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Kendall clarke was looking forward to the most exciting night of her life.
Only thirty-one years old, she would be the youngest recipient of the prestigious Sharpened Pencil Award for being chosen Actuary of the Year.
For the hundredth time, she tracked across the carpet of her hotel room in Charlotte, North Carolina, to practice the acceptance speech she'd give tonight at the closing banquet of the actuarial association dinner. She wanted to come across as humbled to be receiving this great honor, but also proud of the work done by her company.
"Ladies and gentleman, colleagues, friends." She paused as she'd been taught in the public speaking refresher course she'd taken the second she learned she'd be making this speech. Breathe, she reminded herself. Look out at the audience. Smile. "Trust is the cornerstone of our business," she informed the blue-upholstered chair in the corner of the room. She put an emphasis on trust. Such a nice, strong word to start a speech with. Trust.
There was an hour or so before she needed to head down to ballrooms A and B, where the American Association of Actuaries was holding its annual conference and awards banquet. She'd sent her dress down for pressing earlier in the day, wanting everything to be perfect. She bit her lip. The dress ought to be back.
Willing to leave nothing to chance, she called down to Housekeeping. After many a long, lonely ring of the phone, a hesitant female voice said, "Hola?"
It didn't take Kendall long to realize that the woman spoke almost no English, and Kendall's Spanish wasn't any better. She thought after a few minutes of labored conversationthat she'd got her request through. She wanted them to hurry up with her dress and send it to her room.
She'd barely replaced the receiver in its cradle when it rang.
"Kendall Clarke," she said at her most formal, because you never knew at a business conference who might be calling. But, as she'd hoped, the voice at the other end belonged to Marvin Fulford, her colleague and fiancé.
"Kendall, it's me, Marvin," he said. He was so sweet. They never shared a room when traveling because both agreed it gave the wrong impression. Indeed, this time Marvin had gone so far as to book a room on a different floor.
"Hi, Marvin. Are you going to pick me up here so we can arrive at the banquet together?" That was one of the perks of working with your fiancé, she'd long thought. She rarely had to attend big business events alone.
"Um, I was hoping to come up now and talk to you for a few minutes."
He sounded odd. As if he was nervous. Probably on her behalf. "Great. I can practice my speech on a real person. Come right up."
Or maybe, she thought, as she replaced the phone, he wanted to make love before the ceremony. Her pulse quickened. What a wonderful way to relax before her big moment. Their sex life had been sparse to nonexistent lately, so the idea of him wanting to jump her bones right before the banquet filled her with delight.
She'd planned to surprise him with some sexy new lingerie she'd bought"well, sexy for her. Her makeup, hair and nails were all done, courtesy of the hotel salon, so it took her no time at all to slip into the black demi bra and high-cut panties and the black silk slip she'd bought at Victoria's Secret. Her black stockings were sheer as a whisper and her black sandals were strappy, with a low but shapely heel. She'd debated stilettos but you didn't work in the actuary business without learning a lot of very useful facts, like the stats on back pain and injury stemming from the wearing of high-heeled shoes. Besides, she didn't want to stumble on the way to the stage. Not in front of all her professional colleagues.
She was tingling with anticipation when a knock sounded on her door. Of course, they wouldn't have a lot of time, but with Marvin not a lot of time was necessary. Oh, well. Once they were married and things settled down, they could spend more time on the intimate part of their relationship.
She struck a sultry pose, then felt ridiculous, so she simply reminded herself to stand up straight, then opened the door.
Marvin stood on the other side wearing khakis and a golf shirt. The fact that he wasn't yet dressed for the banquet made her very glad she'd slipped into her sexy underwear.
But Marvin didn't even seem to notice. He glanced up and down the hall before he entered her room, looking furtive and not remotely like a man bent on a prebanquet quickie.
"Marvin? Is everything all right?" She'd wondered if he was a little jealous that she'd received this honor instead of him. Surely he could be happy for her, as she'd have been for him. They were planning to spend their lives together. Wasn't a marriage all about mutual respect, compatibility and support?
"I have something to tell you, Kendall, that may shock you," he said, glancing up and then away. His pale blond hair was shorter than usual, she noted. He must have had a trim. He'd never be confused with Brad Pitt, but he was a pleasant-looking man, she thought. Maybe a little on the pale side, but he did suffer from asthma.
She smiled at him. "Is it good news?" This was the kind of conference where networking was abundant. Had he been offered a job of some kind?
"Good news?" He glanced at her again, as though surprised by the question. Then, as was typical of him, he took a moment to ponder. Marvin always looked at all sides of a question. It was a quality she admired in him.
"In some ways it is good news. Very good news," he said. "But you may not think so."
"It's a job offer, isn't it? Is it very far away from Portland?" The possibility had always existed that one of them would get a better offer elsewhere. They'd never discussed what they'd do in that eventuality. Did she have to be tested now? Couldn't Marvin have waited until after the banquet?
"No. It's not a job offer. It's!" He blew out a breath.
"It's personal. I don't know how to begin."
The first icy claws of apprehension scratched the surface of her happiness. "Personal?"
"I never meant to hurt you, Kendall. I swear. The whole thing wasâ€¦unplanned."
"What whole thing?" she asked, feeling a numbness start to creep into her toes.
Marvin's pale cheeks took on a faint pink hue and he looked everywhere but at her. She'd never seen him so uncomfortable.
"I've fallen in love," he said at last. "With someone else."
She blinked. Opened her mouth and then closed it again.
When she didn't speak, he went on. "I never meant for it to happen. To hurt you. Behind your back. I don't know what I was thinking. I wanted to tell you, but I didn't know how. I!"
"You're in love with someone else?" she repeated stupidly.
"But we've interviewed caterers, picked out china. We're on the third draft of our guest list!"
He was rubbing a spot on the carpet with the toe of his brown tasseled loafer, giving the nub of worsted his full attention. After she petered out, there was a moment of painful silence.
"Who is it? This person you've fallen in love with." Her voice was calm, for which she'd always be grateful.
"Penelope Varsan." He made eye contact and then his gaze slid away.
Kendall stared at him. "Our colleague? You've been seeing a woman we both work with behind my back?"
"It was an accident. I swear. We were both working late night after night on the Wayman file andâ€¦one thing led to another. I didn't know how to tell you. I'm sorry."
"Why are you telling me now?" She raised a hand to her head. "I can't even think. I'm supposed to give a speech and all I'll be able to concentrate on is that my date for the evening is in love with another woman."
"Well, um, that's why I wanted to tell you now. You see!" He sighed heavily and sat down in the wing chair beside the small table where she'd set up her laptop. "Penelope's going to have a child."
"She's pregnant?" Kendall's voice was barely a whisper.
"Then this must have been going on for months."
"About four months."
"Oh, Marvin. How could you betray me like that?"
"I wanted to wait until after this conference to tell you. You must have felt that things haven't been close between us for some time."
She snorted. "Now I know why." "I like and respect you, Kendall. You have a fine mind and you're an excellent actuary. I mistook professional respect forâ€¦warmer feelings."
"What are you saying?" All her life she'd searched for the one person who would love her forever. A man like her father, who'd be faithful and true to his family. She wasn't looking for fireworks and matinee-idol, multimillionaire hotshots. All she'd ever wanted was a steady, decent man who'd love her and any family they might have. She'd aimed so low, and still she'd failed. Somehow she needed to understand why.
"You're a wonderful person, but you're notâ€¦ Well, Penelope's exciting. She's passionate. I realized that's what was missing with us."
Her leaden stomach grew heavier. "So, I'm not exciting enough for you?"
"It's not your fault, Kendall. I need more."
"Well, I guess you're getting it." She rubbed her forehead. "I can't believe this."
"As you may know, when women are in a delicate situation, they can become quite emotional."
"Thank you for the prenatal lesson, Marvin."
"The thing is, Penelope's feeling very insecure and it's making her a bit clingy."
"What is your point?"
"She wants me to sit with her at the banquet tonight. That's why I had to tell you right away. I would, of course, have said no. I want to support you. This is a big night for you and for our firm, but she's carrying my child." He paused for a moment, and she could tell he was savoring the phrase. His narrow chest swelled a little. "I have to think of my family."
"So, you're dumping me. Just like that. Right before the biggest night of my life."
He smiled at her, obviously relieved to have the burden of his confession off his chest and no hysterics to wade through. "You're strong, Kendall. You don't need me the way Penelope does."
He walked to the door and opened it, then glanced back. "Good luck tonight." He sounded as though he really meant it.
After the door shut behind her ex-fiancé, Kendall stood there feeling frozen and numb. Bits of thoughts and phrases were jumbled up in her head. Not exciting enough. Pregnant. I need more.
And through it all flickered the humiliating knowledge that this relationship had gone on for months under her nose and she'd never noticed. She had the sick feeling that she was the only one in the office who hadn't.
This was supposed to be the night of her greatest triumph, not her greatest humiliation.
If only she could think more clearly.
She stood there in her new underwear and slowly tugged the engagement ring off her finger and regarded the diamond solitaire. Like her dreams, it was modest.
She ought to return it to Marvin, but he was just thrifty enough that he might offer the ring to Penelope.
She put the ring on the dresser where it made a tiny click. She'd leave it as a tip for the maid.
Having decided the ring's future to her satisfaction, she glanced at her clock and discovered with horror that the banquet was starting in fifteen minutes. Luckily she was ready. No, wait, she wasn't. Something was missing. She looked around vaguely.
Oh, of course. Her dress. The one Marvin had helped her pick out at Nordstrom.
Dylan Hargreave gave a rebel yell into the headset, knowing he'd half deafen his spotter and any of the crew who were listening.
"She's sweet," he yelled, feeling the grab of the tires, the tightness of tail. He accelerated into Turn Three at the Speedway in Charlotte, pulling the wheel hard left, hanging on to control as he fought for more speed. A glance at the oversize tachometer told him the engine was cooperating.
Charlotte was his track. He always did well here. Being a North Carolina boy, it was important for him to place high in Sunday's race for a lot of reasons. Today's training run was feeling good. He was pumped; the team members were working together like magic.
The run of bad luck they'd suffered recently was about to end. He loved race week in Charlotte, culminating in the big race.
Sunday, he fully intended to take a victory lap.
He owned this course, and anybody who wanted to try and take him better be ready to do serious battle.
Then he felt the speed fall away as though somebody'd turned off the ignition.
"Aaaaw, no!" he yelled, as a multicolored blur of cars zoomed past him like a swarm of bees. It was only a practice to make sure everything was running smoothly, but it was clear that things on the Hargreave team weren't going smoothly at all.
After they'd towed the car into the huge garage, by the hauler that housed a second race car and all the tools and spare parts they might need, Mike Nugent, his crew chief, slapped him on the back. "Probably the fuel line, Dy. We'll get it fixed for Sunday."
Dylan nodded. He didn't bother saying anything. Every one of the glum faces on the team reflected his own expression. Luck. They really needed some luck.
Preferably the good kind.