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A Secret Splendor
By Sandra Brown
MIRACopyright © 2006 Sandra Brown
All right reserved.
She's here again, Drew McCasslin thought as he slammed his racket against the tennis ball. For the third time that week she was sitting at the same table, the one nearest the ledge overlooking the tennis courts. The table's brightly striped umbrella partially shaded her face.
She hadn't been there when he and Gary started playing, but he'd known the moment she walked out onto the patio, which was an extension of the club's outdoor snack and cocktail bar. He had missed a ball when he let his attention wander to the graceful way she smoothed her skirt beneath her hips and thighs as she sat down.
"Better every day," Gary said to him as they met at the net to catch their breath, take a swig of Gatorade and towel mop rivers of sweat that saturated sweatbands couldn't absorb.
"Not good enough," Drew replied before taking a long pull at the bottle of lemon drink. Over the bottle's length, he eyed the woman sitting on the patio above them. Ever since the first day he had seen her there, she had inspired his curiosity.
She was bent over the table tapping a pencil against a tablet in a manner that he now associated with her. What the devil was she always writing down?
Slowly, he lowered the bottle from his mouth, and his blue eyes narrowed with suspicion. Could she be another bloodsucking reporter? Godforbid. But it wouldn't be unlike an enterprising tabloid publication to send bait like that to trap him into an interview.
"Drew? Did you hear me?"
"Huh?" He swung his eyes back to his tennis opponent. A friendly opponent for once. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"I said your stamina has improved since last week. You're running my ass all over the court, and you're barely winded."
Drew's eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled, obscuring the tiny white lines in his bronzed face. It was a smile reminiscent of the days before he had learned the definition of tragedy."You're good, but you're not Gerulaitis or Borg or McEnroe or Tanner. Sorry, chum, but I have to be a helluva lot better than you before I'm ready again for the big fellows. And I'm not there by a long shot. No pun intended." The once-famous grin flashed again in the Hawaiian sunlight.
"Thanks," Gary said dryly. "I can't wait for the day I'm stumbling over my tongue and you've still got enough energy to jump the net when the match is over."
Drew slapped him on the shoulder. "That's the spirit," he gibed goadingly. He picked up his racket and twirled it with the absentminded finesse that had come from years of thinking of it as an extension of his hand.
A cheer and hearty applause erupted from a group of female spectators. They were clustered on the other side of the fence surrounding the courts. Their vocal approval increased as Drew walked back to the baseline.
"Your fans are out in full force today," Gary said with a taunting inflection.
"Damn groupies," Drew grumbled as he turned around and glared at the women who clung to the fence like hungry zoo animals at mealtime. And he was the feast. He scowled at them angrily, but that only seemed to stir them rather than to repel them. They called outrageous endearments to him and flirted shamelessly. One, wearing a brief halter top, peeled the side back to flaunt a heavy breast with his name, decorated with flowers and hearts and lovebirds, tattooed on it. Another had a bandanna, the kind he wore as a trademark sweatband around his forehead every time he played, tied high around the top of her thigh. He looked away in disgust.
He forced himself to concentrate on the ball as he bounced it idly, planning his serve, plotting to fire the ball across the net to bounce in the back corner of the serve box and spin out to the left, Gary's weak backhand side. One of Drew's "fans" called out a lewd invitation, and he gritted his teeth. Didn't they know that the last thing he was interested in was a woman? My God, Ellie had only been dead...
Dammit, McCasslin, don't think about Ellie, he warned himself. He couldn't think about Ellie when he tried to play or his game went straight to hell....
"You've got him," he had said cheerfully into the telephone receiver that sunny day in paradise when the last thing a man would expect was for his wife to die in the tangle of metal and glass of a car crash.
"Are you alone?"
Drew had pulled the receiver from his ear and looked at it in puzzled amusement. He laughed out loud. "Yes, I'm alone except for my son. Is this going to be an obscene phone call?" He'd meant it as a joke. He'd had no idea how obscene the call would actually be.
"Mr. McCasslin, I'm Lieutenant Scott with Honolulu P.D. There's been an accident."
He didn't remember much after that....
Now he took up the ball and bounced it in his hand as though weighing it. Actually, he was trying to erase his mind, to wipe it clean of memories that made his insides churn. His eyes gravitated to the woman still sitting at the patio table. Her cheek was resting on her palm as she stared vacantly into space. She seemed impervious to everything going on around her. Didn't she hear all the commotion from the women at the fence? Wasn't she the least bit curious about him?
Apparently not. She hadn't so much as glanced at the tennis court. Unaccountably, he resented her indifference, which was irrational, since all he'd wanted for the year since Ellie's death was to be left alone.
"Hey, Drew," called out a singsong voice from the gathered fans,"when you're through playing with your balls, you can play with something of mine."
The double entendre was so blatant and so crudely bold that Drew's blood boiled, and when his serve sliced through the air, it was but a blur. For the rest of the set, he kept up that kind of anger-inspired play. When it was over, he'd granted Gary only two points.
Draping a towel around his neck, Gary wheezed, "If I'd known that all it took to get you to play championship tennis was a dirty suggestion from one of your groupies, I'd have rented them by the hour weeks ago."
Drew had already gathered up his tennis bag, zipped his racket into its holder and was heading toward the stairs that led to the patio overlooking the courts."Most of them could be rented by the hour, I'm sure."
"Don't be too hard on them. They're your fans."
"I could do with more fans who are sports writers or commentators. Among them, I don't have one. All they do is tell the world that I'm washed up. Finished. Drunk all the time."
"You were drunk all the time."
Drew stopped on the step above Gary and whipped around to confront him angrily. His friend's face was guileless, open and damnably honest. What he'd said was true. Drew's anger dissolved in the face of such forthright friendship. "I was, wasn't I?" he asked on an embarrassed sigh.
"But not anymore. Today you were the old Drew. Blistering serves. Damn! Every time one came near me, I saw my life flash before my eyes." Drew laughed. "Well-thought-out maneuvers, strategy to take advantage of my weak left side."
A grin split Drew's mobile mouth. "I didn't think you'd notice."
They were laughing companionably as they took the last few stairs up to the patio. Drew saw at once that she was still there, a sheaf of papers strewn over the tabletop, a glass of mineral water at her right hand. She was scribbling furiously on a yellow legal pad. He was going to walk past her table. It was on his way to the lockers, and he would only call attention to himself if he avoided passing where she was sitting.
They were almost beside her when she glanced up at them. The glance was a reflex action, as though they had disturbed her train of thought and she was looking up involuntarily to determine the source of that interruption. But she looked directly at Drew, directly into his eyes, and the impact of her gaze made his eyes narrow on her and his ears close to Gary's chatter.
Her eyes dropped immediately back to her paper, but not before Drew had seen that they were incredibly green and surrounded by dark, bristly lashes.
That was when he made up his mind. He'd make a wager with himself. If she was still there when he came out of the locker room, he'd speak to her. If not, well, nothing was lost. He wasn't really interested in meeting a woman, any woman. It was just that this one intrigued him. If he was honest with himself, he'd have to admit that the main reason she piqued his curiosity was because she was so uncurious about him.
Yes, he'd leave it to chance. If she was still there when he came out of the locker room, he'd at least say hello. No harm in that.
One other thing, he reminded himself. Don't linger in the shower.
Arden's heart was booming like a kettledrum.
It had been a full five minutes since he'd walked within touching distance, since she'd seen his face up close and in the flesh for the first time, and still her heart hadn't quieted.
She blotted her palms with the damp napkin knotted in her fists. Ice rattled in her glass when she took a sip of her lime-refreshed mineral water.
He had looked straight at her. Their eyes had met. Briefly, briefly. Yet it had been like lightning striking her to see Drew McCasslin for the first time, knowing the bond that linked them together. Total strangers to each other, yet with a common secret they would share throughout their lives.
She looked down at the court where he had just played with such brilliance. A few months before, she'd known little about tennis, especially professional tennis. Now she was almost expert in her wealth of knowledge on the subject. Certainly she had a vast amount of knowledge on the career of Drew McCasslin.
A group of four ladies came onto the court, looking ridiculous in their designer tennis clothes and extravagant gold and diamond jewelry. She smiled at them indulgently, remembering Ronald's urging that she join the tennis league at their club in Los Angeles.
"That's not me, Ron. I'm not athletic. I'm not a participator, a joiner."
"You'd rather sit in the house all day writing those little verses that you lock away and don't let anyone see. For God's sake, Arden, you don't have to play well. I don't care if you can play tennis or not. It's just good for my professional image, not to mention the valuable contacts you could make if you're an active member of the club. Socialize with the other doctors' wives."
He'd settled for bridge. She never was a master of the game, but she played well enough to be invited to all the tournaments sponsored by the country club, and that satisfied Ronald's demands that she mix and mingle with what he considered suitable friends for a prominent doctor's wife.
Then Joey had come along and provided her with a viable excuse for curtailing her social activities. Joey had provided her with excuses for many things. Some, she wished she could forget. Would her son, her adorable, painfully sweet, innocent son, have understood that one life-altering decision? Would he have forgiven what she couldn't forgive herself?
She'd asked his forgiveness the day the pitifully small casket was lowered into the short grave. She'd asked God's forgiveness, too, for the bitterness she felt at watching an intelligent, beautiful child waste away in a hospital bed while other robust children played and ran and got into mischief.
Shaking herself out of her emotional reverie, she took another sip of water and mentally toasted herself for playing it just right with Drew McCasslin. It was public knowledge that since he'd retreated to his carefully guarded estate on this island, he'd avoided interviews and shunned publicity of any kind.
Excerpted from A Secret Splendor by Sandra Brown Copyright © 2006 by Sandra Brown. Excerpted by permission.
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