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She met him in the hallway on her way down to dinner.
He was the last kind of surprise she expected. His impact on her was startling. Several things happened at once. She drew in a quick, sudden breath. Her heart slammed into her ribs. She flattened herself against the wall.
"Hi. Did I scare you?" he asked with a smile.
His teeth were white and straight. His easy grin lit up a darkly tanned, weathered face. When his lips tilted up at the corners, one dark brow tipped down, while the other arched high, as though reaching for the wavy lock of sable brown hair that had fallen across his forehead.
It was an intriguing smile. Arresting. Sexy. Her heart was pounding abnormally.
"N-no," she stammered.
"Didn't Aunt Ruby tell you she was getting a new boarder?"
"Yes, but I . . ."
She didn't finish. She couldn't very well say, "Yes, but I pictured a doddering elderly man with a pipe and cardigan, not one whose shoulders practically span the hallway." She had expected the new boarder to have a benevolent face with a pleasant smile. Not one that made her think of daredevils and ne'er-do-wells.
Still smiling, he set down the box of records and tapes he had been holding under his right arm and extended his hand to her. "Trent Gamblin."
Rana stared at his hand for an embarrassing length of time before laying hers against it, not quite clasping it, and muttering, "I'm Miss Ramsey."
When she dared to raise her eyes to his, his smile had deepened. She suspected that he was smiling with derision at her primness.
"Do you need any assistance, Mr. Gamblin?" she asked starchily as she drew her hand back.
"I think I can handle it, Miss Ramsey." His face was solemn now, but the mirth was still twinkling in his eyes. They were the color of coffee liqueur, dark and rich and fluid.
Slightly irked that he apparently found her so amusing, she pried herself away from the wall and stood up straight. "Then if you'll excuse me, I'll go on down for dinner. Ruby gets cross if I'm late for meals."
"Guess I'd better hurry down too. Left or right?"
"Which apartment is mine? The one on the left or the one on the right?"
"The right one is yours?"
"I sure hope I can keep that straight, Miss Ramsey. I'd hate to come stumbling into your room some night by mistake." His mischievous eyes traveled over her. "No telling what might happen."
He was laughing at her! "I'll see you downstairs," she said coolly. She marched past him, forcing him to press himself up against the wall to let her pass. But he didn't press quite far enough. As she went past him, her clothes dragged against the front of his. He did it on purpose, of course. She could feel his arrogant smile at her back.
If only he knew, she fumed silently as she took the stairs. Miss Ramsey could dazzle him, freeze him in his tracks, wipe that tomcat grin right off his smug face-
Rana paused on the third step from the bottom. Why was she even entertaining such thoughts? She hadn't cared about her appearance for months. All that was behind her. Why now, after meeting the new boarder in Mrs. Ruby Bailey's house, was she even thinking of the Rana she had been six months before?
She disliked herself for it. She had cut herself off completely from her former life. She wasn't ready to resume it, not even temporarily, in order to put the conceited Trent Gamblin in his place.
Becoming the internationally known Rana again would bring back all the self-doubt and pain that went with the single name. She had given up her celebrity status. For the time being she didn't want it back. She was enjoying the anonymity of her current life too much. She liked being simply Miss Ramsey, an undistinguished resident of a typical Galveston boardinghouse.
Ruby Bailey, however, was about as atypical a landlady as one could imagine. When Rana entered the dining room, Ruby was lighting the candles she had placed in the center of the table. In honor of the new arrival, she had gone to special pains with the centerpiece this evening.
"Damn!" she exclaimed, fanning out the match. "I almost caught my nail polish on fire." She inspected the crimson enamel on her nails.
Her age had never been firmly established, but Rana had calculated that it must be beyond seventy, judging from the dated references Ruby occasionally let slip in her colorful dialogue. She was hardly what Rana had pictured when she had responded to the ad in the Houston newspaper advertising an apartment for lease in Galveston.
With the directions Ruby had given her during a brief telephone interview, Rana had located the house without difficulty. Her excitement could barely be contained when she pulled up to the address. The Victorian house, built in Galveston's heyday, had withstood hurricanes as well as the ravages of time. It was situated on a tree-shaded street among other recently restored homes. For Rana, who had lived for the past decade in Manhattan's high rises, it was like stepping into another century. She was delighted. She only hoped she and Ruby Bailey would hit it off.
The landlady's hair was white, but it hadn't been pulled into the classic grandmother's bun, as Rana had imagined. Ruby wore it short and curly, cut in a surprisingly fashionable style. She wasn't matronly plump, either, another misconception on Rana's part, but whipcord lean. Her attire, far from conservative, consisted of a pair of jeans and a sweater the color of the vibrant red geraniums that bloomed in the concrete urns on the front porch.
"You could do with a good meal or two." That blunt statement was the first thing Ruby had said to Rana upon giving her an inspection with busy, no-nonsense brown eyes that could have snapped a longshoreman to attention. "Come on in. We'll start with sugar cookies and herbal tea. Do you like herbal tea? I swear by it. It's good for everything from toothache to constipation. Of course, if you eat the balanced meals I plan on cooking for you, you won't ever be constipated."
And that, it seemed, was that. Ruby considered the apartment on her second floor leased.
Rana would come to learn that Ruby's cup of herbal tea was sometimes liberally laced with Jack Daniel's, especially in the evening after dinner. Rana forgave her friend that particular idiosyncrasy, the same way she forgave Ruby the frown she made no effort to disguise as she looked up now and spotted Rana.
"I was hoping you'd gussy up a bit tonight. Your hair's such a pretty auburn color. Did you ever think of pulling it back away from your face a tad?"
Rana, darling, your cheekbones are to die for! Show them off, love. I see all this glorious hair, sweeping back, big, big volumes of it, like a mane surrounding your face and cascading down your back. Shake your head, darling. See! Oh God, positively to die for! Every tacky little beauty shop in the country will soon be advertising the Rana Look.
Rana smiled at the memory of the famous hairdresser's words the first time Morey sent her to him. "No, Ruby, I like it like this." Ruby had insisted on being addressed by her first name, because she said being referred to as Mrs. Bailey made her feel old. "The table looks lovely tonight."
"Thank you," Ruby said impatiently as she spied a smear of paint on Rana's sleeve. "You have time to change, dear," she ventured tactfully.
"Does it matter what I'm wearing?"
Ruby sighed with resignation. "I suppose it doesn't. You'd only put on another of your horrid baggy combinations, none of which I'd be caught dead in, and I have about three decades on you. I'm sure, Miss Ramsey, that you could make yourself more attractive if only you'd try." First names didn't apply to her guests.
"I'm not interested in my appearance."