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After the breakup, Maria Johnson's most fervent wish was that she'd never lay eyes on him again. She got her way, as she usually did. But only for four years. Then Fate decided she had other plans for Maria and brought David Hunt back into her life with a vengeance.
Maria never saw it coming.
After breakfast she'd lain on the lounge chair farthest from the house and drowsed under the leafy wisteria pergola by the pool. Sunlight filtered through the dangling purple flowers, warming her face. She sighed with pleasure and her lungs filled with Cincinnati's early summer air.
Eventually she moved, but only enough to stretch, slide on her sunglasses and reach into her overflowing beach bag for one of her romance novels. What should she start with? The Gothic? The romantic suspense? Delightful possibilities tempted her, and her blood pulsed with contentment. Was anything on earth better than sitting by the pool on a day like today, reading romances and napping? Did anyone anywhere have a better life? What could
A door slammed, jarring her out of her thoughts. Vaguely irritated, she looked across the sapphire pool to the house. Her father, Ellis Johnson, wearing his summer semiretirement uniformwhite linen tunic and khaki pantsappeared at the edge of the second-story veranda, blinking against the sun's glare. When he saw her, he fisted his hands on his trim hips.
"I should've known you'd be out here," he called.
Her heart sank.
Amazing how one man's voice speaking seven short words could convey such a wealth of disapproval. It wasn't just his words. The tone, deep and faintly disdainful, didn't help. Nor did his woolly white Einstein brows, lowered in a glowerover his flashing brown eyes. Even his white mustache seemed to frown at her.
She watched him stride down the steps and alongside the pool to where she sat, hoping she could sweet-talk him out of his snit. Maybe then he'd go back in the house where he belonged, and she could get back to her reading in peace. Smiling, she dropped her books in her bag; her father hated romances and thought she should read Something Worthwhile, like histories or biographies. When he came close enough, she scooted forward on her lounge chair and planted a kiss on his soft brown cheek.
He sat in one of the dining chairs, crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap. No hint of a smile softened his stern face. "I want to talk to you, Sugar."
Maria sighed, cast a longing glance at her bag and pretended she wanted to hear the forthcoming lecture. "Sure, Daddy. I'm always glad"
One hand came up, silencing her. "Save the honey. You won't be catching any flies today."
The first feelings of unease snaked up her spine, but she smiled pleasantly anyway. "No need to be rude, Daddy."
"I'm at my wit's end with you, Sugar, and I"
"If this is about me fussing at Miss Beverly over that pickle juice she tried to pass off as lemonade yesterday, then"
His lips compressed. "No, it's not, although I wish you'd be nicer to her. She's worked and cooked for us for thirty years, she's practically family, and she deserves a little respect."
"I respect her plenty. I just wanted to know if there was a shortage of sugar in the house."
He huffed theatrically. "This is about you doing something with your life. I"
Exasperated, she slumped back against the cushions. Oh, great. Not that old speech again. She retied the hip strings of her white bikini, yawned and wondered whether she'd get the condensed or extended version of his lecture today.
"have had enough.You sit out here by the pool all day, and as far as I can tell, you've never done an honest day's work, except for scraping by at Barnard and a little part-time job at a boutique for the discount on the clothes.What are you going to do with your life? Nearly twenty-eight, divorced with no husband, no children, no job and no prospects"
Extended version; he was really working up a head of steam. Tuning him out, she ran through her options. She could go to the mall later, but her manicure was at two, so she couldn't go too late. Or she could reschedule the manicure and
"but I blame myself. Yes, I do. I felt sorry for you. Your mother died when you were so young and you've got no brothers or sisters. So I never told you no. Let's face it. I've spoiled you all your life. Never encouraged you like I should. Melted like butter in the sun every time you flashed that pretty little smile at me. So now you coast through life on your looks, don't you? And when your birthday comes in a few months and you gain control of your trust, then what? You'll never work a day in your life, that's what. You'll just sit around here, living at my house and eating my groceries forever. So the best thing I can do for you, as a loving father who wants you to be a productive member of society, is to make you"
go to a movie, but of course she'd gone to a movie yesterday. What she really needed to do, she thought, smoothing her legs and eyeing the faint but unmistakable stubble around her knees, was get a wax while she was there for the manicure and
"get a job."
Thunderstruck, Maria blinked. Ellis stared, waiting for her reaction.
That single tiny word penetrated her consciousness and filled her with horror. One mention of the unthinkable and her sun-warmed skin went clammy with dread. He wasn't serious, was he? Was was this a joke?
Everyone had fearsthose things that jerked them awake in the dead of night and about which they spoke in only furtive whispers. But where others feared child molesters or influenza pandemics, only one thing struck terror in Maria's heart. And she was determined with every fiber of her being to avoid that one thing for as long as possible.
Leave the shelter of her father's house and enter the cold, cruel world? She shuddered at the thought. Get up before 9:00 a.m. every day? No, thank you. Go to work in some small, depressing, windowless cubicle? No. Wear panty hose? Double no. Put herself at the mercy of some boss who, more likely than not, would make her life miserable? Hell no.
Her father's reference to Maria's scraping by at Barnard didn't begin to cover the agony that was school. The reading, the writing, the analyzing, the mathpretty much every aspect of the whole experience had been torture for her. Just the memory of all that thinking, working and studying gave her chills. True, she'd applied herself when needed, but she knew herself well enough to know that her brain just wasn't wired for deep thinking. She was much more of a relax and have fun sort of person.
She thought of people from her graduating class who'd found their passion in life, as Oprah was so fond of talking about. One acquaintance had gone to medical school. Another had always had her nose in a book of Shakespeare's plays and wound up going to graduate school in English. Ellis was passionate about public relations, though only God knew why. Maria had never understood the whole concept of being passionate about work. Work was called work for a reason, wasn't it? Maria didn't get it. Luckily she was independently wealthy, or soon to be, and she didn't have to get it.
True, she'd worked for a while after the divorce, but that was only part-time at an upscale boutique, and working with beautiful clothes could never really be work. It was more of a boondoggle. That was the full extent of her experience in the economic sector: a couple of fun jobs at pricey boutiques, mostly for the discounts. She'd never really held a job. As a result she was handicapped. Well, maybe that was a little strong, but still. She wasn't cut out for the nine-to-five world.
Her father wouldn't snatch a helpless lion cub from its mother and expect it to survive alone in the wild, would he? Surely he wouldn't do the same thing to her. Still, she couldn't act like she didn't want a job. Then her father would only dig in his heels, and she didn't want an outright war with him. Maybe she could placate or divert himanything to keep him from holding her feet to the fire.
"Oh, I know," she said into the lengthening silence. "I can't sit around the pool for the rest of my life. But I always do much more charity work in the fall. Remember? I always work on the silent auction committee for Children's Hospital, and with the Friends of the Public Library. My days are usually full of charity work. Things are just slow because it's summer."
His full lips pursed in a disbelieving circle.
More? He wanted more? "And I could send out some feelers. To some of my classmates from school. See if anyone knows of anything I could"
"Uh-huh," he said, snorting as if she'd proposed plans to become empress of the planet Saturn. "And what kind of work did you think you'd do with yourwhat was it?ancient studies degree?"
"Lots of things," she lied, stung.
He nodded and she detected a glimmer of sympathy in his eyes, but, alas, no signs of indecision. "Well, Sugar, if something comes through in your area, let me know. Until then, I want you to work at the firm."
Maria gaped at him. "At the firm?" she gasped. "You want me to work in in " The awful words stuck in her throat. "Public relations?"
Her hand flew up to cover her heart, as if she could protect it from her father's inhumanity. Oh, this was terrible. Terrible. She knew almost nothing about public relations, even though she'd listened to Ellis's shop talk all her life. PR with her father? Why would he do this to her? Did he honestly expect her to make it through a full workday at that place without dropping dead of boredom?
Desperate, she grasped at straws. "So you want me to work what? Part-time? Half days? Three days a week?"
"Oh, no," he said cheerily. "I think able-bodied young adults should work full-time, don't you?"
This was just getting worse and worse by the second. "So I could start what? In September?"
She repressed a squeal of frustration. "But but what'll I do?"
"You'll be an account assistant, same as every other employee who starts with me."
Well, now wait a minute. She was a little inexperienced, of course, but she was smarter than that. She didn't think she'd be running the office, but she also didn't think she'd be doing grunt work. "An account assistant? But but they do menial stuff, don't they? They're like slaves, and I'm the boss's daughter."
"Don't whine, Sugar. It's very unbecoming. Account assistants do good, honest work, and the office couldn't run without them. And once you've earned your stripes, you can move up the totem pole, same as everyone else."
Enough was enough. She'd tried to be pleasantit was his house, after alland she'd played along with this little scenario like a good daughter should, but now he'd gone too far. Surely he didn't think she'd take this lying down.
"I won't do it," she said, her anger and fear making her abandon all pretense of civility. "I don't want to do it, and you can't make me. I have spousal support for a while longer, so I don't need a job. And if you want me to move out"
One of his hands flew up, stopping her, and she knew she'd struck a nerve. Her father loved having her live at home almost as much as she loved the free food and housing, and he didn't like to rattle around in the enormous house all by himself. If Maria left, he'd be alone and lonely, and they both knew it.
"This is your home," he told her. "You're welcome here. For now."
"For now?" she cried.
"You've got to grow up and make some changes or you'll force me to"
"I am grown up, Daddy. And when my spousal support runs out, I'll be able to tap into my trust. Until then, I'll get a few more payments on the interest and"
"I've, uh, made a few changes," he said, the apples of his cheeks flushing with color.
"Yes, changes. I'm allowed to do that since I'm the trustee."
"What did you do?" she asked, filled with dread.
"You won't be getting any more of those quarterly interest payments on the principal. You can live on your salary as an account assistant from now on."
Maria squawked with outrage. "You can't do that! Granddaddy wanted me to have that money, and he wouldn't want you taking it away and threatening me and"
His tufted white brows crashed around his eyes and she knew she'd said the wrong thing. "Your grandfather wanted you to do something with your life!" he shouted, raising his voice to her for the first time since he'd caught her staying out all night the summer after she graduated from high school. "My father worked his fingers to the bone building that construction business, all so we could have a better life! Do you think he'd want you sitting around the pool every day?"
Startled, Maria shrank back against the cushions.
"I worked my whole life, and so did my brother! And all your cousins have done something with their lives, haven't they? Ed and Gene are doctors! Jenny's a teacher! Frank owns a restaurant! And what have you ever done?"
Maria leaped to her feet, her ears burning with humiliation. "It isn't like I'm stealing money!" she yelled. "I'm not on welfare and I"
"Save it." He stood and replaced his chair at the table. When he looked at her again, his face was set in grim, determined lines. "Here's the bottom line, Sugar. You work for a year on this job. You do your best. That's all I ask. If you do, you get your money on your birthday."
She raised her chin in the defiant way she knew drove him crazy. "And if I don't?"
He stared at her. "Do you have a money tree growing out back that I don't know about?"
That shut her up.
His shoulders squared. "If you don't, I'll exercise my powers as trustee and you won't see a dime until you're forty."
It took a long, dizzying moment for the words to sink in. When they did, she collapsed on the lounge chair, too light-headed to remain upright.
Not get her money until she was forty? Without her father's financial support? Then she would have to go on welfare. The awful truth was, she had almost nothing. No real savings, no house, nothing to sell for money other than last year's designer clothes, and she wouldn't get enough for those to make a deposit on an apartment. She did have a tiny little rainy-day fundless than five thousand dollars, she thoughtand it looked like the rainy day she'd thought would never come had come.
Without that September interest payment she'd been counting on, she was really screwed. She'd originally planned to use it for some new clothes, of course, and maybe a quick trip to Bermuda for a few days of fun in the sun. Just now she'd thought she could use it to move into her own apartment and escape from Ellis's sudden tyranny. Now, though, she couldn't do any of that. Now she was as helpless as an earthworm, and totally at her father's mercy. For the first time in her life she wished she'd saved a little more money here and there. But what would've been the point when she'd known she'd come into her inheritance at twenty-eight?
Her father sure knew how to play for keeps, didn't he? Standing there, white-haired and white-mustached, looking like a black Colonel Sanders, he had the heart of Machiavelli, didn't he? She should have known. He would never have built the best PR firm in Cincinnati if he weren't, down deep, a wily old rascal.
Well, a year wouldn't kill her, would it? She could swallow her fears and pretend to be a useful member of society for a year, as long as she came out of it a millionaire.
"Fine," she said, but she didn't mean it.