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Meg was already out of humor when she went to answer the phone. She'd been in the middle of her exercises at the bar, and she hated interruptions that diverted her concentration. An injury had forced her into this temporary hiatus at her family home in Wichita, Kansas. It was hard enough to do the exercises in the first place with a damaged ligament in her ankle. It didn't help her mood when she picked up the receiver and found one of Steven Ryker's women on the other end of the line.
Steven, the president of Ryker Air, had been playing tennis all afternoon with Meg's brother, David. He'd obviously forwarded his calls here. It irritated Meg to have to talk to his women friends at all. But then, she'd always been possessive about Steven Ryker; long before she left Wichita for New York to study ballet.
"Is Steve there?" a feminine voice demanded.
Another in a long line of Steve's corporate lovers, no doubt, Meg thought angrily. Well, this one was going to become a lost cause. Right now.
"Who's calling, please?" Meg drawled.
There was a pause. "This is Jane. Who are you?"
"I'm Meg," she replied pertly, trying not to laugh.
"Oh." The voice hesitated. "Well, I'd like to speak to Steve, please."
Meg twirled the cord around her finger and lowered her voice an octave. "Darling?" she purred, her lips close to the receiver. "Oh, darling, do wake up. It's Jane, and she wants to speak to you."
There was a harsh intake of breath on the other end of the line. Meg stifled a giggle, because she could almost read the woman's mind. Her blue eyes twinkled in her soft oval face, framed by pale blond hair drawn into a disheveled bun atop her head.
"I have never !" An outraged voice exploded in her ear.
"Oh, you really should, you know," Meg interrupted, sighing theatrically. "He's so marvelous in bed! Steven, darling ?"
The phone was slammed in her ear loud enough to break an eardrum. Meg put a slender hand over her mouth as she replaced the receiver in its cradle. Take that, Steven, she thought.
She turned and walked gingerly back into the room David had converted from the old ballroom into a practice room for his sister. It didn't get a lot of use, since she was in New York most of the year now, but it was a wonderfully thoughtful extravagance on her brother's part. David, like Meg, had shares in Ryker Air. David was a vice president of the company as well. But the old family fortune had been sacrificed by their late father in an attempt to take over the company, just before his death. He'd lost, and the company had very nearly folded. Except for the uncanny business acumen of Steven Ryker, it would have. Steve pulled the irons out of the fire and made the company solvent. He owned most of it now. And he should, Meg thought charitably. Heaven knew, he'd worked hard enough for it all these years.
As she exercised, Meg felt wicked. She shouldn't have caused Steve problems with his current love. They hadn't been engaged for four years, and she'd long ago relinquished the right to feel possessive about him.
Pensively she picked up her towel and wrapped it around her long, graceful neck, over the pink leotard she wore with her leg warmers and her pitiful-looking toe shoes. She stared down at them ruefully. They were so expensive that she had to wear her old ones for practice, and anyone seeing her in them would be convinced that she was penniless. That was almost the truth. Because despite the shares of stock she held in Ryker Airthe company that Steven's father and Meg and David's father had founded jointlyMeg was practically destitute. She was only a minor dancer in the New York ballet company she'd joined just a year ago, after three years of study with a former prima ballerina who had a studio in New York. She had yet to perform her first solo role. Presumably when she passed that landmark, she'd be higher paid, more in demand. Unless she missed a jump, that was, as she had a week ago. The memory was painful, like her ankle. That sort of clumsiness wasn't going to get her any starring roles. And now she had the added worry of getting her damaged tendon back in shape. The exercise, recommended and outlined by a physical therapist, was helping. But it was torturously slow, and very painful, to exercise those muscles. It had to be done carefully, too, so that she wouldn't damage them even further.
She went back into her disciplined exercises with a determined smile still on her face. She tried to concentrate on fluidity of movement and not the inevitable confrontation when Steve found out what she'd said to his girlfriend. Her whole life seemed to have been colored by him, since she was fourteen and their fathers had become business partners. Her father had worshiped Steven from the beginning. So had David. But Meg had hated him on sight.
For the first few years, she'd fought him tooth and nail, not bothering to hide her animosity. But on the eve of her eighteenth birthday, things had changed between them quite suddenly. He'd given her a delicate pearl necklace and she'd kissed him for it, a little shyly. Except that she'd missed his lean cheek and found his hard, rough mouth instead.
In all fairness, he'd been every bit as shocked as Meg. But instead of pulling away and making a joke of it, there had quite suddenly been a second kiss; one that couldn't be mistaken for anything but a passionate, almost desperate exchange. When it ended, neither of them had spoken. Steven's silver eyes had flashed dangerously and he'd left the room abruptly, without saying a single word.
But that kiss had changed the way they looked at each other. Their relationship had changed, too. Reluctantly, almost helplessly, Steven had started taking her out on dates and within a month, he proposed marriage. She'd wanted ballet so much by that time that despite her raging desire and love for Steve, she was torn between marriage and dancing. Steven, apparently sensing that, had turned up the heat. A long bout of lovemaking had almost ended in intimacy. Steven had lost control and his unbounded ardor had frightened Meg. An argument had ensued, and he'd said some cruel things to her.
That same evening, after their argument, Steven had taken his former mistress, Daphne, out on the town very publicly, and an incriminating photo of the couple had appeared in the society column of the daily newspaper the next day.
Meg had been devastated. She'd cried herself to sleep. Rather than face Steven and fight for a relationship with him, she'd opted to leave and go to New York to study ballet.
Like a coward, Meg had run. But what she'd seen spoke for itself and her heart was broken. If Steven could go to another woman that quickly, he certainly wasn't the type to stay faithful after he was married. Steven had been so ardent that it was miraculous she was still a virgin, anyway.
All of those facts raised doubts, the biggest one being that Steven had probably only wanted to marry her to keep all the stock from the partnership in the family. It had seemed quite logical at the time. Everyone knew how ambitious Steven was, and he and his father hadn't been too happy at some of the changes Meg's father had wanted to make at the time of the engagement.
Meg had gone to New York on the first plane out of Wichita, to be met by one of her mother's friends and set up in a small apartment near the retired prima ballerina with whom she would begin her studies.
Nicole, meanwhile, met Steve for coffee and explained that Meg had left town. Afterward, Meg heard later, Steven had gotten roaring drunk for the first, last and only time in his life. An odd reaction for a man who only wanted to marry her for her shares of stock, and who'd thrown her out of his life. But Steven hadn't called or written, and he never alluded to the brief time they'd spent as a couple. His behavior these days was as cold as he'd become himself.
Steve hadn't touched her since their engagement. But his eyes had, in a way that made her knees weak. It was a good thing that she spent most of her time in New York. Otherwise, if she'd been around Steven very much, she might have fallen headlong into an affair with him. She wouldn't have been able to resist him, and he was experienced enough to know that. He'd made sure that she kept her distance and he kept his. But the lingering passion she felt for him hadn't dimmed over the years. It was simply buried, so that it wouldn't interfere with her dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. She'd forced herself to settle; she'd chosen not to fight for his love. Her life since had hardly been a happy one, but she told herself that she was content.
Steve still came to the Shannon house to see David, and the families got together at the annual company picnics and benefits. These days, the family meant Steven and his mother and Meg and her brother David, because the older Shannons were dead now.
Mason Ryker, Steven's father, and John and Nicole Shannon had died in the years since Meg went to New York; Mason of a heart attack, and John and Nicole in a private-plane crash the very year Meg had left Wichita. Amy Ryker was as protective of Meg as if she'd been her mother instead of Steve's, but she lived in West Palm Beach now and only came home when she had to. She and Steven had never really been able to bear each other's company.
Steven had women hanging from the chandeliers, from what Amy told Meg on the occasions when she came to New York to watch Meg dance. He was serious about none of them, and there had never been a whisper of a serious commitment since his brief engagement to Meg.
Meg herself had become buried in her work. All she lived and breathed was the dance. The hours every day of grueling practice, the dieting and rigid life-style she lived made relationships difficult if not impossible. She often thought she was a little cold as a woman. Since Steven, she'd never felt her innocence threatened. Men had dated her, of course, but she was too conscious of the dangers to risk the easy life-styles some of the older dancers had once indulged in. These days, a one-night stand could be life-threatening. Besides, Meg thought sadly, only Steven had ever made her want intimacy. Her memories of him were devastating sometimes, despite the violent passion he'd shown her the last time they'd been together.
She stretched her aching muscles, and her mind wandered back to the mysterious Jane who'd telephoned. Who the hell was Jane? she wondered,and what did Steven want with someone who could speak that haughtily over the phone? She pictured a milky little blonde with a voluptuous figure and stretched even harder.
It was time to take off the lean roast and cottage potatoes she was cooking for supper by the time David walked in the door, still in his tennis outfit, looking as pleasant and jovial as ever. He had the same coloring his sister had, but he was shorter and a little broader than she.
He grinned at her. "Just thought I might mention that you're in it up to your neck. Steve got a call while we were at his house, and your goose is about to be cooked."
She stopped dead in the hall as Steven Ryker walked in behind her brother. Steve was a little over six feet tall, very dark and intimidating. He reminded her of actors who played mobsters, because he had the same threatening look about him, and even a deep scar down one cheek. It had probably been put there by some jealous woman in his checkered past, she thought venomously, but it gave him a rakish look. Even his eyes were unusual. They were a cross between ice blue and watered gray, and they could almost cut the skin when they looked as they did at the moment. The white shorts he was wearing left the muscular length of his tanned, powerful legs bare. A white knit shirt did the same for his arms. He was incredibly fit for a man on the wrong side of thirty who sat at a desk all day.
Right now he looked very casual, dressed in his tennis outfit, and that was the most deceptive thing about him. He was never casual. He always played to win, even at sports. He was also the most sensuous, sexy man she'd ever known. Or ever would. Just looking at him made her weak-kneed. She hid her reaction to him as she always had, in humor.
"Ah, Steven." Meg sighed, batting her long eyelashes at him.
"How lovely to see you. Did one of your women die, or is there some simpler reason that we're being honored by your presence?"
"Pardon me while I go out back and skin a rock," David mumbled with a grin, diving quickly past his sister in a most un-gentlemanly way to get out of the line of fire.
"Coward!" she yelled after him as the door slammed.
"You wouldn't need protection if you could learn to keep your mouth shut, Mary Margaret," Steven said with a cool smile.
"I'd had my calls forwarded here while I was playing tennis. Jane couldn't believe what she'd heard, so she telephoned my home again and got me. It so happened David and I had stopped back by the house to look at a new painting I'd bought. I canceled the call forwarding just in timeor I might have been left in blissful ignorance."
She glared at him. "It was your own fault.You don't have to have your women telephone you here!"
The glitter in his eyes got worse. "Jealous, Meg?" he taunted. "Of you? God forbid,"she said as casually as she could,and with a forced smile. "Of course I do remember vividly the wonderful things you can do with your hands and those hard lips, darling, but I'm quite urbane these days and less easily impressed."
"Careful," he warned softly."You may be more vulnerable than you realize."
She backed down. "Anyway," she muttered, "why don't you just take Jane Thingamabob out for a steak and warm her back up again?"
"Jane Dray is my mother's maiden aunt," he said after a minute, watching her reaction with amusement. "You might remember her from the last company picnic?"
Meg did, with horror. The old dowager was a people-eater of the first order, who probably still wore corsets and cursed modern transportation. "Oh, dear," she began.
"She is now horrified that her favorite great-nephew is sleeping with little Meggie Shannon, who used to be such a sweet, innocent child."
"Oh, my God," Meg groaned, leaning against the wall.
"Yes. And she'll more than likely rush to tell your great-aunt Henrietta, who will feel obliged to write to my mother in West Palm Beach and tell her the scandalous news that you are now a scarlet woman. And my mother, who always has preferred you to me, will naturally assume that I seduced you, not the reverse."