I walked into work and found myself in another world.
Emma Shore whisked aside curtains on a twelve-foot-tall wall made entirely of glass. The shock of sudden, blinding beauty disoriented her momentarily. The sun reflected brilliantly off an azure, beckoning Lake Michigan and filtered through a grove of white-trunked birches lining the water. Leaves fluttered like green-gold coins, fracturing the light in her dazed eyes. White spray flew into the air when a wave hit the black, jagged breakers in the distance.
The design of the house in which she stood was revolutionary, at least in Emma’s limited experience. The mansion cascaded down the bluff to the sealike great lake, each layer of the house a stepping-stone to the next, one level’s roof the above story’s magnificent terrace filled with picturesque outdoor seating and colorful pots of flowers. On the lowest level near the lake, a clear blue swimming pool tempted someone to pierce its serene surface.
Paradise. Out there it was, anyway.
She turned. Golden-green dappled light transformed the formerly shrouded, luxurious bedroom. Unfortunately, the other occupant of the room, Mrs. Shaw, appeared all the more disapproving in the sunlight. The rest of Emma’s fellow nurses and nursing assistants from New Horizon Hospice were already familiar with this assignment, having been at the Breakers for several weeks. Emma was the new girl on the block and bound to make a few missteps.
Apparently, she’d just made her first.
She studied the elegant, thin older woman with the blond bob, dressed in tailored chic as she crossed the suite. The woman had introduced herself a few minutes ago as Michael Montand’s personal domestic assistant, whatever that meant. Emma’s supervisor had labeled Mrs. Shaw more concisely as the housekeeper. Apparently, even a housekeeper of the Montand caliber could pass as an aging supermodel. Whatever her title, Mrs. Shaw had clearly decided Emma was trouble. Emma’s reassuring smile as she walked to the empty bed was meant to quiet the other woman’s anxiety. Emma was a nurse and a patient advocate, not a rebel. It wasn’t her fault if the family or staff of her patients sometimes couldn’t discern the difference.
“This is a sickroom,” Mrs. Shaw said over the concerto playing softly on the stereo. “The way you’re acting with all this sunlight and music, and having Mrs. Montand showered, you’d think you expected her to go to a party tonight.”
“The sick appreciate beauty as much as the living. Usually more so.”
“She’s not sick. She’s dying.”
“Not yet,” Emma stated unequivocally, ignoring Mrs. Shaw’s shocked, outraged expression at her confident tone. She was a hospice nurse, true, but she’d also had her fair share of experience with death—much more than an average twenty-three-year-old. No. Her patient’s time wasn’t just yet.
“The doctors say—”
“I know what the doctors say,” Emma interrupted, trying to control the edge to her tone. She glanced toward the adjoining bathroom and lowered her voice to just above a whisper, hoping Mrs. Shaw would do the same. Her patient was on the other side of that door. “I just mean that in my professional opinion, the end isn’t imminent. Not today. Not tomorrow.” She resumed making the bed briskly. “Cristina said she loved classical music when I interviewed her earlier, so I turned on the stereo. Who doesn’t appreciate being clean? As for the drapes, has she complained of being bothered by sunlight before?” she asked, ignoring Mrs. Shaw’s glare when she used her patient’s first name. Cristina had given her permission to use it just an hour ago, and that was good enough for Emma.
“You speak boldly for someone so young,” Mrs. Shaw said, her frowning face disappearing for a happy moment as Emma snapped the blanket into the air, blocking her vision of the woman.
“Has Mrs. Montand said she disliked having the curtains open?” Emma repeated quietly, bending to tuck in the blanket.
“I’ve never heard her say one way or another, but she’s never had the opportunity to express her opinion. Mr. Montand has asked us to keep the curtains closed since Mrs. Montand returned to the Breakers to . . .”
Emma filled in the unsaid word in her head when Mrs. Shaw faded off. It never ceased to surprise her how people usually said the word so flippantly in everyday life, but refused to utter it when death hovered in the vicinity. Maybe they thought death would notice, and take them instead.
“We’ll see how Cristina responds to the view when she comes back from her shower. It’s easy enough to pull the curtains again. Cristina might find the sunlight refreshing,” Emma finished the conversation with a friendly but firm tone.
When she heard the squeak of the wheelchair and muffled voices in the distance, she hastened across the room. She knocked and opened the bathroom door, stepping just over the threshold to assist Margie, the nursing assistant. Emma had been impressed by the sheer size of the bathroom, not to mention how it’d been sleekly updated to accommodate all of Cristina’s disabilities. From what she’d understood, Montand had outfitted the suite for Cristina just months ago when he’d learned she’d been terminally diagnosed and was living alone and friendless in the city on a fixed income.
“Ah, a shower did you good, I see,” Emma said when Margie paused the wheelchair. Cristina Montand smiled thinly up at Emma from where she sat.
“It was better than sex. Certainly at this stage in my life, anyway,” Cristina said in a husky, Italian-accented voice.
Emma grinned, glad to hear the wry humor in her patient’s voice. The exotic accent suited her appearance and personality, somehow. Cancer was claiming her too young. Emma knew from the medical chart that Cristina was sixty-two. She had clearly once been a beauty. The wasting of the flesh combined with a slight swelling and discoloration due to an increasingly failing liver and kidneys couldn’t entirely disguise the classic cheekbones and a swanlike neck.
“I’ve made your bed up nice and fresh and opened the curtains, but say the word and I’ll close them again if you’re tired,” Emma said.
“Mr. Montand has given explicit instructions to leave the curtains closed,” Margie said anxiously. Emma was puzzling out the nursing assistant’s tense declaration, when the phone rang shrilly in the bedroom. Emma glanced around and saw Mrs. Shaw hasten to pick it up. The housekeeper looked at Emma, an ugly, triumphant expression spreading on her face as she listened to whoever was on the other end.
“Yes, I told her you wouldn’t want them opened, but she seems to think she knows best. Yes, I’ll see to it immediately,” Mrs. Shaw said. Emma glanced uneasily at one of several surveillance cameras installed in the large suite. Had the enigmatic owner of the Breakers, Michael Montand, been the one to call?
Mrs. Shaw hung up the phone and marched over to the floor-to-ceiling wall of windows. She drew the drapes closed with a sweeping gesture, shrouding the room once again in darkness. Emma had her answer. Surely the nasty woman wouldn’t be so smug if she hadn’t been given permission to behave so dictatorially by her boss.
“What is that cagna doing here?” Cristina asked angrily when she saw Mrs. Shaw pass the door. Emma didn’t speak Italian, but she had a pretty good idea that calling someone a cagna wasn’t a compliment.
“This is his home. I do what he asks me to do.” Mrs. Shaw cast one last glare in Emma and Cristina’s general vicinity and exited the suite.
Emma exhaled the breath she’d been holding. “She’s gone,” she told Cristina quietly as she stepped aside so that Margie could push Cristina into the bedroom. “Do you want the drapes opened?”
Was it fear or anger or wistfulness she saw flicker across her patient’s lined face at the question? Emma couldn’t be sure, but one thing was for certain.
This family had some serious secrets.
“My stepson is the owner of the Breakers, and I’m dependent upon his charity. His father and the courts have made that crystal clear. I’ll live by his rules,” Cristina replied flatly.
“Nevertheless, the choice is yours,” Emma assured.
“I’m very tired after my shower,” Cristina said after a pause.
“Say no more,” Emma said calmly.
Cristina gave a regretful glance at the drawn curtains after she and Margie had transferred her to the bed from her wheelchair.
“I caught a glimpse of the sunlight from there in the bathroom. Was it a very beautiful day?” Cristina asked Emma in a gravelly voice when Margie left the room.
“One of those days where the sunlight hits the water and is absorbed by the air, and you feel like it’s a living thing, it’s so brilliant.”
Cristina smiled. “I remember days like those on the Riviera, days reserved for the young and healthy,” Cristina said as Emma straightened the bedding around her frail form.
“A day like today is as much yours as anyone’s.”
Disease hadn’t entirely erased the slicing quality of Cristina’s smile. “Only someone young and beautiful would be so foolish as to think that.”
Emma arched her eyebrows at the thrust but didn’t respond. Cristina had an edge to her, there was no doubt about it. Emma figured if she was in as much pain as Cristina was as cancer slowly ate away at her flesh and pride, she might be a tad testy, too.
She had recognized Cristina’s forceful character during their initial meeting earlier in the day. “You’re not going to preach to me, are you?” Cristina had queried archly at that meeting.
“Preach to you?” Emma had asked, taken aback.
“About heaven and hell and all the good things I’ve got ahead of me whenever this gives out in a few weeks or days or hours if I repent.” She’d glanced scornfully at her wasted body. “Your predecessor tried to, and that’s why she’s gone.”
“I’ve never liked being preached to,” Emma replied. “I don’t do anything to anyone else that I wouldn’t like being done to me.”
“That sounds like a religious answer,” was Cristina’s reply.
“No. It’s a commonsense one.”
That had earned her a small, appreciative grin, but Emma was aware that she was still on trial. She might be for the remainder of her patient’s life. She’d grown used to the jury being hung on many occasions before.
• • •
Mrs. Shaw certainly has her opinions, doesn’t she?” Emma said quietly to Margie a while later. They sat in a luxurious living room off the bedroom, Emma doing some paperwork while Margie sipped a Diet Coke. Margie worked a regular eight-to-five shift, while the registered nurses had been hired to provide twenty-four-hour care for Cristina. Emma covered the three-to-eleven shift, Monday through Friday. It would be a change of pace to have a regular weekday schedule. Margie had paused to chat with her for a few minutes before she left for the day.
“Mrs. Shaw is the devil’s minion. How else is she supposed to act?” Margie asked, shrugging.
“Devil’s minion?” Emma choked back laughter. “You mean the stepson’s?” She’d already learned from her briefing with the night nurse, Debbie Vega, that Cristina had no close family to speak of beside the stepson, and that the stepson preferred not to be involved in day-to-day care. What had occurred this afternoon with the phone call and the drapes seemed to go against the idea that Michael Montand was uninvolved, however. Every family and patient was unique, but this entire situation with the Montands was singular for New Horizon Hospice. Hospice nurses typically provided palliative care and comfort to the dying patient as well as support and education to family members. They were only in the home three to fifteen hours per week or so, depending on what the family needed. Cristina’s stepson had insisted upon twenty-four-hour care from fully qualified hospice nurses, however. Emma suspected he must have made a sizable donation to New Horizon Hospice to make up for the highly unusual circumstances.
What’s more, Michael Montand and his family were famous, although not for something familiar to Emma’s world. She vaguely associated the name Montand with fast European sports cars and commercials featuring impossibly gorgeous men and women doing things like sipping champagne at red carpet events and then racing across scenic highways in a high-performance Montand car just in time to catch a departing yacht. Now that she’d seen his house, Emma thought it might fit in to one of the Montand company’s glamorous commercials.
“I haven’t seen Montand in the two weeks I’ve worked here. I hear he’s very busy, but still . . .” Margie’s voice trailed away. She glanced toward the partially open door to the bedroom, but there was no way the patient could hear even if she were awake. The suite took up the entire floor. The rooms were large and draped with luxurious fabrics and several large paintings. Emma could hear her patient, of course, from a one-way monitor perched on the desk. “The maid told me there’s another reason for his absence as far as Cristina. According to all accounts, Montand hates her with a passion.”
“Hates his stepmother? I suppose it wouldn’t be the first time in history,” Emma said with a grin. “He certainly provides top-quality care if he dislikes Cristina so much,” she said, closing the chart and sitting back in the chair.
“The rumor is that he relishes seeing her sick and miserable. I’ve asked the other nurses. He’s never once been here to visit her, either while I’ve been on duty or during any of the other nurses’ shifts,” Margie said significantly.
“That would seem to negate the rumor, wouldn’t it?” Emma asked drolly. Margie was a little prone to gossip and sticking her nose in where she shouldn’t in family dynamics. Working in the mansion of an elusive billionaire sports car magnate was bound to amplify her sense of drama. Emma had learned to keep perspective in every new home where she worked, however. She was there to do a job and ease suffering, not take sides in family feuds.
“I just mean if Montand never comes to see her, he can’t be relishing the sight of her misery too much,” Emma explained when Margie just gave her a blank, non-comprehending look.
Margie’s dark brown eyes went wide. “You saw what happened today with the curtains,” she hissed, glancing significantly at a video monitor on the desk that showed Cristina’s motionless form sleeping in the bed.
“You know families often use surveillance cameras when a loved one is this sick.”
Margie rolled her eyes and took a swig of her soda. “Montand probably has a screen set up in his bedroom and office and private plane. Sick bastard. He’s glorying in every second of his stepmother’s death while he eats chocolates and sips champagne in bed.”
Emma chuckled. “You make him sound like a depressed Dynasty character.”
“It’s creepy, I’m telling you,” Margie said firmly, glancing warily at the television monitor and Cristina’s image again. “It’s not at all like our normal assignments.”
“Every family has different needs,” Emma said in an attempt at rationality. She glanced around the lovely living room. “Besides, there are much, much more uncomfortable and unpleasant places to spend one’s last days and hours,” she said mildly. “He must be rich as a Rockefeller to have a house like this. Maybe he’s too busy making money to visit his stepmother.”
“He travels a lot for work. Not that he has to work, of course. From what the maid tells me, he inherited this car company from his father that makes these superfast French sports cars.”
“I’ve heard of Montand cars. Very exclusive. Very expensive.”
“And he’d already started his own company here in the States before his father died. They make racecars, or something like that. He’s got like a couple dozen cars in this megahuge garage that he had dug into the bluff. It’s like some kind of billionaire playground or museum. At least that’s what Alice, the maid, tells me. She says Montand is hot as Hades, but all that sexy goodness is a waste, because he’s a cold, scary bastard.”
“So Alice is around him a lot?”
“Never,” Margie whispered. “He’s paranoid. He doesn’t want anyone in his private chambers but that scarecrow, Mrs. Shaw. Those two are cut from the same cloth. The cook hardly ever sees him, either. Mrs. Shaw collects the food and serves him or him and his guests,” Margie said with a pointed glance, “in the dining room.”
Emma sighed. “Well, if this Montand guy holds any animosity for Cristina, he’s doing us all a favor by steering clear. I’m only interested in him if Cristina wants to—or needs to—see him during her last days.”
“That’s why I believe in Alice’s opinion that he’s the devil,” Margie insisted before noticing Emma’s cautionary glance and nod toward the bedroom. She quieted her voice. “Cristina says her stepson is the last person on earth she wants to see.”
Both women blinked when Emma’s cell phone buzzed where it sat on the desk.
“The tech nerd?” Margie asked, grinning.
“Yeah,” Emma said, reading the message from her boyfriend, Colin. “He says he’s so smoking Amanda’s butt at Modern Warlord.”
Margie rolled her eyes and grabbed her purse. “They hang around together even when you’re not around?”
“All the time. They’re both video game–aholics,” Emma replied, rapidly texting Colin back.
She glanced up and caught Margie’s sharp glance. “And here I thought your sister was cool,” Margie said before she headed for the door.
• • •
The next night, Emma sat in an upholstered chair near Cristina’s bed and read out loud from a 1986 version of Vogue. Cristina had chosen the reading material, and then grinned the biggest smile Emma had seen on her yet when Emma discovered the article featuring Cristina. It turned out that Cristina had been quite the fashion maven in her day. She’d twice been declared one of the best-dressed women in the world. She had owned a posh, renowned secondhand designer retail store in downtown Kenilworth. Fashionistas from all over the world used to throng to her shop not only to buy one-of-a-kind, barely used designer shoes, handbags, and apparel, but also to empty out their own closets—presumably so they could be filled all over again.
“I love it,” Emma said, setting aside the magazine and standing to pull down the covers. Cristina had broken out in a sweat while Emma’d read. Her regulatory mechanisms were going haywire. Poor woman was freezing one second, boiling the next. Emma picked up a cool, damp cloth and pressed it to Cristina’s forehead and cheeks. “I can’t imagine having wardrobes like those women must have owned.”
“They were bored,” Cristina rasped. “I was bored. What else did we have to do but recycle our wardrobes? We couldn’t change our lives, so we changed our clothes . . . and our makeup and our hair. It didn’t work, of course, but doing it made us forget that. For a little while. How much does my stepson pay you?” she suddenly asked sharply.
Emma blinked as she set down the cloth. “Your stepson doesn’t pay me. The hospice does. Are you asking me my salary?” she clarified amusedly as she stripped off a soiled pillowcase.
“Yes. I suppose. How much do you make in a year?”
Emma stated a figure, inclined to respond candidly to a candid question.
“That’s not much.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” Emma replied dryly.
“Still, you told me you’re not married and you have no children. You have no excuse for dressing like a camp counselor every day.” She peered closer at Emma’s outfit. “A boy camp counselor, at that,” Cristina added raggedly before she began to cough. Emma held up a cloth beneath her patient’s mouth, laughing at the woman’s parry. She understood Cristina’s reference. Cristina had commented on Emma’s attire yesterday when they were introduced—jeans, a fitted T-shirt, and her favorite pair of red high tops. Her hospice was pretty good about letting the staff wear whatever they wanted for work. Most of the nurses wore scrubs, but Emma preferred her own clothing.
Emma placed the cloth in the overflowing red plastic bag of dirty linens.
“I don’t have any children, but I live with my little sister. She’s going to medical school this fall,” Emma explained, talking as though the coughing fit hadn’t taken place.
“And you’ve been helping her get by?”
“Her brilliance and the scholarships have done that. Still, she lived with me while she’s been in undergrad.”
“You said your parents are both gone. So you’ve paid for your sister’s food and keep and whatever else her scholarship hasn’t provided—which I’m sure is plenty? You don’t have to answer,” Cristina said after a short pause. “I’m getting the make of you.”
“And here I thought I was so complex and mysterious.”
“Martyrs never are. That’s the reason you dress like a drudge, a pretty girl like you,” Cristina decided with an exhausted air of finality. Her breathing was coming easier now, but the coughing had tired her. “You don’t think twice about things like fashion. You look down your nose at we women who do.”
“You’re wrong,” Emma said, quite unoffended. She found Cristina’s sharp wit engaging, and sensed Cristina respected her for it. “And your logic is faulty. You call me a martyr because I’m a walking fashion mistake and because of the job I do.”
“Who else but a martyr would do this godforsaken job?” Cristina sparred without pause, even though her speech had begun to slur.
“A person who loves it, of course.”
Cristina snorted. Emma finished changing the pillowcase and lifted Cristina’s head gently, slipping the fresh pillow into place. She settled with a sigh. Emma began checking her patient’s pulse.
“And in fact,” Emma continued when she had finished, “I am as vain as any female can be that works too hard, owns a car that’s been long overdue for work at the shop, not to mention a perpetually clogged kitchen sink, a water heater that thinks ‘hot’ means lukewarm, and a stack of bills that never seems to shrink. Which is to say, pretty damn vain, from what I’ve noticed. Desire grows from lack as much as overindulgence.”
Cristina gurgled a laugh and studied her figure narrowly. “What size are you? A four?”
“What has that got to do with anything?” Emma wondered.
“We’re the same size—or at least we once were—although you are a little taller. I’ve racks and racks of clothes in my closet over there,” Cristina said, nodding weakly at a door in the distance. “You take them. I want you to have them all,” she finished imperiously, her accent now so thick and her exhaustion so great, Emma barely understood her.
Emma placed her hand on her patient’s cold, trembling one.
“No. But thank you for the generous thought, Cristina,” she said softly.
She kept her hand in place and watched as the older woman succumbed to sleep.
• • •
The repairman left without fixing the washer,” Emma told Debbie, the night nurse, after they greeted each other in the living room of the suite. Debbie had arrived for her shift early. “He said the part probably wouldn’t get here until Friday.”
“What a slacker,” Debbie said disgustedly. “What are you doing?” the other nurse asked when Emma stuffed down the linen in the bag with a latex-glove-covered hand, removed the glove, and then tied off a tight knot.
“What? You’re taking it home with you?”
“Not a chance,” Emma said with a grin as she headed toward the door. “I don’t even own a washer and dryer.”
She noticed Debbie’s stunned glance and correctly interpreted it.
“This is a mansion,” Emma said, waving her hand in a circular “look at reality” gesture. “There has to be another washer and dryer here. Probably a couple.”
“You can’t just wander around this house!”
“We’re out of clean linens,” Emma said firmly. That said it all for her. How could anyone do adequate nursing without clean bedding, cloths, and towels? “You’re here early tonight. Start your shift a little early, I’ll go a little late, and you’ll have clean laundry before I leave,” she said reasonably.
“No, we’ll wait. I remember when I started, Mrs. Ring said that Mr. Montand had provided everything we needed in the suite,” she said, referring to their nurse supervisor. “He specified there was absolutely no reason for us to leave this level.”
“Did he?” Emma asked as she walked away, heaving the sealed red plastic bag over her shoulder. “It looks as if he was wrong.”
She descended another flight of stairs, feeling a little unnerved despite her earlier show of confidence with Debbie. She glanced around uneasily, but there was no one to ask for assistance. Hadn’t Margie mentioned several house staff worked here aside from Mrs. Shaw? Perhaps they were all day employees?
Being unlike any house she’d ever been in, the Breakers defied intuitive navigation. There weren’t really hallways, Emma realized, only stairs that led from one cascading floor to another. So far she’d encountered a fantastical futuristic workout facility featuring a gym, racquetball court, an indoor lap pool, and a landscaped outdoor terrace. She could make out the steam rising on the large outdoor whirlpool through the glass doors as she tiptoed through the silent, sleek facility. There had been no washer or dryer in the locker room that she could find, but she had located a chute that appeared to be for soiled linen. She just needed to locate where that chute ended.
It certainly wasn’t on the next level, which opened to a stunning suite that featured a gleaming bar, a waterfall fountain, an elaborate entertainment center, and deep upholstered chairs and couches. She spotted yet another outdoor space through a wall made completely of glass panes. Several examples of graceful, sensual marble sculpture caught Emma’s eye in the room. One made her do a double take and draw nearer to study it. Heat rose in her cheeks when she recognized the sexual act being portrayed. She guiltily recalled her mundane task and resumed her mission.
The straps on the heavy laundry bag were starting to dig painfully into her shoulder. She arrived on another floor and hesitated. Unlike most of the spaces she’d seen, this one opened to a wide hallway that led to a partially open, carved wood door. A possibility, she thought, shifting the bag to her other shoulder and grimacing, although probably just wishful thinking on her part. She peered around the door and sagged in disappointment. No laundry facilities here or anything remotely potentially useful to her. Unlike the rest of the minimalist, airy décor in the mansion, this room was decorated in dark woods, leathers, and rich fabrics in shades of burgundy and dark green. A large Oriental carpet covered the wood floor. She started to back out of what appeared to be a luxurious, masculine office.
A television monitor sat on the carved desk, a slight flickering in the turned black-and-white screen capturing her attention. She glanced around cautiously and eased into the room. An appealing scent tickled her nose: leather and the hint of men’s cologne—sandalwood and citrus. She leaned over the desk in order to fully view the screen. She saw the image of her patient, Cristina, her mouth a black, jagged slash against her white face, rising from a nightmare as she would from the depths of sucking water. Emma almost heard her scream, although the monitor was silent. Debbie’s shoulder and dark ponytail blocked the view of Cristina a moment later as she bent to assist. Margie’s voice echoed in Emma’s head.
He might have one of those screens set up in his bedroom or office or private plane, for all we know. He may be glorying in every second of his stepmother’s death.
Apparently not every second, Emma thought, frowning at the empty chair behind the desk. She glanced curiously around the office one more time. There was something odd in this scenario. She watched as Debbie settled Cristina and moved to the periphery of the screen. The stark fear and pain still lingered on Cristina’s sagging face.
“. . . how pleased I was when you called earlier. Why didn’t I hear from you sooner?”
Emma started in shock at the woman’s distant voice. For a confused second, she thought the sound came from the video feed.
“You called me,” a man replied. “And I was away. I told you that.”
Adrenaline poured into Emma’s blood, making her limbs tingle. Someone was coming down the stairs from the upper level.
Her heart stalled. Shit. She was in a private suite. Not at the threshold, but in the middle of the room. The hospice staff had specifically been told to remain on Cristina’s floor. She imagined fumbling a lame excuse to two total strangers about why she was lurking about next to this desk.
My ass is so going to get fired!
Her heart resumed beating with an uncomfortable leap. Emma lurched with it, her gaze traveling wildly across the large office. There was a massive closed door that she considered entering, but what if that led her into deeper trouble?
“Of course,” she heard the woman say. “France and Italy this time. Isn’t that what you said at dinner?”
“You know I said France and Monaco,” the man replied, sounding too distracted or impatient to be sardonic at full strength. The woman’s laughter made hot blood flood into Emma’s brain and her skin prickle with a need to flee.
“I suppose you were on that floating playground of Niki’s with all of his floatable playthings?”
“I told you that Niki is here in the States, testing the new car and helping me with plans for the Grand Prix. Oh, I see,” he said coolly. “You did hear me. You’re just testing me.”
Any second now they’ll walk in and see me standing here like an idiot.
Emma transformed into a wild thing, her single objective not to get caught. Her gaze landed on a tall, regal armoire with drawers at the bottom and a large, deep cupboard at the top. She opened the door, wincing at the uncontrollable clicking sound, and carefully placed the knotted plastic laundry bag into the bottom. Fully in the clutch of fear and panic, she sat on the bottom of the cupboard and pulled her legs in, knees against her chest. The sleeves and legs of some sort of garments brushed across her face before she plunged into the depths of them. Using the latch at the bottom of the door, she swung it shut just in time.
“What, exactly, do you think you’ll accomplish by trying to trick me into revealing a lie?” the man asked with dark amusement, his voice just feet away now. A door closed briskly. Another ominous sound came—the snick of a lock.
They were in the same room now with Emma. Locked in. Her heart roared so loud in her ears, she was surprised the man—was it Michael Montand himself?—didn’t immediately throw open the cupboard and yank her out, shouting blistering accusations.
And dammit, she hadn’t yet fastened the cupboard door. She’d been afraid the clicking noise would betray her presence as they drew near. Her hand started to ache from holding the metal fastening, keeping the door closed all the way but not latched.
“I’m not trying to trip you up. How ridiculous. I just missed you, that’s all. France and Monaco? I would guess some uncivilized place. You look like a savage,” the woman said, her voice lowering to a purr. Emma fully recognized for the first time that she had a light, melodious French accent. In her mind’s eye, Emma imagined her entering the man’s arms. Touching him. “A beautiful savage. Do what you do to me. Turn me into a savage, too.”
“Why must you always overplay things, Astrid?”
Emma blinked her eyes open into the pitch black. Had she imagined his vaguely frustrated tone? Despite her near full-blown panic, she experienced a strong urge to laugh. It’d been precisely what Emma had been thinking she’d like to tell the fawning woman.
“Why are you so mean?” Astrid asked, attempting to sound unconcerned and sexily playful, and very nearly succeeding. Emma had the impression Astrid had some serious experience with flirting and seduction, yet was aware she was falling short in this instance.
“You didn’t call me because you want me to be nice.”
“No,” Astrid breathed after a pause. “You’re even meaner than me, Vanni. And we both know how bad I am.”
Vanni? Who is Vanni? The woman had pronounced it like Donny but with a V.
Was she not trapped in Montand’s suite then? Was she eavesdropping on one of his guests or a family member? Emma wondered wildly.
“Are you sure you want to do this again?” he asked soberly, ignoring Astrid’s provocative language. “I’ve told you what I can offer you. It’s the same I can offer any woman. It isn’t much.”
“You might change your mind someday.”
A pregnant pause followed his steely reply.
“Then the sex is enough. More than enough,” Astrid breathed. “Ah. I knew you’d missed me.”
Emma’s anxiety ratcheted up another notch when she heard a jingle of metal. A belt buckle being unfastened? She waited in dread. Was that the subtle sound of a zipper being lowered? Shit, shit, shit. How the hell had she gotten herself into this—her—hardworking, practical Emma Shore?
The man gave a low grunt. “I suppose if you must use your mouth for something . . .
He didn’t sound aroused. He seemed . . . what? Irritated? Or was that dark amusement tingeing his voice? Forgetting her anxiety for a second, she leaned her head out of the hanging garments and moved closer to the door. It bothered her that she couldn’t picture him. It suddenly struck her that in her brief tour of the Breakers, she’d never once seen personal or family photos. Perhaps he wasn’t family, though. Astrid’s outline was clear in her head, despite the fact that Emma had never seen her. It wasn’t her true appearance that gave her shape, but the character Emma had sketched however loosely by listening to her syrupy seduction. The man remained cast in deep shadow, however, despite the frantic working of her imagination to draw him. Was he old? Young? Stern? Bored? She wished he’d speak again to give her another clue.
Instead, only a tense, billowing silence pounded in her brain. Just when she thought she’d go crazy from the quiet, Emma began to hear Astrid’s moans. They were low, excited . . . muffled. There was no doubt about it. He was in her mouth. Her throat, if the occasional gagging sound was any evidence.
Another unwanted noise entered her awareness, a wet sucking sound. She could envision the movements of the woman’s head as she plunged back and forth on the man’s—Vanni’s—cock, her imagination fed by the cadence and volume of Astrid’s muted moans.
Against her will, her sex prickled with arousal.
Her cheeks scalding, Emma clamped her eyes shut as if doing so would shut off all her senses. She felt both guilty at her violation of the stranger’s privacy during an intimate moment, but also violated herself in some way. An intense longing welled up in her to throw open the doors and quit the place—and screw her job and her pride.
But she couldn’t burst in on that.
The minutes dragged by. The woman’s moans were growing louder and more excited. The man was right. She did talk too much. Or moan too much. Why didn’t she just shut up? She was the one giving him oral sex, not the other way around.
And why was he silent as the grave?
“Enough,” he said quietly, and again, Emma wondered at how he’d said her private thoughts out loud. The skin on her neck and forearms prickled with wariness and anticipation. Not knowing what would happen next—not seeing—was driving her mad.
Astrid’s soft gasps penetrated the panel of wood.
“Go into the bedroom and get undressed. Everything off,” he said.
“I’m not in the mood to be the audience tonight for your usual lingerie fashion show. We all know you’re beautiful, Astrid. I’ll join you in a few seconds,” he said more quietly after a pause, as if he’d regretted his sharp interruption and weary sarcasm.
Astrid didn’t respond. Was she miffed? If she was, she didn’t voice it. Something hinted to Emma that restraint wasn’t typical for her. Vanni was supremely confident, but Astrid seemed almost as used to getting what she wanted. Her behavior wasn’t the norm, or at least not completely so. She was holding her temper.
The sound of a door opening breached her awareness. So . . . the large office was attached to his bedroom suite? Emma leaned as close to the door as she could. What is he doing out there? The sooner he joined his bedmate and they got down to it, she’d be able to escape this ludicrous situation. She didn’t think she’d even be able to confess this fiasco to Amanda or Colin, it was so humiliating, and she told her sister and her boyfriend almost everything.
Yet she’d never had something so incendiary to tell.
A moment later, she heard a slight squeak on the wood floor and footsteps. His stride was long. Fluid. Unhurried.
“Come over here. I’m going to bind you onto the sliding track, then use the flogger on you,” he said.
Emma’s mouth dropped open.
“Anything you say.” Astrid’s reply was only diffident on the surface. Beneath it, there was a dripping greed and hunger that shocked Emma to the core.
Oh no. What kind of twisted, kinky scenario was this? And why didn’t that degenerate Vanni shut the goddamn bedroom door?
Yet she didn’t want him to. And that made this whole situation even more incendiary than she could measure.
She heard something that sounded like heavy metal being moved and arranged on the floor. Emma’s muscles grew so tight, they began to ache dully. Her hand screamed in acute pain, however, protesting from holding the catch on the door so tautly. She longed to let go. Curiosity was a sharp internal prod. Did she dare to peek out and ascertain the couple’s location in the bedroom? They could be yards away by now.
The sound of leather against flesh was the next thing that penetrated Emma’s tense misery. Oh Jesus. They were close. Much closer than she’d imagined. It was almost as if they’d barely moved away from the door. Emma bit her lip in rising agony. Another cracking sound. In the pause that followed, she heard Astrid moan.
“Oh, that feels so good. Yes, give it to me.”
“Quiet,” he demanded. Again, the sharp sound of a lash striking flesh. Another. Astrid cried out sharply.
Emma couldn’t take this anymore. She knew about S and M. Almost everybody did in this day and age. It’d become almost a cliché in modern society. References to it usually earned a smirk or eye roll from Emma.
But sitting here, experiencing the sounds of a woman willingly being flogged with the intent of sexual arousal, hearing the taut crack of leather against bare skin and Astrid’s moans, feeling the inexplicable tension and electricity in the air . . .
. . . none of it felt remotely funny.
What was worse and far more humiliating? A thick, warm sensation had settled in her sex. What was wrong with her? She and Colin had shared a satisfactory sex life for the past two years, but intimacy with Colin had never inspired this intense, undeniable, uncomfortable arousal.
It was humiliating, what he was doing to her. Wasn’t it? Given Astrid’s obvious excitement, it was a little hard to label it.
She began to ease the door open, telling herself that she needed to look if she wanted to escape. She paused when the lashing sounds ceased as well.
“Oh God, Vanni. C’est si bon,” Astrid said shakily. Emma swallowed thickly. He was touching her. Pleasuring her, somehow. It certainly sounded that way.
“I told you to stay quiet,” he said, his patient tone in these circumstances confusing Emma.
Again, the crisp smack. The sound was starting to tear at her, leaving a resulting throb in her flesh. It was unbearable. At all costs, she needed to get out of here. Holding her breath and sending up a prayer, she eased open the cupboard door a tiny fraction of an inch. Cool air brushed against her hot face.
She paused, frozen for a moment in horror. She could see them. Or a slice of them, anyway. Not really them. The woman. She was right there, maybe fifteen feet away. Emma moved her head, holding her breath, trying to get a more complete picture through the cracked armoire door. Astrid was naked and on her hands and knees, kneeling and bound with black rope to a sort of T-bar. The bar rose from a metal rack that sat on the carpet. Astrid’s hair was long and dark—nearly black, lustrous and curled in loose waves. In her position, it hung over her face. Her naked body was voluptuous, the sun-kissed, golden skin gleaming and flawless in the soft lamplight. She clearly sunbathed topless. Her bottom was pale next to her gilded skin, but there was no evidence of a tan line around her breasts. A dozen or so black leather tails landed on a curved buttock, making Emma jump. Astrid cried out sharply. It all looked so alien . . . so deliberate. Astrid’s almost palpable arousal confused Emma even further.
Curiosity nudged her. She craned to see the man holding the flogger. He must have been kneeling behind the bound woman, but the door to the bedroom suite blocked her view of him. The flogger fell again, lashing voluptuous flesh. This time, Emma made out the masculine hand and forearm holding the leather handle so surely. The leather tails landed again, the sharp sound twining with Astrid’s loud moan. Emma didn’t think it was a harsh lashing, although Astrid’s bottom was taking on a rosy hue.
Vanni paused, resting the hand that held the flogger on the top of a buttock. Emma saw his other hand moving, rubbing the other cheek, as if soothing the sting. She bit her lip hard. The vision had sent a sharp spike of forbidden arousal through her, shocking her. The large, masculine hand moved, caressing hips and ribs. She saw Astrid visibly tremble in pleasure beneath his touch. His hand caressed the pinkened buttocks again and then lowered between Astrid’s legs. Astrid made a muffled sound in her throat. She opened her mouth.
“Control yourself,” he warned quietly. “You know it pleases me more than your hysterics.”
Astrid bit off a moan. Burning to know what Astrid was experiencing in these bizarre circumstances, Emma moved her view in the small opening of the door. Astrid had turned her head, causing her hair to spill from her face. Emma had never seen a more exquisite woman aside from her sister, Amanda. But it wasn’t just her physical beauty that struck Emma. Her face radiated pure ecstasy. What in the world was Vanni doing to her to evoke that much pleasure? Her eyes were clamped shut. Her dark pink lips opened as if in slow motion. She began to keen, the piercing sound startling Emma. Her hips began to jerk back and forth in a frantic rhythm, her generous breasts bouncing at the motion.
“Fuck me, Vanni. Fuck me with your beautiful cock.”
The flogger fell, harder this time. It struck again and again. Emma strangled a whimper. Astrid forced herself into immobility, but the radiant glow on her face only seemed to grow stronger.
The flogger continued to fall, as if in retaliation for Astrid’s lack of control.
Emma couldn’t take this anymore. She drew her arm across her midsection and replaced one hand with the other, relieving the tension in the aching muscles. She pulled the door shut and buried her hot cheeks against her upper arm, praying for it to be over, when she was free from this wretched moment . . . this excruciating tension. Her sex had grown achy and hot. She longed to touch herself to alleviate the pressure, but the knowledge that she was aroused in these circumstances was horrifying enough without adding to her transgressions. It wasn’t just shameful arousal that she experienced, however, but a wild desire to flee, to escape this untenable situation.
She’d never felt so helpless in her life.
The sound of the flogger ceased every once in a while, and Astrid’s wild moans of arousal grew louder and more desperate, piercing Emma’s unarmored consciousness relentlessly. She no longer needed to see them to be inflicted by their actions. He was touching her during those moments, building her pleasure.
She hated them. She hated him for forcing her to endure this, although she knew in some distant part of her brain that it was no one’s fault but her own.
Worst of all, she wanted to see more. She longed to see him.
“Please, please . . . fuck me,” Astrid pleaded wildly.
Emma lifted her head cautiously when the lashing ceased, rugged cotton fabric brushing her cheek, afraid to breathe in the taut silence that followed. She heard a sound like a piece of metal being moved . . . a clamp released.
“Oh yes. Yes,” Astrid moaned wildly a moment later.
“This isn’t for you,” he growled. He sounded annoyed. Intimidating, but also . . . resigned?
Emma felt like she’d burst from boiling emotion she couldn’t quite name. Her mouth had gone dry. Her throat hurt, perhaps from holding in a silent scream of frustration and excitement for so long now.
Astrid moaned loudly, but it was his rough, more restrained groan that made her head jerk up like someone had called out to her—Emma—specifically. The garments rustled at her abrupt motion. There was a slight jingle as metal hangers shifted on the rack, but Emma was too anxious—too focused—to be alarmed.
What was happening? What was he doing? It was growing so hot in the cupboard. Her throat felt parched and achy.
A strange sound began to enter her ears . . . a sound like . . . what? Moving, gliding metal? She heard Astrid’s familiar moans, louder now. She immediately recognized the other sound: skin slapping against skin in a taut, primitive rhythm. Heat rushed through her, the product of the strange marriage of humiliation and arousal she experienced. She didn’t give herself permission to move. Suddenly the door was cracked again and she was peering through the opening.
She stared for several seconds, bewildered as to what she was seeing. Astrid’s bound, naked body jerked back and forth on the metal track in a hard, pistonlike rhythm, the action completely out of her control. The lewd slapping sound Emma had recognized rung in the air, impossible to ignore . . .
. . . the sound of hard, ruthless fucking.
When understanding finally dawned, Emma bit her lip until she felt pain.
The deliberateness of what was happening, the precision, the sheer lewdness was shocking. Astrid still was on the metal rack in a position that was almost on all fours. Her knees perched on a padded bench, her wrists restrained to an elevated T-handled, padded bar. His large, open hands gripped her hips. His skin was darker than hers—a golden brown. She could see his thick, long thumb sinking into the pinkened flesh of a buttock. He flung her back and forth onto his cock with fluid, mechanical ease.
Emma recalled what he’d said about the glider. The mechanism must have been locked into immobility while he’d flogged her, but he’d unfastened it. The device had been designed for this, for the exclusive purpose of allowing him total control of a woman’s body while he fucked her. Astrid would have glided back and forth on the frictionless track with a twitch of his hand. Instead, Vanni hammered her onto his cock. He switched his grip, grasping two metal handles attached to the kneeling bench. Astrid rocketed back and forth against him, screaming in uninhibited, frantic pleasure.
Time seemed to collapse for Emma, and yet the moment went on forever. She still couldn’t really see him totally with the bedroom door blocking him, despite her straining, curious gaze. As their excitement grew and time wore on, however, he moved forward slightly. Her breath burned in her lungs as she soaked in the partial image of him. She glimpsed the front of trim, thrusting hips and a ridged, taut abdomen. She saw his muscular forearms and flashes of a large, glistening, driving cock. She couldn’t even see his face, and yet . . .
He was so beautiful.
The thought seemed to come from somewhere else. Emma herself was too disturbed and confused to have thought it. She was too rapt to judge her admiration of a man who made love with such cold, methodical precision.
How can you possibly call it cold when not only Astrid but also you are boiling hot?
She moved closer, spellbound, her nose touching the hard edge of the wood door. Cool air brushed against her scalding face. He wore a condom that glistened either from lubrication or Astrid’s juices. The latter, most likely, given Astrid’s frenzy of sexual excitement. He’d removed his shirt, but hadn’t even fully removed his black pants, she realized. She could see just the front of his fabric-covered thighs. Daringly—hungrily—Emma opened the door slightly wider, then immediately eased it back, panicked when Astrid spoke.
“Please . . . please . . . may I come?” she pleaded shakily, air puffing out of her when Vanni slammed her onto his cock without interruption.
“Do whatever you want,” he grated out, and again Emma sensed his razor-edged tone contrasted with a weary resignation. She almost heard what he didn’t say. What difference does it make to me what you do?
What difference does anything make?
He strained forward slightly and Emma caught a glimpse of his flexing, powerful biceps. What was that on the one farthest away from her? A tattoo . . . a simple one, some kind of Japanese or Chinese symbols?
Astrid began to wail in climax, thrashing her head. He increased the pumping action to a wicked pace. Only a very strong man could have done it. His hands fisted the metal handles, biceps bulging, cock pounding like a well-oiled piston.
He fucked himself, masturbated using a woman’s flesh. But wasn’t Astrid doing the same, selfishly pleasuring herself using his? It was so wrong, so beyond Emma’s experience, so shocking . . . so exciting.
Emma’s chaotic thoughts were cut off when he suddenly flung his head forward and growled. It was the most thrilling sound she’d every heard. His hair tossed forward as well, blocking his face. It was brown with sun streaks of gold, beautiful and wild. It probably would hang several inches past his chin when he held his head upright. He grunted, his arm muscles flexing hard and huge, his body going rigid. Astrid’s shrieks and cries dissolved into the roar in Emma’s ears. A great shudder went through his powerful body.
He didn’t move, breathe, or utter another sound while he came.
Neither did Emma as she stared openmouthed at this man—Vanni—locking down the detonation in his flesh.
• • •
Her panic and confusion evaporated. Her sex continued to ache dully. Emma switched hands again, alleviating the pain from holding the door closed, and slumped back in the dark cupboard. She should have still been wild with anxiety in the ensuing moments, but something inside her had altered upon seeing that incomplete, disturbing, and yet highly compelling image of him.
She lost track of time and the bizarre reality of her situation. A numbness settled on her.
Something had happened to her in that armoire, and she didn’t know what it was.
She still listened to them. How could she not, as close as they were and knowing their movements prevented or allowed her escape?
After an immeasurable period of time, their more distant, sporadic murmuring quieted. The minutes dragged by without Emma hearing a sound. She finally dared to open the cupboard a half an inch and peer out cautiously. Not only was the bedroom dark, every light in the office had been extinguished. The only exception was the monitor on the desk. It cast a dim, bluish, ghostlike luminescence on the shadowed room. All was quiet.
Just when she’d galvanized herself into action, she saw a tall shadow suddenly appear in the bedroom entrance—there and then gone. She jerked slightly, her breath hissing into her lungs at the sudden shock of seeing him. She’d rustled the garments in her surprise. Her limbs tingled when she heard the subtle metallic sound of the hangers moving on the rack above her. His footsteps slowed just feet from the armoire.
Oh my God, he heard me.
She waited, horror settling on her like a mist, tingling and burning her skin, but she didn’t move. She didn’t breathe.
A second or two later, she heard the muted sound of the lock being released on the door to the suite, and the knob turning.
No. He didn’t hear me.
It’d been her oversensitive imagination.
The door closing behind him sounded hushed and mysterious, like a lover’s secret whispered in the darkness.
• • •
His insomnia was growing worse. It didn’t matter how much he threw himself into his work, or fiddled around in his workshop, or exercised, he couldn’t quiet his brain anymore. Sex used to help him rest, too. But the sickly residue that seemed to be permeating his life was now ruining even that primal, fundamental aspect of his existence. Oh, he still felt the physical pleasure, but it was like he was enacting a parody of the sexual act these days while part of him seemed to watch his uninspired performance, disgusted and amused by his lameness.
Cynical and bored . . . tired, and not yet thirty-one years old.
He’d had high hopes that like his father, full depression wouldn’t settle in until his forties. But in all fairness, his father hadn’t known Cristina when he was eight years old like he had. That was when she’d entered their life like a poison. By most accounts, he was the champion survivor of the Montand family in the post-Cristina apocalyptic world.
Not that there was much victory in that.
He walked silently through the living room and passed the bar, recalling he’d left the brandy decanter in the dining room earlier. A moment later he shut out the lights and stood before the floor-to-ceiling windows with brandy snifter in hand, gazing at the wide body of water that he couldn’t really see because of the cloaking night.
The darkness pressed on him. Called to him.
A strange prescience distracted him. The bare skin of his torso tingled and roughened. In the reflection of the windowpane he saw movement. He went utterly still.
His morbid thoughts vanished as he watched the girl ascend the stairs in the distance. What was she doing? Where had she been? He’d specifically asked that the nursing staff remain on Cristina’s level, he thought irritably.
Her figure was so light, her feet were so quick, her tread so silent he might have been catching a glimpse of a fey creature making an escape. He watched her fly up the stairs, her red fairy pack flung over her shoulder. Curiosity and amusement replaced his brief flash of anger. Her back and shoulders were held very stiff and erect, as if to say that although she was fleeing, she was doing so proudly. Defiantly? Silently thumbing her nose at the mortal world?
His stiff mouth softened and flickered at his uncharacteristic fanciful thought.
She wasn’t entirely fairylike. No, he’d recognized her just now from the back—that erect carriage, that enticing, graceful curve that led from a narrow waist to round hips. He hadn’t noticed her today because he’d been overseeing some new equipment installation at his plant in Deerfield, but he’d seen her yesterday on Cristina’s monitor. Just in passing . . . brief glimpses before she’d cheekily opened those curtains.
He’d asked Mrs. Shaw for the offender’s name yesterday and recalled it now.
He’d thought her unconventionally pretty before she’d irritated him by yanking open those curtains. Interesting looking. Her golden-blond hair was fairly short and reminded him of the style flappers used to wear, boyish and highlighting the shape of her skull. It suggested a nonconformist spirit—or at least a female who wanted others to think she was different, anyway. It touched her collar in the back while the soft-looking waves in the front ideally framed a delicate, piquant face. He couldn’t tell the color of her eyes on the monitor, but he’d noticed they looked large and dark next to her pale skin and hair. She had a tilt to her chin and a bright smile that went well together. Most people couldn’t pull off brash sweetness, but she did. Somehow. Or at least that had been his quick impression.
He’d certainly thought that her face looked far too young and fresh to go with the lush, ripe firmness of her ass. Her figure was light and supple, the gracefulness of her movement capturing his attention.
Not that he’d been staring. She was just difficult not to notice on the screen, that’s all. Any straight man would have looked twice. Any straight man with good taste would have looked more than that.
He’d follow her now and demand an explanation for her intrusion into his home.
He remained unmoving, however. She’d annoyed him, but her appearance had lightened him somehow as well, freshened him like a lungful of sea air after a night of debauchery.
He stared out at the black lake, lost in thoughts that, for once lately, weren’t bitter and morose.
At the end of her shift the next night, Emma entered the bedroom to say good-bye to Cristina. Her patient had fallen asleep while Emma gave her report to Debbie, the night nurse. Emma paused next to the bed. Cristina looked even more shrunken than usual, her skin like dry, gray parchment stretched too tight over bone. A hospice nurse’s main goal was to make the last days of her patient’s life as comfortable and fulfilling as possible. Finding out what that meant for Cristina was proving to be a challenge for Emma. She sensed Cristina’s soul was heavy. Shedding that weight—even a little—might help ease her passage from this world.
“Night, Cristina. Sleep easy,” Emma whispered before she turned to leave the hushed room.
“It’s your own fault. You knew what I was capable of and what I wasn’t. You were capable of even less.”
Emma blinked and spun around at the death-rattle voice.
“Cristina?” she whispered, confused to see that her patient hadn’t moved from her sleeping position. She turned to go again after a pause. Cristina was having increasingly disturbed sleep, nightmares, and occasional hallucinations.
“It was too much for me. Not only one, but two! You knew as well as I do I wasn’t cut out for it. So you found yourself a martyr. Is it my fault she died? And then you had the nerve to think I’d transform into her overnight and replace her, you bastard!”
Emma started at the venomous shriek. She hurried toward Cristina, who was now jerking and tossing on the bed, her mouth bared in a snarl, arms flailing.
“I’ve got her,” Debbie said, appearing by Emma’s side as Emma gently restrained the swinging arms and spoke in firm, soothing tones, calling Cristina back to the waking world.
“I think she’s okay,” Emma said after a moment when Cristina began to quiet and settle. Still, the invisible threads of her patient’s nightmare seemed to brush against Emma . . . cling to her.
She waited until Cristina settled fully into sleep before she walked out of the bedroom and retrieved her purse. She noticed the stack of clean towels on a small table.
The vision triggered the memory of wandering around the house last night, of being trapped in that armoire. Lots of things triggered that memory. Almost everything, in fact, Emma reminded herself grimly as she searched for her keys in her purse. She’d finally escaped from that miserable experience and found her car, the laundry bag still slung over her shoulder like an inexplicable artifact she’d brought from another world.
She’d witnessed a lot of grief in her life, and understood the complexities and paradoxes of loss. Death transformed the living. It changed them, whether they wanted it to or not.
She’d been changed somehow last night, breathing the singular male scent that clung to the garments hung in the armoire, listening to the sounds of sexual excitement ringing in her ears. She’d been altered, but not by death, by something she found far more disturbing. The whole strange incident had upset her in a way she couldn’t name. Something had rocked her comfortable world, and she resented the man—irrationally, she knew—for that earthquake.
She hadn’t wanted Colin to touch her this morning when he’d stopped by before catching his train for work, a fact that bewildered her almost as much as it had Colin. She hadn’t seen him since Saturday night, after all. Sure, their physical relationship had mellowed lately—and it had never been firework explosive since they’d started sleeping together two years ago—but she’d normally be glad to see Colin and eager to express her affection.
As a means of punishing herself for her odd behavior and her inability to shut off her brain in regard to the man at the Breakers and his perversities, she’d sentenced herself to labor. She’d gone to the Laundromat this morning, one of her most hated errands, and finished what she hadn’t last night.
It’d been hard to return to the Breakers today following the “armoire incident,” as she’d taken to calling it in the privacy of her mind. Once she was there, however, burying herself in work helped, like it always did. She hadn’t slept well after she’d returned home last night. As good and exhausted as she was, all she could think about was dreamless, deep sleep, a rest blessedly devoid of the disturbing image of that man—Vanni—locking down his climax as though he thought he didn’t deserve the pleasure.
Who was he? One of Montand’s guests? A relative?
She constantly found her mind wandering, taking little imaginary excursions through the mansion, seeking him out. Was he in the mansion at the same time as her? What was he doing? She’d asked Margie this afternoon in a deliberately offhand manner if there were any other inhabitants of the house beside Montand. Margie had told her only Michael Montand lived there on a full-time basis—although he was currently away, to her knowledge—while Mrs. Shaw, two maids, a gardener, and the cook were day help. Alice, the maid, had told Margie that Montand was known to have guests there, though. Occasionally he threw lavish house parties, which affluent guests from all over the world attended.
Who was Vanni then, and how was he related to Montand? Or perhaps her original suspicion was right, and they were one and the same man?
No. They couldn’t be. That didn’t make any sense.
Stop thinking about him. He was cold and heartless about something that should have been intimate. He was a sick, strange man.
No, another voice in her head argued.
He was suffering. And something about him had called out to her . . .
A good night’s sleep would end her stupid obsessions. She flung her purse over her shoulder and started for the exit. She came to a sudden halt and gasped.
“Oh my God, you startled me,” Emma said to Mrs. Shaw, who stood in the entryway to the suite, unmoving.
“I’ve come to get you. Mr. Montand would like a word,” she said unsmilingly.
Her mouth fell open. “With . . . with me? Mr. Montand? Why?”
“He didn’t tell me his reasons, but I assume it’s about your work here. He’s very particular in regard to his stepmother’s care,” Mrs. Shaw said with a tiny smug smile.
“I see,” Emma said, even though she didn’t. To her knowledge, Montand had never spoken to any of the nursing staff individually. His expectations had been discussed with Dr. Claridge, who was the hospice doctor, and Monica Ring, the nurse supervisor. A flicker of anxiety went through her. What if this request was somehow associated with the armoire incident? Was she about to be called out or accused? Her heart started to beat uncomfortably in her chest.
There was only one way to find out.
“Okay. I’m ready,” she said briskly, hitching her purse higher on her shoulder.
She followed a silent Mrs. Shaw down the hushed staircase, past the lavish workout facility and indoor pool, her heartbeat pounding louder in her ears with every step. Mrs. Shaw left the staircase behind on the next level. She led Emma into the luxurious living room she’d seen last night, the lush ivory carpeting hushing their footsteps. Emma could almost feel the housekeeper’s disapproval and dislike emanating from her thin, stiff figure.
Mrs. Shaw paused before a door and swung it open.
“Ms. Shore is here,” she said to someone in the room.
She stepped aside and gave Emma a glance of loathing before nodding significantly toward the interior. Her heart now lodged at the base of her throat, Emma stepped past Mrs. Shaw into the interior of the room. She had a brief, but vivid impression of a stunning dining room consisting almost entirely of black, white, and crystal. A huge white modernist china cabinet and wet bar structure dominated the wall closest to her. The long, grand dining room table was made of African blackwood and was surrounded by more than a dozen handsome blackwood and white-upholstered chairs. Two large crystal chandeliers hung above the table. The far wall consisted of warm brick in beige and reddish tones, offsetting the cool luxury and sleek lines of the room. On the brick wall hung a large painting that she recognized in a dazed sort of way was a modernist depiction of an engine.
She heard the door shut and glanced over her shoulder. Mrs. Shaw was gone.
Emma turned back to the single inhabitant of the room. He sat at the head of the table turned toward the glass wall that faced Lake Michigan. For a few seconds, she just stood there, speechless. He matched the room in almost every way. He wore a black tuxedo with careless elegance. His brown hair was not cut short, necessarily, but it wasn’t long, either. A woman could easily fill a hand with the glory of it. It was thick and wavy and had been combed back from his face. A dark, very short goatee seemed to highlight a sensual mouth. He was all precision lines and bold masculinity: an angular jaw, broad shoulders, handsome Grecian nose. The only way he didn’t match the immaculate, stunning room was the way his tie was loosened and the top collar of his white dress shirt unbuttoned at his throat.
He was even better looking than the actors hired to drive cars and drink champagne for his company commercials. Impossible.
“Well don’t just stand there,” he said, just a hint of impatience in his tone. He set down the fork he’d been holding on to a plate. Emma blinked. It hadn’t even registered immediately that he’d been eating, she’d been so captivated by the image of him. “Come here,” he prompted when she remained frozen.
She stepped forward, a surreal feeling pervading her. As she drew nearer, she realized that his eyes were the same color of the lake on a sunny day—a startling blue-green. The lake would serve to soften and warm the cool, sharp lines of the beautiful, austere dining room during the day. This man’s eyes, however, would soften nothing. They seemed to lance straight through her.
His firm, sensual mouth quirked slightly.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” he demanded quietly.
“Am I looking at you a certain way?” Emma asked, surprised and set off balance by his question. “I hadn’t realized,” she fumbled. She yanked her gaze off his compelling visage and glanced around the room, wide-eyed. “I’ve never seen a room like this. It was a little like walking into a photo from a magazine or something.” Especially with you sitting at the end of that grand table in that tux.
She looked at him when he laughed mirthlessly. “Cold and uncomfortable, you mean. I’ll be sure to pass on your compliments to my architect and interior designer.”
She matched his stare. “That’s not what I meant.”
He frowned slightly but didn’t respond. Nor did he look away. “You’re Michael Montand?” she prodded in the uncomfortable silence that followed.
He nodded once and glanced at the chair nearest to him. “Have a seat. Can I get you anything to eat or drink?”
“Would you mind telling me why you asked me here first?”
His eyebrows arched in mild surprise. They were a shade darker than the hair on his head and created a striking contrast to his light eyes. Clearly, she was just supposed to follow his command without comment.
“You’re taking care of my stepmother. Surely you don’t think it odd that a family member would want to speak with you about your work,” he said.
“You haven’t called anyone else from the nursing staff down here.”
“Nobody else has directly disobeyed my orders.”
She swallowed thickly at the ringing authority in his tone. Her heartbeat began to roar so loudly in her ears, she wouldn’t be surprised at all if he heard the guilty tattoo. What could she say that wouldn’t betray what she’d accidentally seen last night? Had that man—Vanni—told Montand something?
Was he Vanni? she wondered wildly. No, Vanni wasn’t a nickname for Michael. Plus, the man she’d partially seen last night had long hair and it had been lighter, with gold streaks in it. She opened her mouth to utter some feeble excuse—she had no idea what—but he cut her off.
“It may seem random to you that I asked for the drapes to remain closed in my stepmother’s suite, but I can assure you that I did so with a reason.”
“I can explain . . . What?” she halted her pressured confession.
He gave her a nonplussed glance.
“The drapes,” he repeated.
Relief swept through her. He’d meant the drape incident, not the armoire one.
“What did you think I was going to say?” he asked, eyes narrowing on her.
“I wasn’t thinking anything,” she lied. “Of course I’ll respect your wishes about the drapes.”
“I’d appreciate if you respected my wishes in regard to everything I have specified with your supervisor.”
She held her breath for a split second. Had he emphasized the word everything, or was that her panicked brain jumping to conclusions?
“Of course,” she managed.
He nodded once and then picked up his fork. Emma had the distinct impression that she’d been dismissed. She wavered on her feet.
“It’s just that the sunshine . . . it might do Cristina some good.”
He regarded her with glacial incredulity. Emma felt herself withering from the sheer chill.
“It’s such a beautiful view. I see no reason to deprive her of it,” Emma rallied despite his intimidating stare.
He set down his fork, the clanging sound of heavy silver against fine china startling her. He sat back in his chair. He possessed a lean, muscular . . . phenomenal frame, from what she could see of it. Clearly, he hadn’t built that elaborate workout facility for show. Emma wasn’t sure what to do with herself in the strained, billowing silence that followed.
“It may be beautiful to you,” he said finally.
“It’s not to you?” she asked, bewildered. “Why did you have this house built then? The view dominates every room.” At least when you’re not in it, it does.
One look at his frozen features and she knew she’d gone too far. His gaze dipped suddenly, skimming her body. If another man had done it, she would have been offended. In Michael Montand’s case, it was like a mild electrical current passed through her. Her nipples tightened and something seemed to prickle in her belly, like a hook of sensation pulling at her navel. She shifted uncomfortably on her feet, her wisp of confidence evaporating.
“I didn’t say it wasn’t beautiful to me,” he said. He glanced away and Emma knew she’d imagined that flash of heat in his eyes. He seemed to hesitate. “How is she doing?”
He nodded once and picked up a roll from a basket. Emma noticed he possessed strong-looking hands with long, blunt-tipped fingers. “She’s in a great deal of pain. It’s getting worse. I’ve asked the doctor to increase her pain medications.”
He looked up sharply.
“It’s not uncommon, as the cancer spreads,” Emma said, reading his glance of unease.
“Won’t increasing her pain medication make her more confused?”
“Possibly. But it’s better than forcing her to suffer. She’s living the last days of her life. We’re not talking about a headache here. This is severe, mind-numbing pain. When she’s in the midst of it, she’s not very cognitively sharp anyway. None of us would be,” Emma said pointedly.
They stared at each other for a few seconds. Again his gaze dropped over her, so fleeting it might have been her imagination.
“Why do you dress that way for work?” he asked, returning to the task of buttering a roll.
Her mouth fell open. “I like to be comfortable. My hospice doesn’t have an issue with it. Do you?”
He began slicing a filet of beef, his gaze averted from her. When he didn’t reply for a moment, her anxiety ratcheted up, but it was accompanied by a spike of defiance. “Is it not formal enough for you?” she asked, as if determined to dig her own grave. He looked up, and she glanced down significantly over his tuxedo-clad form.
He gave a small, unexpected smile, white teeth flashing against tanned skin. Her heart paused.
“You’re wondering if I put on a tuxedo to dine alone near midnight as a custom?” He raised his fork to his mouth and took a swift bite of beef, watching her as he chewed. Emma became highly aware of the movement of his lean, angular jaw and then the convulsion of his strong-looking throat framed by the stark white, open collar as he swallowed. He reached for a crystal goblet of red wine. “That would be pretty pitiful on my part if I did, wouldn’t it?” he asked before taking a swallow of wine. Emma heard the thread of humor in his voice and didn’t know how to reply.
“I just meant—”
“I know what you meant. And no, I’m not a formality hound. I just came from a public relations event in the city sponsored by my company. I didn’t get hungry until now. I always lose my appetite at those things. All those cameras. All those vampires,” he added distractedly. He took another bite of beef, and for a moment, Emma wondered if he’d forgotten she was there. “I didn’t mean that I object to your clothing,” he said quietly after a pause. “I just asked because I noticed it was different than the other nurses’.”
His words seemed to hang in the air. I noticed. There was only one way he could have noticed since he never visited Cristina’s suite. He’d taken notice of her on the surveillance camera. Maybe his thoughts went in a similar direction, because his expression suddenly grew sharp and then went carefully blank.
“I thought it might relate to your age,” he said, picking up his knife. “You seem much younger than the others.”
“You thought my dressing habits related to my age? Or my difficulty in not following your instructions did?”
Her back stiffened at that. “I’m twenty-three.”
His succinct nod seemed to say, well it all makes sense then. Irritation shot through her.
“You’re not that much older,” she said impulsively. The cool glance he gave her revealed she was mistaken; it made her feel about twelve years old. What she’d said was technically true. He didn’t look much older than his early thirties or so, but he seemed decades older. Maybe her blurting out those words was her desperate attempt to even the playing field.
He took another bite of meat. “I’m thirty,” he said with infuriating calmness after a pause. “And years are one thing. Experience another.”
“I have a master’s degree in palliative and hospice nursing. I’m very well qualified to take care of your stepmother. And I have plenty of experience,” she defended.
That small smile quirked his lips again. “How did you manage all that in twenty-three years?”
She hesitated, frowning. She realized she was being defensive, but his aloof contempt annoyed her. “I have a late birthday. Plus I did my bachelor’s degree in three years,” she mumbled, already regretting her outburst. Despite her flash of annoyance at his small, patronizing grin, the thought struck her that he had a very sexy mouth. He gave a small shrug.
“Even if you weren’t as experienced as you are I wouldn’t complain. You’re very good with my stepmother. She likes you.” He shot her a hard—or was it bitter?—glance. “And that’s rare. Please just follow my instructions from now on,” he said after a moment, picking up his water glass.
“I will,” Emma said shakily. She wasn’t sure what had gotten into her, to respond so defensively with a patient’s family member. She normally let criticisms or suspicions in regard to her youthful appearance slide right off her. Her work always ended up being a testament to her worth.
“Good night,” he said.
“Good night,” she said under her breath.
Despite the fact that he’d been looking at his plate when he dismissed her, the prickly sensation on her back gave her the distinct impression his gaze was on her as she left the room.
• • •
After her shift the next night she exited the Breakers and walked out into a warm July evening. There were no stars or moonshine, and the air felt close. She inhaled deeply before she climbed into her Ford Focus, smelling rain. Heat lightning flickered on the distant western horizon. How fantastic would it be, to live here and be able to take a midnight swim on a humid night like this before a storm broke, to wash away the residue of the day in the cold, refreshing water?
The thought triggered an uncontrollable vision of slipping into that lovely pool that overlooked the lake and swimming toward the near-naked, sexy form of Michael Montand.
Get a grip.
Her fantasies were getting out of hand lately, she realized with disgust as she dug around in her purse for her keys. Her dreams, which had been dark and disturbingly erotic for the past few nights, were just plain out of control. Nor were they making for a restful night’s sleep. She twisted the key in the ignition.
Nothing happened. She turned the key again.
“Oh no. Not tonight. Start, you bitch,” she hissed heatedly. Her car seemed unimpressed by her cursing, however. Emma imagined it silently flipping her off for not having it serviced for months on end.
Sensing defeat, she placed her forehead on the steering wheel and sighed in intense frustration.
It was almost eleven thirty. Colin had been exhausted all week. He’d said on the phone earlier that he was determined to get to bed early tonight. He still hadn’t gotten used to waking at six a.m. to catch a train into Chicago for his new job as a forensic science technician. Amanda didn’t have a car. She took mass transportation almost everywhere, including to school and to her job as a waitress.
She’d just have to wake up Colin, she realized, feeling guilty not only for that, but the fact that she’d been so irritable and standoffish with him yesterday morning. Well, there was no help for it. She reached for her phone and started to dial.
Her head sprung up when someone tapped on her window.
“What’s wrong?” came his muffled voice.
She stared in openmouthed surprise at the dark shadow of a stooping figure outside.
“Are you okay?” he demanded.
“Uh . . . yeah,” she replied. Her already warm cheeks heated when she realized he probably couldn’t hear her. She peered out the window, trying to see him better. The only source of illumination was a few lights in the house that were left on, but those were distant and filtered through tall trees.
It was him. Michael Montand.
She opened her car door a crack. The interior lights didn’t turn on.
“My car won’t start,” she explained without getting out.
“Get out and I’ll have a look,” he said matter-of-factly.
She squinted, realizing he wore some kind of gray utility coveralls, like something a mechanic would wear. The garment stood in stark contrast to the tuxedo she’d seen him in last night, confusing her. She set aside her phone, unbuckled her seat belt, and got out of her car. He’d straightened. She realized he was very tall, maybe seven or eight inches past her five foot seven inches. Flustered, she moved aside as he strode past her with a single-minded purpose. He sat in the car, immediately moving the seat back to accommodate long, bent legs, the action practiced and smooth.
“Your battery is dead as a doornail,” he said after only a second.
“I have jumper cables somewhere . . .” She faded off when he rose out of the car.
“I’ll set you up,” he said, his deep voice striking her as slightly different than last night. It was still cool and brisk, but tonight his utter confidence reassured her.
“Oh . . . that’s . . . okay, thanks,” she fumbled when she realized he wasn’t even listening to her as he started toward the house. His booted feet scraped against the concrete when he came to an abrupt halt. She squinted, trying to put form to his shadow. It was definitely Montand. She could just make out the outline of his broad shoulders and singular, bold profile against the night sky.
“It’ll only take five or ten minutes,” he said. “This is the garage level, all my stuff is right here. Do you want to go back into Cristina’s suite and wait?”
“Do you need help?” she asked, feeling like an inadequate, ditzy female, a feeling she resisted wholeheartedly.
“No.” There was a short pause. “But you can come with me, I guess. You shouldn’t stand out here in the dark alone.”
Great. She either sounded like a helpless ditz or like she was afraid of the dark. Like it matters. She shut the car door with a brisk bang. “Lead the way.”
Did he hesitate for an instant? More than likely, he thought she’d just get in his way. He was probably right, but she didn’t want to just stand there in the driveway like a useless idiot, anticipating the moment when he returned.
She followed him to a tucked-away, secluded entrance shrouded by trees and shrubs that she’d never before noticed on her arrivals for work. No one would ever find the door if they didn’t realize it was there. He fleetly entered five numbers on a lit keypad and they entered.
“Wow,” she breathed, staring around wide-eyed after they’d exited a long mudroom.
He’d led her to a garage that was the size of a warehouse. She counted twenty gleaming cars lined up, ten in two rows—everything from shining antiques to luxury, high-performance sports cars to sophisticated sedans to road hugging, fleet-looking racecars. There was a hydraulic mechanism for lifting the vehicles so they could be serviced. The car pulled to the front, a shiny black one that looked like it came from the 1920s, had its hood up, the engine exposed.
“What?” he asked sharply when she cut herself off, coming to a halt. He took a step toward her, eyes narrowing.
Emma shut her stupid, gaping mouth, but couldn’t stop staring. She’d forgotten the impact of him. The cloak of darkness and the coveralls and his solicitous manner out there in the drive had made her forget. Somehow, the more casual clothing, oil-smudged hands, and a dark scruff on his lean jaw seemed even more devastating than the vision of him in a tux. He seemed more comfortable tonight. More approachable. And that was a dangerous thought to have about a man like Michael Montand.
“Nothing. You just look so . . . natural that way,” she finished lamely, nodding at the coveralls. For a few charged seconds, he just continued to study her with that X ray stare.
“No reason I shouldn’t. I’m more comfortable under the hood of the car or working on engines than I am in a boardroom,” he said before he turned and walked toward the far side of the garage.
She followed him across the concrete floor, studying him curiously while he wasn’t looking. He seemed younger today. Or maybe he didn’t. It was difficult to categorize him.
His hair was worn more casually tonight, rippling back from his face in finger-combed negligence. In the front, a few long bangs had fallen forward, parenthesizing his striking eyes. The style, in combination with the dark scruff on his jaw, contributed to a sense of effortless sexiness. So did the easy, graceful saunter of his long, male body and the subtle glide of his hips. She hastily admired broad shoulders, a strong-looking back, and a trim waist. The coveralls were somewhat baggy, but even so, his butt looked just as good as everything else—
A metal clanging sound started her from her uncharacteristic lechery. He’d moved aside a tool on a table.
“This garage is huge. It’s cut into the bluff?” she asked, mentally cursing the high-pitched sound of her voice. He had an unprecedented effect on her, one that she needed to try to minimize at all costs. She was way out of Michael Montand’s league. He was megarich, powerful, world-weary . . . sexy as hell. He could have any woman he wanted. Emma wasn’t sure she was even interested in being in his league.
He stood before a utility table and a wall hung with various tools, his back to her. “Yeah. A lot of the house is dug into the earth, but the garage most deeply. Keeps it nice and cool in the summers, warm in the winter. Good for working in here.”
“So you like working on cars?” she asked, gazing back at the magnificent collection.
He nodded. “I like taking them apart and putting them back together, designing new parts. I have since I was kid. It’s kind of hard not to know and like the ins and outs of cars in my family,” he mumbled as he unceremoniously shoved aside more implements on the worktable and lifted some coiled jumper cables.
“You own a car company that makes racecars, isn’t that right?”
He shook his head. “No. My company makes certain key parts for racecars and sports cars, not the cars themselves.”
“But your father owned a French car company?”
He cast her a sharp sideways glance, and she realized how many questions she was asking him.
“To whom have you been talking about me?”
“Just some of the nursing staff.”
“What else did they say?” he asked, turning toward her, looking mildly interested.
“Nothing much,” she said, striving for an offhand manner. “Someone just mentioned in passing you and your father both were in the car business. Besides, almost everyone has seen Montand commercials. They’re famous.”
She squirmed a little while he studied her for a moment. Finally he nodded, and she disguised her exhale of relief.
“My father founded Automobiles Montand.” Just the way he said the company name with such an effortless accent made her suspect he probably spoke French.
“Were you born here? In the States?”
“I’ve lived in Kenilworth my whole life, but I’ve spent a lot of time in France with my dad’s family. My dad was born in Antibes and started his company there; my mom’s family was from New York. I have a dual citizenship with the US and France.”
“Are they both gone?” she asked softly.
His eyes flashed. For a few seconds, the aloof prince sitting at the end of that table last night had returned. Then his irritation seemed to fade to slight puzzlement as he stared at her. “Yes,” he replied after a moment.
He blinked. “Really?”
“Well, not in the way you meant,” she admitted. “My mom passed three years ago from breast cancer. When I say my father’s gone, I mean he’s nowhere I know of. He may be dead, for all we know. He left when I was five.”
“He abandoned you?” Montand asked, his forehead crinkling into a scowl.
She nodded. “Gone for good. I don’t recall much about him. You don’t miss much what you never had,” she said, following him.
“Lucky you,” she thought she heard him mutter under his breath. What had he meant by that? Had he, too, been abandoned by someone in his life? “What about the rest of your family?” he asked.
“It’s always been my mom, my sister, and me.”
“Is your sister still around?” he asked, turning his head as he walked.
“Yes, we live together.”
He stopped and turned abruptly. Emma started and pulled to a halt to prevent from running into him.
“So you’re not married?”
She inhaled sharply. “No.”
“What were you planning on doing out there?”
“Do? When?” Emma asked. It didn’t help her bewilderment that she was looking him full in the face again, especially since this time she was closer to him. He was good-looking—extremely, the most effortlessly handsome man she’d seen in her life—but it wasn’t his handsomeness that was setting her off balance. Or at least she didn’t think so. She’d never been that shallow or giddy in the past around a good-looking guy. It was his eyes. She couldn’t stop herself from looking straight into them even though doing it made her feel light-headed, like the air pressure had just changed drastically. The light, iridescent color of them contrasted appealingly with arched, thick eyebrows, eyelashes, and short sideburns.
“Before I showed up,” he explained. “Were you going to call someone for help with the car?”
She whipped her brain into focusing. “Oh . . . yeah,” she said, realizing he must have seen her phone in her hand as she sat in the car earlier. “I was.”
She stared, tongue-tied.
“Roadside assistance?” he prompted, leaning his head down slightly. On her anxious inhale, she thought she caught a scent of him—a subtle waft of spicy aftershave and the residue of peppermint chewing gum and . . . motor oil?
“Your sister? Your boyfriend?” he prodded pointedly.
“My boyfriend,” Emma admitted in a croaking voice, stepping away from him. The word had never felt so hollow for her. She cleared her throat, struggling for her composure. Of course the word boyfriend wasn’t meaningless. It meant Colin, a living, breathing, wonderful guy. “I was feeling guilty about it, actually, because Colin—that’s his name—has been especially tired lately. New job and all. Hasn’t gotten used to the schedule yet.”
He didn’t reply to her rambling. His angular, whiskered jaw worked in a subtle circular motion in the uncomfortable silence that followed. His thin goatee looked very sleek, the way it encircled his mouth distracting her. How could his lips look so hard and firm, and yet so soft and shapely at the same time?