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"Impress me," Donovan McRae commanded from behind a matched pair of enormous computer screens.
The screens sat on a desktop that consisted of a giant slab of ash-colored wood. The slab of wood was mounted on a base hewn from what appeared to be volcanic rock. The desk, the screens and the man were way down at the far end of a long, slant-roofed, skylit space, a space that served as Donovan's studio and drafting room in his sprawling, half-subterranean retreat in the West Texas high desert.
Abilene Bravo could not believe he'd just said that.
After all, she'd been imagining this moment for over a year now. At first with anticipation, then with apprehension and finally, as the months dragged by, with growing fury. She'd waited so long for this dayand the first words out of the "great man's" mouth were Impress me?
Hadn't she already done that? Wasn't that how she'd won this prize fellowship in the first place?
And would it have killed him to emerge from behind that fortress of screens, to rise from that volcano of a desk, to gesture her nearer, maybe even to go so far as to offer a handshake?
Or, hey. Just, you know, to say hello?
Abilene gritted her teeth and tamped her anger down. She reminded herself that she was not letting her big mouthor her temperget the better of her.
She did have something to show him, a preliminary design she'd been tinkering with, tweaking to perfection, for months as she waited for this all-important collaboration to begin. Donovan's assistant had led her to a workstation, complete with old-school drafting table and a desk, on which sat a computer loaded up with the necessary computer-assisted design software.
"Well?" Donovan barked at her, when she didn't respond fast enough. "Do you have something to show me or not?"
Abilene saw red, and again ordered her heart to stop racing, her blood not to boil. She said, in a voice that somehow stayed level, "I do, yes," as she shoved her memory stick into an empty port.
A few clicks of the mouse and her full-color introductory drawing materialized in front of her. On his two screens, Donovan would be seeing it, too.
"My rendering of the front elevation," she said.
"Self-evident," he grumbled.
By then, her hand was shaking as she operated the mouse. But beyond that slight tremor, she kept herself well under control as she began to show him the various viewsthe expanded renderings of classrooms, the central cluster of rooms for administration, the negative spaces that made up the hallways, the welcome area, the main entrance and vestibule.
She intended to cover it all, every square inch of the facility, which she had lovingly, painstakingly worked outthe playgrounds, the pool area, even the parking lot and some general landscaping suggestions. From there, she would go into her rough estimate on the cost of the project.
But she didn't get far. Ninety seconds into her presentation, he started in on her.
"Depressing," he declared darkly from behind his wall of monitors. "Institutional in the worst sense of the word. It's a center for underprivileged children, not a prison."
It was too muchall the months of waiting, the wondering and worrying if the fellowship was even going to happen. Then, out of nowhere, at lastthe call.
That was yesterday, Sunday, the second of January. "This is Ben Yates, Donovan McCrae's personal assistant. Donovan asked me to tell you that he's ready to begin tomorrow. And to let you know that instructions will be sent via email ."
She'd had a thousand questions. Ben had answered none of them. He'd given her a choice. She could be flown to El Paso and he would pick her up there. Or she could drive her own vehicle.
She'd opted to drive, figuring it was better to have her own car in a situation like this. In order to arrive before dark, she'd been on the road before the sun came up that morning.
The drive was endless. An eight-hour trek across the wide-open, windblown desert to this godforsaken corner of Texas.
And now she was here, what? She'd met the great man at last. And she found him flat-out rude. As well as dismissive of her work.
He demanded, "What were you thinking to bring me lackluster crap like this?"
Okay, worse than dismissive.
The man was nothing short of brutal. He'd seen a fraction of what she'd brought. And yet he had no compunction about cutting her ideas to shreds.
Abilene had had enough. And she said exactly that. "Enough." She closed her files and ejected her memory stick.
"Excuse me?" came the deep voice from behind the screens. He sounded vaguely amused.
She shot to her feet. Upright, at least she could see the top half of his headthe thick, dark gold hair, the unwavering gray-blue eyes. "I waited a very long time for this. But maybe you've forgotten that."
"I've forgotten nothing," was the low reply.
"We were to have started at the beginning of last year," she reminded him.
"I know when we were scheduled to start."
"Good. So have you maybe noticed that it's now January of the next year? Twelve months I've been waiting, my life put virtually on hold."
"There is no need to tell me what I already know. My memory is not the least impaired, nor is my awareness of the passage of time."
"Well, something is impaired. I do believe you are the rudest person I've ever met."
"You're angry." He made a low sound, a satisfied kind of sound.
"And that makes you happy? "
"Happy? No. But it does reassure me."
He found it reassuring that she was totally pissed off at him? "I just don't get it. There's such a thing as common courtesy. You could at least have allowed me to finish my presentation before you started ripping my work apart."
"I saw enough."
"You saw hardly anything."
"Still. It was more than enough."
By then, she just didn't care what happenedwhether she stayed, or whether she threw her suitcases back into her car and headed home to San Antonio. She spoke with measured calm. "I would really like to know what you were doing all year, that you couldn't even be bothered to follow through on the fellowship you set up yourself. There are kids out there who desperately need a center like this one is supposed to be."
"I know that." His voice was flat now. "You wouldn't be here now if I didn't."
"So then, what's up with you? I just don't get it."
Unspeaking, he held her gaze for a solid count of five. And then, bizarrely, without moving anything but his arms, he seemed to roll backward. His torso turned, his arms working.
He rolled out from behind the massive deskin a wheelchair.
Nobody had mentioned that he was using a wheelchair.
Yes, she'd heard that he'd had some kind of accident climbing some snow-covered mountain peak in some distant land. But that was nearly a year ago. She'd had no clue the accident was bad enough for him to still need a wheelchair now.
"Oh, God. I had no idea," she heard herself whisper.
He kept on rolling, approaching her down the endless length of the room. Beneath the long sleeves of the knit shirt he wore, she could see the powerful muscles of his arms bunching and releasing as he worked the wheels of the chair. He didn't stop until he was directly in front of her.
And then, for several excruciating seconds, he stared up at her as she stared right back at him.
Golden, she thought. He was as golden up close and personal as in the pictures she'd seen of him. As golden as from a distance, on a stage, when she'd been a starry-eyed undergraduate at Rice University and he'd come to Houston to deliver an absolutely brilliant lecture on form, style and function.
Golden hair, golden skin. He was a beautiful man, broad-shouldered and fit-looking. A lion of a man.
Too bad about the cold, dead gray-blue eyes.
He broke the uncomfortable silence with a shrug. "At least you're no doormat."
She thought of the apology she probably owed him. She really should have considered that there might be more going on with him than sheer egotism and contempt for others.
Then again, just because he now used a wheelchair didn't mean he had a right be a total ass. A lot of people faced difficult challenges in their lives and still managed to treat others with a minimum of courtesy and respect.
She returned his shrug. "I have a big mouth. It's true. And my temper rarely gets the better of me. But when it does, watch out."
It wasn't exactly the response she'd expected. "It's good that I never learned when to shut up?"
"You've got guts. I like that. You can be pushed just so far and then you stand up and fight. You're going to need a little fighting spirit if you want to have a prayer of saving this project from disaster."
She didn't know whether to be flatteredor scared to death. "You make it sound as though I would be doing this all on my own."
"Because you will be doing this all on your own."
Surely she hadn't heard him right. Caught by surprise, she fell back a step, until she came up against the hard edge of the drafting table. "But." Her sentence trailed off, hardly begun.
It was called a fellowship for a reason. Without his name and reputation, the project would never have gotten the go-ahead in the first place. The San Antonio Help the Children Foundation was all for giving a bright, young hometown architect a chance. But it was Donovan Mc-Crae they were counting on to deliver. He knew that every bit as well as she did.
The ghost of a smile tugged at the corners of his perfectly symmetrical mouth. "Abilene. You're speechless. How refreshing."
She found her voice. "You're Donovan McCrae. I'm not. Without you, this won't fly and you know it."
"We need to carry through."
"You noticed. Finally."
A slow, regal dip of that leonine head. "I've put this off for way too long. And as you've already pointed out, there's a need for this center. An urgent need. So I'll supervise. At least in the design phase. I'll put my stamp of approval on it when I'm satisfied with what you've done. But don't kid yourself. If it gets built, the design will be yours, not mine. And you will be following through in construction."
Abilene believed in herselfin her talent, her knowledge, and her work ethic. Yes, she'd hoped this fellowship would give her a leg up on snaring a great job with a good firm. That maybe she'd be one of the fortunate few who could skip the years of grunt work that went into becoming a top architect. But to be in charge of a project of this magnitude, at this point in her career?
It killed her to admit it, but she did anyway. "I don't know if I'm ready for that."
"You're going to have to be. Let me make this very clear. I haven't worked in a year. I doubt if I'll ever work again."
Never work again?
That would be a crime. She might not care much for his personality. But he was, hands down, the finest architect of his generation. They spoke of him in the same breath with Frank O. Gehry and Robert Venturi. Some even dared to compare him favorably to Frank Lloyd Wright. He blended the Modern with the Classical, Bauhaus with the Prairie style, all with seeming effortlessness.
And he was still young. Not yet forty. Many believed an architect couldn't possibly hit creative stride until at least the age of fifty. There was just too much to learn and master. Donovan McCrae's best work should be ahead of him.
"Never work again " She repeated the impossible words that kept scrolling through her mind.
"That's right." He looked satisfied. In a bleak and strangely determined sort of way.
"But why?" she asked, knowing she was pushing it, but wanting to understand what, exactly, had happened to him to make him turn his back on the kind of career that most would kill for. "I mean, there's nothing wrong with your brain, is there?"
An actual chuckle escaped him. "You do have a big mouth."
She refused to back off. "Seriously. Have you suffered some kind of brain damage?"
"Then why would you stop working? I just don't get it."
Something flashed in those steel-blue eyes of his. She sensed that he actually might give her an answer.
But then he only shook his head. "Enough. I'll take that memory stick." He held out his hand.
She kept her lips pressed together over a sarcastic remark and laid the stick in his open palm.
He closed his fingers around it. "Ben will show you to your rooms. Get comfortablebut not too comfortable." He backed and turned and wheeled away from her, disappearing through a door beyond the looming edifice that served as his desk.
"Abilene?" said a quiet voice behind her. She turned to face Ben Yates, who was slim and tall and self-contained, with black hair and eyes to match. "This way."
She grabbed her bag off the back of her chair and followed him.
The house was a marvellike all of Donovan Mc-Crae's designs. Built into the side of a rocky cliff, it had seemed to Abilene, as she approached it earlier, to materialize out of the desert: a cave, a fortress, a palace made of rockand a houseall at the same time.
It was built around a central courtyard. The back half nestled into the cliff face. It had large glass doors and floor-to-ceiling windows all along the courtyard walls, giving access to the outside and great views of the pool and the harsh, beautiful landscaping. The facade side had windows and glass doors leading to the courtyard, as well. It also offered wide vistas of the wild, open desert.
Abilene's rooms were on the cliff side.
Ben ushered her in ahead of him. "Here we are."
The door was extra wide.