Hidden Talents

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Overview

Serenity Makepeace knows a lot about whole-grain bread, but she doesn't know beans about business. She's expanding her natural foods emporium to sell local handicrafts by mail — which she hopes will benefit her offbeat artist community in Witt's End, Washington. But she needs a crack financial adviser to make her dream a reality — so she charms her way into the office of Caleb Ventress, a handsome wolf in conservative clothing.

An expert in the art of the deal, Caleb isn't sure...

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Overview

Serenity Makepeace knows a lot about whole-grain bread, but she doesn't know beans about business. She's expanding her natural foods emporium to sell local handicrafts by mail — which she hopes will benefit her offbeat artist community in Witt's End, Washington. But she needs a crack financial adviser to make her dream a reality — so she charms her way into the office of Caleb Ventress, a handsome wolf in conservative clothing.

An expert in the art of the deal, Caleb isn't sure what to make of the unconventional Serenity — but there's no doubt he's attracted. A pass from a paragon of conformity — even one as handsome as Caleb — is more than free-spirited Serenity bargained for. But when a lethal blackmailer threatens her plans and perhaps her life, she puts her whole trust in the man who seems her complete opposite — and the net result might be true love.

Serenity Makepeace doesn't know much about business, and she needs a crack financial advisor to make her new handicrafts catalog company work. So she charms her way into the office of Caleb Ventress, only to find a handsome wolf in conservative clothing. A thrilling contemporary romance set in an artists' colony in the Washington mountains. Original.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The interplay of colorful characters adds pizzazz to a drab mystery in this romance between business consultant Caleb Ventress and his newest client, Serenity Makepeace, who is expanding her grocery store in the artists' community of Witt's End, Wash., into a mail-order business. When the forthright Serenity tells Caleb that a blackmailer plans to publish nude photos of her unless she terminates her deal with Caleb, she is astonished by the intensity of his anger--but then she doesn't know about the old blackmail scandal involving his deceased parents. Serenity visits Ambrose Asterley, the local artist who shot the photos, but she finds him dead at the foot of his basement stairs. For far too much of this story, Caleb and Serenity putter along, assuming Ambrose was the blackmailer, his death solitary and accidental--ideas the reader won't buy for a minute. But meanwhile, Krentz ( Wildest Hearts ) conjures up a charming relationship between dissimilar but compatible lovers and whimsically paints the eccentric characters of Witt's End, where everyone is a close friend and people are judged by their auras. Taking a cue from the benevolent Serenity, Krentz's fans will delight in what she does well and forgive the rest. (Oct.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781568950563
  • Publisher: Cengage Gale
  • Publication date: 1/1/1994
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.31 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Jayne Ann Krentz

Jayne Ann Krentz's acclaimed New York Times bestsellers include Light in Shadow, Smoke in Mirrors, Lost and Found, Soft Focus, Eye of the Beholder, Flash, and Grand Passion. She writes contemporary romantic suspense novels under her own name, futuristic novels as Jayne Castle (also available from Pocket Books), and historical romance novels under the pseudonym Amanda Quick. She lives in Seattle.

Biography

A successful corporate and academic librarian-turned-author, Jayne Ann Krentz wrote serial romances for several publishers (including industry powerhouse Harlequin) before breaking out in the '90s as a writer of romantic novels. To say that she has been successful is an understatement: A New York Times- bestselling author with more than 23 million copies of her books in print, she writes three sub-genres of romantic suspense under three different pen names: contemporary romances as Jayne Ann Krentz, historicals as Amanda Quick, and futuristic/paranormal romances as Jayne Castle. (In her early career, she employed at least three additional pseudonyms!) In 2006, the prolific Krentz launched The Arcane Society series -- crossover thrillers written under all three noms de plume that feature members of a secret organization devoted to the study of the paranormal.

It would be hard to find a more passionate advocate for romantic fiction than Krentz. In 1992, she edited and contributed to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, an award-winning nonfiction essay collection that serves an eloquent apologia for the genre. She has also received the Jane Austen Commemorative Medal from Romantic Times magazine for her work educating readers about Romance. "The Romance genre is the only genre where readers are guaranteed novels that place the heroine at the heart of the story," she says on her website. "These are books that celebrate women's heroic virtues and values: courage, honor, determination and a belief in the healing power of love." Clearly, her legions of loyal fans agree!

Good To Know

I have finally reached the point in my career where I have some say over cover art. Unfortunately, it turns out that I have absolutely no talent for cover art design. Thank heavens I'm with a publisher (Putnam/Berkley) that maintains a terrific art department.

I love green tea and red wine and was absolutely thrilled when it turned out that both are now considered health foods.

I love all animals except for squirrels which, I strongly suspect, are aliens from outer space who are here to take over the planet. You have been warned.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Amanda Quick, Jayne Castle
    2. Hometown:
      Seattle, WA
    1. Education:
      BA in History, University of California at Santa Cruz, MA in Librarianship from San Jose State University (California)
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

"I think you should know that someone is trying to blackmail me," she said.

Her name was Serenity Makepeace, and until thirty seconds ago Caleb Ventress had been giving serious consideration to having an affair with her.

He had not mentioned the idea to Serenity because he had not yet finished assessing the situation. Never had he been more profoundly grateful for his natural inclination toward calm deliberation than he was at that particular moment.

Caleb never made a move without first thinking through all aspects of a problem. He applied the time-tested method to his personal as well as his business affairs. He knew better than anyone else that his habit of approaching everything with an unemotional, logical detachment was one of the chief factors responsible for his phenomenal financial success.

To date, his relationship with Serenity had been limited to a handful of meetings in his office, three working lunches, and two business dinners. He hadn't even kissed her. He'd planned to take that step tonight.

It had been a near thing, Caleb realized. A strange, cold feeling twisted through his gut as he acknowledged the close brush with disaster. What really bothered him was the uneasy feeling that Serenity Makepeace had the potential for making him ignore his own rules.

She was unlike any other woman he had ever known. She fascinated him. If he had lived in another time and place, an era during which people routinely believed in superstitious nonsense, for example, he would have wondered if she had put some kind of spell on him.

She sat there now, on the other side of his desk, ostensibly in his world, but somehow not quite of it. It was as if she had dropped into his reality from some alternate universe.

Serenity Makepeace had eyes the color of a peacock's tail, and a wild, fiery red mane that today was only partially controlled by a black ribbon tied at her nape.

There was a fey quality about her that stirred the hair on the back of Caleb's neck. The odd little griffin pendant she wore somehow accented her aura of otherworldliness. She possessed an ethereal air that almost convinced him that she had been meant to dance in moonlit meadows at midnight rather than conduct business negotiations in a high-rise office.

He sincerely hoped that she was better at dancing in the moonlight than she was at dealing with business matters. He'd had to guide her every step of the way through their recent contract discussions. The problem wasn't her lack of intelligence; she had a disconcertingly healthy amount of that quality. The difficulty was her lack of experience.

Serenity managed a tiny grocery store in a small mountain community called Witt's End. From what Caleb could discern, the store catered to an eccentric clientele of misfits and nonconformists, artsy-craftsy types and social dropouts. Serenity knew a lot about whole-grain bread, beans, and tofu, but she knew virtually nothing about sophisticated business practices.

That was where he came in, Caleb reminded himself. Serenity wanted to expand her small grocery into a mail order catalog operation. She needed a start-up consultant.

Caleb was one of the best start-up consultants in the Pacific Northwest; perhaps the best. He was very good at what he did.

The Witt's End by Mail project had been very different from Caleb's usual ventures. For one thing, he wasn't accustomed to working with people who were as unsophisticated about business as Serenity obviously was. His usual clients were high-powered corporate executives who sent their lawyers to work out the terms of the contracts. He rarely, if ever, consulted with small, independent businesses the size of Witt's End Grocery. The owners of such firms couldn't afford him. Serenity was no exception. She couldn't pay his usual fees, either.

The only reason Caleb had taken Serenity on as a client in the first place was because she had caught his attention and piqued his admittedly jaded professional interest. He had been bored with his own highly successful career and with life in general for longer than he cared to remember. He recalled Serenity's initial letter of inquiry quite clearly. The scope of her plans had amused him.

Dear Mr. Ventress:

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Serenity Makepeace and I need your help to save my hometown, Witt's End, Washington.

You have probably never heard of Witt's End. It's located in the Cascade mountains, approximately an hour and a half drive from Seattle. It is home to a variety of artists, craftspeople, and others who need an environment that accepts and nurtures independent spirits who choose unconventional lifestyles.

I am well aware that I cannot afford your usual consulting fees, but I am prepared to offer you a share of the future profits.

My goal is to create a viable mail order business, an offshoot of my grocery store, that will provide an outlet for the unusual products of our local residents. I'm appealing to you, Mr. Ventress, because my community cannot survive much longer unless it is given a solid economic base.

I am aware that this project is probably very small and insignificant compared to the consulting projects you normally handle, but I urge you to take on the task. I'm told that you're very good at this kind of thing.

I am committed to saving my community. I believe that the world needs places like Witt's End, Washington, Mr. Ventress. They are the last frontier towns, the only communities left that are suited to those who do not fit in well with the modern urban landscape.

In a sense we all need places like Witt's End. And Witt's End needs you, Mr. Ventress.

Sincerely, Serenity Makepeace

On a whim, Caleb had invited Serenity for an interview. The day she had walked through the door three weeks ago, looking completely wrong in a conservative gray suit and matching one-inch heels, he knew he would be signing a contract with her.

He had taken Serenity by the hand, and she had followed his experienced lead with charming naiveté. If he'd really been trying to take advantage of her, he could have tied her up six ways from Sunday and she would never have had a clue. Instead, five minutes ago she had signed on the bottom line of what he considered a reasonably fair contract.

Of course, he had given himself a very large, very flexible escape clause, and left her with only one carefully controlled exit out of the deal; an exit that she would probably need a lawyer to find. Business was business, after all, and a contract was a contract. When it came to this part of his life, Caleb made it a habit to do things on his own terms or not at all.

His escape route was spelled out in section six of the contract. All he had to do was exercise it.

Caleb did not take his eyes off of Serenity as he absorbed the body blow she had just dealt him.

"What did you say?" he asked. There was virtually no chance that he had misunderstood her, but he had to make certain.

Serenity cleared her throat delicately. "I said someone is trying to blackmail me."

A dark rage ignited somewhere deep inside Caleb. It had been so long since he had last felt such a powerful emotion that he almost failed to recognize the hot anger for what it was. For an instant it threatened to overwhelm him.

"Damn it to hell." Caleb made no effort to tone down the savage edge that etched his words.

Serenity tilted her head to one side and studied him with a perplexed but very steady gaze. "Is something wrong?"

That was taking the element of charming naiveté a little too far, he thought in disgust. He wondered what he had ever seen in her. No one would have labeled her beautiful, he decided, making a desperate attempt to regain the cold, detached objectivity he had cultivated all of his life. Attractive, yes. Interesting, certainly. Amusing, even. But not beautiful.

Serenity's intelligent face was expressive and vivid. He had to admit that there was a natural elegance to her high cheekbones. He also conceded that there was something about her full mouth that made him think of sultry nights and damp, tangled sheets, even though this year's October was proving to be cool and crisp in Seattle.

No, she was not beautiful, but he had been riveted by her from the first moment she had walked into his office. He had wanted her.

God help him, he still wanted her.

"Under the circumstances, that's a rather idiotic question, don't you think?" Caleb muttered.

"I'm sorry," Serenity said politely. "I realize this has probably come as a surprise to you. It certainly has to me."

Caleb spread his fingers flat across the gleaming surface of his glass-and-steel desk. "Why would anyone blackmail you, Miss Makepeace?"

"I'm not sure." Her red brows drew together in a serious, considering expression. "It was the strangest thing. The pictures were addressed to me at my hotel this morning. There was a note with them that said copies would be sent to you if I didn't break off my business dealings with Ventress Ventures immediately."

"Pictures?" Caleb's insides tightened. Please, don't let it be what I think it's going to be."Of you?"

Serenity blushed but did not look away. "Yes."

"With someone?" Caleb made himself ask very carefully. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe they were photos of her with a past lover. She was twenty-eight years old, he reminded himself. She was bound to have had a few affairs. He could handle that. He'd had a few of his own. Not many, but a few.

"No. The pictures are of me alone. They were taken about six months ago."

Caleb set his back teeth. "What, exactly, are you doing in these photos?"

"Nothing much. I'm just sort of lying around in most of them."

"Just sort of lying around." Caleb picked up a pen and tapped it very, very gently against the glass desktop. Ting, ting, ting. The noise grated on his ear.

"What makes the pictures suitable for blackmail purposes, Ms. Makepeace?"

"That's just the point. I don't think they are suitable for blackmail." Her lovely mouth curved ruefully. "But someone apparently believes that they're potentially damning. At least in your eyes."

"Why do you think someone might have that impression?"

Serenity shrugged with graceful nonchalance. The airy motion made her look even more out of place in the prim little gray suit. "I'm not exactly sure why anyone would think of them as blackmail material. I suppose it's because I'm not wearing much in any of them."

"Just how much are you wearing in the pictures?"

She touched the little griffin that hung from the chain around her throat. It was obvious that the pendant had originally been finished with an imitation gold overlay. The cheap veneer had since worn off in several places, allowing the inexpensive metal underneath to show through on the wings of the beast. "Mostly I'm just wearing this."

"Nude photos. Christ." Caleb threw down the pen and got to his feet. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his expensively tailored trousers and paced to the window.

Was this what it had been like for his family all those years ago? he wondered. He brushed the fleeting thought aside. He knew very well that the old scandal had been a a thousand times worse for his grandfather and the rest of the proud Ventress clan. After all, his father, Gordon Ventress, had been married when the photos of his mistress, Crystal Brooke, had been sent to Caleb's grandfather, Roland.

Crystal Brooke had been the stage name of the part-time model, would-be starlet, and full-time hustler who had gotten her bright red claws into the wealthy up-and-coming young politician from Ventress Valley, Washington.

Caleb had never known his mother Crystal, but he had been told a great deal about her during his youth. Her specialty had been nude spread shots for the sort of men's magazines that were not generally purchased because of the high quality of the articles.

When the evidence of his son's affair with Crystal Brooke had reached Roland Ventress, the ensuing explosion had rocked the conservative farm town of Ventress Valley. Toughened by, years of ranching, a stint in the military, and a streak of gritty stubbornness that ran in the family, Roland had flatly refused to pay the blackmail demand.

The anonymous blackmailer had promptly sent the pictures to the Ventress Valley News. The editor of the town's only newspaper had been feuding with Roland Ventress, at the time. He had gleefully printed a photo of Crystal that had been carefully cropped to make it suitable for a small-town paper. The accompanying editorial had fulminated against the declining morals and abysmal ethics of young Gordon Ventress. It had questioned his suitability for a seat in the state legislature.

The resulting scandal had ripped the family apart. Gordon's elegant, young wife, Patricia, raised in an old-money, East Coast family, had done her duty up to a point. She had bravely stood by her husband until word came that Crystal Brooke had a baby son. Gordon freely admitted to being the father.

The news that her husband had a child by his mistress proved to be too much for Patricia. Not even the sturdy notions of wifely fortitude and family loyalty that had been handed down to her by several generations of stalwart New England forebears could sustain her. She agreed to a divorce, the first in the history of the Ventress family.

After a stormy confrontation with Roland, Gordon had gone back to Los Angeles to be with Crystal. He vowed to marry her as soon as his divorce was final, but that weekend he and his mistress had both died in a fiery car crash.

The only survivor had been their three-month-old son, Caleb.

Roland Ventress had followed in the proud tradition of the Ventress family. He had done his duty by his unwanted heir. With the glaring exception of Caleb's father, the Ventresses always did their duty.

Roland went to Los Angeles to bury his only son and claim his grandson. He had grudgingly handled the arrangements for Crystal Brooke's burial also, simply because no one else had stepped forward to do it.

Roland had brought the infant Caleb home to Ventress Valley and informed his grieving wife, Mary, and the rest of the family, which consisted of his nephew Franklin and his niece Phyllis, that in spite of the scandal, the Ventresses would uphold their responsibilities to the boy. Caleb was, after all, Roland's only hope for the future.

Caleb had been dutifully raised and dutifully educated. He had been instructed in the duties and responsibilities that were expected of a Ventress.

And he had never been allowed to forget for one moment that he was the result of the scandalous affair that had brought disaster on the Ventress clan.

If it hadn't been for Caleb, everyone agreed, the scandal could have been dealt with eventually. Perhaps Crystal Brooke could have been bought off. Perhaps Gordon would have come to his senses and dropped his little bleached-blond mistress.

If it hadn't been for Caleb, everything would have been all right.

But Caleb existed.

The indomitable Roland came to terms with that fact. He had then set out to ensure that the bad blood the boy had inherited from his mother was not allowed to surface.

As for Caleb, he knew now that he had wasted most of his youth trying to satisfy a grandfather who viewed even the smallest of failures as evidence that Crystal Brooke's genes had not been successfully stamped out.

Looking back on it, Caleb knew that for the most part, things had been all right during the early years, when his grandmother had still been alive. Stricken as she was by her loss, Mary Ventress had eventually recovered sufficiently from her grief to refocus her natural maternal affections toward her grandson.

Mary had learned to love Caleb although she had never successfully concealed her hatred of the woman who had borne him. Whenever Caleb thought of his grandmother, he could not help but recall the sadness that had always been there, just beneath the surface. He had always known that somehow he was responsible for that deep anguish in Mary Ventress.

After her death eight years later, Roland had taken over the task of raising Caleb. Franklin and Phyllis had pitched in to help with the job. Both had been as concerned as Roland that young Caleb not be allowed to repeat his father's mistake.

Caleb was well aware that he had been paying for the cheap photos of his mother all of his life. He understood the realities of blackmail better than anyone else.

If there was one thing guaranteed to awaken the beast within him, it was blackmail. If there was one type of woman with whom he had vowed never to get involved, it was the sort who could be blackmailed because of sleazy nude photos, photos such as those that had been taken of his mother.

The realization that he had been planning to start an affair with Serenity Makepeace made Caleb want to smash the heavy glass top of his desk into a million glittering shards.

"Who took the pictures?" Caleb forced himself to speak in a remote, neutral tone. It wasn't easy. He wasn't accustomed to dealing with such fierce anger. But he'd had years of practice controlling all his emotions, and he'd gotten very good at that kind of thing.

He was good at a lot of things, he reflected bitterly.

Serenity looked momentarily confused by his question. "What do you mean? A photographer took the pictures, of course."

"What was the name of the photographer? Who was he working for?"

"Oh, I see what you mean," Serenity said. "His name is Ambrose Asterley. And he wasn't working for anyone, unfortunately. His career has been in the doldrums for years. At one time he was considered very good, though."

"Is that right?"

Serenity apparently missed the sarcasm. "Oh, yes. He actually worked in L.A. Hollywood, you know. That was years ago, however. I'm told he was on the way to the top. But poor Ambrose has a drinking problem. It's ruined his life."

She had posed naked for a cheap, washed-up drunk of a photographer. Caleb's hand closed into a fist. The pictures had no doubt been barely good enough for the raunchiest of the skin magazines. "I see."

"Ambrose has been doing a little better since he moved to Witt's End a few years ago," Serenity assured him earnestly. "He's made a couple of small sales, but he hasn't been able to get his career back on track. I felt sorry for him."

"That's why you posed for him? Because you felt sorry for him?"

"Yes. And because, whatever else one can say about Ambrose, there's no denying that he's a very gifted artist."

"Damn it to hell." Caleb stared down at Fourth Avenue, which lay twenty floors below his office window. Everything and everyone down there on the street seemed to be a long way off, just as most things did in his life these days. He preferred it this way. It made things simpler. At least it had until recently.

His carefully controlled emotional distance had initially been as a means of protecting himself from the silent accusation he had seen in the eyes of his grandparents and everyone else in the family. But lately it seemed to him that the detached, clinically remote feeling he had relied on for years was unaccountably growing stronger.

There were times recently when he felt as if he were starting to dematerialize. Ordinary life went on as usual around him, but he was only going through the motions, pretending he was part of what was happening, but knowing that in reality he was not really a participant, just an observer. Nothing touched him, and he was not sure that he could touch anything in turn.

It was as if he were becoming a ghost.

But Serenity Makepeace had reached out and grabbed him in some manner that Caleb was helpless to explain.

Emotions, strong, exciting, dangerous emotions, had begun to reemerge deep within him the day she walked into his office. The first thing he had felt was raw, energizing desire. It made him feel alive as nothing else had in ages.

Now he was experiencing rage.

He should have known that Serenity was too good to be true.

"Those photos must be very interesting, Ms. Makepeace," Caleb said. He thought of the old photos and newspaper clippings that were locked away in the little jewelry box that had belonged to his mother. Damning photos. The stuff of blackmail.

The jewelry box, a gaudy case encrusted with large, fake gems, was the only thing he had inherited from Crystal Brooke. Roland Ventress had given it to him on his eighteenth birthday along with yet another solemn warning not to make the same mistakes his father had made.

Caleb had opened the jewelry case only once. It had remained closed and hidden away ever since.

"Ambrose may have a drinking problem, but he's a talented photographer," Serenity said with what would have been touching loyalty under other circumstances. "The shots he took of me would be considered art by most people."

"Nude photos of you just sort of lying around? Give me a break. We're not talking about art, we're talking about the kind of shots that get published in cheap men's magazines."

"That's not true." She was clearly shocked by his uncompromising attitude. "The pictures were never published at all, but if they had been, I assure you it wouldn't have been in a tacky men's magazine. Ambrose's work is much too good for that kind of format. He deserves to be hung in the best galleries."

"He deserves to be hung, all right," Caleb muttered. "Look, you can drop the artistic outrage. I know exactly what kind of pictures Ambrose Asterley takes."

"You do?" She brightened. "Don't tell me you've actually seen his work?"

"Let's just say I'm familiar with the style. It's obvious that he has a talent for producing the kind of photos that can be used for blackmail."

"But these pictures aren't like that," she protested. "I'm trying to explain."

"I don't want any more of your damned explanations."

There was a moment of startled silence behind him as his words went home.

"So whoever sent the note was right," Serenity said slowly. "You don't approve of nude art photography. Does this mean you'll want to break off our business arrangements?"

"I'm going to have to think about it."

"I see."

He sensed her withdrawal, and the rage within him grew stronger. She was the cause of this, not him. "Tell me, Serenity, what other talents do you possess? Do you act as well as model?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I was just wondering if, by any chance, you've made a few films with Ambrose Asterley or some of his colleagues."

"Films?"

"You know the sort I mean. The kind that get shown in X-rated theaters. The kind that are displayed in the adults only section of the video stores."

"Good grief." Serenity was obviously affronted. "What are you accusing me of?"

"I'm not accusing you of anything." Caleb swung around and met her offended gaze. "You're the one who announced that she was being blackmailed because of a bunch of nude photos. I just wondered how wide-ranging your talents actually are."

"You think I'm some sort of porn film star?" Serenity leaped to her feet. She clutched her small briefcase to her like a shield. "That's ridiculous. Look at me. Do I look like a woman who could make a living that way?"

He studied her slender, delicate frame dispassionately. He was well aware that she lacked the plastic breasts and the aggressive sexuality that one associated with the models who graced the pages of cheap magazines and soft-porn films.

But there was a disturbing sensuality about Serenity that heated Caleb's blood whenever he was in the same room with her. It was an earthy, elemental thing that defied explanation. It was all too easy for him to envision her lying sleek and naked in some grassy meadow, her eyes full of feminine mischief, her mouth parted in invitation.

A jolting thought went through Caleb. A photo that actually succeeded in capturing Serenity's ethereal sensuality probably would be a work of art.

But those weren't the sort of pictures that got shot by a seedy, drunken has-been of a photographer who had once worked in L.A.

Caleb sucked in his breath. He could not stomach the thought that Serenity had posed for the kind of photos that could be used for blackmail purposes; photos like those that had destroyed his parents thirty-four years ago. He lashed out with the fury of a wounded beast.

"No, you probably wouldn't be much of a success as a porn star," Caleb said. "I suppose it's no surprise that Asterley failed to sell the pictures he took of you. You haven't got what it takes, have you?"

The blood rose into Serenity's cheeks. "I told you, Ambrose Asterley is an artist."

"You can call him anything you like."

"You don't understand."

"I understand very well, Serenity. It's simple when you get right down to the bottom of it. A few months ago you posed for some trashy photos, and now someone is trying to use them to blackmail you. I believe that about sums up the whole mess."

"The blackmail attempt can only succeed if you allow it to do so," she said quickly. "Caleb, don't you care that someone is trying to stop us from revitalizing Witt's End?"

"I don't really give a damn if somebody wants to halt the march of progress in Witt's End. From what you've told me about the inhabitants, your blackmailer could be any one of those misfit refugees from mainstream society that you've got living there. The point is, this isn't my problem. It's yours."

"It doesn't have to be a problem at all." Serenity gave him a pleading look. "I only told you about the pictures because I thought you should know about them. I certainly don't intend to let anyone blackmail me into dropping my plans for Witt's End."

"Bravo for you. I wish you the best of luck."

"Look, I'll find out who sent the photos and talk to him or her. I'm sure that whoever made the threat acted out of a fear of change. I can reassure the person that things will remain very much the same in Witt's End even if I do get the mail order business up and running."

"You're going to try to reason with a blackmailer?" Caleb asked, amazed at her naiveté.

"Why not? I know everyone in town." Serenity sighed. "It may have been Blade, although I can't imagine how he got hold of the photos."

Caleb scowled. "Blade? You mean that weird survivalist you told me about? The one who keeps a herd of rottweilers and drives around with AK-47s hung on his gun rack?"

"I don't think they're AK-47s," Serenity said doubtfully.

"What difference does it make? The guy's a nut case."

"Blade's okay. You just have to get to know him. He makes wonderful herbed vinegars. I think they'll sell very well in my catalog."

"The man sounds like a dangerous, freaked-out, paranoid idiot. You said yourself that he's convinced that some clandestine government organization is plotting to take over the country."

"It may not have been Blade," Serenity said in a gentling voice that implied she was accustomed to dealing with temperamental types. "It could just as easily have been someone else."

Caleb discovered that he did not like being soothed and calmed as if he were a restless stallion. "Look, there's no need to deal with the issue of who sent the pictures until I decide whether or not to continue as your business consultant."

Serenity's fair skin turned even paler, highlighting the sprinkling of freckles on her nose and cheeks. She searched his face. "I can't believe you'd quit because of this."

Caleb's brows rose. "Anyone who knows me will tell you that I've always maintained certain standards in my business dealings. I don't intend to lower those standards now."

Serenity looked as if he'd just poured ice water on her. For the first time anger flashed in her eyes. "This is incredible. I had no idea you were such an arrogant, self-righteous prig."

Caleb folded his arms across his chest. "I had no idea you were the type of woman who posed nude for fifth-rate photographers."

"How dare you say such things. You know nothing about me or the pictures." Serenity took two steps back toward the door. "Do you know something? I actually liked you, Caleb. I thought you were nice."

"Nice?" Damn it to hell, Caleb thought. For some reason that was the last straw. "You thought I was nice?"

"Well, yes." Serenity's brilliant eyes filled with uncertainty. "You seemed so interested in my ideas for Witt's End. So helpful. I thought you were as concerned about the future of the community as I am."

"Witt's End can rot for all I care." For once in his life, Caleb did not stop to think about his next actions. He started toward Serenity with grim intent.

For nearly a month he had been suffering the torments of unsatisfied desire. He had consoled himself with his burgeoning plans for an affair, confident that Serenity was as attracted to him as he was to her. Now it was all coming apart and that knowledge clawed at his insides.

Serenity stood her ground, briefcase hugged protectively to her breasts. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

"Correcting a false impression." Caleb came to a halt in front of her. He lifted his hands, gripped her shoulders and jerked her close. "I wouldn't want you to go away thinking I'm a nice guy, Ms. Makepeace."

He took her mouth, crushing her soft, full lips beneath his own. The anger and the despair boiling within him was instantly channeled into the kiss. He felt Serenity tremble under the onslaught, but she did not try to pull away.

For a few seconds she stood stiffly within his rough embrace. She seemed more startled than frightened. Caleb knew he was destroying something important, something he had wanted very much to protect. The realization drove him to do a thorough job of it. He was, after all, a very thorough man.

His fingers tightened around Serenity's shoulders.

He could feel her teeth as he dragged his mouth across hers. It was the first time he had kissed her, and it would no doubt be the last. The anguished rage within him transformed itself into a fierce passion that shook him to the very center of his being.

He tried to drown himself in the taste of Serenity, tried to fix the imprint of her against his body so that he could take out the memory of it five, ten, or twenty years hence and examine it.

Caleb deepened the kiss, easing Serenity's lips apart. He was ravenous for her. At any moment she would wrench herself out of his grasp and out of his life. This was all he was ever going to get.

Something very heavy crashed down onto the highly polished toes of Caleb's shoes. He winced. Serenity had dropped her briefcase.

Dazed by the torrent of emotions pouring through him, Caleb lifted his mouth from hers. He had to let her go.

"Not, not yet." Serenity wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his lips back down on hers.

Before Caleb realized what she intended, Serenity was kissing him back with a heady intensity that sent shock waves through him and drove out all thoughts of the past or of the future. She wanted him. In that moment it was suddenly all that mattered.

Caleb lowered his hands to her small waist and started to lift her up against his heavily aroused body.

"That's enough." Serenity tore her mouth free and removed her arms from around his neck. She leaned back and pushed against his chest.

"Let me go, Caleb. I've changed my mind. You're not very nice at all." Her eyes glowed with anger and passion. "You've ruined everything

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Chapter One "I think you should know that someone is trying to blackmail me," she said.

Her name was Serenity Makepeace, and until thirty seconds ago Caleb Ventress had been giving serious consideration to having an affair with her.

He had not mentioned the idea to Serenity because he had not yet finished assessing the situation. Never had he been more profoundly grateful for his natural inclination toward calm deliberation than he was at that particular moment.

Caleb never made a move without first thinking through all aspects of a problem. He applied the time-tested method to his personal as well as his business affairs. He knew better than anyone else that his habit of approaching everything with an unemotional, logical detachment was one of the chief factors responsible for his phenomenal financial success.

To date, his relationship with Serenity had been limited to a handful of meetings in his office, three working lunches, and two business dinners. He hadn't even kissed her. He'd planned to take that step tonight.

It had been a near thing, Caleb realized. A strange, cold feeling twisted through his gut as he acknowledged the close brush with disaster. What really bothered him was the uneasy feeling that Serenity Makepeace had the potential for making him ignore his own rules.

She was unlike any other woman he had ever known. She fascinated him. If he had lived in another time and place, an era during which people routinely believed in superstitious nonsense, for example, he would have wondered if she had put some kind of spell on him.

She sat there now, on the other side of his desk, ostensibly in his world, but somehow not quite of it. It was as if she had dropped into his reality from some alternate universe.

Serenity Makepeace had eyes the color of a peacock's tail, and a wild, fiery red mane that today was only partially controlled by a black ribbon tied at her nape.

There was a fey quality about her that stirred the hair on the back of Caleb's neck. The odd little griffin pendant she wore somehow accented her aura of otherworldliness. She possessed an ethereal air that almost convinced him that she had been meant to dance in moonlit meadows at midnight rather than conduct business negotiations in a high-rise office.

He sincerely hoped that she was better at dancing in the moonlight than she was at dealing with business matters. He'd had to guide her every step of the way through their recent contract discussions. The problem wasn't her lack of intelligence; she had a disconcertingly healthy amount of that quality. The difficulty was her lack of experience.

Serenity managed a tiny grocery store in a small mountain community called Witt's End. From what Caleb could discern, the store catered to an eccentric clientele of misfits and nonconformists, artsy-craftsy types and social dropouts. Serenity knew a lot about whole-grain bread, beans, and tofu, but she knew virtually nothing about sophisticated business practices.

That was where he came in, Caleb reminded himself. Serenity wanted to expand her small grocery into a mail order catalog operation. She needed a start-up consultant.

Caleb was one of the best start-up consultants in the Pacific Northwest; perhaps the best. He was very good at what he did.

The Witt's End by Mail project had been very different from Caleb's usual ventures. For one thing, he wasn't accustomed to working with people who were as unsophisticated about business as Serenity obviously was. His usual clients were high-powered corporate executives who sent their lawyers to work out the terms of the contracts. He rarely, if ever, consulted with small, independent businesses the size of Witt's End Grocery. The owners of such firms couldn't afford him. Serenity was no exception. She couldn't pay his usual fees, either.

The only reason Caleb had taken Serenity on as a client in the first place was because she had caught his attention and piqued his admittedly jaded professional interest. He had been bored with his own highly successful career and with life in general for longer than he cared to remember. He recalled Serenity's initial letter of inquiry quite clearly. The scope of her plans had amused him.

Dear Mr. Ventress:

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Serenity Makepeace and I need your help to save my hometown, Witt's End, Washington.

You have probably never heard of Witt's End. It's located in the Cascade mountains, approximately an hour and a half drive from Seattle. It is home to a variety of artists, craftspeople, and others who need an environment that accepts and nurtures independent spirits who choose unconventional lifestyles.

I am well aware that I cannot afford your usual consulting fees, but I am prepared to offer you a share of the future profits.

My goal is to create a viable mail order business, an offshoot of my grocery store, that will provide an outlet for the unusual products of our local residents. I'm appealing to you, Mr. Ventress, because my community cannot survive much longer unless it is given a solid economic base.

I am aware that this project is probably very small and insignificant compared to the consulting projects you normally handle, but I urge you to take on the task. I'm told that you're very good at this kind of thing.

I am committed to saving my community. I believe that the world needs places like Witt's End, Washington, Mr. Ventress. They are the last frontier towns, the only communities left that are suited to those who do not fit in well with the modern urban landscape.

In a sense we all need places like Witt's End. And Witt's End needs you, Mr. Ventress.

Sincerely, Serenity Makepeace


On a whim, Caleb had invited Serenity for an interview. The day she had walked through the door three weeks ago, looking completely wrong in a conservative gray suit and matching one-inch heels, he knew he would be signing a contract with her.

He had taken Serenity by the hand, and she had followed his experienced lead with charming naiveté. If he'd really been trying to take advantage of her, he could have tied her up six ways from Sunday and she would never have had a clue. Instead, five minutes ago she had signed on the bottom line of what he considered a reasonably fair contract.

Of course, he had given himself a very large, very flexible escape clause, and left her with only one carefully controlled exit out of the deal; an exit that she would probably need a lawyer to find. Business was business, after all, and a contract was a contract. When it came to this part of his life, Caleb made it a habit to do things on his own terms or not at all.

His escape route was spelled out in section six of the contract. All he had to do was exercise it.

Caleb did not take his eyes off of Serenity as he absorbed the body blow she had just dealt him.

"What did you say?" he asked. There was virtually no chance that he had misunderstood her, but he had to make certain.

Serenity cleared her throat delicately. "I said someone is trying to blackmail me."

A dark rage ignited somewhere deep inside Caleb. It had been so long since he had last felt such a powerful emotion that he almost failed to recognize the hot anger for what it was. For an instant it threatened to overwhelm him.

"Damn it to hell." Caleb made no effort to tone down the savage edge that etched his words.

Serenity tilted her head to one side and studied him with a perplexed but very steady gaze. "Is something wrong?"

That was taking the element of charming naiveté a little too far, he thought in disgust. He wondered what he had ever seen in her. No one would have labeled her beautiful, he decided, making a desperate attempt to regain the cold, detached objectivity he had cultivated all of his life. Attractive, yes. Interesting, certainly. Amusing, even. But not beautiful.

Serenity's intelligent face was expressive and vivid. He had to admit that there was a natural elegance to her high cheekbones. He also conceded that there was something about her full mouth that made him think of sultry nights and damp, tangled sheets, even though this year's October was proving to be cool and crisp in Seattle.

No, she was not beautiful, but he had been riveted by her from the first moment she had walked into his office. He had wanted her.

God help him, he still wanted her.

"Under the circumstances, that's a rather idiotic question, don't you think?" Caleb muttered.

"I'm sorry," Serenity said politely. "I realize this has probably come as a surprise to you. It certainly has to me."

Caleb spread his fingers flat across the gleaming surface of his glass-and-steel desk. "Why would anyone blackmail you, Miss Makepeace?"

"I'm not sure." Her red brows drew together in a serious, considering expression. "It was the strangest thing. The pictures were addressed to me at my hotel this morning. There was a note with them that said copies would be sent to you if I didn't break off my business dealings with Ventress Ventures immediately."

"Pictures?" Caleb's insides tightened. Please, don't let it be what I think it's going to be."Of you?"

Serenity blushed but did not look away. "Yes."

"With someone?" Caleb made himself ask very carefully. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Maybe they were photos of her with a past lover. She was twenty-eight years old, he reminded himself. She was bound to have had a few affairs. He could handle that. He'd had a few of his own. Not many, but a few.

"No. The pictures are of me alone. They were taken about six months ago."

Caleb set his back teeth. "What, exactly, are you doing in these photos?"

"Nothing much. I'm just sort of lying around in most of them."

"Just sort of lying around." Caleb picked up a pen and tapped it very, very gently against the glass desktop. Ting, ting, ting. The noise grated on his ear.

"What makes the pictures suitable for blackmail purposes, Ms. Makepeace?"

"That's just the point. I don't think they are suitable for blackmail." Her lovely mouth curved ruefully. "But someone apparently believes that they're potentially damning. At least in your eyes."

"Why do you think someone might have that impression?"

Serenity shrugged with graceful nonchalance. The airy motion made her look even more out of place in the prim little gray suit. "I'm not exactly sure why anyone would think of them as blackmail material. I suppose it's because I'm not wearing much in any of them."

"Just how much are you wearing in the pictures?"

She touched the little griffin that hung from the chain around her throat. It was obvious that the pendant had originally been finished with an imitation gold overlay. The cheap veneer had since worn off in several places, allowing the inexpensive metal underneath to show through on the wings of the beast. "Mostly I'm just wearing this."

"Nude photos. Christ." Caleb threw down the pen and got to his feet. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his expensively tailored trousers and paced to the window.

Was this what it had been like for his family all those years ago? he wondered. He brushed the fleeting thought aside. He knew very well that the old scandal had been a a thousand times worse for his grandfather and the rest of the proud Ventress clan. After all, his father, Gordon Ventress, had been married when the photos of his mistress, Crystal Brooke, had been sent to Caleb's grandfather, Roland.

Crystal Brooke had been the stage name of the part-time model, would-be starlet, and full-time hustler who had gotten her bright red claws into the wealthy up-and-coming young politician from Ventress Valley, Washington.

Caleb had never known his mother Crystal, but he had been told a great deal about her during his youth. Her specialty had been nude spread shots for the sort of men's magazines that were not generally purchased because of the high quality of the articles.

When the evidence of his son's affair with Crystal Brooke had reached Roland Ventress, the ensuing explosion had rocked the conservative farm town of Ventress Valley. Toughened by, years of ranching, a stint in the military, and a streak of gritty stubbornness that ran in the family, Roland had flatly refused to pay the blackmail demand.

The anonymous blackmailer had promptly sent the pictures to the Ventress Valley News. The editor of the town's only newspaper had been feuding with Roland Ventress, at the time. He had gleefully printed a photo of Crystal that had been carefully cropped to make it suitable for a small-town paper. The accompanying editorial had fulminated against the declining morals and abysmal ethics of young Gordon Ventress. It had questioned his suitability for a seat in the state legislature.

The resulting scandal had ripped the family apart. Gordon's elegant, young wife, Patricia, raised in an old-money, East Coast family, had done her duty up to a point. She had bravely stood by her husband until word came that Crystal Brooke had a baby son. Gordon freely admitted to being the father.

The news that her husband had a child by his mistress proved to be too much for Patricia. Not even the sturdy notions of wifely fortitude and family loyalty that had been handed down to her by several generations of stalwart New England forebears could sustain her. She agreed to a divorce, the first in the history of the Ventress family.

After a stormy confrontation with Roland, Gordon had gone back to Los Angeles to be with Crystal. He vowed to marry her as soon as his divorce was final, but that weekend he and his mistress had both died in a fiery car crash.

The only survivor had been their three-month-old son, Caleb.

Roland Ventress had followed in the proud tradition of the Ventress family. He had done his duty by his unwanted heir. With the glaring exception of Caleb's father, the Ventresses always did their duty.

Roland went to Los Angeles to bury his only son and claim his grandson. He had grudgingly handled the arrangements for Crystal Brooke's burial also, simply because no one else had stepped forward to do it.

Roland had brought the infant Caleb home to Ventress Valley and informed his grieving wife, Mary, and the rest of the family, which consisted of his nephew Franklin and his niece Phyllis, that in spite of the scandal, the Ventresses would uphold their responsibilities to the boy. Caleb was, after all, Roland's only hope for the future.

Caleb had been dutifully raised and dutifully educated. He had been instructed in the duties and responsibilities that were expected of a Ventress.

And he had never been allowed to forget for one moment that he was the result of the scandalous affair that had brought disaster on the Ventress clan.

If it hadn't been for Caleb, everyone agreed, the scandal could have been dealt with eventually. Perhaps Crystal Brooke could have been bought off. Perhaps Gordon would have come to his senses and dropped his little bleached-blond mistress.

If it hadn't been for Caleb, everything would have been all right.

But Caleb existed.

The indomitable Roland came to terms with that fact. He had then set out to ensure that the bad blood the boy had inherited from his mother was not allowed to surface.

As for Caleb, he knew now that he had wasted most of his youth trying to satisfy a grandfather who viewed even the smallest of failures as evidence that Crystal Brooke's genes had not been successfully stamped out.

Looking back on it, Caleb knew that for the most part, things had been all right during the early years, when his grandmother had still been alive. Stricken as she was by her loss, Mary Ventress had eventually recovered sufficiently from her grief to refocus her natural maternal affections toward her grandson.

Mary had learned to love Caleb although she had never successfully concealed her hatred of the woman who had borne him. Whenever Caleb thought of his grandmother, he could not help but recall the sadness that had always been there, just beneath the surface. He had always known that somehow he was responsible for that deep anguish in Mary Ventress.

After her death eight years later, Roland had taken over the task of raising Caleb. Franklin and Phyllis had pitched in to help with the job. Both had been as concerned as Roland that young Caleb not be allowed to repeat his father's mistake.

Caleb was well aware that he had been paying for the cheap photos of his mother all of his life. He understood the realities of blackmail better than anyone else.

If there was one thing guaranteed to awaken the beast within him, it was blackmail. If there was one type of woman with whom he had vowed never to get involved, it was the sort who could be blackmailed because of sleazy nude photos, photos such as those that had been taken of his mother.

The realization that he had been planning to start an affair with Serenity Makepeace made Caleb want to smash the heavy glass top of his desk into a million glittering shards.

"Who took the pictures?" Caleb forced himself to speak in a remote, neutral tone. It wasn't easy. He wasn't accustomed to dealing with such fierce anger. But he'd had years of practice controlling all his emotions, and he'd gotten very good at that kind of thing.

He was good at a lot of things, he reflected bitterly.

Serenity looked momentarily confused by his question. "What do you mean? A photographer took the pictures, of course."

"What was the name of the photographer? Who was he working for?"

"Oh, I see what you mean," Serenity said. "His name is Ambrose Asterley. And he wasn't working for anyone, unfortunately. His career has been in the doldrums for years. At one time he was considered very good, though."

"Is that right?"

Serenity apparently missed the sarcasm. "Oh, yes. He actually worked in L.A. Hollywood, you know. That was years ago, however. I'm told he was on the way to the top. But poor Ambrose has a drinking problem. It's ruined his life."

She had posed naked for a cheap, washed-up drunk of a photographer. Caleb's hand closed into a fist. The pictures had no doubt been barely good enough for the raunchiest of the skin magazines. "I see."

"Ambrose has been doing a little better since he moved to Witt's End a few years ago," Serenity assured him earnestly. "He's made a couple of small sales, but he hasn't been able to get his career back on track. I felt sorry for him."

"That's why you posed for him? Because you felt sorry for him?"

"Yes. And because, whatever else one can say about Ambrose, there's no denying that he's a very gifted artist."

"Damn it to hell." Caleb stared down at Fourth Avenue, which lay twenty floors below his office window. Everything and everyone down there on the street seemed to be a long way off, just as most things did in his life these days. He preferred it this way. It made things simpler. At least it had until recently.

His carefully controlled emotional distance had initially been as a means of protecting himself from the silent accusation he had seen in the eyes of his grandparents and everyone else in the family. But lately it seemed to him that the detached, clinically remote feeling he had relied on for years was unaccountably growing stronger.

There were times recently when he felt as if he were starting to dematerialize. Ordinary life went on as usual around him, but he was only going through the motions, pretending he was part of what was happening, but knowing that in reality he was not really a participant, just an observer. Nothing touched him, and he was not sure that he could touch anything in turn.

It was as if he were becoming a ghost.

But Serenity Makepeace had reached out and grabbed him in some manner that Caleb was helpless to explain.

Emotions, strong, exciting, dangerous emotions, had begun to reemerge deep within him the day she walked into his office. The first thing he had felt was raw, energizing desire. It made him feel alive as nothing else had in ages.

Now he was experiencing rage.

He should have known that Serenity was too good to be true.

"Those photos must be very interesting, Ms. Makepeace," Caleb said. He thought of the old photos and newspaper clippings that were locked away in the little jewelry box that had belonged to his mother. Damning photos. The stuff of blackmail.

The jewelry box, a gaudy case encrusted with large, fake gems, was the only thing he had inherited from Crystal Brooke. Roland Ventress had given it to him on his eighteenth birthday along with yet another solemn warning not to make the same mistakes his father had made.

Caleb had opened the jewelry case only once. It had remained closed and hidden away ever since.

"Ambrose may have a drinking problem, but he's a talented photographer," Serenity said with what would have been touching loyalty under other circumstances. "The shots he took of me would be considered art by most people."

"Nude photos of you just sort of lying around? Give me a break. We're not talking about art, we're talking about the kind of shots that get published in cheap men's magazines."

"That's not true." She was clearly shocked by his uncompromising attitude. "The pictures were never published at all, but if they had been, I assure you it wouldn't have been in a tacky men's magazine. Ambrose's work is much too good for that kind of format. He deserves to be hung in the best galleries."

"He deserves to be hung, all right," Caleb muttered. "Look, you can drop the artistic outrage. I know exactly what kind of pictures Ambrose Asterley takes."

"You do?" She brightened. "Don't tell me you've actually seen his work?"

"Let's just say I'm familiar with the style. It's obvious that he has a talent for producing the kind of photos that can be used for blackmail."

"But these pictures aren't like that," she protested. "I'm trying to explain."

"I don't want any more of your damned explanations."

There was a moment of startled silence behind him as his words went home.

"So whoever sent the note was right," Serenity said slowly. "You don't approve of nude art photography. Does this mean you'll want to break off our business arrangements?"

"I'm going to have to think about it."

"I see."

He sensed her withdrawal, and the rage within him grew stronger. She was the cause of this, not him. "Tell me, Serenity, what other talents do you possess? Do you act as well as model?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I was just wondering if, by any chance, you've made a few films with Ambrose Asterley or some of his colleagues."

"Films?"

"You know the sort I mean. The kind that get shown in X-rated theaters. The kind that are displayed in the adults only section of the video stores."

"Good grief." Serenity was obviously affronted. "What are you accusing me of?"

"I'm not accusing you of anything." Caleb swung around and met her offended gaze. "You're the one who announced that she was being blackmailed because of a bunch of nude photos. I just wondered how wide-ranging your talents actually are."

"You think I'm some sort of porn film star?" Serenity leaped to her feet. She clutched her small briefcase to her like a shield. "That's ridiculous. Look at me. Do I look like a woman who could make a living that way?"

He studied her slender, delicate frame dispassionately. He was well aware that she lacked the plastic breasts and the aggressive sexuality that one associated with the models who graced the pages of cheap magazines and soft-porn films.

But there was a disturbing sensuality about Serenity that heated Caleb's blood whenever he was in the same room with her. It was an earthy, elemental thing that defied explanation. It was all too easy for him to envision her lying sleek and naked in some grassy meadow, her eyes full of feminine mischief, her mouth parted in invitation.

A jolting thought went through Caleb. A photo that actually succeeded in capturing Serenity's ethereal sensuality probably would be a work of art.

But those weren't the sort of pictures that got shot by a seedy, drunken has-been of a photographer who had once worked in L.A.

Caleb sucked in his breath. He could not stomach the thought that Serenity had posed for the kind of photos that could be used for blackmail purposes; photos like those that had destroyed his parents thirty-four years ago. He lashed out with the fury of a wounded beast.

"No, you probably wouldn't be much of a success as a porn star," Caleb said. "I suppose it's no surprise that Asterley failed to sell the pictures he took of you. You haven't got what it takes, have you?"

The blood rose into Serenity's cheeks. "I told you, Ambrose Asterley is an artist."

"You can call him anything you like."

"You don't understand."

"I understand very well, Serenity. It's simple when you get right down to the bottom of it. A few months ago you posed for some trashy photos, and now someone is trying to use them to blackmail you. I believe that about sums up the whole mess."

"The blackmail attempt can only succeed if you allow it to do so," she said quickly. "Caleb, don't you care that someone is trying to stop us from revitalizing Witt's End?"

"I don't really give a damn if somebody wants to halt the march of progress in Witt's End. From what you've told me about the inhabitants, your blackmailer could be any one of those misfit refugees from mainstream society that you've got living there. The point is, this isn't my problem. It's yours."

"It doesn't have to be a problem at all." Serenity gave him a pleading look. "I only told you about the pictures because I thought you should know about them. I certainly don't intend to let anyone blackmail me into dropping my plans for Witt's End."

"Bravo for you. I wish you the best of luck."

"Look, I'll find out who sent the photos and talk to him or her. I'm sure that whoever made the threat acted out of a fear of change. I can reassure the person that things will remain very much the same in Witt's End even if I do get the mail order business up and running."

"You're going to try to reason with a blackmailer?" Caleb asked, amazed at her naiveté.

"Why not? I know everyone in town." Serenity sighed. "It may have been Blade, although I can't imagine how he got hold of the photos."

Caleb scowled. "Blade? You mean that weird survivalist you told me about? The one who keeps a herd of rottweilers and drives around with AK-47s hung on his gun rack?"

"I don't think they're AK-47s," Serenity said doubtfully.

"What difference does it make? The guy's a nut case."

"Blade's okay. You just have to get to know him. He makes wonderful herbed vinegars. I think they'll sell very well in my catalog."

"The man sounds like a dangerous, freaked-out, paranoid idiot. You said yourself that he's convinced that some clandestine government organization is plotting to take over the country."

"It may not have been Blade," Serenity said in a gentling voice that implied she was accustomed to dealing with temperamental types. "It could just as easily have been someone else."

Caleb discovered that he did not like being soothed and calmed as if he were a restless stallion. "Look, there's no need to deal with the issue of who sent the pictures until I decide whether or not to continue as your business consultant."

Serenity's fair skin turned even paler, highlighting the sprinkling of freckles on her nose and cheeks. She searched his face. "I can't believe you'd quit because of this."

Caleb's brows rose. "Anyone who knows me will tell you that I've always maintained certain standards in my business dealings. I don't intend to lower those standards now."

Serenity looked as if he'd just poured ice water on her. For the first time anger flashed in her eyes. "This is incredible. I had no idea you were such an arrogant, self-righteous prig."

Caleb folded his arms across his chest. "I had no idea you were the type of woman who posed nude for fifth-rate photographers."

"How dare you say such things. You know nothing about me or the pictures." Serenity took two steps back toward the door. "Do you know something? I actually liked you, Caleb. I thought you were nice."

"Nice?" Damn it to hell, Caleb thought. For some reason that was the last straw. "You thought I was nice?"

"Well, yes." Serenity's brilliant eyes filled with uncertainty. "You seemed so interested in my ideas for Witt's End. So helpful. I thought you were as concerned about the future of the community as I am."

"Witt's End can rot for all I care." For once in his life, Caleb did not stop to think about his next actions. He started toward Serenity with grim intent.

For nearly a month he had been suffering the torments of unsatisfied desire. He had consoled himself with his burgeoning plans for an affair, confident that Serenity was as attracted to him as he was to her. Now it was all coming apart and that knowledge clawed at his insides.

Serenity stood her ground, briefcase hugged protectively to her breasts. "Just what do you think you're doing?"

"Correcting a false impression." Caleb came to a halt in front of her. He lifted his hands, gripped her shoulders and jerked her close. "I wouldn't want you to go away thinking I'm a nice guy, Ms. Makepeace."

He took her mouth, crushing her soft, full lips beneath his own. The anger and the despair boiling within him was instantly channeled into the kiss. He felt Serenity tremble under the onslaught, but she did not try to pull away.

For a few seconds she stood stiffly within his rough embrace. She seemed more startled than frightened. Caleb knew he was destroying something important, something he had wanted very much to protect. The realization drove him to do a thorough job of it. He was, after all, a very thorough man.

His fingers tightened around Serenity's shoulders.

He could feel her teeth as he dragged his mouth across hers. It was the first time he had kissed her, and it would no doubt be the last. The anguished rage within him transformed itself into a fierce passion that shook him to the very center of his being.

He tried to drown himself in the taste of Serenity, tried to fix the imprint of her against his body so that he could take out the memory of it five, ten, or twenty years hence and examine it.

Caleb deepened the kiss, easing Serenity's lips apart. He was ravenous for her. At any moment she would wrench herself out of his grasp and out of his life. This was all he was ever going to get.

Something very heavy crashed down onto the highly polished toes of Caleb's shoes. He winced. Serenity had dropped her briefcase.

Dazed by the torrent of emotions pouring through him, Caleb lifted his mouth from hers. He had to let her go.

"Not, not yet." Serenity wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his lips back down on hers.

Before Caleb realized what she intended, Serenity was kissing him back with a heady intensity that sent shock waves through him and drove out all thoughts of the past or of the future. She wanted him. In that moment it was suddenly all that mattered.

Caleb lowered his hands to her small waist and started to lift her up against his heavily aroused body.

"That's enough." Serenity tore her mouth free and removed her arms from around his neck. She leaned back and pushed against his chest.

"Let me go, Caleb. I've changed my mind. You're not very nice at all." Her eyes glowed with anger and passion. "You've ruined everything. Everything. How could you do this? I thought we understood each other. I thought we could trust each other."

He could not seem to breathe. "Damn it, Serenity."

"I said, let go of me." She tugged at his hands.

Caleb released her. Serenity reached down, scooped up her briefcase and ran for the door. She opened it and bolted through the opening into the outer office. Caleb's secretary, Mrs. Hotten, looked up, startled.

"Serenity, wait." Caleb started forward.

"I wouldn't wait one single minute for you, Caleb Ventress." Serenity whirled around to face him.

"What are you going to do?" he demanded.

"First, I'm going to track down the blackmailer. And then I'm going to find myself another business consultant. One who doesn't feel that he has to maintain such impeccable standards."

Serenity swung around again and stalked past Mrs. Hotten's desk. She wrenched open the outer door and vanished into the hall.

She was leaving.

Acting on blind instinct rather than logic, Caleb followed her.

The phone rang shrilly on Mrs. Hotten's desk. She snatched up the receiver. "Ventress Ventures." She paused for a few short seconds. "Yes, Mrs. Tarrant. He's right here. Please hold."

Caleb gained the entrance and looked out into the hall. It was too late to catch Serenity. The elevator doors were already closing on her. "Damn."

"Mr. Ventress?" Mrs. Hotten cleared her throat anxiously. "It's your aunt."

Caleb closed his eyes for an instant and took a deep, steadying breath. The family was calling. Mrs. Hotten knew that he was always available to any member of the Ventress clan.

The sense of detached calm slowly returned. He was once more a remote, untouchable ghost in a realm where there were no dangerous emotions, no burning passions, no uncontrollable desires. He was safe. He was in control. Nothing could reach him here in this place where he was spending more and more of his time.

"I'll take the call in my office."

"Yes, sir."

There was an odd expression in Mrs. Hotten's normally placid, efficient, middle-aged gaze. Caleb had never seen that look before. Belatedly he realized it was sympathy.

Annoyed, Caleb ignored her to walk back into his inner sanctum.

He leaned across the desk and picked up the phone. "Good afternoon, Aunt Phyllis. Is there something I can do for you?" As always when he spoke to any of the family, he kept his voice deliberate and very, very polite.

"Good afternoon, Caleb." Phyllis's brisk, nononsense voice came crisply over the line. "I called to make certain you haven't forgotten the annual Ventress Valley Charity Drive. It's that time of year, I'm afraid, and we Ventresses must do our part."

She was fifty-nine years old, and she had made a career out of sitting on the boards of every major charity in Ventress Valley. As one of Gordon Ventress's cousins, she was not technically Caleb's aunt, but he had always addressed her by that title. In a similar fashion, he had always called his father's other cousin, Franklin, uncle.

"I haven't forgotten, Aunt Phyllis. I'll make the usual family contribution."

"Yes, of course. The community depends upon us, you know."

"I know."

The Ventresses, had been one of the most influential families in Ventress valley for four generations. As the heir apparent to Roland's lands and fortune, Caleb had taken control of the Ventress investments, most of which had originally been in land, but now were carefully diversified, soon after he had graduated from college. The family income had promptly doubled and then tripled under his management.

Roland still interfered whenever he felt the urge, of course. He would never really retire, and everyone knew it. But more often than not these days he was content to oversee his Arabian stud farm and leave the family finances to Caleb. Franklin and Phyllis never failed to make their opinions on financial matters known, and their offspring occasionally offered advice. But for all practical purposes, Caleb was in charge of the Ventress inheritance.

No one had ever actually thanked Caleb or shown any particular sign of gratitude for his efforts on their behalf. The entire family simply took it for granted that Caleb was merely doing what was expected of him.

"Well, then, that takes care of that," Phyllis said. "Now, when shall we expect you on Saturday?"

"I'm not certain. Probably around noon." Saturday was Roland Ventress's eighty-second birthday. Caleb had never missed a single one of his grandfather's annual celebrations since the day he had been brought home to Ventress Valley. Caleb made it a point to be very faithful to all family rituals.

"Very well, we'll expect you at noon." Phyllis hesitated. "Last week you mentioned you might bring a guest."

"I've changed my mind."

"I see. Does this mean that lovely Miss Learson won't be coming with you?"

"I'm no longer seeing Miss Learson."

The affair had ended three months ago by mutual agreement and with no hard feelings on either side. Susan Learson was the daughter of a successful California industrialist. She was poised, sophisticated, and charming, but Caleb had made it clear from the outset that he was not thinking of marriage.

Susan had been satisfied with the arrangement for nearly a year. Through Caleb she had met a variety of interesting and eligible men, and eventually fell in love with one of them, the CEO of a mid-sized Seattle company. She was planning to be married at Christmas. Caleb wished her well.

He had missed Susan for a time after the relationship had ended, and he thought of her now with a sense of remote affection. He knew his grandfather and the rest of the family missed her a lot more than he did. Roland was desperate to see Caleb married, desperate to know that the family would continue into another generation.

Caleb knew that the old man was beginning to wonder if his grandson's failure to find a suitable wife was more than just bad luck. He was starting to view it as a subtle form of revenge on Caleb's part, or proof, perhaps, that Crystal Brooke's bad blood had finally surfaced.

Caleb had not bothered to disabuse Roland of that notion, because he was not altogether certain it wasn't true. The only thing he was sure of was that a wife would demand more of him than any ghost had to give.

There was a distinct pause as Phyllis digested the fact that Susan Learson had gone the way of the small, select handful of other women who had been involved with Caleb over the years.

"It's unfortunate that you're no longer seeing her." Phyllis's tone was laced with censure. "Your grandfather was quite taken with her."

"I know."

"She reminded me a bit of Patricia, your father's wife. Excellent family. Good breeding. Miss Learson would have made you a very suitable wife."

"No doubt." If I was looking for a wife, which I'm not.

"What happened between the two of you?" Phyllis demanded, sounding exasperated. "I thought you liked her."

"I did. I do. But it's over."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Your grandfather won't be pleased."

Caleb had had enough of blackmail ploys for one day. "That won't exactly be a new experience for him, will it? Good-bye, Aunt Phyllis."

He hung up the phone and gazed thoughtfully at the receiver.

It seemed to him that his whole life had been shaped by blackmail. Hell, he was a pro at dealing with it.

Something told him that Serenity Makepeace was not.

She'd left his office determined to find the blackmailer who had destroyed her hopes and dreams for Witt's End.

She was no doubt headed for trouble, and, like it or not, she was still officially his client. They had both signed that damned contract.

Caleb picked up the phone and then slowly replaced the receiver. It was not his way to do anything without giving it a lot of thought beforehand.

He made himself contemplate the matter for another half hour. Then he slowly and deliberately dialed the hotel where Serenity stayed when she came to Seattle to meet with him.

The front desk clerk was brief and to the point. "I'm sorry, sir," he said, not sounding sorry at all. "She just checked out."

Copyright ©1993 by Jayne Ann Krentz

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 31, 2011

    good read but ...

    j. a.k. is a great author and i really enjoyed this book. but the editor really let her down. i'm willing to overlook a couple of typos, but there are too many to overlook. i hope her next editor takes better care of her.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 23, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Great Read

    I am happy to see Krentz does stand alones as well as her series. This was a great read. Serenity comes across as the typical flower child, but her town is full of even more unique individuals. Fun, off the wall, kind and varied, it's easy to see how she comes by her personality. Caleb is very controlled and strikes you as strong, yet underneath of it is desperately unhappy and unfulfilled. Throughout each goes on a journey of family and discovery. As well as blackmail, murder, stalking, old scandals, romance and more. I loved how the characters were so well developed and many played out an almost subplot, adding to the story's richness. I laughed often, felt pity in others, and as always with her work intrigued. I finished it in one day because I couldn't put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2009

    It was supberb

    i really loved this book. a freind gave it to me for my birthday. And i couldnt put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2003

    Romance and Great!

    I loved this book. Reading about this very small wonderful little town where everyone knows everyone it just really warms your heart. A lot of romance and very special moments.

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