Read an Excerpt
By Cheryl Holt
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2000 Cheryl Holt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAllison Masters climbed the stairs to the second floor, looking for the door with the doctor's name on it. She didn't see it. Just her luck-it would be clear at the end of the walkway, where God and everybody else could see her enter. What was this idiotic physician thinking, renting space in a building where her door faced an outdoor balcony instead of an indoor hallway? Anyone strolling by could look up and see who was stopping by for an appointment.
A car door banged, and she jumped. "I'm just nervous," she muttered, although there wasn't any reason to be. Most people went to the doctor all the time. She just didn't happen to be one of them.
In the Masters family, members were expected to charge full steam ahead every moment of the day, and illness was considered the ultimate sign of weakness. Weakness was a commodity her father had certainly seen her exhibit lately. If he heard she had now sunk so low as to be seeking treatment from a doctor for a rash, he'd do much more than just banish her to the end of the earth in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He'd disown her, rewrite his will, change the locks, revoke her last name, cut her face out of all the family photos hanging around corporate headquarters ...
And that would be just for starters.
He wouldn't think something as simple as hives was a real ailment, and heaven forbid his ever learning that the horrid itching could be brought on by stress. She'd never live it down. If he suspected that it was all in her head, she'd seem even more crazy in his eyes. But she was past the point of caring. If she didn't get the itching stopped, and soon, she was very likely to start screaming, which would definitely be a mistake, considering how many people would be witnesses.
Down below, the busy thoroughfare bustled with the July throng of tourists who had stopped in the small mountain resort community on their way to exotic destinations like Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, which were both just up the road.
Not that Allison had ever been to either of those places, or would ever go to see them. She had no desire to. Sightseeing on all those wide-open country highways held no appeal whatsoever. It was bad enough to have been forced to move to Jackson, and she refused to spend any of her free time visiting the local points of interest. She had settled in at the family summerhouse, and later today she would begin the duties her father had assigned her. When her exile ended, she'd be gone in a heartbeat. She had no intention of staying one instant longer than he'd mandated.
On the corner across the street, she heard the clopping of horse hooves and the jingle of bells, and a stagecoach pulled to a stop. Several tourists jumped down onto the sidewalk, laughing and talking about the ride around the famous town square, while others hurried to take their places for rides of their own.
Their fascination with the town was a mystery to her. Sure, the scenery was pretty in a rural isolated sort of way. The streets were charming to those who liked that log cabin, folksy type of scene. Supposedly, this was where the Old West met the New West, a fact about which she could not have cared less. All those horses and boots and hats didn't do a thing for her.
It was a warm beautiful day, and she'd have given anything to be sitting on the veranda of her father's beach house out on Long Island, sipping ice tea and watching people strolling along the sand. Now, that was the way to pass a summer day. Not here, fighting elbow to elbow with all these tourists searching for the cheapest place to buy a hamburger.
She walked along the balcony railing, itching terribly but trying not to scratch, past the row of office doors, vaguely noticing an accountant's name, an insurance agent's. Below, a couple of tourists exited an ice cream shop with dripping cones in hand and looked straight up at her. Quickly, she turned her face toward the wall. They walked on without giving her a second glance, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
Ahead, several feet away, she could see gold lettering on the door of the doctor's office: Dr. Pat Beaudine-Family Medicine.
A few more steps and she'd be safely inside!
The glass on Beaudine's door caught her reflection, causing her to stop and stare, thinking she certainly looked every one of her thirty-two years. Luckily, her nasty red rash was mostly hidden by her clothing so that it wasn't visible, but her blond hair, pulled back in its usual workday chignon, had lost its sheen. Behind her glasses-the ones she didn't need, but wore to give herself a more professional air-her blue eyes were magnified, looking dull and lifeless, and there were dark smudges underneath them, clearly indicating fatigue. The navy suitcoat hanging on her shoulders barely hid her recent loss of weight.
When had she gotten so thin?
At five-feet, six-inches, with an adequate rounded figure, she'd always been the picture of health. Now, she looked the way she felt: haggard, tired, worn down and out by the events of the past weeks.
But who wouldn't be? she asked herself, giving in to a moment of self-pity before straightening her backbone and getting a grip.
Her hand reached for the knob, but she hesitated, realizing that during the exam the doctor would ask questions about how she'd gotten hives. Since Allison was a poor liar, she'd have to tell the woman the truth-that she'd broken out before, on occasion, but only during times of intense personal stress. If Dr. Beaudine was like any of the other doctors Allison had seen, she'd ask one question after another, expecting Allison to simply spill the contents of her sorry situation all over the room.
Was this what she really wanted? To bare her soul to a stranger? To talk about personal and family business as though she were just an ordinary person? To reveal private yearnings and hurts as though she were simply another member of the masses who couldn't control the petty day-to-day foibles of existence?
She wasn't just anybody, for heaven's sake. She was Allison Margaret Emerson Masters. Her family had been a leader in American commerce for over a century. They controlled fortunes, destinies, lives. They built empires, started dynasties, created kingdoms. Great-great-grandfather Herbert, who'd opened his first rooming house next to the Union Pacific line in the 1880's, had seen to that.
Over the decades, that humble beginning had blossomed until the family owned exclusive hotels in every major US city and in many spots around the globe. The company's advertising slogan-Stay With The Masters-said it all. Theirs was the top name in upscale overnight accommodation.
Generations of Masters blood flowed through her veins. She was strong, tough, determined. Raised by the most sought after nannies. Educated at the finest schools. Imbued with the strictest standards of excellence, and a taste for only the best. Wealthy, admired, and perpetually ready to take on the world with every expectation that whatever she wished could be accomplished simply because she willed it.
That woman, the woman she was supposed to be, would never break out in a rash simply because she was experiencing a run of bad luck.
"God, I can't do this," she murmured to her silent reflection, but a door down the walkway opened just then, and a person exited. Mortified at the thought that someone might see her, she stepped into the office before she could change her mind.
It was dreadfully quiet inside, and she was alone. She'd planned it that way, scheduling her visit after hours so she wouldn't have to meet the receptionist or any other patients. Her ploy had worked. The place was deserted.
For a few minutes, she paced back and forth, expecting the doctor to welcome her, but no one appeared. Never one to be kept waiting, she walked down the hall. There were several doors, all closed but the one at the end. It was open, and sporting a sign that read The Doctor Is In. She stepped to it and paused.
Behind the desk sat a man who could only be Dr. Beaudine. Besides the facts that he had a stethoscope around his neck and a medical journal open and resting on his chest, the way he comfortably filled the space kept him from being anybody else. He was leaning back in the chair, his feet propped on the desk and crossed at the ankle. At first glance, she thought he was young, but the smile lines around his mouth made her realize that he was probably closer to forty. His eyes were closed, and he was apparently enraptured by whatever music he was listening to through a pair of CD earphones.
To her absolute dismay, he was dressed in typical Jackson Hole western garb, complete with cowboy hat, boots, and denims. He wore all black, giving him the air of an Old West outlaw. The hat, made of felt or some such fabric, looked soft, brushed, and expensive. The shirt had fancy pearl snaps, the boots were polished to a high sheen, and the jeans looked freshly pressed. The severe dark color of the ensemble was broken by a splash of red flowers embroidered across the shoulders and collar of the shirt and a red bandanna tied jauntily around his neck.
He's too handsome for his own good, she thought with no small amount of disgust, instantly reminded of her fiancé, Richard.
Ex-fiancé, she scolded herself. He'd taught her well how deadly a handsome man could be.
With her trust in men completely shattered, she had no doubt that this cowboy doctor was the same, a scoundrel who commanded his surroundings through the sheer force of his good looks. Women probably swooned over that hair, all thick and wavy, the color of golden wheat, worn long to where it curled casually and just brushed his shoulders. A bushy mustache, a shade darker than the hair on his head, framed his full sensuous mouth, which probably curled deliciously when he lied like a dog and broke hearts left and right. And his eyes ... well, she couldn't see them, but she just knew they'd be blue, blue as a summer sky, piercing and shrewd, the kind that could look right into a woman's soul and crush every secret desire hidden there.
His broad shoulders filled up every inch of the distinctive shirt. That flat stomach, the bulging sex, those long long legs and thick powerful thighs ... For some reason, the room suddenly felt too hot, and she took a deep breath, needing a bit more oxygen in her lungs.
He didn't look like any doctor she'd ever seen. Of course, she was forced to admit, this was Jackson Hole. Things were different. People were different.
Still, she'd been sure that Dr. Beaudine was a female, so she'd been expecting ... well ... a woman. If she had been expecting a man, she'd have pictured someone in a tweed jacket and khaki pants, with loafers and soft eyes, and maybe some serious-looking eyewear. That was the kind of man she could tell her troubles to.
This is a mistake. The message rang inside her head. She must have been crazy, thinking some stranger could help her. Thinking that she could talk about what had happened. Thinking she could ask the question that had plagued her for weeks now, the question to which she didn't really want an answer because she feared the answer might be yes.
The only thing to do now was to get out of there and pretend she had never made the appointment in the first place. So what if she'd broken out all over? So what if she felt as if fire ants were biting her a million times a second? So what if she was sad, heartbroken, feeling lost and betrayed by those who were supposed to love her? So what?
Bad things happened to others all the time. They had happened to her, and she would just deal with all of it logically and stoically, as she always had in the past. Through the sheer force of her will, plus some over-the-counter extra strength cortisone, she'd have herself back on track in no time.
Her mind made up, she was poised to flee. Just then the doctor opened his eyes and saw her. Like a deer trapped in the headlights, she couldn't move, and she stood paralyzed by his assessing gaze.
Sapphire blue, she thought petulantly as she stared into those magnificent eyes. Bluer than the summer sky, like the deep dark waters of the Mediterranean.
"Hello, darlin'," he welcomed her in a deep rich baritone that sounded like honey poured over velvet. "I didn't see you standin' there. You're Allison, right?"
She'd never heard her name pronounced in quite that way, all slow, long, and drawn out with a western drawl. It sounded as if it should belong to a different woman than the one she was, maybe one who wore dangling earrings and hand-painted clothing and let her hair blow free in the wind.
"Hello, Dr. Beaudine," she offered in return, giving him her frostiest, most professional Masters smile. "I just stopped by to tell you that I have to cancel. I know you'll understand how these things happen. I realize it's terribly rude of me to wait until the last minute, and I'll certainly be happy to pay you for your time. It's just that ... well, something's come up, and, ah ..."
Suddenly, she was overcome with the urge to explain herself. "I have to be at my office, and I just can't meet with you right now. I'm very very busy, what with starting a new job here in town and all that entails, and taking a few minutes for myself is clearly impossible. I wanted to tell you personally, so you wouldn't think I skipped our appointment."
She was babbling like a fool, but she couldn't seem to stop. "I mean, I wouldn't want you to think I was afraid of coming here, or anything like that, because I'm not. Afraid, that is. There's nothing frightening about visiting the doctor, now is there? It's just that this has turned out to be a horrendously inconvenient time. So, if you'll excuse me, I'll just show myself out."
She dipped her head in a gesture of good-bye, hoping to make a graceful exit. Before she could escape he unfolded himself from the chair and rose to his feet. She remained rooted in her spot, watching all six-feet, two-inches of him stretch and rise like a lazy cat. There was something strangely beautiful about the way he did it, almost as if his normal speed were slow motion, as if time itself waited for him to take his next step.
"Beau," he said in his honeyed drawl, tipping a finger to the brim of his hat like an old-fashioned cowboy.
"Not Dr. Beaudine. Just Beau. That's what everyone calls me."
"Oh ... well ..." This was really too much. An oversexed, overdressed, overbuilt professional who didn't even use his title. All the more reason to get the hell out of there. Fast. "Doctor ... I mean Mr. ... ah, Mr. Beau-"
"Beau, darlin'. Nothin' else."
"Well, Beau," she managed, forcing the familiar means of address past her lips, "thank you for agreeing to see me, but I really must be going."
"Are you sure you want to go and do that?" he asked, rounding the desk which placed him directly in front of her. He leaned his hips against the edge, crossed his booted feet at the ankle, and evaluated her carefully.
"But you just arrived, and I can't imagine you'd want to leave so quickly."
"I do. I really do," she murmured, wondering why she felt the need to convince him of anything.
"Honey, you look so worn out. And you've definitely lost a few pounds. If I'm any judge of women-which I am, by the way-you're having a real hard time right about now. It sure might help to have somebody to talk with for a spell."
Did she look so terrible, so rundown, that a virtual stranger could see her distress? How utterly embarrassing! All the more reason to pull herself together and go. "Be that as it may," she said, trying to sound firm, "I don't think you're quite what I'm looking for."
"That's not the first time I've heard that comment from a woman." His chuckle was low and soft, and the sound drifted across her senses and tingled through her nerve endings. He spread his palms out, welcoming assessment. "What's not to like?"
"It's not that I don't like you, Dr. ... ah, Beau. It's just that I was expecting someone a bit more ..." What? What adjective could she select that wouldn't sound completely rude?
He put her on the spot, asking, "A bit more what?"
"Well, typical, I guess."
"You don't think I'm typical?" he asked with a mischievous gleam in his eye, and Allison couldn't help feeling that he was teasing her.
Excerpted from Mountain Dreams by Cheryl Holt Copyright © 2000 by Cheryl Holt. Excerpted by permission.
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