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"Damn it, Julia, answer the phone," the deep voice growled into the answering machine, and Julia Prentice winced when the caller hung up a moment later.
She'd been dodging Max Rolland's phone calls for two months now, and he still hadn't given up and gone away. Not that he was stalker material or anything, Julia reassured herself. No, he was just an angry male looking for an explanation of why she'd been refusing his calls since their one amazingly sexy night together.
The reason was simple, of course. She hadn't been able to think of a way to tell him she was pregnant.
"Whoa." Julia's roommate and best friend, Amanda Crawford, event planner extraordinaire, walked out of her bedroom. "He sounds royally pissed off."
"I know." Julia sighed. And she could even admit that Max had a right to be angry. She would have been, too, if she'd been in his shoes.
Amanda crossed to her, gave her a brief hug, then said, "You've got to tell him about the baby."
Sounded good in theory, Julia thought as she dropped into the closest chair. She looked up at her friend and saw the gleam of sympathy in Amanda's gray eyes. "How'm I supposed to do that?"
"Just say the words." Amanda sat down, making their gazes level, which she pretty much had to do all the time. Julia was short, at five feet two inches, and Amanda was eight inches taller. Built like a model, Amanda had short, choppy blond hair, beautiful gray eyes and a loyal heart.
"Easier said than done," Julia said, smoothing one hand over the sharp crease in her pale green linen slacks.
"You can't wait forever, honey," Amanda told her. "Sooner or later, you're going to show."
"Believe me," Julia said, "I know. But that night I spent with him was an aberration. I mean, things got all hot and heavy so quickly I didn't have time to think and then the deed was done and Max was telling me he wasn't interested in anything more than a mutually satisfying sexual relationship."
"Idiot," Amanda offered.
"Thanks for that." Julia smiled. "Anyway it seemed that that was the end of it, you know? Max wanted uncomplicated sex and I wanted more."
"Of course you did."
She dropped her head against the chair back and stared up at the ceiling. "Now everything's different and I don't know what to do."
"Yeah, you do. You just don't want to do it."
"I suppose." Blowing out a breath, Julia said, "He deserves to know about the baby."
"Fine. I'll tell him tomorrow." Decision made, Julia actually felt a little better about things. After all, it wasn't as if she was going to ask Max to be involved in his child's life or even to pay child support. She could afford to raise her baby on her own. So, all she had to do was break the news of impending fatherhood, then let him off the proverbial hook.
"Why have I been obsessing about this?"
"Because you're you," Amanda said, smiling. She gave her friend's knee a pat. "You overthink everything, honey. You always have."
"Well," Julia said wryly, "don't I sound exciting?"
Amanda laughed. "Hey, don't knock it. You over-think and I act on impulse too often. We've all got our crosses to bear."
"True. And it's time to pick up yet another cross." Julia pushed herself out of the chair, then tugged at the hem of her white linen blouse. "I've got to go to that residents' meeting."
"I really wish you could come with me," she said.
"Not me, thanks," Amanda countered. "I'm meeting a friend for dinner, where I will have a lot more fun than you will tonight. Personally, I'm glad to be only a roommate, with no place at those meetings. I'd be bored to tears in ten minutes."
Sighing, Julia said, "Five."
Julia checked the slim, gold watch on her wrist and just barely managed to stifle a sigh. The residents' meeting in Vivian Vannick-Smythe's apartment hadn't even started, and already she was wishing she could leave.
She felt as though her insides were twisted into taut knots that kept getting tighter. Despite that talk with Amanda, the tension gripping Julia felt as tight as ever. She could hardly remember ever feeling calm.
This whole thing with Max had gone on too long. She was just going to have to face him and tell him the truth. Tomorrow, she promised herself, she would call him, arrange to meet and drop the bombshell in his lap. Then, duty done, she could go back to her life secure in the knowledge that a man so dead set on avoiding any kind of emotional attachment wouldn't be bothering her again.
"You look bored," a soft, female voice said from beside her.
Julia smiled in spite of her thoughts and shifted a glance at Carrie Gray. The woman's green eyes were hidden behind a pair of too-practical glasses, and her long, chestnut hair was pulled into a high ponytail at the back of her head. She wore jeans, a T-shirt and sandals that showed off a dark red pedicure. Carrie was officially a house sitter for Prince Sebastian Stone in 12B, but she was also a talentedthough currently un-employedgraphic designer and a good friend.
"Not bored," Julia whispered, leaning toward her, "just preoccupied."
Hard to keep your mind on what was happening in the apartment building when it was already focused on something far more profound. Far more personal.
"Anything I can do to help?" Carrie asked.
"No," Julia said, knowing no one but her could handle the situation she found herself in. Still, she added, "Thanks, anyway. I appreciate it. Anything new with you?"
"Just working. Or trying to," Carrie grumbled.
Julia smiled, instantly understanding. "Still getting Trent's drop-bys?"
Carrie rolled her eyes, pushed her glasses up to rest on top of her head and said, "It's a nightmare, Julia. Trent Tanford must spend every spare minute trolling for women, because they're trooping down my hall night and day."
Trent was a notorious playboy. A favorite of the gossip rags, he had a new woman every other day. And those women continually made their way to 721 Park Avenue.
"I swear," Carrie said in a hiss, "these women are all looks, no brains. They keep ringing my doorbell, thinking it's Trent's place. What? They can't tell the difference between 12B and 12C? Tanford doesn't date women who can read?"
Chuckling, Julia just patted her friend's hand and turned back to listen to the rest of the meeting. At least half listen. Hard to concentrate on resident business when her mind was racing in circles.
Julia glanced around 12A, the Vannick-Smythe apartment, and as always, couldn't find an ounce of taste in the place. Everything was cluttered to the point of chaos. It was so gaudy, Julia's eyes hurt just looking around. So expensively tacky, it was impossible to get comfortable there. Which was probably a good thing. Since no one was at ease in the apartment, these terminally boring meetings never seemed to last long.
Just at that moment, Vivian Vannick-Smythe herself, the de facto leader of the residents' groupsince no one else wanted the jobclapped her hands to get every-one's attention. In her early sixties, Vivian had been Botoxed within an inch of her life and as a result, her thin face was nearly expressionless. Only her icy blue eyes snapped with emotion. She was very thin, dressed in stylish, classic lines, had short, elegantly cut silver hair and the bearing of a military officer.
Thankfully, tonight Vivian had corralled her two shih tzus, Louis and Neiman, in her bedroom. But even the heavy door separating the twin terrors from the meeting didn't completely muffle their frantic barks and yips.
"I thought," Vivian said once she had everyone's attention, "that before we actually begin the meeting, we should have a moment or two of silence for Marie Endicott. I didn't know her well myself, but she was, however briefly, one of us."
Obediently, the restive room fell silent as each of them supposedly focused on the death only the week before of a young woman who'd lived in the building. Julia and Marie had been no more than nodding acquaintances, but Marie's death in a fall from the roof had made quite an impact on everyone's lives.
Newspaper and television reporters had been staking out the front of the building for days, harassing residents, scrambling for quotes or, better yet, some hint of scandal.
"Do we have any more information on what exactly happened to her?" Tessa Banks, a slender blonde, was the first to speak after the silence.
"Good question." Elizabeth Wellington spoke up next. "I actually heard a few of the reporters saying that the police think Marie might have been pushed off the roof."
"That's just speculation," Vivian assured her.
"Did anyone find a suicide note?" Carrie called out.
"Not that I know of," Vivian said, frowning a little. "The police aren't very forthcoming with information, after all. But I'm sure none of us has anything to worry about and soon enough, this tragedy will be supplanted in the news with something else."
True enough, Julia thought as her fellow residents continued to talk and wonder aloud about Marie Endicott. In a few days, the reporters would give up and go away and life would go back to the ordinary.
Well, not for her.
"I have a couple of other announcements," Vivian proclaimed, her voice easily carrying over the rumble of mixed conversations. "I'm sorry to tell you all that Senator and Mrs. Kendrick, long-time residents of 721, have moved. I'm not sure where, but I believe they're somewhere in the city. Their co-op is officially for sale."
More rumbling, more conversations, and Julia slid her glance across the small crowd gathered there. Gage Lattimer sat off by himself, no surprise there. A tall, gorgeous man, he rarely attended these meetings and when he did, as now, he didn't mingle.
Reed Wellington, Elizabeth's husband, sat beside her, but his scowl made it clear he wasn't happy to be there. Elizabeth, too, was holding herself stiffly, her body language declaring she'd rather be anywhere else.
Tessa was tapping the toe of her shoe against the carpet, and even Carrie, beside Julia, was beginning to fidget. Julia, though, had been trained by enough nannies to know how to sit still when you wanted to move. To know how to keep your emotions from showing on your face. To know how to bottle up everything inside, where no one could see.
"Just one more item now, if you'll all give me your attention," Vivian said. "I have an announcement. It's very exciting and I'm sure you'll all be as pleased as I was to hear." She waited until everyone was focused on her before she gave them all a tight smile and said, "I've recently been informed that our home721 Park Avenueis up for Historical Landmark status!" She waited for a buzz of excitement that didn't come, then frowning, said, "I think we should have a party to celebrate!"
As Vivian moved around the room, talking to people, trying to spur enthusiasm for her celebration, Julia edged her way to the door. Carrie had already beaten her to a quick exit, but Julia would be right behind her.
Stopping dead, Julia turned, a practiced smile on her face as she greeted Vivian. "Hello, Vivian. The meeting went well."
"Yes, it did, didn't it?" The older woman tried to smile, but her too-tight skin simply wouldn't allow it. "Forgive me if I'm intruding, my dear, but you look troubled. Is everything all right?"
Surprised, since Vivian wasn't exactly known for her interest in anyone besides herself, Julia took a moment or two to answer. "Thanks for asking, Vivian," she said, forcing a smile she didn't feel, "but I'm fine. Just tired, I think. And this sad situation with Marie Endicott has us all feeling the strain."
"Oh, of course." Vivian nodded and her sleek, silver bob hardly moved. "Poor woman. I can't imagine what must have been on her mind to jump from the roof like that."
"So you do think it was a suicide?" Julia asked.
"Surely you do, too." Vivian looked at her for a long moment. "Why, anything else would be too distressing. Imagine. If she were pushed off the roof, one of us might have done it."
Julia hadn't really thought of it in those terms, but now that the seed had been planted, she shivered as she sent another glance at the people who lived in her building. Vivian was right. Julia couldn't imagine any of them being a killer. Marie must have jumped. Which was a sad thought. How horrible to feel so alone, so miserable, that your only solution was to end your life.
"Now I've upset you," Vivian said. "Not my intention at all."
She had, but Julia didn't want to talk about this anymore, so she smiled more brightly and said, "Not at all. But I am tired. So if you'll excuse me "
"Certainly," Vivian said, already looking past Julia to someone else in the room. "You go on home now."
Julia did just that, hurrying her steps down the hall to the elevator. When the doors opened and she stepped inside, she simply stared at the row of floor numbers. She should go home, she knew, but Amanda was out somewhere and Julia didn't really want to sit by herself and listen to silence. So on impulse, she hit the ground-floor button and leaned back against the elevator wall as the doors swished shut and the motor engaged.
Tugging her small designer bag higher on her shoulder, Julia stepped out of the elevator at the lobby and quickly crossed the ivory marble floor. A scattering of Oriental rugs in bright colors softened the cool sterility of the marble and muted the click of her heeled sandals as she walked.
The muted blue walls of the lobby were dotted with expensive artwork and mirrors with elegantly ornate, gold-rimmed frames.