LEAH HARMONY LEARNED the truth the day she took Mama for her annual physical.
When her mother, Merlina, was settling her bill, Leah sneaked a peek at her medical folder lying there on the counter. Lord knew if any problems turned up, Mama would never willingly “burden” the family with the knowledge.
The folder opened to the medical history, which included hysterectomy due to complications of childbirth. This was no surprise to Leah, who’d been told that Mama had required the emergency surgery when Leah was born. What was surprising, though, was the date given for the surgery. It should have been Leah’s own birth date twenty-four years earlier. Instead she recognized the date her sister Annie was born fifteen years before that. Tragically, Annie had died of pneumonia the very day her baby sister Leah had come into the world.
It had to be a mistake, a clerical error. How could Mama have had a hysterectomy fifteen years before her second daughter was born? When Leah asked her about it on the drive back to their modest one-story house in Texarkana, Arkansas, Mama lapsed into poker-faced silence.
That evening Mama and Daddy solemnly asked Leah to join them in the kitchen. Her imagination immediately went into overdrive. Oh, Lord, she thought, I’m adopted! Leah fought a sick wave of apprehension as she sat at the old kitchen table, her apprehension turning to disbelief as Daddy slowly explained she was not their daughter, but their granddaughter.
Leah was Annie’s child.
She found herself on her feet, the kitchen chair overturned. “No. That’s… No. It’s impossible.”
How patient he was, how sad. “Just me and your mama know about it. It wasn’t my idea to keep this from you, honey. But Merl wouldn’t have you know, and she’s a stubborn woman. Guess that’s not news to you.” He glanced at his wife, sitting still and mute by his side, and gave her hand a fond pat. “Don’t be mad at your mama, honey. She did what she thought was best.”
If this was hard for Leah, she knew it had to be agony for her parents—no, not her parents, her grandparents, she realized with a start. She tried to make sense of what they were telling her. “Annie…Annie was only fifteen when she died, Daddy.”
Leah had never seen her normally affable father look so bitter. “I know. She was a child. Starting to grow up. But still a child.”
“Tell me what happened.”
He reminded her about the mansion in Long Island, New York, where Merlina Harmony—Merlina Moody then—had taken a position as a maid after a failed first marriage. She and her young daughter, Annie, had lived in the servants’ quarters on the third floor. Douglas Harmony had been a gardener on the estate, which had quite a few servants in those days, overseen by the Scottish housekeeper, Mary. In time Merl and Douglas fell in love.
Leah remembered the stories she’d heard as a little girl growing up in a lower-middle-class family in Arkansas. It was the stuff of fairy tales, and she’d memorized every detail. Mama and Daddy had created a vivid picture of the crystal chandeliers and the ballroom and the servants—but always clammed up when she asked about the people who lived there, the famous photographer and his family.
Daddy said, “That last winter and on into the spring, Annie was different. Not as carefree as she’d been. Kind of skittish, if you know what I mean. By the time your mama realized the girl had missed a few, uh, monthlies, she was three months along.”
Leah felt the blood drain from her face, listening to the sorry tale of her own conception.
“Annie…” He paused, and she realized with a shock that he was close to tears. She’d never seen Douglas Harmony cry. He cleared his throat. “She wouldn’t tell her mama at first. Merl went through hell trying to get the girl to tell her who did this thing to her. Then it came out. It was Mr. Bradburn, the man we worked for. He’d threatened that little girl. That bastard raped her and said he’d kill her mama and me if she told anyone. It went on for months.”
Leah was weeping now, sitting there at the kitchen table weeping for Annie.
“I knew the man was a cold one. Hard to work for and real rough on his wife and boys,” Douglas said. “But what kind of man could…” He paused a moment, his craggy face hardening against the memory.
“Me and your mama, we went to talk to Mr. Bradburn. I’ll never forget that. He was in this fancy office he had there, wearing a black tuxedo with a little white tie, smoking one of his expensive cigars. That yellow hair of his all slicked back. Him and his wife were going to some kind of swanky dinner that night. Your mama, she was out of control, fit to be tied. Well, you know Merl. The bastard didn’t deny it. Only said we weren’t gonna get a penny out of him, and if we even thought about going to the police—or to his wife—he’d say he never touched the girl and that we stole him blind. Then he’d sic his high-priced lawyers on us. For starters.”
Leah leaned on the table, her head in her hands, all her tears spent.
“You can’t imagine what that does to a man… seeing something like that happen to the woman he loves, to the child he loves like his own flesh and blood, and not a damn thing he can do about it.” His voice was low, shaken. “Makes you feel like less than a man. Anyway, Bradburn says you got five minutes to get your stuff and get off my property.”
“You could’ve gone to the police anyway,” she said.
“You don’t understand, honey. Nowadays you hear all about child abuse and rape. People come right out in the open with it, and everyone believes that what they say happened to them really did. But things were different back then. Bradburn told us we utter one little peep and he gets some of his fellas that work around the house to say our Annie was, you know, friendly with them. A few bucks’d be all it took. And that bastard’s got more than a few. I couldn’t let that happen.”
“So you left.”
“We left. Mrs. Bradburn, she was coming down the stairs, all dolled up for the evening. I know Mr. Bradburn was counting on us being gone before his wife came down. That’s how come we had to hustle out so quick, I reckon. But anyway, there she was, coming down those stairs looking like the most elegant thing on this earth. And she didn’t know what was what, of course, but she knew her husband. And she knew it had to be bad. You could see it in her eyes. He was calling for his wife right then, and he was about on us. And poor little Annie just shaking like a leaf. Anyway, quick as a flash Mrs. Bradburn takes off this fancy necklace she’s wearing—pearls and diamonds, a real pretty thing—and she gives it to Merl, just presses it into her hands.”
“She gave Mama jewelry?”
“It was all she had time for. Said sell this if you need money.”
“Did you sell it?” she asked.
“No. Oh, we needed the money sure enough, but your mama, she wouldn’t part with that necklace. Never wore it, just keeps it in the safe-deposit box at the bank.”
Mama spoke at last. “Mrs. Bradburn was a real fine person. A lady. That necklace belongs to her.”
Daddy smiled sadly. “Can’t argue with you about that, but there were times we sure coulda used the cash.”
“We always had food on the table,” Mama said. “A roof over our heads.”
“Anyway, Merl and me got married right away,” Daddy said, “right after we left that place, and I got by on odd jobs.”
“What happened to Annie?” But Leah knew.
“She died bringing you into the world, honey.”
She sobbed, and Daddy covered both her hands in his big, callused ones. So Annie hadn’t died of pneumonia after all.
He said, “Such a tiny little thing, she was.” He waited until Leah had gained control of herself before continuing. “Merl had it all worked out from the start what we were gonna do. Move down here to Texarkana where her brother lives and start fresh, the four of us. Act like the baby was ours and raise it as Annie’s sister, and no one the wiser. Your mama figured that way Annie could get her life back.”
But Annie never got her life back, Leah thought. Because of her.
“We didn’t change our plans when Annie passed. Your mama, she was so broke up—I figured a fresh start was the best thing all around.”
“But my birth certificate…”
He sighed. “At the hospital they asked Merl to fill out this piece of paper to get the birth certificate made up, and where it asks for the parents’ names, she puts down Douglas Harmony and Merlina Moody Harmony, just as bold as you please. Said if anyone asked about it, she’d say it was Annie’s full name. Only, no one did.” He shrugged. “That’s your mama.”
Leah wondered if she could ever stop thinking of Merlina and Douglas as Mama and Daddy, and decided she wouldn’t try. They’d raised her, after all. She’d always love them as her parents.
He squeezed her hands again. “Honey, you just gotta know… me and your mama never held any of this against you. To us you were always our little girl. You know that. Annie’s in a better place, and that bastard Bradburn will have to answer to the Lord when his time comes. All the money in the world won’t help him then.”
She made up her mind in that instant. The prospect of divine retribution might be enough for Merl and Douglas, but she wouldn’t rest until she stood face-to-face with the man who’d violated a young girl and ultimately caused her death. The fact that this bullying monster was Leah’s own biological father was something she was simply going to have to learn to live with.
“EVERYONE! EVERYONE!” Kara Greene’s nasal, New York – accented voice stifled all conversation in the ballroom as she clapped her hands for attention. “James is here. His car’s coming down the drive. ETA one minute.”
The hairs on Leah’s nape sprang to attention. She clutched her wineglass and took a sip of Chardonnay.
Mr. Bradburn, you don’t know me, but…
Mr. Bradburn, if you could spare a few moments…
Mr. Bradburn, I’m your worst nightmare.
She drained her wineglass, which was instantly lifted from her fingers and replaced with a full one. Smooth move, Mike. She could almost hear her date calculating how many more glasses it would take to get her drunk.
Mike Carleton’s meaty hand was wrapped around a martini glass. Leah had been counting—he was on drink number three, and they’d been there barely an hour. His free hand wormed its way under the collar of her khaki shirtdress. She repressed a shiver of revulsion as he began to massage the back of her neck with damp, sausagelike fingers.
Don’t blow it now, she warned herself as she put a little distance between herself and her date for the evening. You’ve made it this far. Don’t lose sight of your goal.
Mike wore a smug grin. “This place must seem like a palace to a corn-fed chick like you-all, huh? There’s a see-ment pond out yonder. You know, ‘swimming pools… movie stars.’ Looks like I’ve got my own little Beverly Hillbilly here.” He smacked Leah on the rump. Some wine sloshed out of her glass.
Mike took a healthy swallow of his drink. “They call this part of Long Island the Gold Coast. Back in the Gatsby days, all the zillionaires had to have a mansion up here on the North Shore—you know, the Vanderbilts, the Woolworths, all those stinking rich horsey types. A few of the families still live in ’em, the ones with the big bucks like Bradburn. But most of these estates have been wiped out, subdivided, given to the county. It’s a shame, but I mean, let’s face it, the taxes alone’ll kill you. Not to mention the cost of heating oil—there’s forty rooms in this place.” He patted her cheek. “You sure aren’t in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”
Leah sighed. “Arkansas.”
“I’m from Arkansas, Mike. Not Kansas.”
“Whatever.” Mike’s fingers crawled under the back of her collar once more, like some fleshy burrowing animal. Impatiently she squirmed away, untangling long strands of reddish gold hair from his groping paw. He said, “Listen, babe, I don’t mind telling you, this cold-fish routine is getting old, you know?” He gave her a once-over, his glassy gaze lingering on her chest. “You gonna loosen up some tonight? Show a little appreciation? I mean, when you walked into my gallery yesterday, you seemed like a real fun girl—the kinda girl that’d go in for this kind of scene.”
Yesterday had been a coup. Leah had tracked down the Manhattan photo gallery featuring the work of the famous and reclusive James Bradburn and managed to finesse its lecherous owner, Mike Carleton, into bringing her here to Bradburn’s surprise birthday party. She took a deep breath and forced a smile to her lips. “Sorry, honey,” she gushed, thickening her accent. “It’s just that Ah’m so excited. Why, Ah jest can’t hardly believe Ah’m about to meet James Bradburn!”
“That’s more like it. Just don’t you forget to save some of that excitement for old Mikey, you know what I mean?” He patted her on the rear. “Love that accent. You’re the cutest little cow pie here, baby.”
The cutest little what? Leah bit her tongue and bided her time while Mike ambushed a passing hors d’oeuvre tray. Fine, she thought. Let “old Mikey” think she was some awestruck country rube who’d be so awed by her glamorous surroundings that she’d fall flat on her back in gratitude. He’d find out his mistake soon enough.
About seventy friends and associates of James Bradburn were on hand to help him celebrate his birthday. Everywhere Leah looked were spectacular designer outfits and the glint of gold and precious stones. Compared to these rare orchids, she was a lowly dandelion in her khaki dress and serviceable pumps. No problem. If anything, she was proud that she didn’t fit in with this crowd. Bradburn’s crowd.
Maids, waiters, and bartenders hired for the evening circulated with calm efficiency, taking coats, procuring drinks, offering tidbits from silver trays. So this is how the rich and arty party, Leah thought, nibbling a toast round topped with black beluga caviar and a sprinkling of chopped egg. No trash cans filled with beer here. Not a bag of chips in sight. This, she could get used to.
Now that her meeting with James Bradburn was finally at hand, unwelcome questions assaulted her weary mind, questions for which she had no answers: What would the old man do about her? What would she do about him? She rubbed her eyes against the grit and haze of exhaustion, trying to clear her head. The noise and bustle of the party didn’t help. Neither did the wine. She handed her full glass to a passing waiter.
Just take it one step at a time, she told herself. Next step: Meet James Bradburn. Look the old bastard in the eye.
Leah glanced at her watch. One minute, Kara had said. Where was he? She strained her neck to peer around Mike and the other partygoers to the heavy carved oak double doors leading to the front hall. The doors Bradburn would walk through. She shoved her icy hands in the pockets of her dress.
The double doors shared a long wall with two massive fireplaces, framed by carved oak mantels. A burning log suddenly settled, with a leap of flame and a spray of sparks. She knew that at any other time, she would have been fascinated by this ballroom, a relic from another age with its crystal chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors, and ornate brass sconces. Lord knew this room, this mansion, the entire estate, had been described to her in such vivid detail her whole life, she could have found her way around blindfolded.
Opposite the fireplaces were tall, multipaned windows through which she could see that the snowfall hadn’t let up. If anything, it was coming down heavier now. French doors looked out on the terrace and the back gardens. In one corner of the room, Bradburn’s photographic equipment was set up: tripods and cameras, cables and lights, white umbrellas and backdrops. In the opposite corner, a jazz quartet played.
The walls were adorned with framed black-and-white photographs—the portraits and figure studies for which James Bradburn was famous. Grudgingly Leah had to admit the man’s skill was impressive. But it only made sense he’d be an accomplished technician, she told herself. He’d been doing this for five decades or more.
Not that she was the photo aficionada she had pretended to be when she’d found the Carleton Gallery and introduced herself to Mike. Leah knew precious little about Bradburn, not even what he looked like. But the little she did know had twisted her world around. And somehow she’d make sure it twisted his, too, before she was finished with him. Inside her pockets, her hands balled into fists.
As she was introduced to people, she didn’t even try to remember names. One woman, however, was hard to ignore: Kara Greene, Bradburn’s agent and the hostess of the party. The heavily made-up, fortyish brunette darted here and there, gossiping, networking, making sure everyone was having a good time.
“He’s gonna kill me,” Kara was telling Mike, with an impish grin. “He’s gonna strangle me for throwing him this party. Well, you know what I say to that—too damn bad, that’s what I say. The old fuddy-duddy needs this. He works too damn hard.”
Mike tossed back the last of his martini and let his small, close-set eyes rove the room, taking no pains to hide his boredom with the garrulous agent.
Leah followed Kara’s gaze and saw someone near the doors—the designated lookout, apparently—frantically waving his arms and mouthing, He’s here! Kara dashed to the light switches. Music and voices dissolved at her urgent shushing. The chandeliers and wall sconces blinked off one by one.
The room had an otherworldly feel as Leah stood there in the near dark, cheek to jowl with scores of strangers, listening to their whispers, inhaling their mingled perfumes. One side of the room was bathed in a warm orange glow from the twin hearths. She looked toward the French doors and the windows, where silvery moonlight streamed in, reflecting off the swirling snowflakes and the white veneer that now blanketed the lawn.
“Shhh!” The agent’s authoritative hiss had its desired effect—total silence save for the crackle of the fires. In the front hall outside the ballroom could be heard an impatient baritone and an equally insistent Scottish burr—Bradburn’s elderly housekeeper, Mary. It was her job to get him into the room on some pretext. Someone in the ballroom giggled softly.
At the sound of Bradburn’s voice, the dark flower of hate blossomed and grew inside Leah like a living thing, a thing to be nurtured. In the end the persistent Mary had her way. The heavy oak doors swung open and light flooded the room.
Leah stopped breathing. She could only stare in astonishment at the tall, snow-dusted man who seemed to fill the doorway in which he stood. Collar-length black hair framed a striking face with the profile of a Roman emperor. And like Caesar, his very presence commanded respect, even under the circumstances, as he took in the entire preposterous situation with one sweep of his ice-blue gaze. That gaze became dangerously intense as it scoured the room once more, with the deadly resolve of a hunter seeking his prey.
As Leah gaped at this man and reminded herself to breathe, one inescapable fact became clear.
This wasn’t James Bradburn.
She mentally shook herself. The man standing in the doorway pushing long fingers through snow-dampened hair was not gray and wizened. Far from it. She looked past him, but his only companion was little Mary, grinning hugely. Leah watched the other guests laugh and shake the man’s hand as Mary wrestled the heavy shearling jacket off his broad shoulders.
James. Mr. Bradburn. That was what they were calling him. Leah squeezed her eyes shut and rubbed her aching forehead, wondering where her plans had gone awry. When she opened them, she stopped breathing. James Bradburn was staring past the throng of guests, his penetrating gaze focused directly on her. She found herself backing up.
“Hey, where ya going, magnolia?” Mike grabbed her arm.
Suddenly the enormous room began to close in on her. “Gotta get some air.” She wrenched out of his grasp and bolted through the crowd to the French doors. Outside, on the terrace, she took a few deep, fortifying breaths. She welcomed the biting cold—it helped clear her head as she struggled to assess the situation. Leah watched her own frosty breath mingle with the pirouetting snowflakes, which caught the light from the ballroom in myriad pinpoints of fire, like sparks floating down from heaven. The gardens and endless expanse of grounds beyond were already blanketed.
Had Annie ever stood out here, on this precise spot on a late February night, and watched snowflakes dance and stick to her eyelashes? Leah squeezed her eyes shut and willed herself not to think about it. Not one tear, damn it. No more tears.
She turned and gazed at the imposing rear facade of the great house, as intimidating as the front. An hour earlier, as she and Mike had driven through the stone and wrought-iron gates of Whitewood, the Bradburn family estate, she’d felt as if she’d been there before. Gravel had crunched under the tires of Mike’s Mercedes as they made their way down the quarter-mile-long drive from the road to the stately home whose windows glowed in mute welcome. She remembered thinking it looked like a magazine ad for single-malt Scotch.
Leah hadn’t been surprised at the sensation of déjà vu. While her companion had yammered self-importantly about his connection to the illustrious photographer, Leah had found herself wondering what Mike’s reaction would be were he to find out how much she already knew about Whitewood and its 120-year-old English-style stone manor house. She could have told him the estate’s two hundred acres boasted an Olympic-size swimming pool, tennis courts, and an apple orchard. Not to mention the summerhouse and carriage barn.
Mike’s grating voice horned in on her thoughts. “Bet you don’t see much snow in Kansas, huh, Dorothy?”
She turned to see him peering in slack-jawed befuddlement at the snowflakes melting on his outthrust hand. “Lookee, Paw, lookee! Thar’s a heap o’ cold, white stuff a-comin’ outta the—”
“You’re repulsive, Mike.”
“I said, you’re impulsive. Such a fun, impulsive guy.” When Leah looked into her date’s little eyes, she couldn’t help picturing Mavis Fletcher’s prize sow Gertie in a two-thousand-dollar silk suit and a gold Tag Heuer watch. She desperately wanted to leave the party, and was about to say so when she remembered how many martinis Mike had downed. Even if he’d been stone-cold sober, the way he was leering at her settled the matter. She wasn’t getting in a car with him again. There had to be plenty of other guests driving back to Manhattan. She’d have no problem getting a ride.
Shivering, Leah hugged herself and stamped her feet. She’d just turned to rejoin the party when Mike seized her shoulders in his beefy hands.
“Looks like you could use a little warmin’ up, Miz Scarlett.” He tightened his grip, a smarmy grin on his face. “I bet some things are the same everywhere. You ever take the boys out to the pasture? Huh?”
Sure enough—we just love to roll around in all those cow pies, you ignorant slob.
Knowing she’d never be able to suffer his kiss without retching, she twisted away just as his wet mouth zeroed in. “Brrrr! It’s freezing out here.” She darted back into the ballroom and brushed the snow off her dress.
Mike’s voice behind her was a dangerous growl. “Listen, you little tease—”
“Mike! Where ya been, man?”
Leah turned to see a skinny man wearing an expensive leather jacket and a surly expression. His significant other stood nearby, looking bored.
“Hey! Tim, Wanda, what kept you?” Mike’s mood did an instantaneous about-face. “Want you to meet someone. This little Georgia peach here is Dorothy.”
She sighed. “Leah Harmony.” At least Georgia peach was an improvement over cow pie.
“Whatever.” Mike waylaid a waiter. “Grey Goose martini, extra dry, straight up, with a twist.” He turned back to his friends. “Leah here works for some catalog outfit, isn’t that right, babe?”
“I own Harmony Grits, a mail-order company specializing in southern foods. Pleased to meet you.”
“Yeah, hi.” Tim didn’t smile or shake the hand she offered. Wanda simply ignored her.
Tim mumbled, “Got something for you, man.”
“Uh… yeah.” Mike’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “Uh, listen, Dorothy, me and my friends, we’re gonna go take care of some business, know what I mean?” He tapped his nose and sniffed meaningfully. “Wanna join us? You country girls go in for that kind of thing?”
“Listen, sugah, you go have yourself some fun. My taste runs more to home-brewed moonshine.”
“‘Home-brewed moonshine’! Love it!” he hooted. “Jest gotta keep it away from them revenuers, right?” He patted her cheek. “I’ll be back in a snort and a half, babe. Don’t go anywhere.”
Leah was grateful for the respite, however brief. Her nerves were stretched to the breaking point. She’d been awake for forty hours, nervous anticipation having robbed her of sleep the night before. For hours she’d stared out the window of her twelfth-floor room in the Millennium Hotel near Times Square, oblivious to the glittering spectacle of Broadway stretched out below her.
She’d flown up to New York from Little Rock three days earlier. Three days of angling to get within spitting distance—literally—of James Bradburn. Now she had only one goal: to make a quick getaway while avoiding both her escort and the disturbing guest of honor.
She felt a hand on her arm and looked into Kara Greene’s warm brown eyes. The agent spoke sotto voce, woman to woman. “Look, hon, I don’t know you, you don’t know me, and maybe I’m sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong—but hey, when has that ever stopped me? Let me guess. You’re fresh off the turnip wagon from somewhere south of Wall Street, yes?”
“You just met that pig Mike Carleton, like, yesterday, am I right?” Kara didn’t wait for an answer. “I’m right. Trust me, hon. I mean, you seem like a nice girl—that’s why I’m saying this. Find another ride home. I’ll give you a lift back to the city myself. You hear what I’m saying? You don’t know the guy. I do.”
Leah smiled. She liked Kara already. “No problem. I kind of figured that one out for myself.”
“Good girl.” Kara squeezed her hand.
“Kara, maybe you can clear something up for me. I thought Bradburn was—”
Kara jerked her head toward something behind Leah. “Whatever it is, you can ask him yourself.”
Leah whirled around and saw the object of her confusion closing in on them with long-legged strides. She swallowed hard.
“Kara… dear, sweet Kara…” Bradburn’s voice was a deep rumble, his smile menacing. “You shouldn’t have.”
Leah’s knees went weak with relief. Bradburn was practically on top of her, but his attention was directed at his agent. He wore a black wool turtleneck, faded blue jeans, and scuffed leather boots. His straight black hair was pushed back from his face and nearly grazed his shoulders. Leah was close enough to detect the warmth of his body and his clean, masculine scent.
Kara burst into laughter and winked impudently at James. The feisty agent was about five feet tall, and he was easily six four.
“You don’t scare me, James, so you can drop the fire-breathing act.” Kara snared a passing waiter. “Get Mr. Bradburn a double Maker’s Mark. Make that a triple. He needs it. Happy thirty-fifth birthday, you ungrateful beast.” She stretched up on tiptoes to peck his cheek, her eyes still sparking with mischief.
A small crowd had formed around the pair, and Leah felt herself being pushed even closer to the big man. She was annoyed with herself, with her own trip-hammer heartbeat, the way her breath snagged in her chest. She’d have given anything at that moment to be able to slither away.
“This is war, Greene,” he challenged. “I’ll retaliate when you least expect it—perhaps for your fiftieth birthday. Next month, isn’t it?”
A chorus of “whoas” and “ouches” accompanied this wicked jab as the crowd warmed to the battle. Kara shrieked with laughter, while James appeared to be struggling to suppress a grin.
The waiter returned and reached past Leah to deliver a cut-crystal rocks glass filled to the brim with bourbon and ice. Someone jostled the waiter and he barreled into Leah. She slammed up against James’s hard chest and reflexively pushed him away, just as he gingerly took possession of the glass.
A wave of cold liquor struck her face—a direct hit. Astonishment snatched the air from her lungs. The crowd receded as ice skidded across the parquet floor. She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed for sudden death, the humiliation of Leah Harmony having been successfully completed.
A pair of large, heavy hands closed on her shoulders, steadying her. Through stubbornly closed eyelids she detected the searing heat of a blue-fire gaze. At length James’s patience won out and grudgingly she looked up into eyes the color of a wide Arkansas sky. There were undertones of appreciation in his bold scrutiny. And amusement. A few people tittered, but he silenced them with a glance.
James accepted a towel from a waiter and gently wiped Leah’s face, all the while examining her with undisguised interest, from sullen hazel eyes to bourbon-spattered shoes. She felt the stinging heat of a blush crawl up her neck.
“Well, whoever you are,” he chuckled, “I must say you hold your liquor well.”
The crowd erupted in laughter while Leah’s cheeks burned hotter still. Kara clucked like a mother hen and wiped Leah’s dress with a napkin. “Oh Gawd, this is just great. Bourbon. You’ll stink to high heaven. Mary!” she bellowed, and hustled her out the doorway into the front hall, a room of intricate woodwork, pink marble, and leaded glass. There the elderly Scottish housekeeper assessed her condition in one swift glance and immediately took charge.
“I dinna know why things ha’ to get so wild. Poor duck.” Mary started up the winding staircase, and Leah had no choice but to follow along docilely. Her head was pounding and she felt light-headed. She gripped the mahogany banister for support. She’d sort out this mess tomorrow, she decided. Tonight Kara would give her a ride back to the city, and she’d have a chance to rest and think.
Mary led her down a hallway into a large, old-fashioned bathroom that looked as if it might have once been a bedroom. The first thing she noticed was the huge claw-footed, rolled-edge bathtub. It reminded her of the one in her parents’ house in Arkansas, only this one was in perfect condition, with state-of-the-art polished brass and enamel fixtures.
A mahogany chest of drawers dominated one wall. Mary extracted a white towel and washcloth from one of the drawers and handed them to Leah. The floor was bleached oak partially covered with an oval braided rug. An oak-framed mirror hung over the old-fashioned pedestal sink. In the corners were an antique Windsor chair and a coat tree.
“I’ll take yer shoes and bag and get them cleaned up, lass. And give me that dress and your hose. I’ll run them through the machine.”
Leah dabbed at the stains with a damp washcloth. “Oh, uh… that’s okay, I’ll just—”
“Good Lord above, ye canna be goin’ round drenched in spirits, smellin’ like a godforsaken bourbon distillery. I’ll get yer clothes clean and dry. Then ye can go back downstairs and get some proper Scotch whiskey poured on ye.” Mary’s tone brooked no opposition. Briskly she unbuttoned the damp khaki dress. When Leah was down to bra and panties, Mary grabbed a red silk kimono from the coat tree and bundled her into it.
The kimono felt like heaven next to her skin. It was much too large for her, making her feel all the more helpless and coddled. She found herself breathing deeply to inhale the faint fragrance that permeated the silk… warm, masculine, a bit spicy. Without warning, she recalled being pressed against James Bradburn, and to her annoyance, she blushed anew.
Leah washed the bourbon off her face and neck, then Mary led her down the hallway to a room that smelled of leather and lemon oil. It was a masculine room, furnished in dark oak and green leather. The floor-to-ceiling shelves lining every wall were crammed with books. A navy and cream Oriental carpet warmed her toes. Clearly this was James Bradburn’s library.
“Pick up a book and I’ll be back before you know it.” Mary peered closely at Leah. “Ach, you look exhausted, lass. It’ll be an hour at least before you have your dress back. There’s a nice cozy guest room across the hall. Why don’t you go lie down awhile? I’ll just leave your things on this desk if you’re not here.” She looked down. “So there ye are, Stieglitz.”
Leah followed Mary’s gaze to the carpet, where a large black cat rubbed itself languorously against the housekeeper’s legs. He repeated the caress on Leah, sliding against the kimono and disappearing inside the voluminous folds of silk to rub against her legs.
“Why, Stieglitz, ye rude old tom,” Mary scolded. “Aren’t ye ashamed now?” A deep purr was his only response.
“It’s all right,” Leah said, leaning down to stroke the animal’s shiny black fur, “I like cats.” The purr turned into a loud rumble of contentment, like a well-oiled engine. Leah laughed.
“’Twould seem the feelin’s mutual,” Mary observed. “Ye should feel honored. Old Stieglitz is a cranky thing. He only tolerates me because I feed ’im. Now, dinna go pesterin’ this young lady, ye hear me? She’s got no treats for ye, old fool.”
“Mary, can I ask you something?”
“I thought Mr. Bradburn was a much older man. In his sixties?”
“Why, lass, ye be thinkin’ of James Bradburn, Sr. The lad’s father passed on three years ago March. Of course, he was a fine photographer himself, but if ye be wantin’ my opinion, the young one’s the better of the two. Not to speak ill of the dearly departed, mind you.”
Mary’s words confirmed Leah’s suspicions. Conflicting emotions warred within her and she was grateful she wouldn’t have to face anyone for a while. “Thanks, Mary. And thanks so much for cleaning my things.”
“Don’t mention it, lass.”
Once she was alone in the library, Leah browsed the shelves. Mary’s offer of the guest room was tempting, but she didn’t want to risk dozing off and missing her ride. “Well, Stieglitz, what shall we read, hmm?” Finally she selected one of the myriad books of photographs James owned, this one featuring pictures of children. She curled up on an armchair with Stieglitz and the volume on her lap, and struggled to stay awake as the minutes ticked by.
From down the hall came the thunderous sound of a door slamming, accompanied by a muffled curse. Leah’s brow wrinkled. She’d thought she was alone on the second floor. More doors opened and closed, closer now.
She froze at the sound of Mike’s inebriated voice right outside the library door, swearing vehemently. “Where the hell did those two get off to?”
Stieglitz came to attention, his tail snaking back and forth. The door swung open and there stood Mike Carleton, swaying, staring at her in confusion. He sniffed wetly and rubbed his nose with his knuckles. Obviously he’d spent the last half hour holed up somewhere upstairs sniffing cocaine with his loathsome buddies.
Stieglitz sprang off her lap and bolted between Mike’s legs and out the door. Leah jumped to her feet. Every instinct told her this was trouble. Mike’s bloodshot eyes perused her kimono-clad form with insolent familiarity as she consciously fought the impulse to pull the robe more tightly around her. It wouldn’t do to show fear.
“Been waiting for me, huh, sweetie? I had you pegged for a frigid one, but it looks like I was wrong.” He turned unsteadily and closed the door behind him. She tried to sweep past him, but he caught her wrists in a bruising grip. “Hold it, moonshine. Where’re you going?”
“Get your hands off—”
“You mean it’s not me you’re waiting for? You hurt my feelings, sweetheart.” He manacled both wrists in one beefy hand, squeezing painfully as she struggled to free herself. His other hand yanked at the kimono’s sash. Leah started to scream and his hand whipped out and cracked across her face, throwing her into a table and onto the floor. “You got a problem with etiquette, babe.” Mike fumbled with the buckle of his belt as she staggered to her feet, holding her throbbing cheek. “Maybe they do things different in Kansas, but lemme set you straight.” He swore at his belt buckle and leaned on the nearby desk until his equilibrium returned. His insulting parody of a southern accent returned with a vengeance. “You-all came to this here hootenanny with little ol’ me, an’ you-all’s gonna go home with little ol’ me. That’s the way it works in these here parts. Got it? It just plum ain’t po-lite to go servicin’ some other hombre.”
He dropped the accent and skewered her with a dangerous look. “Now I know why you were so hot to come here tonight—so you could cozy up to Bradburn. Lemme tell you something, sweetheart.” He got the buckle open at last and triumphantly unzipped his pants. “Mike Carleton doesn’t appreciate being used. Not by a hick little piece like you, that’s for damn sure.”
He lunged for her, and she dodged him with all the adrenaline-fueled speed at her disposal. She feinted right and darted left and was nearly to the door before a befuddled Mike finally managed to tackle her to the carpet. He was only three or four inches taller than her five six, but he was heavy, and he used his weight to immobilize her, stealing her breath. She fought with every ounce of strength in her slender body as he tore open the kimono. That action freed her legs and she brought her knee up hard.
Mike easily deflected it. He snickered as he yanked her head back by her hair and pinned her securely beneath him. She felt a sickening wash of terror. “That little move never works as good as a girl thinks it will,” he taunted. His face was close to hers, so close she nearly gagged on his sour breath. She felt the hard ridge of his arousal straining under his pants as he rubbed himself against her. His hands pawed her, brutally squeezing her breast through her bra. He groped for the waistband of her bikini panties.
This is really going to happen!
That thought galvanized her. Like hell it is!
Mike’s sweaty face bore down on hers, his wet lips opening to cover her mouth. In the next instant he was shrieking like a steam whistle and clutching his nose, now creased with the imprints of her teeth. Not allowing a nanosecond for him to recover, she immediately struck upward again with her knee, summoning every last shred of strength in one concentrated blow.
The well-placed kick left Mike in gaping, retching shock. Leah was out from under him and into the hall before he’d drawn his first breath. Blindly she bolted down the long corridor, the kimono flying behind her like the wings of some giant crimson bird, her heartbeat thundering in her ears.
As the end of the hall rushed toward her, reflexively she darted through the last doorway, slamming the door and turning the lock. Her chest heaved as she slid down the door and sat there, trembling, straining her ears for sounds of pursuit. All she could hear was her own rasping breaths.
Leah stumbled across the moon-silvered room to the big four-poster bed and collapsed on the white linen duvet cover, drawing the kimono tightly around herself. A few moments of rest, that was all she needed. Then she’d pull herself together, get her clothes, and catch that ride back to Manhattan. A few moments of rest…
SUNLIGHT TEASED LEAH’S eyelids until, grudgingly, they creaked open—just enough to sense the new day. She sighed heavily and closed them again. Remaining curled on her left side, she burrowed deeper under the comforter, snuggling into the warm, solid presence behind her. What a relief, she thought, to get her first good night’s sleep in so long—
Her eyes snapped open.
The powerful arm tightened around her waist, pulling her backward. Its hand drifted over the front of the kimono and gently cupped her breast. Leah swallowed hard as breath fluttered her hair in the slow, even cadence of sleep.
Who is this? her mind raged. What happened? With relief she realized her underwear was intact, so nothing had actually happened. Not in that sense anyway. Which meant this man couldn’t be Mike Carleton.
Carefully she turned her head, enough to glimpse the muscular arm that curled possessively over her while its owner slept. Slowly, so slowly, she began to ease out of the man’s embrace.
“Mmm… Sleeping Beauty awakens.” The deep, drowsy voice froze her in midescape.
He pulled her back against his long frame and let his big hand travel down her side and the curve of her hip. His breath was hot against her scalp as he slowly parted the silk kimono. “I think it’s time for me to open my birthday present.”Return to Snowed