Read an Excerpt
With a sigh of relief, Tamara Ledford pulled into the driveway of the roomy old Victorian house where she’d lived all her twenty-three years. The gracious, turreted white frame house exuded an aura of mellow serenity that seemed to wrap her in a comforting embrace, and she badly needed that comfort at the moment. She jumped out of her old Toyota, slammed the door, and walked swiftly along the flower-bordered path and up the four stairs to the frosted glass-paneled front door.
She paused for a moment and drew a deep breath, trying to cool the anger and tension that had robbed her of her usual composure. There was no sense in disturbing Aunt Elizabeth over something as trivial as Celia Bettencourt’s bitchiness. And, if she didn’t calm down, her aunt would definitely notice how upset she was. Even if Aunt Elizabeth’s “gift” wasn’t fully operational at any given moment, like this one, she was always uncannily perceptive.
When Tamara opened the front door, she was immediately enveloped in a deliciously spicy aroma. Gingerbread, she identified with a sudden lift of her spirits, as she quickly made her way down the linoleum-covered hallway to the large old-fashioned kitchen at the back of the house.
Aunt Elizabeth was at the kitchen table spreading white sugar icing on the luscious sweet bread, and she looked up with a quick smile at Tamara’s appearance. “Hello, dear. Aren’t you home a little early?” she asked absently, as she turned the plate and dipped her spatula once more into the bowl of icing.
“A little. I came home early to dress for Mr. Bettencourt’s party,” Tamara replied, strolling over to the table and dropping into a gingham-cushioned ladderback chair.
“Oh yes, I’d forgotten that was tonight,” -Elizabeth Ledford said vaguely. She looked up, her blue eyes suddenly sparkling. “What are you planning on wearing?”
“I haven’t decided,” Tamara said evasively, then knowing the suggestion that was coming, she went on hurriedly. “I see you have on your Madame Zara outfit.” Her violet eyes twinkled. “Who have you been peering into your crystal ball for now?”
Her aunt looked down with serene satisfaction at her midnight blue caftan that was extravagantly embroidered with silver stars and crescent moons. She always claimed the rather bizarre outfit inspired her clients with confidence, despite her great-niece’s constant teasing raillery. “Mildred Harris’s Pekingese ran away last night. She was most upset.”
Tamara dipped a finger into the mixing bowl and scooped a bit of icing off the side. She grimaced, as she slowly licked her finger. “I’d run away too, if I were as smothered with attention as that poor animal. Did you locate him?”
Her aunt shook her head reprovingly. “You should be a little more understanding, Tamara. That Pekingese is the only living creature that Mildred has to care about since her husband died. She can’t help it if she goes a bit overboard at times. After all, she is getting older.”
Tamara smothered a smile at that last remark. Elizabeth Ledford at seventy-three was at least six years older than Mildred Harris, but she never seemed to be conscious of the fact that she might be considered a senior citizen. She certainly didn’t look anywhere near her age, -Tamara thought idly. Aunt Elizabeth’s slim, athletic body was as straight and lively as ever. Her face was as unlined and smooth as a woman of forty, and her sparkling blue eyes were constantly dancing with enthusiasm and humor. Though her hair was snow white, it curled in a riot of tight shiny curls around her face, increasing the aura of youthfulness.
“Sorry,” Tamara said solemnly. “Did you find the Peke?”
“Of course,” her aunt said serenely. “He got locked in the fruit cellar by mistake when -Mildred was fetching some peach preserves. He didn’t really run away. When I told Mildred where he was, she hurried right home to let him out.”
“I wonder if she’ll be able to coax him out. He’s probably enjoying his vacation from that eternal fussing,” Tamara said with a grin.
She never doubted for an instant that the dog would be exactly where Aunt Elizabeth said he would be. As a child she’d accepted as a matter of course that her aunt could see where she’d misplaced her doll or lost her favorite hair ribbon. Aunt Elizabeth had once explained to -Tamara that she would break her arm in the next few days, but that she mustn’t be frightened and would be quite well again in a few weeks. Tamara hadn’t even been surprised when the rope on her swing had broken and she’d had to be rushed to the hospital with a fractured radius.
She’d thought all grownups possessed these powers until she’d started school and been rudely disillusioned. She’d discovered that Aunt Elizabeth was “different.” When a bully called her aunt a witch, Tamara had socked him so hard his nose began to bleed copiously and he’d run crying to the teacher.
Tamara had learned soon, though, that she couldn’t fight all the kids who taunted her. So she’d come to behave with a cool reserve that had been her armor ever since. She’d cared much more passionately when the other children had hurled insults at Aunt Elizabeth than when they’d jeered at her for her illegitimacy. Aunt Elizabeth, in her infinite wisdom, had prepared her for the latter possibility. But because she’d lived with her own strange powers so long that they’d become second nature, it never occurred to her to warn Tamara against the venom of those who were frightened or skeptical of her gift. For years Tamara had been silently, yet fiercely resentful of the condemnation of her aunt by her peers, until she’d come to realize just how unusual a gift Elizabeth possessed.
Her aunt’s blue eyes were keen as she looked up now and smiled gently. “Are you going to tell me now why you really came home early, dear?”
“I told you I had to dress . . .” Tamara’s voice trailed off. “Well, it was partly true,” she said sheepishly. She ran her hand through her shining blue-black hair and with a rueful shake of her head met her aunt’s steady gaze. “I’m just being stupidly emotional over something I should have learned by now to ignore. Celia Bettencourt was a little too much to put up with today.” Tamara made a face. “I wish to heaven her father had seen fit to place her in someone else’s department to learn the ropes.”
Her aunt turned the plate again and started icing the other side of the gingerbread. “It was perfectly natural for him to want her to learn from you,” she said calmly. “Every father wants what’s best for his children and he knows your Perfume and Herb Boutique is the best run department in his entire chain of department stores.”
Tamara knew without vanity that her Aunt Elizabeth was correct in her judgment. Tamara had worked hard enough in the past five years to assure herself of the boutique’s success. “I think we’d both be happier if he’d chosen someone else to train her in merchandising,” she said gloomily. “We’ve never gotten along, even as children. And since she came back from finishing school in Switzerland, she’s been absolutely impossible. She never misses a chance to take a verbal jab at me.”
“Did it ever occur to you that she might be suffering as much as you?” Aunt Elizabeth suggested, her expression thoughtful. “Jealousy can be a terribly disturbing emotion. It can burn you up inside.”
“Jealousy?” Tamara looked at her in blank disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding. Her father’s the richest man in town and Celia is more than aware of how attractive she is.”
“Is she?” her aunt asked. “I wonder. You’d be very potent competition for any woman, love.” Her gaze ran over her great-niece in affectionate appraisal. “You’re very beautiful, you know. You have that wonderfully wicked look I imagine a king’s mistress might have.” Her gaze returned to her cake. “Besides, you have something I rather think Celia would give a good deal to possess.”
“And what is that?” Tamara asked.
“Walter Bettencourt’s respect and admiration,” her aunt answered quietly. “She knows her father not only trusts your business acumen, but has genuine affection for you. That’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow when she probably realizes he doesn’t give her the same respect.”
“She’s the apple of his eye,” Tamara protested.
“As a daughter,” her aunt said, her face compassionate. “Not as a friend. You have to earn friendship. Maybe that’s something Celia doesn’t realize yet. Perhaps she thinks you’ve stolen that from her.”
“You’re a very frustrating woman to be around, Elizabeth Ledford,” Tamara said, her lips curving in a tender smile. “I fully expected to be soothed and cosseted, and you actually have me feeling sorry for the bitch.” She scowled as she remembered the extremely trying day she’d just undergone. “And she is a bitch, Aunt Elizabeth.”
“I don’t doubt it for a minute, dear,” her aunt said serenely. “I just want you to come to understand why she’s a bitch.” She smiled. “And you don’t really need cosseting, do you? It’s the -Celias of this world who need reassurance and sustenance. You’re quite strong enough to face anything, Tamara.”
Tamara stood up suddenly and leaned over to kiss her aunt’s cheek. “You’re pretty terrific! Do you know that, Madame Zara?” she asked huskily, and then before her aunt could answer, she was striding briskly toward the door. “I think I’ll change into my gardening clothes and work in the greenhouse before I get ready for the party. Marc won’t be picking me up till eight to take me out to dinner.” She raised a brow inquiringly. “Have you decided to attend the party?”
Her aunt shook her white curly head. “I don’t think so. The vibrations are always so strong in that large a crowd that it invariably gives me a headache. Besides, there’s a bingo tournament and a covered-dish supper at the church tonight.”
“I’m tempted to skip the party myself.” -Tamara sighed, making a face. “If I hadn’t promised Mr. Bettencourt I’d be there, I think I would skip it. I’ve had enough of Celia for one day and I can do without watching her play lady of the manor.”
She would just have to avoid Celia this evening. It shouldn’t be all that difficult. Walter Bettencourt had invited practically everyone in Somerset, New Hampshire, to celebrate the first anniversary of his marriage to his attractive wife, Margaret. A widower for fifteen years, it had been a nine-day wonder when Bettencourt had attended a convention in New York last May and returned two weeks later with a bride. He obviously was crazy about her, and Tamara could readily understand the reason. Margaret Bettencourt was a charming and intelligent woman who still possessed a glowing attractiveness. Tamara had met her several times when she’d come to the house for consultations with Aunt Elizabeth, and found her both gracious and kind.
“I wonder if there would be room for me in Mildred Harris’s fruit cellar? I feel a little like running away myself.” Tamara sighed again. “Have a good time, love.” She blew her aunt a kiss and hurried out of the kitchen.
Three hours later, Tamara reluctantly put away her spade and trowel, checked the thermostat and humidifier, and turned out the lights in the greenhouse. As usual, the hours spent working so happily in her herb garden had flown by, and she was tempted to spend the evening contentedly puttering with her plants rather than attending that dratted party. She’d always had a passion for horticulture, and she’d had her own herb garden from the time she was six. As a birthday present when Tamara was twenty-one, her aunt had insisted on having a small greenhouse built in the backyard so she could enjoy her hobby year round. It was Tamara’s pride and joy, and she spent every free moment there.
Oh well, Marc Hellman was escorting her to the party and she couldn’t just stand him up. She’d have to go and try to make the best of it. Marc wasn’t the kind of man who would understand any impulsive change of plan. His keen legal mind was respected by everyone in town, but he was so methodical and so pedantic.
As she passed through the kitchen, she noticed it had a pristine emptiness. Aunt Elizabeth must have already left for her church social, she thought absently. However, when she reached her room, she discovered that her great-aunt had left her a note that caused Tamara to shake her head ruefully.
The note was pinned to a crimson taffeta gown that lay like a brilliant poinsettia on the earth-colored coverlet on her bed. It was short and lovingly coercive:
I know you want to look your very best tonight, so I pressed this gown for you.
Have a lovely time!
Aunt Elizabeth passionately hated Tamara’s wardrobe, which she described as dull and mouselike. She’d given Tamara this lovely creation last Christmas, and had been most disappointed when she had never worn it.
Tamara reached out a tentative hand and stroked the smooth, rustling material thoughtfully. Why not? It would please her aunt, and she was tired of the grays and browns that were the staple colors of her wardrobe. She certainly needed something to raise her morale if she were to get through the evening with her temper intact.
An hour later, her eyes widened slightly as she stared at her reflection in the full-length mirror. The gown was blazing crimson and almost medieval in cut, with long, tight sleeves and a fitted bodice, and the long skirt fell to the floor in graceful folds. The neckline was low and square-cut, showing a generous amount of cleavage, though it was probably quite modest compared to some of the gowns that would be on display tonight.
The gown took on its wicked provocation from Tamara herself. The combination of golden satin skin and a slim, curvaceous figure made all the difference.
The passionate curve of her lips, and the slightly slanted, wide-set violet eyes framed in extravagantly long lashes, lent her face a stormy sexuality that made her remember her aunt’s simile of this afternoon. She’d said she looked like a king’s mistress and that was certainly true tonight. She’d been trying to underplay that sultry, sexual quality for years, ever since that ghastly night at O’Malley’s Roadhouse. Yet strangely, tonight she derived a certain amount of pleasure from seeing that brilliant bird of paradise in the mirror.
She quickly combed her long, silky black curls, then pulled her hair forward to nestle provocatively against the curve of her ripe breast. A glance at the clock on her bedside table verified that she still had forty-five minutes until Marc was due to arrive. She would go downstairs and wait.