Authors: Judy Ann Davis
Tags: #Suspense, #Contemporary
“Of course, I miss you, but I won’t deny things are falling apart here. No one can seem to find anything. Levinson called today. He asked about you. It looks like the five-city hotel plan will become operational after all, once the investors are lined up.”
“Has Paul forgiven me for my act of insanity with Levinson before I left?” Elise poured herself a glass of orange juice, smelled it, and turned the carton slowly in her hands, looking for the sell date, hoping it was fairly recent.
“Right now, since Levinson affirmed our position in the deal, Paul is ready to nominate you for architectural sainthood.”
“Tell him I want a raise instead.” A partnership would be a real thrill, she thought, but bit back the words. She heard silence for a moment, then a soft chuckle.
“Sure, I’ll give it a whirl. Nothing like putting the squeeze on, eh?”
“You got it. I figure he owes me.”
“Listen, Elise, I have to go. It’s really not the same around here. I miss your voice, your perfume, your laughter—”
She scoffed. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Sanders. Then there’s my efficiency and the way I organize your notes and make your coffee. I get the drift of where you’re headed. Bye, Chuck.” She pushed the button on the phone and stood near the kitchen window in silence. Through the open window, she watched a pair of swallows dart through the sky playing air tag, and far off, she heard a calf calling for its mother. Two years ago, she would have felt homesick for the office and its hectic schedule that attracted her like a human magnet. So why wasn’t she feeling it now?
Maybe it was because she finally realized she was trapped, like a pathetic hamster inside an exercise wheel. She was racing to nowhere. She had been smoothing everyone’s feathers since her arrival at Winston and Sanders without one mention of a senior partnership even slipping past anyone’s lips. Efficient people, she had learned, were always rewarded; unfortunately, with more work. Well, she was fed up with correcting other people’s errors, acting as company gofer, and playing nursemaid to cranky clients. She was tired of choosing wallpaper and carpet colors and designing landscape and parking lot patterns. If her career was stuck in neutral, it was her own fault. She had only herself to blame. She had let it happen. She had become too efficient.
Elise looked through the archway and saw Lucas sitting on the steps, chatting with Fritz. Bags of groceries were scattered at their feet. He reached down and took out a soup can, turning it slowly in his hands, rubbing the label almost sensually with the pads of his thumbs. She wondered how many women had been held and caressed by those same hands. Dangerous hands, she reminded herself.
As if he could feel her eyes on him, he looked her way. Her stomach fluttered, and she started toward them. Get a grip, Elise, she told herself. You’re going to have to separate the man and his needs from your childish, foolish attraction to him, and you had better do it soon before someone gets hurt.
The kitchen smelled glorious. The scents of frying chicken, Chinese vegetables, hot oil, and soy sauce rose from the stovetop and swirled in the air.
Lucas sat at the kitchen table with his legs propped up on the seat of an adjacent chair and watched with fascination as Fritz fussed over an electric wok on the counter. Upstairs, Elise was taking a bath before dinner. Although he didn’t know why. The woman barely broke a sweat when she went jogging, and with the rich enticing perfume she used, she always smelled like a delicate spring flower garden. He wondered how much good old Chuck had paid for an ounce of the stuff. He’d bet his life the man blew a week’s pay easily. He also knew she was on the phone with Sanders while she soaked, trying to straighten out paperwork he or Winston had bungled.
“You haven’t told her, have you?”
Lucas snapped out of his daydreaming at the sound of Fritz’s voice. “About what?”
“Cut out the innocent act,” Fritz growled. “Elise has no idea you’re so filthy rich you could buy her firm with the snap of your fingers, does she?” He took the wooden spoon he was using from the wok and rapped it sharply on the edge of the pan.
“What difference would it make?” Lucas asked. He pulled his feet from the chair and sat upright. “And don’t use ‘filthy.’ I made my money honestly and legally. It’s hard-earned, clean cash.”
Fritz flashed him a look of disdain. “Don’t play silly games with me either, Lucas, or with her for that matter. She honestly wants to help, but you’re not showing her all your cards. I have no idea why, but I’ll tell you only once, moron, hurt her and you’ll answer to me.”
“What makes you think I’d hurt her?” Lucas asked defensively and inched up more, ramrod straight. It was the last thing he had on his mind. “Listen, I just don’t want the city of Scranton to know I’m anything but the poor abandoned kid who’s now all grown up, all right? I have my reasons.”
“Does it have anything to do with Mike’s death?” Fritz sent him a pointed look.
“Yeah, it does. I’d like to wait before I reveal any of my personal finances. I want to let things simmer a bit. See what plays out, see what happens.”
“And if she finds out?” Fritz gestured, inclining his head toward the ceiling where the bath was located above them. “Then what?” He unscrewed the cap from the soy sauce and sprinkled more on the vegetables.
“I’ll tell her the truth. Hell, I’ll tell her now, if that’s what you want.”
“Tell me what?” Elise asked and stepped into the kitchen from the hall. She was barefoot, dressed in an aqua sweat suit, and her hair fell loosely around her shoulders.
“I’m rich,” Lucas admitted stonily, “but I’m trying to keep a low profile, so I can stay incognito. Sort of like a James Bond image, only in reverse.”
“Yeah, right, cut me a break.” She went to an overhead cupboard beside the refrigerator and rummaged on the shelf. “And I’m going to be one of your super sleuth babes who gets to wear those slinky clothes with all that electronic paraphernalia strapped to my body.” She removed a bottle of ibuprofen and shook out three tablets. “Are you guys into the booze again?”
Lucas shrugged, raising his hands in defeat as he shot Fritz an
I told you so
Elise filled a glass of water, swallowed the tablets, and chugged down the water.
Fritz turned from the stove. “You okay?” A worried expression marred his normally comic face.
She yawned. “I have a dull nagging headache. Jet lag finally caught up with me. I know Winston and Sanders have, too. Sometimes I feel like I’m working with two loose screws rather than accomplished architects. Mother used to say if you want a job done right, do it yourself.” She sighed, her eyes following the steam rising from the pan. “When are we going to eat? I’m tired, but not too tired to miss this gourmet treat. It smells fabulous, Fritz.”
“Take five on the couch,” Fritz instructed. “I’ll give a yell when we’re ready to eat.” The two men watched her walk wearily away.
“What’s on your menu for dessert, Iron Chef?” Lucas asked.
“Chocolate cake, what else?” He grinned. “It’s made from Mom’s old recipe. Fit for the likes of Lady Godiva. One of Elise’s favorites, too.”
“There’s only one slight problem,” Lucas drawled. “Lady Godiva lived in the second century, and chocolate was introduced into England in the eighteenth century.”
“Get out, how’d you know that?” Fritz raised a questioning eyebrow.
“I have a minor in history.”
“Holy Fright! Why history, dude?”
Lucas shrugged. “I don’t know, I guess I found it fascinating.” He looked through the archway into the living room where Elise was stretched out, eyes closed, in a recliner.
“You know Elise has a meeting with Pedmo tomorrow morning.” Lucas rubbed at the tension in the back of his neck. The dilemma with Children and Youth Services was wearing on him like a heavy coat of armor, slowly weighing him down hour by hour. He prayed Elise was up for the challenge.
Fritz snorted. “Pedmo is about to go down like a rock sinking in the Lackawanna River, pal. Lizzie has done a lot of legwork on your case. When she sets out to win, no one in his right mind should mess with her. You’ve never seen her go on a twenty-four hour bout of insanity when she gets passionate over an issue.”
“What should I do?”
“Absolutely nothing if you value your life.” Fritz smiled broadly. “Just step aside and wait for the fireworks to begin.”
It was late when Lucas arrived home from seeing Todd at the Johnsons’. Elise was watching the news, cuddled up on the couch with a fluffy afghan. Although Todd was disappointed Elise hadn’t accompanied him, she did insist Lucas take her smartphone. Todd had spent most of the time punching the Johnsons’ number into it and listening to the phone ring endlessly. Lucas wondered how many minutes they had used up on her account as a result of their antics. He hoped she had unlimited. But he had to admit, it had been a brilliant idea. Todd had the time of his life with one small rectangular piece of electronics.
He moved to the couch and dangled her watch before her eyes.
“You got it fixed?” Yawning, she raised up on an elbow to take it from him. A smile spread across her face. She searched through the covers, found the remote, and snapped the television off.
“Yes, it only needed a new battery. How are you feeling?” He sat down at the end of the couch, put her pillow on his thigh, and watched her strap on the watch. Her wrists were delicate, her fingers long and nimble.
She yawned. “Fine, how much do I owe you for the watch?”
He tugged her down until her cheek was on the pillow. His left hand rested naturally on her shoulder. “Nothing, it was the least I could do for a few minutes of in-car, off-the-cuff entertainment.”
“Bet it’s not the kind you usually have in that shiny package you tool around in.”
His hand moved to her hair. It was silky soft, and he pushed it from the side of her face and stroked her temple lightly. “Are you implying I lead a less than respectable life?”
She rolled to her back and stared up at him. Her eyes were so bright blue, it almost hurt to look at them.
“Have you?” she asked.
“To be honest, Elise, I’ve known a few women. The last one I thought might be real, but I guess I underestimated my talents in selecting the right one.” He toyed with the hair at her forehead, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger.
He shrugged. “She was a busy model who worked out of New York and L.A.”
“She must have been beautiful.”
Not as beautiful as you and only on the outside
, he wanted to say. “Yes, she was lovely, but as soon as she got an inkling I wanted to raise Mike’s kid, she flew the coop.”
“Oh, Lucas, I’m so sorry.”
He shrugged again. “What about you?”
She rubbed a hand over her eyes and took his hand, resting it comfortably at her waist as she investigated his Seiko, checking the time against her newly repaired watch. Only Elise Springer would want to synchronize watches, he thought. It made him smile.
“New Seiko? Solar driven. Never needs winding. Nice,” she commented, running her fingers over the band.
“Yes, I just got it a few weeks ago. I thought my Rolex was a bit too much with my flannel shirts.”
“I know the feeling,” she said with cynical sarcasm he was beginning to enjoy. “I decided it was best not to wear my diamond necklace when I pulled on these sweats tonight.”
“So what about you?” he asked again.
“Me? Oh, yes, I’ve had a few men in my life.” Her face clouded, and she hesitated as her stiff German breeding kicked in, refusing to reveal too much information. “Most of them couldn’t hack my long hours, and the others didn’t like my no-nonsense personality.”
He stroked her forehead. “You always play the little tough girl role.”
“Yeah, it’s part of the job, but it’s getting old and it’s mighty tiring.”
“Did you ever consider giving it all up and coming home? Set up your own firm here on the East Coast?”
“I considered it, but Winston and Sanders are renowned. I was hoping to get in on the ground floor, work my way up, and garner some of their reputation first. It helps when you want to go out on your own.”
He stared at her, his thoughts in turmoil. It would be so easy to fall in love with her, he thought. He drew in a sharp breath. And get hurt all over again. She would leave, just like Monique. But it bothered him even more to think some other man might get the chance.
“Something the matter?” she asked.
“No, nothing. Your brother thinks I’m not shooting straight with you.” He blew out a breath, hoping to gather his wandering thoughts. How do you tell a woman you’re rich? He had never been in a position where he’d had to convince someone.
“So tell me what I’m supposed to know.” She arched an eyebrow.
“When I snapped at you at the cottage, it wasn’t because I didn’t want you to know my finances. It was because I have more than sufficient funds to cover whatever you might plan to do.” He picked up her hand and brought the back of it to his lips, kissing it softly. “Do you understand? Money isn’t a problem for renovating the place. I set aside an account just for cottage expenses.”
“Yes, I guess so.” She yawned and pulled her hand free, then turned on her side. “So you want the whole works, including all major renovations and new, updated appliances, and all new furniture? Oh, and a new slate roof, too?”