Caught up in a whirlwind courtship with both men that will take her from the nightclubs of Rome to the manor houses of England, across the dusty flatlands of Texas and finally home to the Triple C Ranch, Laura is determined to make her choice on her own terms. But Calder pride will lead Laura into a danger for which her sheltered background has never prepared her . . . and to a man who is a threat to the family she loves more than she knows . . .
Praise for Janet Dailey and her bestselling Calder novels
“Dailey's latest romantic suspense, with all its secrets, intrigue, and machinations. . .will continue to please.” —Booklist
“The passion, spirit and strength readers expect from a Calder story—and a Calder hero—shine through . . .” —Publishers Weekly on Lone Calder Star
“Dailey confirms her place as a top megaseller.” —Kirkus Reviews on Calder Pride
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By JANET DAILEY
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2004 Janet Dailey
All rights reserved.
The flattering glow of candlelight welcomed the arriving guests to the home of Count and Countess Valerie, a sixteenth-century palazzo on Rome's Capitoline Hill. Twenty-one-year-old Laura Calder ran an appreciative eye over the frescoes and friezes that adorned the walls and ceilings of one of the palazzo's many ballrooms, but her attention quickly reverted to her fellow guests.
Not all had gathered in the ballroom. Some, first-timers like herself, were being shown around the palazzo, a tour Laura had recently completed. Virtually all on hand were strangers to her, although Laura recognized several faces, identifying them from photographs she had seen in either the society or business pages. So far she had spotted an Italian film producer, a French dignitary, an American industrialist, a former British prime minister, a robed papal envoy, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning author.
Yet, surveying the throng of notables and glitterati, Laura was half-tempted to unleash a rather raucous "Yee-haw" just to watch the shock waves it would create among such a staid and dignified gathering. She smiled at the thought of all the raised eyebrows and down-the-nose looks that would be directed her way if she did. Perhaps another time, she decided.
"Excuse me — you there, young lady." Amongst the foreign chatter going on around Laura, the gruff and rather demanding male voice was too distinctively American with its trace of Texas twang not to immediately catch her attention.
When she looked around to locate its source in the acoustically poor ballroom, she spotted an older man in a wheelchair, positioned facing the doors that opened into the palazzo's inner courtyard. In a glance, she took in the grizzled silver of his hair, the harsh, age-lined gauntness of his face, and the thickness of his heavily muscled torso beneath the fine cut of his suit jacket, a thickness that was so at odds with the atrophied slenderness of his legs.
There was something vaguely familiar about his face, and about the fact that it belonged to a man in a wheelchair, but Laura couldn't make the connection to come up with his name. Belatedly she noticed that his hard, dark eyes had fastened their gaze on her.
"You there." He motioned to her, then paused and scowled uncertainly. "Do you speak English?"
Her mouth curved in an easy smile. "I do indeed."
"An American. Thank God," the man muttered, half under his breath, then broke eye contact with her and nodded toward the door. "Give me a hand with this door. I need some air."
Laura caught the note of frustration in his voice and guessed immediately that this was a man who loathed the idea that he required anyone's assistance. Just like her grandfather, it could make him very irritable.
Certain that he would find any verbal response from her irksome, Laura said nothing and simply crossed to the door. As she pushed it open, she noticed the raised threshold and knew it could pose a problem for him even though the wheelchair was motorized. Without a word, she passed him her beaded evening bag and stepped to the back of his chair. Gripping the handles, she gave it a push and a tilt and wheeled him into the inner courtyard.
With a touch of the controls, the man swung the chair toward her and ran an appraising eye over her, inspecting the sophisticated upsweep of her blond hair, the sculpted fineness of her features, the diamonds that dangled from her lobes, and the silken elegance of her gown, its rich chocolate color intensifying the deep, dark brown of her eyes that contrasted so with the gold of her hair.
"You're stronger than you look," he announced, making no effort to return her evening bag.
"I'll take that as a compliment." Laura allowed a small smile to play across her lips.
"What's your name?"
"Calder, you say. Any relation to the Calders of Montana?" he asked, exhibiting a mild curiosity.
"Chase Calder is my grandfather," she confirmed, not at all surprised that he should know of her family. While the Calder name meant little in Europe, it was widely known at home.
"Your grandfather," he murmured and looked at her with new eyes. "You must be Jessy Calder's daughter, 'cause you certainly didn't get that blond hair from Chase." He shot a look toward the ballroom. "Is your mother here? I don't recall seeing her."
"No, I'm with Tara Calder. She's been like an aunt to me." She was deliberately offhand with her answer, skipping any specific response to a relationship that was difficult to explain, even though it had existed almost from the day she was born. Eyebrows were invariably raised when people learned that Tara Calder had been her father's first wife. Yet, in many ways Laura was closer to her than she was to her own mother.
"Tara," he thoughtfully repeated the name, then brightened in sudden recognition. "Of course. E.J. Dyson's daughter. I remember now; she was married to your father once." His eyes narrowed on her, an avidly interested gleam lighting them that Laura had seen in others when they made the same connection. "And you're here with her."
Laura was too used to fielding such remarks to be bothered by it. She handled it the way she always did, by altering ever so slightly the direction of the conversation.
"Yes. I graduated from college at midterm, but Tara insisted that my education wouldn't be complete without a tour of Europe."
He nodded, his expression taking on a faraway look. "Yes, that's the way it used to be done when a girl came of age. February in Switzerland, March in Greece or the Riviera, April in Paris, naturally, and ..." He paused before concluding, "Italy in May."
"Something like that," Laura admitted, his guess at her itinerary coming close to accurate.
"Must be missing Montana about now," he surmised.
"I haven't really had time. There's been too much to do, to see, and to experience." And she was loving every moment of it. With his questions answered, it was her turn to ask some. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to appear rude, but — I know I should recognize you."
"I'm Max Rutledge."
"Of course." Everything clicked into place: Max Rutledge, the Texas rancher turned oilman, turned banker; a politically powerful mover and shaker behind the scenes, crippled in a car wreck that claimed his wife's life — and worth billions. "I've heard of you."
His chin lifted in measured challenge. "What have you heard?"
Laura knew instinctively that she was being tested. "I've heard that you have no patience with fools or liberal Democrats."
With a grin as big as Texas splitting his face, he settled back in his wheelchair and surveyed her with approval. "That's one and the same thing, isn't it?" The question at the end was purely rhetorical. "That answer was a bit cheeky. Kinda surprised me."
Laura smiled, certain now that she knew how to deal with him. "I imagine you are a lot like my grandfather. He can't stand it when people pull their punches because of who he is."
"I met your grandfather a couple times. It was some years back, though," Max Rutledge recalled. "He struck me as a man who knows exactly what he wants. More important, he knows how to keep it." He studied her thoughtfully. "I get the feeling that some of that trait runs in you."
"You definitely have met my grandfather." Laura carefully avoided a direct response. It was something she had learned from her grandfather. Endless times he had told her never to brag about who she was or what she had, counseling her that if someone didn't know, he'd find out on his own soon enough. It was a lesson that had gone hand in glove with Tara's teaching that it was more important for Laura to make the right impression than a good one.
"So" — Max Rutledge dropped her evening bag onto his lap and clamped both hands on the armrests of his wheelchair — "are you enjoying this little do?"
"I am. Aren't you?" she countered.
He harrumphed ever so faintly, with a note of amusement. "Not really. For a man like me, trapped in this thing, I spend half the evening staring at buckles and bosoms."
Laura laughed, a spontaneous and natural reaction to his irreverent remark. She struggled to swallow it back, not wanting him to think she was laughing at his infirmity. But remnants of it bubbled in her voice when she said, "That offers a very different perspective on what it's like for you."
"It's a view that can have some eye-opening rewards on occasion," he declared with a naughty twinkle in his eyes.
"I can imagine — vividly." There was a movement in her side vision as one of the guests passed by the door, briefly blocking the light from the ballroom streaming into the courtyard. It suddenly occurred to her that Tara might be wondering where she was. For that matter, whoever came with Max Rutledge might be wondering the same thing about him. Laura was certain a man of his stature wouldn't have come alone. "Is there someone with you? I could —"
"Just my son."
Laura thought she detected a note of impatience, almost disgust, in his rather abrupt reply. "Boone — isn't that his name?" she recalled, unable to summon up much else about him except a vague memory that this most eligible bachelor from Texas had a bit of a reputation for playing the field.
"That's right. He's getting the grand tour of the palace."
Again she sensed an air of dissatisfaction and decided that Boone Rutledge wasn't a wise subject to pursue. "The view from the palazzo's rooftop garden is quite spectacular."
"So I hear. But these old palaces don't come equipped with elevators."
"I hadn't thought of that," Laura admitted with a touch of her mother's candor.
"No reason why you should," he replied and once more subjected her to the penetrating study of his gaze. "I like you. You'd make a good wife for my son."
She arched her eyebrows a little higher at his bold statement. "Thank you, but I think your son may have something to say about that."
A darkness gave his eyes a steely quality. "Not as much as you might think," he muttered and looked up when a tall, broad-shouldered figure filled the doorway and threw a shadow across them. "It's about time you showed up, Boone." Again his voice had that edge to it as if there was little about his son that pleased him. "I thought I would have to hold on to this lady's handbag all evening." He stretched out an arm, extending the beaded purse to Laura.
When she stepped forward to reclaim her bag, Boone Rutledge moved out of the doorway to approach them. Laura slid her glance over him, quick to notice the hint of curl in his dark hair, the hard and manly angles of his face, and the muscled trimness of his physique. When Boone added a sexy smile of greeting to the mix, the result was a package of raw virility that required only a black Stetson to complete the image of Texan manhood. It made her wonder if Max Rutledge had cut a similar figure when he was whole and in his prime.
"I'd like you to meet my son, Boone," Max said, beginning the introductions. "Boone, this is Laura Calder, Chase Calder's granddaughter."
"Chase Calder of the Triple C Ranch in Montana?" Boone glanced at his father for confirmation even as he reached out a hand to Laura in formal greeting.
"The same." Max nodded.
"I always meant to attend one of the Triple C's private livestock auctions. And now, meeting you, I really am sorry I haven't." He held her hand an instant longer than necessary, conveying his interest.
Laura didn't feign any false modesty. She was blond, built, and beautiful — and knew it. Dealing with a man's advances, whether wanted or otherwise, was one of the first things she had learned.
"In that case I'll make sure that you both receive a personal invitation to our next one." She made her smile warm enough to encourage his interest.
"If you do, you can count on me being there." His gaze locked on hers, the darkening light in his eyes adding an intimate message of his own. She recognized the signs of a man used to making easy conquests. Her own reaction was an instinctive desire to rise to the challenge of being the one who held the lead rope.
"Better bring your checkbook," she replied. "Once you see what the Triple C has to offer, you'll be glad to pay the high price."
Max Rutledge barked out a laugh. "By God, Boone, if you've got a brain in your head, you'll marry this gal."
"Don't mind him," Boone said to Laura, a tiny flicker of irritation showing in his expression. "My father is a little brash, but he has good taste."
"But taste is always a matter of personal choice, isn't it?" Laura smiled to let Boone know she didn't take his father's comment at all seriously.
"You young people these days," Max grumbled, "you're a lotta talk and little action."
"Don't rush things, Max," Boone replied without pulling his gaze from Laura. "You don't want to scare her off."
"I have a feeling it would take a lot to scare this one," Max stated, sizing her up again with another sweeping look before firing a glare at his tall son. "And it sure as hell would take more than you."
A smile continued to curve Boone's mouth, but Laura observed the tightening of suppressed anger in it as he sliced a look at his father. "You could scare her, though. There aren't many women willing to tolerate meddling in-laws."
The friction between father and son was obvious, and Laura suspected it was long standing. Considering that her own relationship with her mother was far from perfect, Laura could sympathize with Boone.
Seeking to smooth away the awkwardness of the exchange and its undertones of bitterness, Laura issued a practiced laugh, a soft and tinkly sound, and sent a twinkling glance at Boone. "Ahh, isn't the generation gap a pain?"
Gone was that sexy flirting of a man who had made a habit of directing it at any attractive woman within range of his vision. In its place was a searing warmth that made Laura wonder if she was the first to ever be the recipient. She experienced a little surge of triumph as she felt him slipping around her finger.
"A royal pain," Boone agreed, regarding her with a new and more intimate interest.
Laura didn't need to glance at the man in the wheelchair to be aware that he was observing the two of them with a good deal of satisfaction.
"There you are, Laura,"
The femininely soft drawl was instantly familiar. Laura turned, watching as Tara Calder moved toward them with her typical gliding grace. She was struck again by the woman's incredible beauty, a beauty that was stunning and absolutely ageless. Tara's only concession to her advancing years was a dramatic streak of white in her otherwise midnight dark hair. Whether the streak was nature's doing or mere artifice, not even Laura knew.
"I looked everywhere for you. What on earth are you doing out —" Tara broke off the question the instant she noticed the wheelchair-bound man. "Max Rutledge. I don't believe it." Altering her course, she crossed to his side, first bending to air-kiss his cheeks, then crouching down next to him, the fullness of her gown's skirt poofing about her. "I certainly never expected to run across you here in Rome. I won't bother to ask how you are. You're looking as robust as ever."
"I look like hell, but you are still the most charming liar I have ever known," Max declared in a voice that was dry and mocking.
Tara laughed, low and musical, and briefly pressed a hand on his arm. "My daddy told me a long time ago that when you come across something sour, just pile on a lot of sugar." With a fluid move, she stood erect and turned to Boone. "My, but you have grown into a handsome rogue, Boone. How do you manage to put up with this grumpy old bear?"
"He doesn't have a choice," Max inserted, but Tara gave no sign that she had heard his somewhat caustic remark.
Boone dismissed her question with a noncommittal, "You can't pick your parents." He warmly clasped her hand, enveloping it in both of his. "You are as beautiful as ever, Tara."
"Thank you," she replied with a demure dip of her head, then withdrew her hand and divided her glance between father and son. "Tell me, how did the two of you manage to lure my ward into the courtyard?"
"Sheer luck, I think," Boone replied as he directed an intimate, warm look at Laura.
"I suspect the luck is all Laura's." Tara drifted closer to her self-proclaimed ward, then addressed Laura in pseudo-confiding manner. "You do realize that you are in the company of two of the world's most sought after bachelors, not to mention that you are practically neighbors — at least in a manner of speaking."
Excerpted from Calder Promise by JANET DAILEY. Copyright © 2004 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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