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Eleanor Whitman saw the red Porsche sitting in the driveway and deliberately accelerated past the small shotgun house on the mammoth K. G. Taber farm outside Lexington, Kentucky. She knew the car too well to mistake it, and she knew who would be driving it. Her heart quickened despite all her efforts at control, although she had every reason in the world to hate the car's owner.
Her slender hands tightened on the steering wheel and she took slow, deep breaths until they stopped trembling, until the apprehension left her huge dark eyes.
She had no idea where she was going as she turned onto a long, calm avenue with big, graceful shade trees down the median. Lexington was like a series of small communities, each with its own personality and neighbors who were like family. Eleanor often wished that she and her father could live in town, instead of on the farm. But the house was theirs rent-free as long as her father lived, a kind of fringe benefit for employees of the elder Taber. Dozens of employees lived on the mammoth farm: carpenters, mechanics, farm laborers, a veterinarian and his assistants, a trainer and his assistants, a black smith the list went on and on. The farm had two champion racehorses, one a Triple Crown winner, and a prime collection of purebred Black Angus bulls as well. It was a diversified, self-contained property and the Tabers had money to burn.
Eleanor's father was a carpenter, a good one, and he alternated between repairing existing buildings and helping put up new ones. He'd had a bad fall and broken his hip three months agoan accident from which he was only just now recovering after extensive physical therapy. And the Tabers had been keeping him on, paying his insurance and all his utilities despite Eleanor's proud efforts to stop them. They were holding his job open and looking after him like family until he could work again, which the doctors said would be soon. Meanwhile, Eleanor took care of him and petted him and was grateful that the fall hadn't killed him. He was all she had.
In her teens, Eleanor had loved the big white house with its long, open porches and wide, elegant columns. Most of all, she'd loved Keegan Taber. That had been her downfall. Four years of nursing school in Louisville had matured her, however, and her decision to accept a position at a private hospital in Lexington was a measure of that maturity. Four years ago, she'd succumbed to Keegan's charm and accepted one tragic date with him, not knowing the real reason he'd asked her out.
She'd hated him ever since. She spoke to him only when he was impossible to avoid, and she never went near him. It had taken her a long time to get over what had happened, and she was only now starting to live again.
What puzzled her was that Keegan had been acting oddly ever since her return. He didn't seem to mind her venomous looks, her dislike. And it didn't stop him from visiting her father at the house, either. The two men had become close, and Eleanor wondered at the amount of time Keegan had been spending with her father lately. Keegan seemed to have plenty to spare, and that was odd because his business interests were diverse and made many demands on him. Now that his father, Gene Taber, was feeling his age, Keegan had assumed most of the responsibility for the farm. Keegan was an only child, and his mother had died many years before, so there were only the two men at Flintlock, the huge estate with its graceful meadows and white-fenced lushness.
Flintlock had been the site of a miraculous occurrence during the settlement of Kentucky. During a fight between pioneers and Indians, the settlers ran out of water. In a daring act, a pioneer's wifesome legends said Becky Boone herself, wife of Danielled the womenfolk of the encampment down to a bubbling stream to fetch water in their buckets. And, miracle of miracles, the Indians actually held their fire until the women were safely back with their menfolk. There was a historic marker at the site now; it was in the middle of a cattle pasture. Tourists still braved the bulls to read it.
Eleanor drove past that pasture now and remembered going to see it with Keegan long ago. How naive she'd been, how infatuated with him. Well, she was over it now; Keegan had given her the cure. But the experience had almost killed her. Certainly she'd been dead inside for a long, long time. Thanks to Wade, however, she was beginning to feel alive again.
Wade had been invited to the house tonight for the first time to meet her father. Eleanor hoped that Keegan didn't have any standing plans to visit with Barnett Whitman that evening to play their regular game of chess; she wanted her father and Wade to get to know each other. Keegan, she thought with a flash of irritation, would only be in the way.
Wade Granger had become someone special in her life, she mused, smiling as she recalled their first few meetings. He'd been a patient and had formed an attachment to her, as patients sometimes did to their nurses. She'd laughed off his invitations, thinking he'd get over it when he left the hospital. But he hadn't. First he'd sent flowers, then candy. And she'd been so shocked at the royal treatment, because he was as wealthy as Keegan, that she'd dropped her guard. And he'd pounced, grinning like a cartoon cat, his dark hair and eyes sparkling with amusement at her astonishment.
"What's wrong with me?" he'd asked plaintively. "I'm only six years older than you are, eligible, rich, sexy. What more do you want? So I'm a little heavy, so what?"
She'd sighed and tried to explain to him that she and her father weren't wealthy, that she didn't think getting involved with him would be a good idea.
"Poppycock," he'd muttered dryly. "I'm not proposing marriage. I just want you to go out with me."
She'd given in, but she'd invited him home for a meal instead of accepting his invitation to go nightclub-bing. She thought if he saw how she lived, and where, it might cool him off.
He was a nice man, and she liked him. But she didn't want to get involved. Keegan had cured her of being romantic. Now she knew all too well the consequences of giving her heart, of trusting a man to return her love. She knew how cold the ashes of a love affair could be.
Her father had no idea of the relationship she'd had with Keegan, and she wanted it to stay that way. It had only been one date anyway, one magical night when she'd believed in fairies. What a pity she hadn't been levelheaded. But she'd been flattered by Keegan's sudden interest, and she hadn't questioned it at all. She certainly hadn't suspected that Keegan was only using her to get back at the woman he really loved. She often wondered what had become of Lorraine Meadows. Petite, blond Lorraine with her Park Avenue tastes and no-expense-spared upbringing. Keegan had announced his engagement to Lorraine the morning after his date with Eleanor. She remembered hearing it and bursting into tears. Keegan had tried to talk to her, and she'd refused to come out of her room. What was there to say, anyway? He'd gotten what he wanted.
But although the engagement made social headlines, less than two months later the couple quietly dropped their marriage plans and went their separate ways. It was incredible to Eleanor, who was in nursing school in Louisville by then. She felt Lorraine would have been the perfect mistress for Flintlock. These days, of course, Lorraine Meadows was never mentioned. Keegan was apparently playing the field now, according to local gossip.
Eleanor drove around for half an hour or so and then went home, thinking Keegan had had plenty of time to finish his business with her father. But he was still there. And she didn't have the time to avoid him any longer, not with Wade coming at six-thirty. It was four now.
She pulled up at the front steps, behind the classy Porsche, and cut the engine. Nurse's cap in hand, she walked wearily in the front door and fought down the rush of excitement that seeing Keegan never failed to create.
He was in the living room, sitting across from her father and looking out of place in the worn, faded armchair. He rose as she entered the room, all lean muscle and towering masculinity. There was an inborn arrogance about him that actually rippled the hair at her nape, and he had a way of looking at her with narrowed eyes and a faint smile that brought the blood to her cheeks. His flaming red hair had a slight wave in it, and his eyes were as blue as a summer sky. His cheekbones were high, his features sharp and cutting, his mouth thin and cruel and oddly sensuous. He looked lithe and rangy, but she knew the strength in that slender body. She'd seen farmhands underestimate it, to their cost. She'd underestimated it herself, once. But never again.
"Hello, Keegan," she said in greeting, her voice calm, confident. She even smiled at him as she bent to kiss her father on the forehead. "Hello, darling, had a nice day?"
"Very nice." Her father chuckled. "Keegan drove me into Lexington to the therapist. She says in another month I'll be back on the job."
"Lovely!" Eleanor laughed.
Keegan was watching her closely, as usual. He got lazily to his feet. "I've got to run. Eleanor, your father and I can't find that last cost estimate he did on building my new barn. Do you know where it is?"
So that was why he'd been here so long. She smiled at her own wild thoughts. "Surely. I'll get it for you."
She went into her father's small study and reached up on a high shelf for the box where he filed his bills and important papers. Her breath caught when she got down to find Keegan lounging in the doorway, his blue eyes narrow and intent on her slender body in its neat white uniform.
"Did I shock you?" he asked with a taunting smile. "It's been some years since I've managed that, hasn't it, Ellie?"
"I don't like that nickname," she said coolly. She avoided his gaze and sat down behind the desk, riffling through her father's papers until she found the estimate. She pulled it out and extended it toward Keegan.
He jerked away from the doorframe and took it from her. "How long do you plan to hold this grudge against me?" he asked softly. "It's been years."
"I have nothing against you, Mr. Taber," she said innocently.
"Don't call me that," he said curtly. "I don't like it."
"Why not?" she asked with a bland expression.
"You're the big boss, aren't you? We live in your house, provide you with entertainmentof all sorts," she added bitterly, meaningfully.
His thin lips compressed. He rolled the paper in his hands, making a tube of it. He stared at it, then at her. "You came back. Why?"
"Why not?" she asked, lifting her eyebrows mockingly. "Did you expect me to stay away for the rest of my life to spare you embarrassment?"
"You don't embarrass me," he said shortly.
"Well, you embarrass me," she returned, and her brown eyes glared at him. "I hate the memory, and I hate you. Why do you come here?"
"I like your father," he replied. His chin lifted slightly as he studied her. "He was injured on the job. I've been keeping an eye on him since you couldn't."
"I know that, and I'm grateful. But he's almost healed "
"He plays a good game of chess," he said. "I like chess," he added through pursed lips, smiling thoughtfully, and his gaze was thorough and bold.
"You like strategy," she returned. "I remember all too well what a wonderful manipulator you are, Keegan. You're great at getting people to do what you want. But not me. Not anymore."
"You just can't give me credit for an unselfish motive, can you?"
"Ah, you forget," she said silkily. "I know all about your motives, don't I?"
His blue eyes glittered at her like sun-touched sapphires, and his face tautened. "My God, haven't you ever made a mistake in your unblemished life?"
"Sure. With you, that night," she replied heatedly. "And the irony of it is that I didn't even get any pleasure out of it!"
He seemed to go rigid with that accusation, and his face actually colored. "Damn you," he breathed furiously, crushing the tube in his lean hand.
"Does that rankle? Forgive me for trampling on your vulnerable male pride, but it's the truth." She pushed back a wayward lock of her soft, brown hair. "I gave you what I'd been saving all my life for a man I loved, only to find out when it was too late that it was a ruse to make Lorraine jealous, to get her to marry you! Did you ever tell her just how far it went, Keegan Taber?" she demanded, burning up with the years of bitter anguish. "Did you?"
"Lower your voice," he growled. "Or do you want your father to hear it all?"
"Wouldn't he have a sterling opinion of you then?" She laughed wildly. "His chess buddy, his idol. He doesn't know you at all!"
"Neither do you," he said shortly. "I tried to explain it to you then, and you wouldn't listen. I've tried since, several times. I even wrote you a letter because you wouldn't talk to me."
"I burned it, unread," she replied triumphantly. "What could you have told me that I didn't already know? Lorraine called me herself. She was delighted to tell me all the details " Her voice broke and she turned away, biting her tongue to keep from crying out, the pain was so fresh. She took a steadying breath and rubbed the back of her neck. "Anyway, as you said, it was all over a long time ago. I'll even forget it one of these days." She glanced at his rigid figure. "Wouldn't you like to go and manage your farm or something? I've had a long day, and I still have to cook supper."
He was silent. She heard him light a cigarette, heard the snap of his lighter as he pocketed it. She thought he'd stopped smoking, but apparently her father hadn't known that he'd started again.
His voice sounded bleak when he spoke again. "I didn't realize until afterward how much you cared about me. And by then it was too late to undo the damage."