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San Francisco -- Present Day
"Hey, lady! Better watch out for sharks."
In a different context, the warning might not have seemed so ominous to Liana Robeson. Spoken by a mother lecturing her adolescent surfer, or a retiring CEO handing over the reins to his young and eager replacement, it might have seemed like good advice. But in the middle of a San Francisco sidewalk, when she was fast approaching the epicenter of the worst panic attack she'd experienced in months, the words sent a screech of alarm up and down Liana's rigid spine.
She was surrounded by sharks, and she could feel them circling.
"You won't forget now, will you?"
Liana batted at the hand puppet the homeless man continued to wiggle in front of her face. "No...no, I won't forget."
The puppet, a grinning dolphin, fell away. The man, dark-skinned and lean, moved a little closer. He spoke over the clanging of a cable car across the busy street. "You all right, honey? You looking pale."
"I'm..." The words wouldn't form. She wasn't all right. She was a thirty-eight-year-old businesswoman who could not walk down a sidewalk by herself. She was afraid of open spaces, afraid of the unfamiliar, terrified of all the forces in her life that she couldn't see or control. She was a mother who just hours before had committed her son to a 737 and the great unknown. At 8:16 that morning she had watched her only child board the plane that would deliver him into his father's arms. Now she was paying the price.
Concern filled the man's eyes, but he waited for the cable car to depart. "Didn't mean to scare you. Flipper here, he won't hurt you."
Liana squeezed her eyelids shut, so tight that the tentative sun rays piercing the afternoon gloom disappeared. For a moment she was in her own little world, fog sliding along overheated skin that would quickly turn icy cold if she didn't pull herself out of this.
Skin icy cold, heartbeat faster than a firing squad drum-roll, a million fiery needles stabbing at her extremities -- oh, she'd been here before. She knew what she could expect.
"Honey, you had anything to eat today?"
Liana opened her eyes. The man was still there. She was dressed in Thai silk and Irish linen; his T-shirt had been old five years ago. Under his arm he held a stack of newspapers published by a coalition of the homeless. She always had her driver buy a copy, but she'd never actually read one.
"I'm fine, thanks." In an effort to take charge, she pointed to the papers. "I'll take one."
"Well, that's just fine. Flipper says thank you." He and Flipper began to shuffle through the papers, looking for the best of the stack.
Belatedly, Liana wondered if she had any money. She was a vice president of one of the Bay Area's largest development companies. In the hours since she had accompanied Matthew to the airport, she had represented Pacific International Growth and Development at two meetings and picked over a seafood salad at Tarantino's with real estate magnates from four continents. As always, she had been driven from one location to another with no thought of carfare or parking fees.
Then she had made the mistake of abandoning the limo to walk the final three blocks to the Robeson Building. She had forced herself to take this journey down California Street on foot, forced herself because her world was growing narrower, and she had to fight.
Or one day she would wake up and find herself unable to leave her bedroom.
She wrenched open her purse, but a search turned up nothing except a crumpled dollar bill. Officially it was more than enough, but she didn't often encounter kindness.
"Look, take this." She shoved the dollar bill at him as a bicycle whizzed by. She was not surprised to find her hand was trembling. "And this." She put her hand on the lapel of her black blazer, which was embellished with a brooch from the days when she was young and foolish enough to believe she should follow her heart. The pearls were small but pristine, six of them tucked in a spray of lily-of-the-valley forged from fourteen-carat gold. The only man she'd ever loved had created the pearls. She had created the brooch.
The clasp gave way, and she took a second to lock it before she held it out.
His eyes widened. "I can't take --"
"Sure you can." She reached for his hand and curled his dusty fingers over the brooch. "Take it to a good jeweler."
He was staring at the brooch in fascination when she turned away. The look on his face carried her to the door of her building and across the black-and-white marble floor to the brass filigree elevator screen. Inside the empty car she pulled the emergency lever and closed her eyes.
Why should she be surprised that today of all days panic had burrowed straight through to her soul? This was June, and in June her beloved son belonged body and soul to his father, Cullen Llewellyn. Right now, if all had gone well with his flight, Matthew was already at LaGuardia, wrapped in Cullen's hearty embrace.
For weeks Matthew had thought of nothing but being with his father. They were going on a camping trip to the White Mountains, then to the coast of Maine, where Cullen had rented a boat and a primitive fisherman's cottage. Cullen, raised in the Australian outback on kangaroo milk and water-buffalo meat, Cullen, who was part Mad Max, part Crocodile Dundee, was going to teach their son to be a man.
At fourteen, Matthew was already tall enough for the role, but he still had a child's sensitivity. He was broad-shouldered and big-hearted, this man-child who was the very center of her existence. He had never by word or deed communicated that he preferred his father to her, but each June, despite an ironclad custody agreement, as she watched Matthew board his flight into Cullen's arms, she was never convinced he would return.
And why should she be convinced of anything where Cullen Llewellyn was concerned? A century ago an ancestor of Cullen's had nearly destroyed the Robeson family. Ten years ago Cullen had nearly destroyed her.
Liana sagged against the wood paneling and covered her eyes with her palms. She told herself she was sheltered securely in the building that was her second home. Matthew was gone, but of course he would come back.
She was safe.
Excerpted from Beautiful Lies by Emilie Richards Copyright © 2005 by Emilie Richards. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted October 1, 2013
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