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Courtney was thinking about the house she'd just bought when her intercom buzzed. She picked up the phone absentmindedly, doodling a design on the sheet of paper before her. If she went ahead with the remodeling immediately, she wouldn't be able to move right in. 0n the other hand, it was senseless to move in with so many rooms in need of major renovation. "Yes, Nora?" she said into the phone.
"Mr. Collins is here," her secretary informed her.
"Collins?" Courtney struggled to bring her mind back to the office. "I'm not expecting anyone, am I?"
Nora could obviously tell that her employer hadn't the faintest idea who Mr. Collins was, but she wasn't going to embarrass either her boss or the visitor, who was standing right there, by informing Courtney point-blank. "He's brought the tickets himself, since the messenger had already left."
Ordinarily this would have been enough to clue Courtney in to his identity, but she was feeling particularly distracted that afternoon. Tickets? Had she ordered tickets for anything? Nora wasn't likely to send in someone who was selling raffle tickets or soliciting for some worthwhile charity. Opera? Symphony? Well, she couldn't just leave him standing there, she supposed. If Nora thought he was someone she should see, Courtney would see him. "Send him in," she suggested wishing she could try once more to pump Nora on precisely who he was, instead of giving the impression she'd figured it out.
Even when he let himself in, she didn't recognize him. He looked familiar, of course, but there were any number of places she might have seen that ruggedly handsome face, that curly dark hair, those incredible blue eyes. The eyes were whatcaught her attention. You didn't see that deep shade of blue very often, because what brought it out was invariably a magnificent tan. He had a magnificent tan. Should that tell her something? "Mr. Collins," she said pleasantly, extending her hand.
He captured it in a firm grasp, not one of those courtly gestures some men seemed to use when clasping a woman's supposedly fragile flesh and bones. Courtney was a pushover for firm handshakes. "Please, sit down." She indicated one of the startlingly modern chairs that faced her desk.
Though he regarded the chair skeptically for a fraction of a second he seated himself without comment, casually disposing himself onto its minimalist surface with elegant grace. "It's more comfortable than it looks," he admitted with a grin.
The voice sounded familiar. Why couldn't she place him? Something told her she was more familiar with his voice than with his face. And not his voice in person. On the phone. She had talked to this man any number of times on the phone. Tickets ... phone calls ... Collins. Courtney almost bit her lip with chagrin.
"You brought the tickets yourself," she remarked, hoping this would prove the right thing to say.
"Yes, the messenger had left before they were ready. Your office was near the bank, so I thought I'd just stop by with them."
"That was very kind of you." Bank? Why would she talk to anyone at a bank about tickets? And why didn't he just produce these mysterious tickets so she could see what they were talking about? Instead he sat there, at ease, studying her face, or perhaps her hair--she'd worn it a little differently today--as though he hadn't seen her in a while and was trying to familiarize himself again with her features.
Courtney resisted an impulse to smooth the gleaming brown hair back from her forehead. At thirty-three she was pleased that it remained as thick as it had a dozen years previously. The high cheekbones and fair skin were a fortunate legacy from her mother, but at thirty-three she worried more about her appearance than she had at twenty-one. Mr. Collins wasn't twenty-one any longer either, as witnessed by the slight silvering at his temples. Thirty-five, she guessed. And who was he?
He had started to discuss her office. "I haven't been here before," he was saying conversationally, his eyes wandering around the room, resting briefly on the drafting board before continuing to the graphic design awards on the walls, the furniture and plants. "It's very striking. These older office buildings have more potential than I'd given them credit for. Probably I should have done more with my offices, but somehow they seemed appropriate as they were. If you're going to cover everything with posters anyway, it doesn't make much sense to go fancy with the wall coverings. He gestured toward the silver and maroon stripes on the wall behind her.
"No, I suppose not," she agreed. Posters? Courtney wondered just what kind of posters you'd hang in a bank. Surely they didn't decorate offices with advertisements for loans at wonderful rates. He must be an executive; he had that innate self-assurance only upper-echelon people seemed to radiate so strongly. But she was not expecting anything from the bank by messenger, let alone by some senior vice-president. Well, maybe not a vice-president. He looked capable of scaling the ladder to that height, but he wasn't old enough.
"They're colorful, of course," he continued, "the posters. And they're expected. It's the little models that bug me. They get dusty and faded by the sun."
He nodded, as though he was surprised she wouldn't realize this. "We have to replace them every few months. If they have working parts, I won't take them."
Courtney was feeling completely out of her depth. He still had made no effort to produce the tickets, and he wasn't carrying a briefcase. That meant they were stuck in one of the pockets of his gray suit. He looked as though he were enjoying himself, talking to her, sitting there as though he had no intention of leaving for some time. "Can I offer you a cup of coffee?" she asked, feeling a little desperate.
"Sure. Just black." He watched her closely as she buzzed Nora and requested two cups of coffee. When she replaced the receiver, he said, "I hope our service has been satisfactory for you."
Stumped for a moment, she finally tried, "I'm not one to let annoyances pile up, Mr. Collins. If I have a complaint, I make it straight away." She frowned slightly as she considered how this might have sounded. "Perhaps I'm not as quick with my compliments. I hope I haven't given the impression of dissatisfaction."
"Not at all," he assured her hurriedly, his wide mouth curving in a delightful smile. "Actually, I don't think you ever hang up without thanking me. You'd be surprised how rare that is among our clients."
"Perhaps I should stop," she said teasingly in response to the warmth of that smile. "I wouldn't want to seem unprofessional."
His eyes flashed with amusement. "Courtesy is never unprofessional--that's one of the cardinal rules in my office, I assure you."
Nora entered with the two cups of coffee, setting his down first on the small table between his chair and a matching one. Courtney quickly scribbled on the piece of paper she'd been using for a design. Who is he? it read, and she tapped it as inconspicuously as possible as Nora set down her cup.
Nora blinked at it, and then at Courtney. Her lips twitched, and she pressed them firmly together to keep from laughing as she turned to Mr. Collins and said distinctly. "Do you only handle business travel, Mr. Collins, or could someone like me come to you for vacation plans?"
Courtney didn't even hear his answer, she was so disgusted with herself for not recognizing him. Of course, it had been several years since she'd seen him in person, but she spoke to him on the phone, or to his assistant, several times a month. Mostly his assistant, she assured herself. And his travel agency was named after the street on which it was located, rather than after himself. Still, she should have known--instantly. Tickets ... Collins ... phone calls. Lord, she was losing her mind!
Which really was not unexpected, what with the pressures of running her own firm, the exhaustion of finding and buying the house, the split-up with Peter.
"Thanks, Nora," she called as her secretary flashed her a smile from the doorway.
Mr. Collins was regarding her with quizzical eyes. Courtney had forgotten to cover the penciled question with her coffee cup and realized, too late, that he could probably read it upside down, even from where he sat. She felt an unaccustomed flush steal into her cheeks, but she met his gaze steadily. "My mind seems to be wandering a bit today," she said by way of an apology.
He immediately withdrew the airline tickets from an inside pocket and pushed them forward on her desk. "It's entirely my fault, Ms. Stewart. One always assumes one is memorable."
Her hand gestured helplessly in the air before coming down to grasp the tickets. He should have been memorable. Even now the clear blue eyes regarded her with unnerving intensity. His body remained relaxed in the wisp of chair, no hint of affront tightening his prominent jaw. He was no longer smiling, but he wasn't frowning, either. His expression had an opaque neutrality that looked perfectly at home on his face. Courtney decided it was the usual face he gave to the outside world, broken frequently, perhaps, by a flash of warmth when he smiled, but more common to him than any evidence of vulnerability.
"Your travel service has always been excellent," she said now, and added, because she thought it might amuse him. "I kept wondering what kind of posters a banker would have on his wall, and what kinds of models might or might not have moving parts."
The smile didn't come back. "Banker?"
"You said my office was near the bank."
"Yes, I see. The models are of cruise ships," he explained. With a fluid movement he rose to his full six-foot height. "Your itinerary is there in duplicate, as usual."
"Please," she said, motioning to his coffee cup, "don't go yet. You haven't finished."
"I'm interrupting your work." He didn't move, either to leave or to return to his chair, but stood there watching her with his unfathomable eyes.
Courtney shrugged and smiled. "I'm not getting any work done this afternoon. I closed on a house this morning, and I'm still debating whether to move into it first or stay where I am until the remodeling's done."
"Stay where you are until the remodeling's done," he said without hesitation.
If he didn't sit down again soon, she was going to have to stand up. "That's what I thought, but it's hard not to want to just get in there and get my hands on the things I can do."
He sat down and picked up his coffee cup, taking a sip that nearly drained it. "You'll be traveling for most of the next two weeks anyhow."
"True." She watched as he finished his coffee. Now he really would go, and she didn't want him to leave without somehow eradicating her faux pas. She wasn't sure why. It had been such an inane error, but he probably thought nothing of it. All she could think of to say, however, was, "I really do appreciate your bringing the tickets by, Eric." Would that do? His first name came easily to her tongue; she had used it dozens of times on the phone.
Instead of leaping to his feet at this possibility of polite escape, he surprised her by cocking his head to one side and smiling. "The only reason I brought them was to have a chance to talk with you. No, that's not entirely true. I intended to invite you to dinner as well, after I'd charmed you, of course. It never occurred to me you wouldn't be able to place me."
Both disarmed and embarrassed, Courtney tucked a lock of shining brown hair behind one ear. "Any other day I'd have recognized you," she assured him. "Every once in a while my life gets so hectic I don't think straight."
"Does that mean you won't go to dinner with me?" he pressed.
"I have the trip tomorrow," she said hesitantly. "Well, you know that." It would be a way to make amends, but she really didn't want to do it. Not that he wasn't a perfectly acceptable dinner date. Courtney simply felt too tired, too upset, to handle a new man in her life right now, especially one she didn't know at all. The old acquaintances who had started to call her were difficult enough to cope with; someone entirely unknown seemed more like a task than a pleasure.
His eyes had never left her face. She had the awful feeling that he could read her thoughts. And much as she wanted to say no, she found herself saying, "I'd want to be in early. I haven't packed yet."
"Of course. I'll pick you up at seven and have you back by ten."
Courtney broke eye contact with him, toying with the pencil on her desk. It bothered her that she'd just said yes when she meant to say no. Still, she'd done it, and she should be gracious. Never mind that she blamed his insistent blue eyes for her undoing. "I'm at the Mansion Hotel on Sacramento. Temporarily."
"I'll be there at seven," he said as he rose.
She smoothed down the skirt of her green wool suit as she stood. "Fine." Forcing as much enthusiasm into her voice as she possibly could, she said, "I'll look forward to it."
Though he didn't look as though he quite believed her, he nodded. "Thanks for the coffee."
The door closed softly behind him before she had a chance to say another word. With a sigh she sat down again, feeling restless and slightly annoyed--with herself, she supposed. It wasn't his fault she'd accepted, was it? If she hadn't felt at such a disadvantage for not having recognized him, she'd have refused, wouldn't she?
Perhaps not. There was something about him.
Courtney distinctly remembered now that he had affected her that way the first time she'd met him, too. There was an especially powerful presence about the man. And it wasn't just his obvious masculinity, though there was that as well. It was the feeling of rock-solid sureness about him, something that could be wretchedly irritating if it was accompanied by smugness. His apparently wasn't; at least, not under the indictment of not having been recognized by someone who really should have.
But she'd first met him when she was living with Peter. and she hadn't given him more than a passing thought at the time. Since then her contact with him had been entirely by phone, and all business. Often she dealt with Jennifer, his assistant. There were several other agents in the office, but she was never passed along to any of them. Courtney had never thought about the significance of that before--and perhaps it had no special meaning. Just as in any office, certain accounts were handled by certain people, and she had been lucky enough to get the owner or his right-hand woman.
Funny that he would choose this time to ask her out, though. She'd only left Peter a month ago, finally acknowledging their arrangement was going to lead nowhere. Three years she had invested in that relationship, always assuming they would be married one day. But Peter had never asked her to marry him. She'd always convinced herself he would--eventually.
At first she'd been too busy with her work to actually notice that he was strenuously avoiding any permanent arrangement. Then she'd been sure it was her own preoccupation with her career that prevented him, so she'd managed to be around more. That hadn't changed anything.
Peter--tall, blond, good-looking, charming. And rich. He had a trust fund every bit as large as hers. In a sense she'd felt safe with Peter because there'd been no question of his "being after her money." Lord, how often had her family cautioned her about that when she was growing up, to the point where she'd become almost paranoid about it! Heiresses are fair game for fortune hunters. She'd once cross-stitched it, in a fit of pique, on a pillow, which she still kept on her bed. Peter had stuffed it in a wastebasket, but she'd retrieved it.
The Stewart Industries family fortune had made her a very rich young woman. Financially there wasn't the least need for her to work. Emotionally there was every reason. A lot of her sense of worth came from her career, from the development of Design Explosion, her graphic-design firm. She was immensely proud of its success. Perhaps she'd have been prouder if she'd had to build it from a shoestring, but you accepted what couldn't be changed. If the money was occasionally a burden, it was obviously a blessing as well.
When she'd met Peter, he seemed to feel the same way. At the time he was involved in a real-estate partnership that purchased apartment houses and managed them. He spent hours looking at properties, working out the financial details. He was captivated by the excitement of the volatile market, the escalating prices, the risks of a collapse. Courtney had appreciated his involvement; she'd always liked the men who had a sense of purpose better than those devoted to hedonism. Without a career around which to center their lives, these men seemed to have little in common with her.
And there was that tremendous physical attraction she'd felt. Peter was so devastatingly handsome, he'd made her heart swoop in her chest each time she'd seen him. There seemed to be electricity in the very air around him, sending off sparks that touched her with excitement and a breathless sort of desire. She hadn't known that kind of sexual awareness before, and it distracted and absorbed her. In his presence she felt peculiarly alive, as though she'd reached some higher level of being.
Courtney stared out the window across California Street to another office building and grimaced. Sexual attraction had a lot to answer for. It sort of scrambled one's brains. She had been so caught up with her infatuation for Peter that she hadn't looked at him closely enough. Or maybe he had changed over those three years.
As the economic climate altered and the real-estate market stagnated in San Francisco, he had lost all interest in it. There hadn't been the opportunity to trade for larger properties, as he had expected, and in time he'd simply ignored the business entirely, eventually selling out to his exasperated partner.
That was a year and a half into their relationship, and Courtney had been disturbed by his attitude, but she could see some reason for it, and she had hoped he'd find something else to do. Something that would put that original excitement back into him. Instead, he started to behave like a playboy, indulging his every whim--travel, cars, sports, the social scene. This was a side of him she hadn't seen before to any extent, and as much as she hated it, she refused to believe it was the real Peter.
Her efforts to interest him in new projects often seemed to work--for a while. He would take up some new interest and pursue it avidly for a few weeks before dropping it abruptly.
But he didn't lose interest in her. If he didn't include her in all his activities, he at least returned to her with evident affection. He simply didn't seem to need any more commitment than they already had. "Marriage is outdated," he'd said once, when she'd brought up the subject. His parents were divorced, and a number of their friends were getting divorces.
For a period of time she'd tried to convince herself that what they had was enough. The harder she worked at believing this, the more cracks she could see in her imaginary world. Had Peter always been a dilettante? She should have been able to recognize it in him as she could in other men. The possibility that she'd been blinded by her attraction seemed all too real. Still, she knew he was fond of her, and she worked hard that last six months to find a solid basis for their continuing to stay together.
Courtney didn't consider herself a quitter; there were rough times in every association and you didn't just walk away from a relationship without doing your best to see if it couldn't be saved. As a teenager she had been so indoctrinated that men were after her money that she had almost come to believe no one would want her for herself. Her "poor little rich girl" complex had kept her too wary to enjoy a normal life, to experience the freedom of simply going out with a man and assuming he enjoyed her companionship. Peter wasn't interested in her money, and that had helped make him so important to her. If he didn't care enough to commit himself to her, after all her effort, did that mean there was something really wrong with her?
Or was it just Peter himself?
Either way, she had finally come to understand that she had nothing more to offer Peter, and that he couldn't give her any more than he already had. Which wasn't enough. Courtney had exhausted herself trying to make her own emotional commitment sufficient for both of them. Whether the failure was hers or his didn't really matter--at the time. She only knew that there was no chance for the relationship to grow, or even to endure, without a disproportionate expenditure of energy, and she left.
It was like an amicable divorce, actually. Peter was rather bewildered, but his involvement had been as pleasantly superficial as all his other activities, and he didn't even seen to realize that this was a crushing defeat for Courtney. He forwarded her mail and her phone messages, called now and then to ask where some kitchen utensil was kept, and had already started to see other women, as though she'd never lived with him at all.
What she needed now was time. Time to accept what had happened, to adjust to the change, to get a new perspective on herself. It was all right seeing old friends, men who had known her for a dozen years. What she didn't need was having to cope with a man she didn't know the first thing about.
Courtney turned back to her work with a sigh, putting thoughts of both Peter and her newly acquired house firmly from her mind. She would see Eric Collins tonight because she had been such an ass not to recognize him, but that would be the end of it. She shook her head to clear it of the image of him sitting there opposite her, the steady blue eyes regarding her with a disturbing knowledge. Of what? she wondered. Shrugging, she picked up a pencil. There was a lot to clean up before she left for the day, especially when she wouldn't be lack in the office for a week.
The hotel she'd moved into was a Queen Anne Victorian mansion with turrets and gables and fresh flowers in her room. It had seemed simpler to stay there than find a short-term rental. Their brochure advertised breakfast in bed, complimentary wine and coffee, the Mansion Magic Concert, classical music in every guest room, the Bufano Gallery and Gardens, a billiard room and a distinctive location on Sacramento Street amidst several splendid Pacific Heights homes. Courtney found the place whimsical and relaxing, filled with Victorian memorabilia and Bach in the parlour. The relaxed pace of the place suited her current needs very well.
The early November evening was decidedly cool, and she chose a red wool jersey dress with a full circle skirt. Deceptive]y simple, it flattered her full-busted, slender-legged figure. She studied herself momentarily in the antique mirror. Tonight she wore her hair pulled softly over her ears to a twist in the back. This particular style made her look feminine, but a little remote, a little inaccessible, and that was exactly the effect she wished to have for her dinner with Eric.
She waited for him in the parlour, sipping thoughtfully at a glass of wine as the music helped ease away the tensions of her day. There were, surprisingly, no other people around at the time. When she heard the front door open, she remained seated, since the parlour was the first place anyone came if they were looking for the manager or a guest.
And then he was briefly framed in the doorway, seeming to fill the room with his presence even before he entered it. His eyes immediately found her, and a slow smile curved his lips, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. There was something wary about his eyes. As she started to rise he waved her back. "Finish your wine. The reservation's not for half an hour."
"Where are we going?" she asked as he seated himself a little apart from her on the Victorian sofa.
"Lovely." Courtney gestured toward the tray, which held a bottle and glasses. "Would you like some wine?"
They were both off to a rather awkward start, she thought, forcing herself to relax and smile at him. Treat this like a business dinner; you've gone through dozens of them with men you knew even less about than Eric Collins. Use your common ground.
"I'll be making a trip to Tulsa in a few weeks," she ventured. "Can you tell me anything about hotels there, Eric? For some reason I seem to have missed Tulsa in my hopscotching around the country."
She could tell from the way he studied her that he had picked up on the use of their one link to generate a bit of conversation between them, but he disposed himself more comfortably and rattled off a list of the better hotels in Tulsa. "You're not going to find anything quite like this there," he said, making an all-encompassing gesture about the room.
"There aren't very many places where you can find it," she said. "And I'm not sure I'd want it everywhere. Not in New York, for instance, but then, as often as not I stay with my parents when I'm in New York."
"I wondered why you never had us make reservations for you there."
Courtney set down her empty wineglass and rose. "It may be difficult to park on Union. I don't want to make us late."
Her coat was lying over the nearest chair, and he held it for her, casually brushing a hand along her shoulder as he did so. Courtney's brows came together just a fraction of an inch, but it was enough. He stepped away from her, and his stance became more formal, his eyes coolly indifferent. "Is the service good here?" he asked.
Courtney picked up her purse and nodded. "Excellent. Do you know where it wasn't?" she asked, heading them back into neutral paths. "I'd heard such great things about the Empire in Denver, and I've never run into such a slipshod operation. And the Bulmer Court in Boston isn't such great shakes either."
On the drive to the restaurant she found he was willing enough to talk hotels and airlines, and by the time they were seated they had found several friends in common. The high wood ceiling and the matching wainscoting were made even more romantic with candlelight and flowers, but Courtney steadfastly treated the occasion as a casual business arrangement. She even managed to think of it that way: he was taking a longtime customer out to dinner, as a sort of thank you for her regular patronage. Executives did it all the time.
Over the escargot she talked of the graphic-design business, at his urging. Over their sweetbreads he talked of the travel business, with more than a little prompting from her. She had agreed to indulge in the Black Forest Cake when he said, "Tell me about the house you've bought."
Since it was the subject most pressing on her mind, Courtney settled back with her cup of coffee. "It's almost at the end of Vallejo, and it's much too big for me," she confessed with a slight shrug. "But I couldn't resist it. There's a sort of twenties elegance about it; unfortunately baths and kitchens from the twenties aren't all that desirable. I've had an architect draw up plans for remodeling them, and the contractor will start work tomorrow. I just took ownership today."
"And you were debating whether you should move in while they worked."
"It'll take almost two months. I'm not sure I want to stay at a hotel all that time."
"You'll be travelling a lot."
She sighed. "Yes, I suppose so. They've promised me I can be in for Christmas."
"That's not so far away." Eric watched as the waiter set their desserts in front of them, then returned his eyes to her face. "You'll need the time to furnish a place that big."
"I have furniture," she replied, frowning. "Not enough, I suppose. Most of it has been in storage so long I hardly remember what I have."
His intent gaze somehow told her she'd answered a question for him. What was it he was trying to find out? Courtney's eyes dropped to the cake in front of her. She didn't need this sort of interaction right now. All she wanted to do was get back to her room and finish her packing for the next morning.
He stepped into the breach left by her silence, suddenly all warmth and charm. His description of a costume Halloween party he'd attended was amusing; his comments on the other people there were clever without being derogatory. Courtney found herself gradually relaxing with him, until he said, as they were about to leave, "Do you have the keys for your new house? We could stop by and have a look at it on our way home."
The keys were in her purse, and she wanted very much to see the place now that it was hers--but not with him, a virtual stranger. She was going to build a new life in that house, and his presence there would feel like an infringement. "No, we can't go tonight," she said, gathering up her purse. "Besides, I have to pack."
Though he seemed to accept this refusal with equanimity, Courtney sensed a new tension between them as they drove back to Sacramento Street. He talked of the changes he'd seen in Union Street over the years, and she answered with reminiscences of her own, but she could feel trouble ahead. By the tone of her voice and the physical distance she put between them on the plush seat of his car, she tried to give off every signal at her command that this was not an evening to end with more than a handshake. But she could feel her signals bouncing back at her, off the hard shell of his refusal to accept her decision.
The car stopped in front of the hotel. There was never a parking pace this close, never. And yet there was one tonight. "Thank you for a lovely evening," she said, her hand already on the door release. "Don't bother to see me up."
"Courtney." He spoke the one word with practiced authority, his keen blue eyes intent on her lips, his hand coming to rest on her shoulder.
"No," she said firmly, releasing the door. He made no attempt to stop her, but climbed out of his side of the car and walked beside her up the dozens of stairs to the entrance of the hotel. Courtney was breathing quickly from her rapid climb. "Good night, Eric. Thanks again."
His face was frozen in a neutral expression, but his eyes were alight with frustration. When he spoke, his voice was tense with it as well. "Have a good trip." He jammed his hands in the pockets of his pants and stood stiffly as she let herself in.
Courtney did not look back as the door closed behind her. She crossed the grand foyer with its crystal chandeliers and gumwood walls, the sound of music reaching her from the parlour. She mounted the grand staircase hurriedly, wanting only to reach her room. This was why she hadn't wanted to accept his offer of dinner. It was all very well to hope it was only a business arrangement, but even when he had sat in her office that afternoon, she had picked up the subtle vibrations, had known it wouldn't be a good idea. Well, it was over with now, she thought, dropping her purse on the bed, and she'd know better in the future.