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By Jasmine Cresswell
MIRACopyright © 2006 Jasmine Cresswell
All right reserved.
May 24, 1996 --
Jess tried all through lunch to make herself accept Timothy Macfadden's proposal. She managed to hold up her end of the discussion about the house they would buy and agreed with him that she wanted two children. But every time she tried to say the fateful words, Yes, I'll marry you, they stuck in her throat, a lump of undigested panic that wouldn't go up or down. When the waitress brought their coffee, she finally gave up and told him that she was very sorry, but she couldn't marry him.
Tim, of course, was patient and understanding, which only made Jess feel worse. He finished his coffee -- Tim wasn't a man to waste a perfectly good cup of coffee just because the woman he'd been dating for eleven months had turned down his proposal. Then he put the tasteful diamond ring back in its tasteful Tiffany box and assured her he would always be her friend. The frightening thing was she believed him.
Jess wondered why she was such a sick person that she felt weak-kneed with relief when he aligned his spoon neatly in his saucer, picked up the bill and walked away from her, presumably forever. Seventy-five thousand bucks a year, a solid career as an architect and the nicest dog in Denver. If all that wasn't good enough for her, what the heck was she waiting for? But atleast the lump in her throat had finally gone away, and her stomach had stopped churning. She was obviously crazy, but it seemed that her nervous system was allergic to the multiple perfections of Timothy Macfadden.
As if rejecting one of Denver's most eligible bachelors wasn't enough trauma for one day, problems piled up all afternoon. Normally Jess loved her job as assistant director of the Colorado Tourist and Convention Bureau, but not today. By midafternoon she learned that she'd lost a regional meeting of the Home Builders' Federation to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And at five-thirty, she got the really bad news: in the year 2000, the International Society of Podiatrists was going to celebrate the millennium by hosting their biggest gathering ever -- in Geneva, Switzerland. Switzerland, for heaven's sake! If they wanted mountains and scenic views while discussing hammertoes and bunions, couldn't they have picked Colorado?
Jess sighed as she switched off her computer and cleared her desk for the night. Competition in attracting convention business was becoming so intense that she was sure the first astronauts to land on Mars would be greeted with a free welcome cocktail served by a green man wearing the neatly striped uniform of the Martian Tourist Board.
She locked her file cabinet, wishing she could go home, watch a "Murphy Brown" rerun and eat a large chocolate bar. Refusing a man like Tim Macfadden was enough to make any self-respecting woman want to rush home and eat chocolate. Unfortunately, her workday wasn't over yet. She had to freshen her tired makeup, glue on a perky smile and pump herself up to sparkle at the governor's reception. A Japanese trade delegation was exploring investment opportunities in Colorado, and she was required to put in an appearance.
An hour later, Jess was at the governor's mansion. She had attended so many functions here over the past couple of years that she made her way toward the dining room with no more than a passing glance at the elegance of the paneled reception rooms and the cool opulence of the marble rotunda with its classical statues and magnificent grand piano. A quick glimpse of her reflection in one of the gilt-edged mirrors convinced her that before she had any hope of doing a credible imitation of perky, she needed a drink. And tonight, Perrier wasn't going to cut it. Tonight, even a triple bourbon might not cut it.
She was halfway to the bar set up in the dining room when she saw Dan Stratton striding purposefully toward her. Her stomach instantly plummeted into her shoes. After refusing Tim's proposal and losing the podiatrists to Geneva, she would have sworn that life couldn't get any worse. When she saw her ex-husband heading straight for her, she knew that she hadn't even begun to plumb the miseries in store for her. This day would go into the record books as one of her all-time worst.
Dan, of course, looked terrific. In a universe with even a smidgen of cosmic justice the man would, at the very least, have gone bald and developed a paunch. Cosmic justice, as usual, had fallen down on the job. In the three years since they'd separated, Dan's appearance had become more charismatic, more fascinating, more ruggedly sexy than it had been on the day she left him. Nature's way, she assumed, of preserving the gene pool for feckless idiots.
She watched with an emotion somewhere between amusement, admiration and numb resignation as he smoothly avoided waiters, guests, reporters and their host. It took a certain amount of chutzpah to blow off the governor of the state of Colorado, but, then, Dan had always possessed a superabundant supply of chutzpah.
He stopped about two feet from her and smiled his familiar crooked smile. His thick, dark hair gleamed in the light of the chandelier. His wonderful gray-green eyes glinted with wry self-mockery. "Hello, Jess."
His husky voice curled around her with subtle invitation. His smile sent a heated promise that, if she succumbed to his lure, he would personally see to it that she enjoyed the sexual experience of a lifetime. Two years of marriage to Dan Stratton should have been enough to provide any reasonably intelligent woman with permanent immunity to his charms. In her case, it seemed the inoculation had failed. She could feel her bones melting as she stood there gazing at him. She just barely managed to restrain herself from panting.
Jess wondered if she was hormonally challenged, or just plain dumb. At lunchtime she'd rejected the honorable Tim, and now she was slavering over disreputable Dan. Was she nuts? How could she forget the misery of living with a man who was so busy waiting to be discovered as a movie star that he never had time to take care of the basic details of life? Like washing his socks, or finding a temporary job so they could buy enough groceries to last until her next paycheck.
The memory of living for two years on tuna fish and spaghetti was enough to put some steel back into Jess's spine. She drew herself up to her full height and gave her ex-husband the sort of smile she reserved for elderly businessmen who tried to pat her fanny. "Hello, Dan. You're looking well."
He ignored her freezing smile and gazed deep into her eyes, probably seeing far more than she wanted him to. "You're looking beautiful," he said simply. "I've missed you, Jess."
His capacity to deliver lines like that with ringing sincerity was one of the reasons she'd put up with tuna and spaghetti for two years. That, and his ability to make her laugh. For the first year, she'd even considered the laughter a worthwhile trade-off for the dirty socks and Dan's total failure to assume any responsibility for their financial well-being. Thankfully, she was now not only older, but also wiser. Compliments, however velvet-smooth, didn't make up for a lack of real honest-to-God caring. When you turned the whole of life into a joke, it was easy to forget that some things aren't funny.
"Why are you in Denver?" she asked crisply. "I assume you're not part of the Japanese trade delegation."
"No," he said. "I'm here to see you. We have to talk, Jess --"
"Sorry, Dan, but I'm not in the mood for reminiscing about old times. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do."
"This is important, Jess. How long before you can get away? We really need to talk."
"We don't really need to do anything, Dan. What I need to do is to work this room, to explain to these people some of the unique advantages of doing business in the state of Colorado. That's what I'm paid for --"
"Let's make a deal. I'll help you sell the trade delegation on the wonders of Colorado, and then, in return, you agree to come out to dinner with me."
She shook her head, although she knew that if he set his mind to it, Dan could sell Alaskans on the idea of buying Rocky Mountain snow. "No, thanks, Dan. Goodbye. And don't follow me, or I'll tell one of the security guards you crashed the party."
She turned to go, but Dan intercepted her. "You always did assume the worst about me, didn't you, Jess? As it happens, I was invited to this reception."
She raised an eyebrow. "How astonishing."
Dan's mouth tightened. "Stop sniping, Jess, this isn't about us. Matt sent me. You need to hear me out, someplace we won't be interrupted."
She looked up, alarmed by the sudden edge to his voice. "What is it? What's wrong? Is everyone okay at home?"
"Yes, they're more than okay. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to worry you --"
"Come to think of it, I haven't spoken to them for a couple of weeks. You're sure they're all right?"
He nodded. "They're great, all of them. Matt and Nancy arranged a huge family picnic last weekend, and everyone seemed fighting fit."
"You went to see them? In Cleveland?" Dan was a dyed-in-the-gas-fumes New Yorker. Seeing him in Denver, fresh from a side trip to Cleveland, was a little like seeing Santa Claus and the reindeer frolicking on a Florida beach.
"Matt invited me to come visit. You know we're friends."
Yes, she knew Matt and Dan were still friends. She considered that a rare lapse in judgment on the part of her adoptive brother. "Matt doesn't need to use you as his messenger," she said. "If he wants to speak to me, he can always pick up the phone."
"Not this time."
There was no longer any doubt about the edge to her ex-husband's voice. Jess's fingers tightened around the strap of her purse. "Dan, if there's a problem with somebody in my family, please tell me."
"There's a problem, but not the sort you're imagining."
"Mom and Dad are all right? I know the doctor was nagging Dad to stop smoking, threatening dire consequences if he didn't."
Dan smiled. A genuine smile, she was relieved to see. "I'm sure. Your dad hasn't smoked a cigarette in five weeks and he already looks ten years younger than the last time I saw him."
"That's great. Wonderful, in fact. And Mom?"
"Your mother's all fired up about the new school superintendent, so she's considering running for a seat on the school board. And your nieces and nephews are flourishing, although I'm not sure I can say the same about Todd. Your brother and sister-in-law looked distinctly frayed around the edges."
"They're usually placid as can be. What's wrong with them?"
"Their daughter. Your niece." Matt grinned. "Kelly's taken to wearing a ring through her nose, and she has a boyfriend with a skull and crossbones shaved into his scalp. Todd isn't sure he's going to survive her remaining three years of high school."
Jess laughed, trying to visualize her conservative older brother with a daughter who wore jewelry in her nose. "The joys of being parents to a teenager! I don't envy them the next few years. How about Matt's boys? I haven't seen them since Thanksgiving."
"The twins are...energetic," he said. "I think that's the diplomatic word to use."
"That bad, huh?"
"Worse." He grinned. "Hey, they're great kids underneath all the noise. I also got to see an assorted bunch of aunts, uncles and cousins who trooped out to Matt's house just to inspect me. I had the impression they expected me to have grown horns and a tail since you divorced me."
"You should have told them you did that long before the divorce."
Excerpted from Secret Sins by Jasmine Cresswell Copyright © 2006 by Jasmine Cresswell. Excerpted by permission.
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 is the first book I read by Jasmine Cresswell, and I hurried to order her other books. This book has it all - suspense, love and revenge. I definitely give it 5 starts!