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One True Secret
By Bethany Campbell
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"I DON'T WANT to talk to those men," Claire said. She sat under the buttercup tree, glumly feeding almonds to the parrot.
"Then don't." Emerson lay stretched on the chaise longue beside the pool. She wore a purple bikini and a green baseball cap. "I'll do the talking."
"For them to come barging in this way? I think it's just - rude."
"Arrak!" said the parrot. "Rude! Rude!"
"They're journalists. It's their job to be rude. Pass me some almonds, will you? I've got the munchies."
Claire rose and handed Emerson the bowl. Then she paused, furrowing her smooth brow. "What'll you do if they get - you know - too pushy?"
Emerson shrugged disdainfully. "Cut 'em into little pieces and feed 'em to Gollum."
Gollum was the alligator who lived in the pond on the back of the property, the acres their grandfather kept untouched and wild. Gollum was six feet long and had only one eye. It was yellow and gleamed with malevolence.
"That's a thought," Claire said, all seriousness. She moved back to the low stone wall under the yellow blossoms of the tree and sat beside the parrot again, crossing her legs. She put her chin on her fist and stared pensively at her sister. "Aren't you afraid you'll say the wrong thing?"
"Nope." Emerson popped an almond into her mouth.
"Not at all."
"I'd be," Claire murmured. "I know I'd say too much. Strangers make me nervous. This whole situation makes me nervous."
"Yarrk," croaked the green parrot. "Nervous." He climbed to a lower branch of the tree and hung upside down, cocking his head from side to side.
Emerson peered over her funky sunglasses to scrutinize Claire. Her younger sister was a pretty girl with a sweet face and a gentle air. The Florida sun had streaked her light-brown hair with gold, and her hazel eyes had a faraway look in them.
Emerson loved her sister, but she worried about her. Claire had always been shy, but lately, Emerson thought, her shyness was overpowering her. Claire went outside the estate as little as possible these days and then only to certain places on the Lower Keys.
She stayed home and saw to the needs of their grandparents, Nana and the Captain. She worked in the garden and walked on the beach and played with her pets.
Claire seemed content with her lot, almost serene. But Emerson didn't want her to hide away from the world, like the Captain. One recluse in the family was more than enough, thank you very much.
After Emerson had fended off the damn journalists, she needed to get to work on Claire's social life. That would take some first-class scheming and wheedling. Well, Emerson was up for it.
A fat blue-gray cat with a white belly and paws waddled out of the coleus and began to rub against Claire's ankles. "Ah," Claire said with real delight, "it's Mr. Bunbury. Hello, Bunbury."
Bunbury flopped onto his back, offering up the considerable expanse of his stomach for petting. Claire rubbed him, ruffled and smoothed him, then lifted him onto her lap and scratched his jowls. The parrot, wary, righted himself and climbed several branches higher in the tree.
Claire looked at Emerson over Bunbury's ears. "When do you go to New York again?"
Emerson sat up and began to coat herself with a fresh layer of sunscreen. "In ten days."
"How many paintings will you take?"
"Only the two small ones. I'll take slides of the rest. See what Krystol thinks."
"Krystol's a very good dealer," Claire said. "But Nana's worried about him."
"Why? Because he's asking questions?" Emerson kept stroking the lotion on her thighs. "It's all right. I can handle Krystol. I've been doing it for years, haven't I?"
"Yes, but so many people are asking questions," Claire said, hugging the purring Bunbury. "And now these men -"
Emerson sighed, put the sunscreen aside, and took off her cap. She pulled the pins from her hair, shaking it loose. Unlike Claire, Emerson had dark hair, nearly black, and it was so long it tumbled halfway down her back.
She took off the sunglasses, revealing eyes as dark as her hair. She narrowed these striking eyes at her sister.
"Look, I promised Daddy on his death bed that I'd take care of this family and the business. And I've done it."
"Done it," echoed the parrot, "Family. Done it." He shot Bunbury a suspicious glance and edged still higher.
Emerson leaned forward. "And I'll keep doing it. I know what's at stake here. These paintings aren't just paintings. What we have are works of genius. We have a legacy to protect. And I will protect it. So, relax."
Claire bit her lip, her expression almost rebellious. "But why'd you have to say they could come to Mandevilla? It's the first time anybody's been allowed here in years."
Emerson stood and made a sweeping gesture. She was tall and dramatic-looking, as their grandfather had been, and she could get away with such gestures, just as he had.
Her motion was meant to take in all of Mandevilla, the private beach, the pool and garden, the house itself, and the seven acres of tropical wilderness behind it.
"Mandevilla's part of the legend," Emerson said. "The greatest paintings were done here. Famous people came here to visit. Good Lord, Princess Diana came here."
"That was then, this is now," Claire said. "Nobody's come for years."
Emerson put her hands on her hips. "That's why it's important we let somebody see it. To see the place and the new paintings. To stop the damn rumors."
Bunbury spied a lizard and slipped from Claire's lap to stalk it in his ponderous way. Claire didn't try to stop him. Bunbury was too fat and slow to catch anything.
She sighed and picked one of the golden blossoms from the buttercup tree. She twirled its stem between her fingers and stared at it moodily.
"I don't know. An ordinary magazine would be bad enough. But Mondragon? Mondragon's very, very classy -"
"That's why I'm letting them come." Emerson strolled to the diving board, her hands still poised on her hips. Mondragon, A Magazine of the Arts was sleek, costly and sophisticated. It didn't shy from controversy or the dark side of the business.
Its managing editor hadn't made a polite request of Emerson. He'd practically demanded that she allow a writer and photographer to visit Mandevilla.
Agreeing was a gamble, a great one, but Emerson took it because she intended to win. The people from Mondragon would not use her. She would use them.
"They're classy," Claire admitted. "But they can be ruthless. And this writer, Eli Garner. They couldn't send anybody worse. You know what his specialty is."
Emerson walked to the end of the diving board. She knew, all right. His specialty was investigation - and exposé. He had ruined reputations, lives and fortunes. And a few, a very few times, he had saved them.
"I'm not afraid of him," she said.
The parrot worked his way down the tree and climbed onto Claire's shoulder. He rubbed his forehead against her ear. He wanted a kiss.
But for once, Claire ignored him. She stared at Emerson with doubt in her golden-brown eyes. "Maybe you should be afraid, Em. I mean, we do have secrets."
"I'm not afraid," Emerson repeated.
"Awrk!" said the parrot. "Secrets!"
But Emerson paid no attention. She made a perfect jackknife dive that plunged her deep into the blue, blue water.
Excerpted from One True Secret by Bethany Campbell Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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