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They were at a standstill, the tall man and the willowy young blonde, poised like boxers waiting for an opening.
"Never!" she repeated, her brown eyes throwing off sparks. "I know we need the business, and I'd do anything for youwithin reason. But this isn't reasonable, and you know it, Terry Black!"
He drew a weary breath and turned to the window overlooking San Antonio's frantic late-morning traffic, his hands rammed into his pockets, his thin shoulders slumping dejectedly.
"I'll be ruined," he said softly.
She glared at his back. "Sell one of your Cadillacs," she suggested.
He threw her an irritated glance. "Amanda !"
"I was Mandy when I came in this morning," she reminded him, tossing back her long, silver-blond hair with a smile. "Come on, Terry, it isn't all that bad."
"No," he agreed finally, "I guess it isn't." He leaned back against the wall beside the huge picture window and let his eyes drift over her soft, young curves, lingering where her beige shirtwaist dress made a straight line across the high, small curve of her breasts. "He can't really dislike you," he added absently. "No man with blood in his veins could."
"Jason Whitehall doesn't have any blood in his veins," she said. "He has ice water and a dash of aged whiskey."
"Jason didn't offer me the account. His brother Duncan did."
"Jace owns the lion's share of the corporation, though, Terry," she argued. "And he's never used an advertising agency, not ever."
"If the Whitehalls want to sell lots in that inland development project they're working on in Florida, they'll have to use one. And why not us?" he added with a boyish grin. "After all, we're the best."
She threw up her slender hands. "So you keep telling me."
"We need the account," he persisted. His thin, boyish face grew thoughtful. "Do you realize just how big the Whitehall empire is?" he asked, as if she'd never heard of it. "The Texas ranch alone covers twenty-five thousand acres!"
"I know." She sighed, and her soft brown eyes were sad with memory. "You forget, my father's ranch adjoined the Whitehalls' before" She broke off. "Anyway, it's not as if you couldn't go by yourself."
He looked briefly uncomfortable. "Uh, I'm afraid I can't do that."
She blinked at him across the luxurious carpeted room with its modern chrome-trimmed furniture. "I beg your pardon?"
"It's no deal unless you come along."
"Because we're partners," he said stubbornly, his lower lip thrusting forward. "And mostly because Duncan Whitehall won't discuss it without you. He's considering our agency because of his friendship with you. How about that? He came looking for us."
That was strange. She and Duncan had been friends for many years, but knowing how his brother felt, it was odd that he'd insist on her presence for business.
"But Jace hates me," she murmured, wide-eyed. "I don't want to go, Terry."
"Why does he hate you, for heaven's sake?" he asked, exasperated.
"Most recently," she admitted, "because I ran over his quarter-million-dollar bull."
"Well, I didn't actually do it. Mother did, but she was so afraid of Jace that I took the blame. It didn't endear me to him, eitherhe was a grand champion."
"The bull!" She folded her arms across her chest. "Mother can't accept the fact that the old days, when we had money, are gone. I do. I can stand alone. But she can't. If she wasn't able to visit Marguerite at Casa Verde for several weeks a year, and pretend nothing has changed, I'm not sure she could manage." She shrugged. "Jace hated me anyway. It just gave him a better reason to let him think I crippled the animal."
"When did all this happen?" he asked curiously. "You never mentioned it after your trip of course, you looked like death warmed over for a couple of weeks, and I was head over heels with that French model. "
She smiled. "Exactly."
He sighed. "Well, it doesn't change things, anyway. If you don't go with me, we forfeit the account."
"We may forfeit it anyway, if Jace has his way," she reminded him. "It's only been six months. I promise you he hasn't gotten over it."
His pale eyes narrowed. "Amanda, are you really afraid of him?"
She smiled wanly. "I didn't realize it showed."
"That's a first," he observed, amused. "You aren't the shrinking violet type, and I've seen that sweet temper of yours a time or two in the past year." His lips pursed. "Why are you afraid of him?"
She turned away. "Now, there, my friend, is a question. But I'm afraid I don't have an answer."
"Does he hit?"
"Not women," she said. "I've seen him deck a man, though." She winced at the memory.
"Over a woman?" he fished, grinning.
She averted her eyes. "Over me, actually. One of the Whitehalls' hands got a little too friendly with me to suit Jace, and he gave him a black eye before he fired him. Duncan was there, too, but he hadn't got his mouth open before Jace jumped in. Trying to run my life, as usual," she added unfairly.
"I thought Jace was an old man."
"He is," she said venomously. "Thirty-three and climbing fast."
He laughed at her. "Ten whole years older than you."
She bristled. "I can see what fun this trip is going to be."
"Surely he's forgotten the bull," he said comfortingly.
"Do you think so?" Her eyes clouded. "I had to watch Jace shoot him after the accident. And I'll never forget how he looked or what he said to me." She sighed. "Mother and I ran for our lives, and I drove all the way home in a borrowed car." The skirt of her dress swirled gracefully around her long, slender legs as she turned away. "It was a lot of fun, with a sprained wrist, too, I'll tell you that."
"Don't you believe in burying the hatchet?"
"Sure. So does Jaceabout two inches deep at the peak of my forehead. "
"How about if you go home and pack?" he suggested with a grin.
"Home." She laughed softly. "Only you could call that one-bedroom efficiency apartment a home. Mother hates it so. I suppose that's why she spends her life visiting old friends." Visiting. There was another word for it: sponging, and Jace never tired of using it. If he'd had any idea that Beatrice Carson, not her daughter, had steered that car broadside into Duke's Ransom, he'd have thrown her out for good, despite all his mother's fiery protests.
"She isn't at the Whitehall place now?" Terry asked uneasily, visions of disaster clouding his pale eyes.
Amanda shook her head. "It's spring. That means the Bahamas." Beatrice had a schedule of sorts about where she visited and when. Right now she was with Lacey Ban-non and her brother Reese. But Marguerite Whitehall's turn was coming up soon, and Amanda was already afraid for her. If Beatrice let anything slip about that stupid bull while she was on the ranch
"Maybe Duncan will protect me," she murmured wistfully. "Since it was his idea to drag me out to Casa Verde. And I thought he was my friend," she groaned.
Terry toyed with a stack of photographs on his neat desk. "You're not really sore at me, are you?"
She shrugged. "I don't know yet. But if Jace turns thumbs down on the account, don't blame me. Duncan should have let you handle it. I'll only jinx you."
"No, you won't," he promised. "You won't regret it."
She glanced at him over her shoulder with a wry smile. "That's exactly what Mother said when she coaxed me into going to Casa Verde six months ago. I hope your predictions are more accurate than hers were."
Late that night she sat curled up in her comfortable old armchair long after the prime time shows had gone off, watching a news program that she didn't really see. Her eyes were on a photograph in an album, a color snapshot of two men: one tall, one short; one solemn, one smiling. Jace and Duncan, on the steps of the big Victorian mansion at Casa Verde with its green trim and huge white columns and sprawling wide front porch scattered with heavy rocking chairs and a swing. Duncan was smiling, as usual. Jace was openly glaring at the camera, his dark, hard face drawn into a brooding scowl, his eyes glittering like new silver under light. Amanda shivered involuntarily at that glare. She'd been holding the camera, and the glare had been for her.
If only there were some way out of this trip, she thought wildly. If only she could lock the door and put her head under the pillow and make it all go away. If only her father were still alive to control Beatrice. Bea was like a child, backing away from reality like a butterfly from an outstretched hand. She hadn't even protested when Amanda took the blame for hitting the bull and brought Jace's wrath onto her head. She sat right there and let her daughter take the responsibility for it, just as she'd let her take the responsibility for dozens of similar incidents.
And Jace had been given reason to hate her mother long before that accident. But Amanda was too tired to think about that, too. It seemed that she spent her life protecting Bea. If only some kind, demented man would come along and marry her vivacious little headache and take it away to Alaska, or Tahiti, or lower Siberia.
She took one last look at the Whitehall brothers before she closed the album. Now why had Duncan insisted that she come with Terry? They were partners in the ad agency, but Terry was the senior partner and he had the lion's share of experience. She frowned. Of course, Marguerite liked her, and she might have put a bug in Duncan's ear. She smiled. That must be the explanation.
She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes while the newscaster blared away about a recent murder in the city. His voice began to fade in and out, and before she realized it, she was fast asleep.
Amanda watched the Victoria airport loom up on the horizon as the pilot of the air taxi banked for his final approach. This part of Texas was no stranger to her. It had been her home before she settled in San Antonio, where she'd gone to college. She'd spent her childhood here, among cattlemen and businessmen and bluebells and an historical legacy that could still make her heart race.
She clenched her hands in her lap. She loved this state, from its western desert fringes to the lush portion of eastern Texas they were now flying over. From Victoria, it was only a short drive to the Whitehall ranch, Casa Verde, and the small community called Whitehall Junction that had sprung up at the edge of the massive property Jace Whitehall had accumulated.
"So this is your hometown?" Terry asked as the small plane touched gently down on the runway with a brief skidding sound before the wheels settled.
"Yes, Victoria," she laughed, feeling her childhood again as she remembered other trips, other landings. "The friendliest little city you've ever seen. I've always loved it here. My father's people settled in this area when it was still dangerous to go riding without a gun. One of Jace's ancestors was a Comanche," she added absently. "It was his uncle who owned Casa Verde. Jace's father, Jude Whitehall, inherited it when the boys were very young."
"You became good friends, I gather?" he asked.
She flushed. "On the contrary. My mother didn't even want me to associate with them. They were only middle class at that time," she added bitterly, "and she never let them forget it. It's a miracle that Marguerite ever forgave her. Jace didn't."
"I begin to see the tip of the iceberg," he chuckled.
They climbed down out of the plane and Amanda drank in the clean air and sun and endless horizon beyond the Victoria skyline.
"No small town, this," Terry said, following her gaze.
"The population is sixty thousand or so," she told him. "One of my grandfathers is buried in Memorial Square. That's the oldest cemetery here, and a lot of pioneer families are buried there. There's a zoo, and a museum, and even a symphony orchestra. Not to mention some of the most delightful concertsthe Bach Festival Concerts are held in June. And there are some old mission ruins"
"I only made a comment," he interrupted, laughing. "I didn't ask for a community profile."
She smiled at him. "Don't you want to know that it's located on the Guadalupe River?"
"Thank you." He shaded his eyes against the sun. "Who's going to meet us?"
She didn't want to think about that. "Whoever's got time," she said and hoped that ruled out Jace. "Ordinarily, Duncan or Jace would probably have flown to San Antonio after us. They've got two planes, and they're both pilots. They have their own airstrip and hangars, but it's spring," she said, as if that explained everything.
He blinked. "Come again?"
"Roundup," she said. "When they cull and brand and separate cattle. The ranch manager bears the brunt of the responsibility for it, but Jace doesn't turn over all the authority to anyone. He likes to keep his eye on the operation. And that means Duncan has to double up on the real estate interests and the other companies while Jace is occupied here."
"And time is short," Terry said, pressing his lips together. "I didn't think about that, or I'd have been willing to wait until next month. The thing is," he sighed, "we really need this account. Business hasn't been all that good during the winter, the economy's in such a slump."
She nodded, but she wasn't really hearing him. Her eyes were glued to the road leading to the airport, on a silver Mercedes speeding toward them. Jace drove a silver Mercedes.
"You look faintly terrified," Terry remarked. "Recognize that car, do you?"
She nodded, feeling her heartbeat triple as the car came closer and pulled up in front of the terminal. The door swung open and she breathed a sigh of abject relief.