|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.54(d)|
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The pain was not subsiding. The doctor said I would know when it was time to check in. Actually, he put it quite simply ... the pain would be excruciating.
Resigning himself to another sleepless night, Michael Peterson struggled as he dragged the overstuffed chair forward, trying to position it to face the fire. He frowned, realizing just how much the last couple of months had changed him.
"There." He gave the heavy chair one last shove. A well-worn neon tennis ball rolled out from beneath the chair. Michael bent down and picked it up; smiling, he thought about Dakota, the golden retriever mix he had adopted at the pet fair. He had been the perfect pound puppy, and they had been inseparable for many years. As he held the ball tightly, a lump formed in his throat. So many losses in such a short amount of time. I can't change anything now ... even if I wanted to. He turned and slowly set the ball down on the coffee table. For the first time he felt truly alone.
Taking a deep breath, he looked around the room, grabbed a couple of extra pillows and tossed them onto the chair, hoping they might make him more comfortable. But in the end, he knew it really wouldn't matter what he did.
Easing his thin frame down into the chair, he twisted and turned trying to find a comfortable spot, but even with the added padding, it was nearly impossible. Finally settling in, he focused his gaze on the flames as they cracked and danced to a rhythm all their own. Absentmindedly, he ran his finger down the left side of his nose along the almost invisible scar, the result of his first and only attempt at playing football. Michael was hoping to clear his mind and quiet his thoughts for as long as possible in an attempt to delay the inevitable.
The last couple of times he sat through these night-long vigils he wondered if he would even see the morning again, but this was the choice he had made. He couldn't bring himself to sit in a hospital room waiting for that so-called perfect opportunity.
Within minutes his eyes began pulsating. Hour by hour the waves of throbbing increased. He took a deep breath and pushed his body deeper into the chair, gradually easing his head back until it rested lightly against the top of the seat. His knuckles whitened as he gripped the arms of the chair. He squeezed his eyes shut as the onslaught of pain proceeded to pound in full force.
* * *
Squinting, Michael peered tentatively around the room; its brightness made it difficult for him to make out anything. As his eyes gradually adjusted, he began to recognize the familiar things around him. His skin was sticky by the drying sweat and a slight dampness clung to his dark brown hair. He had made it through, but the tightness in his stomach and the dull ache in his head still lingered. This one was different, the worst one yet. Time was running out.
He stood up and slowly maneuvered the chair back into place, then stretched to relieve his arms and back from the tight ball he had been curled in all night. He really hadn't expected the pain would be so intense. Instinctively, he knew he probably could not ride out another one alone. He hated to admit it even to himself; he was scared.
It was time to check in.CHAPTER 2
Elliot Paxton rose slowly from the comforting warmth of the bed. Pulling himself up to his full height as he stretched, he moved toward the bathroom, turning to gaze at the sleeping form twisted in the soft folds of the satin sheets.
God, she is so beautiful. Quietly, he walked back to the bed and brushed a light kiss on her forehead.
"Soon my love, soon," he whispered. Once again, he found himself wishing that Catherine had already been taken care of, but that would happen soon enough. His lips curled in calculating certainty.
Minutes later, Elliot stepped briskly from the shower, feeling refreshed. He evaluated himself critically in the mirror. Lines of age were beginning to show, yet there was no question he was still in fine shape. He smiled at his image, his white teeth instantly enhanced by his perpetually tanned face. Turning away, he frowned, running his hands through his thick, graying waves.
There were times when the age difference between Stephanie and himself bothered him, but he quickly dismissed these thoughts by thinking of the passionate — almost sadistic — way they made love. There was definitely no age difference in that department! Amused with his own declaration he let out a short laugh, which came out more like an animal's snort.
The sound of Stephanie stirring in the next room forced Elliot's thoughts back to the present and the confrontation that would soon take place. He and Stephanie had spent too little time together and obviously, there were several issues that still needed to be addressed, but Catherine was returning home today. It would just have to wait. Shaking his head in disappointment, he turned toward the kitchen.
Once dressed, Elliot hastily grabbed a cup of coffee, checked his gold watch, and headed for the front door. He had just enough time to run by the office before meeting Catherine at the airport.
He stopped and lingered in the doorway. Stephanie crossed the room, her bare feet making almost no sound on the cold tile floor. Elliot wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into his embrace, giving her a searching kiss. He slipped his hand down the teasingly low opening of her black silk robe to feel the soft mounds of her milk white flesh ... she stiffened. Shit. Well, there's no time to go into it now. His jaw tightened; he would just have to wait, and waiting wasn't one of his strong suits.
"I love you," he said passionately, hoping for the same response in return.
"Love you, too," she replied half-heartedly, quickly kissing him goodbye.
"I'll call or see you tonight, depending on what happens." He turned and walked down the path to his car parked in front of their cozy hillside apartment in Sausalito, away from prying eyes and the publicity that would surely have followed if they had stayed in the city.
Did Stephanie really love him, or were her feelings as casual as the tone of her voice? Hadn't he just proven how important she was to him? What else could she possibly need? He had no idea.
* * *
Closing the door, Stephanie sat down at the small kitchen table, leaned back, and lit a cigarette. She inhaled slowly, relieved things had gone well the night before.
After Elliot had fallen asleep, she got up and snuck into the living room, flashlight in hand, to find the document that secured her future. Once it was in her possession, she quietly crept into the other bedroom, which doubled as a small office, and made two copies. Stephanie stuffed one copy in a previously addressed envelope, and hid the original, beneath a pile of bills in the top desk drawer.
Making her way back into the living room, Stephanie put the second copy back in Elliot's briefcase, hoping he wouldn't discover the switch until it was too late and nothing could be done about it.
Then she headed to the front door, checking over her shoulder to make sure Elliot hadn't gotten up. She slipped outside, walked a few feet, and shoved the envelope into the community mailbox.
She returned to the apartment and slipped back into bed, struggling to remain perfectly still, certain that the sound of her beating heart would awaken him.
The phone rang jarring her into the present. "Hello? Yes, he's gone. To the airport. I agree it's useless, but as we both know, he has to try. Sure, I'll meet you there at one. Bye, love." She stubbed out her cigarette and headed for the bedroom.
* * *
The drive into San Francisco was always beautiful. The fog was tucked into each little valley, playing hide-and-seek with the sun. As Elliot rounded the last curve, the Golden Gate Bridge loomed in front of him. It was a breathtaking sight that usually held a certain fascination for him. But as he deftly maneuvered his silver Mercedes with confident ease onto the bridge, his mind was not on the magnificent view. It was on Catherine.
Forty-five minutes later, he pulled up in front of the impressive thirty-two story building. It made him feel good just looking at it. Then he drove around the corner and down into the company-owned parking garage, pulled into his personal parking space, and hopped out. But instead of going through the convenient private entrance, he went through the front doors. He always went through the front doors. He wanted to make sure everyone was aware of his importance, not simply of his existence. Elliot Paxton wanted everyone to know he was not just a name on the letterhead.
He could still picture the first day he walked through those doors so many years ago after Catherine's father offered him a job. He had worked hard at manipulating his way up through the organization, excelling beyond what Thomas could have ever imagined. Though his methods were not always ethical, Elliot became a true asset to the company, eventually taking over when her father reluctantly stepped down.
Strutting through the spacious lobby, Elliot took everything in, right down to the missing button on the guard's shirt as he passed the security booth and stepped onto the elevator.
Riding up to the top floor, he thought about his life. While his professional goals had been more than met, his personal life was in shambles. His wife was a frigid little bitch, his son a disappointment in so many ways, and as far as he was concerned, only his daughter had any potential, though their relationship was distant at best.
When the elevator door opened, Elliot stepped out and surveyed the tastefully decorated outer office. Still, he had not done too badly for himself.
"Good morning, Mr. Paxton."
"Good morning, Grace," he responded dismissively, striding past her and into his office, closing the huge ornately carved doors behind him. He went over to his desk and spotted it immediately. There it was, sticking out from the usual stack of mail placed neatly on his desk each morning.
An overwhelming sense of satisfaction swept over him as he carefully opened the envelope and read: Time, place, target.One half paid up front. Done. The rest to be paid automatically upon completion. Now all he had to do was sit back and watch everything fall into place.CHAPTER 3
Stephanie sat rigidly with her back to the window, her long, shapely legs crossed, and her thick auburn hair glistening in the surrounding sunlight. She was dressed conservatively, not wanting to call attention to herself. She stared down at the half empty drink in front of her, unconsciously playing with the ice.
Normally the Bayside Café was one of her favorite places for lunch, but today she wished she was any place else. She had been dreading this meeting. A decision would have to be made.
Stephanie didn't love Elliot. Then why had she done what she did? She didn't have a good answer. It was merely a way to survive. Now that Catherine was back, and most likely going to divorce him, there was no more time for debate. She needed to decide just how far she was willing to go.
She understood why Elliot had gone to the airport to meet Catherine. She also knew this last pitch of his would be futile. Whether he realized it or not, Catherine was a very strong woman, and Stephanie saw so much in her to admire.
A shadow passed over the white linen table. Stephanie peeked up over her sunglasses.
"Hello." He bent over to meet her upturned lips, and then hastily slid into the chair facing her.
"Hi, honey," she said quietly.
"Why do you look like you've just lost your best friend?" He sounded annoyed by her lack of enthusiasm. "I know, you didn't think I was coming, but babe, I would never forget about you. I had a couple of important things to take care of. Sorry if I worried you."
"No, it's not that. I was just thinking. I really don't know if I can go through with it. Isn't there any other way?" Stephanie pleaded with him, hoping he had possibly changed his mind, too. "I mean ... he's going through so much right now," she said lamely, trying to explain her change of heart. But one look at his face told her he hadn't and now she had made him angry.
"Wait one damn minute here. We have gone through this too many times. You know as well as I do the old guy's an ass!" His voice got louder. People began to turn and stare in their direction.
"Shhhhhh," she whispered.
"I can give you anything that bastard can ... and when I'm through with him, it will be even more!" He slammed his open palms on the table, rattling the crystal glasses. Through his clenched jaw, he asked, "So, are you telling me that you love him now?"
"No," she replied quietly, embarrassed by the scene he was causing, hoping he would calm down.
"Do you love me?" The tone of his voice had softened somewhat, but the flush of his face told Stephanie another story.
"Well then, I guess it's all settled. You do it my way, or we're through. And you can grow old with nothing to show for it except for being the whore of the once powerful Elliot W. Paxton! Not a pretty picture, huh, sweetheart?" He cocked his head and shrugged.
Stephanie glared at him. "You know, sometimes you can be just as much of a bastard as he is, and I wonder if I really want either of you!"
"That's okay by me, baby." He moved to get up, but Stephanie desperately grabbed for his hand.
"All right, all right. I'm still in."
"Good girl. That's what I wanted to hear," he said, with smug satisfaction in his voice. "Now, let's get back to the flat and really have lunch!" He pulled her to her feet.
* * *
Garrett was pleased their little scheme was moving along smoothly. So far, Stephanie had played her part exactly as he had planned. He still couldn't believe Elliot had fallen for the ruse without the slightest bit of reservation. He really was the egotistical fool they had counted on.
Sitting naked at the small kitchen table, he lit a cigarette and shifted position. "Shit," he complained, as his skin didn't shift with him. He gingerly pulled his bare skin up from the chair and rubbed the back of his leg. His mood quickly darkened recalling Stephanie's reluctance to move forward. That bitch better not be thinking of backing out now!
After an exceptionally satisfying session of love making, Elliot made the crucial mistake of telling Stephanie about his hidden account in Andorra. It didn't take long before Stephanie shared this information with Garrett. Hearing this, Garrett had been quick to realize that Elliot wanted Stephanie so badly he would agree to do almost anything to possess her, and to Elliot possession meant marriage.
Once he had thought it through, he quickly convinced Stephanie to string Elliot along for a while, and then to marry him, with one condition: that he make her the sole beneficiary of his offshore account in Andorra. If the marriage didn't work out she would walk away with everything in the account. Elliot happily complied with all of her requests. That stupid fool never once questioned her motives. He was such an easy target.
Sitting quietly, he reviewed his plan, it was ingenious. Within a day or two a copy of the signed document would land on the desk of Franklin White, the Scottfords' attorney, fully exposing Elliot as the cheating bastard he was. Armed with the original document of Elliot's offshore accounts as security, they'd be set for life!
Taking his plan one step further, if Catherine, by some miracle, decided not to divorce Elliot, he knew they would be able to blackmail him for years. If she chose to go through with the divorce, they would demand a large sum of money up front from him to ensure their silence about the lucrative little secret he'd kept from his wife. It really didn't matter to them which way it went; either way, they were going to be rich.
The best part of the whole thing was witnessing Elliot's slow realization that he had been set up, coupled with the distinct possibility his ass could eventually end up in court. The great Mr. Paxton was not as untouchable as he thought he was! There was no way Elliot would risk the humiliation of all that courtroom drama and the negative publicity that would follow. No, Elliot would make every effort to keep his marriage intact, even if it meant paying them off to save face.
Garrett got up from the chair, "Shit!" Again his skin did not go with him, but that did not deter the overwhelming urge to ensure Stephanie was still on board. Walking back to the bedroom he smiled at the familiar stirring knowing he would soon be the one on board.
* * *
Sitting in a white sterile room, clad only in a flimsy green gown, Michael already knew the news was not good, though he noted the doctor did his best to hide how discouraged he was.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Images"
Copyright © 2019 Laurin E. Broadbent.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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