Hailey Ashton projects an image that she's on top of everything, but no one realizes that she lives a life of quiet emptiness -- not ready to have a relationship, not willing to give herself body and soul to a man. Never able to compete with her younger sister, the thoughtless beauty of the family, Hailey opted to be the "good girl." But when she meets Tyler Scott -- her rich, attractive new boss -- she longs to be anything but good.
|Publisher:||Harlequin Mills & Boon, Limited|
Read an Excerpt
Miss Ashton," Hailey said, pressing down the lighted button on the intercom panel.
"Miss Ashton, this is Dawson." Hailey Ashton could tell by the scratchy static and the background noise that the security guard was speaking into his pocket pager. "You'd better get over here to the Sidewinder quick. All hell's broken loose and no one can seem to determine exactly what's happened."
This was an emergency call, Hailey realized at once. The steady, reliable Mr. Dawson was obviously shaken. "What's going on?" she asked with professional crispness.
"Well, this guy here is raising Cain, yelling at everyone like a banshee. Says something's happened to his daughter. From what I can tell, the kid dashed into the ladies' rest room and holed up. This character has attracted quite a crowd. People are beginning to speculate all sorts"
"I'll be right there."
"Do you want me to send a cart for you? It's hotter than"
"No, I'll run through the compound," Hailey said quickly.
"Dawson, try to calm everyone down. Especially the father."
He clicked off his transmitter and Hailey dashed out the door after calling, "Take over, Charlene," to her assistant. The glass cubicle of Hailey's office was near the front gate of the amusement park. The September heat slammed into her chest as she adroitly weaved her way through the throng of guests who, with their cameras and children in tow, were streaming through the turnstiles into the park.
One customer was holding up the line by arguing with the gate attendant over a discount ticket. The frantic employee looked up with relief as Haileyspedby. "Miss Ashton"
"Are you having trouble, sir?" Hailey went straight to the heart of the matter to save time. Her mind was on the emergency at the Sidewinder.
"Yeah," the man answered belligerently. "She says I can't get my little one in on this discount ticket. He's only three. He won't be able to go on the big rides anyway. I thought"
"Please, sir, take your family on in. I'm sure that ticket is acceptable," Hailey said hurriedly. Her decision wasn't fair to the park's management, or to the employee who hadn't been backed up, or to the other guests who had paid full ticket price for their three-year-olds, but Hailey had an emergency to attend to. She'd make it up to the disgruntled employee later.
Barely nodding in response to the man's effusive thanks, she let herself into a gate through the tall, gray wooden fence that separated the public areas from the employees' compound in the center of the park. Serendipity Amusement Park was crowded on this Saturday afternoon, and the greater the number of people, the greater the probability that crises would crop up. As Director of Guest Relations, Hailey was accustomed to handling minor emergencies instigated by either God or man.
Her low-heeled sandals weren't conducive to jogging, but she moved at a brisk trot across the expanse of asphalt that fairly shimmered in the unseasonable heat. Her white skirt swirled around her slender legs. She could feel perspiration dampening her green cotton shirt, where the park's emblem was discreetly appliquéd on her breast pocket just under her plastic name tag. Thank goodness she had worn her hair up in a topknot today. Otherwise the copper-colored, shoulder-length skein would be curling riotously in the humid heat.
Hailey reached the opposite side of the compound in record time and went through the gate. The Country Roads Theater where college performers provided a musical revue six times a day had just been emptied and she was absorbed by the milling crowd.
A gracious smile hid the turmoil in her mind. A little girl hiding in a rest room? What could have happened to her? Despite her haste, Hailey bent down to pick up a cigarette butt someone had negligently dropped. An employee who was seen stepping over any form of litter on the park grounds was fired immediately. A veritable army of maintenance workers in bright green uniforms kept the park as clean as a grandmother's parlor.
Hailey passed one of the many large gift shops that sold posters, T-shirts, and souvenir coffee mugs, as well as other commemorative items of the Great Smoky Mountains, the state of Tennessee, and Gatlinburg itself. It was doing a thriving business.
The crowd in the gift shop couldn't compare, however, to the curious crowd gathered around the ladies' rest room near the Sidewinder. The roller coaster was of such fearsome proportions that Hailey had never dared ride it. She paid scarce attention to it now as she plunged into the throng.
"Excuse me, excuse me, please," she said courteously but firmly as she elbowed her way through the crowd. "Excuse me." She edged around a man eating a dripping ice cream bar and virtually stumbled into Dawson.
"Dawson," she said, tapping him on the shoulder to get his attention over the racket.
He spun around. "Miss Ashton, thank"
"Is this who we've been waiting an eternity for?"
The voice was hard and scornful, impatient, and obviously furious. It also implied that Hailey hadn't been worth the wait. She turned around to meet steely gray eyes under scowling dark brows.
"I'm Hailey Ashton, Director of"
"Guest Relations," he mocked as his searing eyes swept down and across her breast to locate her identification badge. "Spare me the title. I want some action." Only then did he raise his eyes back to hers. The anger in his gaze seemed to flicker for a heartbeat as he stared at her. He paused, blinking, then said, "Something has happened to my daughter and I'm surrounded by a bunch of bungling incompetents." His lips hardly moved as he spoke.
"Please calm down, sir, and tell me what happened," Hailey said authoritatively. "Your loss of control isn't helping either yourself or your daughter, is it?"
Had the situation not been so urgent, Hailey would have tempered her rebuke. This man certainly didn't look the type who would take criticism lightly, if at all. But his insults and anger were only adding to the problem.
He glared down into Hailey's cool green eyes. Her control battled his rising impatience and won. He conceded grudgingly and continued in a more rational tone.
"We were standing in line for that thing...." He gestured toward the roller coaster. "Suddenly, for no apparent reason, my daughter went as pale as a ghost and started screaming. Then she ran into the rest room. I ran after her, but was met at the door by a militant attendant who wouldn't let me in. I"
"She's still in there?" Hailey asked Dawson, turning her back on the man. Dawson nodded. "What's her name?" she asked of the father, whose frustration had trebled while Hailey ignored him.
"Her name!" he roared. "For God's sake, what difference does that make? Something dreadful may have happened to her and you stand here like some robot and ask me"
He raked his fingers through his dark hair, which had already been mussed from similar handling. "Her name is Faith, dammit. Faith."
"Thank you," Hailey said. She hastened toward the door of the rest room and called over her shoulder. "Dawson, please disperse this crowd. Send for a cart and notify the infirmary that I may be bringing someone in." She didn't look back to see if her orders were being carried out. She knew they would be. Nor did she glance back at the tall, broad-shouldered man who she knew was stalking her like a combat soldier bent on revenge.
She went into the cool rest room and took a moment to adjust her eyes to the dim interior after the blinding sunlight out side. The attendant looked at her with unqualified welcome. Before Hailey could ask her anything, she rushed to tell what she knew.
"Miss Ashton, there was a crowd of ladies in here. I was cleaning one of the sinks when this little girl comes running in screaming and crying. She locked herself up in that last stall. I've been trying to get her to open the door, but she won't come out. I even stood on the commode in the stall next to her and looked over. She's just crouched in the corner sobbing her little heart out. That wild man came running in here, carrying on something terrible. The other ladies started screaming, thinking he was a pervert or something chasing that frightened little thing. I sent everyone out. I'm telling you, I"
"Thank you, Hazel," Hailey said, breaking off the explanation which she feared might go on forever. "Why don't you wait for me outside? If I need you, I'll call. And please don't let anyone else in here."
Hailey walked to the last stall and pushed gently on its latched door. "Faith? Are you all right?" There was no response except for the weeping she had heard since coming into the rest room. "Faith? Please let me in. I want to help you. Your father is very worried about you."
There was a slight cessation of the crying. A few sniffles. Some dry sobs. Then a gentle hiccuping, Hailey took advantage of the quiet. Speaking softly she said, "My name is Hailey. Whatever is wrong, you can tell me." Intuitively, she added, "No one else has to know the problem if you prefer. Not even your father." Hailey hoped that was a promise she would be able to keep, but at the moment it was crucial that she get the child to open the door.
"You... you won't tell anybody?" The question was faint, barely audible.
"Not if you don't want me to."
"It's embarrassing." Another sob. "But it hurts."
Hailey was growing more anxious by the moment. She glanced over her shoulder, afraid that the man would come barging in the rest room despite her orders that no one interrupt.
She heard the rustle of clothing before the metal lock was released. The door opened inward and a girl about eleven years old stood in the opening. She was neatly dressed in tennis shoes and shorts and was holding a matching blouse over her thin chest with tight fists.
Dark brown ponytails tied with pink ribbons sprouted from both sides of her head. Through a pair of tortoise-shell eye-glasses, she looked up at Hailey with tearful gray eyes. Her father's eyes, Hailey noted and wondered why she remembered the color of his eyes.
"Hello, Faith," Hailey said and stood aside in a silent invitation for the girl to come out of the stall.
"Hi." She came out and stood self-consciously in front of Hailey, staring at the floor.
"Can you tell me what the matter is? What's hurting you?" The child licked her lips and Hailey saw the flash of metal braces in her mouth. "I got... uh ...a bee stung me."
"Oh no," Hailey said, instantly concerned. "Are you allergic to them?"
Faith shrugged. "I don't think so. I mean, I don't think I'm gonna die or anything." There was a slight catch in her tremulous voice. "It just stings," she finished softly.
"Where did it sting you?"
"Out by the Sidewinder."
Hailey bit her lips to keep from smiling, "I know. I mean, where on your body?"
"Oh." Faith looked up quickly at Hailey, then away just as quickly. "Here," she said and lowered her shirt with a yank, as though she might change her mind if she thought about it longer.
Hailey saw two red welts on the tender young breast that showed the first signs of budding womanhood. Suddenly she understood. There had been no mother with the anxious father. When the bee stung her, Faith had been too modest to tell him about where she'd been hurt.
Hailey's heart went out to the child. She remembered from her own adolescence how intensely she had craved privacy, how painfully aware and embarrassed she had been of each change in her body.
She walked to a sink and soaked a paper towel with cold water. She tried to interject a matter-of-factness into her tone.
"How do you suppose the bee got there?" she asked with a smile.
"I was reaching up to touch one of the flags on the railing. There are some bushes there."
"Yeah, that stuff smells real good. Anyhow, he must have flown in through the armhole of my blouse." Her lips began to quiver again. "Do you think my daddy will be mad at me? I think I acted sorta dumb."
Hailey suppressed another smile while she pressed a wet towel to the narrow chest. She held it for a moment against the fiery welts until Faith took the towel in her own hand. "I think he'll be relieved to know it was nothing more than a bee sting," Hailey reassured her.
"Not that the sting isn't painful. Don't let him worry you, though. Men don't understand how we women feel about such things, do they?"
Wide-eyed, Faith shook her head at the beautiful lady who seemed to understand everything. "No. He doesn't understand anything. He thinks I'm still a baby."
"Well anyone can see that you're practically grown up. What did he expect you to do? Tear off your blouse in front of everyone and start yelling that a bee had stung your breast?"
Her silliness produced the hoped-for results. Faith giggled. Hailey pressed her advantage. "Why don't we slip your blouse back on? Keep holding that cold towel there. We'll ride in a golf cart to the infirmary and I'll put this fantastic ointment on the stings that's guaranteed to make them stop hurting. Then we'll have a Coke. How does that sound?"
Faith looked nervously toward the door and Hailey added,
"The crowd will be gone. I had one of the security guards send everyone away. But we really shouldn't hog the rest room, you know."
Faith laughed. She put on her blouse and Hailey helped her with the buttons. Faith folded her arm across her chest so she could keep the cold compress in place. Then Hailey gave her a cool cloth to bathe her face. The only visible signs of her distress were her puffy eyes and reddened nose.
Hailey draped an arm across Faith's slight shoulders and they went through the door. As Hailey had hoped, the curious onlookers had scattered. Faith's father stood frozen, staring at the door, but he came to life the moment they stepped outside.
He stalked toward them.
"Faith, are you all right?" he demanded.
"Yes, Daddy. I'm fine," she said timidly.
"What in the world... made you behave like that?"
Hailey interrupted the cross-examination, feeling it would be better postponed. "I'm taking Faith to the infirmary in the golf cart. I think she's fine, but I want to make sure." She ushered the girl over to the golf cart Dawson had requested for them.
"Now look here, Miss"
"Mr. Dawson will be glad to show you the way," Hailey told the man coldly as she engaged the gears of the small cart and steered it around a group of boisterous teenagers. Had she looked back, she would have seen him standing with his hands on his hips, glowering at her as though it would give him the greatest pleasure to strangle her.
By the time Hailey and Faith arrived at the infirmary in the compound, they had become fast friends. They were chatting amiably when they stepped into the small brick building. Since the nurse was occupied with a middle-aged man who was suffering from overexertion, Hailey took Faith into one of the small treatment rooms.
"Tell me if I hurt you," she murmured as she softly applied the sticky ointment from a silver tube to the welts on Faith's breast. No sooner had she finished than they heard the front door being thrust open and footsteps rushing into the reception room. "That's Daddy," Faith said miserably. "He's gonna be so mad at me."
"You let me handle him. Would you like that Coke now?" Hailey asked calmly.
"Yes, please. Do you mind if I drink it in here?"
Hailey smiled, understanding Faith's reluctance to face her father just yet. "You may stay in here as long as you like." She shut the door behind her and faced the man who was pacing back and forth in front of the nurse's desk. "Where is she?" he asked peremptorily. Hailey knew she had never encountered a man as rude as this one.
"She's in the treatment room," she replied and went to a refrigerator on the opposite wall. "I told her I'd bring her a Coke."
"A Coke!" he exploded. "She's drinking a Coke at a time like this?"
Hailey calmly ignored him as she flipped off the tab on the can and carried it without another word into the other room. Faith was sitting on the examination table reading the anti-smoking posters on the wall and swinging her long, thin legs.
"Thank you," she said politely when Hailey handed her the drink.
Hailey eyed the girl carefully as she asked, "Faith, where is your mother?"
Faith lowered her head and mumbled into her chest, "She died. A few months ago." Hailey had thought as much. "I think I should tell your father about the stings, don't you?" Faith nodded and Hailey patted the girl on her bare knee before slipping through the door again and shutting it firmly behind her.
Faith's father was sitting on the edge of the imitation leather sofa, but he bolted off it when Hailey closed the door. "You may want to sit back down," she said. "I have a form to fill out." She went behind the desk, trying not to notice that he was fuming. She took the necessary accident report form out of the desk drawer and put it into the typewriter.
"To hell with your bloody forms, Miss Ashton. I want to know about my daughternow." The voice wasn't as loud or exasperated as it had been earlier. But it was twice as deadly. He had moved away from the couch to stand directly beside her.
She looked up at him. He was leaning on his palms, his arms spread wide as he bent over the desk. His face was close to hers. Alarmingly close. For the first time, she saw him as a man, and not a contrary guest who had turned an otherwise routine day into a calamitous one.
His arresting eyes were as cold and determined as she had noticed before. His nose was long and slender and flared slightly at the nostrils. His mouth was wide; it was thinned now in a resolute expression, but when relaxed it would be full and sensuous. His chin and jaw were hard and stubborn and indicated a force of will dangerous to anyone brave enough to parry with it. His hair was still mussed, but lay against his head in well-cut strands that were attractively streaked with silver at the temples.
A blue polo shirt stretched across his wide chest and the muscles of his tanned upper arms. His casual slacks, a darker blue than his shirt, fit easily over his taut, narrow hips and hard thighs. At the base of his leanly corded neck, through the open collar of his shirt, Hailey could see a hint of the dark hair that surely matted the awesomely masculine chest.
Leaning over her as he was, he was much more intimidating than he had been when she was surrounded by a crowd of people. His strength and purpose were nothing to tangle with. Only a fool would try. His very maleness was a palpable force. She swallowed and, relying on her professional demeanor, said, "Faith was stung by a bee. I have applied an antiseptic-analgesic ointment to the bites. She's resting."
His breath escaped with a sigh of relief. He straightened, wiping his damp forehead with the back of his hand. When he had realized that his daughter was in no real danger, Hailey again fell victim to his impaling, incisive eyes. "What the hell was all the fuss about then? Why didn't she just tell me what had happened to her instead of running away and hiding like that?"
"The bee flew under her blouse. It stung her on her breast." She looked at him steadily. He stared back at her. No emotion was apparent in his gray eyes or on his firm mouth. "Your daughter is becoming a young lady, Mr."
"Mr. Scott. She's naturally self-conscious about the changes her body is undergoing. Being frightened by pain, she was mortified by the location of the stings and too embarrassed to tell you."
"But that's crazy. I know what a female breast looks like." For some reason Hailey didn't want to put a name to, she suddenly became hot and breathless. She ridiculed herself for acting as juvenile as Faith.
"It may be crazy to you, Mr. Scott, but to an impressionable, sensitive girl Faith's age, it would have been devastating to... to show herself to you."
"I'm her father," he said, his impatience with female logic apparent.
"Even so, Mr. Scott. I know it's hard for you to understand, but please try. Faith is very upset. She's afraid you'll be angry with her."
He cursed under his breath and flung himself down on the sofa again. He stroked his stubborn chin several times with a frustrated hand. He was a man striving to understand something he had no experience of. When he looked up at Hailey again, she saw something softening in his steely gray eyes. "I guess I overreacted as violently as Faith."
Hailey treated him to a real smile. "That's understandable. Forgive me, but I asked Faith about her mother. She told me that you have recently lost your wife."
"She wasn't my wife." Seeing Hailey's sudden loss of color and the stunned expression on her face, he clarified his remark.
"She was my wife when Faith was born, but we were divorced soon after. Faith lived with her mother all that time. Monica was killed in a boating accident several months ago and Faith came to live with me." His hard mouth slanted in a self-deprecating smile. "I'm still learning about parenting, you see."
Hailey glanced down at her hands, then shyly back up at him. "Single-parenting is an unenviable job for anyone. Under the circumstances I can see why you and Faith both would have adjustments to make."
Why was she talking to this man so candidly about such a personal subject? Still, he had initiated it, hadn't he? Dare she give him one more word of unasked-for advice? "Please remember one thing, there is nothing more patiencetaxing, sensitive, or emotionally delicate than an adolescent girl." His thick brows lowered over eyes sparkling now with mischief.
"Except an adolescent boy trying to make a move on an adolescent girl."
Dark lashes momentarily screened Hailey's green eyes. A blush colored her cheeks, so recently pale, with flattering color. Rather than meet his probing eyes, she turned back to the typewriter and, in a no-nonsense voice, said, "I must get back to my office, but first I have to complete this form." She set the proper margin on the typewriter, then inquired tersely,
"Your full name?"
"Scott. Tyler Scott."
Her hands froze on the keys. Her mouth went as dry as cotton. Her heart leaped into her throat. Her whole body shook with a slight tremor.
In her peripheral vision she saw Tyler Scott get up off the sofa and walk around the desk to stand directly in front of her. Her upraised eyes took in the designer belt at his waist, his long, tapering torso, and impressive chest, the tanned column of his throat.
When her eyes locked with his as he stared down at her, she quailed under his triumphant expression. "That's right, Miss Ashton," he said softly. "I own this place."