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Veronica Overton walked with prideful steps into the executive ladies' room on the fifth and top floor of the building that housed the agency, Child Placement and Assistance (CPAA), that she headed as executive director. In the three years that shell been its chief, she'd developed the agency into a driving force on Baltimore's notoriously depressed and blighted west side. When she went home to her co-op town house in upper-middle-class Owings Mills, just outside Baltimore proper each night, she could pride herself in the knowledge that she'd made it; she'd accomplished what millions strove to do. She'd reached the top of her profession before her thirty-third year, and by bringing integrity to everything she did, she'd won the respect and admiration of everyone who knew or knew about her. Veronica reached the entrance to the ladies' lounge and stopped short.
"What do you know about that?" she heard a woman ask. "Her Highness, Lady Veronica, is flat on her backside. The invincible Miss Overton. Not even the governor can get her out of this one."
Veronica recognized Mary Ann's voice when she said, "Why're you so happy about it? I think it's a reflection on all of us. Somebody slipped up somewhere."
"Yeah," came the voice of Astrid Moore, the woman who had competed with Veronica for the position of executive director, "but Her Highness is the one who'll burn for it. That man means business."
Veronica rubbed her arms to relieve the sensation of burrs and thorns attacking her skin. Forgetting that the women thoughtthemselves alone, she startled Astrid with a hand on her shoulder.
"What are you talking about? What's happened that I don't know about?"
Astrid's glistening white teeth sparkled against her smooth dark skin. "You didn't know? Schyler Henderson just held a news conference. Seems Natasha Wynn is missing from the foster home we placed her in, and he's suing CPAA for negligence."
Veronica couldn't help bristling at the accusation, even as apprehension raced like blood through her body. "Negligence? He's out of his mind. Some children run away from their own parents."
"Yes," Mary Ann said, stepping over to Veronica's side in an unspoken gesture of support. "But Mr. Henderson said the home in which we placed Natasha is an unsuitable environment. You know what that means."
"Do I ever!" Veronica wrinkled her nose against the sweet, sickening perfume that Astrid sprayed around her neck and ears. "Thanks for your loyalty, Astrid. Be sure I won't forget it. Not ever," she added with pointed sarcasm.
She inspected her light brown skin, combed her black, artificially straight hair, refreshed the lipstick that matched her dusty-rose raw-silk dress and walked out of the room head high and shoulders straight. People said she walked regally, but she felt anything but regal right then. A blast from Schyler Henderson and his Advocates for the Child (AFTC) people could topple her, destroy all that she'd done and sink her into professional disgrace.
She welcomed the sharp mid-March air that greeted her when she stepped out of the CPAA building. Winter had hung around longer than usual, and she tugged her street-length black shearling coat closer to her body. At the corner, she bought some roasted chestnuts from Franco, who told her proudly that he'd sent three children through college on what he made selling them. She believed him. Over twelve years, chestnuts at ten for a dollar fifty could have bought him a mansion.
The twenty-minute train ride home gave her just the time she needed to unwind after a hard day and to begin thinking of her other life. Her choral society, work with the shelters and her plan to help juveniles achieve more respect in their neighborhoods. She wanted to form them into groups of volunteers who would assist people in emergencies. As she entered the two-story brown brick structure, she couldn't help feeling a sense of pride, It was hers, and she didn't owe one penny on it.
After a light supper, she sipped ginger ale and watched the evening news. The Henderson man was everywhere, and his commanding presence and mesmerizing charisma seemed to have worked their magic on the reporters. Not one of them questioned his accusations; not one pointed out her contribution to the people in the area she served. Sickened by the media's readiness to put her on trial, she flipped off the radio and set about planning her defense.
The next morning she sat in her office with her deputy, Enid Dupree, discussing the agency's options, Enid didn't believe they had the resources or the proof to combat AFTC. "Veronica, you know Henderson is formidable when he makes a case against you. Look at the way he managed that case against the boys' club."
Veronica sat forward. She'd forgotten that case. "But this agency is not culpable."
Enid shrugged. "Doesn't have to be; he believes in his soul that we've destroyed Natasha Wynn, and if you didn't have anything more to go on than the evidence he cited to the press, you'd say he's right."
"I know he's a heavyweight. Everybody around here knows about him and his crusades, but people say he s honorable."
"Somebody's feeding him half-truths. I'd bet my new face on it."
Veronica's shoulders shook with her laughter. "You paid eight thousand dollars for that face. You mean you're that sure we've got a stool pigeon in here?"
"You heard what he said at his news conference. He sounded as if he'd been reading our files."
"Then he should have read the truth. That foster home has had a perfect record." She gritted her teeth. "You wouldn't believe how I'd like to get my hands on that man."
Enid's new face bloomed into a lusty female grin. "Me too. Lord knows I would, and I wouldn't be taking my hands off him anytime soon. Believe me, I'd"
Veronica could hardly believe what she heard. Enid never talked about men unless discussing them professionally. "Wait a minute. Are you saying?"
Enid didn't bother to show any embarrassment at having raved about a man. "Haven't you met the guy? If he doesn't send your blood rushing the wrong way, you haven't got any. I'm fifty-four, but just looking at that man from a distance of twenty feet made me pray."
"Yes, honey. If I hadn't prayed for self-control, I'd have gone straight up to him and said or done something stupid."
Thank God it wouldn't be a jury trial, and with luck, the judge would be a forty-year-old ladies' man. "I've seen him on TV, but I never got the impression that he was irresistible."
"Same here, but Mr. Henderson in person is an all 'nother cut of cloth. Those eyes! And, Lord, that million dollar charisma. Whew!"
Veronica leaned back in her chair, picked up a pencil, twirled it, put it down and shuffled some of the papers on her desk. Restless and impatient. "All right. I get it. That only means I've got work to do and plenty of it. He's used to getting his way, no doubt."
Laughter, spilled out of the woman sitting beside her desk. "If he told me what his `way,' was, I'd see that he got it."
At Veronica's icy stare, Enid threw up her hands, "Just kidding. Just kidding, See you later."
Veronica watched her leave. She trusted Enid, but she didn't care to do battle with a male heartthrob. Competence she could handle, but she didn't relish being the generator for a man's ego trip. She read and reread the information in Natasha's file. The agency hadn't made a single mistake with the girl. Who knew why an eleven-year-old would run away. A sudden chill stole into her. A child wouldn't run away from a warm, loving and happy home, would she? If indeed that was what had happened. Lord forbid Natasha had been a victim of foul play.
She mused over the problem and, on impulse, asked her secretary for Schyler Henderson's phone number. She couldn't plan if she didn't know precisely what the charges were.
"Schyler Henderson. Good morning."
His warm, caressing tones gave her a mental picture of a perfectly proportioned male lying supine on a bed of dewy grass with a warm breeze kissing his bare skin. She reigned in her thoughts.
"Hello, Mr. Henderson. This is Veronica Overton."
"What may I do for you, Ms. Overton?"
So he didn't engage in small talk. She held the receiver away and stared at it. No pretense. All right, if that's the way he wanted it. She respected professionalism, She told him she'd learned of his charges through the media.
"It seems to me that if you were seriously concerned about our placement practices, you would at least have spoken with me before you made your public grandstand."
"I considered it, but since I didn't know you or how you operated, I decided against it."
"Well, I want you to know that I had no idea Natasha wasn't in that home until one of my staff told me about your press conference."
"Ms. Overton, that home is unsuitable. The child has disappeared, and no amount of discussion will change that. The only way we'll stop this ... these tragedies is nip them at the source."
"That home has served more than a dozen children over the years without one unpleasant incident. Furthermore, my agency has an impeccable record, and we provide the only service of its kind to West Baltimore. If you destroy us, what can you put in our place?"
"I'm not out to destroy your agency. We need it; you and that agency have been a good thing for this community. But we must protect and preserve every child, every little life, Ms. Overton. No mistake is tolerable. My aim is to make sure that our children get the best possible service. From the information available to me, it appears that Natasha Wynn didn't get that so, much as I'd rather not move against you, I have to do what I believe is right."
Schyler hung up, got the file and read it through again, assuring himself that he hadn't misrepresented the woman or her agency. Still, an uneasy feeling settled in him. He'd never met her, but he knew her reputation and he was loathe to sully it. Women, and especially African-American women, had a hard enough time getting executive jobs and receiving the support they needed after they got them. He didn't want to knock her down, but when he remembered his own travails in first one foster home and then another, he had to stay his course for the child's sake. He called the district attorney's office to lodge his complaint.
Brian Atwood answered the phone. "Man, Overton has a spotless record. You asking me to dethrone that icon?"
Schyler sat down, put his feet on his desk, crossed his ankles and leaned back in his swivel chair. "I know who she is, and I don't want to hurt her, but it's my job to act when a child is endangered." He could imagine that he'd worried Brian, the coward of their college class.
"I hope you know what you're doing, man. She's rock solid."
Fishing with Brian could be fun, but working with him tried his patience. "Was rock solid. I'm sending the file over by messenger."
"Okay," Brian said, a tad slowly, Schyler thought. "I'll get back to you."
Three hours later, Schyler lifted the receiver hoping his caller was not Veronica Overton and breathed deeply in relief when he heard Brian's voice. "What do you think?"
Brian didn't hesitate. "I'll check this out and if I find cause, I'll bring charges.
A week later, AFTC's charges against Veronica's agency were aired in Family Court.
Schyler strode into court, certain of his grounds but unhappy about the damage he might inflict on a woman of commanding stature and singular achievement. She had rescued Child Placement and Assistance from irrelevancy and made it a force in the community. He knew about her, had heard her on radio and seen her on television, but he'd never met her. A half-smile settled around his mouth. She always sounded so correct, perfect, like Miss Betts, his fourth-grade teacher. He hadn't liked Miss Betts, he recalled, because she never gave him credit for what he did. Sometimes, he wished she could see him now. He'd grin at her and show her his thumbs up sign, the way he always did when she was mean to him. He laughed to himself, because he knew he was procrastinating. Much as he hated it, he had to present this case.
He walked away from his side of the aisle, greeted an acquaintance and shook hands with him, still postponing the inevitable. Then he sat at the table provided for him and looked across the narrow aisle that separated him from Veronica Overton, intending to bow graciously, and did a double take. Right straight to the marrow of his bones. An arrow with his name on it. She'd looked at him and his heart had taken off and sped unerringly to her. Get ahold of yourself, man. This spelled trouble, because she'd reacted to him as surely as he had to her. Quickly, he focused his attention on the papers in front of him. She'd been looking at him again and had diverted her gaze when he caught her at it. He ran his fingers through the thick black wavy hair that disputed the purity of his African heritage. Now, what was that all about?
Veronica glanced up just as the tall, distinguished-looking man entered the far side of the chamber. Schyler Henderson. A giant of a man. At least six feet five inches tall, though trim as an athlete. She'd never realized he was so tall and, for reasons she refused to examined, imagined that he'd dwarf her five feet ten inches. Not that she wouldn't like it; she enjoyed being with a man who made her feel soft and feminine. She settled her gaze on him. She wouldn't say he was a knockout, but ... He looked at someone in front of her, smiled, and long strides brought him to within a few feet of where she sat. His smile claimed his whole face as he shook hands with the man before going to the table reserved for him and sitting down.
The bottom dropped out of her belly, and she knew what Enid meant about blood flowing backward. She stared at his back while something leaped within her, quickening her insides. She couldn't move her gaze from him. He sat alone, without a lawyer, leaning back, as relaxed as a marathon runner at the end of a race. She brought herself under control and breathed. Lord, she'd never seen such eyes.
The judge called the proceedings to order, and Brian Atwood read the charges. She marveled at her ability to sit quietly through it. Her agency's lawyer refuted the charges, and she strummed her fingers on her knee. Such a waste of time and money. It hadn't occurred to her that Schyler would be the one to argue on behalf of Advocates for the Child. She bristled at the assurance with which he read the brief he'd written as a friend of the court.
"No matter what CPAA's reputation is, it cannot be allowed to endanger our children. The tragedy of Natasha Wynn has sullied the commendable reputation that this agency established during the previous three years. But saving a hundred children does not excuse the loss of one."
Angry at him as Veronica was, he fascinated her. And thrilled her. She watched, spellbound, as he strolled from one end of the bench to the other, a consummate actor.
He spread his hands as though helpless. "Of course, Your Honor, we can pat them on the back and say, now you be good little boys and girls and don't do this anymore. Sure, and we could be right back here a month, two, three or a year from now with another tragedy." He looked over at her and smiled. "We wouldn't want that, Your Honor." To her surprise, he asked his lawyer to call her to the stand.
Veronica took the stand. "Thank you for the opportunity to speak on my behalf, Mr. Henderson. Not many of us can claim to have achieved perfection in every aspect of our lives as you so obviously have, so you'll forgive me if I don't blow my own horn and let the agency's record speak for itself."
She could see that she'd stung him, but he was only momentarily nonplussed. "When we're dealing with people's lives, we'd better be perfect," he replied, his tone gentle and his manner respectful.
She refused to allow him the last word. "Since you know that, Mr. Henderson, I'd think you'd have gotten your facts straight before you took an action that could destroy my life."
A look of distress flashed across his countenance, and she got a sense that he regretted the entire affair, but he quickly replaced it with an expression of confidence and asked the judge for a ruling against CPAP.
The judge, apparently having heard enough, announced that he'd render a decision within ten days and dismissed them.
Veronica marched out of the chamber, head high, without a glance in Schyler's direction. He'd had the temerity to accuse her agency. She couldn't think of any torture good enough for him. As the crisp March air hit her face, enlivening her skin, invigorating her, his long shadow paired with hers, and she didn't doubt that he'd maneuvered it so that they'd leave the building together.
She didn't look at him. Deliberately. She didn't want any of his magnetism, though it seemed to radiate from him even when she wasn't looking at him. "I'm surprised you'd care for my company, Mr. Henderson. It taxes my credulity to think you'd allow yourself to be seen with such an irresponsible person as me, a menace to the well-being of Baltimore's children. Sure you haven't mistaken me for someone else?"
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "This isn't personal, Ms. Overton. I've admired your work, but this tragedy requires restitution."
She stopped walking and looked up at him. "And you don't care who pays. Is that it? You don't even know that there is a tragedy. She's missing, but for all you know she could be safe. Where there's no body, there's no murder; any detective will tell you that. Make a name for yourself at somebody else's expense, please."
He faced her, towering over her, either unable or not caring to hide the sensual awareness making itself known through the prisms of his remarkable gray eyes. "I'm not a crusader, Ms. Overton. I'm trying to protect children because they can't do that for themselves. I'd never set out to hurt you. You ... you're ..." He looked into the distance, protecting his thoughts, and when he looked back at her, she couldn't mistake the compassion his eyes conveyed for anything but what it was. He did dislike hurting her.
He stared down at her, his gaze unfathomable. A half-smile formed around his sensuous mouth. Then he winked. "See you next week." And he was gone.
Schyler's steps slowed when he approached the restaurant where he'd told Brian they could meet for lunch, as his mind grappled with the enigma that was Veronica Overton. Once there, he ordered a hamburger with-french fries, coleslaw and a dill pickle, and a chocolate sundae for desert.
"Aren't you hungry?" Brian asked, as he watched Schyler pick at his food.
"I don't know. I just don't feel that spurt of adrenalin, that excitement that I usually get on a case. I don't feel like making the kill. Maybe I ought to turn this job over to somebody else and stick to engineering."
"This doesn't surprise me. It's a real bummer. The woman's standing in the community didn't happen accidentally. She had to work her tail off for it, man. You're going to make yourself a bunch of enemies."
"I know, but I can't help it. When I became head of Advocates for the Child, I took an oath to pursue vigorously every case in which a child had been put at risk. It's my job, and I have to do it, but I ..." He rubbed his forehead. "You don't know how I hate the thought of jeopardizing that woman's career."
"Well fasten your seat belt, man. Eve got some news for you."
"Those foster parents have separated. I got it when I called my office just before you walked in here. You can't lose this one."
"Separated after twenty-three years? What about?"
"Seems she's tired of doing everything in the house while he comes home at night, buries his face in a book or newspaper and cultivates his mind. She's mad as hell and she's not taking it anymore."
Brian's laughter grated on his ears. He didn't find it amusing. "That doesn't make it a bad home for a child."
"Does if they argued about it a lot."
Schyler nodded. "If the man's such a lost cause, how'd she stand him for twenty-three years?" He finished his chocolate sundae. "Gotta go, man. See you in court."
He hailed a taxi to his office at Branch Signal Corporation, where he worked as chief of electrical design. An engineer by profession, he'd gotten a law degree so that he could help underprivileged people, particularly children, who otherwise wouldn't get competent counseling. He didn't charge for his services to AFTC, and though he represented the foundation, he didn't practice law.
He went to his drafting table and began working on a method of tapping electric energy in summer when it was cheapest and storing it for use in winter when it became more expensive. He was too disconcerted to work. Something ... everything about that case bothered him. He walked over to the window and looked down at the crowds scurrying along Calvert Street like ants after sugar. He'd gotten one good look at her, and she'd poleaxed him. In all his thirty-six years, no woman had done to him what she did without trying. He wondered how he'd had the presence of mind not to stare at her. He lifted his left shoulder in a quick shrug. She wasn't immune to him either. But he suspected she had the strength to put aside whatever she felt, to ignore it and him. Too bad. He'd give anything if he'd met her in more favorable circumstances.