Authors: Diana Palmer
“I've heard all about you over the years. They say you're one of the brightest young hostesses in politics. I might have recognized you in one of those designer gowns you wear. Insiders say you're the brains and drive behind your brother. But you don't look so tough to me.”
“Pneumonia will make the toughest of us mellow, just briefly,” Nikki said, inclining her head. “So it's war, is it?”
“That's how I fight,” Kane returned, ramming his hands deep into his pockets.
“Fair enough. But there's one condition. No mudslinging.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “You know better.”
She felt her face color with bad temper and her own hands clenched together. “No mudslinging about what we did together,” she said, forcing the words out.
He wanted to hit her where it hurt most. She'd made a fool of him.
“We had a one-night stand,” he said. “And I'm not running for public office. If I were, you might actually worry me.”
Nikki had once been warned,
Men love in the darkness and are indifferent in the dawn.
Now that phrase came back to her with vivid forceâ¦.
“Diana Palmer is a mesmerizing storyteller who captures the essence of what a romance should be.”
âAffaire de Coeur
THE TEXAS RANGER
LORD OF THE DESERT
THE COWBOY AND THE LADY
FIT FOR A KING
RAGE OF PASSION
ONCE IN PARIS
AFTER THE MUSIC
ROOMFUL OF ROSES
FRIENDS AND LOVERS
THE RAWHIDE MAN
Watch for DIANA PALMER's newest novel
Available in hardcover
from HQN Books
was first published in 1993 under my own name, Susan Kyle. I am delighted to see it back in print again. For those of you who have read it previously, this reprint is from my original manuscript. Many scenes that were deleted, particularly those dealing with Cortez and Phoebe, have been reinstated. In other words, this is not the book you read before, although the research and the time periodâ1993âremain intact. I have not updated the political atmosphere, or anything else, having preferred to leave the book in its time period, before the tragic events of September 11, 2001, which changed us all forever. If you bought
ten years ago, I hope you will enjoy revisiting these characters and this less stressful period of our history, with the extra scenes. If you have never read it, I hope you enjoy it.
I wish all of you happiness.
I am your fan,
(alias Susan Kyle)
eabrook had been the Seymour family's vacation spot for twenty years. It was a beautiful small community island offering a marina, golf course, a private club and a welcome break from the hectic pace of the resorts.
This particular stretch of it was connected with some of the wealthiest Charleston families. Nicole Seymour didn't have a million dollars, but the Seymour name granted her entry into the wealthiest circles of society as only the oldest South Carolinian names could. This beach property had originally been purchased by her father on speculation. But when the planned community started taking shape in 1992, he held on to his acreage and built a cottage on it for family vacations. At his death, it had gone to Nicole and her brother, Republican
Congressman Clayton Myers Seymour, Representative of the First Congressional District of South Carolina.
The Seymours of Charleston were one of the most respected families in the state and it wasn't surprising that when Nikki's brother had first announced his candidacy for the House of Representatives seat from his district three years ago, he was immediately supported by the local Republican vanguard. He was elected without even a runoff in the general election two years ago, to Clayton's surprise and Nikki's delight.
Nikki's social standing made her the perfect hostess for Clayton. During his three years in Washington, D.C., her brother had done a good job. So had Nikki, helping to curry favor for him, because she had a knack for presenting unpopular points of view. She was in the process of organizing dinner parties and reelection fund-raising galas for Clayton. He'd just announced his candidacy for reelection, and it promised to be a tough race. Clayton not only had Republican opposition from his own party, but the field of Democratic candidates included Sam Hewett, a well-known and liked businessman who had a virtual empire behind him, not to mention the clout of a very dangerous tabloid paper out of New York. In fact, Sam's campaign administrative assistant was one of the sons of the tabloid owner.
Nikki had just put the finishing touches on the organization of another gala for Clayton in Washington, D.C., in September, after the general primary election. She hoped with all her heart that it would also serve as a celebration of Clayton's hoped-for victory in the primary. Those preparations, coupled with her participation in the world-famous Spoleto Festival in Charleston had exhausted her. She was weak from a bout of pneumonia that she'd just recovered from. Now that the festival was almost over, Nikki was recuperating at the family retreat. Clayton wouldn't need her for a few days and she relished the peace and quiet of the beach house. This particular section of the island was fairly isolated, dotted with only a few houses, most of which were very old and belonged to families with old money. The two surrounding the Seymour cottage were owned by families from other areas of the state, and were usually unoccupied until late June.
She stretched as the sun beat down on the deck where she was comfortably sprawled on a padded lounger. She was tall and slender, perfectly proportioned. Her body was as sensual as her slanted pure green eyes and the bow curve of her pretty mouth. She sparkled when she was happy, an enchanted columnist had said by way of descriptionâand despite her height, she had the mischievous disposition of a pixie. With her thick black
hair cut in a wedge around her soft oval face, she even had the look of one. But behind the beauty was a quick mind and an impeccable reputation. If others thought her a bit too wary and cautious, Nikki knew these qualities had helped thwart political enemies when they laid traps for her brother.
Her small breasts lifted and fell slowly as she lay breathing in the delicious sea air. It was early June, and unseasonably cool. A lot of renovation had been done since Hurricane Hugo passed through Charleston and the coastal areas in September of 1989, and Nikki and Clayton's beach house had been one of the ones damaged by high winds. Although they had made the most necessary repairs, many decorative accents had yet to be restored. Unlike many of their neighbors, the Seymours didn't have unlimited funds from which to renovate. Nikki and Clayton were working on a five-year plan to restore the beach house to its former glory.
The sound of a float-plane caught her attention. She shaded her eyes and watched its silvery glitter as it landed not far from her house. This area had no shortage of tycoons. In fact, Kane Lombard had recently bought the old Settles place a few houses down the beach from Nikki and Clayton's, not far from where the plane had landed. Lombard was a Houston oilman who headed a conglomerate which included Charleston's newest automobile manufac
turing company. Nikki had heard that personal tragedy seemed to follow the man, culminating months ago in the violent death of his wife and son in Lebanon during a business trip.
Three weeks ago, he'd moved into the beach house property and his yacht had a slip at the marina. Nikki had seen a photograph of it in the Charleston paper's society section.
Nikki had never met him, and there were no full-face or close-up photos of him in newspapers, except for one that Nikki had seen in
Even the tabloids couldn't catch him on film. Of course, his family did own one of the biggest tabloids in the country. The Lombards of Houston, like the Seymours of Charleston, came from old money. The difference was, the Lombards still had their money. They lived in New York now, not Texas, where they maintained their exclusive tabloid.
The sound of the plane faded and Nikki stretched again. She felt restless. She knew all the right people and she had a comfortable income from the sculptures she did for local galleries. But she was empty inside. Sometimes it bothered her that she was so completely alone except for her brother.
She had been married, briefly; a marriage that destroyed all her illusions and made her question her own sexuality. Her father needed a favor from
a U.S. senator by the name of Mosby Torrance, a South Carolinian. Mosby had been under siege because of, among other things, his long-standing bachelor standing. Mosby had agreed to the favor, which would save Nikki's father from certain bankruptcy, but only in return for Nikki's hand in marriage.
Nikki shivered, remembering her delight. Mosby was fourteen years her senior, an Adonis of a man, with blond hair and blue eyes and a trim, athletic figure. She'd been swept off her feet, and nothing would have stopped her from agreeing to the union. She'd only been eighteen years old. Naive. Innocent. Stupid.
Her father might have suspected, but he never really knew about Mosby until it was much too late. Nikki had emerged from the marriage six months later, so shaken that the divorce was final before she was completely rational again.
She never could admit what she'd endured to her father or brother, but afterward, Clayton was especially kind to her. They grew very close, and when their father died, she and her brother continued to share the huge Charleston house near the Battery. As he entered politics, Nikki was his greatest support. She learned to organize, to be a hostess, to charm and coax money from prospective supporters. She did whatever Clayton needed her to do to help him, both at his Charleston office
and in Washington, D.C., where she had gained some repute as a hostess. She always created just the right mix of people at banquets and cocktail parties, with motifs and themes that radiated excitement and interest. She was very successful at her endeavors. But the old fears and lack of self-confidence kept her free of relationships of any sort. She couldn't trust her judgment ever again. She could live without a man in her life, she'd decided. But she was twenty-five and lonely. So lonely.
The sun was getting too warm. She stood up and slipped a silky blue caftan over her green-and-gold bathing suit, loving the feel of it against her soft, tanned skin. A movement on the beach caught her eye and she went to the railing to look out over the ocean. Something black was there, bobbing, in the surf. She frowned and leaned over to get a better look, shading her eyes from the sunlight. A head! It was a person!
Without even thinking, she darted down the steps and ran across the beach, stumbling as the thick sand made her path unwieldy. Her heart raced madly as she began to think of the possibilities. Suppose it was a body washing up on the beach? What if she found herself in the wake of a murder? Or worse, what if it were a drowning victim? She had no lifesaving training, a stupid thing to admit to when she had a holiday home on the beach! She
made a mental note even in her panic to sign up for lifesaving courses at the Red Cross.
As she reached the surf, she realized that the body in the water was a man's. It was muscular and husky and very tall-looking with darkly tanned skin and dark hair. She knelt quickly beside it and felt for a pulse. She found it. Her breath sighed out and she realized only then that she'd been holding it.
She managed to roll the man over onto his belly, just out of the surf. Turning his face to one side, she began to push in the center of his back, a maneuver she'd seen on one of the real-life rescue series on TV. The man began to cough and retch, and she kept pumping. Seconds later, he jerked away from her and sat up, holding his forehead. He was a big man for all his leanness. Thank God, she wasn't going to have to try and drag him any farther out of the surf!
“Are you all right?” she asked worriedly.
“My headâ¦hurts,” he choked, still coughing.
She hesitated for a second before she began to look through his thick wet hair. She found a gash just above his temple. The blood had congealed and it didn't look very deep, but he'd been unconscious.
“I think I'd better call an ambulance,” she began. “You could have a concussion.”
“I don't need an ambulance,” he said firmly.
He coughed again. “I fell off a Jet Ski and hit my head. I remember that.” He scowled. “Funny. I can't remember anything else!”
Nikki sat very still. The hem of her caftan was soaked from the rising surf. She gnawed on her lower lip, a habit from childhood, while she struggled with the question of what to do next.
“Would you like to come up to my beach house and rest for a bit?” she asked in her softly accented voice.
He lifted his head and looked at her, and she felt a shock all the way through her. He seemed very familiar. She couldn't quite place him, but he looked like someone she knew. Could she have met him at the Spoleto Festival?
“I must be visiting someone around here,” he began slowly. “I couldn't have come far.”
“You're disoriented,” she said. “When you've rested, perhaps you'll remember who you are. I believe amnesia of this kind is very temporary.”
“Are you a nurse?”
Her eyebrows lifted. “Why not a doctor?” she asked.
“Why not a nurse?” he asked, his eyes and his tone challenging.
She threw up her hands. “You're going to be one of those sharp, difficult people, I can tell. Here, let's see if we can get you underway. Oh, for a
wheelbarrowâ¦” She eyed him. “Make that a front-end loader.”
“If you're trying out for stand-up comedy,” he murmured, “don't give up your day job.”
His deep voice was unaccented. If anything it sounded midwestern. He was wearing a waterproof Rolex watch and the swimming trunks he had on were designer marked. He was no transient. And he was much too old to be a college student on summer vacation, she thought wickedly as she noted the streaks of gray at his temples. He had to be almost forty. Certainly he was older than her brother.
She felt uncomfortable with the close physical contact that was necessary now, but she forced herself to yield to the situation. He couldn't very well stay down here on the beach all day.
She eased under his arm and slid her hand around his back. His skin was olive tan and silky, rippling with muscle. He was fit for a man of his age, she thought, her eyes dropping involuntarily to the broad chest with an incredibly thick mass of curling black hair that ran in a wedge from his collarbone all the way down into the low-slung swimming trunks around his lean hips. Most men, since her marriage, repelled Nikki. This man, strangely, didn't. She already felt comfortable with him, as if the sight of his almost nude body was familiar to her.
Of course, he had the kind of body that even a disinterested woman couldn't help but admire right down to long, tanned, powerful legs with just enough hair to be masculine and not offensive. She drew his arm over her shoulder, holding it by the hand. He had nice hands, too, she thought. Very lean and big, with oval nails immaculately kept. No jewelry at all. She wondered if that was deliberate. Where his watch had shifted, there was no white line, so his tan must be of the year-round variety.
“Easy does it,” she said gently. The feel of all the muscle so close was really disturbing. She hadn't been so close to a man since her tragic marriage. He attracted her and she immediately forced her mind to stop thinking in that direction. He needed her. That was all she must consider now.
“I can walk by myself,” he said gruffly, and then stumbled as he tried to prove it.
Nikki managed not to smile. “One step at a time,” she repeated. “You're injured, that's all. It's bound to affect your balance.”
“Are you sure you first name isn't Florence?” he muttered. “Maybe it's Polyanna.”
“You're very offensive for a man the ocean spit out,” she remarked. “Obviously you left a bad taste in its mouth.”