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The meadow was dew-misted, and the morning had the nip of a September breeze to give it life. Kathryn Mary Kilpatrick tossed her long black hair and laughed with the sheer joy of being alive. The sound startled the chestnut gelding she was riding, making it dance nervously over the damp ground.
"Easy, boy," she said soothingly, her gloved hand reaching out to touch his mane gently.
He calmed, reacting to the familiar caress. Sundance had been hers since he was a colt, a present from Blake on her sixteenth birthday. Sundance was a mature five-year-old now, but some of his coltish uncertainties lingered. He was easily startled and high-strung. Like Kathryn Mary.
Her dark green eyes shimmered with excitement as she studied the long horizon under the pink and amber swirls of the dawn sky. It was so good to be home again. The exclusive girls' school had polished her manners and given her the poise of a model, but it had done nothing to cool her ardor for life or to dampen the passion she felt for Greyoaks. Despite the fact that the Hamil-tons' South Carolina farm was her home by adoption, not by birth, she loved every green, rolling hill and pine forest of it, just as though she were a Hamilton herself.
A flash of color caught her attention, and she wheeled Sundance as Phillip Hamilton came tearing across the meadow toward her on a thoroughbred Arabian with a coat like polished black leather. She smiled, watching him. If Blake ever caught him riding one of his prize breeding stallions like that, it would mean disaster. What luck for Phillip that Blake was in Europe on business. Maude might indulge her youngest, but Blake indulged no one.
"Hi!" Phillip called breathlessly. He reined in just in front of her and caught his wind, tossing back his unruly brown hair with a restless hand. His brown eyes twinkled with mischief as they swept over her slender figure in the chic riding habit. But the mischief went out of them when he noticed her bare head.
"No helmet?" he chided.
She pouted at him with her full, soft lips. "Don't scold," she accused. "It was just a little ride, and I hate wearing a hard hat all the time."
"One fall and you'd be done for," he observed.
"You sound just like Blake!"
He smiled at her mutinous look. "Too bad he missed your homecoming. Oh, well, he'll be back at the end of the weekjust in time for the Barringtons' party."
"Blake hates parties," she reminded him. Her eyes lowered to the rich leather of her Western saddle. "And he hates me too, most of the time."
"He doesn't," Phillip returned. "It's just that you set fire to his temper, you rebellious little witch. I can remember a time when you all but worshiped my big brother."
She grimaced, turning her eyes to the long horizon where thoroughbred Arabians grazed on lush pasture grass, their black coats shimmering like oil in the sunlight. "Did I?" She laughed shortly. "He was kind to me once, when my mother died."
"He cares about you. We all do," he said gently.
She smiled at him warmly and reached out an impulsive hand to touch his sleeve. "I'm ungrateful, and I don't mean to be. You and your mother have been wonderful to me. Taking me in, putting me through schoolhow could I be ungrateful?"
"Blake had a little to do with it," he reminded her wryly.
She tossed her hair back impatiently. "I suppose," she admitted grudgingly.
"Finishing school was his idea."
"And I hated it!" she flashed. "I wanted to go to the university and take political science courses."
"Blake likes to entertain buyers," he reminded her.
"Political science courses don't teach you how to be a hostess."
She shrugged. "Well, I'm not going to be here forever, despite the fact that you and Blake are my cousins," she said. "I'll get married someday. I know I owe your family a lot, but I'm not going to spend my whole life playing hostess for Blake! He can get married and let his wife do it. If he can find anyone brave enough," she added waspishly.
"You've got to be kidding, Cuz," he chuckled. "They follow him around like ants on a sugar trail. Blake could have his pick when it comes to women, and you know it."
"It must be his money, then," she said tightly, "because it sure isn't his cheerful personality that draws them!"
"You're just sore because he wouldn't let you go away with Jack Harris for the weekend," he teased.
She flushed right up to her hairline. "I didn't know Jack had planned for us to be alone at the cottage," she protested. "I thought his parents were going to be there, too."
"But you didn't think to check. Blake did." He laughed at her expression. "I'll never forget how he looked when Jack came to get you. Or how Jack looked when he left, alone."
She shivered at the memory. "I'd like to forget."
"I'll bet you would. You've been staring daggers at Blake ever since, but it just bounces right off. You don't dent him, do you?"
"Nothing dents Blake," she murmured. "He just stands there and lets me rant and rave until he's had enough, then he turns that cold voice on me and walks away. He'll be glad when I'm gone," she said in a quiet voice.
"You're not going anywhere yet, are you?" he asked suddenly.
She darted a mischievous glance at him. "I had thought about joining the French Foreign Legion," she admitted. "Do you think I could get my application accepted before the weekend?"
He laughed. "In time to escape Blake? You know you've missed him."
"I have?" she asked with mock innocence.
"Six months is a long time. He's calmed down."
"Blake never forgets," she sighed miserably. She stared past Phillip to the towering gray stone house in the distance with its graceful arches and the cluster of huge live oaks dripping Spanish moss that stood like sentries around it.
"Don't work yourself into a nervous breakdown," Phillip said comfortingly. "Come on, race me back to the house and we'll have breakfast."
She sighed wearily. "All right."
Maude's dark eyes lit up when the two of them walked into the elegant dining room and seated themselves at the polished oak table.
She had the same olive skin and sharp, dark eyes as her eldest son, the same forthright manner and quick temper. Maude was nothing like Phillip. She lacked his gentleness and easy manner, as well as his pale coloring. Those traits came from his late father, not from his maverick mother, who thought nothing of getting a congressman out of bed at two in the morning if she wanted a piece of pending legislation explained to her.
"It's good to have you home, baby," Maude told Kathryn, reaching out a slender, graceful hand to touch the younger woman's arm. "I'm simply surrounded by men these days."
"That's the truth," Phillip said wryly as he helped himself to scrambled eggs from the bone china platter. "Matt Davis and Jack Nelson nearly came to blows over her at a cocktail party last week."
Maude glared at him. "That isn't so," she protested.
"Oh?" Kathryn asked with an impish smile as she sipped her black coffee.
Maude shifted uncomfortably. "Anyway, I wish Blake were home. It was bad timing, that crisis at the London office. I had a special evening planned for Friday night. A homecoming party for you. It would have been perfect
"I don't need Blake to make a party perfect," Kathryn burst out without thinking.
Maude's pencil-thin gray brows went up. "Are you going to hold it against him forever?" she chided.
Kathryn's fingers tightened around her coffee cup. "He didn't have to be so rough on me!" she protested.
"He was right, Kathryn Mary, and you know it," Maude said levelly. She leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table. "Darling, you have to remember that you're just barely twenty. Blake's thirty-four now, and he knows a great deal more about life than you've had time to learn. We've all sheltered you," she added, frowning. "Sometimes I wonder if it was quite fair."
"Ask Blake," she returned bitterly. "He's kept me under glass for years."
"His protective instinct," Phillip said with an amused grin. "A misplaced mother hen complex."
"I wouldn't let him hear that, if I were you," Maude commented drily.
"I'm not afraid of big brother," he replied. "Just because he can outfight me is no reason
on second thought, you may have a point."
Maude laughed. "You're a delight. I wish Blake had a little of your ability to take things lightly. He's so intense."
"I can think of a better word," Kathryn said under her breath.
"Isn't it amazing," Phillip asked his mother, "how brave she is when Blake isn't here?"
"Amazing." Maude nodded. She smiled at Kathryn. "Cheer up, sweetheart. Let me tell you what Eve Bar-rington has planned for your homecoming party Saturday night
the one I was going to give you if Blake hadn't been called away
The arrangements for the party were faultless, Kath-ryn discovered. The florist had delivered urns of dried flowers in blazing fall colors, and tasteful arrangements of daisies and mums and baby's breath to decorate the buffet tables. The intimate little gathering at the nearby estate swelled to over fifty people, not all of them contemporaries of Kathryn's. Quite a number, she noticed with amusement, were politicians. Maude was lobbying fiercely for legislation to protect a nearby stretch of South Carolina's unspoiled river land from being zoned for business. No doubt she'd pleaded with Eve to add those politicians to the guest list, Kathryn thought wickedly.
Nan Barrington, Eve's daughter, and one of Kathryn's oldest friends, pulled her aside while the musicians launched into a frantic rock number.
"Mother hates hard rock," she confided as the band blared out. "I can't imagine why she hired that particular band, when it's all they play."
"The name," Kathryn guessed. "It's the Glen Miller ensemble, and Glen spells his name with just one 'n.' Your mother probably thought they played the same kind of music as the late Glenn Miller."
"That's Mother," Nan agreed with a laugh. She ran a finger over the rim of her glass, filled with sparkling rum punch. Her blond hair sparkled with the same amber color as she looked around the room. "I thought Blake was going to come by when he got home. It's after ten now."
Kathryn smiled at her indulgently. Nan had had a crush on Blake since their early teens. Blake pretended not to notice, treating both girls like the adolescents he thought them.
"You know Blake hates parties," she reminded the shorter girl.
"It can't be for lack of partners to take to them," Nan sighed.
Kathryn frowned at her. She cupped her own glass in her hands and wondered why that statement nagged her. She knew Blake dated, but it had been a long time since she'd spent more than a few days at Greyoaks. Not for years. There was too much to do. Relatives she could visit in faraway places like France and Greece and even Australia. Cruises with friends like Nan. School events and girlfriends to visit and parties to go to. There hadn't been much reason to stay at Greyoaks. Especially since that last bout with Blake over Jack Harris. She sighed, remembering how harsh he'd been about it. Jack Harris had turned every color in the rainbow before Blake got through telling him what he thought in that cold, precise voice that always accompanied his temper. When he'd turned it on Kathryn, it had been all she could manage not to run. She was honestly afraid of Blake. Not that he'd beat her or anything. It was a different kind of fear, strange and ever-present, growing as she matured.
"Why the frown?" Nan asked suddenly.
"Was I frowning?" She laughed. She shrugged, sipping her punch. Her eyes ran over her shorter friend's pale blue evening gown, held up by tiny spaghetti straps. "I love your dress."