Read an Excerpt
The bar wasn't crowded. Harden wished it had been, so that he could have blended in better. He was the only customer in boots and a Stetson, even if he was wearing an expensive gray suit with them. But the thing was, he stood out, and he didn't want to.
A beef producers' conference was being held at this uptown hotel in Chicago, where he'd booked a luxury suite for the duration. He was giving a workshop on an improved method of crossbreeding. Not that he'd wanted to; his brother Evan had volunteered him, and it had been too late to back out by the time Harden found out. Of his three brothers, Evan was the one he was closest to. Under the other man's good-natured kidding was a temper even hotter than Harden's and a ferocity of spirit that made him a keen ally.
Harden sipped his drink, feeling his aloneness keenly. He didn't fit in well with most people. Even his in-laws found him particularly disturbing as a dinner companion, and he knew it. Sometimes it was difficult just to get through the day. He felt incomplete; as if something crucial was missing in his life. He'd come down here to the lounge to get his mind off the emptiness. But he felt even more alone as he looked around him at the laughing, happy couples who filled the room.
His flinty pale blue eyes glittered at an older woman nearby making a play for a man. Same old story. Bored housewife, handsome stranger, a one-night fling. His own mother could have written a book on that subject. He was the result of her amorous fling, the only outsider in a family of four boys.
Everybody knew Harden was illegitimate. It didn't bother him so much anymore, but his hatred of the female sex, like his contempt for his mother, had never dwindled. And there was another reason, an even more painful one, why he could never forgive his mother. It was much more damning than the fact of his illegitimacy, and he pushed the thought of it to the back of his mind. Years had passed, but the memory still cut like a sharp knife. It was why he hadn't married. It was why he probably never would.
Two of his brothers were married. Donald, the youngest Tremayne, had succumbed four years ago. Connal had given in last year. Evan was still single. He and Harden were the only bachelors left. Theodora, their mother, did her best to throw eligible women at them. Evan enjoyed them. Harden did not. He had no use for women these days. At one time, he'd even considered becoming a minister. That had gone the way of most boyish dreams. He was a man now, and had his share of responsibility for the Tremayne ranch. Besides, he'd never really felt the calling for the cloth. Or for anything else.
A silvery laugh caught his attention and he glanced at the doorway. Despite his hostility toward anything in skirts, he couldn't tear his eyes away. She was beautiful. The most beautiful creature he'd ever seen in his life. She had long, wavy black hair halfway down her back. Her figure was exquisite, perfectly formed from the small thrust of her high breasts to the nipped-in waist of her silver cocktail dress. Her legs were encased in hose, and they were as perfect as the rest of her. He let his gaze slide back up to her creamy complexion with just the right touch of makeup, and he allowed himself to wonder what color her eyes were.
As if sensing his scrutiny, her head abruptly turned from the man with her, and he saw that her eyes matched her dress. They were the purest silver, and despite the smile and the happy expression, they were the saddest eyes he'd ever seen.
She seemed to find him as fascinating as he found her. She stared at him openly, her eyes lingering on his long, lean face with its pale blue eyes and jet-black hair and eyebrows. After a minute, she realized that she was staring and she averted her face.
They sat down at a table near him. The woman had obviously been drinking already, because she was loud.
"Isn't this fun?" she was saying. "Goodness, Sam, I never realized that alcohol tasted so nice! Tim never drank."
"You have to stop thinking about him," the other man said firmly. "Have some peanuts."
"I'm not an elephant," she said vehemently.
"Will you stop? Mindy, you might at least pretend that you're improving."
"I do. I pretend from morning until night, haven't you noticed?"
"Listen, I've got to" There was a sudden beeping sound. The man muttered something and shut it off. "Damn the luck! I'll have to find a phone. I'll be right back, Mindy."
Mindy. The name suited her somehow. Harden twisted his shot glass in his hand as he studied her back and wondered what the nickname was short for.
She turned slightly, watching her companion dial a number at a pay phone. The happy expression went into eclipse and she looked almost desperate, her face drawn and somber.
Her companion, meanwhile, had finished his phone call and was checking his watch even as he rejoined her.
"Damn," he cursed again, "I've got a call. I'll have to go to the hospital right away. I'll drop you off on the way."
"No need, Sam," she replied. "I'll phone Joan and have her take me home. You go ahead."
"Are you sure you want to go back to the apartment? You know you're welcome to stay with me."
"I know. You've been very kind, but it's time I went back."
"You don't mind calling Joan?" he added reluctantly. "Your apartment is ten minutes out of my way, and every second counts in an emergency."
"Go!" she said. "Honest, I'm okay."
He grimaced. "All right. I'll phone you later."
He bent, but Harden noticed that he kissed her on the cheek, not the lips.
She watched him go with something bordering on relief. Odd reaction, Harden thought, for a woman who was obviously dating a man.
She turned abruptly and saw Harden watching her. With a sultry laugh she picked up the pina colada she'd ordered and got to her feet. She moved fluidly to Harden's table and without waiting for an invitation, she sat down, sprawling languidly in the chair across from him. Her gaze was as direct as his, curious and cautious.
"You've been staring at me," she said.
"You're beautiful," he returned without inflection. "A walking work of art. I expect everyone stares."
She lifted both elegant eyebrows, clearly surprised. "You're very forthright."
"Blunt," he corrected, lifting his glass in a cynical salute before he drained it. "I don't beat around the bush."
"Neither do I. Do you want me?"
He cocked his head, not surprised, even if he was oddly disappointed. "Excuse me?"
She swallowed. "Do you want to go to bed with me?" she asked.
His broad shoulders rose and fell. "Not particularly," he said simply. "But thanks for the offer."
"I wasn't offering," she replied. "I was going to tell you that I'm not that kind of woman. See?"
She proffered her left hand, displaying a wedding band and an engagement ring.
Harden felt a hot stirring inside him. She was married. Well, what had he expected? A beauty like that would be married, of course. And she was out with a man who wasn't her husband. Contempt kindled in his eyes.
"I see," he replied belatedly.
Mindy saw the contempt and it hurt. "Are you married?" she persisted.
"Nobody brave enough for that job," he returned. His eyes narrowed and he smiled coldly. "I'm hell on the nerves, or so they tell me."
"A womanizer, you mean?"
He leaned forward, his pale blue eyes as cold as the ice they resembled. "A woman hater."
The way he said it made her skin chill. She rubbed warm hands over her upper arms. "Oh."
"Doesn't your husband mind you going out with other men?" he asked mockingly.
"My husband died," she bit off the word. She took a sudden deep sip of her drink and then another, her brows drawn together. "Three weeks ago." Her face contorted suddenly. "I can't bear it!"
She got up and rushed out of the bar, her purse forgotten in her desperate haste.
Harden knew the look he'd just seen in her eyes. He knew the sound, as well. It brought him to his feet in an instant. He crammed her tiny purse into his pocket, paid for his drink, and went right out behind her.
It didn't take him long to find her. There was a bridge nearby, over the Chicago River. She was leaning over it, her posture stiff and suggestive as she held the rails.
Harden moved toward her with quick, hard strides, noticing her sudden shocked glance in his direction.
"Oh, hell, no, you don't," he said roughly and abruptly dragged her away from the rails. He shook her once, hard. "Pull yourself together, for God's sake! This is stupid!"
She seemed to realize then where she was. She looked at the water below and shivered. "I wouldn't really have done it. I don't think I would," she stammered. "It's just that it's so hard, to go on. I can't eat, I can't sleep !"
"Committing suicide isn't the answer," he said stubbornly.
Her eyes glittered like moonlit water in her tragic face as she looked up at him. "What is?"
"Life isn't perfect," he said. "Tonight, this minute, is all we really have. No yesterdays. No tomorrows. There's only the present. Everything else is a memory or a daydream."
She wiped her eyes with a beautifully manicured hand, her nails palest pink against her faintly tanned skin. "Today is pretty horrible."
"Put one foot forward at a time. Live from one minute to the next. You'll get through."
"Losing Tim was terrible enough, you see," she said, trying to explain. "But I was pregnant. I lost the baby in the accident, too. I was I was driving." She looked up, her face terrible. "The road was slick and I lost control of the car. I killed him! I killed my baby and I killed Tim !"
He took her by the shoulders, fascinated by the feel of her soft skin even as he registered the thinness of them. "God decided that it was his time to die," Harden corrected.
"There isn't a God!" she whispered, her face white with pain and remembered anguish.
"Yes, there is," he said softly. His broad chest rose and fell. "Come on."
"Where are you taking me?"
She was pulling against his hand. "I won't go back there tonight, I can't! He haunts me "
He stopped. His eyes searched her face quietly. "I don't want you physically. But you can stay with me tonight, if you like. There's a spare bed and you'll be safe."
He couldn't believe he was making the offer. He, who hated women. But there was something so terribly fragile about her. She wasn't sober, and he didn't want her trying something stupid. It would lie heavily on his conscience; at least, that was what he told himself to justify his interest.
She stared at him quietly. "I'm a stranger."
"So am I."
She hesitated. "My name is Miranda Warren," she said finally.
"Harden Tremayne. You're not a stranger anymore. Come on."
She let him guide her back to the hotel, her steps not quite steady. She looked up at him curiously. He was wearing an expensive hat and suit. Even his boots looked expensive. Her mind was still whirling, but she had enough sense left to realize that he might think she was targeting him because he had money.
"I should go to my own apartment," she said hesitantly.
He was blunt. So was she. "Because you look very well-to-do. I'm a secretary. Tim was a reporter. I'm not at all wealthy, and I don't want you to get the wrong idea about me."
"I told you, I don't want a woman tonight," he said irritably.
"It isn't just that." She shifted restlessly. "You might think I deliberately staged all this to rob you."
His eyebrows rose. "What an intriguing thought," he murmured dryly.
"Yes, isn't it?" she said wryly. "But if I were planning any such thing, I'd pick someone who looked less dangerous."
He smiled faintly. "Afraid of me?" he asked deeply.
She searched his hard face. "I have a feeling I should be. But, no, I'm not. You've been very kind. I just had a moment's panic. I wouldn't really have thrown myself off the bridge, you know. I hate getting wet." She shifted. "I really should go home."
"You really should come with me," he replied. "I won't rest, wondering if you've got another bridge picked out. Come on. I don't think you're a would-be thief, and I'm tired."
"Are you sure?" she asked.
He nodded. "I'm sure."
She let him lead her into the hotel and around to the elevator. It was one of the best hotels in the city, and he went straight up to the luxury suites. He unlocked the door and let her in. There was a huge sitting room that led off in either direction to two separate bedrooms. Evan had planned to come up with Harden from Texas.
At the last minute, though, there'd been an emergency and Evan had stayed behind to handle it.
Miranda began to feel nervous. She really knew nothing about this man, and she knew she was out of control. But there was something in his eyes that reassured her. He was a strong man. He positively radiated strength, and she needed that tonight. Needed someone to lean on, someone to take care of her, just this once. Tim had been more child than husband, always expecting her to handle things. Bills, telephone calls about broken appliances, the checkbook, groceries, dry cleaning, housekeepingall that had been Miranda's job. Tim worked and came home and watched television, and then expected sex on demand. Miranda hadn't liked sex. It was an unpleasant duty that she tried to perform with the same resignation that she applied to all her other chores. Tim knew, of course he did. She'd gotten pregnant, and Tim hadn't liked it. He found her repulsive pregnant. That had been an unexpected benefit. But now there was no pregnancy. Her hand went to her stomach and her face contorted. She'd lost her baby
"Stop that," Harden said unexpectedly, his pale blue eyes flashing at her when he saw the expression on her face. "Agonizing over it isn't going to change one damned thing." He tossed his hotel key on the coffee table and motioned her into a chair. "I keep a pot of coffee on. Would you like a cup?"
"Yes, please," she said with resignation. She slumped down into the chair, feeling as if all the life had drained out of her. "I can get it," she added quickly, starting to rise.
He frowned. "I'm perfectly capable of pouring coffee," he said shortly.
"Sorry," she said with a shy smile. "I'm used to waiting on Tim."
He searched her eyes. "Had you trained, did he?" he asked.
He turned. "Black, or do you like something in it?"
"I.I like it black," she stammered.
"Good. There's no cream."