Dina Chandler has been to hell and back. Two-and-a-half years ago, her tempestuous marriage to Blake Chandler ended abruptly when his plane disappeared in the South American jungle. With no one else to take the helm, the lovely, grief-stricken widow found herself in charge of the vast Chandler hotel empire. Through it all, Blake’s old friend, Chet Stanton, had been her rock.
The Newport air kisses Dina’s hair with salt as she says farewell to Blake’s old sailboat. She isn’t much of a sailor and—now that she’s engaged to Chet—Dina feels it’s time to let go. But when Dina arrives home, she thinks she’s seen a ghost. Always hot-tempered, Blake’s ordeal has utterly stripped him of his former sophistication, and he’s furious to find his return marred by Dina’s engagement. Terrified of the man whose bed she once shared, Dina must now choose between her new love and a savage stranger.
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The Americana Series: Rhode Island
By Janet Dailey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Janet Dailey
All rights reserved.
THE AIR WAS CLEAR and the moon over Rhode Island was new, but there was a tangle of cobwebs in her mind. Dina Chandler couldn't seem to think her way out of the confusion. She shut her ears to the voices quietly celebrating in other parts of the house and stared out the window.
A shudder passed through her. It couldn't have been from the night's chill, since the house was comfortably heated. Her blue eyes slid to her arms, crossed in front of her, hugging her middle. Perhaps it was the cold weight of the precious metal around her finger.
Dina turned from the window. Her restless gaze swept the library, noting all that was familiar. Interrupting the dark, richly paneled sides of the room was a wall of bookshelves, floor to ceiling. A myriad of deeply toned bindings formed rows of muted rainbows. A sofa covered in antique velvet faced the fireplace, flanked by two chairs upholstered in a complementing patterned fabric. In a corner of the room stood a mahogany desk, its top neat and orderly.
The door to the library opened and Dina turned. Her hair shimmered in the dim light, a paler gold than the ring on her finger. A pang of regret raced through her that her solitude had been broken, followed by a twinge of remorse that she had felt the need to be alone at this time.
Closing the door, Chet Stanton walked toward her, smiling despite the faintly puzzled gleam in his eyes.
"So this is where you've got to," he murmured, an unspoken question behind the indulgent tone.
"Yes," Dina nodded, unaware of the sigh in her voice, or how forced her smile looked.
As he came closer, her gaze made a detached inspection of him. Like hers, his coloring was fair, sandy blond hair falling rakishly across his forehead, always seeming to invite fingers to push it back in place. His eyes were a smoke blue as opposed to the brilliant shade of hers.
At thirty-six, he was twelve years her senior, a contemporary of Blake's, but there was a boyish air about him that was an integral part of his charm. In fact, it was with Blake that Dina had first met Chet. The cobwebs spun around that thought to block it out. Slim and supple, Chet was only a few inches taller than she was in her heels.
He stopped in front of her, his intent gaze studying her expressionless face. Dina was unconscious of how totally she masked her inner turmoil. As his hands settled lightly on her shoulders, she was passive under his touch.
"What are you doing in here?" Chet cocked his head slightly to the side, his gaze still probing.
"I was thinking."
"That's forbidden." His hands slid around her and Dina yielded to his undemanding embrace, uncrossing her arms to spread them across his chest.
Why not? His shoulder had become a familiar resting place for her head, used often in the last two and a half years. Her eyes closed at the feathery caress of his lips over her temple and cheek.
"You should be in the living room noisily celebrating with the others," he told her in mock reproof.
Dina laughed softly in her throat. "They're not 'noisily' celebrating. They don't 'noisily' do anything, whether it's rejoice or grieve."
"Perhaps not," he conceded. "But even a restrained celebration should have the engaged couple in attendance, namely you and me. Not just me alone."
"I know," she sighed.
His shoulder wasn't as comfortable as it had seemed. Dina turned out of his unresisting embrace, nerves stretching taut again as the niggling sense of unease and confusion wouldn't leave. Her troubled gaze searched the night's darkness beyond the windowpanes as if expecting to find the answer there.
With her back turned to him, she felt Chet resting his hands on either side of her neck, where the contracted cords were hard bands of tension.
"Relax, honey. You've let yourself get all strung up again." His supple fingers began working their magic, gently kneading the coiled muscles in her neck and shoulders.
"I can't help it." A frown puckered her forehead despite the pleasant manipulations of his hands. "I simply don't know if I'm doing the right thing."
"Of course you are."
"Am I?" A corner of her mouth lifted in a half smile, self-mocking and skeptical. "I don't know how I let you talk me into this engagement."
"Me? Talk you into it?" Chet laughed, his warm breath fanning the silver blond strands of her hair. "You make it sound as if I twisted your arm, and I'd never do that. You're much too beautiful to risk damaging."
"Flatterer!" But Dina felt old, old beyond her years.
"It got me you."
"And I know I agreed willingly to this engagement," she admitted.
"Willingly but hesitantly," added Chet, continuing the slow and relaxing massage of her shoulders and neck.
"I wasn't sure. And I still don't know if I'm sure."
"I didn't rush you into a decision. I gave you all the time you wanted because I understand why you felt you needed it," he reasoned. "And there won't be any marriage until you set the date. Our agreement is a little more than a trial engagement."
"I know." Her voice was flat. Dina didn't find the necessary reassurance in his words.
"Look—" Chet turned her to face him "—I was Blake's best friend."
Yes, Dina thought. He had been Blake's right arm; now he was hers. Always there, ready to support her decision, coaxing a smile when her spirits were low and the will to go on had faded.
"So I know what kind of man your husband was," he continued. "I'm not trying to take his place. As a matter of fact, I don't want to take his place any more than I want you to take his ring from your finger."
His remark drew her gaze to the intertwining gold band and diamond solitaire on the third finger of her left hand. The interlocking rings had been joined by a third, a diamond floret designed to complement the first pair. It was Chet's engagement ring to her.
He curved a finger under her chin to lift it. "All that I'm hoping is that with a little more patience and persistence I can carve some room in your heart to care for me."
"I do, Chet," Dina stated. "Without you, I don't know how I would have made it through those months when Blake was missing—when we didn't know if he was alive or dead. And when we were notified that he'd been kil—"
The rest of her words were silenced by his firm kiss. Then he gathered her into his arms to hold her close, molding her slenderly curved shape to his lean, muscular body.
His mouth was near her temple, moving against her silken hair as he spoke. "That's in the past. You have to forget it."
"I can't." There was a negative movement of her head against his. "I keep remembering the way I argued with Blake before he left on that South American trip," she sighed. "He wanted me to go to the airport with him, but I refused." Another sigh came from her lips, tinged with anger and regret. "Our quarrels were always over such petty things, things that seem so stupid now."
"The strong vying with the strong." Chet lifted his head to gaze at the rueful light in her eyes. "I'm partial to strong-minded women."
His teasing words provoked the smile he sought. "I suppose I have to admit to being that, don't I?"
A fire smoldered in his look, burning away the teasing light. "And I love you for being strong, Dina." His hand slid to the small of her back. "And I love you for being all woman."
Then his mouth was seeking hers again in a kiss that was warm and passionate. She submitted to his ardor, gradually responding in kind, reveling in the gentle caress of his hands that remained short of intimate. Chet never demanded more from her than she was willing to give. His understanding restraint endeared him to her, making her heart swell with quiet happiness.
When he lifted his head, Dina nestled into the crook of his arm, resting her cheek against his shoulder, smiling with tender pleasure. That lock of hair, the color of sun-bleached sand, was across his forehead. She gave in to the impulse to brush it back with the rest, knowing it would spring forward the instant it was done. Which it did.
"Feel better?" His fingers returned the caress by tracing the curve of her cheekbone.
"What were you thinking about when I came in?"
Her hand slid to his shirt, smoothing the collar.
"I don't know. I guess I was wishing."
Dina paused. She didn't know what she had been wishing. Finally she said, "That we hadn't told the others about our engagement, that we'd kept it to ourselves for a while. I wish we weren't having this engagement party."
"It's just family and friends. There's been no official announcement made," Chet reminded her.
"I know." She usually had no difficulty in expressing herself, but the uncertainty of her own thoughts made it impossible.
Something was bothering her, but she didn't know what it was. It wasn't as if she hadn't waited a proper time before deciding to marry again. It had been two and a half years since Blake had disappeared and a little more than a year since the South American authorities had notified her that they had found the plane wreckage and there had been no survivors.
And it wasn't as if she didn't love Chet, although not in the same tumultuous way she had loved Blake. This was a quieter and gentler emotion, and probably deeper.
"Darling—" his smile was infinitely patient "—we couldn't keep our engagement from our family and friends. They need time, too, to get adjusted to the idea that you soon won't be Mrs. Blake Chandler."
"That's true," Dina acknowledged. It was not an idea that could be implanted overnight.
The door to the library opened, and an older woman dressed in black was framed in its jamb. An indulgent smile curved her mouth as she spied the embracing pair. Dina stiffened for an instant in Chet's arms, then forced herself to relax.
"We've been wondering where the two of you had gone," the woman chided them. "It's time you came back to the party and received some of the toasts being made."
"We'll be there in a minute, Mother Chandler," Dina replied to the woman who was Blake's mother, her mother-in-law.
Norma Chandler was the epitome of a society matron, belonging to all the right garden clubs and fund-raising organizations for charity. Her role in life had always been the traditional one, centered around her home and family. With both husband and son dead, she clung to Dina as her family and to her home as security.
"If you don't, I'm afraid the party will move in here, and there's hardly enough room for them all." A hand touched the strands of pearls at her throat, the gesture indicating such a thing could never dare happen at one of her parties. The pearl-gray shade of her elegantly coiffed hair blended with the jewelry she wore
"We'll be there in a minute, Mother Chandler," Chet added his promise to Dina's. With a nod the woman closed the door, and Chet glanced at Dina. "Do you suppose you'll be able to persuade her to wear something other than black to our wedding?"
"I doubt it." She moved out of his arms, a faintly cynical smile curving her lips. "Norma Chandler likes portraying the image of a tragic figure."
Within a few weeks after Dina's marriage to Blake, Kyle Chandler, his father, had died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and Norma Chandler had purchased an entire wardrobe of black. She had barely been out of mourning when they received news that Blake's plane was missing. Instantly Mrs. Chandler began dressing in black, not waiting for the notification that came a year ago declaring her son to be considered officially dead.
"She approves of our marriage. You know that, don't you?" Chet asked.
"Yes, she approves," Dina agreed, "for the sake of the company." And for the fact that there would only be one 'widow' Chandler instead of two—but Dina didn't say that, knowing it would sound small and unkind when her mother-in-law had been almost smothering in her love toward her.
"Mother Chandler still doesn't believe you're capable of running the company after all this time," Chet concluded from her response. He shook his head wryly.
"I couldn't do it without you." Dina stated it as a fact, not an expression of gratitude.
"I'm with you." He curved an arm around her waist as she started for the door to leave the room. "So you won't have to worry about that."
As Chet reached forward to open the door for her, Dina was reminded of that frozen instant when Norma Chandler had opened the door seconds ago. She wondered if the same thought had crossed her mother-in-law's mind as it had her own. She had recalled the numerous times Mrs. Chandler had opened the library door to find Dina sitting on Blake's lap locked in one of his crushing and possessive embraces. This time it had been Chet's arms that held her instead of Blake's. She wondered if her mother-in-law was as aware of the vast differences between the two men as she was.
In the last months, after the uncertainty of Blake's fate had been settled and there had been time to reflect, Dina had tried to imagine what the last two and a half years might have been like if Blake had lived. Theirs had been such a brief, stormy marriage, carrying the portent of more years of the same, always with the possibility that one battle could have ended the union permanently.
Chet, on the other hand, was always predictable, and the time Dina spent with him was always pleasant. Under his supportive influence she had discovered skills and potentials she hadn't known she possessed. Her intelligence had been channeled into constructive fields and expanded to encompass more knowledge instead of being sharpened for warring exchanges with Blake.
Her personality had matured in a hurry, owing to the circumstances of Blake's disappearance. She had become a very confident and self-assured woman, and she gave all the credit for the change to Chet.
Some of her misgivings vanished as she walked out with Chet to rejoin the party in the main area of the house. There was no earthly reason not to enjoy the engagement party, none whatsoever.
The instant they returned to the spacious living room, they were engulfed by the sedate gathering of well-wishers. Each seemed to display a reverence for the antique furniture that abounded in the room, beautiful Victorian pieces enhanced by paintings and art objects. The atmosphere decreed formality and civil behavior.
"I see you found the two of them, Norma," Sam Lavecek announced belatedly. His voice had a tendency to boom, an abrasive sound that drew unnecessary attention to their absence from the party. "Off in some secluded corner, no doubt." He winked with faint suggestiveness at Dina. "Reminds me of the times you and Blake were always slipping away to cuddle in some corner." He glanced down at the brandy in his hand. "I miss that boy." It was an absent comment, his thoughts spoken aloud.
An awkward tension charged the moment. Chet, with his usual diplomacy, smoothed it over. "We all miss him, Sam," he asserted quietly, his arm curving protectively around Dina's shoulders.
"What?" Sam Lavecek's initial reaction was blankness, as if unaware that he said out loud what was on his mind. He flushed uncomfortably at the newly engaged pair. "Of course, we do, but it doesn't stop any of us from wishing you much happiness together," he insisted and lifted his glass, calling the others to a toast. "To Dina and Chet, and their future together."
Dina maintained her facade of smiling happiness, but it was an odd feeling to have the celebrants of their engagement party consist of Blake's family and friends. Without family herself, her parents having been killed in an automobile crash the year before she had met Blake, there had been no close relatives of her own to invite. What friends she had in Newport, she had met through Blake. Chet's family lived in Florida.
When Norma Chandler had asked to give them an engagement party, it had been a difficult offer to reject. Dina had chosen not to, finding it the easiest and quickest means to inform all of the Chandler relatives and friends of her decision to accept Chet's proposal. She wasn't blind to her mother-in-law's motives. Norma Chandler wished to remain close to her. All her instincts were maternal, and Dina was the only one left to mother.
But the engagement party had proved to be more of a trial than Dina had thought. The announcement had raised too much inner restlessness and vague doubts. None of the celebrants could see that. She was too well schooled in concealing her feelings. When the party ended at a suitable hour, no one was the wiser. Not even Chet suspected that she was still plagued by apprehensions when he kissed her good night. It was something Dina knew she would have to work out alone.
Excerpted from Strange Bedfellow by Janet Dailey. Copyright © 1979 Janet Dailey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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