Read an Excerpt
Karen had dreaded the party for weeks. Her father was sure to use it as another opportunity to find her a husband. She almost cringed at the thought of what lay before her—a succession of eligible men, abrupt introductions, and pointed questions. Yet she loved her godparents and wouldn’t offend them by not attending their annual Christmas party.
“Are you ready, lass?” Matthew McAlister let himself into her apartment without the courtesy of knocking.
“Honestly, Dad, one of these days you’re going to walk in here and find me stark naked,” Karen admonished with a sigh.
Karen laughed, too, for it was difficult to maintain an injured air when her father was in this mood.
Stepping back to survey Karen, Matthew’s eyes lit up in appreciation. “My heart swells with pride at the sight of you, lass,” he said in a strong Scottish brogue.
Karen forced herself to smile. His speech always began the same way. After admiring her beauty, he would recount the days he’d courted her mother and their marriage when Madeline was nineteen. From there he’d reiterate his growing desire for grandchildren, most particularly a granddaughter. It was always the same, to the point that Karen could have mouthed the words along with him.
“Dad,” she interrupted, “we’d better go. Snoqualmie Falls is a forty-five-minute drive.”
Surprisingly, Matthew insisted Karen drive. She did so willingly, but glanced apprehensively at her father. He looked tired and a bit ashen.
“Are you feeling okay, Dad?” she asked, hiding the concern in her voice.
“Of course I am.” He rallied somewhat. “I’m just saving myself for the grand affair. Certain demands are made of a widower these days, and the ladies are expecting a good time.”
They were greeted at the large rented hall with soft Christmas music. The room was lavishly decorated with hundreds of large, glittering snowflakes suspended from the ceiling. The reflective glow of the turning flakes cast the dimly lit room into a winter wonderland.
The hall was already crowded. Several others had arrived and were milling around, chatting in small groups and sipping champagne.
Evan Forsyth raised a welcoming hand when he saw Matthew and Karen enter, and walked purposefully toward them. The two men clasped hands with the enthusiasm of many years of devoted friendship.
Her father and Evan had been friends since their school days, and although they held separate stations in life, their friendship had never wavered. Evan Forsyth was the president of the University of Washington at Tacoma, an honored and respected man, while Matthew McAlister was a small-businessman dealing in plumbing supplies. For as long as Karen could remember, her father and godfather had played chess every Thursday night.
The annual party had begun many years before, when Karen and her sister, Judy, were small. Evan and Milly Forsyth invited a few intimate friends into their home to share the joy of the holiday season. Over the years, as Evan’s position became prominent, the size of the affair had grown to include business friends and faculty members. This year, the party was so large the Forsyths had rented a hall, their spacious home no longer large enough to hold the growing number of guests.
“Welcome, welcome,” Evan said and smiled warmly. His wife, Milly, followed close behind and embraced Karen fondly.
“I’m so pleased you could make it, my dear.”
Evan leisurely surveyed Karen, noting how the red velvet gown molded to the slender curves of her womanly figure.
“I swear you get prettier every year, Karen,” he said with a hug.
“And I swear your tongue grows smoother every year.”
Evan chuckled with delight while Milly tucked an arm around Karen’s waist to give her a slight hug. “He’s right, dear. You look radiant. And your gown suits you beautifully.”
Karen returned the hug and smiled. “It should, considering what I paid for it.”
Karen had gasped when the salesclerk had told her the price, and disregarded the woman’s complimentary words as an effective sales pitch. But now she willingly conceded that the effect of the simple but elegant style had been worth the price.
The four chatted until social obligations demanded the Forsyths’ attention. After sampling several of the hors d’oeuvres and speaking with acquaintances, Karen and her father watched as the floor was cleared to make room for dancing.
Matthew surveyed the crowd while gently directing Karen as they danced the first waltz. His eyes glowed with amusement as he remarked, “There are several available men here. Take advantage of the opportunity to snare yourself a husband.”
Karen stiffened and pulled away from her father.
Almost angrily, Matthew continued, “I can’t understand what’s the matter with men today. You’re lovely, Karen.”
“Dad, please …” A note of helplessness entered her voice. Karen was so weary of this argument. A thousand times she’d explained that the problem wasn’t with men; it was with her. So many of the men she’d dated over the years were self-centered and egotistical, seeking easy conquests and one-night stands. It was almost to the point that she’d rather not date at all. Her natural good looks and vivacious personality invited the attention. But Karen had yet to discover what it was about herself that attracted the least-desirable males.
“I’m perfectly content with my life as it is.” Karen sighed with impatience, tilting her chin defiantly.
“But I want grandchildren …”
“You have grandchildren,” Karen reminded him coolly. “What do you call James and Carter?”
“I want a granddaughter.” Matthew flashed her a disputatious look.
“Dad,” Karen pleaded, “let’s not argue tonight. You have grandchildren, and more than likely you’ll have your precious granddaughter.” Karen didn’t know how much more she could endure. Matthew had applied constant pressure on her to marry for the past six months. The argument had nearly ruined their close relationship. Unable to endure his interference with her life, Karen had moved into her own apartment. It was a move long overdue. It’d been convenient to live at home and easy to rationalize her father’s need for her after her mother’s death. Much to her chagrin, Matthew sold their home and moved into an apartment in the same building as Karen. If anything, matters had gotten worse.
As they continued to waltz across the room, Karen caught sight of Mabel Jackson, an aging widow who’d made no effort to disguise her attraction to Matthew. Turnabout is fair play, she mused, and giggled devilishly.
“Do you find something amusing, lass?” Matthew asked curiously.
“No. Excuse me, Dad. I see someone I’d like to talk to.” Cleverly, she weaved her way through the thick couples toward the widow.
“Mrs. Jackson, you look lovely tonight,” Karen greeted sweetly.
Mabel Jackson ignored the greeting and craned her long neck to stare into the dancing figures.
“Is your father here?” she asked with obvious interest.
“He sure is. In fact, it was my father who commented on how radiant you look. Dad said he’d never seen anyone more lovely.”
“He did?” The woman beamed and smoothed the hairs of her lopsided wig.
“You know, Mrs. Jackson, my father is a lonely man. He’d never admit it, of course, but Dad needs a woman. A real woman.” Karen stared into the crowd, unable to meet the widow’s triumphant gaze.
Mabel Jackson positively glowed. “My dear child, I’m so glad we’ve had this little talk. Leave your father to me.”
Karen smiled broadly and felt that even if she ended up disinherited, the taste of revenge was indeed sweet.
In a matter of minutes, several men were vying for Karen’s attention. She danced with a number of partners, young and old, her infectious laughter ringing through the hall as she surrendered to a swelling tide of triumph. Not once was she interrupted by her father’s forcing what he considered eligible men on her. An hour later, she managed to catch Matthew’s eye and winked wickedly as he waltzed by in the arms of Mabel Jackson. Matthew cast her a look that threatened bodily harm, and Karen burst into helpless giggles.
A moment later, she caught sight of her father’s angry stride as he wove through the crowd toward her. Wishing to avoid the taste of his Scottish temper, she hastily sought an escape. A curtained glass door leading to a balcony caught her attention. Unnoticed, she quietly slipped into the dark, leaving her father perplexed by her sudden disappearance.
Peering through the sheer curtain, Karen waited impatiently for Matthew to abandon his search.
“I beg your pardon,” came a deep voice from behind her as she backed into a solid form.
“Oh! Excuse me.” She fumbled and quickly straightened. “I didn’t realize there was anyone out here.”
“Obviously,” came the clipped reply as he stared into the dark. Karen watched him for a few minutes, but he made no effort to meet her gaze.
“Would you mind sharing your hideaway for a minute?” she asked sweetly, and deliberately blinked her long, curling lashes at his impassive expression. Men were usually quick to respond to her expressive brown eyes.
“Suit yourself,” he retorted unenthusiastically, and continued to stare into the night.