Read an Excerpt
Madam must agree that it's very beautiful," the store clerk said.
Sabrina Innis stared down at the diamond tennis bracelet glinting on her wrist. "Madam agrees," she told the well-dressed young man, then glanced at her boss. "Stunning. And ten carats, too. Are you sure you wouldn't rather buy her a little car? It would be cheaper."
Calhoun Jefferson Langtry, all six feet three inches of him, raised his eyebrows. "I'm not interested in cheap. You should know that by now. I want to send something meaningful, but elegant." He motioned to the diamond pin the clerk had first shown them. "Nothing froufrou, though. I hate froufrou."
The "froufrou" in question was an amazing diamond-and-gold pin that cost what the average family of four earned in three or four months. It had clean lines, a zigzag ribbon of gold dividing a stylized circle, with a large four-carat diamond slightly off center. Sabrina loved it and would have chosen it in a hot minute. But the gift wasn't for her.
She unclasped the tennis bracelet and placed it next to the other finalists—a gold bangle inlaid with diamonds and emeralds, and a Rolex watch. "I sense a theme here," she said. "Things that go around the wrist. Shackles, in a manner of speaking. Is this your way of telling Tiffany that she shouldn't have tried to tie you down?"
Her impertinence earned her a scowl. She smiled back. Cal's temper existed mostly in his mind. Compared to the screaming in her house when she was growing up—four siblings all with extreme opinions on everything—his mild bouts of ill humor were easy to tolerate. Not that the man couldn't be stone cold when it suited him. She made sure never to cross him in important issues and counted these tiny victories as perks of the job. If nothing else, they kept her wit sharp—a definite advantage when dealing with the wealthy and privileged.
"This one," she said, pointing to the emerald-and-diamond bracelet.
The clerk paused, waiting for Cal's approval.
"You heard the little lady. Wrap it up."
Sabrina rose to her feet. After six years of being in Texas, she'd grown used to being called "little lady." She often accused Cal of being trapped in a John Wayne western. Not that he couldn't be urbane when he chose. When it suited his purposes, he could talk about world events, pick out the perfect wine and discuss the changing financial market with the best of them. But with her, he was himself—Cal Langtry, rich, Texas oil tycoon and playboy. She looked at the piece of jewelry the clerk tucked into a velvet box. A soon-to-be unattached playboy.
"Does Tiffany know?" Sabrina asked as Cal signed the credit card receipt. The clerk held out the bag, not sure to whom to hand it. Sabrina took it. Even though the gift wasn't for her, she was responsible for mailing it to the recipient, after she'd composed a suitable note.
Cal led the way to the front of the store, then held open the door for her. "Not exactly."
Sunlight and the spring heat hit her full in the face. Despite having lived here six years, she still wasn't used to the humidity. She felt her hair start to crinkle. So much for the smooth, sophisticated style she'd tamed it into that morning. The hair-care industry had yet to invent a hair spray that could outlast the Houston weather.
They crossed the sidewalk to the waiting limo. As always, Cal politely waited until Sabrina had settled into the seat. She liked to think it was because he enjoyed watching her skirt climb up her thighs. The truth was, he never bothered to look.
It was better that way, she told herself, wondering when she was going to start believing it. After all, if she was as good-looking as her boss, they would cause a stir wherever they went and all the attention would grow annoying. As it was, she was able to slip into the background and live her life in peace and quiet.
She chuckled softly and glanced out the window.
"What's so funny?" Cal asked.
"I was wondering if we were going to have a storm this afternoon," she said. It was almost the truth. She'd really been wondering if her outrageous lies, told only to herself, would cause her to be struck by lightning.
She set the carefully wrapped gift between them. "Tiffany's for Tiffany," she said, pointing to the name on the bag. "I wonder if your soon-to-be ex-girlfriend will appreciate the irony."
"Don't start with that, Sabrina," Cal warned. "Tiffany was a splendid girl."
"I couldn't agree more."
He eyed her, as if he didn't believe what she was saying.
"Okay, so she wasn't the brightest person on the planet," he admitted.
"Now, there's an understatement."
He narrowed his gaze.
Sabrina feigned fear by sinking back into the corner of the limo. "Oh, Mr. Langtry, please don't punish me for my impertinence. I'm just the hired help. I desperately need this job to support my orphaned brothers and sisters. I'll do anything to get into your good graces."
She fluttered her eyelashes for effect.
Cal faced front. "Dammit, Sabrina, I hate that I can't stay angry with you. Why is that?"
"Why do you hate it or why can't you stay angry?"
"You can't stay angry because I'm nearly always right, and you can't hate it because deep in your heart you know I'm incredibly bright. Smarter than you, even. So you spend your days intimidated by me but determined not to let me know."
"In your dreams." He pointed at the bag. "Why'd you pick that bracelet over the other one or the watch?"
She stared at him. "Do you want the truth?"
"Oh, so I'm not going to like your reasoning. Sure. Tell me the truth."
She shrugged. "Tiffany is a sweet girl, but young. Her taste is a little, shall we say, undeveloped. While the diamond bracelet was beautiful, I thought it would be too plain. The emeralds give the bangle flash and she'll like that."
"Agreed. Why not the watch?"
"We're talking about Tiffany here, Cal. The watch wasn't digital, and I'm not completely convinced she can tell time the old-fashioned way."
"Remind me to fire you when we get back to the office."
"You asked me for the truth."
"So you're telling me it's my fault?"
"You're the one who chose Tiffany, and now you're the one who doesn't want to deal with the hassle of ending it. What do you want the card to say?"
He shifted on the seat. "Something nice. That we had a great time together, but we don't want the same things. You know. The usual. And stop looking at me that way."
"Like you disapprove. Your face gets all scrunchy. It's not attractive."
Sabrina resisted the urge to whip out her compact and peer at herself. She doubted that she was the least bit scrunchy, but she hated not knowing.
"I don't have an opinion on your personal life."
"Liar," he countered. "Why are you always telling me what to do and always disapproving of the women I pick?"
"Tiffany was all of twenty. You're using the term woman very loosely. I'd be willing to accept mature girl, or even postadolescent. If you actually picked a woman, I might not disapprove."
"Colette was nearly twenty-eight. That counts."
He had a point. Before Tiffany had been Shanna, and before her, Colette. "Okay, she counts as a woman."
"Colette was also bright. She'd been to college and everything." He sounded smug, as if pleased he was going to win the argument.
Sabrina shifted until she was staring at him. "For all we know, Colette was a rocket scientist, but that's hardly the point. The woman, and I'll concede that she was a woman, was French. She barely spoke English, and I know for a fact you weren't the least bit interested in her brain. She was a lingerie model. Did you actually ever hold a conversation with her?"
Sabrina raised her eyebrows and waited. Cal had many flaws, but dishonesty wasn't one of them.
He sighed heavily. "Okay, it was a short conversation. What's your point?"
"I'm not sure I have one, aside from the usual. You're reasonably intelligent—"
He glared at her and she ignored him.
The glare became a scowl. She was also lying through her teeth. Calling Cal attractive was in the same league as describing New York City as a "large village."
"Somewhat articulate, very successful man who in the six years I've known you has yet to have anything resembling a normal long-term relationship. You're thirty-four. When are you going to settle down?"
"I've had long-term relationships."
"Taking your suits to the same dry cleaner for six or seven years doesn't count. Face it, boss, you're not actually interested in anything but the chase. You want them until you catch them, then you lose interest. Don't you ever think about something more than that?"
His brown eyes darkened. "My personal life is none of your business."
She picked up the bag containing Tiffany's parting gift. "You make it my business," she said, no longer teasing.
He grunted. She'd heard enough of the sound to recognize it as a dismissal. He didn't want to talk about this anymore. There were times when she ignored the dismissive grunt, mostly because whatever they were talking about was important, but in this case, she let it go. Except when ending one of his relationships became her duty of the day, she really tried to stay out of his personal life. She admired Cal in many areas, but that wasn't one of them.
The limo pulled up to the west side high-rise in the Galleria district of Houston. Sabrina braced herself for the heat, slid across the seat and stepped out onto the sidewalk.
She smiled at Martin, Cal's private driver, then followed her boss into the building that housed the corporate offices of Langtry Oil and Gas.
The business occupied the top three floors. While Cal headed directly for his suite in the southwest corner, Sabrina stopped to collect mail and chat with her secretary, Ada.
"What did you pick?" Ada asked, leaning forward and smiling. The older woman had worked for Langtry Oil and Gas for years. When Sabrina had been hired, she'd taken her time choosing an assistant of her own. Ada had a reputation for being a little grumpy and stubborn about doing things her own way, but she knew everyone in the business and had probably heard every whisper uttered in the company since the 1970s.
Sabrina handed her the Tiffany's bag. Ada raised her eyebrows. "Tiffany's for Tiffany? You know the subtlety is going to be lost on the girl."
"My thoughts exactly, but it was still fun."
As Ada opened the box and gazed at the bangle, Sabrina flipped through the mail. "What's the word on the street?" Sabrina asked.
"Number ten should be hitting oil tonight, tomorrow at the latest, even though the engineers say another three to four days of drilling. The only other piece of news is that the clerical supervisor is still having trouble keeping his hands to himself. He cornered another two employees by the copier. They're filing official complaints right now."
Sabrina looked up from the mail and frowned. "He's been warned. Cal doesn't tolerate that kind of behavior."
Ada slipped on the bracelet and shrugged. "Apparently he's bought into Cal's good ol' boy act and thinks the fact that the boss invited him to lunch once means they're best friends. I'm not sure. I'm just telling you what's happening."
"I appreciate it, Ada, and I'll tell Cal. He'll take care of it immediately."
Ada set the jewelry back in the box and sighed. "You did very well. She'll love it."
"That's the idea. To ease the pain of losing the man. Personally, I'd rather have the cash."
"Me, too. Tell Cal I'm ready to start our affair anytime he likes. Or we can skip the affair completely and just get right to the parting gift. I want something that can be easily returned. Remember that, Sabrina, when you're picking it out."
Sabrina laughed and rose to her feet. "I'll be sure and tell him, although I don't think he'll appreciate the fact that you're only interested in the gift and not the man himself. Cal considers himself something of a prize where women are concerned."
"Oh, he is. But we all know I'm old enough to be his mother. You, on the other hand—"
"Stop it, Ada. You know I'm not interested, either." She headed down the hall. "Talk to you later."
"You can't stay immune forever," Ada called after her.
"Oh, yes I can."
Sabrina ignored the elevator and climbed the elegant spiral staircase that led to the executive level. She'd offered Ada an office of her own up there, but her assistant claimed she had to stay down with the "little" people in order to hear all the good gossip.
As she climbed, Sabrina finished sorting through the mail. Nothing pressing, nothing she couldn't handle on her own. She reached her office, collected the messages Ada had left for her, then continued through to Cal's suite.
Floor-to-ceiling windows filled two walls of his huge office. Aside from the requisite desk big enough to land a Harrier jet on, a conference table and two leather sofa groups to encourage chatty conversations, he also had a big-screen television, every computer game known to man and a temperature-controlled wine "closet" that stored a few dozen of his favorites.
There was a full kitchen and dining room beyond, an oversize bathroom complete with shower and Jacuzzi tub and a private elevator that led directly down to the parking garage.
As Sabrina approached the desk, she tried to ignore the view out the windows. Houston was about the flattest place on earth, and if she bothered to look, she could see forever. She'd watched thunderstorms roll in, perfect sunsets and, once, even a tornado dance across the land. In her opinion, Texas had too much weather. She missed Southern California, where the only way to tell the changing of the seasons was by the clothes being sold in the department stores.
Cal finished his call and motioned for her to take a seat across from his desk. She sank down into the leather chair and set Tiffany's parting gift on the chair next to hers.
Her boss met her gaze then looked away… almost as if he was embarrassed. How odd.
"Anything the matter?" she asked.
"No," he answered. "Just following up on something. It's… personal."
"Oh." Although she didn't know everything about Cal's life, she knew almost everything. And it had been a long time since he'd kept anything "personal" from her. At least she thought it had been.
"It's nothing important. Any of that for me?" he said, referring to the stack of mail in her hand and deliberately changing the subject. He wasn't the least bit subtle, she thought, and decided to let it go.
"Nothing I can't handle," she told him. "A few invitations."
He grimaced. "Charity functions."
"Just send a check."