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A Fortune's Children Christmas
By Lisa Jackson Barbara Boswell Linda Turner
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
"I'm dreaming of a white Christmas ..."
The soloist's voice was hardly audible over the clinking of champagne glasses, chatter of conversation and bubbling laughter that permeated the celebration at the Fortune Corporation headquarters.
Chase Fortune watched the festivities with a jaundiced eye. He was as out of place as a range mustang at Churchill Downs, but there was nothing he could do about it now.
He took a swallow from his stemmed glass of champagne and wished he was anywhere but at his great-aunt-Kate's eightieth birthday bash in the middle of the heartland.
A twenty-foot Christmas tree decorated with twinkling lights and festive red ribbons stood in the center of the room, while an ice sculpture in the shape of an angel, complete with harp, wings and halo, was beginning to melt near the door. Liveried attendants checked engraved invitations against the guest list.
What a joke.
Chase yanked at the collar of his too-tight tuxedo, then drained his glass. Relatives that had skimmed in and out of his life over the years filled the cavernous room. Dressed in holiday finery and bearing expensive gifts that were to be donated to charitable causes, theywere here to pay tribute to Kate Fortune, the gutsy, elegant matriarch of his family.
What he wouldn't do for a cold bottle of beer, his dusty cowboy boots and a crowded, smoky tavern where you could watch a basketball game on the television mounted over the bar, grumble about the price of beef or hear the likes of Garth Brooks or Waylon Jennings from hidden speakers.
Instead he was here in the city, watching rain drizzle down the large windows, feeling his estranged sister, Delia's, cold shoulder as she, dressed in shimmering red silk, made a point of avoiding him. Not that he really gave a damn.
The singer, a tall, willowy woman with dark hair, a skin-tight gold dress and a Santa cap stuck jauntily on her head caught the guest's attention.
"Happy Birthday to you ..." The crowd joined in and Kate Fortune, who'd been helped onto the slightly raised stage, smiled, her blue eyes sparkling youthfully despite the years that had propelled her into the category of elderly. Compact and aristocratic she laughed as the song was over, gave a short speech and began shaking hands and hugging her children, grandchildren and whatever other stragglers her huge family entailed.
Chase was in the last category. While the rest of the Fortune herd joined together, he was like the maverick calf, rough around the edges, wild at heart and not about to conform to whatever the rest of the Fortunes thought best. He had no use for the cosmetics company, stock options, business conglomerates or mergers.
So why the hell did you come here, if you didn't care?
Leaving his empty glass on a silver tray, he shouldered open French doors leading to a covered veranda. The air was clean and fresh, rain washed and ice-cold. Traffic rushed by on the street two stories below, tires spraying water from puddles, engines thrumming. The lights of the city glowed brightly, lending a festive air to the night, and on the street corners, bells were being rung by volunteers asking for donations.
"I thought I saw you duck out here."
Surprised, he turned and found that his great-aunt, a fur stole draped over her shoulders, had slipped onto the verandah. "I figured it might be a tad too crowded for you in there." She cocked her head to the closed glass doors where the party was in full swing.
"A little, yeah." He offered her a smile. "Happy birthday, Kate."
She chuckled. "At my age each one is special, believe me." Her eyebrows lifted as if at a private joke. "Who knows? This could be my last."
He didn't believe it for a minute. With her enthusiasm for life and energy, she'd probably outlive all her children and grandchildren. "I doubt it."
"Do you?" She walked to the edge of the verandah and looked up at the skyscrapers. Misting rain touched her face and she blinked.
"How'd you manage to break away?"
"Oh, some privileges come with age," she said, turning to face him. "Besides I told Sterling and Jake that I wasn't to be disturbed. I think they can handle it." Sterling Foster was Kate's husband and attorney, the one man who had known she'd survived a plane crash eight years ago when she'd been the target of a failed murder attempt. Jake was her oldest son. "I wanted a few minutes alone with you, anyway," she said earnestly, "because I have a proposition for you."
"Sounds dangerous," he teased.
"Maybe." She chuckled again. "You have your father's sense of humor."
"I didn't know he had one." Chase wasn't going to fall into the trap of thinking he was anything like his old man. At one time Zeke Fortune had held the world in his hand - loving wife, adoring children, money in the bank and the best damned ranch in Western Montana. He'd managed, by a mixture of circumstance, poor timing, bad luck and even worse judgment to lose it all. If there was one thing Chase wasn't going to be, it was a loser in life. He'd lost enough already. More than anyone could possibly guess.
"Oh, Zeke had a colorful sense of humor." She sighed sadly. "Life robbed him of it. Don't let it do the same to you, Chase."
He didn't like thinking of the old man or of his own private hell. "You mentioned a proposition."
"Mmm." She placed both hands on the brick railing and didn't seem to mind that gusts of wind plucked at her hair. "It's a simple deal really. You know that some years ago I was supposed to have died and, while everyone thought I was situated comfortably on the other side of the pearly gates, I bequeathed to my heirs their part of the family fortune."
Chase nodded. "I remember."
Excerpted from A Fortune's Children Christmas by Lisa Jackson Barbara Boswell Linda Turner Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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