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Brooke's head hurt. Her heart felt as if it were stampeding through her chest. And all she could see was darkness.
The mix of sounds—a phone ringing a few rooms away, a woman laughing, a muted television—negated the idea that she was dead. Unless, of course, her personal hell meant being forced to listen to the sports channel for the rest of time.
She took stock. She was horizontal with tiny lumps of knotted carpet digging into the skin at the back of her bare arms and calves. Her eyes were closed, hence the general darkness, though it was daytime. She could tell by the blood-red colour filtering through the thin skin of her eyelids.
If she just opened her eyes she would know where she was. But a little voice in the back of her head warned her she wouldn't like it if she did.
Maybe she ought to just lie there for a little while. Blissfully ignorant. Since wherever she was, it was cool. Nobody was hollering at her to take them to soccer practice, or to buy them a new Wiggles toy, or hiding in the bushes to take her photo as she left the gym with no make-up. And, wherever she was, it smelled wonderful. Sharp. Like concentrated citrus. She took a deep breath through her nose. Delicious.
In time the instinct not to slowly expire lying on some random piece of carpet won out, and Brooke opened her eyes.
A face filled her vision completely. A male face with solemn brown eyes, hair the colour of expensive dark chocolate and a sensuously carved mouth she just knew looked even more devastating on the rare times it smiled. But it wasn't smiling now. In fact it looked positively uneasy.
'Danny?' she said, her voice hoarse. 'Brooke,'he said, breathing out awave of relief so strong it tickled her eyelashes. She blinked away the sensation and when she made eye contact again she saw that the unusual abundance of concern in his eyes had faded, leaving her with…nothing. Yep, it was Danny all right.
She cleared her throat. 'Why am I on the floor?' He pressed his hand to her forehead, first the back and then the palm. So cool. So gentle. So unexpectedly tender. Do that some more, she thought, giving in and letting her eyes fall closed once more. It feels just like heaven.
'You fainted,' he said softly, as though she might disappear in a puff of smoke if he was his usual intractable self.
Then his words filtered through the haze. She had fainted? She sucked in a deep breath through her nose and was once again caught in a wave of citrus. This time she recognised the sharp, tangy scent as Danny's aftershave. Funny she'd never noticed it before. It was truly drinkable.
'Don't be ridiculous,' she said. 'Fainting's for damsels in distress, Beatles fans and schoolgirls. I'm none of the above and therefore I did not faint.'
She sat up to prove her theory and her brain shifted backwards and thumped against a whole world of hurt at the back of her skull. She let out a groan and held her open palm over her eyes to find it was trembling.
Danny shifted to sit on the floor beside her, his sizeable form displacing the air at her left. The carpet fibres would make a mess of his beautiful suit pants. He always wore such nice suits. Stylish, sophisticated and always black. But she couldn't find the words to tell him as much, for when he draped a strong arm across her shoulders, his warm fingers pressing into her bare upper arm, holding her steady, holding her close, it seemed a wise decision to just shut up and lean into his embrace. His unanticipated warmth. His tangible strength. All the better to keep herself from falling.
'Well, either you fainted or you decided to take an ill-advised catnap on the floor of my office,' Danny said, his dry, mocking voice rumbling close to her ear.
His office? Brooke moved her hand away from her eyes. Signed photos of the world's major sportsmen littered the red feature wall behind his huge oak desk. Bookshelves overspilling with priceless memorabilia, hard cover biographies and sports periodicals stood tall and imposing to her right. Three separate televisions embedded into one wall were permanently set to satellite sports channels. So she was in Danny's office at the Good Sports Agency. Odd.
She glanced sideways to find his face mere inches from hers. His eyes boring into hers. Golden-brown they were, the mercurial colour of autumn leaves. Infamously intense and infinitely unsettling. It was a gaze that terrified football club presidents, bamboozled journalists and bewitched women the country over. And as usual she had no idea what was going on behind their depths.
She blinked, looked away and lifted her heavy arm to motion towards the rough coffee-coloured carpet. 'Why did I…you know…lie down?' 'You don't remember?' he asked.
Not about to strain herself to try, she simply said, 'Not a thing. Want to fill me in?'
'You should… We should… I can't do this lolling on the floor like a pair of teenagers at a make-out party,' Danny mumbled, his arm slowly slipping away from behind her back as he drew himself to his feet.
He held out both hands and she took them despite his last comment, which was currently resonating in the corner of her brain that was in charge of pulse control. Though she knew he hadn't meant anything by it. He never did. That was just Danny. It was habitual for him to keep people tap-dancing and at a distance.
She was pulled to her feet as though she weighed nothing at all, then he slid a warm arm around her waist, the woollen sleeve of his black suit jacket catching against the cotton of her tank top causing it to rub against the sensitive skin of her stomach. She focused on that and not on the immense relief she felt surrounded by all that warmth, strength and the scent of lime.
He let go once he had her seated in a comfortable red leather tub chair. Then, rather than heading around to the comfy-looking swing chair on the other side of his desk, Danny grabbed another guest chair and dragged it over to face hers.
As he sat, she noticed that one side of his dark suit pants was now covered in tiny carpet filaments, hooked evilly into the wool of his trousers. She wondered distractedly if his dry cleaners would have to pull each and every one out with tweezers. If she was female and he smiled when he asked…
He shifted forward, his trousers straining across his solid thighs. Then he took both her hands in his again. Large hands. The hands of a guy who mowed his own lawn. Made his own dinner. Washed his own underwear. They weren't the soft hands of some pampered desk jockey who had someone waiting at home to look after him.
His wide flat thumb pads ran back and forth across the backs of her knuckles. And with each soft, slow, soothing stroke she felt her headache ebb away. Even if the last thing Danny could be accused of being was warm and fuzzy, right now, in that moment, as he held her hands and held her gaze, again she could have sworn she saw quicksilver clouds of concern shoot across his gaze. Something was very wrong here.
'Brooke, do you remember coming to me last week to check on the probate of Cal's will?'
'Yes.' Well, she hadn't remembered, but now she did. Now she only wished she hadn't. Now she wished she'd kept her eyes closed after all. If wishes were fishes, as Danny often said. 'And?' 'You fainted because I told you that the reason why none of Calvin's assets have been deferred to you since he died is that he had none. It took an inordinate amount of time for all of his debts to be settled since he lived much of the year overseas. And, once that was done, he was found to be insolvent. Honey, it's all gone. Every last bit.'
And just like that Brooke's wobbly stomach stopped wobbling. Just like that it turned to hot liquid anger. Beautiful, centring, numbing floods of anger.
Danny must have sensed the pulling back, the shutting down, as he squeezed her hands hard. Offering…solace? Understanding? A port in a storm? Whatever he meant by it, that firm touch was all that kept her from throwing up as everything came swimming back to her through the red haze of memory.
All she and Calvin had put in place to make sure she and their young children would be looked after in the event that anything happened to one of them—the house, the life insurance policy, the investments—were gone.
And something had indeed happened. Three months before, instead of coming straight home after winning the Italian Motorcycle Grand Prix, her husband, who happened to be Danny's best friend, had driven a hundred-thousand-dollar Maserati that she hadn't known he'd had off a cliff on the Italian coast with a teenage waif whom she had known about in the passenger seat.
The hot liquid inside of her cooled and solidified into a rod of fortified steel. The wobbles were gone. Her headache was gone. She felt delightfully numb. Except for the gentle strokes infusing life-affirming warmth back into her hands.
She tugged her hands away from Danny's touch, from his sympathy. He linked his long fingers together, sliding them together and apart in a hypnotic rhythm, and within touching distance if she needed them. But she had no intention of giving in to to that kind of comfort. His sympathy made her feel strangely powerless. And right now she needed to be stronger than she'd ever been before.
'Right,' she said, shaking her hair away from her cheeks only to find several pieces stuck there with perspiration. She impatiently pushed them away. 'At this point I will concede that I did in fact faint. I don't think that I would have decided to take a sudden catnap after hearing that.'
The right corner of Danny's mouth jerked, deepening one long heartthrob-grade crease along his right cheek before it thankfully disappeared into a mere memory. 'Brooke, what the hell happened? Where did it all go?'
She gave a small shrug, feeling suddenly as though if she opened her mouth to speak she might instead break down in tears. And tears were not a part of her life any more than fainting was. They were for toddlers with scraped knees, guys who'd had too much to drink and guests on Oprah. Tears were for people who wanted other people to know about their business.
'What with the sponsorship deals alone he must have made close to three million dollars over the last year,' Danny continued, voicing the words she couldn't find. 'And after house payments, car payments and Beau's school fees, you should still have an excellent nest egg.'
'Don't forget to add agent's fees to the mix of outgoings,' she said pointedly.
Their gazes clashed and held. Hers was redhot. His was autumn-cool. She could all but see the air shimmer between them. It did that sometimes, as if they were two north poles forced to interact through their connection to Cal, and the laws of nature simply did not approve.
He leant almost imperceptibly backwards, withdrawing from her, emotionally and physically. He held up his hands in surrender, slicing through the shimmering air which went back to normal. 'Don't shoot the messenger, Brooke. Without me he would never have made it out of amateur suburban street racing.'