"I ought to kill you, you know that? Just outright murder you," Jason Wilding said, looking at his brother from under straight black eyebrows that were topped with a lion's mane of steel gray hair.
"What else is new?" David asked, smiling at his older brother, giving that smile of such great charm that people trusted him with their lives. David Wilding, or Dr. David as he was known to the people of Abernathy, Kentucky, picked up his glass of beer and drank deeply, while Jason sipped at his single malt whiskey.
"So what do you want?" Jason asked, arching one brow. It was a look that had made many a businessman's knees quake.
"Now what makes you think I want anything?"
"Years of experience. The rest of this one-horse town may think you're ready for sainthood, but I know you. You're up to something and you want something from me."
"Maybe I just wanted to visit with my illustrious older brother and the only way I could get you to come home for Christmas is to tell you that Dad was about to die."
"Cheap trick," Jason said with tight lips. He began to look in his suit pocket for a cigarette, then remembered that he gave them up over two years ago. But there was something about being in a bar in the town where he grew up that brought out the good ol' boy in him.
"It was the only thing I could think of," David said in defense of what he had done. He'd cabled his rich, overworked brother in New York that their father had suffered a heart attack and probably had only days to live. Within hours Jason's private jet had landed in an airfield fifty miles from Abernathy, and an hour later Jason was standing in their living room. When Jason had seen his father drinking beer and playing poker with his buddies, for a few minutes, David had feared for his life. But, as he well knew, Jason's bark was worse than his bite.
"I'm not staying," Jason said, "so you can get that idea out of your head."
"And why not?" David asked, trying to sound innocent. It had always been a family joke that David could get away with anything while Jason got blamed for everything. It was their looks. David had blond hair and blue eyes and a pink-and-white complexion. Even at thirty-seven he looked like an angel. And when he had on his doctor's coat, a stethoscope about his neck, every person who saw him breathed a sigh of relief, for any man who looked as divine as he did had to be able to save lives.
On the other hand, Jason was as dark as David was fair, and as his father had often said to him, "Even if you didn't do anything, you look like you did," for Jason was born with a scowl.
"Let me guess," David said, "you're booked for four weeks in Tahiti and you'll be bedding three women at once. "
Jason just took a sip of his whiskey and looked at his brother archly.
"No, no, don't tell me," David said. "I really can guess this one. Maybe it's Paris and you're having an affair with a runway model. One of those tall, cool creatures with plastic breasts."
Jason looked at his watch. "I have to go, Leon is waiting."
David knew that Leon was his brother's private pilot and, in cases like this trip, he doubled as his chauffeur. David also knew that Jason's staff served as his family, since he never bothered returning home and he'd always been much too busy to create a family of his own.
Jason gave his brother a look, then finished his whiskey and rose. "Look, you know how much I'd love to stay here and listen to you make fun of me, but I have -- "
"Let me say it," David said heavily. "You have work to do."
"Right, I do, and I would imagine that just because it's Christmas people don't stop getting sick, even in charming little Abernathy."
"No, and they don't stop needing help, even in Abernathy."
At that Jason sat back down. David asked for help only if he really needed it. "What is it? Cash?" Jason said. "Whatever you need, if I have it it's yours."
"I only wish that were true," David said, looking down at his beer.
Jason signaled the waiter to bring another single malt, and David looked up at him in speculation. Jason wasn't much of a drinker. He said it dulled his brain and he needed his wits about him if he was going to work. And, of course, work was Jason's be-all, end-all of life.
"I'm in love," David said softly; then when his brother was silent, he looked up and saw one of Jason's rare smiles.
"And what else?" Jason asked. "She from the wrong side of the tracks? Are the biddies of this town up in arms because their precious Dr. David is no longer available?"
"I wish you didn't hate this town so much. It's a great place, really."
"If you like small-minded bigots," Jason said cheerfully.
"Look, what happened to Mother -- No, I'm not going to get into that. I like this town and I plan to stay here. "
"With your new ladylove. So what's the problem with this girl that you think you need me? What do I know about being in love?"
"You know about dating. I see your name in all the society columns."
"Mmmm. I need to network at those charity functions...and it helps to have a woman on my arm," Jason said without much feeling.
"It's nice that the women you escort happen to be some of the most beautiful women in the world."
"And the most avaricious," Jason said, this time with feeling. "Do you have any idea how much jet fuel costs? If you did, you'd get on with whatever has happened to make you lie and connive your way into getting me here."
"I figure one trip costs less than an EKG machine."
Jason didn't miss the hint. "You got it, so stop begging and get on with it. Who are you in love with and what's the problem? You want me to pay for the wedding?"
"Believe it or not," David said angrily, "some people on this earth want something from you other than that money that seems to be your life."
Immediately, Jason backed down. "I apologize for the insinuation. Just tell me about this woman and how in the world I can be of help to you."
David took a deep breath. "She's a widow. She's..." He looked up at his brother. "She's Billy Thompkins's widow."
At that Jason gave a low whistle.
"She's not like that. I know Billy had problems, but -- "
"Yeah, the three d's: drugs, drink, and driving."
"You didn't know him in his last years. He settled down at the end. He went away on some job across the river, and he came back two years later with Amy, and she was four months pregnant. He seemed to have turned over a new leaf. He even bought the old Salma place."
Jason raised an eyebrow. "Is that heap still standing?"
"Barely. Anyway, he bought it with his mother's help. She co-signed the mortgage."
"But then who in Abernathy would lend Billy money?"
"Exactly. But it didn't matter, because he died four months later. Plowed into a tree doing about eighty."
"Yeah, drunk, and his wife was left alone except for Mildred. You remember her? Billy's mother?"
"I always liked her," Jason said. "She deserved better than Billy."
"Well, she got it in Amy. She's the sweetest person you ever met."
"So what's your problem? I can't imagine that Mildred is standing in your way. Don't tell me Dad -- "
"He loves Amy almost as much as I do," David said, looking down into his beer, which was already half empty.
"If you don't get on with it, I'm leaving," Jason threatened.
"It's her son. I told you that Amy was pregnant when she came back with Billy. Well, it was a boy."
"You deliver it?" Jason asked, one eyebrow arched.
"No, and don't start that again. It's different when you're a woman's doctor."
"Mmmmm. What about her son? Is he like his father?"
"Billy had a sense of humor. This kid is...You'd have to meet him to see what I mean. He's ruthless. Utterly without conscience. He is the most manipulative, conniving little monster I have ever met. Jealous doesn't begin to describe him. He completely controls Amy."
"And she has no idea what the kid's doing, right?" Jason said, his lips tight. He had been in David's position. Years before, he'd met a woman to whom he was more than just physically attracted. After one date he had begun to think that maybe there could be something between them. But then he'd met the woman's thirteen-year-old son. The kid was a criminal-in-the-making. He used to rifle through Jason's coat pockets and steal whatever he could find. Once he took Jason's car keys, which forced him to leave without his Jaguar that night. A week later the car was found at the bottom of the East River. Of course the kid's mother didn't believe that her son could do anything like that, so they had broken up. The last Jason had heard, the kid was now working on Wall Street and was a multimillionaire.
"You've had some experience in this area?" David asked.
"Some. You can't get any time with her unless the kid gives permission, right? And the mother dotes on him." There was bitterness in his voice.
"Like you've never seen in your life. She never goes anywhere without him. I've tried to persuade her to let me hire a baby-sitter, but she's too proud to accept my help, so the kid goes with us or we don't go. And it's impossible to stay at her house." David leaned halfway across the table. "The kid doesn't sleep. I mean it. Never. He's either a freak or a spawn of the devil. And of course Amy gives him one hundred percent of her attention all the time he's awake."
"Drop her," Jason said. "Trust me on this. Get away from her fast. If you did win her, you'd have to live with that kid. You'll wake up one morning with a cobra in your bed."
"He'd have to fight Max for space."
"The kid is still sleeping with his mother?" Jason said in disgust.
"When he wants to."
"It's easy for you to say. You've never been in love. Look, I think I could handle the kid if I could just win over his mother. But the truth is, I have no time alone with her." At that, David looked up at Jason in a way he'd seen a thousand times before.
"Oh, no, you don't. You're not getting me into this. I have engagements."
"No, you don't. How many times have I heard you complain because your employees want to take time off at Christmas? So this year you can stay here and help me out and give that secretary of yours some time off. How is that gorgeous creature, by the way?"
"Fine," Jason said tightly. "So what is it you want? You want me to kidnap the kid? Or maybe we should be done with it and have him murdered."
"The kid needs a father," David said, his mouth in a grimace.
"You do have it bad, don't you?"
"Real bad. I've never felt this way about a woman, and I have competition. Every man in town is after her."
"What's that, a whopping ten men or so? Or did old man Johnson die?"
"Ian Newsome is after her."
"Oh?" Jason said, giving his brother a one-sided grin. "Is that the boy who was the captain of the football team and the swimming team and also single-handedly won the state debating championships? The boy the girls used to throw themselves at? Didn't he marry Angela, the captain of the cheerleader squad, the one with more hair than brains?"
"Divorced. And he's back in town and he took over the Cadillac dealership."
"Must be making a lot of money there," Jason said sarcastically. There wasn't much call for Cadillacs in Abernathy.
"As a sideline, he sells Mercedes to the Arabs."
"Ahhhh," Jason said. "You do have problems."
"All I need is some time alone with Amy. If I could get her alone, I know I could -- "
"Make her love you? That's not the way it works."
"Okay," David said, "but at least I'd like to get a chance."
"All Newsome has to do is send her over a red Mercedes convertible and she's his. Maybe you could give her free -- "
"She's not like that!" David almost shouted; then when half the people in the bar looked at him, he lowered his voice. "I wish you'd stop joking. I'm not sure I want to live without her," David said softly.
For a moment Jason studied the top of his brother's head. David didn't ask for help often, and he never asked for help for himself. He had put himself through med school, refusing his brother's offer of a free education. "I won't appreciate it if it's handed to me on a platter," David had said. So now Jason was sure that David was still up to his neck in debt for that education, but he still wouldn't accept financial help.
But now David was asking his brother for something personal, something that didn't involve Jason's copious wealth. It had been a long, long time since anyone had asked Jason for anything that didn't have to do with money.
"I'll do what I can," Jason said softly.
David's head came up. "You mean it? No, no, what am I saying? You won't do what I have in mind."
Jason was by nature cautious, so now he said, "What exactly did you have in mind?"
"To live with her."
"What!?" Jason sputtered, again causing the patrons to look their way. He leaned toward his brother. "You want me to live with your girlfriend?"
"She's not my girlfriend. At least not yet, anyway. But I have to get someone in that house who can keep that kid away from her. And she has to trust him or she won't allow him to baby-sit."
"And then there's Newsome you have to deal with."
"Yeah, and all the other men who are after her."
All right. I'll call Parker and she can -- "
"No! It has to be you! Not your secretary. Not your chef or your pilot or your cleaning lady. You." When Jason looked at his brother in consternation at his vehemence, David calmed. "This kid needs a man's touch. You're good with brats. Look what you did with me."
Jason couldn't help being flattered, and it was true that he had been as much a father to his much younger sibling as he had been a brother. Their mother was gone and their father worked sixty hours a week, so they just had each other.
"Please," David said.
"All right," Jason answered reluctantly. In New York he was known to never give in on any deal, but then only David had the power to persuade him.
And, besides, there was part of Jason that wanted to replay one of the few battles in his life that he'd lost. A spoiled monster of a kid had kept him away from one of the few women Jason had ever thought he could love, and in the many years since then, he'd regretted not staying and fighting for her. Just last year he'd seen the woman again. She was happily married to a man Jason was doing business with and she looked great. They had a big house on Long Island, and they'd even had a couple of kids of their own. Now, at forty-five years old, Jason wondered what his life would have been like if he'd stayed and fought for the woman, if he hadn't let a thirteen-year-old con artist beat him.
"I'll do it," he said quietly. "I'll stay and see that the kid is occupied while you go out with your Amy."
"It won't be easy."
"I guess you think the rest of my life is easy."
"You haven't met this kid, and you haven't seen how attached Amy is to him."
"Don't worry about a thing. I can handle anything you throw at me. I'll take care of the brat for one week, and if you don't win this woman in that time, then you don't deserve her."
Instead of gushing with gratitude, as Jason thought he would, David looked down at his beer again.
"Now what is it?" Jason snapped. "A week isn't enough time?" His mind was racing. How many Little League games could a man attend without going insane? Thank God for cell phones so he could work while sitting on the bleachers. And if he got into a jam, he could always call Parker. She was capable of handling anything at any time, anywhere.
"I want your sacred promise."
At that, Jason's face grew red. "Do you think I go back on my word?"
"You'll turn the job over to someone else."
"Like hell I will!" Jason sputtered, but had to look down so his brother couldn't see his eyes. If the men he dealt with in New York knew him as well as his brother did, he'd never close a deal. "I'll take care of the kid for one week," he said more calmly. "I'll do all the things that kids like. I'll even give him the keys to my car."
"You flew; you don't have a car, remember?"
"Then I'll buy a car and give him the damn thing, all right?" David was making him feel decidedly incompetent. "Look, let's get this show on the road. The sooner I get this done with, the sooner I can get out of here. When do I meet this paragon of loveliness?"
"Sacred promise," David said, his eyes serious but his voice sounding as if he were once again four years old and demanding that his big brother promise that he wouldn't leave him.
Jason gave a great sigh. "Sacred promise," he murmured, then couldn't help looking around to see if anyone in the bar had heard him. In a mere thirty minutes he had gone from being a business tycoon to a dirty-faced little boy declaring blood oaths. "Did I ever tell you that I hate Christmas?"
"How can you hate something that you have never participated in?" David asked with a cocky grin. "Come on, let's go. Maybe we'll be lucky and the kid will be asleep."
"Might I point out to you that it is two o'clock in the morning? I don't think your little angel will appreciate our dropping in."
"Tell you what, we'll go by her house and if all the lights are out, we'll go past. But if the lights are on, then we'll know she's up and we'll stop in for a visit. Agreed?"
Jason nodded as he drained the last of his whiskey, but he didn't like what he was thinking. What kind of woman would marry a man like Billy Thompkins? And what kind of woman stayed up all night? A fellow drunk seemed to be the only answer.
As they left the bar and headed toward the sedan where Jason's driver waited, Jason began to make up his own mind about this woman who had enticed his brother into wanting to marry her. The facts against her were accumulating fast: a drunken husband, an incorrigible child, a nocturnal lifestyle.
Inside the car, Jason looked across at his younger brother and vowed to protect him from this hussy, and as they rode toward the outskirts of town, he began to form a picture of her. He could see her bleached hair, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. Was she older than David? He was so young, so innocent. He'd rarely left Abernathy in his life and knew nothing of the world. It would be easy for some sharp-witted huckster to take advantage of him.
Turning, he looked at his brother solemnly. "Sacred promise," he said softly, and David grinned at him. Jason turned away. For all that his brother was often a pain in the neck, he had the power to make Jason feel as if he was worth what his accountant said he was.
Copyright © 1998 by Deveraux, Inc.