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"Just look at her, Hank. She's all wrong." Grant Bradley glared at the woman on the television screen and tried to ignore the fact that her throaty voice had an unwelcome effect on his libido.
"I'm looking, all right." Hank Gilbert flashed a lecherous grin before returning his attention to the videotape they were watching in Grant's office at Sidwell College. "You know what I see? I see high profile, which is exactly what we need if this project is going to cover its own expenses. She's not exactly hard on the eyes, either."
Grant had to concede the last point. Vanessa Dare was a fine-looking woman, slender and graceful. A close-up appeared on the screen, making him readjust his first guess at her age. Tiny laugh lines around her eyes put her on the other side of thirty, but not by much. Her hair was a brown far removed from his own nondescript shade. Red highlights that might or might not be natural played to the camera. So did eyes of a bright, electric blue. He wondered, as he shoved slipping spectacles back up his nose, if she wore colored contact lenses to achieve that particular hue.
"We're going to take a break now." She managed to sound as if she was speaking only to him, and making promises when she added, "Be sure to stay tuned for today's special feature, 'Bran: Is It Hallucinogenic?'"
A particularly annoying toothpaste commercial came on the tape recorded two days earlier. Grant grabbed the remote and hit the STOP button, returning the small set to regular programming, a game show he could ignore more easily than Vanessa Dare. "I've seen enough."
"Don't you want to know the truth about bran?"
"I know about bran, Hank. A large bowl of branflakes may induce mild euphoria because wheat contains LSD, produced naturally by ergot, a common fungal infestation of wheat and rye that sometimes--"
"Whoa! It's more fun listening to the lady explain it. Besides, isn't that a little outside your area of expertise?" He made a show of looking at the name on Grant's office door. "Yep, still says Grant Bradley, Chairman, History Department. Still, you've probably got all kinds of things in common with Vanessa Dare. She'll be perfect for Westbrook Farm."
"Hank, I'm staking my professional reputation and that of Sidwell College on this project. Do you seriously want me to risk everything on a pretty face?"
"She's no dummy, Grant." Taking the remote, Hank turned off the television. "You just saw that."
But Grant wasn't buying it. He'd watched her interview the head of an environmental group concerned about endangered species in western New York State. She'd managed to exude just the right combination of interest and journalistic neutrality, but all that meant was that Ms. Dare probably was a consummate actress. He'd just as soon not let another woman with a talent for deception into his life.
"She does a morning talk show, Hank. She reads lines someone else writes for her. It's all showbiz, no guarantee she has a brain in her head. Besides, what we have planned involves rough living. Anyone who looks like that will probably throw a tantrum if she breaks a fingernail."
Hank met Grant's objections with one unanswerable argument. "As chair of Sidwell's board of trustees, I control the money, Professor. And I say you need her."
Struggling to control his exasperation, Grant asked, "Why her? Why not someone from public television? This is a serious research opportunity for historians, not a tourist attraction."
"It had better be a bit of both."
Grant grimaced at the change in Hank's tone. He sounded like the lawyer and businessman he was, not like someone who'd been friends with Grant since their undergraduate days.
Crossing to his office's one floor-to-ceiling window, Grant stared at the walkway below and tried to gather his thoughts. It was snowing again. Spring was going to be late this year, another snag in his plans.
His reflection stared back at him, dark eyes troubled behind the glasses, forehead furrowed, jaw clenched. He willed himself to relax. Losing his temper wouldn't help anything. But damn he hated to compromise! For the last five years, he'd poured all his energy into almost single-handedly restoring Westbrook Farm. The hard physical labor had helped him put his life in perspective, even as his research had built the foundation for what he hoped to achieve academically.
"When I conceived the idea of creating a living history center, he said quietly, "it was to provide a place where scholars could experience firsthand what life was like in the 1890s. I in-tended it for people who already have a real appreciation of the tried-and-true methods of--"
"We've been through this before." Hank paused, as if gearing up for a summation to a jury. "You don't have a turkey's chance at Thanksgiving of succeeding with the project unless you catch the public's attention. Stir up enough interest and you're golden. Vanessa Dare is the perfect person to help you do that."
What Hank was really saying, Grant mused, was that he would advise the board of trustees to withdraw crucial funding if Ms. Dare wasn't part of the package. An ugly suspicion surfaced in Grant's mind. Did Hank, who had been divorced for several years, have a personal interest in the woman?
Hank popped the videotape out of the player. "I have it on good authority that she'll jump at the chance to produce a documentary. We can get her to immortalize Westbrook Farm at bargain-basement rates."
Grant turned from the window. "Why?"
"What does it matter? Ms. Dare has the know-how we need." Hank put on his best lawyer smile, the one he wore in TV commercials that urged clients who thought they had grounds for a lawsuit to give him a call. "All it will take now is a sales pitch from you. Lay on the charm and she's yours. She's single too."
"That's not a selling point." But when Hank started to toss the videotape into his briefcase, Grant stopped him. "Leave the tape."
Looking smug, Hank handed it over along with Vanessa Dare's business card. The address beneath her name was that of a television station in Syracuse, but another phone number had been penciled in on the back. The handwriting was not Hank's, nor did it belong to Ms. Dare, since above the ten digits were the words "Call her at home."
After Hank left, Grant put the tape back in the VCR and watched the hour-long show twice before he froze the frame on a close-up of its hostess. Those impossibly blue eyes looked back at him. Her gaze seemed to be direct and guileless, but he was certain acting ability was a prerequisite for any media "personality." It was unlikely she was as unaffected in person as she appeared on the small screen.
Abruptly, he hit the OFF button and reached for the card Hank had given him. He didn't have any choice if he wanted Westbrook Farm to become a reality. He needed funding. To get it, he would put up with far worse than Vanessa Dare. He could endure a week in her company, in spite of her alluring appearance, her sultry, low-pitched voice ... and the fact that she attracted him, on a purely physical level, more than any woman he'd encountered in a long, long time.
Three Weeks later
"Stop trying to talk me out of going to Westbrook Farm, Craig," Vanessa Dare told her assistant. "I've made up my mind."
"Bad timing, Nessa. You know that. There's talk of a syndication deal for your show."
"I'm not interested." To Vanessa's mind, there were too many talk shows out there as it was. Besides, the last time she'd tried to tailor her style to meet corporate expectations had been a disaster. Right or wrong, she'd learned to go her own way, trust her own judgment. She compromised only when it was absolutely necessary for survival.
"You just like being a big fish in a little pond," Craig complained. "You're afraid to test the waters."
"Nice figure of speech." She had to smile. He was so transparent. It wasn't her career he was worried about, but his own. That he might also be correct didn't bother her.
Craig Seton was a few years Nessa's junior, and probably one of the best-looking men she'd ever met. Tall. Golden-blond hair. Bedroom eyes. Chiseled features. Body to die for.
And he left her cold. That might have worried her if she hadn't been too busy for romance anyway. Later, she thought, after she'd made it over this next career hurdle, she'd turn her attention to her personal life, maybe even look for a man to share it with.
She pretended to review the schedule of segments to be run during her "vacation," but she was really thinking that it would probably be a good thing to get away from Craig for a bit. He was becoming too attached to her. Whether he was drawn to her "star," as it supposedly rose toward greater fame, or to her person, as he kept claiming, he needed to get a life. If he wanted the bright lights of New York or L.A., he could go without her.
With luck, she'd have plenty of free time at Westbrook Farm to contemplate her future, in particular what she'd do if she did turn down a syndication deal. She couldn't simply stay where she was forever. The station had already suffered a few budget cuts. Her show was successful, but there were cheaper ways to fill that hour. Other syndicated shows, for example. If she was going to carve out a new career behind the camera, this was definitely the time to start.
"What is this place you're going to, anyway?" Craig asked. He still sounded sulky. "I've never heard of it."
"It's a real find, apparently. A site in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains that's been frozen in time since just before the turn of the century. The last of the family to own it was an eccentric lady who lived there alone, changing nothing for almost eighty years. After she died in the late 1970s, the place sat empty and abandoned until a history professor from Sidwell College discovered it and decided to restore it. He's offered me the chance to make a documentary about the trial run they're holding preparatory to opening the place as a living history center."
"Sounds dead boring to me."
Nessa ignored him. She'd always included short local history segments on her show and had enjoyed doing them. And if "dead boring" translated into a break from the hustle and bustle, then she was all for it.
"Well, give me your phone number," Craig said. "I think you're making a mistake, but if the network calls, I'll stall them until you can get back to them."
"Sorry, Craig. No phone." And it would take several hours to drive to Westbrook Farm too. No one was going to intrude on her privacy there. Bliss!
Craig looked appalled. "Surely you're going to take your cell phone. Please, Nessa. What about emergencies?"
"Maybe." He really did look upset, she thought. And she supposed it might be necessary to call out. But she certainly wasn't going to leave the phone on to receive incoming calls. And her beeper was staying home. In a bottom drawer. Underneath a stack of heavy sweaters.
Two days later, following the detailed map she'd been sent, Nessa turned off a little-used two-lane secondary road onto a dirt track. After a few twists and turns, it dead-ended in a parking area that contained a van with the Sidwell College seal painted on its side.
Success! Nessa eased her station wagon in next to the van and turned off the engine. Complete silence descended. If not for the other vehicle, she would have sworn there wasn't another soul around for miles.
No sign of habitation was in sight No power lines ran overhead. The narrow, muddy dirt road she'd been following, however, resumed on the far side of the parking area, winding toward a tree-covered hillside. Somewhere up there was Westbrook Farm. She'd been warned she'd have to walk part of the way in.
Sliding out of the station wagon, she stood and stretched to relieve the stiffness in her back and neck muscles, then glanced at her watch. The trip had taken longer than she'd expected. She'd made good time on Route 81 and on Route 17, but once she'd turned off at Liberty, the going had been slow. She hadn't really minded, though. She'd found the hilly terrain attractive and the long stretches between houses a nice change from the heavily populated area she was accustomed to.
When she opened the back of the station wagon and surveyed all the equipment she'd brought, she hesitated. Transporting it would take more than one trek up that hill. Should she scout the area first unencumbered? Or perhaps she should just wait a bit and see if anyone else showed up.
She looked again at the vehicle next to hers. It was possible the others had all arrived together. Only seven people, including herself and the professor who'd contacted her, were scheduled to participate in the trial run. Six could easily fit into that Sidwell College van.
It seemed logical to assume everyone but herself was in some way connected to the tiny but prestigious liberal arts college where Dr. Bradley taught. Carpooling made sense. Sidwell was situated in Strongtown, a small city halfway between the only slightly larger city of Kingston and the town of Monticello, county seat of Sullivan County. By her best guess, the trip from Strong-town to Westbrook Farm would have taken about an hour.
Sighing, she reached for the field camera she'd borrowed from the station. She was probably the last one to arrive. Not the best way to make an impression.
Nessa had just lifted the camera out of the back of the station wagon when she caught sight of movement in the trees. A lone figure emerged and ambled down the hill toward her. Dr. Bradley? She blinked and stared.
When he'd first called her to invite her to make the documentary, she'd thought he sounded rather stiff and pompous, in spite of a deep, sexy voice. She'd therefore assumed he was in his fifties or sixties. If the man now entering the parking area and striding toward her was Grant Bradley, she'd been off by a couple of decades. True, his brown hair contained a few streaks of gray, but they added an air of distinction, not age. She'd guess he was somewhere in his late thirties.
He was also remarkably easy to look at. The hair was neatly trimmed but not too short. His features were regular with a hint of ruggedness, and possibly stubbornness, revealed in a strong jaw. His skin was smooth shaven. Nessa had never cared for that five-o'clock-shadow look some men seemed to think was sexy. The rest of his body wasn't bad, either, but she had only a moment to examine it before he spoke.
"Welcome to Westbrook Farm," he said in a voice that was unmistakably Grant Bradley's.
"Thank you," she said. "Has everyone else already arrived?"
"You just missed two of them, my student assistant, Mary Ellen Eldrich, and Jason Faulkner, on loan from Sidwell's theater department. They've gone to pick up a few more supplies and should be back shortly. Hank Gilbert is due later this afternoon. Bea and Doug Roper aren't coming until tomorrow. They're bringing the livestock"
To her dismay, Nessa's pulse rate speeded up at the news that she was alone in a remote location with this man. She tried telling herself she had no cause for alarm. Or for excitement, either. But there was something about Grant Bradley that made her very aware of him, more aware than she could ever remember being of anyone.
He wasn't even standing that close to her, she thought in dismay. He'd stopped a good six feet away to study her with as much intensity as she was regarding him. She tried to focus on his face, hoping to dispel the effect his whole body seemed to be having on her.
Wire-rimmed glasses perched on a rather nice nose, and behind the spectacles his eyes were a deep brown. Nessa's heart gave an odd little kick as his gaze skimmed over her. Her skin prickled. Annoyed, she tried to repress the reaction. She wasn't looking for a man. She didn't have time for that sort of thing.
"Love the suspenders," she said, blurting out the first safe comment that popped into her mind.
"They're called braces," he corrected her.
Whatever, she thought. They were still striking, made of silk and embroidered with bright flowers in five or six different colors.
He was dressed for the part of an inhabitant of Westbrook Farm in the 1890s, and the clothes of the last century flattered his lanky but muscular build. The braces held up wool trousers that, while loose, still hinted at nicely shaped thighs and calves. His linen shirt was open at the collar on this unusually warm April afternoon, and he'd rolled up the long sleeves to reveal forearms that appeared to have been developed by real work rather than workouts. His skin had a healthy tan and a light dusting of dark, curling hair.
Nessa frowned. How did he manage to stay in such good shape when he spent all his time in the ivory towers of academic life? The possibility that he'd taken a hands-on approach to the renovations at Westbrook Farm intrigued her.
He was still staring back at her. When she met his eyes again, she saw his expression change, and for a moment it seemed to her that he must have guessed what she'd been thinking.
If so, he was not pleased by her interest. A stiff formality imbued his words as he held out one hand. "I neglected to introduce myself," he said. "I'm Grant Bradley, Ms. Dare."
"It's nice to finally meet you, Dr. Bradley." Their handshake was brief, a slight pressure as skin met skin, but as Nessa withdrew her hand she was uncomfortably aware that it was tingling.
Oh, great! she thought. More evidence of chemistry at work between them. This was not the time for physical attraction to rear its ugly head. She had important work to do this week Work that would require all her concentration. She did not need complications.
Determined not only to repress her reactions, but to use every means at her disposal to hide them from the man who caused them, Nessa reached into the open back of the station wagon. "How far to the house?" she asked without looking at him again.
The information he'd sent her had indicated the farm buildings were at the center of two hundred acres, mostly wooded. That and the fact that the nearest town, Luzon, was five miles away, were what had preserved the farm from vandals all those years. The only way in was the dirt track he'd just walked down. It wound upward toward a low ridge and disappeared into the trees.
"We have to cover approximately a half mile on foot," he said. "Eventually, we'll have a nine-passenger surrey available to transport guests and their luggage, but we haven't yet acquired either the buggy or a horse."
Nessa sorted through the equipment she'd brought, making two piles. After she'd locked the station wagon, she hoisted the camera and its accessories herself, leaving him to carry the duffel bag that was the sum total of her personal luggage.
There was a thoughtful expression on Grant Bradley's face when he caught up with her. She saw him glance down at the practical shoes she wore with her casual slacks and lightweight sweater.
"What? You expected me to show up in high heels and a short-skirted power suit?"
"I didn't know what to expect, Ms. Dare."
Before Nessa could reply, he launched into a lecture, telling her about the farm and its former inhabitants and sketching out the sort of thing he thought she should capture on tape. This was the Professor Bradley she'd talked to on the phone, a sexy voice that somehow managed to sound pedantic and a trifle arrogant.
Ease up, she wanted to tell him, but she didn't.
Instead she reminded herself that she'd do well to dislike him. The more his superior attitude annoyed her, the better. Maybe, if he was irritating enough, she'd be able to squash that troubling prickle of awareness his nearness provoked.
Tuning in to what he was saying, she realized his ideas concerning the content of the documentary did not agree with hers. As the professor expected, there would be some shots of housekeeping nineteenth-century style and doing chores, all underscored by commentary. But since the participants would be taking on the roles of real people from a hundred years back, Nessa hoped to incorporate some vignettes that would typify activities of the time. If that week's volunteers proved to be passable actors as well as history buffs, she could foresee several lively segments to balance each information dump.
They reached the farmhouse after ten minutes of uneven walking. The white clapboard structure stood with its outbuildings in a clearing. From a distance it looked as charming as a Currier & Ives print. Up close the vision of an idealized pastoral scene got bogged down.
Obviously, Westbrook Farm had been enjoying the same spring thaw she'd experienced at home over the last few days, only in Syracuse the snow had all but disappeared. In these rural foothills, the temperature still dropped below freezing every night. Clumps of dirty, partially melted snow dotted the landscape, especially in the shady spots beside the barn and henhouse. Pools of brown water stood in the sun.
Mud season was not the most propitious time of year to film a documentary. It was going to be a challenge to make puddles and quagmires appealing. Then again, she'd always relished a challenge.
Gesturing for Nessa to go first, Grant Bradley ushered her across a wide porch that wrapped around two sides of the house. In the entry hall she caught only a glimpse of an old-fashioned parlor on her right before he opened the door directly in front of her to reveal a flight of stairs leading upward. On the second floor, he showed her into a large corner room filled with heavy oak furniture but dominated by a huge bed with an ornately carved headboard.
Nessa deposited the heavy bags she'd been carrying on the floor and rolled her shoulders in relief. She wasn't about to admit it aloud, but it had been a long time since she'd had to double as a packhorse.
"You'll find all the clothing you need in here," her companion said, reaching past her to open the standing wardrobe. The smell of cedar wafted out. When she moved out of die professor's way, he extracted several boxes from the capacious shelves. "What you have on now will go in storage while you're here, together with any other twentieth century items you've brought with you."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You did agree to take on one of the staff assignments for this trial run, Ms. Dare."
"Yes, but--" She stopped speaking as he lifted a white cotton petticoat out of one of the boxes.
Several more items of intimate apparel were inside. She'd expected a costume. She'd sent dress and shoe sizes to the professor's assistant weeks ago with that in mind. But she hadn't given the matter much thought, and never had she imagined that the illusion would be so completely maintained.
"In the 1890s," he told her, "ladies wore bloomers, corsets, and what they called corset-covers under their clothes." He indicated a garment that resembled a lacy camisole, then the corset itself. "And at night, you'll wear this."
The nightgown he unfolded and spread before her on the bed was intended to cover the wearer from neck to toes. It was beautiful, all but dripping with lace, but a far cry from the wash-softened college football jersey and knee socks that were Nessa's usual choice.
Such nightwear called up images she was reluctant to contemplate. Romantic. Seductive. Her fingers itched to touch the fine fabric, but she fought the urge and glowered at Grant instead.
"You are not," she said firmly, "deciding what I wear to bed."
Posted October 21, 2010
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