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As silent as a tomb. And after eight weeks of playing Suzy Homemaker, Nadia Kincaid felt as if she'd been buried alive in the luxurious penthouse.
Nice crypt, but still a crypt.
She didn't even have neighbors as a distraction. The only other apartment in the downtown high-rise had been unoccupied since she'd moved in and the floors below were filled with businesses that didn't appreciate her popping in to visit. Not even when she brought the results of the new cookie recipes she'd tried.
She folded her dust cloth, parked her hands on her hips and stared at the shelves filled with books and videos Rand had sent. She'd promised herself she'd stand on her own two feet in Dallas, and she hadn't wanted to accept her brothers'help, but she also hadn't wanted to starve. So she'd caved and accepted his gifts. With the aid of the tapes and books and cable TV, she'd taught herself to cook. And since cooking was messy, she'd also learned to clean. She'd even managed to master laundry and all those other little things that had always been done for her as a Kincaid heiress. She was proud that she'd only had a few minor mishaps.
So there, Daddy. Two months and I'm still standing. Bet you didn't expect that.
She'd caught up on practically every movie and bestseller released in the past decade and even found a grocery store that delivered to downtown Dallas. Delivery, she'd discovered, was cheaper than taking a taxi to and from the store.
The only challenge she hadn't yet met was the driving lessons. She wasn't ready to get behind the wheel of a car.
Look how much damage she'd done from the passenger seat.
The memory sent her scrambling for a distraction theway it always did when the past slipped from its sealed vault. Whipping her rag back out, she dragged it across the polished granite mantle and focused on her anger toward her father.
He'd underestimated her again by giving her this stupid penthouse-sitting, find-herself, real-world job while giving her brothers more meaningful tasks.
Rand had been forced to return to Kincaid Cruise Lines and step into their father's shoes as CEO after a five-year self-imposed exile. Mitch would be playing daddy to their father's illegitimate toddler. But Mitch hadn't been forced to give up his job as the CFO.
She got to watch her nails grow.
But grief underlay her anger like silt at the bottom of a river waiting to be stirred up by a change in current. And her thoughts, like river water, turned murky at the oddest of times. Such as now.
Yes, she was furious with her father for treating her like an inept child, but she also ached with the knowledge that there would be no more head-butting arguments with him, no more irate confrontations because he'd gone over her head or behind her back and undermined or overridden her decisions at work. There'd be no more fighting over the business section of the paper during breakfasts at Kincaid Manor, no more appropriate-behavior lectures and no more looking up at work or at a society event and knowing he was watching her every move. Watching and waiting for her to screw up and need bailing out.
Three months ago she'd been chaffing at his smothering surveillance and, yes, she admitted grudgingly, over the years she'd done some outrageous things just to get a rise out of him. Now she missed knowing she mattered to someone. Sure, her brothers cared, but they had their own lives and having her disappear for a year was no great loss to them.
But you don't want anyone to get too close. Caring means losing and losing means hurting.
And self-pity is pathetic. Get over yourself.
But she'd swallowed all the domestic goddess junk she could handle. Her brain was atrophying. What else could she do? The will stipulated she couldn't get a job, but she needed more to fill her days than cooking, cleaning and sitting on her butt with a book or movie and waiting for a sound from the hall.
No doubt the security guards and Ella, the neighbor's maid, thought she was stalking them since she rushed out to chat each time she heard the elevator doors open.
She glanced at the window but her own reflection on the darkened glass stared back at her instead of the lush greenery and bright flowers and tomatoes filling the trio of container gardens Mitch had sent her. Her gaze bounced to the grandfather clock. Eleven? Where had the day gone? Without a job to report to every morning and some social event to occupy her evenings time seemed to slip away from her.
Slowly, like a receding ice cap.
She had to find a new hobby, but it would have to wait until morning. And she wasn't going to call anyone else for help. She had to work this one out for herself.
What could she do to fill the hours before even the chance of sleep would come? With the time difference, it was too late to call her brothers and get an update on their romances. Both had fallen in love during her solitary confinement, and Rand and Mitch were well on their way to fulfilling their parts of the inheritance clause. Their happiness only reinforced the fact that she couldn't mess this up. Success or failure now rested solely on her shoulders. Her father and brothers expected her to make a mess of this, but instead she was going to be the one to nail the deal.
She nodded with a whole lot more confidence than she felt and selected a kickboxing workout video. If she did the routine twice, the exercise ought to tire her out.
Trying to work up some enthusiasm, she headed for the DVD player. A muffled thump stopped her. Had it come from the hall? If so, it was far too late for the neighbor's twice-weekly maid, and since security in the building was tighter than the Pentagon, it wasn't likely to be a prowler.
So what was it? Grumpy, aka Gary, the night security guy? He usually covered the Monday night shifts. The guy really didn't like her much. None of the security team did.
But this wasn't Grumpy's usual time. She headed for the foyer and squinted through the peephole.
Across the wide hall a tall, blond guy had his back to her as he shoved a key into the apartment door. His tailored dovegray suit encased broad shoulders, slim hips and long legs. He carried an ostrich attaché case in his left hand and a Louis Vuitton garment bag sat to the right of his feet.
Her absentee neighbor? Hallelujah. Someone new to talk to. She yanked open the door. The man spun around swiftly as if she'd startled him.
No. It couldn't be. Nadia recoiled, stumbling backward. The doorjamb banged her spine. The pain barely registered. Her heart slammed. Her head spun.
Lucas is dead.
But the man in front of her was a dead ringer for her dead husband.
"Nadia?" said an oh, so familiar voice.
Black spots danced in front of her eyes. A cold sweat coated her skin. She gasped for air and clung to the door frame.
"Nadia, are you all right?"
She couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. Couldn't blink. Transfixed, she stared at the apparition wavering in front of her.
"Put your head down."
The briefcase thumped to the floor.A strong hand cupped the back of her neck and forced her chin toward her chest. Her legs folded. She went down hard on her knees. Her forehead pressed the Aubusson rug while her thoughts tumbled out of control.
You've done it. You've finally cracked up. Just like your father expected you to.
When you open your eyes, you'll see a stranger. Not your dead husband. Or maybe nobody at all.
But the firm, warm hand on her nape felt very, very real.
And very familiar.
When the hall around her no longer tilted and whirled she batted that big hand away and eased upright.
Blinking didn't change a thing. The man kneeling beside her still looked like Lucas Stone. His tawny hair was shorter, expensively razor cut instead of the basic barbershop job she remembered. His face was leaner and scored by a few more lines, but those were Lucas's silvery-blue eyes. That was his slightly canted-to-the-right nose and his stubborn square chin.
The corners of the mouth she'd once loved to kiss turned downward and his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Not the last time I checked."
"Daddy told me I missed the memorial service. I He said you died. From injuries sustained in the wr-wreck."
Scowl deepening, the Lucas look-alike sat back on his haunches. "Kincaid told you I was dead?"
Her tongue was as dry as driftwood and about as lifeless. She swallowed and nodded.
"Son of a bitch." He shot to his feet and offered her a hand.
She hesitated, staring at those long fingers, one of which had worn a shiny new gold band the last time she'd seen him a ring she still kept in her jewelry box at home. Reaching for that imaginary hand would be like buying into this delusion. She rose slowly without assistance and scanned the hall for the guys in white coats. But she saw only the empty private penthouse elevator through its gaping doors.
"This isn't real. You're not real. Tomorrow I'll wake up and"
The blond illusion followed her into the apartment.
Oh, God. She needed to call her shrink.
You fired him last week, remember?
Oh, yeah. Oops. Big mistake.
"I can't believe your father told you I was dead. What else did he tell you?"
She grappled to make sense of her delirium. "N-nothing."
He stopped a yard away and she caught a whiff of Kenneth Cole Black?
Did hallucinations have a scent?
Tentatively, she reached out. Her trembling fingertips didn't sink into nothingness. They encountered a firm chest encased in a pale blue silk shirt. She flattened her hand on that make-believe chest beside the navy-and-pewter striped silk tie. The steady thud of a heart bumped against her palm.
He's not dead.
Lucas isn't dead.
Joy burst through her, warming her, whipping her already racing heart into a wild thrashing rhythm. She was halfway to leaping into his arms and wrapping her legs around him the way she used to but her euphoria sputtered then crashed and burned like a spent firework.
Wait a minute.
She punched his upper arm. The pain radiating from her knuckles definitely wasn't a figment of her imagination. "If you're not dead, that means you dumped me, you jerk."
"You wanted me gone," he countered calmly, evenly.
She gaped. "Are you crazy? I risked disinheritance to marry you. Why would I want you gone?"
"Your father said you regretted your 'little rebellion.'You'd decided slumming wasn't for you, and you were embarrassed by your working-class husband. You demanded a divorce."
Was that true? Had her father lied to Lucas and deliberately separated them? "I did no such thing."
"He also claimed you couldn't stand the sight of me because" A muscle ticked in Lucas's angular jaw. His eyes filled with sadness, but his gaze didn't waver. "Because I killed our child and with it any feelings you'd ever had for me."
Her eyelids fluttered closed as an arrow of sorrow punctured her heart. Her breath hitched and her throat tightened. She pressed her hand to her stomachher empty, flat stomach gathered her courage and looked into the face she'd once adored.
"Lucas, you didn't end our child's life. I did." Saying the words she'd never dared admit to anyone else hurt worse than she'd anticipated.
His face blanched then turned granite hard. "What are you saying? What did you do, Nadia?"
The coldness in his eyes and voice surprised her. Comprehension dawned and the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck rose. "You think I deliberately ended my pregnancy? I would never " She shook her head at the appalling idea. "I meant I caused our wreck."
The rigidness eased from his shoulders. "I was driving."
He blamed himself? She wouldn't wish that agony on anyone, especially when she knew where the real fault lay. How many times had she cursed herself for trying to seduce her new husband on the way to their honeymoon hotel? How many times had she wished she'd waited ten more minutes to get amorous? Her selfish lack of concern for anyone around them had changed everything. Everything.
In seconds she'd gone from holding the world in her hands to realizing what mattered most was something no amount of money could buy and her daddy couldn't fix.
"I had my hand in your pants."
Grief deepened the lines bracketing his mouth. "I missed the stop sign."
"Because I was distracting you." She curled her fingers around his forearm, needing to reassure herself that this wasn't a dream. The muscles flexed taut and hard beneath his sleeve. "Lucas, I was in a coma for a week. If I didn't ask to see you it's because I couldn't."
He searched her face as if seeking the truth, then rage flooded his eyes with shocking swiftness. "The lying, conniving bastard."
"Your father." Lucas expelled the words on a breath filled with pure hatred and his lips flattened into a thin seam.
Everett Kincaid had done a lot of rotten things in his time, and he'd been clear in his intentions to disinherit Nadia if she went through with the wedding. He'd even refused to attend the small ceremony. But after the accident he'd acted as if that threat had never been voiced. She'd believed it was because in almost losing her he'd realized he loved her.
She should have known better. Her father never backed down or admitted he was wrong. He'd seen Lucas as a mistake and, like all her other mistakes, he'd "fixed" it in his own way. The wrong way. She shouldn't be hurt or surprised her father had lied to Lucas and sabotaged her marriage. But she was.
What surprised her even more was that Lucas had let him. She'd thought Lucas was the one man strong enough to stand up to her father. "If you'd loved me, you would have come to see me anyway."
The jaw muscle twitched faster. "I couldn't."
"Please. You were the most determined person I'd ever met. I don't believe you couldn't find your way to my hospital room. I was in intensive care hooked up to a billion machines. It's not like I could run and hide."