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DID THE MAN have to be so good-looking?
That was Claire's first thought as she stared at the color photograph of Ethan Seaver.
It wasn't fair. He'd been approaching Greek god status a decade ago, with his deep-set green eyes, sexy mouth and well-defined cheekbones. He'd only improved with age.
The picture on the Web site was a head and shoulders shot, a professional portrait of a professional man. She could just make out the knot of a tie and the collar of a snowy-white shirt. She tried to concentrate on these innocuous details rather than the leanness of his cheeks or the sculpted line of his jaw. Even so, as she unscrewed the cap from a bottle of spring water and took a swig, she was wishing for something with a little more kick.
Locating her ex had proved remarkably simple. She hadn't even required the services of a private investigator. All she'd had to do was type Ethan's name into the search field on her laptop computer and hit Enter. Within seconds the search engine had spat back several screenfuls of possible matches to her rather broad inquiry.
The first couple of hits had provided links to newspaper stories, one from The Detroit Free Press and another from a respected national business journal. She had dismissed both at first, assuming it was a different Ethan Seaver who had been named as one of the thirty American entrepreneurs under forty to watch. But then her gaze had caught on the third entry down: Seaver Security Solutions, Ethan J. Seaver, president. Her heart had thumped and the blood had pounded noisily in her ears. Yet Claire swore she could hear his voice.
I plan to own my own company, Claire. A security firm protecting the assetsof the Fortune 500. Some day even the likes of your father will be seeking my advice.
He'd told her that not long after proposing, as if wanting to assure her that his ambitions reached well beyond remaining a second-shift worker who punched a clock for somebody else.
According to the Web site, Ethan was the president and founder of a growing and respected commercial security firm that did everything from installation and monitoring to consulting and product development. Its headquarters was in Detroit with clients all over the Midwest.
Claire laughed out loud. The sound echoed off the bare walls of her apartment, a spacious two bedroom in a trendy section of Chicago that commanded a high price thanks to its sunrise view of Lake Michigan. Only a couple of days had passed since her return from the Himalayas, but she'd certainly managed to shake things up by signing a lease. As a result, her mother had taken to her bed and wasn't speaking to Claire. Unfortunately, her father was. He'd spent the better part of the morning trying to "talk some sense" into Claire as a crew of movers had carried her boxed-up belongings to a waiting van.
It had irritated Sumner to no end that this time, no matter how much he blustered or threatened, Claire hadn't budged. The problem—his problem, not hers—was that she'd never felt more sensible in her life.
Sensible. Yet here she was, sitting cross-legged on the bare floor and laughing like a happily medicated root canal patient because Ethan had essentially been right in her backyard all these years. Not only that, but he'd been providing surveillance and other high-end services to some of his ex-father-in-law's competitors. The pay-back quotient was subtle but there.
Of course, even a decade ago Ethan's dogged determination had been obvious. It was one of the qualities she had admired, respected. Claire had never met anyone quite like him in her sheltered life. He'd come from a modest background and yet words like "no" and "I can't" hadn't been part of his vocabulary. He'd been so driven, so purposeful. So…disappointing.
She rested the chilled bottle of water against her forehead, mirth and pride subsiding as anger sneaked in.
She had little doubt where Ethan had gotten the start-up capital for his business. She'd watched her father write out the post-dated check. A very hefty sum paid to the order of Ethan Seaver on one condition: he needed to go away quickly and quietly.
And he had.
The one person Claire had counted on to be immune to her father's high-handed bullying, the one person she had assumed would be too proud to take the powerful Sumner Mayfield's money, had done just that, consenting to a divorce, keeping their marriage hush-hush, disappearing.
She swatted her anger aside. It didn't matter. These days, Claire was counting on herself. She should have done that back then too, instead of involving a third party in her sticky family dynamics.
Staring at Ethan's photograph, she swore his gaze held the same amount of accusation it had the last time they'd been face-to-face.
"Why in the hell did you marry me, Claire?" The demand had sounded almost like a challenge.
"I am sorry, Ethan," she murmured now to the image on the computer screen.
That doesn't count, honey.
Claire could almost hear Belle saying it, the words clipped with her British accent. She could almost hear Simone's laughter trill. How she missed them. She had other friends, of course, but none in whom she had confided her shameful secret. That made the bond they shared all the more special.
Then, as if she had conjured up the pair, her computer chimed, signaling an e-mail had just been received. Claire clicked on her mailbox and discovered two, both delivered to the group account they had set up for their correspondence. The first message was from Simone and had come in several hours earlier. The latest was from Belle and apparently was in response to Simone's. The subject lines didn't bode well: diary missing.
Claire clicked on Simone's e-mail first: Hullo, ladies. I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I seem to have lost the journal I kept during our trip.
Claire sucked in a breath. Simone had kept rather detailed notes of their travels, their burgeoning friendship and finally their secrets and what they planned to do about them. Now the diary was gone, apparently dropped at the airport in her rush to catch a taxi. It made Claire a little queasy to think someone might be reading it. She clicked open Belle's response:
Oh, Simone! What a shame about your diary. I know how hard you worked on it. Will you be able to put together your article without it?"
Simone worked for Girl Talk magazine.
If you need any details, I've got the stuff I wrote for my reports that you can have. As for anyone connecting us with it, I wouldn't worry too much. It's most likely in some airport waste compactor by now.
Probably, Claire thought. Even if someone had opened it, the beginning pages were likely bland enough to quell any interest.
Belle had continued,
Now for my news…
Claire blinked at the screen. And here she'd thought she had been working at a fast pace. But then, Belle never could stand to have anyone else in the lead. Already she'd left her husband, Ivo, moving out of his upscale Belgravia town house, and was living in the flat at Camden Lock she'd kept since before her marriage. And she'd cut her hair, changed her look. She'd attached a photograph that had Claire smiling. Belle's trademark blonde locks were gone, clipped off into a softly layered short 'do that complemented her lovely face.
Claire wrote back to Simone first:
Don't beat yourself up about this. It's disappointing and frustrating, but I can't imagine it will cause any problems for any of us.
She added a one-sided happy face. Then she wrote:
By the way, I moved out, too. I'm in my new apartment right now, sitting on the floor since I have no furniture yet. Not even a comfortable bed. Reminds me of our trip.
This time the smiley face icon was all teeth.
And, drum roll please. I've found my ex. Turns out he's made quite a name for himself. I'm attaching a URL to his Web site.