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He felt, as he turned the handle, that all things strange and wonderful lay behind the door. That by crossing the threshold, he would be leaving the familiar and true, begin marching down a road from which he would not return. So whimsical, and so unlike him, but he knew what he felt and it was uncomfortable, a faint prickling at the back of his neck that would not be ignored. Maybe it was the peremptory way he'd been summoned, but when he turned the brass handle, a thing he'd done a thousand times before, its carved impress seemed suddenly cold and oily beneath his palm.
The heavy, ornate mahogany door opened onto a blaze of sunlight that rendered him temporarily blind. He was used to that, too, and took a moment to adjusthis eyes. He knew she did it on purpose, set her massive antique desk just that way against a bank of windows, to impress people, to send the not-so-subtle message that her visitor was entering holy ground. Hence her refusal to hang venetians, shades, or even a curtain, not even on the sunniest day, and it could be very sunny in Los Angeles. Even the air-conditioned penthouse floor of the Keane Tower, where the publisher of the world's largest newspaper, the L.A. Connection, presided, was not immune to the solar glare. But Alexis Keane was a stubborn woman.
When his eyes adjusted, he crossed the few yards to the desk where she was huddled, his footsteps muffled by the thick Aubusson carpet that spanned the room. Dwarfed by the huge stack of newspapers that were delivered every day, from every part of the country that counted, Alexis Keane appeared to be so involved in her reading that she didn't hear him enter. She liked to say that although she might not read every line, no one could fault her for not being on top of the news. But that was her job, the only thing she lived for, and she did it well, as everyone knew.
The sun blazing in through her huge picture window created the effect of a halo to enhance her even more. At least, he assumed, that's what she hoped. If only Alexis knew, he thought, as he coughed lightly, it made her look small and gnomelike. But damned if he was going to tell her. There were many things he would not tell herhad not told herover the two decades they had worked together. And there were things she did not want him to tell her. There were moments when a person in her position needed to be able to say I didn't know, and he accommodated her.
Right now, though, the small, beady brown eyes he had tracked for twenty years suddenly seemed unfamiliar. They were wary when they had no reason to be. The world was quiet this morningno battles, no earthquakes, no mysterious outbreak of diseaseand everyone in the news business knew that sometimes no news really was good news, that sometimes it was all right for the newsroom to sit back and relax for a few hours. It wouldn't last. So he was surprised to detect the flash of worry on her face, fleeting and gone in an instant. But he was not mistaken. She paid him well not to make those sorts of mistakes.
Her greeting was curt, aimed at the chair he stood beside, rather than his face.
Lincoln Cameron sat, his legs hooked at the knees, his long body unsuited to even the largest leather conference chair.
His salute was brief. He waited quietly while she shifted the newspapers into various sundry piles.
"You need a shave," she said, taking note of his heavy beard.
Lincoln rubbed his cheeks with his big, bony hand. "Then I guess it's five O'clock," he said with a faint smile.
She was buying time. Fine. He'd seen her do it before, when the news was bad. But her voice, gravelly and low, seemed to factor newly to his ears. He'd heard rumorsand had treated them as such. The office grapevine was a phenomenon to be scrupulously ignored, but suddenly he wondered if there wasn't some truth to the rumors. Now he was sitting there observ-ing the sickly green hue of her skin, the sallow yellow tinge of her watery eyes as they avoided his, the simple fact that she did not rise to greet him when she was known for her impeccable manners. He watched as she shook her head, amused as she looked him over.
"Another custom-made Armani?"
Lincoln glanced down at his dark blue suit, then back at his boss. "Did you really call me in to discuss my sartorial splendor?"
"Well, thank goodness you didn't tell me I was looking well," she snorted.
"Is something wrong, then?"
Alexis seemed to find his question amusing. "I'm one of the richest women in the world, and one of the most powerful. What could possibly be wrong?"
Hearing the telltale thread of anger beneath her words, he opted not to answer, but a chill foreboding traveled up his spine.
"And you," she stabbed the air for emphasis with an exquisitely polished nail, "as my executive editor and one of the most powerful men in the newspaper industry, you would be the first to know, wouldn't you? I would hope so, in any case, since I'm the one who tutored you. Everything you are is because of me, isn't it, Lincoln? The White House reads every damned editorial you write, even the lousy ones, before we even go to press. And I damned well know you have the president's ear, since I myself gave him your private number."
Lincoln smiledthe deep lines carved along his gaunt cheeks told he was smilingbut his black eyes were cold. It was unusual for her to wave her flag. "I often wish you hadn't. That man calls me at the most ungodly hours."
Alexis smiled, knowing he was angry, and perversely pleased. "Puts pause to your private life, does he?" she chuckled, although Lincoln heard it transform into a cough.
"That I would not allow. But my sleep, now that is another matter. He is careless of such details," he replied with heavy irony.
"Perhaps, but enough of that. I called you in to talk about the rumors that are spreading." Alexis rose to her feet, or wished to, but unable to muster the strength, fell back in her chair. "The rumors are true. More than true."
Lincoln's black brow rose. "I don't listen to rumors. Why don't you tell me what I should know?"
"You don't listen to rumors?" Alexis mocked.
"Aren't they your bread and butter?"
"Where people are concerned, rarely. And where the running of the paper is concerned, I look to the primary source."
"Good of you, but you're in the minority these days. In any case, it seems that cancer makes no distinctions," she announced with a harsh laugh.
"It's true, then?"
"Those rumors you never abide?" she smiled unevenly as a sharp stab of pain underscored her words.
"Yes, well, they're true, all of them. All those wasted years exercising, eating all sorts of unspeakable green things, never smokingnot even breathing in secondhand smokeand mortality laughs in my face. Ironic, don't you think?"
"Mortality?" Lincoln frowned, wishing she would not parry the question.
"It's pretty evident that when your doctor avoidsyour eyes, the news isn't good. I had to force it from her. You don't seem surprised."
"You're wrong," Lincoln protested. "I'm shocked. I just don't know what to say. I'm not very good in this sort of situation but I'm sorry, Alexis, I really am."
"Lincoln Cameron, sorry? Now there's a rare moment," Alexis observed wryly. "Well, you may lose the pity, Mr. Cameron. I have no patience for that sort of thing."
Even at her most vulnerable, Alexis was insolent, but Lincoln simply nodded. "I'll do everything I can, of course. I'll go to Africa, in August, in your stead," he offered, stifling a sigh.
Alexis's laughter was dry. "Knowing how much you hate to travel, I appreciate the offer."
"A major drawback to this job."
"The only one?"
"I like to sleep in my own bed," Lincoln said with a shrug.
"Ah, yes, your nocturnal habits, again. Well, thanks, but I don't need you to go to take over my job, not just yet. What I do need is for you to run an errand of another sort that does mean giving up your fancy feather bed for a few days. Of course, it's up to you."
"Just tell me what you want, and it will be done."
"I'm glad to hear that," she said, giving him a long look. "It's about my sister, Valetta."
Lincoln sat up quickly. The mention of Valetta Keane was one of the few things that could touch him. "Vallie? Is something wrong?"
"Absolutely not," she reassured him. "On the contrary, I want her to come home."
An imperceptible sigh of relief escaped Lincoln."And of course you tried calling?" he asked, striving for detachment.
For the first time in their conversation, Lincoln thought Alexis looked uncomfortable.
"Valetta won't return home without some very strong encouragement."
Lincoln's black brow was high. "Your illness isn't enough?"
"She doesn't know. Oh, stop looking at me like that! It's not the sort of thing you say over the phone, and we haven't spoken in over a year. What am I supposed to do, pick up the phone and say, Hi, Valetta, it's me, Alexis, I don't have long to live, can you come for dinner? Not to mention the fact that our last conversation wasn't too winning."
"A year is a long time. Why have you let it go for so long?"
"She thinks I'm too controlling. It's her favorite word for me. Many such angry words have passed between us since she left home, a great many nasty words."
"Before she ran away, you mean."
Alexis sank back in her chair. "You're right, of course. She did run away.A childish note left on her pillow, then out the window and down a ladder at three in the morning. Yes, I suppose that constitutes running away. The good part was that our aunt Phyla, my mother's sister, took her in. I don't think you ever met her, Phyla Imre. She lived in an obscure town called Longacre, in upstate New York. The bad part was Aunt Phyla died a few years later, but by then Valetta was" Alexis left off abruptly. "But you've heard all this before."
He most certainly had not, and she damn well knew it. Once, he had been a small part of the Keane family, attending the occasional Friday night supper, Christmas dinners and the like. The Keane parents having died tragically, he had tried to be a brother to the orphaned child, a pleasure, because, much younger than Alexis, Vallie Keane had been an adorable little girl. The devil of a teenager, though. Always mooning about, starstruck. Living on another planet, Lincoln used to tease. But grown to a great beauty.