His proposition was tempting . . . “Let me help you, Alisa.” Zachary’s voice was a soft, caressing whisper that was oddly soothing and hypnotic. “You’ve taken the world on your shoulders by making Chris your sole responsibility. Haven’t you ever wanted someone to take care of you?” As much as she wanted to, Alisa wouldn’t admit any such feelings to him. She felt curiously vulnerable, unable to handle the uncharacteristic gentleness Zachary was displaying. And she was afraid she’d give in to him. She couldn’t let Zachary break down her defenses!
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Fire and Ice
The Americana Series: California
By Janet Dailey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Janet Dailey
All rights reserved.
"WITH your face and figure, you would have no difficulty getting a husband. Too bad you were born with such a frigid nature." The young man leaned back in the chaise-longue along the plush Las Vegas hotel pool. He inhaled deeply on his cigarette while studying the golden tanned body of the girl sunbathing beside him.
"You forgot to add 'and my money', Michael." Her eyes remained closed, shutting out the glare of the Nevada sun midway down in the afternoon sky. "And I wasn't born with a frigid nature. It took years of hard work before I successfully discovered its benefits."
His gaze traveled over her slim ankles and the slender long legs, the soft lime-green two-piece swimsuit that accented her narrow waist and the gentle swell of her breasts, before stopping at her face to investigate the Grecian perfection of her profile and the pale gold colour of her naturally blonde hair. An amused chuckle escaped his lips, bringing one eye open to stare at him quizzically.
"My poor Alisa," Michael stared at his cigarette rather than meet the cool gaze of her clear blue eyes. "To be so hardened against men and yet placed in the position of having to marry one!"
"I see nothing amusing in that!" Alisa Franklin rose from her reclining position to reach out angrily to her gold cigarette case lying on the table beside Michael.
"Oh, come now." A cynical gleam brightened his eyes as he leaned over to light her cigarette. "Surely you see the twisted humour of the hand reaching out from the grave, especially when you consider it's all your mother's doing."
"My mother was an intensely old-fashioned woman who believed that a woman wasn't complete without a man!"
"And managed to marry five times to prove it!" Michael laughed. His lean body, clad only in black trunks, leaned back against the chair.
"She was a fool!" Alisa exclaimed. "A weak-willed person who hung on every man's coat tails, a simpering idiot with her lavender scents and lace handkerchiefs. She knew how I loathed those summers I spent with Roy and Marguerite—and she had the simpleness to be taken in by their snivelings and state in her will that they were to have custody of Christine!"
"Not to mention all that money that goes with her," Michael added.
"I don't care a snap for the money and you know it." She ground the half-smoked cigarette out in the ashtray. "Mother knew my father's trust fund left me amply provided, which was the reason Christine was the main beneficiary of her will. The poor child will never enjoy any of it with Marguerite and Roy in control. You should have seen the way she looked at me when I left her there yesterday. Damn it! What am I going to do?"
"I don't see what you're getting so excited about," he mocked. "Your mother stated very clearly in her will that if you were married, the custody of Christine would be yours. You merely have to marry someone."
She longed to cry out "Never!" but the memory of Christine's pleading eyes danced in front of her face, making such a statement impossible.
"You forgot the provision that also states I must live with my husband for at least one year." Alisa lit another cigarette and puffed on it in angry frustration. "If only you weren't my cousin, you would solve all my problems. As it stands, I can't think of one man I'd like to spend an evening with, let alone twelve months!"
"The only reason you tolerate me is because I don't pander your ego as everyone else does." Michael's mouth curled sardonically. "I knew you when you had braces on your teeth and were as skinny as a reed, tagging along after me like a puppydog. I suppose your cynicism amuses me, as well as your money."
"Don't try to sneer at me, Michael," Alisa returned in a dangerously cold and quiet voice. "You're only twenty-six, just two years older than I. You are an adequate escort, very occasionally amusing company, but more importantly, you don't subject me to those degrading pawing sessions."
"The ice maiden has no cousinly affection for me at all? Perhaps you should seek a husband. He might be more satisfactory. I'd love to see you married to some domineering tyrant who would beat you twice a day."
"You can wipe that smug smile off your face, because I'll never marry anyone that I can't succeed in having the upper hand with!" Alisa rose from her chair, sweeping her long white-gold locks away from her face before slipping on the lacy beach robe. "You did reserve a table for the Parisian revue this evening as I told you to do, didn't you? Or did you spend the money on the dice tables like you have all the rest I've given you since we came to Las Vegas?"
"No, I obeyed Your Highness's command and slipped an extra tip to the reservation clerk to ensure a satisfactory table." He got to his feet, his slender tall frame giving him only a three-inch advantage as he stood facing her. "I'll pick you up at eight-thirty. We'll have time for dinner before the eleven o'clock show." As Alisa turned to leave, Michael asked quietly, "What are you going to do about Christine?"
"Find a husband." Her voice was sharp and contemptuous. But as she continued, Michael heard the ringing pride creep through. "He'll be someone of quality with a respectable family name. I'll not marry some fortune-hunting scum and endure the laughter that would follow. Not even for my sister!"
Alisa didn't wait for Michael to comment on her statement. She traversed the full length of the pool area, disdainful of the ogling eyes and suggestive voices that followed her. Her total disregard to the male attention served as a spur to goad them to more attempts to gain her interest, but Alisa's disinterest was genuine. Her only reaction was one of revulsion that left an unclean feeling when she finally reached her suite.
Only after Alisa had been immersed in the marble bath filled with bubbling suds did she feel free of the disgusting traces of leering eyes. With an enormous white bath towel draped around her, she sat down in front of the vanity, gazing silently and absently at her composed reflection in the mirror. She had become accustomed to the perfection that stared back. Only once had Alisa wished she had been born a 'plain Jane', but that had quickly passed. Her own love of beautiful things would have rejected the lack of it in her own appearance, just as she realized, with insight, that had she been a plain girl, she would quite likely have possessed a romantically foolish nature, mooning and sighing over some man like so many of her other acquaintances did.
Now those silly notions were behind her, successfully buried with the braces and the gaucheness of waiting until her body had matured enough to catch up with her gangling long legs. With an amused and bitter smile, Alisa realized how much gratitude she owed her mother. Her mother had divorced Alisa's father, her first husband, only three years after the birth of their only child, Alisa. Two years later, when she was nearly five, he was killed in a car crash. She had clung childishly to his image, bestowing on him all the attributes that she dreamed a father would have. But the parade of men through her mother's life had quickly tarnished her faith. It had seemed to Alisa that she was forever being shuttled off to her Aunt Marguerite and Uncle Roy's to make way for another honeymoon or another divorce.
The summer of her fifteenth birthday had been the most traumatic of all. Her third stepfather, wealthy as all her mother's husbands were, had taken an intense interest in Alisa. The soft curves of womanhood had just begun to show on her previously slender boyish frame. The slight straightening of her teeth had been accomplished by braces and the unsightly wires were gone. For a month Alisa had basked in the warm glow of his attention. They had gone sailing together nearly every day. Her mother, who was a terrible sailor, had remained ashore. It was on one of those expeditions that Alisa had become aware of a change in his attention.
It was a gorgeously sunlit day, encouraging lazy hours spent sunbathing on the deck. The slight breeze had died, leaving the sails becalmed underneath the warm rays of the sun. Alisa had lain stretched out on the sailboat's deck, her simple two-piece swimsuit of the summer before not quite fitting her newly formed curves. She remembered her stepfather walking towards her, stopping to stare down at her. She remembered being puzzled by his gaze and the curious light that was in his eyes. A strange fear had swept over her when Alisa remembered they were alone on the boat and at least two miles from shore. She had shaded her eyes from the brilliant sun to gaze up at him, noticing for the first time the dissipated lines around his mouth, the paunch that showed quite visibly in swimming trunks, and the seemingly always constant can of beer in his hand.
He had knelt down beside her, his eyes resting on the slight cleavage of her swimsuit top before moving to the tiny pale gold topknot of hair on her head.
"Take your hair down, Alisa," he had commanded thickly.
Her fingers had fumbled to obey as a shiver of fear raced through her. As her hair had cascaded down on to her shoulders, her stepfather's hand had reached out to capture the spun gold in his hands. Aware that what was happening wasn't right, Alisa had attempted to stand, but he quickly pinned her to the deck, his heavy breathing sending waves of alcoholic odor over her face as she tried to turn away.
"How about a kiss for your old stepdad?" he had muttered.
Kicking, scratching, and screaming, Alisa had tried to ward him off, but without much success as he at last had covered her mouth with his. The disgustingly repulsive memory of his mouth practically slobbering over her face was as fresh today as it was that afternoon when she had finally broke free and dived over the side. Luckily she had managed to flag down a passing boat which took her to shore, where she had sobbed out the story to her horrified mother.
Not even her mother's divorce and subsequent successful marriage to Dale Patterson had managed to erase or blot out the events of that afternoon. The beginnings of her cool reserve had begun. In the later years of her teens, Alisa was aware her looks were the envy of girl friends and that any of the more sought-after boys were hers for the asking. But few boys interested her enough, and those that did had always met the same fate. Alisa had realized with growing disgust that once you accepted a date with a boy, it wasn't the pleasure of your company that they were interested in. At first she had tried to endure the goodnight kisses, but they always expected more the next time. Gradually she refused all dates, hating the sense of obligation that came with the acceptance. She shunned nearly every social gathering, and those she couldn't, she was escorted to by her cousin Michael.
There were only two things she enjoyed out of life any more, her precocious half-sister Christine and the gaming tables in Las Vegas. Alisa's gambling wasn't an obsession; if she won, she stopped. If she was getting behind, she stopped too, always knowing that as long as her inheritance held out, there was always another day. But Christine? Alisa sighed deeply, removing a brush from the table, and began brushing her hair. There was no question about whether or not she wanted Christine.
Dear, darling little Christine whom Alisa had taken care of since Chris was a baby. To have Christine Alisa must have a husband, an incredibly simple solution for someone as beautiful and wealthy as she, but a terribly galling one at the same time. Even as names and faces danced in her head, Alisa was rejecting them. Never once did she doubt that if she chose one, she would fail to succeed in getting him to the altar. She loathed the more acceptable ones who were quick to cater to her just as she feared the ones who would attempt to force themselves on her. If only she could go out and buy herself a husband, Alisa thought with a smile, how simple it would be!
Although the entire revue had been well staged from the choreography of the scantily clad dancers to the individual acts of the entertainers, Alisa hadn't been able to enjoy the show. Her mind was centered on finding a solution to her problem. When Michael had picked her up earlier in the evening, Alisa had been determined to put her thoughts behind her, taking enormous time choosing her dress before finally settling on a new silver lamé evening gown, sleeveless and curling around her neck with a mandarin collar. With it she had worn a black lace shawl with silver threads running through the rose design. Her pale yellow hair she had styled to wing down the sides of her face from its centre parting to sweep back into a sophisticated chignon at the nape of her neck.
As they entered the casino area, Michael paused near the dice tables, a feverish gleam lighting his eyes as he watched the dice bounce across the green top. Poor Michael, Alisa thought without any sympathy. He had run through his inheritance in less than a year, but still he was anxious to lose more at the tables. She touched his elbow lightly and reluctantly he followed her as she continued wandering through the crowds.
The din of ecstatic winners and disgruntled losers mingled with the jangling bells of the slot machines and the casual voices of croupiers and dealers. People in expensive evening clothes rubbed elbows with others dressed in sporty wear. It was an incongruous mixture amidst the plush carpeting and dazzling chandeliers. There seemed to be only one place where the élite were separated from the average populace, and Alisa knew that her casual pace would eventually bring her to the secluded baccarat table.
Stopping at the ornate railing that isolated the players from the crowded casino floor, Alisa experienced again the tightening of her throat that always happened to her as she was about to take part in this aristocratic game of chance. Michael stood silently by her side, watching the coolness of her expression with the same amazement he felt every time they went through this routine. In a moment she would turn to him, discreetly pass him some money so that he could go off to his own game at the dice tables.
Through large, unexpressive blue eyes, Alisa studied the play in progress and the players. As her gaze drifted around to each person, she ignored the younger women at the table, seated there under the employment of the casino to add colour and inducement to legitimate players. Her pulse quickened as her eyes rested on the last player at the table.
His ebony black hair gleamed under the soft glow of the chandelier. Under the dark eyebrows, thick dark spikes of black lashes outlined his eyes, so dark brown that they appeared black. Even now, at this distance, Alisa could see the burning intensity of his gaze as he studied the cards before him. His tanned cheekbones sat prominently in his face, suggesting leanness that wasn't there. The long, narrow nose looked as uncompromising as the rest of him. Finally her eyes rested on the cruel line of his mouth.
Her left eyebrow lifted with her mounting excitement. There couldn't be two people who looked so much alike. A cool wave of resolution washed over her as Alisa turned slightly towards her cousin.
"That man sitting to the left of the croupier, what do you know about him?"
Michael glanced at her in surprise. Alisa was usually unconcerned about who she played with and rarely showed any interest in her fellow players, but obediently his gaze went to the man in question. As he recognized the man, Michael inhaled deeply to conceal his surprise. When he turned to Alisa he was equally surprised to see a glittering light in her eyes.
"That's Zachary Stuart. I haven't seen him in Vegas since before his father died. He's a ruthless gambler, or at least, he was. He had the most uncanny luck at the tables, especially when you consider that he never seemed to care one way or the other. You'd do well to follow his lead in betting, Alisa."
"I don't care how he gambles." Her gaze returned to the man at the table with a chilling calculation in her expression. "I want to know everything you know about him."
Excerpted from Fire and Ice by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1975 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
this series of short stories set in each of the 50 states continues with fire and ice (california). each is a romantic tale set in the 'old west'. each will capture your heart. i am slowly working my way through all 50. they are a treasure.