“What time shall I pick you up?” asked the uniformed chauffeur as he brought the white Rolls-Royce to a smooth stop in front of the brightly lit Colonial mansion in North Dallas.
“Miss Grant?” the driver prompted, turning his good ear toward the backseat when no answer came from the dim interior.
“Um. I heard you, Jacob. I was just trying to think of an excuse for missing this little gathering,” Michelle Grant answered.
Jacob chuckled. “I knew you were up to something when it took you over an hour to get ready. But Mr. Forbes told me when he sent me to pick you up at the airport that no matter how long it took, I was not to come back without you.”
“That’s what I thought,” Michelle murmured, her shadowy outline finally moving into the pool of light spilling from the house to reveal the slender curves of a young woman, her arms stretched over her head with a weary, unconscious grace.
“I would have preferred staying home, but Alex has his mind set on my meeting Brad Jamison tonight.” She groaned, uncoiling her body from the plush seat.
Jacob caught her reflection in the rearview mirror as she patted back a yawn, the strap of her high-heeled black sandal dangling from her fingers. His craggy face softened into a smile. “I think you might like this one, Miss Grant. Very few of the men I’ve picked up for Mr. Forbes have shaken my hand and looked me straight in the eye the way Mr. Jamison did.”
A smile touched the sensual fullness of Michelle’s lips. “Oh, Jacob, if Alex liked the man, you’d never say anything against him. However, our dear boss may be in for a surprise when he sees me tonight. It’s very difficult to be witty and charming when you have had only eight hours of sleep in the last seventy-two. I may scare your Mr. Jamison to death if I look as tired as I feel.” Sighing softly, Michelle opened her beaded clutch and took out her lit compact to check her lipstick.
Still looking in his mirror, Jacob studied the almost imperceptible droop of Michelle’s bare shoulders. He knew she was overworked, but he, like Alex Forbes, also knew two important things: even exhausted, she possessed one of the sharpest minds in commercial real estate in Dallas, and nothing could distract from her exquisite beauty.
Long black lashes cast crescent shadows on her almond skin, momentarily hiding her volatile light brown eyes. Her cheekbones were high and delicately carved, her nose dainty. From the natural arc of her satiny brows to the minute thrust of her determined chin, she was stunning. Her long black hair, swept atop her head in a loose coronet, resembled coiled silk. No, Jacob mused, a man might look at Miss Grant and be scared, but not for the reason she was thinking.
Maybe that was why the rumors had started. Momentarily, a frown hardened Jacob’s features before he got out of the car and opened Michelle’s door. His gnarled hand extended to help her onto the pavement. “Will midnight be all right, Miss Grant?”
“I guess so. Two hours should be enough time to meet Mr. Jamison.” Whirling in her four-inch heels, Michelle walked up the stone steps and rang the doorbell.
Her summons was answered before the musical chime ended. Dressed in his usual black tails, the butler peered down at her with studied indifference. Gerald was a dying breed in Dallas, a proper English butler.
“Good evening, Gerald.”
“Good evening, Miss Grant. Mr. Forbes and his other guests are in the main ballroom. Please follow me.”
Knowing it was useless to point out she knew the way, Michelle followed the stiff-backed servant down the elegant hallway. Opening an ornately carved door that dated back to the eighteenth century, Gerald bowed slightly from the waist, and raised his white-gloved hand in an invitation for her to enter.
Stepping into the magnificently appointed room, Michelle was immediately surrounded by the fast tempo of music from a live band and the hum of conversation. The French-inspired room—with its gilded mirrors, damask-covered chairs, and nymphs frolicking on the ceiling—was ageless in its beauty. Overhead two large Waterford crystal chandeliers bathed the jovial crowd in sparkling light as they had for the past three generations of Forbeses. Alex had something she would never know—a sense of heritage.
“Good evening, Ms. Grant. Champagne?”
Michelle turned to see a white-coated waiter standing with a tray of long-stemmed glasses, and smiled when she recognized him. “No thank you, Greg. Worn out as I am, I might fall asleep after one sip.”
Greg’s youthful brown face knitted into a frown. “You’re still coming to speak to my class tomorrow night, aren’t you?”
“Cedar Valley College, room 410 at seven thirty. ‘The Real Estate Boom in Dallas,’ ” Michelle replied. Greg had asked her to speak two months earlier.
“Thank you, Ms. Grant. I know how busy you—”
“I’m not that busy,” she interrupted gently. “Besides, someone helped me. By the way, have you seen our boss and host of this get-together?”
Greg hooked a thumb over his thin left shoulder. “Mr. Forbes was near the bar a few minutes ago.”
“In that case, I’d better head in that direction. See you tomorrow night, Greg.”
From experience Michelle moved easily through the throng of people who were dancing, laughing, and having a good time in general. Besides Greg, there were three other waiters to make sure the guests had enough to nibble on and to drink. Of course, somewhere unseen was Gerald, making sure everything went smoothly.
Not locating Alex in the group of people clustered around the bar, Michelle decided to work her way to the raised platform on which the band was performing and use it for visual leverage. Surely if she didn’t see him, he’d spot her.
Halfway there, someone gripped her bare arm. Her initial spurt of irritation quickly turned to anger when she looked into the smug face of Stan Gabriel. Stan was the most persistent of the men who chose to believe her success was achieved by measures other than hard work.
“If you don’t mind, I would like my arm back,” she said evenly.
Bold eyes swept over her svelte body hungrily. “My offer still stands, Michelle. As head of commercial loans for the bank, I could do a great deal for you.”
“I make it on my own or not at all. But if I do decide to take the plunge, I won’t waste my time in the shallow end of the pool,” she said, letting her gaze drift down his thin frame with open disdain.
The corners of his mouth twisted into a cruel imitation of a smile. “Always ready with the smart answers, aren’t you? Always cool under pressure. I wonder what it will take to shatter that composure?”
“That’s something you’ll never know.” Her voice hardened. “Now turn my arm loose or I’ll call your father-in-law over and see how he feels about you using your position to harass his bank clients.”
He released her arm. “One of these days,” he threatened and strode away.
“Never,” Michelle whispered, massaging her arm. If Stan touched her again, her threat might become a reality. There was more than one bank in town. What concerned her was how many people actually believed those vicious lies that had begun circulating recently, that she had slept her way to the top. Who hated her enough to start them?
If anyone with half a brain would just stop and think for a moment they’d know better. Sex wouldn’t sway a savvy businessman. Besides, with her hectic schedule and her ever-growing client list, when would she find the time? Her mouth tightened into a narrow line. Gossipers seldom worried about the truth or who their lies hurt.
“There’s my favorite person,” floated a deep male voice over her shoulders. On hearing Alex Forbes’ familiar drawl, Michelle turned and thrust Stan and the rumors from her mind. She smothered a laugh as Alex lifted her off the floor to accommodate his six feet. As he set her down, his white teeth flashed in a devilish grin. Alex, dark, bearded, and muscular, had never reminded Michelle more of a black Viking warrior than now. To those unfortunate enough to cross him, he could be as fierce as one, but she had only known his gentler side.
“I wasn’t always your favorite person if memory serves me correctly. You almost had me arrested,” she teased, recalling the bedlam after she had been found hiding on the floorboard of his Silver Cloud. After graduating from high school, she’d decided on a career in real estate because she could take the required courses at night after work, and the profession had the potential for a big income. After meeting the qualifications, she was issued an “inactive” license and needed to obtain the sponsorship of a broker to begin practice. Hiding in Alex’s car had been her last desperate effort to see him for a job interview. Her numerous calls had not been returned.
He’d taken her to his office and grilled her on real estate law, then thrown problematic scenarios at her. Ninety tense minutes later he had hired her.
“You aren’t going to let me forget that, are you?” Alex asked, his eyes twinkling.
“No, I’m—” The words abruptly died in her throat. Stan, standing in a circle of men, nodded in her direction and said something; they all laughed. Michelle stiffened.
“What’s the matter, Michelle?”
Lifting her gaze, she saw Alex frowning and forced herself to smile. “Nothing, Alex. I’m just a little tired. Trying to close those double deals in Houston was more than I expected.”
A smooth thumb and forefinger lifted her chin. “Never try to fool a fooler, Michelle.”
“Am I that obvious?”
“Only because I know you’re hurting and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. I’d hoped you hadn’t heard those lies,” he said bitterly.
“Stan made me aware of them when I went to the bank last Monday to pick up some papers. It seems he wanted to know why I was rebuffing him while having a fling with all of my male clients. He pointed out his usefulness.”
“Stan is a fool! Son-in-law or not, I don’t see why Marvin, as president of the bank, keeps Stan as loan officer. He has the intelligence of a turkey and the morals of an alley cat. Come to think of it, he does look like a skinny, plucked turkey.” Michelle’s face lost some of its tenseness at the picture Alex painted. He slid a comforting arm around her small waist before continuing.
“You’re twenty-six years old and one of the most successful Realtors in the state. Last month at the National Association of Realtors’ conference you walked away with an armful of awards. Anywhere there’s competition, there are going to be rumors. Your meteoric rise in commercial real estate was perfect for the tongues to wag,” he said, his fingers tightening.
Michelle’s eyes narrowed. “It might seem meteoric to some, but you know as well I as do that I worked fourteen to sixteen hours a day, made cold calls, followed up on the slightest referral, and did without lunch to be able to send cards and gifts to clients as thank-yous and on their special occasions.”
He touched her cheek in a gesture of friendship and comfort. “You worked your behind off. And when it gets out you closed two more deals with one of the largest investments firms in Canada this weekend, the tongues will wag even more. But you got where you are on your own. You’re the best.”
She relaxed under his warm regard, then smiled impishly up at him. “Does that mean you’re going to give me a raise?”
“Ouch.” He chuckled, a rich deep sound. “That’s my girl. For a moment I thought I was going to have to call Nick.”
“You can’t. He’s in Austin trying to raise funds for the Winslow Rehabilitation Center,” Michelle answered, but deep in her heart she knew there was nothing her brother could do to fill the growing emptiness she felt.
Astonishment arched Alex’s brow. “He’s out of town without you?”
Michelle nodded. “His friendship with Jodie Daniels touched something within him that nothing else has accomplished. I think finally he’s accepting he’ll always be paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. After her death six weeks ago, I was afraid he might become withdrawn again, but he hasn’t. In fact he’s doing so well he’s being considered for the public relations director position when the rehab center opens.”
“How near are you to finalizing all the plans?”
“In three months we’ll have the ground-breaking ceremony. A year ahead of schedule because of Jodie’s father.” She shook her head. “Without Clint Daniels selling his ranch to us below market value I’d still be looking for a site.”
“When is Nick coming home?” Alex abruptly asked.
Her brows furrowed. “Tomorrow afternoon. Why?”
Alex gave an exaggerated leer and tweaked the jet-black bearded growth on his chin. “Maybe I could come over and keep you company in that big house you love while he’s away?”
The smile started at the corner of her lips, then burst into full bloom. “When would you have time to fit me into your schedule? I bet somewhere in this room a woman or two is planning my quick demise.”
“Say the word,” he countered, amusement shining in his dark eyes.
A lacquered red nail playfully flipped up the lapel of his expertly tailored black evening jacket. There had never been anything between them but friendship, and they both knew that special spark would never be there.
“One day I might take you up on that offer you keep throwing at me. However, not tonight. Now, where is the reason you had me put on my working clothes and rush over?” Michelle asked, glancing down at the clinging white jersey knit gown caressing the supple curves of her slim body. Open-backed to the waist and cut to a dramatic V in front, it had been known to raise the blood pressure of more than one male and the envy of several females.
All her eveningwear, was designed to be provocative and daring. Her daywear was the same. Even before the current style of baring belly buttons and as much skin as possible, she had raised eyebrows and pulses. Dallas might have a cosmopolitan image, but the city was deeply rooted in Southern morality, and conservative. She went against the grain.
Hearing the self-derision in her voice, Alex frowned. “You still hate using the flamboyant image, don’t you?”
“I’d hate not eating even more,” Michelle said tightly, her face set in determination. It galled her even more that the way she dressed gave further credence to the rumors. But for the moment she was helpless to change either. Altering her image wouldn’t stop the rumors, but it might adversely affect her client base. Financially, she couldn’t stand a big drop in commissions, and a pretty face and flash of skin never failed to reel them in. But it was her prowess in the market that sealed the deal and kept them coming back for more. “Let’s get down to business.”
Noting the slight tilt of her chin, Alex linked his arm through hers as they began to edge their way to the other side of the room through the amicable crowd of people. When a full minute had passed without an interruption by anyone, Alex began to give Michelle the information she wanted.
“You know by now that your potential client is Brad Jamison. We were at Columbia University together and even then he was a shrewd businessman. He may be your biggest challenge yet.”
Michelle was unimpressed. “What does he want?”
“What he doesn’t want is easier answered. His family owns Computron, a computer manufacturing firm, and they may be in the market to move their operations from California. Brad has been CEO since his father died eight years ago. It’s your job to see that Computron comes to Dallas, and of course, that they use us exclusively.”
“That’s a tall order.”
Alex nodded. “If anyone can pull it off, you can. You’re the best I have to offer and only the best will get results with Brad. He wants choice sites in North Dallas, east of Grapevine near Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and by Cedar Creek Lake. He knows what he wants and won’t settle for anything less.”
“I’m surprised he has time for business if all the stories I’ve heard about his romantic escapades are true,” Michelle said dryly.
“It’s true Brad is a man who enjoys female company, but Computron has shown a profit each quarter since he took over.” Alex glanced at Michelle. “Don’t worry. He doesn’t pounce unless you know he’s coming. Now where did that sister of mine run off to with Brad?”
Michelle tensed. “I thought Cassie was in Europe.”
“She was, but she came home the day you left for Houston. It was her idea to give this party to introduce Brad to some of our friends and associates. I thought I mentioned her coming home when I talked with you on the phone this morning. Anyone else would have jet lag, but not Cassie,” Alex said proudly.
“Yes,” Michelle said. How could any man as astute as Alex be so blind to his snobbish, troublemaking little sister? Cassie had made it plain from the first time Alex had told her how he had met Michelle that she was beneath her. Alex’s concern for and mentoring of Michelle made Cassie’s dislike take on a more subtle flair, but it was still there.
To Cassie, wealth and your name on the social register meant more than people. Michelle couldn’t claim either. She came from a long line of poor but honest laborers. Her father had died when she was a baby, her mother when she was five. She’d lived in foster care until Nick had signed a contract to play professional football, but three years later his accident ended his career. When Michelle met Cassie, she and Nick hadn’t known where their next meal was coming from or how they’d pay the rent.
All that had changed. Yet, no matter how much success Michelle had achieved since then, Cassie would always feel smugly superior. Grimacing, Michelle thought the evening couldn’t get any worse.
“Brad, are you listening to me?” Cassie Collins asked, the underlying sensuality of her voice designed to gain any man’s attention and keep it.
Brad Jamison glanced down at Cassie’s pretty heart-shaped face surrounded by dark auburn curls, and patted her hand. “Of course I am.”
Cassie smiled and leaned closer. Brad patted her hand again. Absently he heard her tell him about a wealthy financier who had begged her to stay in Paris. Brad silently wished them both well if the man was to be husband number three for Cassie, then went back to searching the crowd.
Where was the stunning woman in white? Or had he just imagined her? No, he hadn’t lost that much sleep in the past hectic weeks. But when he had first seen her, it had taken a couple of moments to believe that she was real.
It wasn’t just her strikingly beautiful face; it was the seductive innocence she wore like a cloak, almost daring a man to take it off and discover the sensual woman beneath and make her his. The way her dress flowed over the curves of her body like a lover’s caress, he was seriously considering accepting her unspoken challenge.
Brad’s face dimpled into a pure male smile. His self-imposed celibacy was making him poetic. He continued to scan the crowd, this time searching for Alex as well. Before Brad could carry out his plans to meet the mystery woman, he’d have to meet Michelle Grant. His mouth flattened into a thin line.
If he got any indication on meeting her that the rumors were true, he’d find another Realtor. He didn’t conduct business that way and steered clear of people who did. His mother had taught him early that some career women sacrificed anything and anyone in their quest to reach the top.
His free hand clenched at the unwanted memory of his mother dressed in glitter and diamonds hurrying out of the house with his father for a dinner party, him standing in the foyer with a book for her to read to him, and what she’d said:
“I don’t have time. The nanny can read it to you.”
Brad’s jaw clenched, but not before he saw again the tears streaming down the little boy’s bewildered and hurt face. He couldn’t have been more than five years old. At that age he’d been young enough to keep trying to win her affection. But she always had someplace to go or someone to see. She’d never attended any school functions unless he was being given an award . . . then she’d show up and play the role of the proud, devoted mother.
Although they now lived in the same city, he steered clear of his mother. Not even for Alex would he associate with another self-centered woman.
“There they are,” Alex said enthusiastically.
Michelle’s gaze followed the direction of his gesturing hand to several people standing in a small alcove about fifteen feet away. One of the men stood out.
He was tall and magnificently male—lean and ruggedly built. His body, exquisitely detailed in a black tuxedo, commanded attention, as did the sharp angles and rugged planes of his handsome chocolate-colored face. His well-trimmed mustache was jet black. Although his head was tilted downward toward Cassie, his narrowed gaze was aimed at Michelle.
The sudden tingling sensation in the pit of Michelle’s stomach acknowledging his male magnetism surprised, then annoyed her. Only one man had ever made her body react that way. Their gazes clashed. In the space of a heartbeat she knew the eyes moving over her in a bold appraisal were black and electrifying.
She knew this man. She had met him a lifetime ago.
Dazed, she returned the bold stare. She recalled the way his black hair glinted in the moonlight, its springy softness beneath her fingers. Her long wait was over. He’d come back into her life as unexpectedly as he’d entered it nine years ago. Not a day had gone by that she hadn’t thought of him, thanked him. Her trembling fingers gripped Alex’s arm as a mixture of fear and excitement raced through her.
Cassie, standing by the man’s side, noticed his attention was elsewhere and followed the direction of his gaze. Standing on tiptoe, she whispered something in his ear. The sensual warmth left his eyes, leaving them as cold as icicles.
Michelle found it impossible to look away as his gaze traveled with a chilling thoroughness back over the exposed length of her thigh before lifting briefly to the plunging V of her gown, then coming to rest on her face. Never before had she felt so exposed in a dress, and never would she have expected such coldness from him.
“Michelle, what is it?” Alex questioned, feeling her nails dig through his coat into his arm.
Only two whispered words, but they were enough. Alex’s head whipped around, his eyes locking with those of Brad Jamison.
“The man who rescued you? Are you sure?”
Michelle nodded numbly.
“Alex, please stop staring and come over here.” Cassie’s voice rang clearly over the live band, the chatter, and the thumping of Michelle’s heart. “Brad is waiting to meet Michelle.”
“Hang on, Michelle. Brad has that reckless look in his eyes.”
Michelle dismissed Alex’s words with only momentary hesitation. Brad hadn’t recognized her. Her face was more defined, her body certainly had more curves. Then, there was the dress. Once she explained to B.J. he’d understand. She’d waited years for this opportunity, and not even the potential cutting words from Cassie would spoil the moment. Michelle’s smile dazzled.
“Brad,” Cassie cooed sweetly, clinging to his arm with unmistakable possessiveness. “This is the employee I was telling you about. Michelle Grant, Alex’s little protégé. Michelle, Brad Jamison.”
Michelle watched with narrowed eyes as Cassie swayed closer. Was B.J. another of Cassie’s conquests? No. Fate wouldn’t be that cruel, to see him again only to lose him. “Mr. Jamison. Cassie.”
“Ms. Grant.” Hard eyes flicked over Michelle, noting Alex’s hand riding on the curve of her waist. “I can see why you’re so sought after. It’s a wonder a man can remember to sign his name to a contract. You’ll find I’m not so easily distracted.”
Stunned, Michelle barely managed to stop her gasp at Brad’s innuendo. A hushed silence fell around them. Michelle barely noticed. The coaxing velvet drawl she remembered that had calmed her fears was now encased in steel. The man from her past was gone and in his place was a man who looked at her with distaste. Once she might have crumpled from such contempt. Oddly, he had taught her to face her adversaries head on.
Alex pulled her closer to him and Brad’s mouth tightened at the protective gesture. Once he had given her his strength, his warmth, but now. . . .
Her chin lifted. She stared at him with cool, flat eyes. “Mr. Jamison, I’ll endeavor to make sure we never have a chance to test your theory. Excuse us, please. Alex and I were about to get some air.”
With Alex’s support, Michelle made her feet move across the polished hardwood floor. She had learned in foster care. And later in boarding school, to ignore pain when it was threatening to rip her apart. Never let them know you care. Never cry.
The soft click of the terrace door behind her let Michelle release the rigid control on her emotions. She sagged against Alex.
“I’m sorry, Michelle. I’ve never seen Brad that way,” Alex said tightly. “But friend or not, he’s going to apologize to you.”
“Please call me a cab. I’m going home.” Her ragged voice was hoarse and thick with the effort of suppressed tears. She’d foolishly hoped and prayed to see B.J. again and he’d crucified her without a moment’s hesitation.
“Sorry, but this is one time I have to say no. You know some of the people inside are having a field day thinking the flamboyant Michelle Grant has finally gotten hers. You have to go back inside,” he said.
“I don’t care,” she said, finally able to move out of his arms, her endurance at its limits. Her lack of sleep, the rumors, and seeing B.J.—it was too much.
“Yes, you do. You care too much. That’s your trouble. I can’t let you run away. You never have before,” Alex pointed out, sympathy in his voice.
Fighting back tears, Michelle wrapped her bare arms around her slim body, trying to stop shaking. Her mind was reliving another spring night, when an angel had healed her heart and touched her soul.
“Michelle,” Alex said softly. “I’m not going back without you.”
Shutting her eyes tightly, Michelle fought the need to run and hide, to nurse her wounds in private. Alex was right. Some of the people inside thought her an unscrupulous bitch who would stop at nothing to get ahead. Yet, how many of them had ever had to beg for food or a place to stay? Hunger was a harsh and merciless teacher.
Her back straightened. “All right, Alex. Go back inside. I’ll join you in a minute.”
After a brief moment, she felt the reassuring touch of his hand on her shoulder, then seconds later heard the sound of music as the door opened, then silence. She was alone.
Taking a deep breath, Michelle stared out over the well-manicured lawn and instead saw the sandy shoreline of San Francisco. Every detail was vivid in her mind. She’d been terrified and powerless to save herself from her own foolishness. Then her angel had appeared.
B.J. had saved her when she didn’t think she was worth saving; Brad Jamison wouldn’t spit on her if she were on fire. She had to forget and go on with her life. But some dreams died hard.
She had been like a miser, hoarding each precious detail, of her memories, taking them out only in the hushed stillness of the night to examine and savor, replaying each moment in her mind. Now she was trapped by her own mind, with no escape from the harsh reality of a dream turned nightmare.
The soft tread of footsteps on the brick patio brought her head up. “Alex, I told you I don’t think I can go back inside right now.”
“It’s not Alex.” Tall and imposing, Brad stepped out of the shadows.
Copyright © 2003 by Francis Ray. All rights reserved.