Home Fires

Barbara Delinsky

St. Martin's Paperbacks

HOME FIRES (Chapter 1)

“Good morning, Mrs. Hunt. Have you decided what you’ll have for breakfast this morning?”

Deanna Hunt raised her eyes from the morning paper. With rare exceptions, she had eaten breakfast in the dining room of the Hunt International-Atlanta Hotel every morning for the past ten years. A menu was unnecessary.

“Any fresh strawberries today, Frank?” she asked softly.

Frank Pareto smiled and winked. “Fresh and sweet. With a little cream, perhaps?” he coaxed gently. In the years he’d been serving her, never once had he heard a condescending word pass her lips. Despite her youth, when Lawrence Hunt had married her and brought her to Atlanta to live, she had always been poised and gracious. Frank looked forward to her arrival in the dining room each morning. “The pecan rolls are particularlygood today,” he added on a note of temptation. “May I bring you a basket?”

Deanna returned his smile with a hint of chiding. “Are you trying to fatten me up, Frank?”

“That’s my job, Mrs. Hunt.” The waiter tipped his head, not in the least hesitant As had many on the Hunt staff, he had grown more protective of her since the death of her husband nearly fourteen months earlier. She inspired that kind of caring.

“You do it very well.” Deanna’s compliment preceded a decisive nod. “Make it strawberries with cream and one pecan roll.” She arched an auburn brow to emphasize the strict limit. Now that she had finally replaced the weight she’d lost after Larry’s death, she no longer looked painfully thin. In fact, she had begun to notice gentle curves that had not been there when she’d first married. She had been nineteen then, barely out of her teens. Now she was several months short of thirty and a wealthy widow. It was a situation some women would have envied, yet Deanna increasingly sensed its flaws. With not a material worry in the world, she had no outward cause for complaint. What, then, explained the growing restlessness she felt?

Her disconcerted eye returned to the paper as Frank quietly disappeared into the kitchen and another waiter unobtrusively poured her coffee. He was a newer member of the hotel staff and slightly in awe of the presence of the head of the Hunt Foundation. Only Deanna knew her role to be a titular one. Like a queen, she was pampered and revered while the true power lay in the hands of others.

“Deanna?” A restrained male voice broke into her sober reverie, drawing her head up seconds before it brought a spontaneous smile to her lips.

“Jim, what a pleasure to see you!” she exclaimed,warmly extending her hands to meet his clasp. “It’s been a long time.”

James Drummond was relieved by the welcome. Though he knew that Lawrence and Deanna had purposely formed the habit of breakfasting in the dining room in order to be accessible to the hotel’s guests, he feared that he had caught Deanna in a moment of private thought. She had borne a look of utter vulnerability in that split second before the mask of the hostess had fallen over those deep inner emotions.

“I haven’t been in Atlanta for months,” Jim explained, releasing her slender hands slowly. “It seems that business has been concentrated around New York and Boston lately.” He paused. “You’re looking very well, Deanna.”

“Thanks, Jim,” she acknowledged his concern. “I’m doing well. The foundation goes on and I try to keep busy.” Her eyes brightened. “How’s Angie?”

At the mention of his wife, Jim smiled. Deanna had always been the perfect hostess, with a distinct knack for remembering such things as the name of the spouse of even a minor Hunt business associate such as himself. “Angie is just fine.”

“And the boys? The youngest must be … getting ready for college?”

“Entering Duke University next month,” he replied with renewed admiration for her memory. “He may just bring us in your direction more often.”

Deanna’s smile broadened. “I hope so. You’ll make a point to stop back again soon, won’t you?”

“Of course, Deanna,” Jim assured her, sensing her sincerity. “Take care now.” With a brief salute, he was gone. Deanna’s smile dissipated with his departure and she looked absently around the dining room for other familiar faces.

Lawrence Hunt had believed in elegance and that was what he had created when he’d built the hotel fourteen years before. This formal dining room embodied an old-world charm that had been abandoned in much of modern Atlanta. Here one dined in low-keyed splendor beneath graceful crystal chandeliers while seated in high-backed armchairs and served on fine white linen, with exquisite china and silver. If the cost of such grandeur was nearly prohibitive, the guests were undaunted. They returned repeatedly to visit the Hunts.

Catching sight of a familiar face at a table across the room, she smiled and nodded, then dropped her gaze to frown at the crease that her pale pink fingernail had distractedly inscribed on the padded linen tablecloth. There were always people to see and things to be done. Her days didn’t lack for activities of her choosing. So what could be lacking?

Frank arrived with her breakfast. As she moved her hand aside to make way for the ice-embedded bowl of strawberries, she chanced to glance toward the far corner of the dining room, where the sun streamed through graceful bay windows. In the echo of a heartbeat she stared. There was a new face, one she didn’t recognize. Surely she would have remembered had she seen this man before, for he was quite striking as his eyes captured hers.

“Powdered sugar, Mrs. Hunt?” Frank interrupted, the sugar bowl in his hand, its spoon poised to sprinkle.

Deanna tore her gaze from that of the stranger. “No. No, thank you. Cream will be fine,” she told him in the soft tone that now hid her uncertainty. Before she could reach for the small porcelain pitcher, Frank raised it and swirled its rich white contents over the ripe red berries. Cupping the empty vessel in his left hand, he used his right to nudge an opening between water goblet andcoffee cup for the lone pecan roll she’d ordered and its small rose-shaped butter pat.

“Will there be anything else now?”

“This will be fine.” She smiled her quiet appreciation and ever so subtle dismissal. She took her fork, then savored the sweet taste of several strawberries before venturing to look up again toward that far corner and that new face.

Eyes averted now, he read his own newspaper, his head bent. The morning sunlight filtered into the room, reflecting off the flatware before him and bouncing up to play among the chandeliers before spraying pale copper sparkles through hair that was every bit as thick and auburn as her own swept-up tresses, though far shorter. Even seated, he seemed tall and graced with dignity.

Deanna was held in his spell by the powerful masculine command he exuded. She helplessly admired his dark business suit, crisp yellow shirt and silk rep tie, all complementing his dark hair and bronzed skin perfectly. From a distance, she guessed him to be in his late thirties.

Despite her intent regard, the width of the room kept the fine details of his features hidden. Perhaps it was just as well, she realized with a jolt. For, while she would have liked to have examined him more closely, she found her interest new and frightening. He was different. Very different.

As his attention momentarily left the paper to focus on the plush burgundy carpet, Deanna felt an odd premonition. Then, as she had known he would, he lifted his gaze to meet hers directly and she felt strangely excited. The man was absolutely compelling. His expression contained an enigmatic blend of curiosity and vulnerability, all somehow rooted in a potential for strength that held her rapt for several long moments before she finally managed to force her eyes downward once more and slowly released the breath she’d been holding.

Her hand was less steady as she ate another strawberry, her thoughts on the riveting man with the most unusual expression on his face. He was different. But in what way? She had seen many attractive men come and go over the years, many just as charming, equally good-looking and as virile. What set this one apart from the others?

She sipped her coffee, not quite daring to confront him again. Looking in the opposite direction, she spotted a couple approaching and smiled quickly, grateful for the diversion. “LeeAnn and Tom! What a nice surprise!” Half rising, she offered a cheek to each of the pair in turn before sinking back into her chair.

LeeAnn Walker was an attractive brunette of roughly the same age as Deanna. The two women had been tennis partners for several years. “I couldn’t resist showing you that he’s actually taking me to breakfast,” LeeAnn quipped, slipping her arm affectionately through her husband’s as she looked at him. “We’re doing it in style.”

Deanna laughed. “I can’t argue with that. How are you, Tom? I see your better half often enough, but not you,” she scolded softly.

“That’s because I’m busy earning the money to support not only the club membership but breakfasts at the choicest spots in town,” Tom countered, not in the least disturbed by either expense. Deanna knew of the success of his law practice. The couple had recently moved into a new house, then shortly after had taken a trip to the Orient. She might have liked to have gone herself … had Larry been alive.

Determinedly thrusting aside the might-have-beens, she spoke to Tom. “LeeAnn tells me how well everything is going for you.”

Tom’s grin confirmed it. “Very well. And very busy. Bythe way, I’m hoping to do some work with Jay Knowlton for your fund-raising drive.” Jay Knowlton was chief legal counsel for the Hunt Foundation and the fund-raising drive in question was for a new children’s hospital to be heavily endowed by the foundation.

“Really?” Deanna brightened. The hospital had become her pet project “I didn’t know that! Hmmph.” She scowled in feigned exasperation, first at LeeAnn then back at Tom. “I’m often the last one to know these things.” It had been happening more often than she’d like lately, and her exasperation was only half in jest “I think that’s great! We could really use your help—both of you!”

LeeAnn warded her off with a wave of her hand. “Don’t look at me, Deanna. I’ve already enlisted.”

“I know.” Deanna smiled more gently. “And I’m pleased. It’ll be fun working together.” She meant it. Given her own quiet personality, good friends her age had been hard to find. While she was socially poised and knew the right things to say at the right times, she was, and had always been, a basically private person. The outwardly confident and polished woman she portrayed was a product of years of practice and loving encouragement, first on the part of her parents, then her husband. But her innate introversion had on occasion been mistaken for aloofness by her peers, keeping them at arm’s length. LeeAnn and she, on the other hand, had formed a warm relationship and now spent the better part of three mornings a week together at the club playing tennis, enjoying a sauna and massage afterward. Both women accepted the fact that their social lives went in different directions, Larry’s group had been older and now that he was gone, Deanna rarely went out.

The maître d’ appeared by Tom’s side. “Your table is ready, Mr. Walker.”

LeeAnn grinned at Deanna. “I’ll see you at ten?” It was Wednesday. Their standing court time was from ten to eleven.

“Sure thing, LeeAnn. It was great seeing you, Tom. Enjoy your breakfast”

LeeAnn swooped close with a stage whisper. “Any recommendations?”

Deanna shot a glance at her own plate. “I’m told that the pecan rolls are good today. I’m trying one. Why don’t you order a basket?” she asked, grinning mischievously. “You can work it off later.” It was a standing joke between the two. If Deanna was often two pounds short of ideal, LeeAnn was two beyond.

“Why don’t you have the basket?” LeeAnn rejoined wryly, then followed the quip up with a gentle laugh that faded as she allowed herself to be led to her table. Tom’s parting wave said they’d see her later. Once more, Deanna’s smile slowly evaporated. She had never minded being alone. It was part of her personality. Why, then, did she now feel lonely?

On an inexplicable impulse, Deanna sought out that far corner of the room. A glimmer of anticipation passed through her, quickening her pulse. But the table was empty. The handsome stranger had left. Her hope faded as quickly as it had arisen. With a quiet sigh of resignation, she returned to her breakfast.

By the time she had finished her second leisurely cup of coffee, it was nearly nine o’clock. At her request, one to which he was accustomed, Frank bagged several additional pecan rolls, then held her chair as she stood to leave. For a brief minute he watched her go, silently admiring the class of this woman who was always so polite and soft-spoken. She might own the hotel, he mused, but there was not an ounce of arrogance in her.

Frank’s wasn’t the only eye to follow her departure. Almost everyone who knew her shared a similar admiration.She had survived Lawrence Hunt’s sudden death with a dignity that would have made him proud and she now carried on the Hunt tradition he had worked so hard to establish.

She made a striking figure as she wove through the tables, smiling gently and nodding at one acquaintance or another on her way to the door. Slim and of an average height that was accentuated by strappy gray high-heeled sandals, she wore a cream-colored linen blouse with a loose V neck and generous billowing sleeves that were gathered at the wrist. Her skirt was of the peasant variety that no peasant could dream of affording, a rich mix of browns, grays and écrus that floated gracefully about her as she walked. The only jewelry she wore was a pair of simple gold earrings, a wide-banded gold necklace that lay flat on her bare throat and the plain gold wedding band she had taken a preference to wearing over the more elaborate rings her husband had bestowed on her. In her simplicity, she was as elegant as the dining room she left.

The hotel elevator quickly whipped her up to the fortieth floor, where she lived in the sumptuous suite that had been hers and Larry’s through their nine plus years of married life. Friends had often wondered why they hadn’t bought a spacious home in one of the suburbs of Atlanta. Larry had offered it to her more than once, but she knew he enjoyed the hotel. Perhaps if they’d had children they might have made the move. But children had never come and they’d remained here. It was as though Larry had known that then people would be around to look after her in his absence.

Deanna paused outside her door long enough to punch out the numerical combination to unlock it, then pushed it open and stepped into a wide foyer. “Irma?” she called once, then again more loudly as she closed the door and scanned the empty living room.

“Right here, Mrs. Hunt.” Irma materialized instantly from the far end of the suite. She was a small bundle of energy in a gray and white starched uniform, the image of warm-blooded efficiency. “I was just changing the linens,” she explained, stuffing the same into a pillowcase. Irma had served as Lawrence Hunt’s housekeeper since he’d moved into the hotel. Her husband, Henry, was chauffeur, handyman and messenger wrapped into one wiry, white-haired package. They shared a smaller but still roomy suite conveniently adjoining the kitchen and their sole duty now was to see to Deanna’s needs. On occasion, Deanna turned the tables.

“Here, Irma.” She extended the bag of rolls toward the older woman. “Pecan rolls for you and Henry. They’re delicious today.” She leaned forward, listening. “Is he out already?” When Henry was at work cleaning or polishing around the suite, there was always a telltale sound to be heard, a whistling, a humming, even a scratchy chatter to himself. Now everything was quiet.

Irma tucked the pillowcase under her arm and accepted the bag. “He’s gone ahead to the garage to polish the car. I’ll give him a buzz when you’re ready to leave. And … thank you for the rolls,” she added with a self-conscious smile. “You really shouldn’t bother yourself about us.”

Deanna’s cheeks dimpled as she squeezed the woman’s arm gently. “Don’t be silly, Irma. It was no bother. Enjoy them!”

“Oh, we will. Pecan rolls are Henry’s favorites. But you knew that, didn’t you?”

Deanna passed off the observation with a sheepish shrug, then began to move away. “I’ll be working in the den for a little while. Will you have Henry bring the car around in half an hour?”

“Certainly. Your bag is all set to go. I’ll bring it right out Oh, and Mrs. Hunt?”

Halfway down the hall now, Deanna turned. “Uh-huh?”

“I thought I’d make a roast lamb for dinner. Is there anything special you’d like for lunch?”

Deanna considered the matter briefly before dismissing it and continuing down the hall. “Something light,” she called back over her shoulder. “Perhaps an omelet?”

Irma smiled and shook her head at the disappearing figure. She knew just how Deanna Hunt liked her omelets: moist, with cheese and spinach. It was a simple meal to prepare. She half suspected that Deanna chose it often for that very reason. But Deanna was as undemanding in other things as well, which was remarkable, since she had grown up amid nearly as much wealth as she currently enjoyed.

Indeed, Irma mused, it would not have been surprising had she been spoiled and demanding, yet she was neither. She was an easy woman to please, her temper calm and controlled even during those times when her eyes held that well of loneliness she kept so stoically to herself. Through the months following her husband’s death she had held her emotions in check. Now over a year had passed and she did no differently.

It seemed odd that a woman as young and attractive as Deanna Hunt should lead such a simple existence. Not quite the poor little rich girl, she was outwardly content. But surely she should be out more, with people, enjoying life. Surely she should be having fun, leading a less structured life than she did. Perhaps … in time. Shaking her head in silent regret, Irma headed for the laundry room.

Meanwhile, in the den, Deanna lifted her pen to write another of the letters she was personally sending to each of two hundred potentially major contributors to the hospital project “Dear Monte and Diane,” she wrote, then let the pen fall idle once more. Monte and Dianewere friends of Larry’s, contemporaries of his rather than hers. What were her own contemporaries doing with their lives?

More often now than ever in the past, she wondered what things might have been like had she gone on to college as her brother had, rather than marrying fresh out of high school and becoming Larry’s wife and hostess. Certainly she would have formed a different, if smaller, circle of friends. She might even have married someone her own age rather than a man twenty years her senior whom her parents had known for years. Larry had courted her gently, offering her the care and protection she had come to depend on. He had loved her, and she him, but in a way that was somehow different from what she had imagined it to be in her wildest dreams.

In place of starbursts and rainbows she had found companionable serenity. While Larry lived, it had been enough. Now, as she faced a future alone, she wondered. What would it be like to do something wild? Something irresponsible? Something selfish? Could she ever kick up her heels and truly let loose? Her brother had done it and the results had been tragic.

Shaking her head free of the sad memories, Deanna grimaced at her inappropriate thoughts. She was simply not the rebellious type. Even had her brother not died so young, she probably would always have stayed close to home. After all, she did enjoy her life and its comforts. She couldn’t deny that. And there was definite psychological merit in devoting oneself to philanthropic concerns such as those encompassed by the Hunt Foundation.

“Dear Monte and Diane …” She reread the salutation aloud, put pen to paper and proceeded to complete the letter from one of the prototypes she’d worked out with the public relations department. By the time she hadfinished and signed her name with a disciplined flourish, it was time to leave.

This Wednesday passed as did every other Wednesday. Henry dropped her at the club for the morning and picked her up later. She ate lunch back in her suite in the sunny, informal breakfast room, which was never used for breakfast, only for lunch and dinner. The larger, more formal dining room, which seated sixteen easily, had been unused for over a year.

Her afternoon was spent quietly at home, ostensibly heading the Hunt Foundation from the comfort of her den, in reality serving as a high-ranking social secretary. She received her customary call from Robert Warner, the executive director of the foundation, in whose hands true power rested. The call was filled with pleasant words regarding what she should be doing that day, what the next day’s meeting would discuss and any small tidbits that Bob chose to pass on. There was, in fact, little substance to the conversation. But it had been that way for months. Why should Deanna be frustrated by it now?

She wrote ten more letters to add to the growing stack, kept up with other personal correspondence to one friend or another of Larry’s who had dropped her a note, then made several phone calls on minor foundation business. She picked up the novel she’d bought the day before and read for an hour before dinner, then for several more after dinner, before bathing and retiring to begin again the next morning.

But this would be Thursday. Tuesdays and Thursdays held a special place in her heart. Though the afternoons were spent at the Hunt International offices several blocks away, the mornings were her own. Few people knew that she spent them in the pediatrics ward of the Atlanta General Hospital, talking with, reading to or sometimes simply holding those children whose parents could not bethere. It filled a special need of hers and she would have given up almost any other activity before she gave up this one. There was an added lightness to her step when she entered the hotel dining room Thursday morning and took her regular table.

“Good Morning, Mrs. Hunt.” Frank welcomed her with a half bow and a smile. “How are you today?”

“Just fine, Frank.” Deanna cocked her head in the direction from which she’d just come. “Was that a slice of honeydew I just passed?”

The waiter grinned. “It was.”

“May I have one? And an order of cinnamon toast, please?”

“With honey?”

“Without honey.” She cast him a humorous look that recalled the previous day’s chiding and enough was said Frank moved off, clearing the way for her to see to the far corner near the window. Instantly her senses came alive. He was there again, that tall, auburn-haired man, looking at her with that same profound expression that took her breath away. It hadn’t occurred to her that he’d return—she hadn’t allowed herself to think it. Yet there he was! Was he a guest at the hotel?

Fascinated by the unspoken depths of the stranger’s gaze, Deanna couldn’t look away. His presence tugged at her, evoking sensations of silent communication she’d never experienced before. His eyes said “Good morning” and hinted at a smile when hers returned the greeting. “Who are you?” he asked wordlessly, and “Where are you headed?”

“Here you are, Mrs. Hunt” A gleaming china plate bearing a generous wedge of succulent green melon was slid into place before her. Startled, Deanna snapped her attention back.

“Oh! Thank you, Frank,” she murmured, thenbreathed deeply to steady her pulse as she watched the waiter carefully set down a plate of toast with its heat-saving silver dome.

Who was that man? Deanna opened her mouth to ask Frank, but shut it just as quickly and let the waiter leave without another word. Only then did she scold herself for her foolishness. If Frank hadn’t known the stranger’s name he could easily have discovered it. Deanna often made similar requests when she couldn’t find the name to fit a face she recognized.

But this was different. He was different. Hadn’t she known it from the start? Though Deanna willed herself not to look up again, his face was indelibly etched in her mind. It was a strong yet gentle face, sun-touched and manly. Today his suit was of a lighter shade, a misty gray that emphasized the dark thickness of his hair and the even darker, deeper awareness in his eyes. Today the distance between them seemed to fade, bridged by an incredibly sensual familiarity. Absurd as she knew it to be, Deanna felt that she had known him for years. She stared at him, stunned by the force that flowed between them. It was as though they were emotionally tuned to one another. It was strange, but she sensed that he needed her.

Then she caught herself. That was ridiculous! She didn’t know the man! Scoffing at her runaway imagination, she dragged her gaze downward and raised a spoon to the waiting melon. But she paused before making the first gouge that would mar the perfection of the slice. Was it ridiculous? Was there such a thing as an instant attraction that could explain the wild fluttering in her stomach? Wild fluttering? With a quiet chuckle of self-indulgence, she realized that this soft internal fluttering might be the wildest thing she would ever feel. And then she sucked in her breath as an even wilder thoughttitillated her senses. Blushing warmly, she forced it from her mind with a piercing thrust of her spoon into the melon’s soft flesh.

Reaching for the morning paper which was always left for her, Deanna applied herself to the news of the day with greater intentness and less success than ever. Had Anthony Broad and his two out-of-town clients, the three old acquaintances of the Hunts, asked her what she’d read when they paused to greet her moments later, she might well have been embarrassed by her ignorance. But it didn’t matter. Her purpose was served. She returned to the paper, ate breakfast with a painstakingly unhurried air, smiled at those who dropped by—all the while denying to herself the presence of that man and his startling effect on her.

As on the previous morning, the mystery man was gone long before Deanna finished. When she threw caution to the winds and glanced helplessly toward his table there was only a lingering sunbeam to mark where he had been. With a sigh that was as much of relief as disappointment, she forced herself to close the book on a short-lived fantasy. Decisively shouldering her bag, she headed directly for the spot in front of the hotel where Henry and the car were waiting.

The morning was as gratifying as she might have hoped, as rewarding as it was tiring. Henry picked her up at the hospital at noon and chauffeured her home for lunch, then delivered her an hour later to the executive offices of the Hunt Foundation, where she spent the afternoon in conference with various members of the foundation organization.

Bob Warner arranged these meetings as efficiently as he did most everything else. He offered Deanna only what information she needed to be generally aware of foundation activities, answered her questions patiently and gave his advice freely. He had been frankly startledwhen, soon after Larry’s death, Deanna had asked to be given these regular briefings. With her total lack of business training, it might have been easier for her to have handed over the reins completely. But she had needed to participate in some small way, and though Bob’s word was more often than not the law, her twice-weekly presence among the office staff carried a subtle and understated force. She was quiet and unobtrusive, but her questions were pithy, her inquiries pointed. She possessed good common sense and a knack for diplomacy, both of which Bob Warner channeled into useful avenues.

In this case the avenue was the drive toward the building of the Greater Georgia Children’s Hospital and the bulk of the afternoon session revolved around the fund raising in which Deanna was already deeply involved. After much coaxing, she had finally agreed to hold a series of private dinner parties in her own suite, each courting eight to ten potentially significant supporters of the project. Though Bob and his wife would be at each, along with at least one or two other foundation bigwigs, Deanna had not entertained since Larry’s death and never alone. As intimidating as the thought had been at first, Bob’s argument was valid. There was an emotional value to be gained from Deanna’s visible activity and Larry’s vivid memory. It had been Larry’s last hope to see this project a reality.

Deanna was exhausted when Henry finally shuttled her home at six. She ate alone, reflecting on the afternoon’s meetings as Irma quietly served her a private feast of rock cornish hen and wild rice. Later she retreated to her bedroom to read before sinking at length into a restless sleep.

When she arose Friday morning it was with a vague sense of anticipation. She took greater pains in dressing than she had on either of the past two mornings. Even ontennis mornings such as this she would never have thought to show herself in the hotel dining room looking anything less than well groomed. Today, however, she wanted to do even better.

Sorting through the rack of late-summer fashions, she chose a pale lavender sundress, a one-piece wrap that was strapless, self-sashing and bottomed by gay white high-heeled sandals. Her jewelry was simple: small hoop earrings, a necklace, a ring. But she added an extra coat of mascara to her lashes, giving them the illusion of even greater length, and a second dab of color high on each cheekbone. As always, she swept her thick fall of dark copper-sheened hair loosely to the top of her head, securing it this time with an exquisite gold-leaf clasp before breaking from custom and pulling several tendrils free to wave delicately around her face and neck. With a touch of perfume to the pulse at her throat and the tossing of a lightweight open-weave blazer over her shoulders in deference to the potential chill of air conditioning, she was off.

Beneath the archway of the dining room, she took a deep breath to fill her lungs with confidence, then slowly let it out in the short walk to her table. She was met there by the maître d’, whom she acknowledged with a smile. “Good morning, George.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Hunt. Here, let me help you.” He adjusted her chair as she sat down. “Enjoy your breakfast.”

“Thank you,” she said softly, casually reaching for the newspaper as he vanished. Her heart beat a rapid tattoo and she only prayed that she looked more normal than she felt. The news held no special appeal at the moment, but she focused on it to keep from looking elsewhere.

Frank approached quietly, his voice low. “Good morning, Mrs. Hunt. You look lovely today.”

“Why, thank you, Frank.” Would he think so too? The fantasy persisted! “It’s kind of dreary out, though. Do you think it’s going to rain?” With a perfect excuse she glanced toward the far window. He wasn’t there! And it looked as though it would pour. Deanna felt suddenly gloomy herself.

Frank’s gaze followed hers, though it encompassed only the elements beyond the large bay window. “They say we may get a few showers this morning. I hope you don’t get caught in any.”

Just then Deanna didn’t care. She had looked forward to seeing that stranger again, and he wasn’t there. Had he gone back to where he’d come from? Or simply gone elsewhere for breakfast? It had been fun dressing especially for him. But he’d let her down. Would she ever see him again?

Deanna’s Friday proceeded as Mondays and Wednesdays did, with a morning at the club and an afternoon at home. But much as she threw herself into her prearranged activities, she couldn’t shake the image of an auburn-haired man. In those few short moments of visual exchange, he had made her startlingly aware of something she had managed to ignore—that she was a woman, an individual, warm and alive.

It occurred to her as she analyzed it that she lived in a virtual cocoon, insulated and protected from the outside world. Every move she made, every person she met, was within the limited realm of this cocoon and she was invariably accorded the deference her position merited. To the world she was Mrs. Lawrence Hunt. Not so to this man.

It was one of the things that made him different He had seen her as a human being, as a woman. His eyes had said as much. And he had shared a need she barely understood herself, had reached out to her with the forceof his own inner drive. But he hadn’t been back to see her today. Had their visual intimacy been no more than a figment of her imagination after all?

That imagination drove her to distraction. It was active all weekend through standing appointments at the beauty parlor and with the manicurist, a Saturday luncheon with a cousin who had stopped in Atlanta en route from St Petersburg to Washington and Sunday afternoon’s attendance at the wedding of the daughter of one of Larry’s oldest friends. In between were moments of solitude, moments of intent contemplation, even brooding. She had sensed a growing void in her life, but this stranger’s appearance had accentuated it What was it she truly wanted?

Her thoughts became sensual daydreams, one as new and unexpected as the next and each involving the nameless vision of a tall, auburn-haired man. She pictured herself alone with him, lying beneath the shade of an ancient chestnut tree in a sylvan setting beyond the city. They talked of their lives and hopes, sharing fantasies without fear. Their only responsibility was to each other and she gloried in that singularity of purpose. Secluded in rural luxury, she held him, reveling in the hard strength beneath and against her that so desperately needed her softness for fulfillment And he held her likewise, caressing her with a tender demand she still sought to comprehend. As the weekend passed, the dream soared higher and hotter until, aghast, Deanna forced the reality of solitude on herself once more. What was it she wanted? She refused to say.

Monday morning found her back to her routine and relieved to be busy once more. For the moment she was again content to fill the role in life she assumed had been meant for her. But when Tuesday morning came she was jolted out of her complacency when she glanced up fromher French toast to find him looking at her. Her breathing faltered; her heart skipped a beat.

So he had returned! A ripple of excitement flowed through her veins and she felt suddenly freer, relieved of a burden she hadn’t known she carried. He looked warm and wonderful, all tanned and handsome as he held her gaze unwaveringly. And then he smiled gently and she melted.

Deanna had never been as touched as she was by the silent reunion she shared with this man. She felt as though she’d found her special friend after a very long search, though the search had been solely in her fantasy life and had only spanned the four days since she’d seen him last. But he was flesh and blood, a far cry from imagination, and she knew that the vibrant awareness he sparked was no fantasy.

“Is everything all right, Mrs. Hunt?” Frank asked by her ear. Taken off guard, Deanna swung her head around abruptly and began to blush at having been caught in an uncharacteristic state of distraction.

“Uh, yes, everything’s fine,” she gasped quickly, then added on impulse, “but I wonder if you could do something for me?”

The waiter sobered in response to her gravity. “Of course.”

Allowing herself no chance to back down, Deanna spoke directly. “There’s a gentleman in the far corner. No, please don’t look around now. He’s sitting by the large bay window and has breakfasted here before. But I can’t seem to recall his name or whether he’s actually staying at the hotel. Could you possibly … ?” Her raised brows and softly pleading expression said the rest

Frank’s pleasure at the mission brought a conspiratorial smile to his lips. “Certainly, Mrs. Hunt. And I’ll be discreet.”

“You always are. I appreciate it” She paused awkwardly. “It’s embarrassing … when I can’t remember …”

“Please don’t worry. I’ll have the information you want in no time.”

“No time” seemed to stretch on indefinitely as Deanna waited. She poked at her French toast, sipped her fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, fingered the dull edge of the marmalade knife and tried to understand what it was this man stirred in her. It seemed to be a far-reaching passion that encompassed the emotional, the intellectual and, yes, the physical. The last was by far the most enigmatic. Why him? Why now? Or was she simply fantasizing that this stranger would be a panacea?

Daring to cast another glance his way, she found him staring solemnly out the window. What were his thoughts? she wondered as she hastened to freely admire the strength of his profile highlighted by the sun, the breadth of his shoulders beneath a fine-tailored navy blazer, the commanding air of his body even when seated and at ease. Who was he? she asked a final time and he must have heard, for he turned.

At that moment Deanna knew for certain that her need was not the only one. Despite her skepticism, she could not deny what she saw. His face held the same expression that had fascinated her that first day. It held a look of vulnerability, of searching, of loneliness. It seemed to beam a message that surged from his depths to penetrate his outer aura of composure. Deanna felt that he was asking her help—she, who had spent a lifetime on the receiving end of love, indulgence and protection. It frightened her, this gaze that pleaded with such dignity, yet she couldn’t turn away from it

Only the delivery to her plate of a small white card diverted her attention. She instantly knew that it was from the maître d’s desk and reached to open it, herpulse hammering loudly, her teeth worrying her lower lip. For the same mystical reason that she was so drawn to the man, this information seemed crucial to her. She read the words as though her life depended on them.

Mark Birmingham. Architect with the firm of Birmingham and Swift, Inc., Savannah, Georgia. Registered at the Hunt International-Atlanta through Thursday.

Mark. First and foremost, Mark. A name for the face and a fitting one at that. Mark. Deanna spoke it silently several times, testing its strength in her mind and finding that it matched him well.

Mark. An architect. Obviously successful, most probably involved in a project requiring his midweek presence last week, now this. Smart man, she smiled in delight, to have chosen such a fine hotel!

Her smile was still in evidence when she looked up, but faded quickly at the sight of this smart man in the process of leaving. He stood taller than she had imagined and moved calmly and deliberately, with a liquid grace, toward the door. Her heart was in her throat as she helplessly watched him go. It was only at the last that he paused, head down, faltering. Then he looked up and made her day with a warm and gentle smile just for her before he disappeared into the hotel lobby.

Deanna let him go, somehow knowing she would see him again. For, whatever the long-range wisdom of it was, she knew that she wanted to see him again. If this was to be her first-in-a-lifetime stab at frivolity, so be it Nothing could stop her from thinking of this man, from daydreaming and wondering what it might be like to be with him.

Cushioned by these daydreams, she passed the hours with a special spark to her smile. After a morning at the hospital she returned home for lunch, at the end of which she nonchalantly made the commitment she’d been toying with since breakfast.

“Irma, why don’t you and Henry take the evening off? I think I’ll eat downstairs tonight”

Irma’s surprise was in direct proportion to the number of weeks it had been since Deanna had last done this. “Why, Mrs. Hunt, you don’t have to do that on our account!”

“I know, but I’d like to eat in the dining room for a change. I’ve kept abreast of the breakfast crowd. Now it’s about time I took a look at what goes on in the evening.”

What Deanna had offered half in jest Irma interpreted quite differently. “It would be good for you to get out more. It’s better that you be with people …” Fearing that she’d been too forward, she let her words trail off and scurried toward the kitchen. “If you should change your mind, just let me know,” she called over her shoulder. “I can easily cook something up.”

But Deanna had made her decision and notified the dining room of it on her way to the car. Though the late luncheon crowd was substantial, a cursory glance revealed no tall and auburn-headed architect among the lot. Perhaps he might be there tonight

That, of course, was the motivating factor behind her deviation from habit and she was too honest to deny it When Larry had been alive they’d taken the evening meal downstairs several times a week, in part to be accessible to friends and in part to be assured of the consistently fine quality of the restaurant Since his death Deanna had preferred the nighttime sanctuary of her own suite on all but those few occasions when she accepted an invitation to be with a group. But an opportunity to see Mark Birmingham again was worth the effort of venturing forth and she was determined to do it

Henry dropped her at the office at two and fetched her again at five. She spent the interim hours as usual, talking with different members of the foundation staff, thenmeeting alone with Bob to discuss and sign the inevitable stack of papers that required her formal approval. Bob was his usual patient self. If Deanna seemed to ask more questions than normal, to probe deeper into one decision or another than she had tended to do in the past, he accepted it all with good-natured indulgence. In turn, she graciously accepted his able explanations and the pat “Don’t-worry-about-it‘s.” and “It’s-all-settled’s” and “I’ll-take-care-of-it’s” he offered. He did have everything under control. For that, since her own mind was beginning to wander, she was grateful.

After returning home with Henry she settled into a bath filled to the brim with hot water and lemon-scented oil. An hour later she stood before the bathroom mirror with a towel wrapped sarong style around her. Before her was a woman she’d seen every day of her life. Or had she? Had she seen only part of the woman, that part that fit the image of the docile daughter and the loving wife? Was there another part she’d refused to see, a part that had only recently begun to beg for recognition?

Perplexed, she stared at her reflection. Her face was devoid of all makeup, yet it was bright and tingling with a hint of pink from the heat of the bath. Her hair was piled high, but loose wisps rebelled against restraint and curled gently toward her shoulders where the skin was moist, creamy smooth and soft. In a moment of curiosity Deanna reached for the point above her breast where the towel was tucked, pulled its end loose and slowly let it fall. Then, almost timidly, she looked at her body in a wholly new light. It was the body of a woman, with firm, full breasts and a narrow waist, a flat stomach and gently curving hips. Her legs were long and slim and of the same satin texture as the rest of her.

Slowly and with a dawning awareness, Deanna let her eyes retrace the route, moving intently upward. Would he admire her body as she had just done? Would he wantto see it? To touch it? To know it? Her fingers were unsure as she lifted them to her breast, where they lay against the wild beat of her heart. Would he desire her as she’d long ago dreamed to be desired?

Larry had loved her as a husband loved a wife, but without any of the passion she’d once dared to imagine. And she had neither questioned his lack of demand nor her own passive acceptance of it, because she had been young, innocent and naive, contenting herself with his evident satisfaction, finding pleasure in the overall tranquillity of their lives and the orderly show of love that compensated for unleashed passion.

Unleashed passion. Was that what she craved? Would she know what to do with it? How to handle it? Sighing, she stooped to lift the towel from the floor and wrap it around herself as she passed through to her room in search of underclothes. Unleashed passion, hah! The only thing to be unleashed this day was a very naughty fancy that was destined for frustration. With a swift if rueful headshake she cast the thought aside.

But eight o‘clock found her dressed nonetheless and on her way to the hotel dining room as she had preordained. She wore a dress of black silk that was soft yet sophisticated, scooped at the neck and draping her body with just enough fullness to suggest the fragile femininity within. There were solitary pearls at her ears, a fine strand around her throat and an exquisite wristlet to match the delicate gold-and-pearl creation she wore on the third finger of her left hand. Her hair was caught up with twin clasps of silk, her makeup blended with a light but skillful hand. In an utterly unaffected way she carried with her an aura of distinction as she smiled at the maître d’ and preceded him to her table.

Far beneath this stunning surface she quivered, however, filled with trepidation that he wouldn’t be there. It was a grand shot in the dark that she had made and shesuddenly wondered why she had ever allowed her fantasy such freedom. Some dreams were meant to remain no more than dreams. Perhaps this was one of them.

“Enjoy your dinner, Mrs. Hunt” The maître d’s parting words inspired her. Mark Birmingham or no, she was going to try. Settling into her chair, she took several deep and calming breaths. But she was unable to appreciate the grace around her, the soft notes of the piano as its music strove to soothe her mind, the flicker of a slender candle bringing to life the brandy-hued rose that stood proudly before her in its sterling bud vase. Opening her menu, she made a pretense of studying the elaborate list of offerings. But the exotic titles merged meaninglessly into one another; her mind was very definitely elsewhere. Finally, unable to restrain herself, she risked a glance up through the shade of her lashes toward his corner, where evening’s atmospheric lighting had replaced the morning’s sun.

Deanna raised her head higher and opened her eyes with the breathless realization that Mark Birmingham was at his table, nursing a drink and infinitely aware of her own arrival. His dark eyes locked with hers and he smiled a greeting. She smiled back almost shyly, lingering for a moment’s pleasure before lowering her gaze in defense against the potent attraction she felt But her brown eyes sparkled, her cheeks glowed, the pulse at her neck throbbed in excitement. It was an auspicious start for dinner, indeed, for the night itself.

Deanna barely knew what she ordered or ate, only that it was the most delicious meal she’d had in months. The service itself was faultless, its pace properly relaxed to allow her to greet friends and the occasional well-wisher, as well as indulge in periodic visual exchanges with Mark. At some point she actually wondered why they kept their distance, why one didn’t approach the other and endtheir separation. But then her mind moved one step further and she was suddenly frightened. Fantasy was one thing, reality another. What if her dream man turned out to be a bore? Worse, a brute? What if his teeth were false or his hair sewn on or the breadth of his shoulders artificial? What if, when she finally heard it, his voice had a high nasal twang? As it stood, he had at least the illusion of perfection. Did she dare jeopardize the vision? No, some dreams were better left untouched. But the thought of that saddened her even more. She did want to touch Mark Birmingham … and that was the least of it!

It seemed it wasn’t to be. Deanna had barely begun to sip her coffee when Mark rose from his table, sent her a last soulful stare and, to her disappointment, left the dining room. Her pleasure in her evening suddenly faded. Within minutes she followed his example, graciously thanking and complimenting the dining-room staff, then walking to the elevator, head down in thought

She wasn’t quite sure of the moment when he approached because there were other people quietly milling about. But something drew her head up and she found herself face-to-face with him. Her breath caught in a quiet gasp. At close range he was that much taller, that much more handsome, that much more intense. And his effect on her was staggering, the reality of him something to behold.

For the first time his features were near enough to study and know. His nose was strong, with a faint crook at its bridge, his lips firm and masculine, his jaw square and clean-shaven. The eyes she had only known to be dark now revealed themselves as a deep charcoal brown, and they were studying her just as intently as she was studying him. His hair was thick and rich and entirely his own, his chest broad enough to fill his jacket on its own sinewed merit. And when his lips curved in the hint of a smile she saw that his teeth had just enough of anirregularity to vouch for their authenticity. He was every bit the real thing. And she couldn’t restrain a sigh.

At that moment the elevator arrived, demanding their immediate attention. But when Deanna felt a hand lightly take her elbow she knew it was Mark’s. He held her back to let several others enter, then gently guided her aboard. Though his hand fell away she stayed by his side as the car whirred upward.

At the tenth floor one couple disembarked, at the eighteenth floor another. By the time the elevator left the twenty-seventh floor Deanna and Mark were alone. She stared expectantly at the lighted panel above the doors, watching the floors pass. Thirty. Thirty-one. Had she even pressed her own? Thirty-three. Thirty-four. Thirty-five. The car hummed to a halt and its doors slid back. As she held her breath she felt her hand taken by a larger, warmer, surer one. Taking courage from it, she met Mark’s gaze. It held every bit of her own need and want, plus a sense of promise she hadn’t seen before. His eyes silently offered the same invitation conveyed by his hand as, still holding hers, he stepped tentatively forward. Deanna hesitated for a final moment. Then, seized by an overpowering urgency, she followed him.

HOME FIRES. Copyright © 1983 by Barbara Delinsky.