producer of fine Bourbon whiskey. Frankly, he'd never much planned on becoming a high-powered corporate suit again. But, at thirty-two, he needed a change. And he had something to prove. Hey, it wasn't like his new position was something he couldn't handle, right? He'd been in a far more demanding position before. Granted, it had been one that had nearly destroyed him as a human being, but still…
Things would be different this time. Holt McClellan, Sr., the CEO of Hensley's, and the head of the family that had run the distillery for more than a century, was crazy about him. Although he had been a bit surprised to find himself seated across from the Big Guy himself when he'd interviewed for the position, he was fully confident he'd won the old man's approval. And although he didn't kid himself that someday he'd take over as CEO himself—Hensley's was, after all, a family-run business, and McClellan had five kids, one of whom was a VP himself—he knew he could be happy there for some time. Or, at least, until he had proved his point.
His new home was thelandofBourbon, tobacco, and thoroughbred horses, the greatest trio to come along since wine, women, and song. What wasn't there to like here?
Pushing away from the kitchen doorjamb, he sauntered slowly back toward his living room. His boot heels scuffed softly over the hardwood floors, and his nose filled with the combined fragrances of old dust and neglected fireplace. He absorbed the quiet, the solitude, the darkness. And he felt very, very good inside.
A new life in a new place for a new man. Nothing but blue skies and smooth sailing ahead, he promised himself. He decided to overlook the fact that the sky had been gray since his arrival and that he'd never sailed anywhere in his life. Because hey, what could possibly go wrong?
* * *
Something was very, very wrong.
As he folded himself into one of thirteen chairs that surrounded the long, mahogany table bisecting the boardroom of Hensley's Distilleries, Inc., the hair on his nape leaped to attention. And it had nothing to do with the haircut on which he'd spent more than he normally paid for a good lube job. There was definitely something strange about the entire collection of Hensley's executives, something that bothered him significantly. He just couldn't quite say what it was.
He watched as Holt McClellan, Sr., CEO, seated himself at the head of the table beside his son, Holt McClellan, Jr. "Gentlemen," he said, clearly unconcerned that his greeting excluded the solitary female who sat at the other end. "Good morning."
"Good morning, sir," the executives replied with all the precision of a Broadway chorus line.
McClellan, Sr. sifted through a small stack of papers before him as he announced, "I assume you've all heard by now that we've filled Riordan's position. Pendleton is our new VP in charge of finances. I hope you'll all make him feel welcome."
Pendleton,he repeated to himself. CorporateAmerica, he recalled now, had an Ellis Island-like habit of changing the names of its citizens. Simply put, no one had a first name in this particular country. Only a last name, a career label, a personnel number, and a tee time. Pendleton, he supposed, he would be from now on.
"Thank you, sir," he said to his new employer. McClellan, Sr., who most closely resembled a white-haired Burt Lancaster playing his most eccentric role to the hilt, bowed his head in silent acknowledgment of Pendleton's gratitude. Pendleton tried not to throw up.
The other executives nodded and welcomed him quietly, but somehow their greetings seemed a bit strained. Pendleton shrugged off his odd feeling to new-kid nerves, greeted them quietly as a group, then turned his attention back to his employer.
"We have a lot to cover today," McClellan, Sr. continued. "We're launching our new ad campaign next month, and with this new FCC ruling, we may very well be returning to television.Carmichaelis handling that and will give us her report shortly."
He nodded toward his sole female executive, who nodded back in silence, each of their expressions somber and intent. Suddenly, Pendleton wondered if there was some kind of secret handshake or something that he should have learned in training.
"Also," the CEO went on, "as much as I hate to give in to the annoying little buggers, I honestly don't think we can ignore the Louisville Temperance League any longer. Though what those people think they're going to accomplish in this day and age, I can't begin to imagine."
Beside him, McClellan, Jr. grunted something that Pendleton assumed was an agreement. And he had to confess himself that he couldn't recall hearing the wordtemperanceuttered by anyone anywhere in oh, say … his entire lifetime.
"For now, though, I've decided to let Holt, Jr. here handle them," McClellan, Sr. continued.
Much, evidently, to his son's surprise. Because McClellan, Jr. turned to face his father as the other man was making the announcement, his face etched in obvious surprise and consternation.
In profile, Pendleton noted, the two men looked almost exactly alike, save the evidence of the twenty-five or thirty years separating them that McClellan, Sr. clearly wore with honor. McClellan, Jr., even sitting, was as tall as his father, as good-looking, as blond as the senior had probably been in his youth. He also appeared to be every bit as capable, as self-assured, and as intimidating as his old man was now.
"Hold on," he said to his father without a trace of deference, something that went a long way toward putting him on Pendleton's list of people to be admired, a list that was none too lengthy. "Just when were you planning on telling me about this?"
The elder McClellan eyed his son with much impatience. "I'm telling you now."
"Oh, well, thank you so much for the warning," the younger man said sarcastically.
"I had to tell you sooner or later, Holt," his father retorted with equal sarcasm. "Otherwise, you wouldn't know what the hell you were doing."
McClellan, Jr. ignored the jab. "And do you think it's wise to put me in charge of something like that?"
McClellan, Sr. shot his gaze abruptly—anxiously—around the table before pinning it back on his son. "And why the hellwouldn'tit be wise, son?"
McClellan, Jr. narrowed his eyes at his father, and a single muscle twitched in his jaw as he clenched his teeth. Hard. My, my, my, Pendleton thought, but this was getting rather interesting. He'd never worked in a family-run corporation before, though he'd heard tales from colleagues in like positions. He'd always wondered how true to life TV shows likeDynastyandDallashad been. Not very, evidently, he thought now. Because the weighted responses of the two McClellans were proving to befarmore entertaining than either of those TV shows had been.
McClellan, Jr. was the one to break the standoff, though when he did, his words were in no way successful in cooling the antipathy burning up the air between the two men. "In light of the, uh…"He suddenly seemed to remember that the room was full of people—people who were focusedverycarefully on the byplay—because he quickly arced his gaze around the table, much in the same way his father had, before glancing back at the elder McClellan and lowering his voice a bit. "In light of the…situation…"he said meaningfully. At least, Pendleton assumed it was meaningful tosomebody."Don't you think it might be more…appropriate…for someone else to handle this?"
His father shook his head slowly. "I think thesituationbeing what it is, you're without question the perfect candidate for the job."
"But nothing," his father interrupted him. "You handle the temperance people. Now let's move on."
McClellan, Jr. obviously wanted to say more, but must have decided to do it elsewhere, because he only ground his teeth together and turned back toward the others without a further word.
So McClellan, Sr. continued. "We also need to address the asinine new law the boys inFrankforthave enacted against the tobacco companies," he said, "because I think we can safely assume that those joyless little bastards will be coming after the distillers next. We need to start planning our counterattack now. I've asked Novak and Martin to prepare a presentation, and I understand they're ready to proceed. Novak? Martin?"
Two men rose from the middle of the massive table, one bearing a big cardboard tube, the other with a collapsible easel tucked under one arm.
Oh, yeah, Pendleton recalled from some dusty, cobwebbed corner of his mind. The corporate presentation. He'd almost forgotten what those were like. Looked like his first day on the job was going to be a nice, long, boring one indeed. But then, was that really surprising?
The two men launched into an inflated dialogue about cost overrun and capital-intensive, punctuated with excessive use of the wordsparlayandutilize,and with frequent emphasis onimpactas a verb. Pendleton took that as his cue to ignore the pie charts and bell curves and view graphs and study his coworkers instead, quizzing himself in an effort to remember their names. He'd been introduced to each of them during training, and although his memory was exceptional, it never hurt to practice.
Rutledge, he recalled, eyeing the man directly opposite him, was VP in charge of public relations. To Rutledge's right was Hayes, VP in charge of research and development. Carmichael, the solitary woman at the table, headed up advertising.
One by one, Pendleton took in his colleagues, trying to note distinguishing characteristics of each of them that would help him keep names linked to faces. And that was when it hit him, what had initially bothered him when he first sat down at the table, what it was that seemed so wrong. Except forCarmichael, whose obvious lack of a Y chromosome, not to mention truly spectacular legs, would make her easy to remember, none of Hensley's VPshadany distinguishing characteristics. Except for McClellan, Jr., who was blond, all the executives looked exactly alike.
Like Pendleton, they were all dark-haired and appeared to have brown eyes. Seated as they were, the male contingent seemed to have heights, weights, and builds that were virtually identical. Even Chang, Bahadoori,Redhawk,Washingtonand Ramirez, whose clear ethnic backgrounds at least offered them some measure of individuality, all bore a marked resemblance in coloring and body type to every man present.Carmichael, too, was a brown-eyed brunette, tall and solidly built.
Good God, Pendleton thought, he was a Stepford Executive.
Certainly dark coloring was dominant over light, he tried to reassure himself, but still…Eleven people of nearly identical appearance kind of skewed the odds a bit. Surely there should be one or two blonds at least in the group. A Knutson or Wilhelm or Johannes or something. Of course, Pendleton was no expert on genetics—hey, who was?—but even he doubted that the odds of this kind of thing occurring were very—
He flinched at the sound of his name thundering from McClellan, Sr.'s end of the table. "Sir?" he responded.
"I asked what you thought about Novak's suggestion."
Pendleton bit the inside of his jaw and pretended to give the matter great thought. "I think, sir, that utilizing such a parlay might potentially impact productivity with a dynamic we can't possibly leverage at this time."
Oh, nowthathad been truly inspired, he congratulated himself. Man, it was amazing how this corporate stuff just never left you. One quick flick of a mental switch, and it was all coming back to him.
McClellan, Sr.'s snowy eyebrows shot up at his statement. "Do you?"
Pendleton nodded sagely, steepled his fingers on the table before him, and strove for a grim expression. "Yes, sir, I'm afraid I do. Not only that," he added, hoping he wasn't taking the training wheels off too soon, "but channeling such a core strategy that way could decentralize market-driven revenues." He paused for a meaningful moment before adding, "And if I may speak frankly, sir?"
"By all means, Pendleton. You seem to be on a roll."
"Thank you, sir. But I wonder if Novak and Martin have fully considered the fact that the implementation of such a trend might rouse the concern of the AFL-CIO, the NLRB and the TUC, not to mention the FCC and ATF. Furthermore, in my opinion, a discussion of P and L, PPI, GNP, and AGI wouldn't be out of place here."
Now McClellan, Sr. nodded as he gave lengthy consideration to the weight of Pendleton's argument. Finally, he said, "Yes, I think I see what you mean. And you may be on to something."
Pendleton leaned back in his chair. "Of course, sir, ultimately the decision is yours to make."
"Yes, it is." He turned to the two men at the front of the room. "Novak, Martin, I think you need to go back and expand your presentation to include all the concerns that Pendleton just raised."
The two men glared venomously at Pendleton.
"And you can pitch it again on Thursday. That's three full days. Surely you can implement the data by then."
A sudden tic assaulted Novak's eye as he said, "Yes, sir."
McClellan, Sr. turned back to Pendleton. "I think you're going to be a fine asset to Hensley's, Pendleton. A fine asset indeed. Come around to the house tonight, will you?"
This time Pendleton was the one to arch his eyebrows. "Sir?"
"Cherrywood. It's where I live. InGlenview. See Margie for my address. I'll expect you for drinks at six. Dinner will be at seven." Then, without missing a beat, he directed his words once more to the others present. "I don't think we're going to have time forCarmichael's input today, so we'll postpone that until Thursday, along with anything else anyone wanted to discuss. It's getting late, and you all have work to do. Now get out."
The first to follow his own instructions, McClellan, Sr. rose from his chair, turned his back on his executives, and disappeared through a door behind him. Then, with a brief nod toward the other VPs, McClellan, Jr. followed immediately behind, closing the door with a softclick.
"Oh, way to go, Pendleton."
He looked up to find Novak smiling at him now, with what appeared to be heartfelt delight. As was Martin. Before he could comment, however, a chuckle greeted him from the other side of the table. When he turned, he saw that every other VP present was smiling the same sort of smile.
"What?" he asked.
In response, the others only chuckled some more. Finally Rutledge stood, casually buttoning his double-breasted blazer as he did so. "You, uh, you might want to make sure you're armed when you go to the old man's house tonight, Pendleton. An Uzi ought to cover you just fine, though you might want to hide a little something extra in your sock, too."
Redhawk nodded. "Yeah, like a bazooka."
Chang concurred. "And Kevlar under your Hugo Boss wouldn't be out of place."
"The boys are relatively harmless,"Carmichaelsaid with an odd smirk.
"But watch out for the girl," Bahadoori added.
Dizzy from his confusion, all Pendleton could ask was, "The girl?"
"She bites,"Washingtonclarified, gnashing his teeth for illustration.
Pendleton, too, finally stood, gathering up his portfolio in the process. "I'm afraid I have no idea what you guys are talking about."
They all chuckled even harder at that. "Yeah, we know," Ramirez said gleefully, obviously speaking for everyone present.
"But you will,"Carmichaeltold him, winking. She was halfway to the door before she turned around, a thoughtful expression on her face. As she scanned Pendleton quickly from head to toe, she nodded with what he could only assume was approval. Then she added, "Just between you and me, Pendleton, you might be exactly the man for the job."
Cherrywood, the McClellan home, was a majestic brick Georgian monstrosity perched high on a majestic green hill in majesticGlenview, an enclave for the way too rich just outsideLouisville. The house was nestled amid huge, majestic trees—probably oaks and maples that were doubtless even more majestic when they weren't stripped of foliage by the winter chill. Because the sun had just set, the house was awash in soft, golden, majestic light, thanks to majestic outdoor illumination hiddeninthe majestic landscaping.
All in all, it was very majestic.
Pendleton rolled his car to a stop in the cobbled court in front of Cherrywood and simply sat behind the wheel, staring. A house with a name. God. He didn't begrudge anyone the material rewards that came with success. Hell, he planned to buy a few of his own once his paychecks from Hensley's started kicking in. But no one should be allowed to have as much money as the McClellans obviously had. There was just something very unbalanced about it.
Nevertheless, he supposed it wasn't his role in life to decide who got what and how much. So he pushed the thought away, opened the door of his brand new BMW roadster—okay, so he'd already bought himself a material reward—and unfolded himself from inside. The winter wind whipped around him again, and he tugged the collar of his Ungaro overcoat—okay,twomaterial rewards—up over his bare neck. Then he approached the McClellans' front door as he checked the time on his Breitling watch.
All right, all right.Threematerial rewards. But that was it.
Noting that he was a few minutes early, he lifted leather-clad fingers to the brass door knocker, an art deco sun with an expression on its face Pendleton could only liken to completely soused. After four quick falls of the knocker, he stepped back to await a response. Within seconds, the door opened, and he was met by a slender, white-haired woman with a very nice smile.
"Mrs. McClellan?" he asked.
She shook her head slightly. "Mrs. McClellan passed away almost two years ago. I'm Mrs. Mason, the McClellans' housekeeper. You must be Mr. Pendleton."
TheMr.part surprised him for a moment. Even having been employed at Hensley's for such a short time, he had already begun to think of himself as justPendleton."Yes, ma'am," he returned with a smile of his own.
"Please come in," Mrs. Mason told him, stepping to the side of the door. She swept an arm toward the interior, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it felt like it was about forty-two below zero outside.
As he entered and watched her close the door softly behind him, Pendleton noted that she wore the traditional livery of a housemaid—a plain black dress with white collar and cuffs. She lifted her hands at shoulder level, and for a moment, he wondered why she was surrendering. Then he realized she was waiting for him to remove his coat so she could hang it up for him. Feeling a little self-conscious, he unbuttoned himself, turned around, and let the woman who was his mother's age help him out of his coat.
And he made a mental note to remember that if he ever rose to the status of filthy, stinkin' rich, he'd never hire anyone to undress him.
Pendleton found himself standing in a foyer bigger than most suburban living rooms. It opened onto an ivory-colored, softly lit hallway that extended a good fifty feet before ending in a staircase that wound up to the next story. The hardwood floor was buffed to honey-colored perfection, and topped with the biggest Oriental rug he'd ever seen, woven of the softest colors he could ever imagine—apricot, ivory, pale blue. Along the walls, flowered loveseats beckoned to visitors, while marble-topped tables boasted a variety of knickknacks and family photographs, antiques, and fresh-cut flowers. Above the furnishings hung massive oil paintings of hunt scenes that—just a shot in the dark here—must have cost a small fortune.
Halfway down the hall were two large entryways facing each other beneath elaborate molding, the French doors of both thrown open wide in welcome. Muffled voices emerged from one of the rooms, though Pendleton couldn't have said which. He glanced at Mrs. Mason in silent question.
"Mr. McClellan and the boys are in the library," she told him. "Miss McClellan hasn't yet come down."
The girl. Pendleton recalledWashingtongritting his teeth and decided that Miss McClellan must be the one with the overbite that he was supposed to watch out for.
"The library?" he asked, pointing first to one entryway and then the other.
Mrs. Mason smiled benignly, and Pendleton couldn't help but wonder if she really, really hated her job. "On the right," she told him with a quick gesture.
She dipped her head forward in silent acknowledgment, and Pendleton stiffened a bit, uncomfortable with her display of deference. He wasn't much one for being deferred to, mainly because he wasn't much one for deferring. Unless, of course, his paycheck depended on it, and even then, it stuck in his craw. He gazed toward the door the housekeeper had indicated, but paused before taking a step.
He hadn't bothered with the Kevlar that Chang had suggested, but he had opted for his Hugo Boss. Now he ran a hand quickly over the finely woven, charcoal-colored wool, nudged a little tighter the Valentino necktie knotted expertly at his throat, and made his way toward the room Mrs. Mason had indicated. The sweet aroma of old books and cigars met him first. Then he entered a room furnished in Early Rich Guy, occupied by four of the more contemporary versions.
The library was small when compared to the brief sample he'd seen of the rest of the house, but it was still bigger than the studio apartment Pendleton had occupied while he was in college. Nevertheless, intimacy prevailed here. The ceiling was low and decorated with ornate molding, and the walls on three sides were covered with shelves—most of them crammed full of books in every color and texture available. Interspersed with the books were more knickknacks, more family photographs, more antiques. Another massive Oriental rug, this one spattered with rich jewel tones of emerald, ruby, sapphire, and topaz, spanned much of the floor, while illumination came from twin torchieres of brass and milk glass that stood sentry on opposite sides of the room.
"Pendleton!" McClellan, Sr. greeted him the moment he rounded the entry. "There you are, at last."
"Am I late, sir?"
McClellan, Sr. waved a cigar gregariously through the air. "Not at all. You're right on time. Cigar?"
Pendleton had actually always preferred Marlboros, but he'd quit smoking almost five years ago. So naturally, he now nodded enthusiastically at his employer's offer. "Thank you, sir."
"They're Cohibas," his host stated, as if Pendleton should know what that meant. "Would you prefer a Churchill or a robusto?"
Now this was going to be tricky. The Cult of the Cigar was something that had flourished in the years that Pendleton had been away from high-powered corporate life. Although he recalled that Churchill was a rather prominent figure from twentieth-century British history, he couldn't imagine smoking the man. And, of course, he had absolutely no idea what a robusto was.
Finally, he replied, "Why don't you choose for me, sir?"
McClellan, Sr. nodded his approval as he headed for a small wooden box that sat alone on a table near an oxblood leather chair. "All right. You seem like the robusto type to me. And these are very mild. You'll love them," he added as he deftly snipped the end off the cigar with a tiny pair of strangely shaped scissors.
"Thank you, sir," Pendleton said as he took the proffered cigar.
He rolled it between his thumb and forefinger as McClellan, Sr. had done upon removing it from the box, then, because he'd seen James Bond perform the gesture in movies, he lifted it to his nose for an idle sniff. What exactly he was sniffing for, he couldn't have possibly said. But the cigar did have a rather pleasing, bittersweet aroma.
Holt McClellan, Jr. stepped in with a flick of what appeared to be—and doubtless was—a solid gold lighter, and Pendleton puffed robustly on his robusto with what he hoped was acceptable relish.
McClellan, Jr. was the oldest of four sons, Pendleton knew, and, judging by the little scene with his father earlier in the day, the younger McClellan seemed to be agreeable enough. Probably in his mid-thirties, the junior was clearly planning to take over the reins of Hensley's upon the senior's retirement. Likewise, it was clear that the senior McClellan was grooming his namesake for just such a scenario.
"What do you think?" McClellan, Jr. asked after Pendleton had enjoyed a good half-dozen puffs.
As fluent as Pendleton was in corporate speak, he'd received absolutely no education at all in cigarese, so he had no idea how to answer. So he casually expelled a stream of fragrant white smoke and replied, "That, McClellan, is one fine cigar."
"Pendleton, I'd like you to meet my other sons," McClellan, Sr. interrupted. "Holt, as you probably know, is the oldest. Mick, my second, is currently unavailable."
"Last we heard, he was hugging the side of some mountain inTibet. That was a good month ago. God only knows where he is now.Transylvania, maybe."
"He's working his way around the world in alphabetical order," McClellan, Sr. said.
Pendleton arched his brows in surprise. "Wouldn't it be more prudent to go around the world in a more, shall we say, geographical manner? East to west? North to south? That kind of thing?"
"Well, Mick never did like doing things the easy way," his employer stated negligently. "Says it's not manly."
McClellan, Sr. moved toward a sandy-haired son who appeared to be about Pendleton's age. But instead of the corporate uniform of suit and tie, this younger McClellan was dressed in a pair of baggy, cognac-colored corduroys and an even baggier, burgundy-colored sweater. Chic tortoiseshell glasses were perched on his nose, and his dark blond hair was bound fashionably—or perhaps rebelliously, if one was a McClellan—in a shoulder-length ponytail. Like his father and brothers, he was armed with a cigar, and he was clearly not afraid to use it.
"Dirk, here," McClellan, Sr. continued as he clapped a hand over his son's shoulder, "is a professor of men's studies at U of L."
"Men's studies, sir?" Belatedly, Pendleton realized he had asked the question of his host, and not of the man who could more accurately answer it, thereby dismissing young Dirk in a manner that showed Very Bad Form. After voicing the question, Pendleton sensed instinctively that he had committed a grave faux pas.
He also sensed it by the way Dirk stiffened and clutched his drink with enough force to whiten his knuckles. And also by the snippy little tone in the other man's voice when he assured Pendleton, "Men's studies is anextremelyimportant part of the liberal arts curriculum at U of L. It's an area of scholarship that's been sadly neglected for far too long, on campuses across the country."
In comment, all Pendleton could manage was, "Ah." In no way did he mean for the remark to be encouraging. Unfortunately, Dirk took it in exactly that way.
"Proponents of men's studies," he continued, still rather snippily, "delve far more deeply into the realm of manhood than the unfortunate stereotype that lingers from the genesis of the men's movement."
"Ah," Pendleton murmured again.
And again, Dirk misunderstood. "The fur-wearing, drum-beating, poetry-spouting stereotype, I mean," he continued. "The one that people have come to associate with anyone who has the temerity to suggest that a man's experience in the world is every bit as important as a woman's. God forbid we should let men have their say in this the late twentieth century. Oh, no."
Pendleton nodded, hopefully sympathetically, and reiterated, "Ah."
"The father-son relationship alone," Dirk went on, evidently anxious to don his own metaphorical fur and beat his own proverbial drum, "is an area rife for scholarly study. Do you realize how many perfectly good men have been ruined by a total lack of fathering?" he demanded, arcing his cigar through the air for emphasis.
"Ah … no."
"Or worse still, by shoddy fathering? Do you realize how many men have fathers who were never even present in their lives? Fathers who spent their weekends working instead of tending to their sons' needs? Who left the entire shaping of the male experience to their sons' mothers, for God's sake? Who selfishly thought it more important to carve a niche forthemselvesin the world, instead of helping their sons form some kind of cohesive—"
McClellan, Sr.'s single-syllable interruption put an effective—and immediate—stop to Dirk's meandering, though, Pendleton had to admit, compelling, thesis.
"Anyway," the younger McClellan concluded, glancing down at his Hush Puppies. "My work is very,veryimportant."
"Ah," Pendleton said again. Then he expanded his response by adding, "I see."
"And this," McClellan, Sr. said as he moved on to the fourth son, "is my youngest boy, Bart. We're fortunate that he could be with us tonight. Normally, he makes his home inCampLejeune, but he's visiting on leave. Marines."
Actually, Pendleton probably could have guessed that part, seeing as how young Bart waswearing his dress blues, complete with sword, in spite of the fact that the occasion was dinner with his family. Then again, he thought, recalling his colleagues' warnings of that morning, maybe keeping a sharp object within reach at all times wasn't such a bad idea.
By way of a greeting, Bart snapped to attention and saluted Pendleton. Actually saluted him. How very off-putting.
"Captain Bartholomew McClellan,sir,"he corrected his father's introduction and avoided Pendleton's gaze.
"Uh," Pendleton replied eloquently, suddenly unsure what to do with his hands. So he only clutched his cigar more tightly."Semper paratus?"
Bart's hands sprang to the small of his back, then he spread his legs and assumed a new position Pendleton supposed was meant to look more relaxed, but not really. Still avoiding his gaze, Bart replied formally,"Semper fidelis. Semper paratusis the Coast Guard."
"Ah. Well.Semper fidelisto you, too."
Bart nodded once, then turned to his father. "Request permission to speak with you about a private matter, sir?"
"Of course, Bart." McClellan, Sr. puffed his cigar a few times, then eyed his youngest son warily. "This isn't about that Donna person again, is it?"
Bart's face suddenly flamed fuchsia, a color that did nothing to complement his uniform. His gaze flickered once to Pendleton, then back to his father. "Da-a-ad. I told you it'sprivate,"he whined softly.
As McClellan, Sr. and Captain McClellan moved to the other side of the room in quiet conversation, Pendleton considered McClellan, Jr. and Professor McClellan again. For a moment, he wondered where the three sons' wives were. Then he decided quickly that the McClellan testosterone level being what it was, the little women were probably all at home skinning fresh kill, and wondering what to do about the waxy yellow buildup on their husbands' pedestals.
The McClellans were, to say the least, a colorful family. For some reason, Pendleton felt as if he had suddenly stumbled into a Preston Sturges movie circa l930ish, replete with a cast of the usual suspects. The only thing missing was the madcap heiress, a perky little redhead in a gold lamé gown, who had an equally perky little name. Like Pepper or Dody or Annabelle or—
Yeah, that'd do.
At McClellan, Sr.'s outburst, Pendleton turned to greet what he assumed could only be the mysterious, toothsome Miss McClellan. But instead of a redhead, he found himself staring at what his mother referred to as a dishwater blond. And in place of the gold lamé gown was a little black dress that fairly shrieked,Va-va-va-voooooom.Miss McClellan herself, however, wasn't particularly little. Nor, he noted with some trepidation, did she appear to be in any way perky.
What she was in her black high heels was close to Pendleton's own six-feet-plus, and every inch of her seemed to crackle with energy. She wasn't by any means beautiful—her features were too angular, too strong, too striking, to be labeledbeautiful.Nevertheless, there was something very compelling about her. The smile she wore held a hint of mischief, and her blue eyes fairly sparkled with anticipation. What she might possibly have been anticipating, however, Pendleton was hesitant to ponder.
"You must be Pendleton," she greeted him easily as she drew near.
He tipped his head forward. "If I must be, then I suppose I am."
She threw her head back, giving her dark blond, chin-length curls a dramatic shake. Then she sighed with all the melodrama of a madcap heiress, and announced, "I'm Katherine Atherton McClellan. My friends call me Kit. You, however, may call me Miss McClellan."
"Kit," her father called from the other side of the room, his voice edged with warning. "Play nice."
She chuckled, her smile dazzling, and her gaze never left Pendleton's as she asked, "Who says I'm not playing nice?"
Oh, yeah. He could see her taking a bite out ofWashington. Easy. Probably from his butt.
McClellan, Sr. cut a quick swath across the library and stepped between him and Kit, though whether to make introductions or read them the rules of the fight, Pendleton couldn't have said.
"Pendleton," he began, his voice level and smooth, offering absolutely no clue as to what he might be thinking, "This is my daughter, Katherine. Call her whatever you want to. In my opinion, the list of possibilities is endless."
Something strangely melancholy shot through her expression at her father's words, but she recovered herself admirably. "Can I fix you a drink, Pendleton?" she asked.
"Yes, thank you." Automatically, he began to request his usual Scotch and water, completely forgetting for a moment who his new employer was. "Sco—uh, Bourbon and water," he hastily corrected himself when every eye in the room snapped toward him. "Or just, um…Bourbon straight over ice?"
"Good choice," Kit said smoothly. "After all, the only hard liquor we keep on hand is Hensley's. Duh."
It was then that Pendleton decided he would have to be on his guard around the sole McClellan female. Not just because she was impossible to gauge, but because she didn't keep Scotch in the house. He didn't care how well she filled out her little va-va-voom dress. Or that her long, long legs looked even longer thanks to the black silk hugging them. Or that her family had millions and millions andmillionsof dollars, not to mention a house with a name. They had no Scotch. And a man had to draw the line somewhere.
He watched her graceful movements as she plopped ice cubes into a cut crystal tumbler, then splashed a generous two fingers of Hensley's over them. When she returned to Pendleton's side, she was carrying another drink identical to the first, and was still wearing the same expression on her face—one that resembled a cat's, when it has one paw on a mouse's tail and the other on a catnip salad.
"So, Pendleton, tell me about yourself," she said as she handed him his drink.
He shrugged off the request, sipped his drink and tried not to gag. God, he hated Bourbon. "What's there to tell?"
"You big-wheeling corporate types," she said with a nonchalant wave of her hand. "Always so unwilling to talk about yourselves. Why is that, I wonder? Is it because you have absolutely no life outside the workplace? And because having to talk about yourself would just make you face the fact once and for all that, gosh, your life is just a big fat zero when it comes to leisurely enjoyment?"
Pendleton pretended to consider the suggestion as he sipped his drink again, then he shook his head slowly as he swallowed. "Nah. I'm pretty sure that's not it."
She shifted her weight to one foot and eyed him speculatively. "Okay, fine," she said. "Then let me just give you a little quiz I developed to better understand the people who work for my father."
"Oh, now wait a minute," he interjected, feigning concern. "No one told me there was going to be a test. I didn't have a chance to study."
"Oh, don't worry," she cooed. "I'll take it easy on you. Only multiple choice and true or false."
"I don't know," he hedged. "I was never very good at pop quizzes. Will there be math?"
"Maybe for extra credit. Question number one,"she continued before he had a chance to stop her. "I, Pendleton, received my MBA from (A) Harvard, (B) Stanford, or (C) Bob'sSchoolofBig Business."
He felt a smile threatening, so quickly bit it back as he replied, "A."
She nodded. "Question number two. I've always envisioned myself (A) as the ruthless, sadistic CEO of my own corporation, (B) retiring before I turn forty to sail around the world, or (C) following Jerry Springer's lead and hosting my own daytime talk show so I can meet lots of dysfunctional strippers with big hooters."
He gave some serious thought to that one, then replied, "D."
She narrowed her eyes. "D?"
"All of the above."
She considered his response, then evidently decided to allow him credit. "Okay. Final multiple choice, then we'll move on to the true or false portion of our exam."
Pendleton filled his mouth with a generous, fortifying sip of his drink, remembered belatedly that it was Bourbon, and somehow managed not to spit the entire mouthful on his examiner. "Shoot," he managed after swallowing, the word a bit strangled.
Kit smiled coquettishly, and for the briefest of moments, something inside Pendleton went zing.
"If I could be anywhere in the world right at this moment," she said, "I'd like to be (A) at home watchingXenaWarrior Princessand hoping it was an episode where she got wet at least once, (B) in the eye of a hurricane on a kayak with a broken paddle, or (C) why, right here with you, Miss McClellan—where else would I want to be?"
"Oh, now that's an easy one," Pendleton said smoothly. "I wouldn't think of insulting your intelligence by even bothering to answer that one."
She tilted her head to the side and eyed him with much interest, but gave no hint as to what she might be thinking. Instead, she straightened again and quickly launched into part two of what he supposed was the KMAT—the Kit McClellan Aptitude Test.
"True or false," she began. "I only receive theVictoria's Secret catalog by accident—I have never actually ordered anything from it."
She nodded, though whether she believed him, he couldn't have said.
"True or false," she went on. "When I'm flipping through myVictoria's Secret catalog, I always look at the faces of the models, too."
He started to fudge a bit on that one, then decided, What the hell, and told the truth. "Mmm…false."
She actually did chuckle at that one. But all she said was, "Final question. True or false. If given a choice between spending an evening with Mahatma Gandhi and Golda Meir, or twoVictoria's Secret models, I would choose the models."
He didn't have to think about that one at all. "Absolutely true."
Kit smiled at him again before turning toward her father, who had moved to the other side of the room, where he appeared to be caught up in a very important conversation with McClellan, Jr.
"Hey, Daddy!" she sang out. When her father's head snapped up at the summons, she called further, "Gosh, he's really cute and everything, and he seems to be more intelligent than the last two you got me, but I couldn't possibly keep him. Thanks, anyway."
Her father inhaled a deep breath, excused himself from the company of his oldest son, and strode across the room as if nothing in the world was wrong. Then he completely ignored his daughter and said, "Pendleton, would you mind joining me and Holt? We're discussing the new trade agreement withCanada."
And before Pendleton had a chance to comment—or to say goodbye to the enigmatic Miss McClellan and her gorgeous legs—his boss was leading him away.
Allthings considered, dinner didn't go nearly as well as happy hour, Kit decided. She drummed her perfectly manicured, coral-lacquered fingernails silently on the linen tablecloth, gazed at Pendleton sitting on the other side of the wisteria centerpiece, and pondered the benefits of lobbing a dinner roll at him. Ultimately, she decided it would have been frightfully impolite. Plus, she hadn't gotten a rise out of her father when she'd thrown summer squash at Novak last month, so why should a dinner roll make any difference tonight?
She sighed heavily, poked a fork into her ratatouille and guided the eggplant from one side of her plate to the other for aesthetic purposes. Seated on her left was the youngest of her older brothers, and on her right was a vacant chair. That was where she sat in the McClellan hierarchy. Just below Bart, right above the furniture.
She supposed it was something.
She snuck another peek at Pendleton from beneath her lowered lashes, and wondered why he intrigued her so much more than the others had. Probably because he was the first one who had actually passed her test, she told herself. He'd answered her questions honestly, and now she wasn't sure what to make of him.
Although he appeared to be exactly like every other man her father had paraded before her in the last two years—each of them bearing an uncanny resemblance to Michael Derringer—there was still something very unsettling about Pendleton. Worse, he unsettled her in a way that she hadn't been unsettled for a very long time now.
She hadn't been lying when she'd told her father that his new VP was really cute. Although, now that she thought about it, maybecutedidn't exactly suit this particular suit.Cutesuggested a certain boyishness, and there was nothing boyish about the man seated opposite her now. On the contrary, he seemed to possess a maturity that even her father lacked.
Then again, that wasn't necessarily a compliment.
With a quick mental shove Kit swept the thoughts out of her mind. Pendleton, for all his cuteness and maturity was corporate. Simply put, ick. And he was Hensley's corporate, at that. Double ick. Like she was really going to fall for one ofthem.
She would have thought by now that, in spite of his desperation, her father would have learned his lesson and stopped dragging her out to meet his latest acquisition. Butnooooo.Holt McClellan, Sr. would stop at nothing to save the family fortune, even if it meantfinallymarrying off his daughter after years of chasing off—or paying off—every man that had ever dared to come near her. And he wasn't even holding out for the highest bidder these days. He was entertaining any and all offers for his only daughter's hand in marriage.
Too bad for him that Kit wouldn't entertain even one.
Hey, her father had had his chance years ago, and he'd blown it. All of them had. If the McClellan men had just left her alone to marry Michael Derringer, none of this would be happening now. Hensley's would be well in her father's hand, her brothers wouldn't be starving for female companionship, and Kit would be as happily married as she was ever likely to be.
Instead of sitting here at her father's dinner table, wondering if a big ol' marinara stain would come out of a one-hundred-dollar necktie, or if Pendleton would just have to toss the expensive accessory in the garbage.
"So, Pendleton," she said as she fingered her spoon with idle interest, "have you gotten all settled in?"
He leaned easily back in his chair. "Actually, Miss McClellan, no. I've barely had a chance to unpack."
Telling herself that her curiosity about her father's new VP was no different from her curiosity about oh, say, the molecular structure of boron, she asked, "Where did you find a place to live?"
He met her gaze levelly, looking far too confident for her comfort. "I bought a house in Old Louisville."
Kit nodded, thinking the neighborhood suited him for some reason. TheEast EndandOldhamCounty, where most of the suits settled, were too new, too hip, too happening for someone like Pendleton. OldLouisville, with its big brick Victorians and big, inner-city trees somehow seemed a more likely choice. She could somehow see him fitting into an old, urban setting far better than a shiny, new suburban one.
"St. James Court?" she guessed.
He shook his head. "Two blocks over."
She uttered a softtsk."Newcomer. Ah, well, it's something you can work on."
"Actually, it is," he agreed with a broad smile that went way beyond boyish, and right into the realm ofhubba-hubba.But he said nothing more to clarify his remark.
So she steered the conversation down a new route. "You're not fromLouisvilleoriginally, are you?"
He chuckled, a rough, masculine sound reminiscent of a wind-swept canyon, and all Kit could think was,Ooooh, wow."Is it that obvious?" he asked.
"No," she told him honestly. "But Daddy hasn't hired anyone local for almost a year." She thought for a moment. "In fact, I think he's pretty much ruled out the entireMidwestnow, haven't you, Daddy?"
At the head of the table, her father wiped his mouth with a linen napkin, glared at his daughter, and ignored her question by taking a sip of his wine.
So Kit returned her attention to the man seated across from her, and lowered her voice to a stage whisper before confessing, "I have a reputation for being rather…oh, unpredictable, shall we say? By now, it's reached as far asChicago,Cincinnati, andAtlanta, thereby diminishing significantly the potential pool for Daddy to choose from."
To his credit, Pendleton offered no discernible reaction whatever. "Do you? I have a cousin who has a reputation like that."
Kit returned to her regular voice as she asked sweetly, "And is she an embarrassment to her family, too?"
Pendleton shook his head. "Not at all. We just love her to pieces on the weekends they let her out of the home."
Kit drummed her fingers more restlessly on the table. This wasn't going at all the way she had planned. "So where are you from?" she asked.
He hesitated only a moment, but it was long enough for her to see that he was stalling. "Before coming to Hensley's, I worked inPhiladelphia," he told her.
He shrugged, but she got the impression the gesture was anything but negligent. "Pretty much the same thing I'm doing now."
"Oh. You were making some rich, greedy corporation richer and greedier?"
He smiled as he nodded, obviously proud of his accomplishments. "Something like that, yes."
"So are you fromPhiladelphiaoriginally?"
She waited for him to elaborate, but he showed no sign that he would do so. She had opened her mouth to ask for more details when, for some reason, she turned her gaze to the head of the table. Her father was leaning back in his chair, his arms crossed over his chest, his attention utterly fixed on the byplay between her and Pendleton. He was watching her reaction to his new VP with great interest, a smug little smile playing about his lips. He looked to Kit very much like a man who was about to get exactly what he wanted. Like maybe ninety-nine-point-four million bucks in his name, and his daughter living under someone else's roof.
Ah, ah, ah, Daddy,she thought.Not…so…fast.
But as she thought further, a truly masterful idea began to take seed in the darkest corner of her brain. No, she told herself quickly, even as the idea took root. She couldn't dothat.Not to her family. Even if her familyhadbushwhacked every opportunity she'd had to put a little romance into her life. Even if theyhadchased off—or paid off—every guy who had ever taken an interest in her. Even if theyhadmessed up any and every chance she'd ever had to find happiness with a man…
She still couldn't dothatto them.
But bit by bit, as she considered her father's satisfaction with the way his little tableau was proceeding, the idea in Kit's head began to blossom. And slowly, she began to think that yes, maybe shecoulddo that to them. Maybe…
This situation with her father's new VP could work very well to her advantage. But she was going to have to make sure she played her rolejuuuuust riiiiight.
She smiled, the first genuine smile she'd felt in some time. And she asked, "So, Daddy…what's for dessert?"
* * *
"What's this all about?"
Pendleton's question diverted Kit's attention from the plotting that had kept her busy throughout dinner. When she turned, she found him gazing at the photograph that hung above the fireplace in the living room. The dinner party had retired here with the three C's—coffee, cognac, and cigars—to wind up the evening. Except that in the McClellans' case, the cognac was really Bourbon, because they didn't keep any other hard liquor in the house.
Like every other room in Cherrywood, the main living room was filled with old things—old furniture, old rugs, old smells, old memories. And an old black-and-white photograph blown up to poster size, which hung where most people would post a portrait of the family patriarch. Though, in essence, she supposed that was exactly what the photograph was.
"That's my great-great-grandfather, Noble Hensley," Kit told Pendleton.
"What's that big, um, machine he's standing next to?"
She smiled proudly. "That would be his still."
"He was a moonshiner."
Pendleton nodded. "How fortunate for him to have had the opportunity to make his living working out in the sunshine and fresh air like that."
"Iassume you've never been within smelling distance of a still, have you, Pendleton?"
"No, I can't say that I have been."
"I could tell."
Before she could elaborate, he gestured again toward the photograph and asked further, "And who are all those men surrounding your great-great-grandfather?"
"The ones with the guns?" she asked benignly.
"Those would be his VPs."
"They were always on the lookout for revenuers. Back then, Hensley's Distilleries, Inc. was known as Old Noble's still up in Hoot Owl Hollow." She pronounced "Hollow" as "Holler," as the locals would, giving her Appalachian heritage, of which she was extremely proud, its due. "Instead of things like research and development and public relations, Noble's boys handled things like corn acquisition andmidnightdistribution."
"The distilling business was much more romantic back then."
"And more dangerous, I'll wager."
Kit eyed him blandly. "Is there a difference?"
Pendleton eyed her back. "Between romantic and dangerous?"
"Don't you think there is?"
Now she shook her head.
He was driving Kit crazy with his total lack of reaction, especially when she'd been doing her best all evening to be annoying. And the complete absence of animosity on his part was starting to get her really steamed.
"It was your great-grandfather, Amon Hensley, who legitimized the Bourbon-making process, though, wasn't it?"
Pendleton's question roused Kit from her thoughts. "I don't know that I'd say helegitimizedit," she replied.
"He wasn't the one who made it legal?"
"Oh,that.Yes. He did, eventually. Except during Prohibition, when they went back to the old-fashioned way of doing things. But a lot of people said the Bourbon tasted better when Noble was stirring it up out in the woods. God only knows what kind of woodland creatures found their way into it."
That, if nothing else, seemed to get a reaction from Pendleton. Not a big one. Just a funny little kind of squinting. But it was a reaction nonetheless, and Kit gave herself a point for it.
"You mean wild animals drinking from the mixture allegedly made it taste better?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No. I mean little critters falling into the mixture, drowning and dying in it made it taste better."
He hesitated only a moment this time before remarking, "Ah."
"After Amon, came my grandfather, Beaumont Hensley," she continued, "who was really the one to turn the company into a big success."
"Excuse me," her father cut in from his position on the sofa. "I think you could include me in that equation."
She cast a quick glance over her shoulder at her father. "Well itiscalled Hensley's Bourbon, and not McClellan's, isn't it, Daddy?"
"That's beside the point. The product was established under the name Hensley's. It would have been foolish to change it to McClellan's, just because the power shifted onBeaumont's retirement."
Kit feigned surprise. "Did the power shift then? Really?"
"You know it did."
Instead of acknowledging her father's remark, Kit turned back to Pendleton. "Did you know Granddaddy asked Daddy to change his name when he married Mama?"
"Katherine," her father growled in warning.
She could see Pendleton hiding a smile. "No, I didn't know that," he said.
"It's true," she assured him.
"Katherine," her father tried again.
But she hurried on, "Granddaddy didn't have any sons, just my mother, and he wanted Daddy to be Holt Hensley, so that when he became the figurehead, there would still be a Hensley cutting through the surf, instead of a McClellan. Can you imagine? Asking a man back in 1959 to change his last name to his wife's?"
"Anyway," she continued blithely. "I suppose calling it 'McClellan's' would make it sound like Scotch, and it might potentially confuse the consumer. Not to mention make Noble spin in the ol' grave, if you know what I mean."
She was just starting to warm to the subject of the more colorful aspects of the Hensley's history when her father rose from the sofa and stubbed out his cigar.
"The show's over for tonight," he announced resolutely, his voice still tinted with his irritation. "Maybe this weekend we can hold a matinee for Pendleton, but I think you've exhausted your repertoire for now, Katherine. See Pendleton out, will you?"
Without awaiting her reply, he bid farewell to his newest executive, then waved his sons out of the room behind him. And then Kit was left alone in the living room with Pendleton and a cold sensation of empty accomplishment.
Her gaze lingered on the vacant doorway as she asked quietly, "You can find your own way out, can't you, Pendleton?"
A moment passed in silence before she realized that he hadn't answered her. When she turned to face him, she found him standing as if he hadn't heard her, a snifter of Bourbon cradled in one hand, a smoldering cigar in the other. If she hadn't known better, she would have thought he looked like he felt sorry for her. But hey, why would anyone feel sorry for her? She was a member of one of the wealthiest, most prominent families in the state. Obviously, it was just a trick of the light.
"Pendleton, can you find your own way out?" she asked again, a bit more softly this time.
He hesitated before answering, and she wondered for a moment if he had a problem with his hearing. And his eyesight, too, for that matter. He seemed to be spending an extraordinary amount of time staring at her, as if he couldn't quite bring her into focus.
"I don't know," he finally said. "It's a big house. I'm not quite sure how I got here."
Join the club,she thought. "It's this way," she said halfheartedly, jabbing a thumb over her shoulder.
She watched with veiled interest as he swallowed the last of his Bourbon and stubbed out his cigar. And she tried not to notice how easily he completed the gestures. For some reason, it bothered her that the good life seemed to suit him so well, and that he wore the mantle of wealth and luxury so comfortably. Why couldn't he be just an ordinary guy?
And why, suddenly, did she wish that he was?
She knew he didn't deserve the reception he'd gotten from her all night. Really, none of her father's executives did. Well, except maybe Novak. But Pendleton, like those other men, was a symbol of something she would just as soon forget. And even though she tried to keep a rein on her feelings, there were times when she just couldn't quite keep herself from striking out, in spite of the fact that nothing she did would ever completely erase the wrong. Or the memories. Or the hurt.
Restlessly, Kit shifted her weight from one foot to the other, watching as Pendleton rebuttoned his suit jacket. Then she hastily straightened when he swept his hand forward in a silent indication that she should precede him. When they came to the front door, she opened the foyer closet to retrieve his coat. She started to hold it up for him, but he deftly claimed it himself and shrugged into it, unfolding the collar around his neck before reaching for the buttons.
He really was very handsome, she had to admit. And there was something about him that was different from most men. If the situation were different, she might possibly be able to like him. But he was working for her father, and that meant money mattered to him more than anything else in the world. It was a shame. But then, she supposed, nobody was perfect.
"Good night, Pendleton," she said as she opened the door. "It's been real."
"Thank you for dinner," he said as he took a step forward.
She shook her head slightly. "You don't have to thankme."
"Thank your father then. For dinner, at least."
She crossed her bare arms over her midsection as the wintry wind whipped into the house, and she wondered at the merriment that danced in his dark eyes. "What does that mean?"
"Just that there was more to like tonight than the ratatouille, that's all."
Oh, right, she thought. Like she was supposed to believethat."Good night, Pendleton," she said again, more vigorously this time.
He smiled at her, what appeared to be an honest-to-goodness smile of pleasure. But all he said was, "Good night, Miss McClellan." Then he passed through the door and out into the chilly night.
And as Kit watched him go, all she could do was stand there with the cold wind swirling around her, and puzzle over why she suddenly felt so warm inside.
* * *
In the library, Holt McClellan, Jr. sipped his third cup of post-dinner coffee and resigned himself to working through the night at the home computer.
Again. Because he knew there was no way his system was going to be shutting down anytime soon.
Not because of the caffeine that was currently rampaging through his bloodstream—that was a nice, however inaccurate, excuse—but because sleep had been eluding him for a while now. To be exact, for twenty-one months, fourteen days, six hours and…He glanced at his watch. And forty-two minutes.
Ah, well. He was finally starting to get used to it. He'd been learning all kinds of things about the nighttime hours that he'd never known before. Problem was, he was learning all kinds of things about himself, too. And that could only lead to trouble.
As could his father's latest assignment for him, he thought, recalling the elder McClellan's insistence that morning that Holt be the one to handle the temperance people. "What the hell were you thinking to pass off the Louisville Temperance League to me?" he demanded, voicing his apprehension out loud.
His father glanced up from his seat opposite Holt and frowned. "What do you mean, what was I thinking? It makes perfect sense for you to be the one who deals with them."
"What if they find out about…"Holt dropped his gaze down toward his coffee again. "About my…history?" At his father's rough chuckle, he snapped his head back up again. "I'm serious, Dad. You might think it's no big deal that the second-in-command of one ofKentucky's biggest distilleries is a recovering alcoholic, but there are other people who might use the information in a way that is, shall we say, not sporting? And that could affect us all."
His father grimaced. "Nobody knows better than I do what your…condition…has caused this family."
This time Holt was the one to chuckle, but there wasn't an ounce of good humor in the sound. "No, Dad, I think I can safely say that I do know better than you."
His father glared at him. "I'm no more anxious for anyone to learn about your past than you are. All I'm saying is that, your perception of temperance being what it is, you can keep an open mind better than I could, and you'll certainly be more tolerant of these people than anyone else would be."
"Don't count on it."
His father uttered an exasperated sound. "Just take care of it, all right? And don't screw up."
"Yeah, right." Holt shook his head and sipped his coffee and wondered what he'd done lately to piss his father off. Hell, usually Kit was the one who was the focus of all of the senior McClellan's miscreant tendencies.
As if reading his mind, his father said, "So. What did you think of Pendleton?"
The quick change of subject jerked Holt out of his reverie, and he was thankful for the interruption. "He's all right. But I don't know why youthink you'll have success with him when none of the others have worked out."
His father sipped his Bourbon slowly. "Pendleton's different."
"In what way? Other than the fact that he left the house tonight without a food stain on some part of his person."
"I'm not sure. I can just feel it. When I interviewed him to take over for Riordan, Pendleton came across as smart. Hungry. Plainspoken. The type to go after what he wants, but who doesn't put up with any nonsense." The older man glanced at his son with a knowing smile. "And did you see the way Kit was looking at him all through dinner?"
"Yeah. Like she wanted to strangle him."
His father smiled. "Exactly."
"And you think that's good?"
The elder McClellan nodded. "Damned right it's good. The way Kit was looking at Pendleton was just the way your mother used to look at me."
Holt shook his head. "I'm not sure that's such a good thing, Dad. By the time she died, Mama'd had it with you."
McClellan, Sr. waved off his son's concern. "She'd had it with all of us. That doesn't mean she didn't love us."
Holt glanced down into his coffee and said softly, "But she loved Kit best. She always loved Kit best."
"Kit wasLena's only daughter," his father replied softly. "Women always look out for each other."
"To the exclusion of the rest of the family?" Holt asked, unable to quite mask the bitterness he felt."Dad, we only have a little over two months to find someone to—"
"Pendleton is going to work out," his father insisted. "He's the man for Kit."
Holt wished he could feel as certain. "You know, we wouldn't be in this boat now if you'd just left her alone to marry Michael Derringer."
His father spat out an angry sound. "Michael Derringer was a self-serving, egotistical, gold-digging sonofabitch."
Takes one to know one,Holt thought.
"He would have made Kit miserable," his father concluded.
And since when did you ever give a damn about Kit's happiness?Holt wanted to ask. But aloud, he only said, "She seemed happy enough to me when she was with him."
His father waved him off again as he crossed to refill his glass. "Oh, what the hell do you know about it? Back then everyone seemed happy to you."
Instead of rising to the bait, Holt steered the conversation back to the task at hand. "Mama changed her will because of what you did."
"Lenachanged her will because of what wealldid. You can't hold me alone responsible. I seem to recall you and your brothers chasing off more than your fair share of Kit's boyfriends over the years."
"Yeah, at your insistence," he pointed out. "And because they were all creeps who couldn't care less about her. Kit deserves somebody who loves her. Not some jerk who's only after her money."
Only problem was, Holt thought now, that kind of somebody had never materialized in Kit's life. Or if he had, he'd never been given a chance byany of the McClellan men. And now, thanks to that, the McClellan women were having the last word.
"Do you think Mama really thought this was the best way to get us to leave Kit alone so her daughter could get married?" Holt asked his father. "Or do you think she just wanted to get even?"
That seemed to surprise the elder McClellan. "Get even? For the Michael Derringer thing you mean?"
Holt shrugged. "Or something else."
"What else couldLenahave wanted to get even for?"
For starters, how about the fact that you never loved her?Holt thought. And then, of course, there was the fact that, where his father was concerned, family had always come second to wealth. And on those rare occasions when hehadtaken notice of the family, the old, man had always had an obvious pecking order of preference. Even as the clear favorite, Holt had never felt quite comfortable with that. He could only imagine how his mother and Kit—at the opposite end of the spectrum—must have felt.
Not too great, obviously.
"Kit's not going to go for it," Holt said. "And I sure as hell hope you have someone else waiting in the wings. Because in two months—"
"Don't worry about it," his father interrupted him. "Pendleton is the man for Kit. Bank on it."
* * *
As was invariably the case whenever her father and oldest brother segregated themselves to talk, Kit overheard every word they said. Not by accident, of course. But because she deliberately sought them out to eavesdrop on the conversation. It was a habit she had acquired as an eight-year-old, when she'd overheard—by accident, that time—her father discussing her performance at Louisville Collegiate Elementary compared to Holt's performance at Louisville Collegiate High.
Holt had been a senior that year, and his grades had begun to fall drastically, in direct relation to the rise in his drinking. Kit, on the other hand, was, as always, making straight A's. And on that day nineteen years ago, her father had held her up as an example for her brother to follow, had expressed his pride in her as a student.
It was the first time she had ever heard her father praise her or her accomplishments in any way. And because of that, she had sought out every opportunity to hear him do it again, whenever he and Holt separated themselves to talk.
Unfortunately, that was also the last time she ever heard her father's praise. Because as hard as she'd worked to overhear even the smallest tidbit of approval, he'd never spoken of her again. Instead, his conversations with Holt had always centered first around Holt's work at Hensley's, then about Holt's excessive behavior, then about Holt's failing marriage, then about Holt's return to the fold.
Holt, Holt, Holt. It had always been about Holt.
Until tonight. Tonight, Kit's father had talked about her again. But nothing he'd said was good. Nothing he'd said was exactly a surprise, she conceded, but none of it was good, either.
She pushed herself away from the wall outside the library and headed slowly for the stairs. There had been one thing her father had said, however, that Kit couldn't deny. Pendleton was definitely different from the other men he'd thrown at her over the last two years. Where the others had blithered and fawned over her in an effort to curry her favor—and her mother's fortune—Pendleton had had the nerve to be forthright and honest. Kit had been totally unprepared for that. Forthrightness and honesty were unnatural in a man. Despite their presence in Pendleton, however, and for all her father's conviction to the contrary, he wasnotthe man for her.
Still, she thought as she closed her bedroom door behind her, that didn't mean she couldn't have a little fun in the meantime.
TheThursday morning version of the Novak-Martin Variety Hour went much better than Monday's had. Best of all, the addition of even more visuals, like the productivity report and the strategy graph, provided Pendleton with something to look at while his brain had the opportunity to wander at will.
Unfortunately, the path his brain seemed most intent on wandering down ended with the not quite completed puzzle of Miss Katherine Atherton McClellan. Oddly, it was exactly the same route his brain had taken for nearly every one of the sixty-three hours and change—both conscious and unconscious—that had passed since he had first made her acquaintance. And that, he had decided quickly, was terrain no sane man should explore.
Just what the hell had Monday night been about anyway? he wondered yet again. For all the McClellans' dubious civil behavior, there had been a tension in the air thick enough to hack with a meat cleaver. Pendleton had felt like a dead fly in the soup of family politics all evening long.
Damn. Caught again.
"Sir?" he replied halfheartedly.
"I'd like your opinion," McClellan, Sr. announced. "What do you think of the modifications Novak and Martin have made to their presentation?"
Pendleton pretended to study all the visual aids—and, my, how they'd grown in the time he'd been thinking about the enigmatic Miss McClellan—then leaned forward and propped his elbows on the table. Entwining his fingers thoughtfully, he said, "In my opinion, sir, the implementation of such a visionary objective does seem to impact our mission statement, but I wonder if it won't be more productive in segmenting our quality group."
McClellan, Sr. studied him through narrowed eyes. "In what way?"
This time Pendleton leaned back in his seat, exuding far more confidence than he felt. "Well, sir, reengineering uncompetitive criteria can't possibly achieve a strategic trend. I think we should focus instead on data compilation, the performance track, quality assurance, and a dynamic paradigm. And let's not forget core competency."
"Oh, I could never forget that."
"Then I think we're in agreement."
McClellan, Sr. nodded. "I think we are." He turned to Novak and Martin, who stood amid charts, graphs, what appeared to be a chemical equation of some kind, and a big blowup of something that somehow resembled a map of downtownTrenton. "Men," he stated, "good work."
The two VPs twitched a bit, clear indications of their relief. "Thank you, sir," they chorused as one.
"Now then," McClellan, Sr. continued as Novak and Martin returned to their seats. "There's one final, little matter on our agenda that we need to address this morning. Kit's run off again."
Well, that certainly caught Pendleton's attention. Not just because it wasn't often that a CEO's daughter's activities made it onto the corporate agenda, but also because every single one of the executives present began to squirm and avert his or her gaze steadfastly away from their fearless leader.
"Who went after her last time?" McClellan, Sr. asked, considering each of his executives one by one as they began to fidget even more restlessly.
"Come on, come on," he cajoled. "Be a man about it." Then, when still no one came forward, he added, "I can check the files, you know."
Across the table and to the left of Pendleton, Ramirez, with clear reluctance, raised a hand—a hand, he noted further, that was encased in a plaster cast that disappeared into the sleeve of his pin-striped blazer. McClellan, Sr. seemed to notice, too, because he squinted more closely at his VP.
"Did Kit do that to you?" he asked, indicating the cast.
Ramirez glanced at his hand, then back at his boss. "Oh, no, sir. This happened while I was playing squash. Miss McClellan only sprained my wrist. Novak was the one who got a broken arm."
"Actually, it was just a hairline fracture," Novak said. "It was Bahadoori who got something broken, wasn't it, Bahadoori?"
The other executive nodded. "Ankle," he replied, as if that explained everything.
"That's right," McClellan, Sr. recalled with a faint nod. "And, of course, we all know aboutWashington's, um, posterior."
Washingtonshifted a bit awkwardly in his chair, but remained noncommittal otherwise. Oh, wow, so shedidbite him on the butt, Pendleton thought with some small measure of triumph…right before he realized just how bizarre the conversation had become.
"Carmichaelwas the one who escaped without incident," Bahadoori added.
Carmichaellifted a hand to her close-cropped hair. "Well, except for the hair," she said. Hastily, she qualified, "But I'd been thinking about going short with it anyway."
As Pendleton catalogued each of the other executives' experiences with the boss's daughter, he once again received the sensation of having entered an alternate plane of existence. What on earth was going on? Surely Kit hadn't been responsible for all those injuries.Washington, after all, topped six feet, and in no way seemed like the kind of man who would put himself in the position of … of … well, of being bitten on the butt. Not even by Kit McClellan.
"Pendleton, you're up."
As always, his boss's announcement snapped him right out of what had promised to be a very good preoccupation. And, as always, all he could say in response was, "Sir?"
His employer eyed him impatiently. "Go get Kit," he reiterated. "Bring her home."
"Beaches," McClellan, Sr. elaborated. "She likes beaches, Pendleton. Try the beaches."
Well, gee, that certainly narrowed it down. That is, Pendleton thought further, it would have narrowed it down. If he'd had any intention of going after the boss's daughter. Which, of course, he didn't. Hey, it wasn't in his job description.
But all he could manage by way of an objection was, "Beaches, sir?"
Instead of answering him. McClellan, Sr. turned to Rutledge. "Where did you find her, Rutledge?"
"St. Lucia," the other man replied.
McClellan, Sr. nodded, then eyed the next executive in the group. "Hayes, where was she when you went after her?"
"I found her inJamaica."
"St. Croix, sir."
And so it went, all around the table, until McClellan, Sr. had quizzed each of his VPs as to his runaway daughter's various destinations. Clearly, running away from home was a habit of Kit's. And clearly, sending his executives after her was the way McClellan, Sr. handled it. What wasn't clear was why the Hensley's executives would go along with such a thing.
"It would appear, Pendleton," his boss said, "that she rather likes theCaribbean. You might want to begin your search there."
McClellan, Sr.'s expression probably would have been the same if Pendleton had just hopped up onto the table, whipped open his pants, and introduced everyone in the room to Mr. Happy. "Of course, Pendleton," he said evenly. "I thought I made that clear. It'syourturn to go after Kit."
"But, sir," he continued, already feeling defeated, "is that really necessary? After all, your daughter is an adult who's free to do as she—"
"Youcan have a week off," his boss interrupted him before he could finish. "I'll look forward to Kit's return to the house by Thursday night, next week. Put all your expenses on the company credit card. Oh, and, Pendleton."
"Don't forget to pack your sunscreen. That sun down there in theCaribbean…it's merciless."
For one long moment, Pendleton only sat in his chair, pinching his nose harder, squeezing his eyes shut tighter, willing himself to please, in the name of God, wake up from whatever bizarre dream he had tumbled into. Unfortunately, with the passage of every second, it became crystal clear that what he had been hoping was nothing more than the surreal, was, in reality…well, reality.
"Um, sir?" he finally managed to say.
He forced his eyes open, willed his hand back down to the table, and somehow managed to meet his employer's gaze. "This, um…That is, sir…What I mean to say is…"
"Spit it out, Pendleton."
He pressed his tongue to the back of his teeth for a moment, searching for the right words. "It's just that…well, going after your daughter isn't exactly in my job description, sir."
"Yes, it is."
"Have you read your job description all the way through yet, Pendleton?"
He hedged. "Well, it is a bit longer than the average job description, and getting settled in my office has taken a lot more time than I thought it would, and—"
"Read it," McClellan, Sr. interrupted him.
"And pay special attention to page four, paragraph six, subheading…subheading…"
"Subheading A, sir," each of the executives offered as one.
"Subheading A," McClellan, Sr. continued without missing a beat. "It's perfectly self-explanatory. Anything else?"
Actually, there were quite a few anything elses on Pendleton's mind, but for the life of him, he couldn't find it in himself to utter even one.
So McClellan, Sr. gave his executives the final once-over, rose from his chair, and announced, "I think that's everything. Now get out."
Then, as was his habit, he disappeared through the door to his office, his son following in his wake. And no sooner had the door clicked shut behind them did the rest of the executives leap up from their chairs, descend upon Pendleton like a plague of pinstripes, and begin to speak in a single, solitary roar.
"Forget about packing sunscreen," Martin began. "You go after that girl, you better be packing a piece. The sun down there in theCaribbeanisn't the only thing that's merciless."
"And forget about watching the beaches," Ramirez told him. "You watch your back, man."
* * *
Not more than an hour later, someone thrust a legal pad toward him with what appeared to be the names of several travel agencies.
"These are the agencies Miss McClellan has used in the past," he heard Novak say. "Though you probably won't have any luck there. She never uses the same one twice."
"And she always travels under an assumedname,"Washingtonadded, "but it'll be one you can probably identify if you try hard enough. Like Gertrude Stein, for instance."
"Or Betty Crocker,"Carmichaelsaid.
"Ida Lupino," Rutledge added.
"Dr. Denton," Ramirez continued.
"Che Guevera," Bahadoori offered.
Pendleton studied each of his colleagues in turn. "I'm sorry, but I don't see a pattern here."
"Exactly," Novak said, as the others nodded sagely.
He waited for a more complete explanation, but wasn't quite surprised when none was forthcoming. So, with a sigh of resignation, he asked, "Then you think I should contact one of these travel agencies?"
"No!"the entire group chorused.
"You should absolutelynotcontactanyof them," Rutledge stated adamantly. "Miss McClellan's reputation definitely precedes her."
Hadn't Pendleton heard that already from someone? Oh, right, he immediately recalled. He'd heard about Kit's reputation from Kit herself. Hmmm…"So I should try a new one then?" he wondered aloud.
"Preferably in another city," Bahadoori told him.
"Another country,"Washingtonthrew in. "They might not of heard about her inAbu Dhabi."
This was ridiculous, Pendleton thought. No human being could possibly wreak the single-handed havoc that everyone ascribed to Kit McClellan. Certainly she came across as a handful, sharp-edged, sharp-witted, sharp-tongued.
Stop it,he ordered himself. No way would he believe she was anywhere near as destructive as these people made her out to be. "She can't be as bad as all that," he voiced his thoughts aloud.
A ripple of anxious chuckles was his only reply.
"Okay, then can I just ask one last question?"
The others nodded.
"If Miss McClellan is so awful, then why doesn't McClellan, Sr. just let her stay wherever she runs off to? And why do you guys keep going after her, job description or no job description?"
"That's two questions, Pendleton," Novak pointed out.
"Okay, two last questions then."
For a long moment, none of the other VPs responded. ThenCarmichael, evidently the least fearful of the repercussions, smiled a little grimly. "McClellan, Sr. needs her back, Pendleton, because Kit McClellan, for all her questionable tendencies, is far too valuable a possession for the McClellans to let her stray far."
"And why do you all keep going after her?"
Novak answered this time. "Same reason."
As answers went, Pendleton thought, those left a lot to be desired. "Valuable in what way?" he asked further.
"Sorry, Pendleton,"Carmichaeltold him. "But any more questions you have, you'll need to run by one of the McClellans." Her grim smile returned as she added, "And I think you know which one would be most likely to give you the most accurate answer."
Pendleton nodded silently. That, he thought, was exactly what he'd been afraid of.
* * *
"Well, I'll be damned."
Pendleton shook his head in disbelief as heslumped back in his chair. He tossed his job description back down onto his desk, his gaze pinned to the bottom of page four. Page four, paragraph six, to be specific. Right underneath subheading A.
Good God, it really was in his job description. Right there, in black and white, Times New Roman on Fine Linen Southworth, it stated quite clearly that should Miss Katherine Atherton McClellan ever take off for parts unknown, at any time during the period of his employment, he might indeed be called upon to travel to those parts and fetch her back to the bosom of her loving family.
Well, my, my, my. They certainly did things differently in this part of the country.
He expelled an exasperated sigh and spun around in his chair, focusing on the inky sky outside his window. Below him,Main Streetwas alive with the hum and honk of cars headed home for the evening. Across from him, the assortment of shapes and sizes known as the Center for the Arts was awash with glitzy light. Beyond that, the dark ribbon of theOhio Riverrambled languidly on its way, emptying into rivers, gulfs and oceans beyond. And somewhere amid one of those oceans was a madcap heiress he was professionally obligated to find.
One week. That's how long he'd been granted to locate Kit McClellan, to bring her home to a father who demanded her return, yet clearly did not want her. For all the McClellan clan's wealth and prominence and opportunity, Pendleton thanked his lucky stars that his own family was one hundred and eighty degrees away from them.
The legal pad that his colleagues had so thoughtfully provided mocked him from atop his desk. Unwilling to tolerate the reminder of his duty, he ripped off the top sheet, folded it in half, then in quarters, then eighths, then sixteenths, and he stuffed it into his shirt pocket. Then he stood and straightened his tie, crossed to collect his blazer and overcoat from the coat stand near the door, and shrugged into the rest of his corporate uniform.
If McClellan, Sr. wanted his daughter returned, then Pendleton would retrieve her. It was, after all, in his job description. And bottom line, he needed his job. He needed the money his salary provided, the prestige his position afforded, the opportunity it offered him to show a certain person of his acquaintance that, hey, he could, too, hack it, so who's laughing now, huh? Therefore, resigned to his fate, he wrapped his fingers around the doorknob and prepared to face his destiny head on.
But his destiny was interrupted just then by a quick series of soft raps that greeted him from the other side of the door. "Mr. Pendleton?" Beatrice, his secretary, called out. "Are you still here?"
He opened the door to find her standing on the other side, her own coat buttoned up to her numerous chins, obviously on her way out, too. Beatrice had come with his office, having worked for Hensley's for longer than he himself had been alive. In spite of that, she left quite a lot to be desired in a secretary. He'd discovered that on his first day of work, when she couldn't seem to remember even the most rudimentary of company policies. Like, for instance, where they kept the microwave popcorn.
"I really apologize," she said, "but this arrived for you this morning while you were in your meeting with Mr. McClellan, and I just now realized I forgot to give it to you." She extended a cardboard overnight mailer. "I am so sorry. I hope it wasn't anything too important."
Actually, he thought, one might assume that the words EXTREMELY URGENT, in big red capital letters, emblazoned on both the front and back of the envelope, might have alerted her that there was some degree of importance attached to its delivery. But then, hey, that was just Pendleton—always assuming the obvious.
So all he said was, "Thank you, Beatrice. I'm sure it will be fine."
She smiled feebly, surrendered the overnight mailer, then spun around and fled without another word. When he glanced down to open it, he noted that instead of having a fancy, embossed label, the mailer had been addressed by hand and embellished by the wordCONFIDENTIAL.Addressed by a bold, feminine hand, too, if he wasn't mistaken, he noted further, something that made a strange feeling of dread shimmy right down his spine.
Hastily, he tugged the plastic thread on the back and pulled the sides of the mailer open wide. For a moment, he thought it was empty. Then he tipped it upside down and shook it once, and a tiny bit of cardboard color came fluttering out, tumbling end over end to land on the pale peach carpet. He bent over to inspect it, for some reason reluctant to pick it up. Especially when he realized it was a postcard.
Of a beach.
Dread filled him again as he snatched it up and flipped it over, only to find on the other side the same bold feminine handwriting that had appeared on the mailer.
Hi, Pendleton!the words inscribed there read.Having a great time! Wish you were here! Love, Kit.
For long moments he only stared at those words, reading them over and over and over. And then his gaze fell on the fine printinthe lower left-hand corner of the postcard.Sunset atVerandaBay.St. John,U.S.Virgin Islands.
And all he could think was,Oh, no. Don't make it easy. Please, whatever you do, don't make this easy for me.
Just to reassure himself, Pendleton turned the overnight mailer to the address side and checked the postmark.VerandaBay.St. John.U.S.Virgin Islands.
Well, my goodness, hadn't Kit been just too, too clever to realize in advance that her father would be sending him to retrieve her from her current tropical locale. Why did he suddenly get the feeling that he was some pinstriped amoeba under a big, karmic microscope, and that McClellan, Sr. was the one rolling him in and out of focus?
"Dammit," he hissed under his breath.
He tucked the postcard into the breast pocket of his suit jacket, and withdrew the much-folded list of travel agencies from his shirt pocket. Then he forced his feet to move forward, tossing the latter into Beatrice's trash can as he passed it. Hey, he could make his own travel arrangements. He only wished he knew exactly what he was headed into.
Holt McClellan, Jr. folded himself into the big, executive chair behind his big, executive desk and gazed morosely at the big, executive pile of papers that required his immediate attention. Another day, another fifty-five hundred dollars, he thought blandly. In gross profit, anyway. All in all, life didn't get much better than this, right?
Of course, if Kit stayed in a snit, Hensley's Distilleries, Inc. and the rest of the McClellan legacy would be nothing but a sweet memory in a couple of months, and then he'd be lucky to pull in fifty-five hundred a month in salary. But hey, he reminded himself halfheartedly, they still had two whole months to find Mr. Right for his kid sister, and then they could marry her off like a good little heiress, right under the wire, and still be solvent. Otherwise…
He let the thought go. He couldn't even imagine his life otherwise. Holt braced his elbows on his desk and knifed his fingers restlessly through his dark blond hair. Hell, you'd think Kit would have been grateful to have Michael Derringer—her intendedhusband,for God's sake—exposed for the money-grubbing, gold-digging sonofabitch that he was. Butnooooo.Not Kit. No way. She would have been perfectly content to live the rest of her life as a lie, as long as it meant that she didn't have to be alone.
Just as Holt began to reach for the collection of pink telephone memos fanned out across his blotter, the intercom on his desk beeped discreetly."Yes,Jeanette?" he responded absently, already feeling weary in spite of the early hour.
"Mr. McClellan, a woman who says she's a representative from the Louisville Temperance League is here to see you." After a slight, but significant, pause, she added, "Again."
Oh, great, he thought. Just what he needed to make a cold, rainy morning even more frigid and forbidding.
"Does she have an appointment?" he asked, even though he was already certain of the answer.
"No, she doesn't. Again."
Of course she didn't have an appointment. What distiller in his right mind would make an appointment with someone whose single-minded goal in life was to put him out of business?
For months now, the Louisville Temperance League had been after all the area manufacturers of spirits, hammering them mercilessly—however ineffectually—with petitions, surveys, press releases, flyers, and other various and sundry promotional materials. They'd hosted everything from bonfires to prayer vigils to walk-a-thons, had done everything within their power to raise money, hackles, and public awareness. All in the name of sobriety.
Like any normal person would want that.
Nevertheless, representatives from the organization had been turning up at all the local distillers' doors, pretty much weekly, since well before the holidays. They never had an appointment, but they always had an agenda. Holt supposed his father was right. Sooner or later, they were going to have to let the group's members vent their respective spleens—spleens untouched by the poisonous presence of liquor, he was sure. He might as well get it over with.
"Her name?" he asked his secretary with a sigh of resignation.
"It's a Ms. Ivory," Jeanette replied.
Naturally, he thought. Naturally such a woman would have a wholesome, uncorrupted name like Ivory.
"Ms. Faith Ivory," his secretary elaborated further.
Naturally. "Faith Ivory," he repeated, the woman's moniker feeling stiff and unpleasant on his tongue. Relenting some, he asked, "Do I have any other appointments this morning?"
"Not until ten," Jeanette told him.
He sighed again. "All right. I suppose it's inevitable. Show her in."
Expecting a hatchet-wielding grandma trussed up in black like Carrie Nation, Holt was almost pleasantly surprised by the woman Jeanette led into his office. Instead of black, she wore a suit the color of champagne—good, pale golden champagne, not the cheap, yellowy stuff. What didn't surprise him, though, was the fact that the hem of her skirt fell modestly below her knees, and that her snowy shirt was buttoned to the neck, then pinned closed even more tightly by what appeared to be an antique brooch.
Even from the other side of the room, he could see that her creamy complexion was flawless, touched by a blush of peach riding high on each cheek. Her hair, almost the same pale gold color as her suit, was also bound up snugly, her eyes were green, clear, almost bottomless, and framed by lush, dark gold lashes. And her mouth…
Good God. Holt swallowed hard, feeling a part of himself swell and grow warm that had no business swelling or warming in public. Her mouth, that generous, erotic mouth, made it impossible for Faith Ivory toeverappear temperate.
Clearly nervous about their meeting, she transferred the coat folded neatly over one arm to the other, then back to its original position, then back over the other arm again, all the while looking at him as if she wished he were someone else.
"Ms. Ivory," he greeted her, tamping down his irritation. He rose to his full six-foot-four, rebuttoning his dark suit jacket as he went, then moved easily around to the front of his desk.
"Mrs.Ivory," she corrected him immediately, taking a step backward for each one that he took forward.
At her designation of her title, he quickly dropped his gaze to her left hand, but he saw no sign of a ring on its fourth finger. Strange, that. Stranger still was the little twist of disappointment that wound through him at the recognition of her married state.
What difference did it make? he asked himself. The last thing he needed to do was involve himself with the Louisville Temperance League in any way, shape or form. Even if Mrs. Ivory's shape and form were too tempting to pass up.
"Mrs.Ivory," he conceded reluctantly, emphasizing her title more for his own benefit than for hers. He swept his hand toward a chair that sat vacant opposite his desk. "Can I offer you a seat?"
She nodded, the motion jerky and anxious. Then she fled for the chair he had indicated and fairly collapsed into it, her entire body seeming to shrink into the upholstery the moment she was settled. She clutched her coat and purse on her lap as if she might need them later, to use them as a shield to ward him off. And it hit him then that she was genuinely frightened of him.
With no small amount of discomfort, Holt shrugged off her reaction, chalking it up to another extremist behaving, well, extremely. He returned to his chair and sat forward, steepling his fingers on his desk. With the big piece of furniture between them, the delectable Mrs. Ivory seemed to relax some.
"Now then," he tried again. "How can I help you?"
She inhaled deeply, her gaze darting everywhere in the room except to him. "As your secretary told you, Mr. McClellan," she began, her voice soft, well modulated, and a bit huskier than he would have expected, "I'm here as a representative of theLouisvilleTemperance League."
He nodded. "I'm aware of your position. But I can't imagine how Hensley's could possibly be of service to you."
"Well, you can't be of service to us," she told him frankly, her gaze finally skidding toward his for a moment before ricocheting away again. "That's the point. Your company, and the product you manufacture, aren't of service to anyone."
He hoped his smile wasn't as brittle as it felt. "On that matter, Mrs. Ivory, I beg to differ with you. As would millions of Bourbon drinkers worldwide. Hensley's is one of the best, if notthebest Bourbon available. Our product—and our service—are of impeccable quality and have been for generations. We take great pride in that."
At his pronouncement, she fixed her gaze levelly on his without flinching. "Yourproduct,"she said, virtually spitting out the word, "has been responsible for the suffering, the sickness, thedeathof millions of people over the years. I don't know how you can possibly take pride in something like that. In fact, I don't know how you can sleep at night."
This time Holt didn't even bother to fake a smile. Instead, he leaned back in his chair, all pretense of civility gone. "Cutting right to the chase, are we, Mrs. Ivory?"
"Well, I know you're a busy man, Mr. McClellan."
Her outburst had clearly provided her with the needed boost for battle, because she suddenly didn't seem to be at all intimidated by him. Ignoring her remark about him not sleeping at night—frankly, it was none of her damned business why he had trouble sleeping—he backpedaled to address her other remarks instead.
"It isn't Bourbon that's been responsible for the things you like to blame it for," he said. "It's irresponsible people who have caused those things."
"The old 'Guns don't kill people' line, Mr. McClellan? I'm disappointed. I would have thought you could be more creative than that when making excuses for your role in ruining countless lives."
He frowned. "As much as I abhor the presence of handguns in our society, and regardless of the cliché, the reasoning is appropriate. It's not the product that the Louisville Temperance League should be going after, Mrs. Ivory. It's the people who misuse it that you should be directing your attentions to." He sat forward now, linking his fingers loosely on his desk. "Will you be going after Hillerich and Bradsby when you're finished with Hensley's?"
She looked a bit puzzled but only said, "The baseball bat manufacturers? Why on earth would we do that?"
He shrugged. "Hey, one good blow to the head with a Louisville Slugger could kill someone."
"Mr. McClellan," Faith Ivory interjected mildly, "I don't think—"
"And don't forget the Ford plant," he continued, ignoring her as he warmed to his argument. "Automobile accidents have maimed and killed a lot more people than Bourbon has."
"Mr. McClellan, you're being—"
"And General Electric. My God. I don't think I need to remind you that one fork in a toaster and you're…" He shrugged again, philosophically this time. "Well, you're toast."
She gazed at him in silence for a moment before asking, "Are you finished?"
"I don't know. Have I made my point?"
"Then I guess I'm finished."
She hesitated, not seeming to know exactly how to proceed. Finally, she began again, "Few people can dispute the fact that drinking alcohol is dangerous. Drunk drivers have killed thousands of innocent people. And alcoholism is responsible for everything from domestic violence to birth defects to heart disease to—"
Beautiful mouth or no, Holt was losing patience with Faith Ivory. Her arguments were the same ones he'd been hearing for years, and frankly, hedidn't want to hear them again. "Alcoholism and the enjoyment of spirits," he interrupted her, "are two entirely unrelated things, Mrs. Ivory."
"They're not at all unrelated," she countered.
"They arecompletelyunrelated," Holt insisted. He inhaled a deep breath to clear his thoughts, then continued, as levelly as he could manage, "Alcoholism is a serious illness. The enjoyment of a cocktail after work or a glass of wine with dinner isn't."
"One leads directly to the other," she retorted.
"Not necessarily, though irresponsible behavior can contribute to it," he volleyed.
Faith Ivory studied him in silence, as if she'd known they would reach such an impasse, and she was just gearing up to drive home her next point. Oddly enough, Holt found himself looking forward to her argument. Strangely enough, somewhere along the line, this little sparring match with Faith Ivory had become diverting. Almost enjoyable. So he waited. But, surprisingly, Faith Ivory's luscious mouth remained firmly shut on the subject.
"Mrs. Ivory?" he finally spurred her, still unsure why he would try to prolong such a dialogue.
With some distraction, she answered, "Yes?"
"Aren't you going to respond to my comment that alcoholism is a serious illness?"
Very quietly, she said, "Alcoholismisa serious illness."
He nodded. "Well, my gracious goodness. We actually agree on something." When she still offered no comment to set them off again, he continued, "How about the irresponsible behavior part? Don't you want to say something about that?"
She shook her head slowly, her mind obviously still elsewhere. "No. Irresponsible behavior definitely contributes to alcoholism. I'll grant you that, too."
Well, golly, Holt thought. If she kept this up, she was going to take all the fun out of it. "So your point would be…?"he tried again.
The steam she had been gathering evaporated, and whatever argument Faith Ivory had been about to make evidently disappeared with it, because she simply sat there and said nothing.
"Mrs. Ivory?" he tried again.
"My point, Mr. McClellan, would be…"Abruptly, she stood, slinging the strap of her purse tightly over her shoulder, folding her coat back over her arm. "I have no point, Mr. McClellan. Obviously, it was a mistake for me to come here. I apologize for taking up so much of your time."
Holt jerked to attention. Suddenly, he was desperate to do something to keep her from going. What had begun as an odious task to deal with as quickly as possible had turned into a strangely enjoyable little interlude with a woman full of mysteries he somehow wanted to solve.
It had been a long time since Holt had been drawn to a woman, especially with the immediacy and ferocity for which he'd become ensnared by Faith Ivory. Of all the women he could find himself attracted to, she was the last type he needed. Yet somehow he got the feeling that there were layers under her brittleness that she didn't allow others to see. And now he found himself wanting to flake away that thin shell of her exterior and find out what kind of motor was revving up beneath.
Because Faith Ivory was definitely revving up. Holt wasn't sure where she intended to go once her motor was at full throttle—he wasn't even suresheknew where she wanted to go—but there was definitely some destination on her horizon.
And just what made him so philosophical on a rainy Friday morning, he couldn't possibly have said. Unless maybe it was a beautiful woman with hair the color of champagne and eyes as deep as the ocean. A woman of mystery. A woman of intrigue.
A woman who called herselfMrs.
* * *
Faith didn't dare stop running until she'd made it through theHumanaBuilding'sMain Streetentrance and stood in front of the fountain outside. Only with the knowledge that fourteen floors and countless feet of pink marble and steel I-beams separated her from Holt McClellan could she even begin to breathe again. And only out in the frigid air, with the cold rain pelting her, surrounded by strangers, could she at last feel safe.
Safe, she thought hollowly. Like she would ever feel that again in this lifetime.
In no way could she have anticipated Holt McClellan. He had just been so…so…Her breath caught in her throat at the memory of him rising from behind his desk. And rising, and rising, and rising. She'd been afraid he would keep rising until his head brushed the ceiling, and he reached across his desk to pluck her off the carpet and consume her whole. She squeezed her eyes shut at the recollection, pressed her hands to her cheeks and tried to steady her breathing. Holt McClellan had been, in a word…
Well, in a word, he'd beenawesome.
She opened her eyes and spun away from the passing throngs of people to face the fountain, focusing her attention on the gentle stream of water that rippled poetically down the flat black marble.
Best not to think about it,she told herself.
Unfortunately, she knew that wasn't likely. Because now she was going to have to face the members of the Louisville Temperance League and tell them what a miserable failure she was.
She'd been so sure that her contribution to the cause would be her superior debating and argumentative skills. And under other circumstances, she knew she would have made a difference. She'd been an incredible criminal justice attorney once, had brought juries and judges to their knees. Of course, it had been years since she'd performed in the courtroom, but still…Some things never left you, in spite of the tests and obstacles you put them through. Some things were just inbred. Some things…
She cut off her own little pep talk, knowing it was pointless. She had failed at her task—just as she'd failed at so many other things—and now, as always, she was going to have to make reparations. The Temperance League could let someone else take over the Hensley's maneuvers. Maybe they could give her Maker's Mark or Brown-Forman or Heaven Hill instead. That way, she wouldn't have to deal with Holt McClellan again.
Because there was no question in her mind thathewas the reason she hadn't been able to continue with her duties that morning. He was just too big, too handsome, too blond, too self-assured. Just like Stephen had been.
Don't think about him,Faith commanded herself.
Don't even think about Stephen Ivory.
But the admonishment was as ineffective as always. Nothing would ever be able to make her stop thinking about her late, but hardly lamented, husband.
Forcing the thoughts away before they could turn into memories, she shrugged into her coat. Miriam was going to be disappointed that Faith had finally managed to breach the fortress of Hensley's Distilleries, Inc. only to surrender at the first sign of combat. What a coward she was.
Faith shoved her hand into her coat pocket to retrieve her car keys, only to find herself grasping a fingerful of lint where her keys should have been. She tried the other pocket, but it, too, was empty, save for a stray gum wrapper. Her purse provided her with little more than the basic paraphernalia necessary for feminine upkeep—hairbrush, lipstick, compact…a ball-point pen of questionable effectiveness, a half-full box of Tic-Tacs. But no keys.
When she realized what she'd done, she dropped her hands to her sides and threw back her head in defeat. Considering the way she'd been manhandling her coat in Holt McClellan's office—not to mention the velocity of her flight—it was a good bet that she'd dropped her keys in there on his lush-pile carpet.
Great. Now she was going to have to walk back to the Temperance League offices. Because there was no way she would go back into Holt McClellan's lair. Now she'd have to take a bus all the way to her sister's house in Fern Creek, for the spare set of keys Stephanie kept in case of emergency.
Faith eyed the slate sky overhead and felt the sting of ice-cold rain patter against her face. The Temperance League offices were onChestnut Streetand down some, a walk of nearly a dozen blocks from her present position. No way could she afford a taxi, and she had no idea which bus to take, or the time to figure it out. And her umbrella was in the backseat of her car. Herlockedcar.
Just as the realization materialized, the rain began to fall more resolutely, and Faith sighed as she stepped from beneath the meager protection of theHumanaBuilding's generous overhang.
Was there anything, she wondered, that could possibly make this day worse?
It was only a matter of hours until Faith had the answer to that question. Yes. As a matter of fact, the day could get much,muchworse.
Not because Miriam Dodd, the director of the Louisville Temperance League, had pontificated with even more vigor than usual about Faith's inability to achieve her goal where Hensley's Distilleries was concerned. And not because Faith's car dealer had told her that it would be at least twenty-four hours before he could get her a new set of keys. Nor was it because she'd been notified that her car was towed away, due to its being parked illegally during rush hour. And not because she'd had to sit on her sister's back porch for forty-five minutes—in the pouring, icy rain—waiting for Stephanie to arrive home from work.
No, Faith's day didn't really get much,muchworse until after Stephanie had driven her back to herHighlandsapartment. Until after she was safe and sound at home, had towel-dried her hair and slipped into her favorite flannel pajamas, had brewed a cup of hot chamomile tea, and had settled down to enjoy a rented copy ofMy Man Godfrey.Just as the credits for the film began to roll, there was a soft knock at her front door.
And that was a sound she seldom heard. Although she had plenty of acquaintances, people with whom she could pass the time pleasantly enough, there really wasn't anyone Faith considered a friend. Certainly there was no one who would pop in for an impromptu visit. She'd gradually abandoned all her friends after she'd married Stephen, and she'd been too embarrassed to look up any of them again after his death. She didn't want to have to explain things. It was just easier to be alone.
Carefully, she set her mug of tea on the coffee table and rose from the sofa. Quietly, she padded in her stocking feet to the front door. Cautiously, she peeked through the peephole. And crestfallen, she saw Holt McClellan standing on the other side.
She should have just gone back for her keys when she'd had the chance, she thought. Gee, hindsight really was twenty-twenty.
"Yes?" she called through the door, keeping her eye pressed to the peephole.
"Mrs. Ivory?" he asked.
"It's Holt McClellan. Of Hensley's Distilleries?"
"What do you want?"
Belatedly, she realized how rude the question must have sounded. But really, what difference did it make? She had no reason to be polite to the man. Their exchange earlier in the day had made clear their feelings for each other's outlooks on life—and for each other—and they were scarcely on the same side when it came to their personal and professional philosophies. What did Faith care if she offended the man? Strangely, however, she found that shedidcare.
"You, uh, you left something in my office this morning," he told her. "But I imagine you've already discovered that."
"My keys," she said unnecessarily.
"Your keys," he concurred.
As was always the case when Faith was home, the chain was in place on the door. So she braved twisting the key in the lock, braved loosing the deadbolt, and even braved edging the door open a scant few inches to look beyond it.
The peephole had distorted him more than she'd realized. Only when she saw Holt McClellan standing there in the flesh did she recall how handsome he was, how blond, how large. How much like Stephen. Faith swallowed hard and tried not to panic. But when he began to lift his hand, her fear—her irrational, irrepressible fear—betrayed her. Automatically, she closed her eyes and waited in arrested silence for him to—
She snapped her eyes open again. Holt McClellan stood exactly as he had before, except that now, he was extending a ring of keys toward her and he was looking at her as if she had lost her mind. Of course, who could blame him? There were times when she looked at herself in the mirror in exactly that same way.
Pushing the sensation away, she reached beyond the door for her keys, only to watch them be withdrawn again. When she glanced up at Holt McClellan's face, he was smiling. Softly, sweetly, seductively.
"Can I come in?" he asked.
Oh, no, no, no, no, no,she thought.Absolutely not.But her voice betrayed her conviction when she stammered, "Wh-what for?"
"Because our conversation today was interrupted before we could finish it," he said easily.
"I know," she replied. "I was the one who interrupted it."
"So you were. I can only wonder why you did."
"I-I just didn't see any reason to continue our discussion."
"Why not? Things were just starting to heat up."
That was the problem.
Faith bit her lip to keep the rash words from spilling out of her mouth. "I just…That is, we didn't seem to be…I mean, the whole conversation was just…"
She licked her lips against the dryness that had overtaken her mouth and forced herself to look away from his eyes. His beautiful midnight-blue eyes. The eyes that had created no small amount of turbulence in her midsection the moment she had entered his office. The eyes that continued to dazzle her now.
"We both, um…"she tried again. "We both seem to be pretty strong in our convictions, that's all."
"Is that surprising?"
"Well, no, but…but…"
"But what?" he asked.
She raked a hand restlessly through her unbound, still-damp hair and pretended she knew where she was going with her thoughts. "Look, if we're going to start this thing up again, can I at least change out of my pajamas?"
He arched his eyebrows in surprise. "You're already in your pajamas? But it's barely seven-thirty."
"Yeah, well…somewhere in the world, it's bedtime."
He quirked a smile at that. "Somewhere in the world it's mambo time, too, but you don't see me putting on my ruffled shirt, do you?"
She narrowed her eyes at him. "I'm afraid I don't quite follow you."
He chuckled, a sound that was more nervous than humorous, and she was amazed to witness the blush that crept over his features. "I'm sorry. I guess that didn't make much sense, did it? You make me say dumb things, that's all."
"Imakeyousay dumb things?" Oh, nowthatwas an interesting development, seeing as how she'd been thinking the same thing about herself. "But I hardly know you."
"That's the problem," he responded. "Beautiful women always make me nervous until I get to know them better." He paused a brief, but telling, moment before adding, "And even then, I always seem to make a mess of things."
A little burst of heat exploded in Faith's belly and quickly spread outward to warm the rest of her. "M-Mr. McClellan," she stammered. "I-I'm not sure it's appropriate for us to—"
"You're absolutely right," he interjected, taking a step backward, clearly knowing he'd overstepped the bounds of…of whatever it was that had them bound. "I apologize," he continued hastily. "Like I said, beautiful women make me say dumb things. And you're just very—" He halted abruptly, then cleared his throat with some difficulty. "Here—" He extended the keys out to her again. "I'm sorry I bothered you. I'll go."
Faith reached for her keys, but no sooner had she closed her fingers over them than she discovered that she didn't really want Holt McClellan to leave. Yet she had no idea what to say to make him stay, now that she'd made him feel uncomfortable. So she only retrieved her keys and thanked him quietly and began to close her front door. But almost as if they had a mind of their own, her fingers, instead of turning the deadbolt and key in the lock, unhooked the chain and opened the door wider.
"You didn't have to come all this way to bring them back," she said. "You could have just mailed them to me."
He had turned around to make his way toward the stairs, but at her quietly uttered statement, he spun around again. His wool, charcoal-colored overcoat swung open with the action, to reveal an obviously expensive suit of the same hue beneath. He was very, very handsome. And he was clearly surprised that she was continuing their interaction. Perhaps as surprised as Faith was herself.
"No, I couldn't," he told her.
"You're not in the phone book. I couldn't find your address."
Oh, yeah. She'd forgotten about that. So if that was the case, then— "Then how did you find out where I live?" she asked him.
He smiled apologetically. "I, uh, I have a friend who's highly placed at the phone company. He owed me a favor. Actually, it was more like I blackmailed him," he confided. "He gave me your address."
She wasn't sure if she should be angry about that or not. Strangely, she found that she wasn't. "Then, once you got my address, you could have mailed my keys to me," she pointed out.
He met her gaze levelly. "No, I couldn't."
"Because then I wouldn't have been able to see you."
The soft, single syllable was all she could manage, because the fire in her midsection began to burn hotter. It nearly exploded when she glanced down and remembered that she was standing there in her pajamas. She felt heat seep into her face as she fingered the collar of her shirt ineffectually. "I, um…"she said eloquently. "Uh…"
He laughed when he understood her train of thought. "I guess I should have phoned you before I came over. But your apartment was on my way home, so it just seemed easier to…But now that I'm here, it's not easy at all to…What I mean is…"He laughed again. "We both seem to be having a little trouble with the English language tonight, don't we? Funny. It wasn't a problem this morning."
Faith gripped the door harder and forced herself not to invite him inside. Their encounter this morning had been entirely different from the one they were having now. For one thing, they'd both had their guards up. Now, however…
"Yeah, about that," she said. "I'm sorry I left so abruptly."
"So am I," he murmured. "Why did you?"
"You … you weren't what I was expecting."
"That makes two of us," he concurred. "You weren't what I was expecting, either."
She told herself not to ask, but heard herself say anyway, "Is that good?"
The smile he gave her this time was cryptic. "I haven't decided yet."
"What were you expecting?" he asked, deftly turning the tables.
"I'm not sure. Just not … you."
"Is that good?" he echoed her earlier question. Faith bit her lip, wondering just how honest she should be. Then she decided that there was no harm in speaking the truth. Not anymore. "Not really," she said softly.
Her response seemed to surprise him. "Why not?"
"You remind me of someone. Someone I'd rather not be reminded of. Seeing you this morning…It sort of knocked me off-kilter, that's all."
"I'd apologize, but there's not much I can do about the way I look."
And Faith wouldn't ask him to change his appearance if he could. Even if he did evoke way too many memories of Stephen, there was no reason in the world to alter Holt McClellan's looks. Why mess with perfection, after all?
"No, there's no need for you to apologize," she said softly. "No harm done."Not yet anyway."Well, thank you for bringing my keys," she hurried on. "It was nice of you to come all this way."
"Like I said. It was on my way home." Everyone inLouisvilleknew the McClellan family lived inGlenview. As Faith knew, Holt worked downtown onMain Street. It was one block north, then a straight shot outRiver Roadfor him to drive home at night. Faith, on the other hand, lived south of downtown, in theHighlands. Deep in theHighlands, in the gridwork of Cherokee Triangle, a few blocks off notoriously congestedBardstown Road, right by the difficult-to-navigate circle surrounding the statue of Daniel Boone.
Her apartment wasn't anywhere near his way home. Holt had gone to a lot of trouble to bring her keys to her. Why? She had no idea. Although he'd told her he thought she was a beautifulwoman, she had little reason to believe he meant anything by the comment. Men said things. Women knew that. It was all part of the game, the one rule with which Faith was definitely familiar. But Holt McClellan seemed to be using a playbook she'd never glimpsed before.
Rich, handsome, successful distiller, versus woman of meager means whose professional and personal goal is to put him out of business. The odds on that one were simply too weird for her to fathom, the outcome too shadowy to ponder.
"Well, thanks again, Mr. McClellan," she said, forcing her hand to start pushing the door closed, as much as she hated to do it. "Good night."
He lifted a hand in silent farewell, but didn't turn away. She watched the space between her front door and the doorjamb grow smaller and smaller, watched as Holt McClellan disappeared bit by handsome bit. She had just about matched bolt to latch when he called out her name again from the other side.
Slowly, she opened the door again.
"I, um, I couldn't help but notice thatMr.Ivory doesn't seem to be home."
She supposed she should have expected his observation. It never worked for long when she identified herself as a married woman. Not having a husband around rather ruined the image.
"No, he's not home. He's…"She took a deep breath and concluded quickly, "He's dead."
Something darkened in Holt McClellan's eyes as he took a step forward, then stopped. "Oh. I…I'm sorry. I…I didn't know."
"It happened about six months ago."
"I see. I'm sorry," he repeated.
"Thank you." It was all she could manage. She never knew what to say when people spoke of Stephen. So she simply said nothing at all. "Good night, Mr. McClellan. And thanks again."
He dipped his head in farewell. "Good night. Mrs. Ivory. And you're welcome."
Once more, as she closed the front door, Holt McClellan only stood there and watched her do it, something that made it nearly impossible for Faith to complete the action. When she heard the click of the latch catching, she quickly spun the deadbolt to a locked position and hooked the chain into place. Then she pressed her eye against the peephole to watch him leave.
But he didn't leave. Not right away. He stared at her front door, as if he were lost in thought. At one point, she thought he was about to lift his hand to knock again, but he only shoved it deep into his coat pocket. Then, slowly, he spun around and began to make his way up the hall, toward the stairway at the end. Twice he halted and turned around, and twice she thought he would come back. But he didn't come back. At the end of the hall, he turned left, and exited into the stairwell.
Even after he was gone, Faith continued to gaze through the peephole, staring at her empty hallway. For fifteen full minutes, she watched. For fifteen full minutes, she waited. For fifteen full minutes, she wished.
And for fifteen full minutes, she somehow managed to keep her tears from falling.
Theweather inVerandaBay,St. John,U.S.Virgin Islands, was quite extraordinary, Pendleton had to admit. Beneath a perfect, pale blue sky, the seventy-six degrees surrounding him were made even more enjoyable by a warm, restive breeze redolent of the salty sea, the rich jungle soil, Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion, and a wide variety of red and yellow rum drinks that dotted the bar around him.
Kit had chosen well, he thought grudgingly. The Veranda Bay Resort was a primo bit of real estate. It was also the solitary structure onVerandaBay, something that had narrowed considerably his search for her exact whereabouts. Of course, the massive resort did lay claim to roughly two hundred rooms, fourteen luxury suites, twenty private bungalows, five restaurants, two cafés, a bistro, and nearly a dozen bars, but that was beside the point. Kit was here. Somewhere. And he would find her.
His current position seated at the bar by the pool afforded him panoramic views of both the lush hotel grounds and the ribbon of white beach beyond—not to mention the incredible turquoise expanse of theCaribbean. It was undoubtedly the best seat in the house for spying runaway madcap heiresses. Unless, of course, the runaway madcap heiress in question happened to be Kit McClellan, in which case, Pendleton was fairly certain she'd have towantto be spotted before he would be able to spot her.
But she obviously did want to be found, he told himself confidently. Of that, he was absolutely certain. Pretty certain, anyway. In a way.
The unruly breeze pushed a lock of his dark hair down over his forehead, and when he carefully nudged it back into place, the wind returned to fondle the open collar of his white linen shirt. Baggy khaki trousers and buff-colored loafers—sans socks, natch—completed his attire, suggesting to a casual passerby that he was simply a vacationing corporate executive of generous means, instead of a boss's spineless lackey sent to recover a rebellious daughter.
Thankfully, his thoughts were interrupted then by the arrival of a very large, very pink drink on the bar beside him. When he glanced up, it was to find a gorgeous, curvaceous bartender with elegantLatinalooks, wearing a skin-tight sarong, smiling at him. "Compliments of the house," she said. "Welcome toVerandaBay."
He returned her salacious smile with one of his own, automatically curling his fingers around the cool, slender glass. The drink was really far too pretty for anyone of the masculine persuasion to be caught dead possessing, but it had been a nice gesture. "Thank you," he said. "Do you do this for all the guests?"
She shook her head, her smile broadening. "No. Only the attractive ones I'd like to get to know better."
Well, well, well. Maybe this trip wouldn't be a total washout after all. "Oh, yeah?"
She touched the tip of her tongue to the corner of her mouth. "Oh, yeah."
And then she was gone, glancing over her naked shoulder as she went, the warm sun gilding the dark, bare skin of her back that was revealed by the brief sarong uniform. And as he watched her go, Pendleton found himself wondering why he'd never visited theCaribbeanbefore. Balmy weather, picture-perfect beach, beautiful women, free drinks…What could be better?
His question was answered almost immediately by a brief slash of feedback from a microphone, followed by an overloud, nervous chuckle, and the arrival of a large man poolside. He was dressed in the biggest pair of shorts and the most obnoxious Hawaiian shirt Pendleton had ever seen, and he brought with him tidings of great joy.
"Sorry about that, folks," he said with another anxious chuckle. "But if you'd all like to turn your attention poolside, we're about to begin the swim-wear fashion show."
Pendleton nearly dropped the drink he had begun to lift to his mouth. Good God, the daycouldhonestly get better.
"And that," the man continued, "will be followed immediately by the lingerie fashion show."
Pendleton's voice nearly lifted in song as his libido jumped up to do the macarena. What next? he wondered. Swimwear/lingerie mud wrestling? Would his most excellent fortune never end?
"Hi, Pendleton! I didn't know you already had some vacation time coming. I'm going to have to ask Daddy about his new policy."
He sighed as a murky fog that was becoming way too familiar began to roll into his brain. He halted just shy of his lips the progress of the beautiful drink that the beautiful woman had given him only a few beautiful moments ago.
"Miss McClellan," he greeted her as he slowly spun around on his stool. Reluctantly, he set his drink down on the bar and said, "Well, my, my, my. What a surprise to find you here."
She stood on the opposite side of the bar, wearing the same kind of tiny sarong that the other bartender had been wearing. But where the other woman's had been bright pink and burgeoning in all the nice, soft places that men liked to see a sarong burgeon, Kit McClellan's was pale yellow, sleek, and…He sighed again. And hardly burgeoning at all.
"What're you drinking?" she asked further, her smile dazzling. Before he had a chance to answer, she rushed on, "No, wait—let me guess. Not Bourbon."
"No," he agreed mildly. "Not Bourbon."
"I had a feeling."
"I bet you did." When she only smiled in response, he added, "Thank you for the lovely postcard."
She rocked back on her heels and gazed at him through laughing eyes. "Don't mention it."
"Oh, of course I should mention it. It would have broken your heart if I hadn't."
"Sure, it would. It's all part of the game, after all, isn't it?"
She studied him in what was clearly feigned bewilderment. "Game? What game?"
He chuckled as he wrapped his fingers more tightly around his drink, thumbing the condensation that trickled down its sides. When he looked up at Kit, he noted that she was watching the subtle movement of his hands quite closely.
"See, now that's the two-dollar-and-sixty-eight-cent question, isn't it?" he asked her.
For a moment, she didn't answer him, but only continued to watch with much fascination the leisure motion of his thumb stroking up…and…down, up…and…down the side of the glass. Then, quietly, slowly, as if her mind was a million miles a way, she asked, "Is it?"
Just to see how closely she was paying attention, Pendleton suddenly altered the movement of his fingers, and began rotating his thumb in a slow spiral, around and around and around in the moisture streaking the side of the glass. A flush of pale pink stained Kit's cheeks, and her mouth opened slightly, as if she suddenly needed more air.
And for some reason, he felt a very wicked, thoroughly unwanted heat wind through his own body. "You know," he continued, his voice suddenly sounding a bit ragged, "I'm going to have to ask you to go over the specific rules of the game before long. Frankly, I'm having a hell of a time keeping up."
He halted the movement of his hand and gripped his drink tightly, and only then was the mysterious spell broken. Kit glanced up at him again, but her wide blue eyes revealed nothing of what she might be thinking, in spite of the tell-tale blush that still stained her cheeks.
"I don't know why you're making such a bigdeal out of this," she said, her voice sounding almost as rough as his own had. "It was just a postcard."
"Overnighted to me," he pointed out.
She lifted one—naked—shoulder in a shrug, and somehow made the gesture seem very erotic. "I just wanted to make sure you got it. You never know with the mail down here."
"Yeah, well, you really shouldn't have."
She waved her hand negligently through the air. "Are you kidding? It took Novak almost a month to find me. And Daddy's getting more impatient all the time. How long did he give you to bring me back? Two weeks?"
"He really is getting impatient. He still has more than two months. I wouldn't think he'd become quite so desperate just yet."
As always happened when Pendleton came within hailing distance of any member of the McClellan family, his head began to spin. "Two months?" he echoed. "Before what? You succumb to melanoma from overexposure to theCaribbeansun?"
"Nah," she replied readily. "No chance of that. I'm always careful. I never go out without an SPF of at least forty-five, which is basically the equivalent of lying under a Mack truck. I'd spontaneously combust, if I did." She settled an elbow on the bar, cupped her jaw negligently in her palm, and leaned forward. Then she whispered conspiratorially, "I'm cursed with the fair Hensley complexion, you know."
No, Pendleton hadn't known. And somehow, gaining the knowledge at this point clarified the situation not at all.
"I suppose, however," she continued, not altering her pose, "that we've put you through enough. Since you've come all the way down here to find me, the least I can do is let you know what you're doing here."
"That," he said, "would endear you to me forever."
She pushed herself away from the bar and muttered, "Well, gee, Pendleton. Don't go getting all mushy on me." Her fair Hensley complexion suddenly turned a bit pink again. "I just hate to see a guy like you with a look like that on his face, that's all."
"A look like what?" he asked.
"Like someone just gave you a good, solid blow to the back of the head."
He began to lift his pink, frilly drink to his lips again, but before he could complete the action, Kit snatched the glass away from him.
"I knew you wouldn't be drinking Bourbon, but good God, Pendleton, don't drink this," she commanded. "Drinks like this will mess with a man's testosterone level bigtime. Even a guy like you, who clearly has buckets to spare, could potentially turn into a flaming parfait eater."
Without further comment—and before he had a chance to ask her to elaborate on the buckets-full state of his testosterone—she set a shorter glass on the bar and spun around to a veritable pyramid of liquor behind her.
Pendleton's heart sank a bit as he watched her fingers hover over a bottle of Hensley's Bourbon that was situated on the top row. But after a moment of consideration—not to mention a sly little smile that she tossed over her shoulder—she opted instead for a single malt Scotch for which he had always embraced averyfond affection. In one single, fluid maneuver, she uncorked it, spun around, and waved it over his glass, until it was half-full of the dark amber liquid.
"Thank you," he said.
"No problem," she assured him. "That'll be ten bucks. And don't forget to tip your bartender at least fifteen percent. You want I should just charge it to your room?"
He had begun to reach for the glass, but now his fingers hesitated. "Ten dollars?" he echoed incredulously. "For one drink?"
She shook her head as she returned the bottle to its shelf. "Pendleton. Honey, sweetie, baby, cookie. That's Abelour Scotch. You wanna play the resort game, big guy, you gotta pay the resort prices. Don't you get around much? I mean, where were you brought up? A barn?"
"No,New Jersey," he responded before thinking. She emitted a sound that was a mixture of disbelief and delight, and he knew at once that Kit McClellan was almost certainly envisioning him as the product of a Bruce Springsteen video, complete with vacant lots, crumbling rowhouses, factory smokestacks, and Lady Liberty's backside in the background.
"SouthJersey," he felt compelled to clarify.
But all she said in response was, "New Jersey? Really?"
She eyed him with much speculation. "Funny, but I don't picture you as coming fromNew Jersey."
He sipped his Scotch, enjoyed the smoky, mellow flavor, and felt his testosterone levels surging mightily. "Why is that?" he asked.
As she considered him in silence, it occurred to Pendleton that for a woman who wasn't beautiful, Kit McClellan was certainly very attractive.
"I don't know," she finally admitted. "You just don't seem…"
"What?" he asked.
Her—naked—shoulders lifted and dipped again, but she only shook her head slowly in silence.
So he sipped his drink once more, rolling the warm liquid around in his mouth, and focused on Kit McClellan's striking face as she watched him. Her lips parted softly as he relished the dusky flavor of the liquor on his tongue, and her eyes darkened dangerously when he took his time to swallow it.
And a hot splash of lightning ignited in his belly, long before the Scotch ever got there.
"Actually," he said, the word coming out a bit strangled for some reason, "the part ofNew JerseyI come from isn't much different from your part of the country."
Except, of course, he amended to himself, for the funny way of talking people had inKentucky. For instance, no one inNew Jerseyhad ever asked him if he was brought up in a barn. And he still wasn't sure which of the half-dozen different pronunciations for "Louisville" he'd heard was correct, although the garbled, incomprehensible version seemed to be the one used most frequently.
For a long, intriguing moment, Kit only continued to stare at him with dreamy eyes, as if she were thinking of something totally unrelated to the conversation at hand. Finally, however, she said, "Funny, but I have trouble seeing you as a product of my part of the country, too."
This time Pendleton was the one to remain quiet and thoughtful for a bit too long. He gazed down into the depths of the liquid he swirled nonchalantly in his glass, and wondered if he should even bother to clarify any conclusions—whether accurate or not—that the boss's daughter might be drawing about him.
Ultimately, his curiosity—and surely it was nothing more than that—got the better of him, and he heard himself ask, "Well, then, Miss McClellan, just where do you picture me as coming from?"
That mystified expression cluttered her face once more, and she expelled another nervous chuckle. "I don't know," she repeated.
She continued to scrutinize him, and it occurred to Pendleton that she was expending an inordinate amount of energy trying to figure him out. It seemed to bother her that she couldn't easily peg him and send him on his merry way. And for some reason, it irritated the hell out of him that shewastrying so hard to peg him, because he knew he shouldn't care one way or another what Kit McClellan thought about him. But oddly enough, he found that he did care. A lot.
"I believe you were going to tell me my reason for being here."
She nodded. "Right. I almost forgot. Buy me dinner tonight. La Belle Mer, the restaurant here, does a fabulous buffet. You'll love it."
The quickness of subject change dizzied him for a moment. "My reason for being here is to buy you dinner?"
She smiled. "No, Pendleton. Buy me dinner tonight, and I'll tell you what you're doing here. I can't right now. I'm working. Sheesh."
She folded her elbows on the bar, leaned forward again, and smiled a very tempting little smile. Though why exactly it was tempting, Pendleton couldn't have said. It was her mouth, he finally decided. The sight of her mouth was what kept blurring his thoughts and making him forget the things he knew he should be remembering. For all the planes and angles of her face, Kit's mouth was red and ripe and rich with curves, full and lush and sexy. It distracted him, her mouth, because he kept wondering what it was going to do next. She was as quick to smile as she was to frown, and she had a habit of snagging her slightly crooked eyetooth at one end of her lower lip whenever she was lost in thought. Like right now.
And God help him, he really, really,reallyliked it when she did that. He kept thinking about that mouth—and that eyetooth—nibbling on other body parts besides her lip. And not necessarilyherbody parts, either.
"The meaning of your life, Pendleton, for the price of a seafood buffet," she said, interrupting his thoughts. "It's the deal of the century."
The warm breeze kicked up again, but they only gazed at each other in silence, each oblivious to the beauty and tranquillity of the sunny, tropical afternoon surrounding them. Not far away, a steel drum band began to warm up, the soft trilling of felt against metal singing through the air. A squawky bird cried out from a palm tree above them, and a woman on the other side of the bar called for another sloe gin fizz.
And finally, finally, Pendleton broke the silence. He had no idea what spurred the question in his brain, but, out of nowhere, he asked, "Will you wear your sarong?"
As questions went, that one clearly wasn't at the top of Kit's "Things Pendleton Will Be Most Likely To Ask Me" list. And as a result of her surprise, she lost her momentum a bit. "Wh-what?" she stammered.
And just like that, he felt the upper hand slip comfortably back into his grasp.
"I'll meet you in the hotel lobby atsix o'clock," he said, "in front of the concierge desk." Then, without further ado—or further adieu, for that matter—he spun on his heel and walked away.
* * *
The strangest thing happened to Kit as she was readying herself for dinner. The dull thump of melancholy that normally settled in her belly at the arrival of one of her father's emissaries wasn't there. Usually, an encounter with one of the Hensley's VPs only acted as a reminder to her that her worth to the McClellans, although substantial—ninety-nine-point-four million bucks, to be exact—was strictly financial in nature. Had it not been for her mother's will, Kit's father would have gleefully left her to rot in the tropical paradise of her choosing, wasting neither time nor effort to retrieve her. So naturally, whenever she found herself face to face with one of his minions, who had strict orders to bring her back to the fold, Kit felt a bit down.
But not tonight.
Tonight, in place of the cool feelings of dejection and abandonment, there was a warm fizzy sensation bubbling up inside her. It was a sensation so alien, so unfamiliar, that she almost didn't recognize it. Yet it had been her companion ever since she'd seen Pendleton that afternoon. For some reason, the sight of him sitting at the bar, looking so unbelievably attractive with the breeze ruffling his dark hair, the sun dappling his gentleman-vacationer duds, and laughter brightening his espresso-colored eyes when he'd asked her to wear her sarong…
She bit back a wistful sigh. Well, the whole thing had just started to generate a very odd reaction inside her, one that felt strangely like…happiness? She wasn't quite sure. It had been so long since she had experienced such a thing that she'd almost forgotten what it felt like.
In spite of Pendleton's request, Kit didn't wear her sarong that night. However, taking pity on the poor boy—he would, after all, be saddled with her for an entire evening—she donned something only marginally less revealing: a brief, snug little turquoise miniskirt and an even briefer, even snugger, little cropped halter top to go with.
And heels. High heels. Really high heels that she'd bought that afternoon for just this meeting—she hesitated to call it a date—with Pendleton. For some reason, she wanted to be as tall as she possibly could be, despite the fact that, all her life, her accelerated height had made her feel like such a great, hulking ogre. Above all else, she wanted to make certain that she was sexy as all get-out tonight.
Why? Well, usually, when she donned such sexy little outfits, it was because she wanted to maintain control over the whole man-woman thing. And she knew she couldn't accomplish such a feat with her beauty alone, simply because she didn'thaveany real beauty. She did, however, claim truly phenomenal gams, and not a bad torso, in spite of its being bereft of any real bosom action.
As long as she could keep a man's interest lingering below her neck, Kit was fairly confident that she could eventually draw him in, lull him into a false sense of security, and then reveal him for what he was—an emissary of her father's whose sole purpose in life was to corral her into matrimony and collect a fat little reward for his trouble.
Pendleton, however, was threatening to be a bit more elusive than usual. For one thing, he spent far more time than other men did gazing at her face. And that, Kit decided, was something she simply could not have him doing. If she had any hope of exposing him, then she was going to have to direct his attentions elsewhere.
Hence, the little blue ensemble, tiny enough to bring even the most uncooperative man's eyes to the place a woman wanted to keep them. Away from the face. Always away from the face. As singular an impression as Pendleton made, she was certain that deep down he was no different from any other man. Shallow. Superficial. Greedy.
My, but she was looking forward to the evening. She glanced at her watch long enough to see that she was running the required fifteen minutes late and smiled. By now, Pendleton would be in the lobby, pacing like a caged animal, wondering where she was. Why, she could almost feel his sweaty palms and the anxious wrinkling of his brow from here. Men were just so predictable.
She spritzed perfume on her arms and neck and down the front of her top—well, you just never knew—gave her gold bangle bracelets an affectionate jingle, grabbed her tiny purse, and headed for the door. Thanks to the luminous full moon—which she simplyhadto pause to appreciate for a few moments when she exited her bungalow—she was running twenty minutes late by the time she reached the lobby.
But that was okay. Her date—or rather, Pendleton—would, of course, be waiting for her. His financial future depended on her, after all. So she fluffed up her dark blond curls—well, as much as she could fluff the unruly, chin-length mass—threw back her shoulders, and sauntered forward, immediately darting her gaze to the concierge desk. And, just as she'd expected, she found Pendleton—
Wait a minute. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then opened them again, fixing her gaze on the concierge desk. Thatwasthe concierge desk, wasn't it? C-o-n-c-i-e-r-g-e. Yep, that was how you spelledconcierge.She could have gotten that one even without four years of high school French. But there was no pacing, sweaty-palmed, furrowed-browed Pendleton in sight.
Okay, so maybe she'd misunderstood. Maybe he'd said he would meet her at the reservations desk. But there was no Pendleton there, either, sweaty, furrowed, or otherwise. Kit spun around in a full circle, taking in the entire lobby, from its polished pink marble floor to the skylights opening on the star-studded night above, scanning all the lush potted palm trees and tastefully arranged rattan furniture. There were lots of people milling about, but none of them was Pendleton.
The men's room, she thought then, reluctant to acknowledge the bubble of relief that burst in her belly. She gave her forehead a mental smack. Of course. He was probably in there throwing up because he thought he'd lost the boss's daughter, and his job was sure to be next on the list. Poor guy. She hadn't meant for him to become so overwrought as all that. She'd have to find some way to make it up to him.
With a contented sigh, she fluffed up her dark blond curls again, threw back her shoulders again, and sauntered forward again, halting only when she stood outside the men's room. Then, as discreetly as she could, she leaned forward and cupped an ear to the closed door. Unfortunately, she detected not a murmur of ghastly retching, nor even the rush of a faucet to tell her Pendleton was cleaning up the aftermath.
Just as she was taking a step closer, the door flew open, and a man—not Pendleton—emerged, casting her a look of censure.
"Do you mind?" he asked when she didn't move out of his way.
"Not at all," she replied. Before he could make a clean break, however, she added, "Was there anyone else in there? A tall, dark-haired man? Wearing some expensive, though understated, vacation wear? And, oh, say…losing his lunch, perhaps?"
The man's expression would have been the same if he had just found something really disgusting on the bottom of one of his huaraches. "No," he said. "There was no one. Only the attendant."
Bewilderment—surely it wasn't disappointment—welled up inside her at the news. "Oh. Thank you."
All right, so if Pendleton wasn't in the lobby waiting for her, or in the men's room getting sick all over himself on her account, then where was he? Slowly, oh, so slowly, a strange suspicion flickered to life at the back of her brain, a suspicion that was really quite unthinkable. Yet no matter howhard she tried to tell herself that such a development was impossible, Kit found herself striding back across the lobby in the direction of La Belle Mer, the restaurant that was to have been her ultimate destination with Pendleton.
But surely he wouldn't have…? Not without…?He wouldn't dare think of…?Would he…?
Before she even realized her intention, she found herself standing in front of the maitre d's stand, waiting patiently until he glanced up with an obsequious smile. "Yes?" he asked. "May I help you?"
She smiled as becomingly as she could and said, "Although I know you must be frightfully busy, could you be so kind as to tell me if you have a reservation under the name Pendleton?"
The maitre d' scanned the list of names before him and, without glancing up, told her, "Yes. Mr. Pendleton arrived right on time—at six-fifteen."
He'd only waited fifteen minutes? Kit thought. How incredibly gauche. "Could you take me to him, please?"
"I'm sorry, miss," he said as if he were addressing a small child or cocker spaniel. "But our policy is to leave our guests to their meals unless they request otherwise. And Mr. Pendleton made no mention of a guest. It would be against hotel policy—not to mention grossly impolite—for me to interrupt Mr. Pendleton's dinner."
"Oh, I wouldn't want you to be impolite or go against hotel policy," Kit assured him.
Fortunately, she had no such problem with doing so herself and moved easily past him.
When he realized her intention, however, he called out and abandoned his post in hot pursuit. But she had the element of surprise on her side—not to mention a much longer stride—and continued confidently on her way.
He still hadn't caught up with her when she cleared the bar and caught sight of Pendleton. He was seated alone in the corner of the restaurant at an intimate little table for two, chatting amiably with his waitress, an auburn-haired woman whose sarong-clad—or rather, sarong-bare-back was turned to Kit.
Kit fluffed up her hairagain,threw back her shouldersagain,and sauntered forwardagain.Shewouldmake an entrance, just as she had planned. Katherine Atherton McClellanalwaysmade an entrance. And she wasn't about to let Pendleton ruin her record.
Unfortunately, as entrances went, it wasn't one of her better efforts. Because Pendleton glanced up as she made her approach, smiled benignly, and waved a fork-impaled shrimp at her, as if she were a passing sous chef and he was showing his approval for the fare.
"Miss McClellan," he greeted her warmly as she drew nearer. "How fortunate that you made it after all."
As she came to a halt by the table, he replaced his fork on his plate, settled his linen napkin beside it, and rose formally from his chair, hand extended.
She forced a smile, ignored his gesture, and was about to speak when the maitre d'—who was, by now, understandably agitated—clamped a hand over her upper arm.
"Excuse me, miss," he said, a little breathlessly. "But you'll have to come with me."
"It's all right,Orlando," Pendleton assured the man. "I was expecting Miss McClellan. Quite some time ago, as a matter of fact."
Clearly reluctant to do so, Pendleton's new best buddy, Orlando, released her arm, and, with an awkward dip of his chin, he scurried off. Kit watched him go, her irritation at the maitre d' evaporating as her annoyance with her father's emissary compounded.
"Pendleton," she greeted him stiffly. "I thought we were supposed to meet in the lobby."
Without missing a beat, he said, "I thought so, too."
"Then why aren't you there waiting for me?"
His smile never wavered, but something darkened his eyes. "Because when you didn't show up on time, I assumed you had changed your mind. Fortunately, Stacie here has been keeping me company in your absence."
Kit glanced at the other woman and clenched her jaw tight. Oh, fine. Stacie, of the huge green eyes and fiery mane and an orange sarong that was only about six sizes too small, had made the supreme sacrifice of keeping Pendleton company in Kit's absence. Well, wasn't that just dandy?
"Go away," she said eloquently to Pendleton's server.
Frankly, the terse edict was all Kit could manage. Because for the first time in two years, she had no idea what to say or how to act. She could scarcely believe what was happening. Pendleton had blown her off. And no one, absolutely no one—no one unrelated by blood anyway—had dared do something like that. Just who did Pendleton think he was? She was Katherine Atherton McClellan, heiress to a fortune. Well, potential heiress to a fortune, anyway. Depending on her mood.
Stacie opened her mouth to offer a commentary on Kit's command, but one look at Kit, and she must have decided it would be more prudent to keep her response to herself. Instead, she only leanedwaaaaayin toward Pendleton and purred something to him about dessert. Then, with a throaty chuckle and a toss of enough hair to suit two voluptuous, squishy women, she departed.
Kit stifled a growl as she sat down, focusing her attention on the man who occupied the chair opposite. "Pendleton," she began, surprised at how steady she managed to keep her voice. "I don't think you quite grasp the…the…oh, shall we say…thesine qua nonof this situation."
He arched his eyebrows in mild surprise as he replaced his napkin in his lap. "Why, Miss McClellan, I didn't know you spoke Latin."
She expelled an exasperated sound and cut right to the meat of it. "You're supposed to be having dinner withme."
"It would appear that Iamhaving dinner with you, Miss McClellan. Or will be, once you order something. However, seeing as how you chased away our server, it could be lean cuisine for you tonight." He reached toward the little crustaceans hung like pink pearls around the lip of the glass sitting before him. "Here," he added generously, "you can have one of my shrimps."
"No thank you," she muttered. She'd rather have his head. On a platter.
He shrugged as he reached for his wine. "I'm so glad you were able to make it," he said.
She managed a chuckle for that. "Oh, I bet you are."
He halted his glass just shy of his lips. "You don't sound convinced of my sincerity."
She placed an elbow on the table and cupped her chin in her hand. "Gee, I wonder why."
"I can't imagine. Oh, there's Stacie," he added, hailing the waitress. Upon her return, he took the liberty of ordering for Kit, a repeat of what he was having himself—lobster Newberry, arugula and goat cheese salad and, hey, what the heck, a bottle of 1989 Haut-Brion blanc to go with.
Before Kit could ask, he snapped the menu shut and explained, "They're the most expensive items on the menu. I knew that would be what you'd want. It is, after all, going on the company credit card."
Stacie jiggled off again, returning moments later with an additional wineglass, a bottle of wine, and another place setting. And all Kit could do was watch in silence as Pendleton poured her a generous helping of wine.
Well, that, and ponder the fact that the evening wasn't starting off at all the way she had planned.
All things said and done, Pendleton had enjoyed one or two better dinner dates in his life. Thinking back, he supposed it had been foolish for him to be so surprised when Kit hadn't shown up on time. Just because she'd slipped up a little when he'd asked her to wear her sarong, and just because she'd looked so warm and rosy that afternoon, and just because, dammit, he had started actually to like her for some reason—
He sighed and watched her face as he filled her glass with wine. Just because of all that, there was no reason for him to think she might treat him a little differently than she did anyone else, was there? Nevertheless, he had thought she would treat him differently. And for all her coolness during the episode that had just transpired, she still seemed strangely fragile somehow. And that made no sense at all.
It was just that he'd expected better of Kit. Yeah, she was a spoiled, pampered brat. Hey, he'd noticed that about her almost immediately. But all this time, he had suspected her rich bitch act was just that—an act. An attitude she adopted as a weapon of self-defense, a wall she erected whenever someone threatened to tear her down—which, thinking back on his dinner at the McClellan home, probably happened to her pretty frequently.
Now, however, he was beginning to wonder if it was an act at all. Maybe she really was as bad as the other Hensley's VPs made her out to be. Maybe she really was a man-eater. Maybe she really did intend to do him grave damage. Maybe, in addition to his sunscreen, he really should have packed a piece.
"Did you really break Novak's arm?"
The question erupted from his mouth before he could stop it, and when he looked at Kit, she was staring at him as if he'd lost his mind. "Oh please. It was just a hairline fracture."
"But did you do it?" he persisted, still unwilling to believe the worst of her.
She shook her head. "A cab driver in the Caymans did. When Novak tried to stuff me into the backseat of the cab. He thought Novak was attacking me."
Something hot and heavy tightened in Pendleton's midsection. "AndwasNovak attacking you?"
"Oh, God, no," she was quick to assure him. "Novak is a pussycat. He was only trying to take me home. I was just putting up a more, um, energetic fight than usual."
"And Bahadoori's ankle?" he asked further.
She twirled her wineglass by the stem, watching the pale yellow liquid sheet up one side and down the other. "Um, he sort of fell down."
"Sort offell down?"
"Yeah.Well, actually, it was more like he fell off the side of a volcano."
"A … volcano?"
This time she nodded. "See, there was this virgin sacrifice going on for Carnival—all mock, I assure you—and…well, it's kind of a long story. But it wasn't my fault," she hastened to add.
Pendleton decided he didn't want to know the details of that one. So he only asked, "And Ramirez's wrist?"
"He fell, too. Over the side of El Morro."
"It's a popular tourist attraction inPuerto Rico. A big fort. Looks more like a castle. Ramirez went right over one of the battlements. It was only a drop of about twenty feet, though. Nothing major."
Nothing major? "And on this fall, did he, oh … have any help?" Pendleton asked.
She gaped at him, clearly outraged at his suggestion. "Oh, please. Pendleton, what are you thinking? I would never help a man over the side of a battlement. I might chip a nail."
Of course. "What aboutCarmichael's hair?"
She smiled, the first genuine smile he'd seen from her all evening. "Oh, now that was a fun night. Carmichael and I actually hit it off really well, and after dinner—and oh, six or seven mai tais, I guess—I talked her into letting me give her a home perm. Unfortunately, it didn't take very well. In fact, she wound up looking kind of like a giant Q-Tip. So she got it cut out."
"Oh. AndWashington's, uh … derriere?" he concluded halfheartedly. "If it wasn't you who bit him on the… If it wasn't you who bit him, then who did?"
She blushed a bit, her gaze skittering away. "Well, actually…"
This time Pendleton was the one to gape.
"YoubitWashingtonon the butt?" he asked. "Are you serious?"
"It was an accident," she said. "A terrible mix-up. It's a long story, too, but the gist of it was that I didn't realize it wasWashington's, um, tushie that I was biting."
"Whose, um, tushie did you think it was?"
She stalled, tracing her thumb over a damask rose on the tablecloth. "I thought it was, uh…Well, see, there was this, ah…Actually, with his back to me like that, and wearing that purple Speedo of his, I thought he was this perfectly nice scuba instructor named Julian, whom I was hoping to get to know better."
Pendleton bit his lip to keep from asking anything more. If the way Kit got to know men better was to bite them on the tushie, then he had no choice but to drag her back to the States and lock her up in Cherrywood as soon as was humanly possible. He owed it to the men of the global dating community.
"Miss McClellan," he began again.
"Look, Pendleton," she cut him off. "I know I owe you an apology—"
"Only one?" he interrupted.
She glanced up to acknowledge his interjection. "Okay, I owe you several. And I'd like to offer them in the form of an explanation." When he opened his mouth to say something more, she rushed on, "But don't start with all that 'endearing' stuff again, okay. It makes me nauseous. No offense."
"Oh, none taken, Miss McClellan. It doesn't bother me at all when a woman tells me I make her sick."
"That's not what I…"She sighed impatiently. "Never mind."
He remained silent as she enjoyed deep swallow of her wine. Then, almost immediately, she downed a second of comparable size. Somehow, Pendleton thought she was doing it because she needed the false courage that alcohol brought on in some people. Either that, or she just really liked the wine a lot.
"Okay," she finally said as she set her empty glass on the table. "Here's the deal. I suspect that, unlike some of his other VPs, Daddy sent you to fetch me without filling you in on all the particulars."
"Gee, what makes you think that?"
She smiled. "Because you've been way too tolerant, and not at all obsequious."
"Ah. Then again, fetching you is in my job description."
"Yeah, well, you'll forgive me if I say that you don't seem like the kind of guy who takes his job description all that seriously."
He wasn't sure, but he thought he should be offended by that. "Are you saying I'm not a good VP?"
"No, Pendleton, I'm saying you're not a doormat."
"But the reason paragraph six, subheading A exists on page four of your job description is because it's essential for Daddy's executives to be the ones who come after me. It's the main reason he's hired them, after all."
"I'm afraid I don't follow you," Pendleton said, studying her with interest. "Why can't he send one of your brothers after you?"
She smiled again, but this time the expression wasn't exactly happy. "Because I can't marry one of my brothers. It's against the law. Even inKentucky."
"It's true," she said. "Not many people believe it, but it really is illegal to marry your own brother or sister inKentucky. It has been for, oh, gosh…years now, I guess."
He made a face at her. "I meant why would your father find it necessary to hire men to marry you?"
"So that he can collect my mother's fortune."
"Excuse me?" Pendleton was hopelessly lost. What was it about the McClellans that turned his brain into pudding?
But instead of answering his question, Kit posed one of her own. And not some idle, oh-by-the-way question, either. No, when she opened her mouth again, the oddest thing came out.
"Pendleton? Have you ever been in love?"
As questions went, it wasn't one he heard often. Nevertheless, he replied honestly, "Yes. Once."
Her eyes widened in what was obvious surprise at his revelation. "Really?"
"Wow." She gazed at him with what he could only liken to awe, then asked further, "Was she in love with you?"
Now that one was difficult to answer with the truth, simply because he didn't know the truth. So he replied, "She told me she loved me. Many times, in fact."
Kit continued to gaze at him as if he were some mythic creature that had just risen from the surf amid fanfare and fire. Then, as he'd known she would, she asked the one question that he really, really hated to answer.
"What happened to her?"
And, as always, he answered anyway. "She left me."
That didn't seem to surprise Kit at all, because she only nodded as if she completely understood.
He had no idea why he would want to prolong such a discussion, but somehow, he heard himself ask in return, "How about you? Have you ever been in love?"
Evidently, she didn't have to think about her response, because, immediately, she shook her head. Then she reached for her empty wineglass and held it out to Pendleton in a silent request for a refill. So he plucked the bottle out of the ice bucket and obeyed her command.
As he was pouring, she qualified, "But I was engaged once, if that counts for anything."
Oh, it counted, he thought as the wine poured over the rim of her glass and cascaded onto the tablecloth. He jerked the bottle back and met her gaze levelly, but had no idea what to say.
All he could manage by way of a response was an echo of her earlier sentiment. "Really?"
She wiped her hand on her napkin, then sipped carefully from her over-filled glass. "Really."
"But you didn't get married?"
Still not looking at him, she replied, "Nope."
He knew it was none of his business, and probably a bad idea to boot, but he asked, "Did you get cold feet at the last minute?"
She turned her head to stare out the window, and inevitably, he repeated the gesture. The black ocean beyond stretched to infinity, linking with the black sky at some point on the horizon. But sinceboth were spattered with starlight, it was impossible for him to see exactly where that line between air and water lay. In the nighttime, both mingled and joined, becoming one. Only at daybreak would they part again.
"Nope," she said again, her voice insubstantial, as if coming from a great distance. "I didn't get cold feet. He did."
Pendleton felt a twist of regret turn inside him, and he wished he hadn't asked her to elaborate. He was about to say something about how the two of them had actually managed to find something in common, when she opened her mouth and, to his even greater regret, she elaborated some more.
"Actually, he didn't get cold feet," she said softly. "What he got was cold cash."
Thinking he'd misunderstood, Pendleton asked, "I beg your pardon?"
"Actually, that's not quite right, either," she said, finally turning to look at him again. "What Michael got was a check. From my father. Daddy gave him one for a quarter-million dollars at the rehearsal dinner as kind of a ditch-the-wedding present. But Michael cashed it the next day, so I guess that makes it close enough to cold cash, don't you think? It certainly made for cold feet. Michael couldn't get out of the restaurant fast enough."
"Your father paid your fiancé a quarter of a million dollars to leave you?" he asked. "The night before your wedding?"
Kit dropped her gaze to her wine again. "Yeah. Pretty tacky, huh?"
"And your fiancé actuallytookit?"
The chuckle that emerged from her mouth was obviously forced and false. "Gee, Pendleton. You almost sound surprised."
"Well ofcourseI'm surprised. That's outrageous."
"Yeah, I guess a guy like you would have held out for a cool million. But Michael came from humble beginnings and all that. He'd never seen that many numbers in front of a decimal point in his whole life."
"That's not what I—"
"In fact," she interrupted him again, "Michael was so eager to take the money, that Daddy figured later he probably could have gotten off with a hundred gees instead of two hundred and fifty. But then, hey, that's my dad. Always overdoing things."
When she finally seemed to be through talking, Pendleton tried to jump into the conversation again. "What I meant was, it was outrageous for your fiancé to take any amount of money in exchange for abandoning you."
She glanced up again, her eyes dark and troubled and sad. "Why was that so outrageous?" she asked. "Any other guy would have done the same thing."
Pendleton refused to dignify the latter part of her objection with a comment. Instead, he said, "It was outrageous, because in the long run, he could have had the money and you."
For a long moment, she only observed him through narrowed eyes, as if she wasn't quite sure what to think of him. Then, slowly, she began to smile. It wasn't a big smile. But it wasn't bad. "Why, Pendleton," she said. "I'm not sure, but I think you just paid me a compliment."
He was as surprised by the realization as she seemed to be, but said nothing to retract his statement.
"At any rate," Kit hurried on, her gaze skittering away again, "my father's now paying about ninety-nine-point-four million more for that bribe than he thought he would."
The question seemed to be Pendleton's response to everything that night, but honestly, he couldn't help but excuse himself. He'd never been more bewitched, more bothered, more bewildered in his entire life. Unfortunately, when Kit spoke again, he realized that he was nowhere near as befuddled as he was going to be.
"Unless I'm married in two months," she told him, "my family will lose everything."
Kit chuckled at Pendleton's echo of bewilderment. Dearie dear. What to tell the poor boy that wouldn't overwhelm him. Maybe she should do something different for a change and tell him all about it. Obviously, no one else had. She twisted her wineglass by the stem and decided, What the hey? If nothing else, maybe it would make her feel better to finally talk about it.
"As you know," she began, "my family is very wealthy."
"I did rather notice that the night I was at your house."
She nodded. "What you maynotknow, however, is that the McClellan wealth comes entirely from my mother's side of the family."
"No, I assumed your father—"
"Daddy started off as a laborer for Hensley's, working in the bottling plant for union wages. He and my mother met at some big function that Granddaddy threw for the workers one summer. Mama was immediately smitten. And Daddy knewa good opportunity when he saw it. They got married six months later. Mama was pregnant with Holt at the time."
Kit smiled at Pendleton's slip into the vernacular, then continued. "For what it's worth, Daddy was a relatively decent husband to her. To the best of my knowledge, he was never unfaithful, and he always came straight home from work. But he never loved her."
"How do you know?"
"I just do," she said quickly before hurrying on. "And so did Mama. And I guess Granddaddy did, too, because he made my father sign a pre-nup, back in 1959, when such things were unheard of."
Kit smiled again at his second lapse. "Way, Pendleton. Granddaddy wasn't about to condone the marriage, bastard child or no, unless Daddy agreed to enjoy the Hensley lifestyle without getting his grubby hands on the Hensley money. Daddy lived at Cherrywood, drove the cars, wore the clothes, walked the walk, talked the talk. But he never owned any of it. Mama did. He was groomed to take over the company, but the company—and everything else—always belonged to my mother."
This time, Kit chuckled out loud at Pendleton's exclamation. For some reason, telling the story tonight didn't make her feel quite so empty inside as it usually did. "It's true," she assured him. "It wasn't the outcome Daddy had expected when he'd deliberately knocked up the boss's daughter. But, in the long run, he realized he could do a lot worse. So he agreed to play by Granddaddy's rules."
"He married your mother for her money, even though it would never be his."
"Not while Granddaddy and my mother were alive. Granddaddy made sure of that."
The wheels of thought seemed to be turning in Pendleton's brain, so Kit waited before continuing. "But since your mother passed away," he finally began again, "your father must have ultimately come into her fortune, right?"
She shook her head. "Mama changed her will a while back without telling any of us. We didn't find out the details until after she died."
"Why would she change it?"
Kit would have thought by now that voicing the next part wouldn't be quite so painful these days as it used to be. Funny, though, how the prospect of revealing it to Pendleton now hurt even more than usual. "Because Mama knew it was the only way I would ever snag a husband."
"I'm sorry, but I'm still not following you."
A band kicked up in another room then, a lively, lovely number rich with horns and piano that roused her from what was fast becoming a sullen mood. So, seeking to put an end to their conversation as quickly as possible, Kit concluded her story in a rush of words.
"In order for my father to get his hands on the Hensley millions, he has to make sure I'm married within two months. That's what it says in my mother's will. At this point, Daddy figures any available guy has son-in-law potential, and you're unfortunate enough to be his latest acquisition. For that, as much as anything else, I apologize. But don't worry. You're not my type, so there's absolutely no reason why we can't just be friends. Now, with all that said, dance with me."
He gazed at her, nonplussed. "Excuse me?"
"Dance with me, Pendleton. The band is playing a marimba. It's my favorite. Don't they marimba inNew Jersey?"
He laughed low. "Not in the neighborhood where I grew up. Do they do a lot of marimba-ing inLouisville?"
She wiggled her eyebrows playfully. "They do at Arthur Murray. Come on. Dance with me."
She laughed, too, as she stood, the ripple of sound bubbling up unbidden, effervescing in her chest with an explosion of warmth. It was a nice feeling, she thought. One she hadn't experienced for some time. Funny, it coming out of nowhere like that.
When Pendleton made no move to accompany her, she extended her hand across the table. "Please?" she asked softly.
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Miss McClellan, but my job description is quite specific. And nowhere on page four, paragraph six, subheading A does it say that I am required to marimba with the boss's daughter."
She settled her hands on her hips and smiled the most winning smile she could rouse. "I'll give you a dollar."
He twirled his wineglass by the stem and avoided her gaze. "I think I've had enough excitement for one evening. I think that, as soon as we finish with our dinner, I should take you home."
"One dance, Pendleton. That's all I ask. Pretty please?"
He glanced up with a look of put-upon patience. "Oh, all right. But don't forget—you owe me a dollar."
He stood and buttoned his suit jacket, then closed his hand over hers. And when he did, that explosion of warmth in Kit's chest suddenly fireballed, shooting heat throughout her entire system. His dark eyes glittered with something she didn't dare ponder, and his mouth was set in a smile that she found simply irresistible. So she wove her fingers with his and tugged gently, then guided him in the direction of the festive music.
But by the time they reached the room where the band was playing—which actually wasn't a room at all, but an open-air patio—the marimba had segued into something softer and slower and more suited to the sultry night. When she felt Pendleton hesitating behind her, she spun around to look at him.
"Marimba's over," he pointed out unnecessarily. "Guess you don't owe me that dollar after all."
Instead of answering, Kit tugged playfully on his arm, pulling him forward until his body brushed up and down hers. "Not so fast," she said."Youpromised you'd dance with me. Marimba, mambo, rumba, samba…it's all the same to me."
"It's all the same to me, too," he told her. "I don't know what any of those are."
"Then I'll teach you."
Pendleton gazed down at Kit and tried to pinpoint the exact moment when the balance of power had shifted. Until just a few seconds ago—right around the same time her body had come moseying on up to his—he'd been thinking he had things under control. Now, suddenly, he found himself looping his arms loosely around Kit McClellan's waist—and quite a nice waist it was, too—as she danced him backward onto the dance floor.
Dammit, she would want to lead.
Then again, seeing as how he suddenly had noidea what he was doing, maybe he should just surrender to her. The thought of surrendering to Kit took on a way too erotic connotation then, so he set the thought aside and tried to concentrate on something else.
Unfortunately, his concentration seemed to be intent on erotic thoughts this evening, and they kept zeroing in on things they had no business targeting. Like how warm and silky was the bare flesh above Kit's skirt that his fingertips encountered when he settled his hands on her hips. Like how good she smelled all up close this way, sweet and decadent and tempting. Like how fluid and natural her movements were when she propelled her body forward into his again. Like how unspeakably lovely her eyes were when she glanced up to see how he was doing.
Like how he wondered what she would do if he kissed her.
"Getting the hang of things, Pendleton?" she asked as she executed a stunning pirouette that offered him quite a nice view of her bare back.
"Oh, yeah," he replied, the words coming out a bit rougher than he had intended. "I'm getting the hang of things really well."
"It's all in the hips," she told him.
"It certainly is."
"And the legs."
"I noticed that, too."
She laughed with genuine delight, oblivious to the fact that the two of them were talking about entirely different things. "I knew you'd be a good dancer," she said, spinning closer still.
"How did you know that?"
She smiled."Yougot good moves."
"Why, Miss McClellan, I didn't think you'd noticed."
"I notice more than you think, Pendleton."
"I don't doubt that for a moment. Something tells me you miss very little."
"And something tells meyoudon't miss a thing." The music changed again, and he found that he couldn't comment to her statement, because he was too busy trying to figure out where the hell she was going. The pace had quickened riotously, the piano player's fingers tripping up and down the keys, stopping and starting without warning. Kit kept up effortlessly, reeling and darting around Pendleton with the grace of a summer breeze, chuckling good-naturedly at his obvious and total confusion. Before he realized his own intentions, he snaked an arm out to halt her, pulling her to him until her body was flush against his.
And then the strangest thing happened. Although the music kept playing, faster and faster, and the dancers surrounding them still pranced and staggered merrily about, the world enclosing them gradually slowed down to a halt. So Pendleton slowed down with it, spinning Kit in a gradually more languid circle, pulling her closer with every turn, until the two of them stood utterly still at the center of the dance floor.
And then, although he never planned to do it, he kissed her.
As he dipped his head forward, Kit tipped hers back, and oh, so slowly, he covered her mouth with his. Her lips opened easily beneath his, and the taste of her filled him, nourished him, intoxicated him. But it didn't quite satisfy him. Instead, the kiss only inflamed his appetite, making him hunger for more of her than he could ever hope to have. Despite that, he deepened the kiss, cupping her face in his hands, tilting her head back further, plundering her mouth at will.
And Kit acquiesced through all of it, curling one hand around his nape, knifing the fingers of her other through his hair with much affection. She returned his kisses with equal fervor, equal finesse, equal fire. And for the life of him, he simply could not let her go.
He wasn't sure how long they stood there so entwined—perhaps seconds, perhaps centuries—but when the music changed again, slowing down this time, the enchanted moment was lost. He pulled his head back from hers and opened his eyes, only to find her gazing steadily back at him. But she never said a word about what had happened. Instead, she dropped her hands to his shoulders, retreated one step, and began to move her body in time to the beat once again.
"Now this is a merengue, Pendleton," she said, the unsteadiness of her voice belying her composure. "It's a bit trickier. You might have trouble keeping up, so I'll go slow. Maybe you should go slow, too, okay?"
Slow. Right. He'd forgotten.
"On second thought," she said, interrupting both his thoughts and their dancing, "maybe you're right. Maybe it would be better if you just took me home. I'm really not all that hungry. And I'm staying here at the hotel, so it's not far to go."
It took a moment for her words to sink in, because he was too focused on the flush of pink that stained the creamy flesh above her breasts. When he finally realized what she had said, he told her, "No, Kit, when I said that earlier, I meant I should take you home home. Back toLouisville."
He didn't realize he'd called her by her first name until her blue eyes turned almostmidnight, and her lips parted in surprise. But she didn't protest the familiarity. The wind kicked up again and nudged a single, stray curl down over her forehead. Kit reached up to push it back into place at exactly the same time he did, and as a result, he found himself curling his fingers over hers. For one long moment, neither of them moved. Then she dropped her hand back down to her side, and he deftly tucked the strand of hair back into place.
"That, um, that sounds like a good idea," she said softly. "Maybe you should take me home. I'll just get my purse, and you can settle up with our server while I give my notice to the bar manager."
"Is that going to be a problem?" he asked, not certain whether he was talking about her job or something else entirely.
She shook her head. "Nah. Bartenders are a dime a dozen down here." She turned to go, tossing over her shoulder, "Then again, so are marimbas. I'll meet you at the maitre d's stand, okay? And then you can take me home. ToLouisville."
Pendleton watched in silence as she retreated, his mind a flurry of impressions that refused to connect. All he could do was wonder why, suddenly, the last thing he wanted to do was take Kit back to the McClellan home inGlenview. Because in spite of his earlier convictions to the contrary, Cherrywood seemed like the last place for her to be. Somehow, she deserved something more than a multimillion dollar estate with a name.
Though what, exactly, she did deserve, Pendleton couldn't yet quite say.
Faith Ivory still hadn't quite recovered from her previous encounter with Holt McClellan when she ran into him again a few nights later, at a glittering fund-raiser in the glorious Crystal Ballroom of the glamorous Brown Hotel. She was decked out in a teeny-tiny black dress that she'd spent hours working up the nerve to put on, and her discomfort was only compounded now by the fact that she was surrounded by high rollers, captains of industry, society matrons, and Junior Leaguers.
All night long, she'd felt as if she were fighting against the undertow in the sea of upward mobility. And now, having spied Holt McClellan dressed in elegant black and white—who, thankfully, hadn't spied her—she felt as if someone had thrown a killer whale into what was already shark-infested waters.
Fortunately, she was on the opposite side of the ballroom, where there was no way he would ever notice her. Not unless he lost interest in what appeared to be averyintense discussion with his father, and not unless he looked up from the drink that he clutched brutally in his hand. And she was certain that there was no way he would ever do—
He glanced up then and spied her immediately.
She might as well have just shouted her thoughts at the top of her lungs, so focused was he on the exact spot where she stood. She was about to look away, to search for the nearest hasty retreat, when something very strange happened. Holt McClellan smiled. Not so much at her, but as if he suddenly just felt very happy about something.
A warm ripple of excitement shimmied up her spine at his expression, and before she knew it, Faith was smiling, too, the same kind of smile, she was certain. Because suddenly she felt very happy about seeing Holt McClellan again.
In spite of the warm fizzy sensations popping inside her, however, her instincts urged her to hurry home and hide under the blankets, lest the big, bad wolf blow her down. But even when Holt excused himself from his father without looking at him, even when he began to make his way slowly across the crowded room, even when he was only a few scant feet away from her, Faith was helpless to do anything but stand fixed in place and stare at him.
If she had thought him handsome before, she had been badly mistaken. Business attire had made him look too officious, too conservative, too conventional. Tonight, dressed in a black tuxedo, the sapphire studs of his white pleated shirt nearly identical to the color of his eyes, Holt was quite…
"Hi," he said, his voice scarcely audible in the din that surrounded them.
"Hello," she replied automatically.
"So we meet again."
"So we do."
"Three times in one week. This could become habit-forming."
"Oh, no. I don't think so."
Their conversation stalled there, and she wished she were anyone else. Anyone else would know what to say to a man like him. Anyone else would feel comfortable amid all this beauty and wealth and power. Anyone else would be dazzling and witty and charming. Anyone else would be having a good time.
"Can I get you something to drink?" he asked, jerking a thumb toward the bar, surprising her.
She gaped at him. "You're joking, right? Have you forgotten who I work for?"
He expelled an exasperated sound. "Ginger ale, Mrs. Ivory? Club soda? Mineral water? And no, I haven't forgotten who you work for. Believe me—I could never forget that."
She relented some, but couldn't quite banish the reminder that he wasn't someone she should be chatting with, however superficially. If anyone from the Temperance League saw them together…
Well, of course they'd think she was lobbying him to shut his business down, she thought. Which wouldn't be a problem, if that were, in fact, what they were discussing. But the goals of the Temperance League were as far from her mind at the moment as the earth was from the sun.
She shook her head in response to his offer. "No, thank you. I'm fine."
Another awkward moment ensued, until Holt rallied the conversation. "What brings you here tonight?"
Oh, good, she thought. Bland small talk. Even she could handle that. "The Temperance League is a big sponsor for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana."
He nodded. "So is Hensley's."
Well, that was certainly a surprise. "You can't be serious.
He smiled again, this time a bit uncertainly. "Why can't I be serious?"
"A distiller? Sponsoring a juvenile charity? That doesn't make sense."
He seemed honestly mystified by her objection. "Why not? It's a wonderful organization."
"But a distiller? What are you doing? Trying to get kids hooked while they're young? It's not enough that people abuse alcohol as adults?"
He emitted an impatient sound. "Look, contrary to what you think about us, Hensley's isn't some monster intent on turning the world's inhabitants into a bunch of drunks, all right? We're regular contributors to a variety of local charities. Virtually all corporations are. We give money to support the arts, education and the beautification of the city. We even contribute regularly to MADD. Why is that so hard for you to believe?"
"It's just that…"
She scrunched up her shoulders and let them drop, suddenly feeling silly for speaking. "Well… It's just that the Boys and Girls Clubs of Kentuckiana seems an unlikely choice for Hensley's, that's all."
His expression hardened as he spoke. "Mrs. Ivory, if we can't get to at-risk kids when they're young, then they're goners."
His vehemence surprised her. "You sound like you know what you're talking about."
He dropped his gaze back into his drink, but only swirled the liquor around in the glass. "Let's just say I've seen one or two people get into trouble in their lives, trouble they could have avoided if someone had just taken half an interest in them when they were kids."
Faith couldn't imagine how someone like Holt McClellan would understand about such things. He'd grown up wealthy and wanted, privileged and pampered. What could he possibly know about the lives of troubled kids?
"Well…"she tried again. But she had no idea what to say.
He seemed to detect her uneasiness, because he glanced up at her again, smiling reassuringly. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for that to sound the way it did. This is just something I feel rather strongly about. Obviously. Let me make it up to you."
"Let me take you to dinner tomorrow night."
Immediately, she shook her head. "Thank you, but I have plans," she replied, the lie rolling effortlessly off her lips. It was her stock-in-trade answer, after all, one she invariably invoked whenever anyone asked her out.
"Later in the week, then," he said. "Friday maybe?"
"I can't. Truly. Thank you, anyway."
He met her gaze pointedly. "Is it that you can't, or that you won't?"
She shook her head more adamantly. "I can't," she repeated.
He nodded, but seemed no more convinced of the veracity of her response than she was herself. For a moment, she almost backpedaled, almost told him she'd be more than happy to alter her plans,change her schedule, rearrange her entire life, anything to spend a little time with him. Fortunately, she wasn't so far gone that she would do something as foolish as that. Not yet, anyway. A few more minutes in his presence, however, and she wasn't sure she could be held responsible for much of anything she did.
"I have to go," she said suddenly.
He didn't seem surprised by her admission, but he asked, "So soon? The evening just started. I think the mayor's going to make a presentation of some kind."
She nodded quickly. "I know, but…um…"
She scrambled for an excuse. "I forgot to feed my cat." Some excuse, she chastised herself. She didn't evenhavea cat.
"Okay, Mrs. Ivory," Holt McClellan said softly. "I get the message."
"What message?" she asked, feigning ignorance.
But he only inhaled a deep breath and released it slowly. "Where are you parked? If I've managed to chase you off, then the least I can do is walk you to your car."
Ignoring the part about him chasing her off, she replied, "Thank you, but that won't be necessary. I'll be fine on my own." She had, after all, been fine on her own for six months now, right? Well, except for that big gaping wound inside her that nothing seemed capable of healing. Oh, but, hey, other than that…
He shook his head. "Absolutely not. I won't let you leave here alone. It's not safe this time of night. Did you check your coat?"
He obviously wasn't going to be put off by her objections, and a quick glance around told herthere was no one else available for her to draft as an escort. So she opened her little black cocktail purse and extracted her coat check, handing it to him without comment.
"I'll just be a minute," he said.
Would but that were true.Unfortunately, Faith was pretty certain that even if she never saw him again, it would be quite some time before Holt McClellan left her completely.
As she watched him go, she tried not to linger too long on the broad shoulders that strained against his tuxedo jacket, or on the long legs that cut a swath easily through the packed room, or the blond head that passed well above the crowd. Thank heavens his jacket covered his fanny, she thought wryly. The last thing she needed was to be caught ogling that part of him.
"Faith, darling, there you are."
Especially by Miriam Dodd, the director of the Louisville Temperance League, who emerged from the crowd nearby.
"Miriam, how nice to see you. I was wondering where you were."
The plump redhead smiled, her green eyes sparkling brightly enough to vie with the emerald sequins of her gown. "We just now arrived. George was held up at work. I hope we haven't missed anything."
Oh, only me making a complete fool of myself by telling lame lies to a gorgeous man I have absolutely no business speaking to anyway, Faith thought. "No, not a thing," she assured her companion. "Though I understand the mayor's going to be speaking."
"Wonderful. I was hoping I hadn't missed that."
The summons startled her, and she scrambled foran excuse as to why Holt McClellan, of Hensley's Distilleries, Inc., would be standing behind her, holding her black velvet coat open for her to step into. Fortunately, she was spared trying to come up with something plausible, because Holt took it upon himself to greet Miriam.
"Mrs. Dodd," he said, dipping his head toward the other woman in acknowledgment. "Nice to see you again."
Miriam roused herself to her full five-feet-zero inches and snorted. Actually snorted. How rude.
"I doubt that," the other woman said haughtily. "I can't imagine that you or your kind would ever find it nice to see someone of my kind."
Faith turned to Holt to see how he would react. But he only smiled mildly. "It's not like we're matter and antimatter, Mrs. Dodd. We can both occupy the same room without the world coming to a fiery Armageddon."
"That's a matter of opinion," Miriam replied coolly.
But Holt only turned his attention to Faith once again. "If you're ready?" he said, holding up her coat.
Sheepishly, Faith smiled at Miriam as she moved the few steps necessary to don the garment he held with far too much familiarity. Holt settled it around her, brushing his hands over her shoulders momentarily before releasing her. The simple touch was harmless, meaningless. But for some reason, Faith's heart began to hammer hard in her chest.
"Thank you," she managed to whisper.
"You're welcome," he told her, his gaze never leaving hers. "Shall we go?"
She turned to her boss, having known she wouldn't get off easily. "Yes, Miriam?"
The other woman inclined her head toward Holt. "Is everything all right?"
Faith nodded. "Mr. McClellan just offered to see me to my car. He didn't think I should go alone."
Miriam pulled her head back to eye Holt, not bothering to hide her contempt. "Are you so sure you wouldn't be safer alone?"
Until recently, Faith would have assured anyone who asked that question that, yes, by all means, she would undoubtedly be safer alone. But suddenly, she was hesitant to feel so certain.
And of course, she wasn'twithHolt McClellan, not really. A brief walk to the car did not a relationship make. Nevertheless, she couldn't help but feel as if each step she took with him was leading to something. What exactly, she couldn't quite say.
"I'll be fine," she assured Miriam.
"I could ask George—"
"It won't be necessary," she interrupted her employer. "I'll be fine."
Beside her, Holt chuckled, but there wasn't an ounce of merriment in the sound. "Don't worry, Mrs. Dodd," he said. "I never bite until thethirddate."
And before Miriam had a chance to respond with anything other than an open mouth, Holt spread his fingers lightly over the small of Faith's back and steered her toward the exit. Maybe it wasn't their third date, she thought as she allowed herself to be led, but itwastheir third encounter.
* * *
Holt honestly hadn't expected to see Faith Ivory again for the rest of his life, and he'd been cranky as hell all weekend as a result. Then, as if by magic, she'd materialized like the proverbial stranger across a crowded room, dressed in a skimpy little black dress that had roused him faster and more fiercely than he'd ever been roused before. But as quickly as he'd found her again, she was leaving. And that, he decided, was a fact he was going to have to change. Immediately.
They strode in silence through the Brown's elegant lobby, then Holt held the door for Faith, inhaling deeply of her sweet perfume as she passed through. When he followed her out into the crisp night air, he couldn't resist drawing near her, hooking her hand lightly through his arm, covering her fingers harmlessly with his.
"Where are you parked?" he asked her again, unable to tolerate the silence any longer.
"Not far," she replied, her words emerging from her mouth amid a wisp of white fog. "I found a place on the street near Ninth and Broadway."
"That's five blocks away."
She nodded, but didn't look at him. "Like I said. Not far."
"Maybe not during the day, but at night—"
"I made it to the hotel just fine, didn't I?" she snapped. "And it was dark when I arrived."
"You were lucky," he told her.
"I'm fully equipped to take care of myself, Mr. McClellan." Her tentative tone of voice, however, belied her certainty, as did the tremor that shook her when she slid her fingers from his arm and shoved both hands into her coat pockets.
"Gee, keep saying it like that and you might believe it yourself someday."
She glared at him. "What makes you think I don't believe it?"
"Could be the way you glanced down at the ground when you said it," he told her as they continued walking. "Or it could be the way you didn't sound anywhere at all convinced. Or maybe it's the simple fact that I just don't believe you."
She hastened her step as they approachedFifth Street, crossing quickly just as the light changed and an LG&E van lurched forward. It was as if she wanted to be free of his company as quickly as possible, even if it meant getting plowed over by a utility truck. "I see," she murmured when they'd made it to the other side. "And, of course, whatever you believe about a person must by all means be the way of the world, mustn't it?"
"No," he responded, matching her stride effortlessly. "But I'm a pretty good judge of people."
"I find that hard to believe."
In direct contrast to her haste to be rid of him, she stopped dead in the center of the sidewalk and spun around to face him. "Because you're completely removed from the masses, that's why. You don't even know any normal people, so how could you begin to be a judge of them?"
She strode quickly forward once more, so Holthurried alongside to keep up. "Who says I don't know any normal people?"
"How could you? You come from one of the state's most prominent families," she reminded him. "You've had nothing but privilege, nothing but advantage, since day one. And you've worked for none of it. You've earned none of it."
This time Holt was the one who stopped dead in his tracks. Faith kept walking for a half-dozen paces before she realized she had proceeded alone, then she, too, stopped and turned, her expression a silent question mark.
"I haven't earned it?" he asked. "Says who?"
She blinked at him, but said nothing in response. So slowly, Holt began to walk again, covering the distance between them with measured, deliberate strides.
"There are a lot of different ways to earn things, Mrs. Ivory," he said as he approached her. "There's starting at the bottom and working your way to the top. There's paying your dues in less tangible ways, through life experience. And there's simple day-to-day survival."
When he stood face to face with her again, he halted, gazing down into her eyes, nearly drowning in the eddy of emotions he saw there.
"Yes well I'm familiar with all of those," she said, her tone colder than the wintry air that surrounded them. "But I find it hard to believe thatyou'veexperienced any of them."
"You might be surprised what I've experienced," he told her.
In response, she turned and began to walk away, this time with a less hurried pace. Holt followed, staying even with her. Yet neither said another word until they slowed to a halt at the corner of Ninth and Broadway.
When Faith spoke again, it was after pointing to an older model sedan parked alone across the street. "There's where I'm parked."
The traffic on Broadway was surprisingly heavy for a Monday night, so they waited at the corner for the light to change before crossing. And as they did, Holt realized his last chance with Faith was quickly slipping away. He didn't know why it was so essential that he see her again. He only knew that it was. So while he had her captive on the corner, he turned to her again.
"Have dinner with me this week," he said softly. "Tomorrow night. Please."
He could see that she wanted to decline, but she said nothing right away. Instead, she only watched the signal opposite them, a red flashing hand that seemed to be urging her,Don't do it…don't do it … don't do it…
For several moments, she remained silent. And then the signal changed. "Okay," she said softly. "I'll have dinner with you tomorrow night. Call me at work in the morning."
Absolutely nothing in life brought Pendleton greater joy than rolling his car to a stop on the cobbled court in front of Cherrywood with Kit McClellan at his side. Not even that interlude on the dance floor that the two of them had shared inVerandaBay, which, at the time, he'd found more enjoyable than he liked to admit. But it had taken them four days to get from there to here, and the sparkle of that moment had tarnished alooooongtime ago.
Kit McClellan, he had learned the hard way, was not a trustworthy woman.
For some reason, after dropping her back at her bungalow at the Veranda Bay Resort, he'd felt compelled to hang around, just to be sure she didn't try anything funny. Like, oh, say … escaping, for instance. And imagine his lack of surprise when, less than thirty minutes later, she had slipped out the door with suitcase in hand.
What had ensued was a bout of island-hopping unlike anything Pendleton had ever experienced, culminating in a rather unforgettable—as much as he wished he could forget it—incident at the airport in San Juan, where Kit had almost managed to give him the slip. Looking back, he supposed it really hadn't been anythingtoomajor. She'd just kind of, oh…shoved him from behind, yelled to a gaggle of security guards that he had a bomb, and then takenoffrunning at breakneck speed in the opposite direction.
At the time, however, Pendleton had been a bit miffed. But once he'd explained the situation to the guards—no easy feat, considering the fact that he barely knew what was going on himself—and once he'd been strip-searched and interrogated for more than an hour by the Puerto Rican authorities; everything had been fine. Well, sort of fine. There had been that compulsive need for a shower, however, that he still hadn't quite shaken.
Luckily for him, he'd noted the terminal toward which Kit had been running before they'd slapped the handcuffs on him. Unluckily for him, however, it had emptied out into a half-dozen gates, any of which could have been her final destination. He'd had to resort to his dubious masculine wiles and his questionable good looks to cajole a terminal operator to search the manifests for a name. And, thanks to the warning he'd received from the other Hensley's VPs, not for the name Katherine Atherton McClellan, either.
Ultimately, Pendleton and the employee performing the search—a charming young woman named Rafaela, to whom he owed a night of dinner and dancing the next time he found himself in San Juan—had decided that the person traveling first class under the moniker Anne O'Cleves was, more than likely, the object of his pursuit. And how fortuitous that the plane had had a three-hour layover before flying off to St. Maarten, so it was still on the ground.
It hadn't been pretty removing Kit from that plane. And now here he sat with the queen herself, in front of her palace, wanting to chop off Her Majesty's head.
"We're home, Your Highness," he stated unnecessarily. "Now get out of my car."
She uttered a soft sigh. "Gee, Pendleton. Keep being so nice to me, and you're going to turn my head."
"Get out of my car," he repeated, surprised at how even he managed to keep his voice.
She eyed him thoughtfully for a moment. "You're still steamed about theSan Juanthing, aren't you?"
Somehow, he refrained from comment.
"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm really sorry. It was just a joke. I had no idea they'd actually strip-search you."
"Get out. Now."
"Aren't you going to walk me to the door?"
"Daddy's going to be disappointed if you don't carry me in thrown over your shoulder, kicking and screaming."
"Oh, come on, Pendleton. It'll be fun."
"Novak carried me in that way."
She sighed heavily again and settled back into her seat, clearly not going anywhere.
"Miss McClellan, I have better things to do with my time than be a plaything for you and your father. You'll excuse me if I reiterate: Get…out…of … my … car."
She folded her arms over her midsection. "Daddy won't be pleased. And you won't have a car for me to get out of if you lose your job. The repo guys will come and take it back to Status Symbols-R-Us. Then where will you be?"
He studied her intently, inhaled a deep breath, and counted to ten. Then, when he realized he was still furious, he went on to twenty. Then thirty. Then fifty. Ultimately, he decided he would pass out from oxygen deprivation before he would ever be able to feel anything but outrage at Kit. Right now, he only wanted to be rid of her. Whatever it took to achieve that, Pendleton would do.
"I'll take you in," he said through gritted teeth. "But I'm not hauling you over my shoulder."
He unbuckled his seat belt with a vicious snap, then opened his door and unfolded himself from inside the tiny roadster. Cautiously, he strode around the front of the car, his eyes never straying from Kit McClellan. Still playing the role of entitled heiress—as if she were entitled to anything more than a swift kick in the pants—she waited patiently for him to complete his circuit and halt by the passenger-side door. Then she gazed through the window with a smile befitting the most despotic royalty, clearly expecting him to do her the honor of opening the door.
Rolling his eyes, Pendleton reached for the handle, only to find the door locked. In response to his inability to open the door, Kit's smile only grew broader. Then she leaned over his seat and pushed down the lock on the driver's side door, as well.
Okay. That did it. No more.
Pendleton didn't know how he was going to explain it to the insurance company—and frankly, at the moment, he didn't care—but he curled his fingers closed tight above the canvas roof of the convertible, and, with one clean effort, drove his fist right through the fabric. The expression on Kit's face when he did was more than worth whatever rate hike he would have to endure in his premiums as a result. Then he gripped the canvas with rigid fingers and rent a Kit-sized hole right through it.
"N-now h-how are you going to f-fix that?" she asked, masking her fear very nicely. Well, except for that nasty stammer and the terror gleaming in her eyes.
He inhaled deeply, feeling his chest swell with manly ability. "I'll do what any other man in my situation would do."
"Now then," he continued, proud of his ability to maintain a thin veneer of civility. "Either you can get out of my car the traditional way…"He gazed down at her through the gaping tear. "Or I can reach in and drag you out. Your choice, Miss McClellan. Which will it be?"
She lifted a hand to her neck, then reluctantly unlocked the door. Pendleton jerked it open before she could change her mind, and stood aside for her to exit. The moment she had cleared the door, however, he roped his arm around her waist, lifted her from the cobbled driveway, and tossed her, kicking and screaming, over his shoulder. Fine. They'd do it her way. For some reason, he suddenly liked the idea.
He carried her up the walkway and lifted the door knocker for three quick raps, then waited with one arm looped around her legs and the other hand cupped over her fanny, until Mrs. Mason answered the door. To her credit, the housekeeper only arched one snowy eyebrow in response to the scene that greeted her. Then she stepped aside to allow them entry, with the quietly offered announcement that Mr. McClellan, Sr. wasn't home, but that Mr. McClellan, Jr. was entertaining a guest in the dining room.
With Kit still howling and pounding on his back with both fists, Pendleton made his way to the dining room. He found McClellan, Jr. seated at the head of the big table, a delicate-looking blonde to his right. Without ceremony, he proceeded forward, dumped Kit into the chair she had occupied that ill-fated night at dinner, and turned to his host.
"McClellan," he greeted the other man with a brief nod.
His host stood, buttoned his jacket, and nodded back. "Pendleton."
"You'll forgive me if I tell you that I can't stay."
"No problem. Thanks for bringing Kit home."
"Oh, I sincerely doubt that."
Since the observation required no further comment, Pendleton turned to Kit and bowed with all the chivalry of an evil overlord. "Miss McClellan," he said. "It was a memorable occasion."
Kit had slumped into her chair, but now turned her attention to the table, obviously looking for something in particular. "What? No wine?" she finally asked her brother. "What kind of host are you, Holt? Sheesh."
"Good night, Miss McClellan," Pendleton concluded before turning his back on the lot of them.
A quick reminder spun him back around again, however, this time to focus on Kit's brother.
"McClellan," he said, "do you have any duct tape?"
The other man shrugged. "Of course."
"Mind if borrow a couple of feet?"
"Not at all."
McClellan, Jr. summoned Mrs. Mason to retrieve a roll of duct tape from the kitchen, then, when she returned, he tossed it to Pendleton. Pendleton muttered his thanks and, still ignoring Kit, began to make his exit once again.
"'Night, Pendleton!" she called after him cheerfully. "Thanks for saving the last dance for me!"
He stiffened at the reminder, but didn't acknowledge her farewell. This time, he remembered quite well how to leave the McClellan house. He only wished he could rid himself of the household as easily.
* * *
He dreamed that night about Kit. About riotous music, squawking birds, palm trees, oceans, and marimbas. And hurricanes. Lots and lots of hurricanes. And amid the swirling scenes of turmoil pounding at his unconscious brain, there erupted a single oasis of serenity: He dreamed about lying naked on the beach with Kit McClellan, limbs entwined, mouths joined, bodies slick with salt water.
Pendleton rolled over in bed with a groan. He was still half-asleep, and caught up in the strangeness of the dream, when something halted his progress. Something warm. Something soft. Something that, when he reached over to drape an arm around it for further investigation, murmured a quiet, satisfied sound. His eyes still closed, he moved his hand leisurely down the length of the thing, onlyto have it stretch languidly and twine its bare legs with his.
Curves. That was what registered first. The revelation was quickly followed by another, however, the realization that those curves were moving closer. Slowly, it dawned on him that he wasn't alone in his bed. So he opened one eye experimentally, and, in the scarce morning light that filtered through the curtains, he saw a rather pronounced lump beneath the covers beside him. A lump with dark blond curls that peeked out from beneath the blanket. A lump that mumbled something incoherently before turning its back to him again.
Ignoring for a moment the fact that he slept in the buff, Pendleton pushed himself up on one elbow to get a closer look at his companion. Of course, he knew who it was without seeing her face, but something inside him was still clinging steadfastly enough to denial that he reached a hand out toward her. He had meant to touch the blanket, to tug it and the sheet back just enough to see if it really was Kit McClellan and not some other blond, madcap heiress who had invaded his bed. But instead of the blanket, his fingers wandered to her hair, skimming lightly over the silky tresses before winding a single dark gold ringlet around his thumb.
And that was when Kit began to stir with more purpose, rolling back to face him again. It was she, not he, who pushed the blanket down past her shoulders, and when she did, Pendleton saw that he wasn't the only one who slept in the buff.
"Miss McClellan," he said, his voice a rough whisper. "What are you doing in my bed?"
She shoved a fistful of hair out of her eyes and smiled sleepily. "Well, good morning to you, too, Pendleton. Brrr," she added with a shiver. "It's freezing in here. You need to get yourself a couple of cats. Or a woman. Whatever."
"Thank you, but I feel the need for neither. What are you doing in my bed?" he repeated. "How did you get here?"
"I drove, silly," she murmured sleepily. "Your address is in Daddy's Rolodex. I had a little trouble finding a parking place out front, though, so I had to double park. I didn't realize one of your neighbors was aLouisvillepolice officer."
Pendleton sighed. "That would be my next door neighbor. Captain Nichols."
"Oooh. Do you think he'll get mad when he realizes he's boxed in by a Mercedes S-class?"
"Gee, I have no idea. Those guys that hang out across the street inCentral Parkmight notice, though. The Gang o' Car Thieves, I think is what they call themselves."
Kit sighed dramatically. "My car keys are in my purse by the back door. Would you mind terribly moving it for me? There's a good boy."
He ignored her question and posed one of his own instead. "What I meant by 'How did you get here?' wasn't an inquiry into what manner of transportation brought you to my doorstep. What I want to know is how you got past that doorstep and into my house. My bed."
She yawned like a bored cat. "Oh, that. Funny thing about old houses. The locks are generallysoooooeasy to pick."
"You broke into my house?" he asked, surprised at how calm he managed to keep his voice, not to mention himself.
She wrinkled her nose a bit. "Mmm…I prefer to think of it as illegal entry."
"Interesting distinction. And exactly where did you learn this particular trade?" he asked further. "Glenviewdoesn't seem the kind of environment where such skills are passed down from one generation to the next."
"You might be surprised," she murmured. She yawned again, lustily this time, and scrubbed her hands through her hair. "All right. If you must know, when I was seventeen, I dated a guy who was something of a lovable rogue. Until Holt and Mick had him arrested. He was still a lovable rogue after that," she hastened to clarify, "but his presence behind bars did put something of a damper on our relationship." She shrugged her—quite naked—shoulders philosophically. "I guess I should be grateful he was nailed for something he actually did, and not because they trumped up some charge of armed robbery against him."
Pendleton only gazed at her in silence for a moment."Youdated a guy who committed armed robbery?"
She made a face. "Of course not. I said that would have been the charge my brothers had trumped up against him. Actually, Turk—"
"Turk? His name was really Turk?"
"—just ran numbers. He only served six months." She shrugged again, less philosophically this time. "But he didn't want to see me anymore after he got out. Go figure. In spite of that, our short time together was one of my more productive relationships. It lasted four whole weeks."
Pendleton told himself that the only reason his righteous outrage toward her seemed to be fading some this morning was because he was half-asleep and she was totally naked. Surely once they were up and at 'em, he'd be offended to full capacity once again.
"All right," he conceded softly, "now that we have establishedhowyou got in here, I suppose the next item on our agenda would bewhyyou got in here."
She smiled sweetly. "I thought I might move in with you for a while."
She thought she might move in with him for a while. That was a good one. Pendleton almost laughed.
She sighed with much contentment, then continued, "Cherrywood is just so…I don't know…overdone. And it's so big, you can get lost in that place. I could really use a change of scenery. And since you and I hit it off so well down in theCaribbean, I thought it might be fun for us to be roomies."
She thought it might be fun for them to be roomies. That was another good one. Gosh, if he wasn't careful, he was going to break a rib laughing so hard.
"Miss McClellan," he began.
"Gee, Pendleton. You might as well call me Kit. After all, we have slept together."
"Yes, we have. And Daddy's absolutely delighted about it, let me tell you."
Oh, now that brought him wide awake in no time at all. "Excuse me?"
"I said Daddy's absolutely delighted about us sleeping together. He came home last night just as I was leaving with my bags, and I told him all about us."
He chuckled anxiously. "Oh, no, no, no, no, no."
Kit giggled contentedly. "Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes."
"Miss McClellan, I don't think you realize what you're saying."
"Actually, Pendleton, it's you who doesn't realize what I'm saying. There's so much more underlying this conversation than meets the ear. You can't possibly imagine."
"Nah. If you knew what I was talking about, all the fun would go right out of it."
"Kit," she insisted. "Come on, Pendleton. You said my name out loud once already without any trouble at all. What's the problem?"
What's the problem? he echoed to himself. The problem was that he'd said her name out loud once already without any trouble at all. But instead of explaining that to her, he replied, "There's a little something we need to address here. Immediately, in fact."
"Only one little something? That's a surprise."
"I, um," he continued, "I sleep naked."
She smiled sweetly again. Uh-oh. "I know."
"How do you know?"
"When did you peek?"
"Last night, when I crawled into bed beside you."
"So, uh, so it was dark?"
"I had a flashlight."
"Well, I'd never been in your house before," she said, "so I had no idea where the furniture was,and I didn't want to trip over anything. Imagine my surprise to discover that thereisno furniture. You're going to have to ask Daddy for a raise."
"The reason there's no furnitureisn'tbecause I don't have the funds to buy it, but because I haven't had the time to shop for it and…"He hesitated, wondering just how one went about dealing with this sort of thing. "I'm naked," he finally reiterated.
"So? I'm naked, too."
That was a fact of which he really wished she hadn't reminded him. "Which is something else we need to talk about," he said.
"Okay," she agreed, way too easily. "Let's talk about it. In fact, let's go ahead and talk aboutallthe things we need to talk about." She extracted her hands from beneath the covers and ticked off the facts on her fingers as she enumerated them. "Let's see now…You're naked—that's one thing. I'm naked—that's two things. We're in bed together, we've slept together, and I can't wait to see what happens when Daddy tells the boys all about it—that's three more things. Oh, wait, another thing—you're going to make my family so happy, Pendleton. And you can't possibly know how important that is to me. I don't know how I'm ever going to be able to properly thank you."
Thinking he should probably just roll belly-up and surrender, he continued heedlessly, "You could start by getting out of my bed."
"Okay." She gripped the covers again, clearly ready to throw them back and reveal herself in all her naked glory.
"Wait!" he cried, squeezing his eyes shut. "Not yet."
"Hey, Pendleton, no time like the present."
"Stop," he commanded her. "Just…stop."
He opened one eye experimentally and was delighted to see that she had done as he'd requested for a change. She was still in his bed, and still covered up. But she was also still naked. As was he. Wasn't this just a wonderful way to wake up in the morning.
"What time do you have to be at work?" she asked.
"Not until eight. What time is it?"
Kit reached over to the nightstand on her side of the bed and retrieved her watch, then squinted at it in the dimly lit room. "It's…seven forty-five."
It took a moment for that to register."What?"
She tossed her watch back onto the nightstand and reached her arms high above her head with a contented groan. As she relaxed the stretch, she told him, "I guessIforgot to tell you thatIturned off your alarm when I came to bed last night. Frankly, those things annoy the heck out of me. I like to wake up gradually, by my own internal alarm clock. And it never goes off until after ten. Not unless some guy running his fingers through my hair wakes me up first."
"I wasnotrunning my fingers through your hair," he said, more to beat back the panic threatening to overtake him at being so late for work than to actually deny what even he had to admit was a valid argument.
"Well, at any rate, you'd better hurry if you have any hope of getting to work before nine," Kit pointed out as she snuggled back down into the covers and closed her eyes. "Boy," she added in a sleepy murmur, "it must be a drag to be a working stiff."
In spite of running inexcusably late for work, Pendleton could only lie there for a moment on his side and watch Kit McClellan in utter disbelief as she slipped effortlessly back into a nice, steady slumber. Only a person with no conscience could possibly fall asleep that quickly. Of course, his realization of that only compounded his discomfort.
He shook his head slowly, silently. What on earth was he supposed to do with her?
Unfortunately, way too many ideas popped into his head in response to that question, few of them in any way polite. Or legal. For now, he was just going to have to worry about it later. Because he had only fifteen minutes to shave, shower, dress, and make the seven-minute drive to work. So, keeping an eye trained carefully on the woman sleeping in his bed, he threw back the covers and swung his feet to the floor. Then, because he knew better than to trust her, he picked up his pillow and, as he stood, placed it strategically over his lower torso before he began backing toward the bedroom door.
He was as quiet as he could possibly be as he eased shut the door behind him. In spite of that, he wasn't sure, but he thought he heard Kit mumble something in her sleep just before the latch clicked. And although he tried to tell himself her remark must have been some incoherent observation about a half-forgotten dream, he couldn't help but think instead that it sounded a whole lot like, "Nice tushie, Pendleton."
And that, even more than being egregiously late for work, was what made him dash for the bathroom posthaste.
* * *
"You've made me a very happy man, Pendleton."
Pendleton clenched his hands into fists behind his back and silently willed his employer to spontaneously combust. Holt McClellan, Sr. sat on the business side of a massive mahogany desk, the worn leather chair beneath him creaking under his weight as he leaned back withmuchsatisfaction. On the dark-paneled wall behind him, stuffed in various poses of literally glassy-eyed terror, was a disturbingly large collection of hunting trophies. But what really bothered Pendleton the most—aside from the obvious fact that his boss enjoyed killing things—was that each of the prizes had been wrested from completely passive animals like deer, raccoons and large-mouth bass.
Boy, you'd think the least McClellan, Sr. could do was go after something that had big, pointy teeth and razor-sharp claws. Even things out a bit, for God's sake.
"Yepper," the CEO continued happily, scattering Pendleton's thoughts. "Very,veryhappy."
"I assume, sir, that would be because of my report on priority enhancement to promote productivity," Pendleton stated, feigning ignorance. "I'm glad you approve. I—"
"Screw the report," McClellan, Sr. interrupted with a smile. "You're sleeping with my daughter. I see great things in your future, Pendleton. Great things indeed."
Pendleton swallowed hard, torn between denying the allegation, even though it was technically true, and ruining his boss's good mood, or conceding that he had, in fact, shared more than just a mattress with his employer's daughter, and thereby perpetuating a lie, to keep the man very,veryhappy.
Ultimately, the decision was taken out of his hands when McClellan, Sr. asked, "So, when are you going to marry her?"
That, at least, was a question to which Pendletondefinitelyknew the answer. With all the vigor and insistence he could muster, he stated quite forcibly, "Sir?"
"Marry her," his employer repeated. "When's the wedding? She's quite a catch, you know."
Pendleton swallowed hard. "A … catch, sir?"
The CEO waved a hand impatiently through the air. "Well, all right. Maybe not a catch. But you do have to admit that she's one of a kind."
Finally, an observation with which Pendleton could unequivocally agree. "Oh, yes, sir. I will admit that. Your daughter is nothing if not … unique."
The moment Pendleton had arrived at work, Beatrice had told him Mr. McClellan, Sr. was demanding his presence in his office. Naturally, he'd assumed his employer had commanded this performance because he wanted a rundown of Pendleton's Pirates of theCaribbeanadventure with the old man's daughter. The last thing he had expected upon walking into his boss's office was for McClellan, Sr. to slap him soundly on the back and say with heartfelt delight, "Welcome back, son!"
But that was precisely what his boss had done. And nothing in Pendleton's entire life had terrified him more than those words. Or at least, that one word. That last word. Son. Because the way McClellan, Sr. had voiced that word…
All Pendleton could do was remember Kit's assertion at dinner that night inVerandaBay, that hewas currently at the top of the McClellan men'ssap du jourlist. That list of eligible bachelors who might be gullible enough, greedy enough or misguided enough to marry the madcap McClellan heiress, thereby securing the family fortune for the family.
When it appeared that his employer was going to say nothing more, Pendleton ventured, "May I speak frankly, sir?"
"By all means."
With some trepidation, he began, "Although your daughter is certainly a lovely person…"
McClellan's eyebrows arrowed downward in concern. "I'm not sure I like the sound of that, Pendleton."
"Uh…"he tried again. "It's just that, um…"
"Ye-es?" his boss asked, stringing the single syllable out over several time zones.
"Well, sir, although I think Miss McClellan is, um…"
"Is a, uh…"
With his free hand, McClellan, Sr. made a slow, gyrating motion, a silent indication that Pendleton should just please, for the love of God, get on with it.
"Well, she has a great personality, sir," he said lamely.
McClellan, Sr. frowned. "Uh-oh."
The softly uttered observation halted Pendleton's thoughts faster than an electrode to the groin would have. "Uh-oh, sir?"
But instead of elaborating, McClellan, Sr. eyed Pendleton malignantly and asked, "Pendleton, how badly do you need this job?"
Oooh, low blow."Um, pretty badly, sir."
"And can you think of any other corporation in the country that will pay you the salary you're currently earning in the position you hold?"
Oooh, another one below the belt. McClellan, Sr. sure did fight dirty. "Um, no, sir, I can't think of another corporation in the country that will pay me what Hensley's does. And if I haven't said so already, sir, it's a very generous package, one that—"
"That's what I thought." McClellan, Sr. nodded, triumphantly if Pendleton wasn't mistaken. "Now then. You were saying? About my lovely daughter and her great personality?"
Pendleton sighed. He was really beginning to hate his new job, despite its generous benefits and pay. "I was saying, sir, that your daughter is um, lovely."
"And she has a great personality."
"And I find her company to be very…"
Demoralizing. Uncomfortable. Maddening. Icky. "Delightful," he muttered, and somehow he managed not to choke on the word.
McClellan, Sr. couldn't contain his glee. "I knew the two of you would hit it off. The minute I laid eyes on you, Pendleton, I knew you were the man for Kit."
Oh, God. "Sir?"
Oh, please, no. Notson.Anything but that. "About my report? On priority enhancement to promote productivity?"
"We'll talk about it at tomorrow's meeting. Anything else?"
Well, except for that small matter of your daughter having infested my home and, aside from spraying herwith some nasty pesticide that might potentially harm the environment, I have no idea how to remove her…
He prepared to leave, thinking his boss would dismiss him with his usual, cursory "Now get out," but instead, McClellan, Sr. rose from his chair and moved to the front of his desk.
And then, out of nowhere, he said, "Did you know that I once paid a man a quarter of a million dollarsnotto marry my daughter?"
Pendleton blinked three times, as if a too-bright flash had gone off right in front of his eyes. This really wasn't a conversation he wanted to have with his boss. It had been bad enough having it with the boss's daughter. In spite of that, he was helpless to say anything but, "Now that you mention it, I believe that Miss McClellan did say something about that over dinner inVerandaBay."
McClellan, Sr. nodded. "Then I assume she also told you why it's essential that she be married within two months' time, too, didn't she? Something about one hundred million dollars?"
Pendleton pretended to search his memory for the recollection. "Seems to me she said it was ninety-nine-point-four million," he said.
His employer growled impatiently. "Whatever."
"Yes, she did mention that, as well."
McClellan, Sr. nodded. "The man I paid to not marry Kit was a prick, Pendleton. She deserved better. She deserved someone like you."
Oh, he really didn't like the sound of that.
"And now," his employer continued, "here you are." For a long time, McClellan, Sr. only studied him in silence, as if he were trying to gauge the full measure of the man. Then, evidently having arrived at a decision, he went on, "Seeing as how I once paid a man that much money toleavemy daughter, when my family's fortunewasn'tat stake, can you imagine howgratefulI'd be to the man whomarriedKit now, thereby keeping the family fortune where it belongs—in the hands of the family?"
Pendleton swallowed hard in an effort to dispel the bitter taste that rose from the back of his throat at hearing his employer's offer. The fingers he had curled behind his back fisted tighter as he realized he'd never wanted to hit anyone as badly as he wanted to slug McClellan, Sr. at that moment. The man didn't deserve ninety-nine-point-four cents, let alone millions. To barter one's daughter like so much furniture made the man, to Pendleton's way of thinking, worse than a common pimp.
As if he hadn't already said far too much, McClellan, Sr. added, "I can be a very generous man, Pendleton. Think about it."
Oh, as if he'd be able to do anythingbutthink about it. Naturally, Pendleton had no intention of lowering himself to McClellan, Sr.'s distasteful pandering. But he was too outraged at the moment to trust anything he might say aloud, so he only nodded dispassionately and said nothing. Hey, what was there to say? His employer was a slimy, heartless creep, and Pendleton was too much of a gentleman to call him on it. Either that, or Pendleton was too much of a spineless, simpering suck-up to call him on it. Whatever.
"I'm glad we understand each other," McClellan, Sr. said with a slimy, heartless smile.
Pendleton responded with a spineless, simpering one of his own."Yes,sir. We do indeed understand each other."You creep.
"Fine. Now remember what I said. And get out."
Unable to follow that last order fast enough, Pendleton pivoted on his heel and hurried out of his employer's office. As he went, he tried not to panic in the knowledge that it was barelynineA.M.,and already his house had been overtaken by Kit McClellan, his morals compromised by her father. Call him an alarmist, but it seemed to him that the day wasn't starting off well at all.
He could handle the McClellans, he assured himself as he made his way back to his office. There was no way McClellan, Sr. could expect him to marry Kit and save the family fortune, with or without a bonus for his trouble. This wasn't medievalEngland, where fathers did that kind of thing, in spite of McClellan, Sr.'s obviously antiquated thinking on the matter.
And Kit couldn't possibly be serious about being his "roomie," Pendleton told himself further. Surely, it was just her…unique…sense of humor and simple boredom with her life—andnota chemical imbalance in her brain—that made her do the things she did. Surely, she would tire of wreaking havoc in his life soon, and then she'd move on. Surely everything would come to rights soon.
Unfortunately, Pendleton felt sure about none of those things. Except for maybe one. Hecouldhandle Kit McClellan.
It was with some trepidation that Pendleton pulled up behind his big Victorian house in Old Louisville shortly after six that evening. He told himself that the only reason he was shivering like a jackhammer was because of the constant rush of icy air that had blown in through the tear in the roof of his car that even duct tape hadn't been able to mend effectively, and not because he was terrified of a slim, blond woman who couldn't even make a sarong burgeon on her best day. Unfortunately, thoughts of Kit McClellan had left him shuddering every time they'd braved entry into his muddled brain.
Just what the hell was he supposed to do about her?
He folded closed the doors on the dilapidated shed that his real estate agent had called a garage, then made his way halfheartedly up the crumbling creekstones that bisected his small backyard. Once the weather turned warm, he had plans to rip out the stepping stones and replace them with a cobbled walkway that led from the back porch to the new garage he planned to build. Of course, that was going to necessitate building a back porch, too, one to replace the boxy wooden, uh…thing with screens…that was currently affixed to his house.
For now, however, his yard, porch, and garage were much like his house. In need of major renovation. Kind of like his life, too, he thought further as he approached.
He heard her long before he saw her and knew that Kit McClellan was still very much resident in his home. As he carefully negotiated the slick, mossy steps of his alleged back porch, a sound assaulted his ears unlike anything he had ever heard before. And only when he'd opened the back door and stepped inside did he finally realize what was causing the din.
To say she sang badly would have been like saying Josef Stalin had lacked people skills. And the song…
"Oh, don't you remember sweet Betsy from Pike…"was what it sounded like she was attacking. Then something about green mountains and a brother named Ike. Then egg yolks? He couldn't really say. But the big yeller dog part was fairly clear, as was the spotted hog part. The rest, however…Well, he supposed he should be grateful he hadn't understood it all. Because that would have meant he had some working knowledge of Kit McClellan's repertoire. And the thought of such a possibility really didn't set well with him at all.
"Hi, honey, I'm home," he muttered as he entered his kitchen.
Immediately, he sensed that something was wrong. Well, something besides the fact that his house was currently the migratory receptacle for the rare, but unfortunately not quite extinct, yellow-headed, gravel-voiced hobnobber. And it wasn't just because of the tasteful arrangement of table and chairs situated at the center of the room that hadn't been there this morning when he'd left for work. It was also because of the smell emanating from one of the numerous copper pots cooking…stuff…on the stove. A smell that was quite…extraordinary. Not unpleasant, mind you…Well, nottoounpleasant. Just…um…
"Kit?" he called out to the house at large.
"Pendleton! Darling! You're home!"
"I'll be right there! As soon as I fix your martini!"
He told himself it was simple curiosity—andnotcrippling fear—that kept him rooted in place, gripping his briefcase as if it were the only thing that linked him to reality. Which was good, because when Kit entered the kitchen less than a minute later, he was sure reality was fast slipping away. In fact, he had to close his eyes for a moment, then open them again, to be sure he wasn't hallucinating.
Nope. He wasn't. Dammit.
Because that was definitely Kit McClellan gliding through the swinging door that connected kitchen to dining room. And she really was dressed like June Cleaver, right down to the high heels, the poufy skirt, the matching sweater set, and the pearl necklace. She strode toward him with a sweet smile, kissed his cheek, and extended a glass toward him.
And then she asked, "How was your day, dear?"
Okay, now this was just plain bizarre. It was one thing to have your house overrun, but when the woman overrunning it starting acting like this, well…In a word,ew.A shudder wound through him, and he snatched the martini out of her hand, downing it in one quick swallow.
Kit patted his arm. "I'm glad to see you, too, honey. Here, let me take your coat and briefcase. Your slippers and the newspaper are in your chair by the fireplace."
Before he even realized what she was doing, Kit had his briefcase on the kitchen table, his coat draped over her arm, and she was refilling his glass from the cocktail shaker she'd been carrying in her other hand. It occurred to him then that not only did he not own a pair of slippers, but there was also no chair by his fireplace. Of course, until a moment ago, he would have sworn there was no table and chairs in his kitchen, either, and look how that had turned out.
"What have you done?"
She arched her eyebrows in a way that, judging by the golden age of television still broadcast regularly on Nick at Nite, was endemic to all Eisenhower-era women. "What do you mean, dear?"
He opened his mouth to put voice to the thoughts that had just jelled—more or less—in his head, but all that came out was, "Ummm…"
And then he was crossing the kitchen toward the door that connected with the dining room, shoving it open with far more intensity than was necessary. He knew that, because it immediately banged into something on the other side and came hurling back again, smashing right against his nose.
The commentary came not from Pendleton, but from Kit, who stood behind him. "That had to hurt," she added.
Without comment, he carefully pushed open the door, peeking around it into the other room to see what had caused its halt the first time. And imagine his surprise to discover a lovely dining room suite on the other side, complete with table, chairs, buffet, and china cabinet. A china cabinet that was half-stocked with what appeared, even to Pendleton's untrained eye, to be pretty primo china.
"Wedgwood," Kit clarified from behind him when she saw where his gaze had settled. "I got Louisville Stoneware for our everyday. Natch. I hope you don't mind me picking out our patterns without consulting you. But the fact is, you men simply do not have an eye for that kind of thing."
He turned to look at her. "My, but haven't you been a busy little bee today."
She grinned. "Yes,I have, haven't I?"
He said nothing in response, only gazed at the new furnishings that were nothing at all like what he had planned to buy for himself. Kit's tastes obviously ran along the lines of English antiques, where his own were far more contemporary and far less excessive. Maybe, he thought, if he was really nice to her, she'd let him pick the interior paint colors when the time came.
"I wasn't sure who to call about the renovation work," she added, almost as if she'd read his mind. She swept her hand toward one of numerous spots of crumbling plaster near the ceiling. "Call me old-fashioned, but I think that's more a job for someone who has at least one Y chromosome, so I thought you could handle it."
"I'll handle it," he said, feeling just so damnedgrateful that she allowed him some small say in the destiny of his own home.
Pushing past him, she strode alongside a half-dozen empty cartons filled with bubble-wrapped items Pendleton felt certain he was better off not knowing about. Then she made her way into the living room, where, by golly, there was an oxblood leather chair sitting by the fireplace—where, incidentally, burned a lovely little fire—complete with a pair of plaid wool slippers and a copy ofThe Courier-Journal,all folded nice and neat for his enjoyment.
"What? No golden retriever?" he asked.
"It's being delivered tomorrow," she announced as she spun around to face him.
"As is the sofa-loveseat combination, the club chair, and the chaise."
"Unfortunately, our new bedroom suite won't be here until the day after."
He sighed heavily. "Does this mean you're planning to stay for some length of time?"
She waggled her head back and forth, then wrinkled her nose in thought. "Yeah."
"And, may I ask what I did to deserve such a, um…such a distinction?"
She shrugged. "You were nice to me, Pendleton."
He hesitated before saying anything more, wondering just how serious she was about this. Then, when he realized she was, more than likely, pretty dead set on it, he asked, "Will your father really fire me if I throw you out?"
He could have sworn that, for just the briefest of moments, she looked as if he'd hurt her feelings by asking what he had. Then he decided that he must have been mistaken, because she immediately appeared to be as cool, calm, and collected as always.
"Yeah, he probably would," she said. "He's done some pretty wacky things since Mama passed away. He used to only have four vice-presidents besides Holt, but he created all those new positions with huge, obscene salaries just so he could hire more potential life mates for me. And even at that, he's fired and hired a whole mess of people over the last two years. He always has what sounds like legitimate reasons for letting people go, but he's fired an awful lot of them when they didn't, oh, hit it off with the boss's daughter."
"So everyone there now is a fairly recent hire?" Pendleton asked.
She nodded. "I don't think any of the VPs have worked for Hensley's for more than a year. That's about how long Daddy gives them to make me marriage-minded. If you throw me out now, he'll probably decide pretty quickly that you're not vying for my affection and replace you with someone who will."
"What about Carmichael?" Pendleton asked as a new thought struck him. "If your father only hires potential husbands for you, then why did he hire Carmichael, who is quite obviously a woman?"
"He hired Carmichael in one of his more desperate periods, when he thought maybe I just wasn't, shall we say, interested in men. It was back when Hawaii was entertaining the idea of legalizing same-sex marriages."
"Carmichael has since met a very nice osteopathic surgeon named Debbie, and the two of them are very happy together."
Pendleton felt triumphant. "Then there's a good chance your fatherwon'tfire me if I throw you out, if he's kept Carmichael on in spite of her not being a potential life mate for you."
"Oh, please, Pendleton. Carmichael is positivelyincredibleheading up advertising. Daddy would have to be crazy—in the medical sense, I mean—to let her go. You, on the other hand, are a new hire who hasn't even proven himself," she pointed out. "You are by no means irreplaceable."
Pendleton naturally took exception to that, but he supposed Kit had a point. Certainly he could fight his dismissal, but such a battle would be time-consuming. He absolutely, positively, without question had to hang onto his job. At least until the last week of April. He had something very important to prove, after all.
"How long are you staying?" he asked halfheartedly.
She smiled brightly, but once again, he got the impression that she was forcing all this cheerfulness. "I haven't decided yet. It'll be fun, Pendleton. You'll see. Just wait. Someday, we'll look back on this, and we'll laugh and laugh and laugh."
He nibbled his lip as he gazed at her, telling himself to hold back the maniacal laughter he felt threatening until that day dawned. And he wondered for a moment if she really was crazy, or if she just had a very sophisticated sense of humor that people fromSouth Jerseycouldn't possibly begin to understand. Ultimately, what he decided on was, "You're sick, Kit. You realize that, don't you?"
Slowly, she retraced her steps, her high heels skimming softly across the hardwood floor, her smile thinning as she approached. In one fluid gesture, she plucked from his hand the martini refill that he had yet to taste, then lifted it to her lips for a dainty sip.
"Now, now," she said after she swallowed. "Anyone will tell you that when you have as much money as my family has, my condition is what's known as 'eccentric.'"
He shook his head. "'Eccentric' suggests a certain, oh … disorganization. And you don't strike me as being particularly disorganized."
She held his gaze for a long time, and he detected something in her eyes that was almost … yearning. "Then think of me as someone who has nowhere else to go," she said softly. "Because in a lot of ways, Pendleton, that's exactly what I am."
He inhaled deeply and released the breath slowly as he pondered his choices. Either he could toss Kit out on her keester and risk losing his job and any potential chance he had to show a certain someone exactly what kind of stuff he was made of, or he could let her stay and allow his employer to think that the two of them were shacking up. For some reason, he discovered he rather liked that latter option. It would serve the bastard right.
And he heard himself ask, "What's your real reason for doing this?"
She sipped casually from the martini again, her gaze never leaving his. "If my father thinks the two of us are romantically involved, he'll leave me alone and stop flinging undesirable men at me."
Sidestepping the matter of his being undesirable—for now, at least—Pendleton asked, "And?"
"And I'll have bought myself a little time to decide what I want to do."
He eyed her thoughtfully for a moment. "I thought you said you had to be married within two months or your family would forfeit everything."
"Then it sounds to me like you don't have a lot of time left to buy."
"Two months is more than enough time," she assured him, though he detected something in her voice that told him she was in no way sure.
"So if you, wise as Solomon as you are," he said, "conclude that your family should go broke for paying your fiancé to dump you, then you'll just string them along for a couple of months, letting them think the two of us will be married before the deadline. And then you'll back out at the last minute, thereby causing them to lose their inheritance."
She dropped her gaze to the floor, nodding slowly. Her voice was a quiet monotone that revealed nothing of her thoughts when she replied, "Yes, that's right."
"And if, at the end of this two months, you decide they—and you—should keep the money?" he asked. "What will you do then?"
She snapped her head back up, her eyes clouded with confusion when she looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"Well, if you want to keep the money, then you'll need to be married," he pointed out. "And what will you do then?"
Her eyebrows arrowed downward in consideration, as if she hadn't quite thought that far ahead. "Well," she began slowly, "I suppose … I mean if I do decide to do get married—which I'm not saying I will," she hastened to qualify, "I guess…" She sighed fitfully. "Well, I guess Novak would do in a pinch."
"Novak?" Pendleton exclaimed. She had to be kidding.
She shrugged. "Well, he's made it clear morethan once that he'd do anything for me," she said.
This time Pendleton was the one whose eyebrows arrowed downward in consideration. Then, immediately, he stopped himself. The last thing he wanted to do was consider Novak doing anything for—or with—Kit.
"Besides," she continued, crossing her arms anxiously over her midsection, injecting a bit more vigor into her voice than he suspected she felt, "I might still decide to stay single. It would serve my family right."
"And you?" he asked. "You'll gladly surrender your share of the millions?"
Her shoulders rose and fell so quickly, Pendleton wasn't sure the gesture qualified for a shrug. "Of course I would," she said hastily. "It would be going to a good cause."
She'd responded too quickly, he thought. She really hadn't given much consideration to the prospect of being broke herself. And he wondered for a moment if he should try to nudge her toward thinking along those lines.
Ultimately, he decided it was none of his business. The McClellans had dug this pit for themselves aloooongtime before he'd entered the picture, and there was absolutely no reason for him to involve himself in the mess any more than he'd already been pulled into it. Still, that didn't answer his question about what to do with Kit, did it? Should he let her stay or make her go?
"You know," he said, "I don't think I'd be talking out of turn here if I said that I really don't think much of your father."
She smiled sadly. "Yeah, well, you wouldn't be talking alone, either. Not many people do think much of my father."
Pendleton studied her for a long time, noting the slump of her shoulders, the downward tilt of her head, and the way she seemed to be holding herself up—as if no one else would do it for her. And little by little, the cool feelings he'd harbored for her began to warm some.
"Kit, what you do about your family fortune is between you and your family," he said. "I really wish you wouldn't involve me."
She met his gaze levelly, beseechingly, for a long time without speaking. Then finally, timidly, she said, "Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes. It's something special. I know you're going to like it."
Kit held her breath as she waited to see what Pendleton would say about her continued presence in his home. Any other man would have been dialing the police—or Our Lady of Peace Hospital—by now. But Pendleton was looking at her as if he might honestly allow her to stay. She moved a hand behind her back and crossed her fingers hopefully. Please, she thought, oh, pretty please…
For a long moment, he said nothing, and with every passing moment of his prolonged silence, her heart began to sink, her limbs grew heavy, and she resolved herself to being dumped. Oh, well, she thought. It's not like such a thing came as any surprise. What man in his right mind would allow his house, his very life, to be overrun by some crazy—or rather, eccentric—woman, just because she'd asked pretty please?
She was about to open her mouth and concede defeat, to return Pendleton's house—and his life—to his own capable hands, when he opened his own mouth and cut her off.
"All right, you can stay," he said, hurrying onbefore she could comment, "and I'm probably going to be sorry I asked, but…define 'special.'"
Kit smiled as a bubble of relief burst in her belly, even allowed herself to surrender to a ripple of laughter as she crossed the room to link her arm with his. "Fried catfish," she told him. "Two words, Pendleton. Yum-mee."
She sensed immediately by the look on his face that he wasn't nearly as excited about the menu as she was. "Oh, boy," he said blandly. "Bottom-feeders soaked in fat and served up for dinner. I don't guess life gets any better than that."
"Well, there's no reason to be sarcastic."
She enjoyed another sip from the martini glass she had taken from him, then extended it toward him again. Some Stepford Wife she was turning out to be. She wasn't even making sure her man had his nightly cocktail refill after a long, hard day at work. Surprisingly, Pendleton took the drink from her, but instead of tasting it, he continued to study her face.
And damn him for that. It was just too friggin' cold in this house to wear skimpy little outfits orchestrated to keep his eyes elsewhere on her body. But he'd only given her June Cleaver get-up a perfunctory glance before settling his attention back on her face. Now she was going to have to try something else. Maybe if she dressed up as a nun. Or a dominatrix. Or both at the same time. Hmmm…
"What else are we having?" he asked suddenly, dragging her mind back to the matters at hand. "For dinner, I mean."
She lifted her nose indignantly into the air. "Well, after your joyous outburst over the catfish, I think maybe I shouldn't tell you about the sidedishes. Or dessert, either, for that matter."
"Oh, I think maybe you should."
She shook her head. "Nah. It'd be more fun to watch your expression when you sample genuineKentuckycuisine for the first time. Especially the—"
She halted when she saw his eyebrows shoot up expectantly. "Well, you'll find out," she concluded easily.
Pendleton nodded slowly, fatalistically. "That's what I'm afraid of."
* * *
Kit had little trouble keeping herself busy in Pendleton's house during the week that followed. She furnished his home from top to bottom with furniture thatshe,at least, adored—how fortunate that his arrival in Louisville had coincided perfectly with Bacon's department store's semiannual home sale (and that twelve-months-no-interest plan had just beentooirresistible to pass up). She cleared his fridge and cupboards of all that trendy bachelor fare and replaced it with the basic four of her home state—cholesterol, cholesterol, cholesterol, and greens. And she played her Earl Scruggs CDs over and over and over again—only to learn that Pendleton, go figure, didnotlike bluegrass music. Oh, yes. And she'd named their new golden retriever puppy Maury.
All in all, it had been time well spent. And not just because she'd been so successful in organizing her new life with Pendleton. But because while she'd been redoing his home, hearth, and life from top to bottom, she'd also learned someveryinteresting things about him. Like the fact that he had every book ever written by F. Scott FitzgeraldandErnest Hemingway. Like the fact that he owned not one, not two, butthreepairs of Levi's 501s that had definitely seen better days. Like the fact that he preferred boxers over briefs. And like the fact that R&B and blues ruled in his CD collection. Funny, but he wasn't turning out to be anything at all like she had expected.
Now her second Saturday with him was upon them, a full day with just her and Pendleton, and she was looking forward to learning even more. Especially since he'd steadfastly avoided her last weekend by driving toPaducah, claiming that visitingPaducah,Kentuckyhad been a lifelong goal, and no, if Kit didn't mind, he'd just as soon go alone. So clearly, she intended to take advantage of his presence at home for a change to try and figure the man out.
Not surprisingly, upon opening her eyes that morning, Kit had found herself alone in the bed. She'd awakened alone every morning since that first one, now that Pendleton was sleeping downstairs on their new sofa every night. At any rate, a metallic rapping from the backyard had been what woke her. She'd moved to the bedroom window to find the door open on the shed-thing outside, and Pendleton's roadster—its roof now mended—parked out in the alley. Even after she'd made her way downstairs to pour herself a cup of coffee and let Maury out for his morning uproar, the pounding had continued.
Now, gazing out the kitchen window, Kit saw Maury yapping happily about the backyard, but Pendleton was nowhere to be seen. Heard, certainly, but not seen. Much as he'd been for the entire length of her invasion. She'd heard him come in from work every night, had heard him shaving and showering every morning. But she hadn't seen much of him at all.
Nor had he spoken to her. Although, all things reconsidered, she couldn't exactly blame him. After all, the only reason he tolerated her occupation of his home was that it meant he kept his job. As reasons went, Kit supposed his was as good as any that men had used over the years to hang around with her. She sighed as thatclink-clink-clinkstarted up again, and she wondered what on earth he was up to out there.
"Probably building a guillotine," she muttered to herself. Ah, well. Only one way to find out.
It took her almost no time to take a bath and change clothes. She opted for black velvet leggings and a bright purple chenille turtleneck that fell to mid-thigh, accessorizing the ensemble with purple socks and black ankle boots. Maury began to bark incessantly the moment she hit the bottom step outside, and the clamor in the shed-thing abruptly halted.
"Pendleton?" she called out experimentally as she approached, thinking that, if this were a Wes Craven movie, the spooky ax-murderer music would start kicking in right about now. "Everything okay in there?"
Not much to her surprise, she received no reply. Except for the constantAwr-awr!…Awr-awr-awr!from Maury as he ran in maddening circles around her feet.
"Down, boy," she instructed the dog, wondering why she bothered. He was about as obedient as Pendleton was. Sure enough, Maury only increased his frenzied movements in response. Kit rolled her eyes and drew cautiously closer to the shed-thing. "Pendleton?" she tried again. "Sweetie? Is that you in there?"
Yep, it was Pendleton in there, all right. "What are you doing?"
"Go … away."
Not one to be dissuaded by a surly attitude, nor the potential for becoming a homicide victim, Kit continued valiantly, "When I woke up alone this morning, I was worried about you."
He still hadn't emerged from the shed-thing, and Kit still wasn't quite brave enough to chance a look inside. "Why would you be worried?" his voice came from the other side of the open door. "Unless maybe you thought I might have hanged myself in the stairwell during the night. Which, as we both know, is a definite possibility."