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The Tycoon's Virgin Bride
By Sandra Field
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE ridiculous thing was - so Jenessa Strathern decided afterward - that she had no sense of premonition when the telephone rang around seven o'clock on that sunny May evening. Nothing warned her to ignore the ringing, or told her to run outdoors and hide her head among the hydrangeas.
So much for feminine intuition.
She'd just stopped work, because the light was fading and she was so close to finishing this painting that she didn't want to risk any mistakes. Scrubbing a dab of alizarin crimson from her fingers with a stained rag, she picked up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Hi, Jen," her brother said. "Got a minute?"
She smiled into the receiver, plunking herself down in the nearest chair.
Travis Strathern, older than she by six years, lived in Maine with his wife, Julie, and their three-week-old daughter, Samantha. "For you," she said, "all the time in the world. How are you? Or I should say, how's Samantha?"
"Are you suggesting I've been usurped?"
"Samantha's cuter than you."
"I can't argue with that. Guess what? She can smile and hold on to my finger all by herself. Amazing, huh?"
Travis was a doctor who had a great many letters after his name and was highly qualified in tropical diseases. "Amazing," Jenessa said solemnly.
"She's the reason I'm calling. She's going to be christened in three weeks, and we'd like you to come. More than that, we'd like you to be her godmother."
Touched, Jenessa said, "That's sweet of you, Travis. But you do realize I'm a total dunce when it comes to babies? When you passed her to me in the hospital, I couldn't wait to pass her back - I was terrified I'd drop her."
"You'll learn," Travis said. "Anyway, she won't stay a baby for long. So you'll come?"
Jenessa hesitated. "Where's the christening taking place?"
"I knew you'd ask," Travis said wryly. "On Manatuck, at Dad and Corinne's. Do come, though, Jen ... it's time you and Dad buried the hatchet, wouldn't you say? Especially now there's another generation in the picture."
She should say yes. She really should. It would hurt Travis's feelings if she didn't. As a child, she'd hero-worshiped her big brother, and as adult she both loved and respected him. Besides, she owed him a great deal, and although she hadn't seen a lot of Julie, she genuinely liked her. Julie had nearly lost Samantha in the fourth month of pregnancy; as a result, she and Travis had delayed a posting to Mexico until after the birth. So Samantha, Jenessa knew, was doubly precious to both of them.
So what if the christening was on Manatuck Island? She could surely behave in a civil fashion to Charles Strathern for a few hours, no matter that she normally avoided him like the plague.
But as Jenessa opened her mouth to accept the invitation, her brother added, "There's another reason I want you to come. We've asked Bryce to be Samantha's godfather ... you know who I mean, Bryce Laribee, my old school friend?"
The color fled from Jenessa's cheeks and her heart began to thud as though a mallet was banging against her ribs. She made an indeterminate noise, her cold fingers clenched around the smooth plastic of the receiver. Oblivious to her reaction, Travis went on, "I don't think you've ever met him. Although that's hard to believe - I've known him since I was twelve. But now's your chance. He's a great guy, you'll like him."
Travis was wrong: Jenessa had met Bryce. Once, many years ago. And the feelings she'd had for him could scarcely be called liking.
She wasn't about to tell her brother that, however. Some secrets were better kept, her lovemaking with Bryce Laribee being right up there at the top of the list. The only trouble with secrets, she now thought unhappily, is that they brought deception in their wake. She had no intention of ever finding herself within ten miles of Bryce again; but she couldn't tell her brother that, either.
"Jen? Are you there?"
Frantically she tried to gather her wits. She had to get out of this somehow, which meant she'd have to stretch the truth. Considerably. What other choice did she have? She said, doing her best to sound convincing, "Travis, I'm sorry ... but I can't take the time. It's a long drive all the way up to Maine from here, and I have a show opening in Boston early in July. At the Morden Gallery, so you know what that means."
"The Morden? Good for you - you're really going places."
She wasn't so sure about that. Knowing this was no time to enter a discussion about artistic stagnation, Jenessa said, "I'm behind schedule - they want twenty paintings by the end of June. If I come to Maine, it'll blow three or four days, and I just can't afford that kind of time."
There was a silence at the other end of the line. Then Travis said in a voice Jenessa had only rarely heard him use, "Are you being straight with me, sis? Are you sure the real reason isn't Charles? You know I'd understand if it were - he wasn't what you'd call an ideal father."
"I'm sure," she said, glad she could, if only briefly, speak the truth. "This show is important for me - I'm on the brink of making some sort of name for myself. The alternative is to sink into oblivion, and I've worked too hard the last twelve years to risk that."
She'd met Bryce twelve years ago, in her first year at Columbia's School of the Arts, she thought with a sudden shiver. She'd been seventeen at the time.
With the ease of long practice, she closed her mind to that long-ago meeting with its lasting consequences. "I'm so sorry. But you know I'm devoted to Samantha, and that's what really counts, isn't it?"
"Julie's going to be disappointed."
"So are you, by the sound of it."
"Yeah ... you didn't make it to our wedding, either."
At which Bryce had been best man. Cursing the day she'd seen the poster advertising Bryce's lecture at Columbia all those years ago, Jenessa said, "Once the show's over, I promise I'll come for a visit. If you're both still speaking to me, that is."
"Come off it," Travis said, "you know we're not like that. Tell you what - why don't you let me pay for your airfare? That way you could do the whole trip in a day."
"I owe you too much money as it is ... I don't want to go any deeper in debt."
"A gift, Jen. No strings attached."
"I can't take any more money from you, Travis - I just can't."
There was another pregnant silence. Then her brother said, "You'll have to accept the title of godmother-in-absentia, then. Because we don't want anyone else but you." Tears pricked at Jenessa's lids. Her mother had run away to France when she had been just a baby, and from the time she was little, her father had done his best to crush any wayward impulses in his only daughter. Simultaneously, he'd blatantly favored her twin brother, Brent. To this day, she and Brent were as distant as it was possible for twins to be. Travis had been the one who'd been her rock as she grew up, despite his long absences at boarding school. To disappoint him now, hurt her deeply.
But she'd been utterly humiliated by Bryce in his hotel room in Manhattan; how could she possibly face him again?
She couldn't. It was out of the question.
She said valiantly, "How much does Samantha weigh? And is Julie getting enough sleep?"
Travis was happy to talk at some length about his daughter and his wife, both of whom he openly adored. In return, Jenessa described the new contract she had with her gallery, and the progress of her garden; finally, to her relief, Travis rang off. Slowly she put down the phone.
Once again she'd sidestepped any chance of coming face-to-face with Bryce Laribee. But the cost had been high; deep within her, Jenessa felt the slow burn of anger.
Against Bryce? Or against the young woman she'd been twelve years ago, so impressionable and so frighteningly vulnerable?
Excerpted from The Tycoon's Virgin Bride by Sandra Field Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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