Cloud Waltzer

( 2 )

Overview

ROMANCES AS ENDURING AS THE AMERICAN WEST!

The magic of ballooning. The wonder of love. Award-winning author Tory Cates sweeps us away to the open skies of New Mexico with a story that floats into our hearts.

Meredith Tolliver has cast off her old gray life as an investment banker. Enchanted by the warmth and bright colors of sunny Albuquerque, she’s made a fresh, buoyant future for herself, turning her ...

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Cloud Waltzer

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Overview

ROMANCES AS ENDURING AS THE AMERICAN WEST!

The magic of ballooning. The wonder of love. Award-winning author Tory Cates sweeps us away to the open skies of New Mexico with a story that floats into our hearts.

Meredith Tolliver has cast off her old gray life as an investment banker. Enchanted by the warmth and bright colors of sunny Albuquerque, she’s made a fresh, buoyant future for herself, turning her financial knowledge and her way with words into a new life as a reporter—far from the wintery secrets that weighted her down in Chicago.

She’s happy with being single, too . . . until she meets the mysterious tycoon Archer Hanson. The conflicting rumors about him intrigue her as a reporter. Is he a self-made man? Or did he inherit his father’s millions? Is he a fair boss? Or is he a ruthless tyrant? But when the handsome Archer takes her for a ride in his hot-air balloon—the magnificent Cloud Waltzer—it is Meredith’s response as a woman that threatens her hard-won peace. Dare she respond to Archer’s rugged charm and soar away into the unknown with him?

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
11/04/2013
Meredith Tolliver moves from Chicago to Albuquerque, N.Mex., away from her office in her dad’s investment banking firm, to take a stab at financial writing for magazines. If she can interview “insufferably arrogant” wealthy developer Archer Hanson, her writing will garner national exposure and boost her career. He shuns the press and her, but after a chance meeting, their mutual attraction blossoms. Steamy sex ensues in the dark, since she doesn’t want him to see her body, but her secret eating disorder drives them apart. Back in 1984 when Cates’s steamy contemporary romance was first published, it would have garnered high marks for explaining anorexia as a destructive self-loathing illness. But despite a few clumsy attempts to update the book, such as haphazardly inserted references to cell phones, today’s readers will be startled by protagonists who’d rather break up over a single offense than talk it out. (Feb.)
Single Titles
"An abundance of emotionally demanding scenes, one after another."
Sara Luck
"Excitement, sexual tension, and fulfillment . . . it is all there."
SingleTitles
"The conflicting emotions in Cloud Waltzer are deeply affecting...passionately romantic with genuinely sincere feelings."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781476732565
  • Publisher: Pocket Books
  • Publication date: 12/31/2013
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 819,297
  • Product dimensions: 4.10 (w) x 6.70 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Tory Cates is a Rita Award nominee who lives in Texas.

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Read an Excerpt

Cloud Waltzer


  • Meredith Tolliver searched through her closet, passing long, slender fingers over a variety of silks and delicate woolens. The fabrics, all in subdued shades of brown, khaki, and gray, were fashioned into exquisitely tailored suits and blouses, skirts and blazers. They sported labels and designs that subtly whispered messages of restrained elegance and unrestrained price tags. As she flipped faster and faster through them, the colors blended into one monotonous beige muddle of man-tailored blouses and vested suits. Meredith despised every one of them.

Seemingly without her willing them to, her hands and eyes reached out toward the more recent purchases in her closet. She felt for the nubby cotton of the blouse she’d bought in Santa Fe last week, where she’d met the woman who had handwoven the simple top of eye-dazzling pinks and oranges. She yearned to wear the blouse with her corduroy wraparound skirt of periwinkle blue.

Reluctantly, Meredith banished the idea of wearing the gaily colored clothes. This was most assuredly not the day for indulging her rainbow-hued fancies. She returned to the sober garments she’d rejected.

The trappings of my past life, she reflected, holding out the sleeve of a gray raw-silk suit. It was a life she’d struggled valiantly to lay to rest, but still had to resurrect at times like these to sustain the new life she was in the process of building. She decided that the gray silk was as good a choice as any.

She tugged it out of the closet. It was still encased in the plastic bag from the cleaners in Chicago where she used to take everything except her underwear to be laundered. As an investment banker who could make tens of thousands of dollars for her clients with a couple minutes of phone calls, Meredith’s time was far too valuable for her to spend it washing blue jeans. She ripped the bag off her suit and took it into the bathroom with her. The steam from her shower should unkink whatever wrinkles a half a year of disuse had crimped into it.

Half an hour later she was fumbling in front of the bathroom mirror with a scarf as she attempted to knot it about her neck. Damn, she hissed under her breath as the slinky material refused to transform itself into the rosette bow she desired. She was out of practice. Cursing under her breath, Meredith wondered why she was even bothering. Then she reminded herself that if she was going to convince Archer Hanson to agree to an interview with her, she would have to look the part of the successful financial writer she was trying to become.

Worse, though, than the recalcitrant scarf, the long stay in the steamy bathroom had yanked out every bit of the hot-rollered curl she had labored to apply to her stick-straight blond hair and it fell in a straight line to just below the curve of her chin.

She’d always worn it long in Chicago because that was the way Chad had liked it. Each morning she’d spun the pale rope into a chignon before going to work. Then, on those nights when she wasn’t too exhausted and he wasn’t too busy, Chad had unpinned the bun with a kind of ritualistic zeal, freeing the long, corn-silk blond strands.

As soon as she’d moved to New Mexico, Meredith had chopped off the blond extravagance of her hair, ordering the hairdresser to shape it into a blunt cut that would require no maintenance whatsoever. She ended up with a style reminiscent of the little Dutch boy on paint cans, but she loved the weightless, free feel of it anyway.

“At last,” she sighed as the scarf finally obeyed, flopping into an acceptable shape on her shirt front. With the triumphant breath that Meredith sucked in, however, the button on her skirt popped off, ricocheting across the tiled floor. Her annoyance at the lost fastener was short-lived. All she had to do to restore her spirits was to remember those hideous days when she’d had to pin up the back of this very same skirt so that it wouldn’t slide right off her. The memory caused Meredith to become inordinately pleased by this latest testimony to her recent weight gains.

In any event, she didn’t have the time now to deal with a missing button. She dashed out, picking up her jacket on the way. She simply wouldn’t take it off, and no one would ever need to know about the popped button.

As she stepped out the front door, she was surprise-attacked by a rush of emotion that she should have become accustomed to by now. But each time she stepped outside, she fell in love with New Mexico all over again. Even in the long line of spectacular days which had preceded it, Meredith knew that this particular day would be a standout. October the third. She engraved the date in her memory along with the image of a lustrous black raven winging its way across a crystalline blue sky. As she followed the bird’s flight it led her to an even more extraordinary sight: a gigantic striped orb wobbling up through the cool morning air. For a fleeting instant she couldn’t imagine what it was, until she suddenly remembered—the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta was starting tomorrow. She’d simply been too busy researching Archer Hanson to take any more than a perfunctory interest in the event.

She interpreted her first sighting of a gaily decorated hot-air balloon as a good omen. She steadfastly refused to take it any other way—she would need all the luck she could muster for her meeting with Archer Hanson.

*  *  *

The headquarters of the Hanson Development Corporation was far out in Albuquerque’s North Valley, where orchards, small ranches, and expensive new subdivisions blossomed along the Rio Grande. Meredith always enjoyed this drive along the narrow, twisting road since it took her past one very special pasture that was fenced in with thick railroad ties. Inside this heavy-duty fence were living relics of the old West, a herd of buffalo. The sight of the beasts’ barrel-chested bodies never failed to delight Meredith.

Today, however, she was too intent upon rehearsing the words that would convince Mr. Hanson to let her interview him to notice the shaggy creatures. She pulled up in front of the renovated adobe that served as the corporation’s headquarters and entered through an enclosed courtyard.

“May I help you?” the receptionist, a brunette with a headful of doll-like curls, asked.

“Yes, I’m Meredith Tolliver. I have an appointment with Mr. Hanson.”

The receptionist ran a polished nail down the appointment calendar in front of her. “I’m sorry.” She looked up coolly. “But when you didn’t arrive fifteen minutes ago at your appointment time, Mr. Hanson called in one of his foremen for a conference. He just arrived. Would you care to reschedule?”

“No.” Meredith shook her head, annoyed at herself and her silly scarf for her tardiness. “I’ll wait until he’s free if that’s all right.”

“Suit yourself,” the receptionist replied in what struck Meredith as a rather unprofessional tone.

Meredith found a seat, almost glad for the delay. It would give her a chance to review the file she’d collected on Archer Hanson. Or rather had attempted to collect. It was a pretty thin and sketchy affair, which was one reason she’d been so intrigued by the man. From the articles she’d culled from the financial section of the Albuquerque Journal, it was quite evident that Archer Hanson was a pivotal force in the state’s economy, possibly the pivotal force. It was hard to tell, though, because all either she or the Journal had been able to come up with were reports on matters of public record, such as the filing of the building permit for the multimillion-dollar convention center complex that had become the hub of downtown Albuquerque, or the opening of his solar research firm a couple of years ago.

Though no one had ever put Archer Hanson’s whole story together, Meredith had traced back bits and pieces of it. She’d discovered that his father, Gunther Hanson, had made a fortune in the Texas oil fields in the sixties. The common assumption was that the old man had bankrolled his only son and that he was the one who had played puppet master to Archer’s career.

Maybe that was another reason why this untold story appealed to Meredith so strongly. If anyone knew about the machinations of wealthy fathers, she did. The thought disturbed her, but she clung to it anyway. If her painfully gathered insights could help her capture this story, she couldn’t afford to let them slip away just because they stirred up the old hurt.

She thumbed through her notes again. They were long on the hard one-dimensional facts that could be culled from Dun & Bradstreet financial reports about Archer Hanson, the entrepreneur, and terribly short on information about Archer Hanson, the man. In all her preliminary research she hadn’t even come across one photograph of him. Based on the fact that Hanson senior was in his mid-seventies, Meredith had reckoned that Hanson Junior must be in his early to mid-fifties.

Without any conscious effort on her part, she’d evolved a mental image of the man. To have accomplished what he had over the past years, he would have to be something of a workaholic. Given that assumption, Meredith had imagined a stoop-shouldered, bald man of enormous mental capabilities who had gone a bit to seed physically.

She smoothed a nonexistent crease out of her skirt, glad that she had decided to wear what she now considered her “corporate camouflage.” The Hanson headquarters presented the understated elegance of the very powerful. Meredith saw it all around her. She knew what property in the North Valley cost and how expensive old adobes had become. Hanging on a wall behind the receptionist was an original Fritz Scholder. She knew that museums could barely afford to acquire the Native American artist’s work. Being in the heart of the corporate beast again caused her palms to slick over and her stomach to pull into a hard knot.

The phone purred.

“Yes, Miss Tolliver is here now.” The receptionist emphasized the last word almost as if she were scolding Meredith for her tardiness. Meredith quickly dug through her purse for a tissue to wipe her palms. She wanted a dry, confident hand to extend to Mr. Hanson.

The door to the office opened and a weather-beaten man holding a battered cowboy hat backed out.

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll get right on it. Be back with you in a day or two.” The man jammed the hat onto his head and closed the door behind him. He leaned in close to the receptionist on his way out and confided to her in a low voice: “Boy, is he ever riled about the slowdown at the mine. Told me if I didn’t get things cleared up pronto, he’d have my hide.”

Meredith could just imagine how upset Mr. Hanson was at having his cash flow impeded. Knowing what she did about mine conditions in general, she figured the slowdown was some kind of labor protest that the foreman had been ordered to stamp out. A thread of guilt pulled tight within her at the memory of her own involvement in a world where the bottom line always came before human concerns.

“You’d better get on it, then, Mr. Nelson,” the receptionist replied coolly to the distraught foreman’s whispered confidence. She looked away as he departed and quirked an eyebrow in Meredith’s direction. “You can go in now.” Her tone implied that any fool would have already figured that out for herself.

Meredith gathered up her file, notebook, and purse. A mild flutter pushed her pulse up. Sternly she reminded herself that this was hardly the first time she’d stepped into the lion’s den of corporate power. She’d once occupied one herself. Or something fairly close. She’d advised shipping tycoons, oil billionaires, and industrial magnates without giving it a second thought. Of course, she had never cared as much as she cared now, and that, Meredith supposed, made the difference.

She turned the knob and stepped into a whirlwind. As impeccably furnished and immaculately cared for as the reception area had been, Hanson’s office was just as slapdash and chaotic. Papers were stacked everywhere. Empty foam cups were stacked in precarious pyramids. It was impossible to tell much about the furniture because every piece of it was buried beneath annual reports, yellowing copies of The Wall Street Journal, and casually discarded pieces of clothing.

It took a moment for Meredith to turn her attention from the turmoil to the object of her visit. She searched behind the mountain of papers on the desk and found a jeans-clad man, his booted feet propped up on the desktop, talking on the phone. His rangy body was stretched back in his swivel chair so far that he was close to lying down. He was glowering at the ceiling, completely unaware of Meredith’s presence.

Surely, Meredith thought, Archer Hanson had stepped out for a moment and this was his son. A quick glance at his profile registered that this man couldn’t be older than mid-thirties. Given her approximation of Archer Hanson’s age, this man must be his son. He looked the part of the idle rich kid too, she decided, with his wind- and sun-reddened face and the kind of leanly muscled body that was most at home ranging over a tennis court or a polo pony. She’d grown up with spoiled, entitled boys just like him. She hoped he wouldn’t stay around once his father returned.

“Right,” he barked into the phone. “I heard all that already. But I don’t want excuses and rationalizations. I want action.”

His angry words blistered the air around Meredith. She pitied whoever was on the other end of the line. Probably a car mechanic, she hypothesized, who couldn’t get this rich kid’s Jaguar back to him quickly enough. He was so caught up in his temper tantrum that Meredith was able to observe him at her leisure. A thatch of hair, as blond as hers, yet just as wildly unruly as hers was neatly straight, swept back from a high forehead dominated by dark brows and lashes. This contrast between blond and sable lent his face a striking air of drama.

Abruptly he turned to her. Meredith was startled by the eyes she found turned upon her. The irises were the kind of blue that made her think of the deep end of the pool on a hot summer day. Now, lit as they were by the flame of rage, they took on that unearthly aura that sometimes radiates from light, light blue eyes. For a moment Hanson’s son looked like a crazed malamute. The effect was heightened by the dark lashes that framed the rage-paled eyes. With his ear and mind still turned to the person on the other end of the phone, he stabbed his forefinger in the air a few times, pointing toward a chair. Meredith unscrambled his message and took a seat.

“Fine. I told Nelson that I wanted a full report in the next day or two. Why don’t you see to it that he has some good news for me, or you’ll both be looking for new jobs.”

Disapproval curdled Meredith’s expression as Hanson’s son slammed down the phone. She had known too many men just like him. Born into privilege and luxury, they spent their pampered lives terrorizing and bullying everyone unfortunate enough to cross their paths as they acted out their grotesque parodies of the real power that their influential fathers wielded. It was a parody she had come horrifyingly close to perpetuating herself. She was determined that Hanson’s son would not get the chance to exercise his petty tyranny over her.

Before he could speak, Meredith stated her mission in a prim voice, “I’m here to see your father, Archer Hanson.”

The fury staining Hanson’s cheeks gradually subsided. As it did, the color in his face seemed to seep into the crystal eyes, darkening them to a slightly more ordinary hue. As he collected himself, Hanson appeared to finally notice Meredith. He crossed his arms over his chest and, still leaning far back in the reclining chair, cocked his head and studied her. He put one finger to his lips in a mock pensive pose.

“You’re here to see my ‘father’? Archer Hanson?” he asked with a superciliousness that was not lost on Meredith.

She felt her dislike crystallize into an icy hostility that seamed her lips into a tight, prissy line. It was all so disgustingly familiar. The sassy rich kid toying with what he took to be his inferior. Never mind the underling’s sense of dignity; that was all too easily sacrificed for a moment of amusement.

“That’s correct,” she replied with all the curtness she could inject into the answer.

A smile crept across Hanson’s face. Meredith knew that her bristling, spinsterish appearance and answer were the source of his amusement. It had amused others before. Combined with her fair hair and porcelain skin, the aloof professional demeanor she had cultivated when she started to work for her father had earned her the nickname Ice Princess. Hanson probably thought that his smile would be enough to melt even the heart of an Ice Princess. She suspected that he probably had ample evidence with which to back up that theory.

“First of all,” he said through a barricade of orthodontically perfect teeth, “my father’s name is Gunther Hanson. And second, I’m Archer Hanson.”

Meredith was on the verge of disputing that claim when the rakish smile disappeared and the casual posture was dropped. It became all too apparent in that one moment that this man had no need to parody power, for he generated an abundant supply of his own. Meredith had survived for years in her former profession by developing catlike emotional reflexes. She summoned them up now and refused to let embarrassment disconcert her. She stood and stiffly stretched out her hand. Archer Hanson leaned forward without standing and took it.

“I’m Meredith Tolliver. Perhaps you’ve read my column in the local paper.”

“No, Miss Tolliver, I’m afraid I don’t get much time to read popular periodicals.”

“I doubt that it would interest you much anyway. It’s a financial column geared for the average person. I also freelance for several business magazines. The editor of Enterprise wrote recently asking if I might be able to do a profile on you, Mr. Hanson.”

“So old Charlie is at it again, eh?” Hanson smiled broadly as Meredith thought of Charles Wendler, editor of the country’s most respected business publication, being referred to as “old Charlie.”

“I hate to burst any bubbles, Miss, Miss . . .” Hanson whirled his hand in the air as if groping for the name that eluded him. It stung Meredith a bit to realize that she had made no more of an impression upon Archer Hanson than he had upon her.

“Tolliver,” she supplied stiffly.

“Right. Tolliver,” he burst out as if she’d correctly answered an especially difficult item on an oral quiz. “But you’re the fourth reporter Charlie has tossed my way. You wouldn’t have gotten past the receptionist except that she’s new and I haven’t had time to explain to her that I don’t care to see any member of the press at any time.”

“I certainly didn’t intend to force myself on you,” Meredith answered coolly. Inside she was shrieking with the desire to turn sharply on her heel and leave. Preferably with a satisfyingly resonant slam of the door behind her. Much as it galled her to even appear that she was pursuing this insufferably arrogant man, she had no choice. If she planned on establishing herself as a business writer, she absolutely couldn’t go back to Charles Wendler empty-handed. “It’s just that there’s been so little written about you beyond the bare bones facts of your business dealings. I’d like to flesh out that picture a bit.”

“Miss Tolliver, if it were up to me not even the barest of my bones would ever appear in print.” Hanson did nothing to soften the brusque finality of his comment. “I haven’t been terribly impressed by my few experiences with business reporters. They’ve been underinformed and overzealous and I’d prefer just to avoid the entire issue. So, if you will excuse me, I’m sure you have a busy day ahead of you.”

Rather than stand up as Hanson clearly expected her to do, Meredith slumped farther into her chair. “You’re wrong, Mr. Hanson. I don’t have a busy day ahead of me. I have a very empty day. I’ve finished my column for the week and have no other assignments. I’m running out of my savings from my old job and what they pay at the paper for my column barely keeps my cat fed. I can understand your feelings”—Meredith was not going to let the depression that was threatening to crush her creep into her voice—“but I am neither underinformed nor overzealous. I brought along clippings of my column and some of the magazine articles I’ve freelanced.”

For a long moment Hanson stared at the odd woman who seemed to have collapsed in front of him. He carefully slid his legs off of his desk and faced her head-on. When he spoke again it was with the voice of a completely different person. It was almost as if, at the same time that Meredith abandoned her Ice Princess armor, he laid aside his hard-boiled facade. “Come on, then,” he prompted gently, “let’s have a look.”

He extended a large hand toward the portfolio that Meredith clenched on her lap. She stood awkwardly before him and passed over the collection of her work. He leafed through it, pausing to read sections with an absorption so total that Meredith felt he’d forgotten she was there. The sound of his voice startled her.

“Unlike most of your colleagues, Miss Tolliver, you do seem to have a passing acquaintance with your subject.” He continued studying the clippings spread before him. Suddenly he glanced up. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself?”

Meredith, brightening somewhat at his encouraging tone, delivered a truncated version of her professional résumé. “Master’s from the Wharton Business School in Philadelphia. Then a year on the Street,” she said, watching Hanson’s reaction to be sure that he understood that she meant the Street, Wall Street. He did. “Then two years with an investment firm in Chicago.” She didn’t add that the firm was the largest of its kind in the country outside of New York. Or that it belonged to her father. “I’ve been in Albuquerque for nearly half a year now.”

Hanson scribbled some figures on his desk blotter. “That makes you what? Twenty-six, twenty-seven?”

“Twenty-six,” Meredith admitted reluctantly, afraid that her relative youth would be seen as a handicap. She was surprised that Hanson had guessed so accurately. Most people assumed that, with a master’s degree and several years experience, she must be considerably older than she was.

“Why’d you give it up? You were obviously a whiz kid, a Wall Street wunderkind on the express route straight to the top. Why are you out here scrambling around for freelance assignments?”

Meredith was no stranger to fielding hard questions and thinking under pressure, but this man’s directness unnerved her. She yearned again to escape. This time from his laserlike scrutiny. If Archer Hanson weren’t the one subject in Albuquerque who could guarantee her a feature story in Enterprise, she would have. But too much was at stake to indulge her pride. Instead she’d have to swallow it and at the same time convince him to agree to an interview. Meredith decided to try the truth. Or a small portion of it at any rate.

“I came out here a year ago last fall on a business trip and fell in love with New Mexico. When I went back to Chicago”—she paused, sorting through that tortured time in her life, looking for an explanation that wouldn’t be either a complete lie or too close to the truth—“my whole world suddenly seemed gray and empty.” It was an innocuous enough description. Meredith wondered grimly how the intimidating Mr. Hanson would react if he knew the facts it hid.

Her world had begun to come apart at the seams long before that trip. As her memory swirled briefly over it, one image surfaced from those memories: Meredith saw herself, alone, long after even the most ambitious workaholic had gone home, still slaving away in the plushly appointed office her father had insisted she take when she had started to work for him. It was an office that far exceeded her position as the most junior associate in the firm. Still he had insisted upon it, and Meredith had acceded to that wish just as she had to all his others ever since her brother’s death. She took the office, then proceeded to drive herself slowly crazy in her attempt to be worthy of it.

That was when the dieting had started. Convinced that she was a grotesque embarrassment to her father and his firm, she had whittled away at what seemed to be lumpy mounds of fat. She had dieted until there was no fat and nearly no flesh left. But instead of the walking skeleton that everyone else saw, when Meredith looked in the mirror she found a disgusting, undisciplined blob. That was when the whispers behind her back had begun, and the visits to doctors that her father insisted were just social calls. When the word anorexia had entered her vocabulary.

“Gray and empty?” Hanson prompted. The piercing eyes urged her on and suddenly the interview was forgotten. Meredith found herself aching to tell this man her whole story. About her illness, about Chad, about the ongoing dilemmas she lived with. Quickly she reminded herself that Archer Hanson was in the mold of privilege and insensitivity that she had struggled so desperately to free herself from. She would tell him the truth, but only a palatable, sanitized version.

“Yes, Chicago was gray, my job was gray, the weather was gray, and I was tired of it. I suppose most of all, I was tired of the gray men who had been populating my life and their dreary vision of life as a one-track scramble up the ladder of success with no stops for joy or laughter. They were devoid of passion, emotion, all the things that make life worth living. After my initial visit out here, I couldn’t stand the life I’d been living in that twilit country. I spent all my time daydreaming about moving out here where the colors are so vibrant they make your eyes ache.”

Archer Hanson fixed her with a stare that made Meredith think of her first glimpse of the New Mexico sky. Somehow she felt he’d understood everything she’d said. She’d forged a link with Archer Hanson. Surely he wouldn’t turn down her request now. Surely he could see that she wasn’t one of the bungling, inept reporters that blighted the profession she’d chosen. Buoyed up by that certainty, Meredith elaborated on her answer.

“Sure, I’m only making a fraction of what I made before. But there are other rewards. For the first time ever I feel like my life is my own. I don’t feel as if I’m living out someone else’s dream of success. I’m proud of the work I do, especially my column. I think it’s important to make finance understandable to ordinary people. To keep it from being a closed game played by anonymous men who hold all the cards of wealth and power.”

“Men like myself?” Hanson asked, steepling his hands on the desk in front of him.

Meredith suddenly felt that she had been lured into a trap, tricked into exposing herself. Still, she’d struggled too hard to uncover that self to deny it now. “Does the shoe fit, Mr. Hanson?” she asked with a disarming piquancy.

“That’s somewhat immaterial here, isn’t it? The relevant point is that I’d be a damned fool to let myself be interviewed by a writer who’d already pretty much made up her mind that I was going to wear that shoe whatever the fit.”

Meredith forced herself to answer in a neutral tone. “I haven’t come to any conclusions yet about you, Mr. Hanson.”

“Haven’t you? I wonder.” He spoke the words in a way that left no doubt that he had seen Meredith’s prejudices for what they were. “No, Meredith, I’m not going to allow this interview. But not for any of the reasons I’m sure you’ll come up with.”

In that moment, Meredith wasn’t sure whether the fact that Archer Hanson had blocked her way into Enterprise magazine or his demeaning use of her first name irritated her more. “Well, then, Archer”—she took pointed aim at his first name and then gleefully fired on it—“I won’t waste any more of your time.” She stood crisply, almost as if the icy armor of the Ice Princess were freezing around her again, and leaned forward to collect her portfolio from his desk. As she did, Archer Hanson clamped one strong hand around a wrist that appeared matchstick fragile by comparison.

“Since we’re already on a first-name basis, Meredith”—again he threw her name up to her, taunting the image of cool professionalism she wanted to project—“why don’t we have dinner together? You can tell me all about reshuffling the cards of wealth and power and I can . . . well, perhaps a woman like yourself would be more comfortable telling me exactly what she’d like from a man like myself.”

Meredith jerked her wrist free. Anger flushed a blaze of color into her cheeks. “Of all the arrogant, high-handed . . .” She let the words trail off in her mind. Sealing her mouth into a tight line, she wordlessly gathered up her other things and left.

What in God’s name had driven him to act like that? The question scalded Archer Hanson’s brain the instant the door closed with a barely muffled slam. He wished it were possible to rip the boorish words that he had spoken from the air around him. He winced as those words reverberated in his mind. Perhaps he’d spoken them as some kind of instinctual protest against the prejudices she had worn as surely as her executive-lady demeanor. For a second he wondered if those instincts might have been wrong.

No, he answered himself, Miss Meredith Tolliver had definitely come into his office with a strongly preconceived set of notions about the man she was going to be meeting. His tip-off had been the way she’d looked at him. It was a look that he’d become all too familiar with in his boyhood.

A brief remembrance of those days, of riding out with his father to the old man’s oil fields, came to Archer Hanson totally unbidden and fully intact. He saw himself sitting up as tall as a gangly eight-year-old could in the front seat of his father’s brand-new candy apple red Cadillac with white leather upholstery, watching the miles of beige landscape fly past his window.

His father, with his stockman’s narrow-brimmed cowboy hat clamped down on his head and half-moons of sweat forming under the arms of the long-sleeved shirts he always wore buttoned all the way up, kept the big car aimed straight down the middle of the road. The dust rolled in the windows as his father pushed the gas pedal down flat and they flew over those endless unpaved miles. Archer remembered thinking that no other boy had a father who could drive so straight and true. He’d nestled, utterly content, into the cushioning leather seat where his mother used to sit before she got sick and went to the hospital and never came home again.

That had been the same day that Archer first became aware that his view of his father as a shining hero didn’t jibe with the opinion the rest of the world held. He’d gone with Gunther to check on some drilling not too far from their home in Fort Worth. All the men had smiled and kowtowed to his father, to the big boss, when they were speaking to him directly. Archer, though, remembered walking away, then turning back briefly. That was when he saw it for the first time, the unconcealed contempt the workers held for the man who ruled their lives.

Much as Archer resisted at first, his childhood illusions began to dissolve that day. In time, he too saw the man those workers had seen. His father was bombastic, high-handed, spoiled, and a rank abuser of privilege. In short, he was everything that Archer himself had been with Meredith. Everything that she had expected him to be. For he’d caught the same look in her eyes today that he’d seen more than a quarter of a century ago in the eyes of those oil field workers.

“Damn her self-righteous assumptions,” Hanson breathed as he thought of her again. His burning annoyance mysteriously cooled, however, as he remembered the way her hair, that straight, silken curtain, had shimmered along the curve of her jaw as she’d leaned forward over his desk, touching him with the smell of perfume and the unconscious grace of her motions. He remembered her leaning there and the way her lips had hung above him like some unspeakably delectable fruit, plump and ready for the picking.

Irritation and arousal collided within Archer Hanson, muddling into a soppy pool of frustrated self-recriminations. He wished he could back up for only half an hour and start again. He’d still deny Meredith Tolliver her interview. But he wanted very badly to redo his refusal in such a way that he still might have a chance of tasting those lips.

Dammit all, Archer Hanson thought again as he plowed into the work waiting for him in a day already soured by regret.

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