The Road Back

by Kathleen O'Brien

Chapter One

“I’ve gotta go, Dirk,” Caryn Howard said to her brother, interrupting his five-minute phone rant about how that arrogant bastard Thomas Falcon was responsible for Dirk’s latest pink slip in his latest new job. “Hang in there, kiddo. It’s going to get better. It has to.” Her throat aching from straining to sound positive, Caryn hit End, then carefully set her cell phone’s ringer to Silent. Dirk called whenever he needed to vent. Several times a day. Caryn understood she was the only sounding board he had left, but she couldn’t afford to lose her own job by taking too many personal calls. Still, it was hard to deny Dirk any comfort she could give. She had protected him most of their lives. And in a way, she felt responsible for his situation. If only she hadn’t fallen in love with Thomas Falcon in the first place… She should have known better. She should have known that, in real life, Cinderella stories ended badly. Dirk should know better, too. Ordinary people like the Howards didn’t get revenge on big shots like the Falcons. They couldn’t make Thomas suffer. The best they could do was render him irrelevant, at least in their lives. She was proud of how successfully she’d managed to erase him from her own. In the three months since she’d ended their engagement, as she watched her brother struggle to put back together the life Tom had exploded, Caryn had blocked her ex-fiancé’s e-mails and phone calls. She’d tossed his letters, unopened. His persistence had been amazing. He and the word no were obviously strangers. His letters had stopped arriving only a couple of weeks ago. She was just now beginning to hope it was finally over. Maybe now she could quit dreaming about him. Maybe she could really begin to forget. “Caryn, am I keeping you waiting?” Angelina Malone’s crisp voice, which sounded so much younger than her seventy-five years, floated down the curving staircase. “I’m sorry. Belinda says I absolutely must change to a different dress, which is a damned nuisance with this cast. It’ll take ten minutes, at least. Can you tell Sidney, please?” “Sure. We’ve got plenty of time.” Caryn had to smile at her employer’s old-world manners. Angelina didn’t owe anyone an apology, least of all Caryn. As Angelina Malone’s assistant, it was Caryn’s job to wait wherever the woman wanted, as long as she wanted. She glanced out the bay window, where Sidney’s gleaming black limo waited at the end of a curving, begonia-lined drive. In the background, Richardson Bay glimmered under the glamorous silvery-pink Marin County sunset. She couldn’t tell if Sidney was in the limo, or still in the carriage house where he lived. He probably wouldn’t even know Angelina was running behind, but she’d said she’d tell him, so she opened the door and headed out toward the car.

Caryn walked with her long skirt lifted in one fist, watching the spiky heels of her evening shoes so they didn’t catch in the bricks. The deep blue California spring dusk was balmy. The breeze—less aggressive than usual—let the salty scent of the ocean ride in on its back. She took a deep breath. It was so peaceful here. So unlike the noisy, claustrophobic midtown day care center where she’d been the administrative assistant for the past five years. Until Dirk’s arrest. Until someone decided she couldn’t be trusted around small children… No, she definitely didn’t want to lose this job. As she neared the end of the drive, she glimpsed Sidney, standing in the shadows at the bottom of the carriage house stairs. He had his back to her, but he was obviously ready to go, his posture more alert and erect than usual, and his cap at an abnormally roguish angle. He was chatting with Colby Malone, the oldest of Angelina’s three grandsons. “Hi, Colby,” she said, waving. She’d worked for the Malones a month now, and calling them by their first names no longer felt strange. For card-carrying members of the Rich and Fabulous Club, they were surprisingly without affectations. “Sid, Angelina wanted to let you know she’d be a little late.” To her surprise, neither man responded right away. Instead, Colby glanced at her with an expression that looked almost…nervous? Surely not. The Malones didn’t do nervous. Why should they? They had the world by a string, and they knew it. Colby muttered something to Sidney, gave Caryn a weak smile, then pointed vaguely toward the house. He stuck his hands in his pockets, whistled softly and moved off with exaggerated innocence. “Anything wrong with Colby?” Caryn came up behind Sidney, watching the other man slink away. “He looked distracted.” It was only then, when she was mere inches from the beautifully cut navy blue blazer of the chauffeur’s uniform, that she realized something wasn’t right. Her instincts prickled. The shadows had been deceiving. The dimensions of the man in front of her were too virile to be a fifty-five-year-old man. The shoulders were too broad, the nipped waist too narrow. The hair that curled under the cap wasn’t salt-and-pepper, but chocolate-brown, glossy and full. His scent lacked even a single whiff of Sidney’s sinus-clearing arthritis cream. Instead this man smelled all male, a touch of lime, a hint of sea air… Her shoulders tensed. No. Her heart knocked. Her pulse skittered, knowing before her brain did. The worst of her nightmares had just come true. “Sidney?” As if he were in a film set to slow motion, the man pulled off the chauffeur’s cap and turned around, one inch at a time. Finally her brain caught up. “I’m sorry, Caryn,” Thomas Falcon said with the smile that had always melted her like ice cream in a microwave. “Sidney’s not here. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me.”

Chapter Two

For a long, dry-throated moment, Caryn didn’t speak. Five minutes ago, she’d been half wishing Tom were here, so that she could personally throttle him for ruining Dirk’s life. Now… Now she couldn’t even lift her strangely tingling hands. She opened her mouth, but she couldn’t catch any of her thoughts. “Tom.” She took a deep breath and a step back. “What are you doing here?” One corner of his smile tucked in a little deeper. “I told you. I’m filling in for Sidney.” Caryn’s reactions were still on slow motion, so after a polite pause Tom kept talking. Casually. As if there were nothing strange about this. As if they’d parted yesterday, instead of three months ago. As if they’d parted with a kiss instead of tears. “You knew Sid’s daughter in L.A. was expecting her first baby next month, right?” She nodded. “Mary.” She’d heard all about it, of course. Sid could hardly wait for his vacation. He’d planned to take a week off so that he could help his daughter, whose husband was in the navy, when she first brought the new baby home. It hadn’t occurred to Caryn to worry about who would replace him. She’d assumed some agency somewhere would just send out another steady, professional driver. “Yes. Mary.” Tom looked pleased that she’d provided the name. “Well, Mary went into labor early. Colby took him to the plane an hour ago. I offered to pitch in.” “Pitch in?” Her words fell out heavy with incredulity. She let her gaze flick over his jacket, which, she now noticed, was not really like Sidney’s uniform at all. It was just a navy blazer. And unless she missed her guess, that butter-soft wool and flawless tailoring cost more than everything in Sidney’s closet. “Damn it, Tom. Is this your idea of a joke?” “No.” He tugged at the button of his cuff, affecting an affable indignation. “I do know a little something about cars. I started out driving a limo.” Very funny. As heir to Falcon Tours, the largest tour company in the San Francisco Bay area, he’d been taught the business from the ground up. He’d probably spent six months as a driver when he was a senior in high school. These days, when the signature Falcon Tours buses sailed by, instantly recognizable with the powerful swoop of deep-brown falcon wings painted against a sky-blue background, Tom’s only involvement was cashing the checks. Her hands had clenched into fists, but she kept her voice low. “I can’t believe you’ve put me in this position. I need this job. But now…” “Now what?” One corner of his wide mouth tilted up. “Surely you won’t quit your job just to avoid seeing me?”

“I’m not quitting anything. You are.” She looked toward the house, where Angelina had just emerged. “Oh, God, what a mess! Do the Malones know…everything?” “About us?” “Of course about us.” He nodded calmly. “Colby and I have been friends, or at least business friends, for years. So when he told me Sid was leaving, I asked him to let me fill in. Of course I had to explain why.” She groaned softly. She could imagine what that conversation had been like. “He would have told his grandmother eventually, I’m sure. But neither of us had any idea Sid would have to leave so unexpectedly.” Tom glanced toward the house. “He’s probably giving Angelina the details now.” Sure enough, Colby had just taken Angelina’s arm from Belinda, the pretty young housemaid who helped her maneuver her crutches down the stairs. As Belinda disappeared into the shadows of the foyer, Colby bent toward his grandmother and began to speak rapidly. Oh, God… “I have to talk to her,” Caryn said, her voice strangled. “I have to explain that I had no idea you were—” “Caryn, wait.” Tom’s tanned, strong hand touched her forearm. She stared daggers at it, and he let go instantly. “It’s just for a week. One week, and then if you still want me to go, you win. I’ll go away, and you won’t ever hear from me again.” “You’ll go away now. It’s so ridiculous I can’t believe…” She could hardly bring herself to look at him, she was so furious. “What did you think you could accomplish by this…farce?” “Time with you. Time to explain, to show you I’ve changed. There was no other way. You wouldn’t take calls, you wouldn’t answer letters—” “And doesn’t that tell you anything?” “It tells me you’re angry. You’re hurt. Maybe it tells me you hate me.” His lean, elegant face was somber. “But it doesn’t tell me you don’t love me anymore.” Her fingers dug half circles in her palms. “Okay, then, let’s see if I can spell it out. I’m not hurt, Tom. I’m through. One-hundred-percent finished trying to make this impossible relationship work. We tried to get past what happened, but we just couldn’t. We come from different worlds. You don’t respect mine, and frankly I don’t respect yours.” She had forgotten to breathe while she spoke, so she’d run out of air. She inhaled deeply, and met his piercing brown gaze. Three months, and she hadn’t forgotten a single detail. Not the slivers of hazel and green, not the black fringe of lashes, not the dark swoop of brow above. In spite of the quiver that started deep inside, she refused to look away. “And just to be sure we’re clear,” she added carefully, “I don’t hate you. But neither do I love you. It’s over, that’s all.”

To her surprise, the pronouncement didn’t seem to faze him. He looked at her a long moment, taking in every inch of her face. And then he nodded. “Fair enough. But if that’s true, then this week should fly by, don’t you think?” He put the cap back on his head, at the same sexy angle. The shadow of the rim fell over one eye. “I don’t think you heard me, Tom. I—” “Sure I did.” He smiled. “No love, no hate, no problem.”

***
Explaining the mess to Angelina was not easy. It took at least ten minutes, though Angelina was a good listener, interrupting only when necessary. They’d gone back into the house, leaving the men outside. Angelina sat in the largest armchair, beside the bay window. Her cast-covered foot stretched out in front of her, nearly obscured by the folds of her long, silver gown. Her face revealed little while Caryn talked, which was unnerving. Caryn knew the sad tale sounded sordid. It was sordid. So out of place here, in this graceful, efficient home. “Good heavens,” Angelina said when Caryn reached the end of the story. “All right, let me be sure I understand. When your brother Dirk’s girlfriend’s hair salon burned down, Dirk was suspected of arson. Tom Falcon, who was your fiancée at the time, believed he saw your brother at the scene, and he informed the police of that fact, in spite of your assurances that Dirk was not involved. Subsequently, another young man confessed to the crime, and your brother was exonerated, but not before a great deal of damage had been done.” Pretty succinct, Caryn thought. A bloodless, sanitized retelling that left out the ugly parts—the fights, the tears, the insults, the sleepless nights. Dirk’s idiocy in getting mixed up with a sleazy tramp like Vanessa in the first place. Dirk’s attempt to bash in Tom’s head. Violence to prove he wasn’t capable of other violence? Brilliant. “Yes,” she said as calmly as she could. “Dirk lost his job when he was arrested. He did maintenance work for a private school. They felt they couldn’t risk the children’s safety.” “You lost your job, as well, didn’t you? That seems a bit unjust.” “I worked around children, too. A day care center. Children are vulnerable. People think—” “I know what people think,” Angelina interjected. “I also know that sometimes people don’t think. To lose your job because your brother was accused of something…not convicted, mind you, just accused. Absurd.” Caryn felt her cold hands begin to thaw a little. Angelina’s tone was as indignantly protective as if she were talking about someone mistreating one of her own beloved grandsons. “What about your engagement to Tom? Who broke it off? You?” Caryn nodded.

“Why?” Angelina narrowed her eyes. The light from the window cast strong shadows, so her face was not easily read. “Because he was a disloyal bastard and a stubborn fool?” Caryn laughed in spite of herself. The profanity sat comfortably on Angelina’s tongue, as if the ultraelegant matriarch had no problem using the right word at the right moment. “It was a terrible time,” Caryn explained. “Emotions ran very high on all sides. We tried, for a while, to see if we could get past it. But I guess that, deep inside, I couldn’t forgive him for being able to believe Dirk was capable of arson. I knew what that meant.” “What did it mean?” “It meant he thought we were…” She wasn’t sure how to put it that wouldn’t sound like a stereotypical case of class envy. “He thought we were beneath him, not just in income, but in values, as well. As if our morality existed in direct relation to our paychecks.” Her comment was followed by a small silence, but somehow she didn’t feel she’d offended Angelina. The older woman tapped her fingers lightly on the marble table next to her chair. After a few seconds, she turned her head to gaze through the window. As the sunset deepened, the landscape lights had blazed on. They could clearly see Colby and Tom, who had strolled to the edge of the lawn and were staring out toward the Bay. If the men worried about the decision being reached in here, it didn’t show. Finally, with a sigh, Angelina turned back to Caryn. “Men can be very stupid,” she said. “But they do sometimes learn from their mistakes. Have you considered the possibility Tom has learned from his?” “I doubt it. More likely he can’t reconcile himself to being rejected.” Angelina nodded. “Yes. Possibly. But have you considered what a terrible mistake you’ll be making if you’re wrong? I… Perhaps I shouldn’t say this, but it’s fairly clear you still love him.” Caryn flushed. She opened her mouth to deny it, but closed it again. What was the use? She’d already learned that Angelina was almost preternaturally astute when it came to reading people. “That may be true,” she said. “But I’ll get over it.” “I wonder.” Angelina folded her hands in her lap. “Years ago, my grandson Colby did a very stupid thing. Even worse than what Tom has done. The girl he loved left him because of it, and she didn’t merely break his heart. She took it with her. He breathes, he laughs, he even makes love. Frequently. But all without a heart.” The subdued anguish in Angelina’s voice shocked Caryn. She had naively assumed that this family must always have basked in the glow of a guardian rainbow. That such sorrow could lurk behind Colby Malone’s sparkling smile or Angelina’s gracious poise was almost inconceivable. She didn’t have a comeback. Angelina lifted a hand and beckoned Caryn over. She continued to extend her pale fingers until Caryn took them.

“Maybe you should consider giving him the week he wants. He’s willing to humble himself, which might be a dose of the very medicine he needs. When the week is over, if you still want to send him away…at least you’ll have the luxury of being absolutely sure.” “But…” Caryn wondered if Angelina could understand. She’d already endured three months of withdrawal pains. She didn’t want to start over. “If he—if we—” Angelina smiled. “I know. That’s the risk, of course. If you want him gone, Caryn, say the word, and I’ll fire him. But if I’ve learned anything in my years, it’s this. No matter how much you’d like to be rid of it, love is difficult to kill.”

Chapter Three

Tom thought he’d lose his mind, waiting to hear what Angelina and Caryn decided. Colby was great fun at dinner parties, and a hell of a captain when they went sailing, but in a situation like this he was an epic fail. His idea of moral support was to scribble some names on the back of an envelope. Female names and phone numbers. The rest of the details he passed along orally, with a knowing smile. Tom wasn’t sure whether that was supposed to be a joke. Probably. Colby hadn’t seemed surprised when Tom handed the envelope back with a thanks, but no thanks. “Oh, well,” he said. “It’s your funeral. But I’m telling you, Caryn is a no-go. Did you see her face? That is one woman who does not have mercy on her mind. And talking to my grandmother won’t help.” “Damn it, Colby,” Tom said for the tenth time. “Why didn’t you tell Angelina about me before I got here? She probably thinks I’m insane. A garden-variety stalker.” “Well, it all happened pretty fast. Besides, I told you it was a bad idea.” Colby grimaced. “Caryn’s not going to forgive you for what you did to her brother. And even if she did she’d just hold it over you forever.” “I don’t care.” “You would, after a few years of being guilt-tripped to death.” Colby put his hand on Tom’s shoulder. “Look, I’m serious. You’re gripping this pole, fighting to reel in nothing but a lifetime of heartache. You know what they say about the sea. Why don’t you cut the line and let this fish go?” Tom managed not to growl. “I love her. The word may not be in your vocabulary, but look it up sometime.” Colby sighed. “I never saw anyone so hell-bent on—” He broke off. Tom turned, knowing what that must mean. The jury had deliberated, and the verdict was in. Sure enough, Caryn was walking across the lawn, which was olive green in the twilight, shamrock green in the artificial lights scattered around the estate. He hadn’t realized how dark it had grown while they waited. He couldn’t read her face.

She moved gracefully, her straight brown hair swaying, her long blue skirt in her hands. The pale, flickering glimpses of ankle and calf were absurdly tantalizing. As she approached, and her grim expression grew clear, Colby muttered under his breath. “Uh-oh. Hammer time.” “Shut up.” “Hi, Caryn,” Colby said politely as she reached them. “I was just leaving.” “Thanks,” she said without inflection. She stopped a few feet from Tom and waited for Colby to make good on his promise. When he was ten yards away, she turned and faced Tom. Though her brown eyes, full lips and freckles still added up to the same gorgeous package he’d fallen in love with, her expression was stone-cold. “All right,” she said. “You have your week.” He didn’t smile, didn’t let his relief show by even a twitch. “Okay.” “But I have two conditions.” “Okay.” “One, when the week is over, you do exactly as you said. You go away, and you leave me alone. For good.” He nodded. “If that’s what you want when the week is over, that’s what you’ll get.” “And two. When the week is up, you write a check for ten thousand dollars to Dirk. He’ll use it to start the plumbing business he’s always wanted. He’ll pay you back over the next five years, at six percent interest.” “Okay.” She hesitated, as if she weren’t sure he’d heard her correctly. He repeated it, just to prove he had. If she’d expected to scare him off by asking for money, she was reading him all wrong. She could have said ten million, and he wouldn’t have blinked. He smiled. “Anything else?” “No.” She lifted her chin. “Well. Except…if you’re really going to be the chauffeur here, please get the car ready. We’re late for the party.”

***
Because of Angelina’s broken leg—which would be in a cast for another month—she took Caryn with her everywhere, including the splendid parties, the boring meetings and even the endless doctor visits. They were always in the car.

Always just a couple of luxurious, leather-lined feet behind the chauffeur. Which had been fine when it was Sidney. Now, Caryn was exhausted from trying not to meet his eyes in the rear-view mirror, not to touch his arm as he helped her into the backseat. The first twenty-four hours were torture. To calm herself, she concentrated on Dirk. She hadn’t expected Tom to agree to her terms. But, probably out of sheer obstinacy, he had. So she tried to focus on what poetic justice it would be for him to provide the loan that might change Dirk’s life. By sundown Thursday evening, when Angelina asked her to find Belinda, Caryn had decided she might survive. She looked first in the housemaid’s room. Belinda and Caryn were the only live-in employees, and their rooms were side by side, just down the hall from Angelina. Several dresses were strewn across Belinda’s bed, and the vanity was a mess, but the room was empty. After checking the rest of the house, Caryn decided to try the backyard, where Belinda sometimes sneaked a cigarette and a harmless flirt with whichever Malone grandson was on the property. Sure enough, there she was, off by the carriage house. Of course. The grandsons rarely slept here during the week, so Belinda would naturally check out the new resident hunk: the chauffeur. Odd thing was, as Caryn got closer she realized the area was buzzing with activity. Belinda was sweeping the bricks, which were covered in mulch and mud. Four dirty young men were yanking mangled plants out of the flower bed. Another two muscular guys bent over the limo, polishing scrapes from the bumper. Tom walked among them, gesturing here, guiding there, all while keeping his cell phone propped between ear and shoulder, and issuing clipped orders about renegotiating leases and retrofitting fleets. He didn’t seem to notice Caryn’s arrival, but Belinda did. “Does Angelina need me?” She groaned with relief and handed Caryn the broom. “Saved by the bell. Your turn.” “For what?” “Cleanup duty. Tom ran over the begonias as he was pulling out, and we’re trying to get things replaced before anyone is the wiser.” Belinda laughed as she brushed mud from her hands. “Ugh. Give me a nice piece of silver to polish any day.” Caryn had no choice but to take the broom. Otherwise it would have clattered to the bricks. Belinda was already halfway to the house. Of course, Tom chose that moment to look in her direction. He wore supple jeans and a long-sleeved, beige T-shirt that was as soft as a cloud. She knew, because she used to love to run her palms over it. He didn’t have a speck of dirt anywhere. His eyes widened when he saw her holding the broom. “Let me get back to you on that, Chet, okay?” He spoke into the cell phone, but he held her gaze. “Just tell him he’ll have to wait.” A rapid-fire protest made it clear that Chet didn’t like being dismissed, but he had no choice. People who dealt with Thomas Falcon rarely did.

Tom snapped his phone shut and slid it into his back pocket, giving Caryn a curious smile. “Have you joined my disaster-relief team?” “Not a chance,” she said, handing him the broom. “I came to get Belinda, that’s all.” “Too bad. I could use another pair of hands. And I thought you might enjoy seeing what a fool I’d made of myself.” He surveyed the wrecked flower bed with a sheepish smile. “I clearly forgot how wide the turning radius is on a limo.” It did look pretty bad. But it was reforming before her eyes, with six strapping men at work. “You aren’t a fool, Tom,” she said. “You’re just a fraud.” He raised his eyebrows. “That’s pretty harsh. You’ve never bumped a begonia?” “It’s not the accident. It’s… It’s that you have no idea how to be a normal guy, a guy who makes an hourly wage and has to clean up his own mistakes. Being a millionaire is like knowing magic. Poof. One phone call, and it’s all fixed.” “No.” He frowned. “Caryn, look, I—” His cell phone began to ring again. His hand went instinctively toward his pocket, then froze. The expression on his face was one she’d never seen. The great Thomas Falcon didn’t know what to do. She laughed. “Go ahead. Answer it. That’s what millionaires do.” She turned toward the house. She could feel his gaze boring into her from behind. This round clearly had gone to her. The victory felt nice, but she knew better than to count Thomas Falcon out yet. One day down. Six long days more to go.

Chapter Four

By God, Tom wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. He couldn’t afford to. He didn’t have time. Sidney’s daughter and the little premature granddaughter were fine, thank goodness, but that meant the chauffeur would be back at work right on schedule. Which meant that Tom had only a week to storm the fortress behind which Caryn had barricaded herself. He was beginning to realize that he’d grossly underestimated the difficulty of the task. As he stood beside the parked limo Friday night, listening to the gathering thunder as he waited for Angelina and Caryn to emerge from a charity concert, he gave himself a serious thrashing.

He shouldn’t have taken her surrender for granted. Caryn Howard was no pushover. Never had been. He had fallen in love with her because she had spunk as well as sparkle, grit as well as glamour. He should have anticipated that she’d use that determination and grit against him now. But the problem was even worse than that. He’d come here determined to prove to her that he’d changed. And, in only one day, she’d shown him the truth: he hadn’t. Not enough, anyhow. Last night, he’d been a fool all over again, using his magic wallet to buy his way out of trouble. Showing one more time just how profoundly he was disconnected from real life. Her life. The thunder growled, as if it were disgusted with him, too. Finally, just as he couldn’t stand another minute alone with his thoughts, there she was. The rain had begun to fall in fat, cold splats, and she darted along the sidewalk, dodging them. He got to the door just in time. He held it open and she slipped in with a rustle of silk and a trace of orchids and sandalwood. He bent his head into the warm backseat. “Does Angelina need help?” Her face was flushed. “No,” she said stiffly. “Apparently she’s going to spend a couple of days with friends. Belinda’s already there, waiting for her.” She pushed her damp hair out of her face. “I guess she forgot to tell me.” If Angelina had been there, he would have kissed her. This was the opportunity he’d been waiting for. He didn’t gloat, though. Opportunity was only half the battle. And, judging by Caryn’s set jaw and compressed lips, she didn’t intend to make this easy. “I guess it’s just you and me, then,” he said in a neutral tone. She didn’t answer. She didn’t even look at him. She worked at fluffing out her skirt, which the rain had flattened against her knees. But her fingers trembled, and that gave him hope. He shut the door, loped through the rain to his own door and started the limo with a purr. The rain was coming down harder now, so he put on the wipers, front and back. He cocked his head. “Home?” “Yes.” She met his eyes, adding awkwardly, “Thank you.” They made it halfway across the bridge before the torrent started. From then on, gusts lashed at the car, rocking it sideways. Water drummed on the roof. The windshield was as white as if it were raining milk. Visibility went down to almost nothing. He thought about pulling over, but he knew she’d think it was a ploy.

He took the turns carefully. Once again, though, the turning radius fooled him. On a tight corner, he felt the back passenger wheel clip the curb, hard. He crossed his fingers that it wouldn’t be a problem, but fifty yards later, his luck ran out. The tire began to knock and thump. “Damn it,” he muttered as he slowed the limo, pulling to the shoulder. A bolt of lightning zigzagged across the horizon, followed by a cymbal crash of thunder. Of all the times to make such a rookie mistake… Did he even remember how to change a limo tire? He vaguely remembered that if he put the jack on the wrong spot, he’d bend the frame, a costly error. The cell phone in his pocket seemed to burn against his thigh. It would be so easy…so blissfully easy… to pull it out and call someone. He had a thousand employees, and any one of them would be happy to give the boss a hand. But his gaze slid, as if magnetized, to the rearview mirror. Caryn was watching him. Her eyebrows were raised almost imperceptibly, and he knew she was waiting to see what he’d do. He sighed inwardly. Surely even a real chauffeur would be allowed to call AAA at a moment like this. He wrapped his fingers over the door handle. He felt silly, like a high school kid accepting a dare just to impress his girlfriend. “This won’t take a minute.” He shoved open the door, squeezing his eyes against the needles of rain that assaulted him. For the first time, he was glad to have this ugly cap and jacket. It was cold and mean out there. Two seconds, and he was drenched to the skin. He opened the trunk, found the jacks and the spare, spit out the water that drove into his mouth and got down on his knees. He levered the jack under what he hoped was the right spot and began to pump. The other cars sped past them, kicking up scalloped waves of cold, dirty water. His hair dropped over his eyebrows in dripping hanks. The damn jack was so old-fashioned it probably had the same birthday as Sidney. And either the lug nuts were frozen, or his fingers were. He hoped she was watching. He hoped this was “real” enough for her. He couldn’t see into the car through the cascading rain. The storm was deafening. Rain battered his cap, the car, the pavement. Thunder kept roiling closer, until the flash of lightning and the noise that followed were almost simultaneous. He gritted his teeth and forced the last lug nut to let go. But as the world lit up from another bolt of lightning, he couldn’t help thinking… If he died changing this tire, would she forgive him then? The idea struck him as funny, and finally he began to laugh. He rocked back on his heels and turned his face toward the sky, suddenly accepting the rain, the humiliation of a tour company owner being so damn bad at changing a tire, the whole ridiculous thing. It was actually kind of exciting. Kind of fun.

The car jiggled oddly, bringing him back to reality. Hell, had he messed up the jack after all? But then he saw Caryn making her way slowly around the back fender, bent against the onslaught of rain. “Tom! Tom, can’t you hear me?” Her slinky blue dress was so wet it looked like a coat of fresh paint. Her mascara had begun to run around her eyes, and her hair streamed down her back in long cascades of shining mahogany. He stood and instinctively began shedding his jacket, although he knew it was drenched, too. “Caryn, get back in the car.” While he draped the jacket around her, she took his arm with liquid fingers. “You get back in the car. You’re going to get struck by lightning!” Her smudged eyes were wide, and her hand was shaking, more from cold than fear, undoubtedly. But still…she was afraid. She didn’t want him to get electrocuted. He chuckled in spite of everything. Pretty pathetic, when that was the best he could hope for. “Tom, don’t be a moron.” She kept her hand on his arm, and the spot where they touched generated a little bit of heat. “You’ve proved your point. Come back inside.” He crooked his elbow, and because she didn’t let go, that brought her closer. He adjusted the jacket, pulling the collar together at her neck. Her lips parted, and rain traced them, collecting in the corners. “Tom,” she said again. But the word was soft, and she didn’t pull away. Slowly, he bent his head to hers, and their bodies formed a circle of shared warmth that magically repelled the rain. Her perfume steamed off the pulse that throbbed at her neck. It drove him a little crazy. It was too soon. He knew it was too soon. But he had no choice. He was going to have to kiss her.

Chapter Five

Outside, the lightning still zapped the earth white, and the thunder still echoed off the foothills. The black skies still poured freezing torrents, and the passing cars still sprayed dirty curls of water against their legs. But the rain weaved a magic cocoon around them, and inside, where they touched at forehead, hand and hip, everything was quiet, and completely focused on the gleaming fullness of her lips. He needed permission, though it was killing him to hold back. He could taste her already, and he was burning with wanting more. “Caryn?” Did she nod? Did he feel her smooth brow shift against his? He groaned, knowing he was at the end of his willpower.

But then, as he made his decision, as he began to lower his lips, the world lit up again. It wasn’t lightning. This was different. This was right behind the limo. Bright, like spotlights. Like headlights. He lifted his head and saw the truck. Saw the man climb down from the cab. He glanced at Caryn. She bit her lower lip. And then, almost sheepishly, she smiled. “I called Triple A,” she said.

***
Saturday mornings were noisy at Angelina’s house. Colby, Matt and Red, Angelina’s grandsons, showed up early, frequently bringing friends for a weekend of swimming, sailing, football, feasting and fun. Often they brought highly decorative females. Other times, the house was full of toddlers, old folks and everything in between. The Malones were a gregarious clan. This Saturday seemed different. When Caryn woke up, a little late, she noticed that the house was silent. Part of that was Angelina’s absence, but not all. Had she slept through the arrival of the horde? Where they already out partying? She tossed back the downy comforter, went to her window and scanned the horizon. No glimpse of the Malones’ white sails against the blue sky. Technically, Caryn had the weekend off, but lazing in bed meant more brooding on last night, and that reckless near kiss had already haunted her dreams enough. She needed to keep busy, so she dressed quickly and headed down to the kitchen. “No, actually,” a man’s cold voice was saying, “I don’t want to hear your side of the story.” She stopped before she could be glimpsed. It was Colby, and it clearly wasn’t anything she wanted to burst in on. “Please gather your things and be cleared out before my grandmother returns tomorrow night. You’ll get no reference, but I’ll write you a check in lieu of your two weeks.” Her hand clenched around the doorknob. Who was Colby talking to? Surely not Belinda. Though the housemaid was flirtatious and sometimes irreverent, she was smart and decent and worked very, very hard. Caryn squared her shoulders. If it was Belinda on the carpet here, Caryn was going to speak up. She hadn’t ever disliked Colby before, but the contempt in his educated voice was painful, like hearing someone whipped. Then she heard another man’s voice. It was Stephen, the gardener. She couldn’t decipher all the words, but the tone was unmistakable. He was begging for another chance. “No. This isn’t a negotiation, Stephen. It’s over.”

Caryn flinched. She didn’t know the gardener well, but she’d heard he had four children, all under the age of six. And now no job. She moved away, heartsore. She closeted herself in Angelina’s office, transcribing the shorthand notes she’d taken last week. Angelina was writing her memoirs, and Caryn was taking dictation. A couple of times she tried to call Dirk. Hearing the gardener get the ax had reminded her of how often her brother had suffered similar blows. But Dirk didn’t answer. She hoped that meant he was out having fun. Or even having a job interview. Wouldn’t that be nice? After a few minutes of quiet concentration, she heard the front door shut. In spite of her determination to remain secluded, she found herself at the open window. The gardener was nowhere to be seen, but a crowd had collected on the side lawn, the Malones’ favorite spot for touch football. Colby and Red were already tossing the pigskin back and forth, laughing in the sun like the black-haired, blue-eyed princes they were. Matt, the middle brother, might come later, she knew, but he was in charge of a big expansion of the family business and didn’t have as much playtime as usual. They wouldn’t miss him today. More muscular, tanned young lions were arriving by the minute. They entered the fray with uninhibited abandon, trying to steal the football, hollering insults to one another as they launched, missed and landed on the lawn with comic tumbles. Off to the side, a dozen women in butterfly-colored T-shirts gathered in graceful arrangements on the grass. Caryn had seen this tableau before. Some of the women would play, eventually, bored by the mindless assignment of looking lovely, but they weren’t ready to sacrifice their makeup and hairdos just yet. “Tom!” Colby’s voice rang out and, without warning, the football sailed across the driveway. “Go long!” Before Caryn could react, Tom appeared from out of nowhere, running effortlessly, with the natural grace of a panther. He extended his arms at the final moment, lifted into the air and came down with the football right at the edge of the lawn, within feet of her window. She didn’t even have time to pull back. He jogged the last few strides, and then he was smiling straight at her, so close she could feel the warm exhale of his breath. “Hey, there,” he said. “Come play.” All eyes were watching her, male and female. She could feel the curiosity radiating from them like laser beams. “No, thanks, I have work to do,” she said, hating how priggish she sounded. He rolled the ball off the tips of his fingers and let it fall into his other hand, then repeated the motion easily, as if he were juggling. He kept his gaze on her. “Come on. Don’t you get a day off, even when Angelina isn’t here?” “I have work to do,” she repeated. There were so many reasons why this would be inappropriate. Why didn’t he see that? Somewhere out there Stephen the gardener was packing up his things and wondering how he’d tell his wife he’d been fired. If Caryn started playing football with the family instead of transcribing her dictation, how long before it would be her turn to stand on the carpet and get the ax?

“Hey, Falcon, stop hogging the ball,” Red Malone hollered with his usual carefree gusto. He wasn’t worried about the employer-employee boundaries. He never bothered to read between the social lines. “Come on, Caryn, say yes. If you can catch a pass, I’ll take you on my team. Colby sucks.” “Sorry,” she called back, smiling politely but not pretending to possess their lighthearted joie de vivre. “I’m on the clock today.” Red had already turned away to chase a woman who’d decided to scoop his cap from his head and dart off with it. Caryn transferred her apology to Tom. “I really do have to work today.” “Okay.” He tossed the football back toward Colby, then put his hands on the windowsill. “Tomorrow, then?” She glanced toward the others. “I don’t play football.” “No, not football. Something else. Just us.” She hesitated. “Why?” “Does there have to be a why? Can’t it just be fun?” She gave him a steady look. “Okay.” His face sobered. “Because I want to talk to you. We made a deal. You said I could have a week. Surely that implies at least one honest conversation.” “Tom!” The crowd was growing restless. “You in or not?” “Yeah, I’m in. Hang on.” He raised his eyebrows. “Well?” The curiosity deepened the longer he stood here. If only to make him go away, she finally nodded. “Okay. Tomorrow, then. We’ll talk.”

Chapter Six

He woke up early, cleaned the limo and ran six miles, trying to work off some of the nervous tension. He had to get this right. Today was more than a date. It was his last chance. They’d decided on three o’clock, and she met him at the carriage house, as polite and punctual and unenthusiastic as if she were reporting for a doctor’s appointment. She looked wonderful, as she always did, though she obviously hadn’t gone to any great pains. She was one of the lucky women who didn’t need a lot of artifice.

He’d wanted her desperately the other night, when she was coiffed and gowned for Angelina’s party. But today, he wanted her more than ever. Barefaced, in nothing more exotic than jeans and a sweater, with her hair loose and natural down her back, she could bring him to his knees. This had been his once. He couldn’t believe he’d ever been arrogant enough to risk losing it. “You ready?” “I have to be back by seven. Angelina’s coming home then.” That didn’t give him much time. He’d asked one of the office runners to bring his car over, so they didn’t have to use the limousine. They got in without speaking. It gave him a small kick of pleasure to see that she hadn’t forgotten the quirky way the seatbelt hitched if you pulled it wrong. He had to laugh at himself. Of all the wonderful, sexy things he hoped she would remember… She gave him a quizzical look when she saw that they were headed to the marina. He had a forty-foot cabin cruiser moored there. She hadn’t ever liked boating much, but she’d frequently asked if they could eat at the diner at the end of the public pier, intrigued by its ramshackle charm. Though he hadn’t ever exactly said no, somehow he’d always managed to avoid it. Today, belatedly, he intended to grant that wish. The greeter escorted them to a waterside table, with its rickety bar stools, waterproof red-checked tablecloth and up-close smell of dead fish and gasoline. Caryn ordered the clam chowder, and he did the same. After Friday’s rain, the weather had turned cold and clear. Too cold for them to have much company. They were alone, except for the scream of seabirds and the occasional putter of a boat slowly motoring into its slip. He took a minute, wondering how to begin. The explanations he had to make were complicated. It wasn’t a matter of defending himself. His actions toward Dirk were indefensible, and today was about admitting that. Today was about convincing Caryn that he was ready to change. She sipped her hot tea, played with the handle a few minutes while she watched the silver-green water. Finally, she turned her gaze to him. “I appreciate this gesture, Tom—coming here. I really do. But you are aware that our problems run deeper than whether you’ll occasionally slum it for a meal or two, right?” Inadvertently, she’d offered the perfect opening. “Yes,” he said. “I do know that. But we don’t have problems, plural, Caryn. We have just one problem.” She smiled. “Really? And the one problem is…” “Me.” He’d surprised her, clearly. But she wasn’t impressed. “That sounds a bit glib.”

“I mean it. Over these three months, especially since the police found the man who really set the fire, I’ve spent a lot of time searching my conscience. Searching my heart.” She had stopped smiling. He knew that look. She had started to listen. “And?” “And I saw some things I didn’t like. I found a whole mess of…of prejudices. Subtle things. But I know they influenced me that night. They made it easy for me to believe I was looking at Dirk.” The wind blew her hair from her face. It made her look young, and oddly vulnerable. “I’m listening,” she said. This was the hard part. He had to describe a man he wasn’t proud to have been. “I saw that I was influenced by so many things I was only dimly aware of. Like most people who have never been vulnerable, I assumed the police wouldn’t target a man unless he’s guilty. For the same reasons, I subconsciously believed that a hardscrabble life is the perfect training ground for crime. Because I have money, I imagined that poorer men must always be trying to find ways to take it.” “All true,” she said. She ran her fingers along the inner rim of the cup. “And don’t forget the basic elitist’s distrust of torn T-shirts, dirty fingernails and crude table manners.” He nodded. That was a good description of Dirk, on a bad day. “Yep,” he admitted. “That, too.” Because of all these things, Tom had made a terrible mistake that night. He had seen a brown-haired, twenty-something, six-foot-something young man loitering outside a salon that later burned down. The salon owner was Dirk’s girlfriend, a woman hip-deep in money problems. Two and two had melded with the prejudices…and had added up to a perfect five. Five charges of arson, fraud, conspiracy. Five years in jail, if convicted. Five times Caryn had tried to talk him out of going to the police. Five times Dirk had denied it. And five times Tom had been a fool. A dangerous, pigheaded fool. For a long while she said nothing. She continued to trace the rim of her cup, as if it helped her think. “But now what, Tom?” She finally looked up, her eyes sad. “I already knew all that. I’m glad that you’ve recognized it, too, but where does that get us? We both know deep-rooted attitudes don’t change overnight. Mostly, no matter how hard you try, you can’t change them at all.” “But I am trying. Surely that counts for something, Caryn.” “Does it?” Her eyes were shining now. He couldn’t tell if it was the wind or the threat of tears. “I wish I could make you understand, Tom. I can’t go back to the way it was, torn between you and Dirk, stung by every little comment, listening for slights behind every word.” “I won’t make those comments, Caryn. I won’t ask you to choose between us. I understand so much more. If we can try again—”

“I can’t.” She shook her head firmly, but slowly, as if she were trying to keep the tears from falling. “I don’t believe it can ever work. The things we’ve said…there’s been too much damage done. I can’t go back to loving you, only to fail again. It hurt too much to get over you the first time.” His heart sagged, like one of his boat’s sails when the wind capriciously turned. “What do you want, then?” She ran one finger under her lower lashes and flicked the moisture away, onto the weathered planks of the pier. “I want to go home.”

***
At midnight, after she and Angelina had worked for at least two hours on the memoirs, Caryn discovered she still couldn’t sleep. In fact, she hadn’t had a full, dreamless night’s sleep since Tom arrived. As she tossed on the satin sheets, she kept going over today’s lunch in her head, analyzing everything he’d said, every microexpression, every nuance of tone and wording. Had he meant it? Had he been sincere? And the biggest question of all—had she been right to refuse to try again? Was she being practical, sane, mature, all the things she wanted to be? Or was she just being a coward? In her effort to avoid pain, was she going to lose her one chance at happiness? She flicked on the light and decided to try calling Dirk again. A night owl, he was always up at this hour. It might help her sleep if she could reach him. He hadn’t called her to vent in four days. Unheard of. And for the past two, she’d been calling him every few hours, getting nothing but voice mail. It was starting to make her nervous. But where was her cell phone? The nightstand was empty, except for her glass of water and her book. She grabbed her purse and rummaged through it quickly. Nothing. She imagined the phone ringing, ringing, ringing, wherever it was, as Dirk tried to get in touch. He often got the blues at night, especially since he and Vanessa had split. He’d been fired again only four days ago, a difficult time for anyone. Her heart raced. She dragged her hair out of her face and tried to think. Where had she last used it? And then she remembered. At the marina, while they waited for the valet to bring the car, Tom had excused himself to take a business call. She’d quietly walked to the edge of the pier, dialed Dirk’s number and left another voice mail. They’d already stood up from the table. Which meant the phone could be only one place.

In Tom’s car. Thank goodness it was still here. She’d seen him ease it into the other side of the garage that evening. She slept in shorts and a T-shirt, so there was no need to do more than add a robe and slippers against the cold spring night. She was careful to be silent on the stairs, and she entered the security code carefully, hoping Angelina would not wake. He didn’t lock his car when it was garaged, and she had Angelina’s electric opener in her own car. She should be able to get in and out without attracting any attention. The air was colder than she’d thought, and she was shivering by the time she hit the driveway. She tightened the robe across her chest and walked as fast as she could, tucking her chin into her breastbone to protect her neck. That was probably why she didn’t see him, sitting in the backseat of the limo, a polishing cloth in his hand. She froze in place when she spotted the dim blue track lights of the limo’s bar. And the glint of dark eyes, watching her. “Tom,” she breathed, as her heart settled. “You scared me.” “Sorry.” But he didn’t sound sorry. Had he been drinking from that well-stocked bar? The moonlight sparkled against a hint of even white teeth. He extended his hand, and the same moonbeams found the angles of a small, metal rectangle. Her phone. “Any chance,” he said softly, “that you’re looking for this?”

Chapter Seven

Something vibrated inside her, a little trill that seemed to be warning her to go inside. She knew she had nothing to fear from Tom. He was a master of self-control. He’d been bred to it from the crib. But what about her own impulses? Tom Falcon was her weakness. His green-flecked eyes, his thick, tickling hair, his deep, honey voice and his long, magic fingers. He was every one of her X-rated dreams. Perhaps she’d subconsciously chosen to leave the phone in his car, hoping for a meeting just like this. And here he was, looking at her the way a hungry lion looked at dinner. Could she be trusted to do the smart thing, to follow her head no matter what her heart was saying? Not to mention her body. It was Sunday night… No, already Monday morning. His week was up on Tuesday. She might never in her life be alone with Tom Falcon again. She continued to shiver, every inch of skin prickling, every vein sizzling.

“Yes, that’s my phone,” she said. She walked toward him. “Thank you. I wondered where it was.” “I was going to bring it to you,” he said, his voice low and full of…something. “I have been sitting here an hour, trying to talk myself out of going to your room.” She took the phone from him. That should have been her signal to walk away, but she didn’t. He didn’t move, either. He still sat sideways in the limo’s huge backseat, his legs on the driveway, his hand draped over the door’s armrest. She knew it was dumb…crazy…dangerous… But how could she leave? How could she lose this one last chance? Without speaking, she moved in slowly, until the tips of his fingers grazed her hip. He caught her gaze and held it. “Caryn?” She didn’t answer. She just stood there, holding her breath, trying not to think what a stupid thing she was about to do. “Caryn,” he said again, his voice as dark as the starless night. Then, shutting his eyes, he began to move his hand, lightly tracing the edge of her body. His fingers drifted down slowly, along the length of her thigh. Then, with equal deliberation, he let his hand slide up, outlining the curve of her breast. The touch was so delicate, and yet so fiery. She exploded in shivers as he came down again, slipping his fingers around her waist and finally gliding them across her stomach. He opened his eyes, and they burned, starry and hot. As he watched her, he drew a slow, imaginary line from her belly button to the aching place between her legs. The place no one but Tom had ever touched. The place she’d thought he’d never touch again. She gasped as he pressed the tip of his finger against her. Compared to the heat that burned between her legs, his hand was cool, and the shock of it almost sent her over the edge. She moaned under her breath and held on to the door, for fear her legs would give way, and she would fall. He knew her body well. He knew the signs. He knew how close she was, so his hand suddenly stilled, giving her the choice. She could pull away now, or she could stay and let it happen. But her mind wasn’t working. She couldn’t really remember anymore why she had told herself they mustn’t be alone together like this. Had she been afraid that, if he touched her, she’d start loving him again? But she’d never stopped loving him. She’d never stopped wanting his hands on her body, his lips on her mouth, his heart next to her heart. “Just this once,” she whispered, as much to herself as to him. Could it really hurt to make love one more time, before he left? “Just once, and then never again.”

She heard him draw in a ragged breath, and he started to pull away. But she took hold of his wrist and brought it back. “Please,” she said. “You want me, too. I know you do.” “Damn it, Caryn,” he said with a strange harshness. “You know once is not enough. But heaven help me, it’s better than nothing.” And then he stroked across her, just a whisper, a fraction of an inch, but with such perfect pressure, such hypnotic rhythm. She felt herself begin to glow. His subtle fingers made tiny, perfect movements, and she started to shake. “Yes,” she said. Her core trembled. “Yes.” And then the phone began to ring. All motion stopped. The frigid darkness swept back into place. It couldn’t be true. The fates wouldn’t mock her like this… She looked down at the phone, which blinked off and on, carelessly insistent. She looked at him, still half-dazed… With a raw edge that sounded slightly mad, he began to laugh. He stood. He lifted her hand and moved the blinking chunk of warm metal toward her ear. “Here, sweetheart,” he said. “It’s for you.” And then, still laughing that cold, black laugh, he simply walked away.

***
She hadn’t answered the phone in time, but Dirk had left a message. He sounded pretty good. He said he’d be there Monday afternoon, probably around five, when she got off work. He wanted to talk to her about something, he said. She hoped it wasn’t more trouble. She had enough to handle. Angelina and Tom were gone all day, making the rounds of Angelina’s speeches for her various causes. For some reason, she preferred to leave Caryn at home, working on the memoirs. Perhaps Angelina sensed her assistant’s agitation, or perhaps Tom had asked for a break. Caryn didn’t feel comfortable asking, and Angelina didn’t volunteer an explanation. Maybe it was just as well. On a primitive level, Caryn wanted to see Tom, but she had no idea what she’d say. Her emotions were jumbled, a stew of confusion and regret. Somehow, between now and tomorrow, she had to sort things out. Unless his dark departure last night meant that it was too late. Perhaps he didn’t care to be rejected at lunch, then petitioned for a one-time sexual release at midnight. Maybe that struck him as irrational, selfish and even a bit unbalanced. It certainly struck her that way.

She didn’t understand herself right now. Tired of running the emotional rat’s maze in her brain, she was glad when Belinda popped in to the study to dust. “Whoops. Sorry. I thought you’d gone off with Angelina,” Belinda said, preparing to back out. “No, stay.” Caryn closed the folder of papers she’d been editing. “Talk to me. I need a break.” Belinda never needed to be asked twice. She bounced in, dragging the vacuum behind her, and jumped onto the desk to get comfortable. “Okay. Let’s gossip about Stephen. Now that he’s gone, we can be honest. Have you ever met a bigger perv in your life?” “Stephen?” Caryn frowned. “Stephen the gardener?” “The former gardener, thank God. Honestly, it had come down to either him or me. The man would not keep his hands off me.” Belinda grinned and fiddled with the papers nearest her hip. “So I told Colby. And boom. The perv is no more.” She sighed, picking up a photo of the three Malone boys as teenagers. “I swear. Colby Malone is my hero.” Caryn stood, her hands braced on the desk. “Belinda, slow down. What are you saying? Colby fired Stephen because you asked him to?” Belinda laughed merrily. “Well, not precisely. Colby fired Stephen because he was harassing the staff. And by staff I mean me, I guess. He never groped you? Not even once?” “Not even once.” But Caryn wasn’t thinking about Stephen anymore. She was thinking about Colby. About how quickly she’d assumed the worst. How quickly she’d come to the conclusion that he was firing Stephen unfairly, without justification and without compassion. And why had she been so quick to judge? Because Colby Malone was rich. Nothing more. Nothing less. “Oh, my God,” she breathed, putting her hand to her throat. Belinda frowned. “Hey, it’s okay. Maybe Stephen just prefers blondes. Besides, believe me, you don’t want this creep putting his hands on you. It’s not sexy. It’s disgusting.” “No, no.” She didn’t have time to explain. She had to call Tom. She needed to tell him she’d finally seen the truth. He wasn’t some kind of arrogant monster because he had mental blind spots. Everyone had prejudices. Everyone. Including her. Tom had been willing to overlook hers. He’d been willing to let her be human. But she hadn’t been willing to do the same for him. She had required sainthood, then hated him when he fell short.

She picked up the phone and hit the speed-dial number for Tom’s cell. It rang, and it rang, but no one answered. And then, in an eerie synchronicity, the house line began to ring. Belinda tried to answer, but Caryn waved her away. She kept her cell to one ear, listening for Tom’s voice mail to pick up, and held the house receiver to the other side. “Hello?” “Caryn, it’s me.” Angelina’s voice sounded weak, quavering. So unlike her usual sturdy self that it sent a ripple of fear through Caryn’s midsection. “Angelina, hi. I was just calling Tom. Where are you?” At her other ear, Tom’s recorded voice began to speak. You’ve reached Thomas Falcon, but I can’t get to the phone right now… “I’m at the hospital,” Angelina said slowly. “We’ve had an accident. A drunk driver, on the bridge.” “Oh, my God.” Caryn forgot about the beeping sound inviting her to leave a message for Tom. She forgot about everything except the image of a car slamming into the gleaming black limo. “Are you all right?” “A few broken bones, but I’ll live.” Angelina drew a hitching breath. “I’d better go. I’m not supposed to be making calls. But I think you should come down here, Caryn. It’s Tom who took the worst of it.”

Chapter Eight

“Where is he?” Caryn got to the hospital in record time and badgered every uniformed person she saw until she found the waiting room filled with Malones. Angelina wasn’t with them, and the three handsome faces that turned toward Caryn were lined with worry. Matt frowned, as if he only half remembered who she was. “Where’s who? You mean Tom?” Colby moved forward, his hands outstretched. “He’s going to be fine, Caryn,” he said kindly. “I saw him a few minutes ago. He has a couple of broken ribs, and his face is pretty damn ugly right now, but he’ll live.” She took her first deep breath since getting the call. “Can I see him?” “I think so.” Colby looked around, as if trying to find the doctor. Then he turned back to Caryn. “How did you know he was here?” “Your grandmother called me. She told me to come down.” “Nana Lina called you?” Matt and Red materialized at her side, as if the sentence had been a magnet. “How is she? No one will tell us anything.”

Colby laughed. “Obviously, she’s fine, the old devil. Doesn’t bother to call her family, though she’s gotta know we’re going nuts, waiting to hear. Instead, she decides to play Cupid.” “Cupid?” Red pulled on his ear, looking perplexed. “Oh.” He smiled at Caryn. “You and Falcon?” “Maybe,” she said, smiling in her relief. “I hope so. If it’s not too late.” “It’s not too late,” Matt assured her. “Colby saw him, Caryn. Really. He’s fine.” Of them all, only Colby understood. “Not that kind of too late,” he told his brothers. He paused to let them catch up. “The other kind.” Two handsome faces registered the solemnity of that. “Okay, then,” Matt said. “Let’s get her in there.” They immediately began canvassing the area, peeking behind curtains, waylaying candy stripers and sweet-talking the nurses into divulging which E.R. suite currently housed one bunged-up chauffeur named Thomas Arthur Falcon. It proved something about handsome, confident men that they were able to pull it off. Or perhaps, she thought with rising joy, it meant that Tom really was well enough to have visitors. They took her right up to the correct curtain. Colby squeezed her hand as she prepared to enter. She squeezed back, grateful. Then she slid back the white drape that had been giving Tom at least some semblance of privacy. Colby had been right. Tom looked horrible, his nose and lips swollen, a lump the size of an orange on his forehead, and bruises mottling every inch of skin. At the same time, he looked wonderful. He looked alive. “Tom,” she said softly, resting her hand over his, one of the few parts of his body that appeared to be unharmed. “Are you awake?” “I hope so,” he said thickly, clearly trying to smile with those sad, swollen lips. He didn’t open his eyes. “You show up in a lot of my dreams, though, so I can’t promise anything. I also think I’ve had a crazy amount of morphine, so my reality meter isn’t all that reliable.” She couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry, so she did both, quietly. She pulled up a chair. She intended to hold his hand a long, long time. Like forever. “Well, let’s see. Maybe we can do a test and figure it out. Dream or reality.” “Okay.” She squeezed his fingers softly. “In your dreams, can I actually touch you?” He grinned, a loopy, half-sided thing that was probably supposed to be salacious, but which she found adorable. “Damn straight you can.”

“Okay.” She smoothed his hair from his injured forehead and fought the urge to kiss the discolored, lumpy parts. “In your dreams, can you hear me talking?” He nodded. “Oh, yeah. Want to know what you say?” He smiled again, dreamily. “I’ll try to take out the dirty parts, if you want. But they’re the best parts.” “Maybe I can guess,” she said. She looked at the various dripping, beeping machines that were monitoring his condition, and said a prayer of thanks that he was still alive to need them. “In your dreams, do I tell you that I love you?” “Yes,” he murmured. He wrapped his fingers tightly around her hand, as if he had begun to comprehend that she was really here. The machine registering his pulse beeped harder, faster, louder. “Yes, you used to tell me that you loved me.” “And do I tell you that I want to be with you the rest of my life? That I want to be your wife?” He didn’t answer. She checked his pulse. Fast, but steady. “Do I tell you that I’m sorry I’ve been such a fool? That I’m ashamed of what I’ve put you through? That I hope you’ll forgive me for being so hard-hearted, for being so blind?” Finally, he opened his eyes. They were slightly dazed, unfocused from the drugs and the pain. But they were locked on her. “No,” he said. “I’ve never heard you say anything as ridiculous as that. In my dreams, I’m always asking you to forgive me.” Her tears spilled over again, and they fell onto the place where their hands were braided together. “Well, then,” she said, trying to smile. “I guess that’s our proof. This isn’t a dream. Because I really am asking, Tom. Can you forgive me for being so unfair?” “I could forgive you anything,” he said. He tried to turn toward her, but he groaned. He had to settle for keeping his gaze locked with hers. “But can—” his brow furrowed in pain, and he had to start over “—can you forgive me?” She nodded. “Anything.” Her cell phone, which she’d slipped into her pocket after Angelina’s call, abruptly shrilled into the silence. “God.” Tom closed his eyes, chuckling shallowly, clearly all his broken ribs would allow. “I hate cell phones.” It was Dirk. He was at Angelina’s house, and he’d just heard the news. “Belinda, the maid here, said she didn’t know whether Tom was going to make it,” Dirk said, his words stumbling over themselves. “He can’t die, not before I tell you. He asked me not to, but if he’s going to die, you should know. He gave me the seed money, Caryn. For the plumbing business. Twenty thousand dollars. He told me not to tell you for a week, not till tomorrow at least. But damn it, Caryn, if the guy is going to die—”

“He’s not going to die,” she interrupted finally. She looked at the bruised, beautiful man on the gurney. He’d given Dirk the money—double the money—on that very first day, even before she kept her end of the bargain. “Unless I decide to kill the both of you for keeping this secret from me.” Tom might be drugged, but he was alert enough to understand that. Though he kept his eyes shut, the corners of his bruised mouth tilted subtly. “It was none of your business,” he muttered. “I owed it to him.” “Caryn.” Dirk was following his own anxious train of thought. “I mean it. If he’s gonna live, don’t tell him I told you. I swore I wouldn’t.” “Tell you what, Dirk,” she said slowly, as she watched the monitor register Tom’s gradually calming heartbeat. He was falling back asleep, and she was glad. She didn’t want him to have to wake again until the pain was gone. “I’m going to let the two of you work this out. I think brothers should be able to do that.” “Huh?” Dirk sounded confused. “Brothers?” “Yes, brothers. Well, brothers-in-law, anyhow.” “What? You’re kidding! You’re going to marry him after all?” “Yes. I’m going to marry him. I love him. If he’ll have me, I’m going to be his wife.” Tom smiled in his almost-sleep, and then, as the drugs took over, his fingers finally let go of hers. “I’m going to be your wife,” she whispered. She hoped it was the last thing he heard. THE END

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful