It was almost too easy.
He clicked off his penlight and allowed himself a momentary smile. Then he reached inside the backpack and pulled out his platinum Visa card. The thin plastic rectangle slipped effortlessly between the edge of the old oak door and the metal strike plate, letting him ease back the bolt. With the tip of his sneaker he applied the slightest pressure to the bottom of the door while he twisted the knob.
Noiselessly the Dutch door swung open.
He was in.
The kitchen in the caretaker’s cottage stood spotless. In the center of the room hovered a massive oak pedestal table, and around it, four mismatched kitchen chairs, not nearly as sturdy as they looked. On the counter by the sink was an uncorked bottle of cabernet sauvignon and next to it two goblets. One held traces of wine.
He slid an oak chair back from the table and sat heavily, needing to steady the room that swirled around him. Then he blinked hard in an effort to focus his gaze on his watch. It was close to midnight.
He would wait.
* * *
“Care to explain yourself, Dallas Quinn?”
Dallas’ head jerked up from the kitchen table and instantly he was on his feet, ready to do battle with whatever it was that had pulled him from his troubled dream.
Chelsea Campbell stood at the door to her cottage, keys still in hand. Her black hair curled freely about her face and cascaded past her shoulders in meandering ringlets which glistened with soft April rain. Carelessly she shook the water from her umbrella and propped it against the wall near the door. Then she slipped off her beige twill blazer and tossed it on a nearby chair.
Dallas scrubbed at his face and blinked hard. He shouldn’t be here. This wasn’t his home. Then he remembered; he didn’t have one anymore. Slowly he slumped back onto the chair.
“Came to borrow some Scotch,” he said. Sleep still thickened his voice.
Chelsea Campbell was a striking woman by anyone’s standards, though few would consider her classically beautiful. She was small and slim with full lips and blue eyes so pale they reflected more light than they absorbed, giving her a haunting, otherworldly look. And at the moment those eyes were narrowed on Dallas.
“But you weren’t home, Chels,” Dallas went on, “so I decided to wait. And here I am.” He opened his arms in an abundant declaration of his presence and leaned back on the spindly chair which creaked in protest.
Until he was actually in front of her, Chelsea forgot how handsome Dallas had become. The fine, cherubic features of his youth had been replaced by a face composed of planes and angles, shadows and light. His deep-set green eyes were heavily lashed, his nose straight and narrow, his cheekbones high. If he hadn’t been practically family, he could have taken her breath away. In fact, before Chelsea’s twelfth birthday she had already planned her wedding to Dallas. But, like most pre-teen crushes, it died from a heavy dose of reality, administered the day Dallas and her brother Jack left for the sophisticated clime of college, and she was left to cope with her very first broken heart.
“You just walked right in my house, did you?” she asked him, “because I know I locked that door.”
Chelsea slanted a suspicious look at him. “What, not exactly? I didn’t exactly lock the door or you didn’t exactly walk into my house?”
Dallas blinked slowly as if trying to feed sense into her two-pronged question, his thick lashes making spiky shadows on his cheeks. “I jimmied the lock,” he stated finally, avoiding any further verbal swordplay. Then he settled his pale green eyes carefully on her.
“You mean you broke in,” came her flat reply.
It wasn’t meant as a question but Dallas nodded anyway.
“Oh, swell.” She shook her head lightly, walked to the table and sat.
Dallas had known her too long not to recognize the slight rise to the set of her chin for what it was. Chelsea was upset.
“Well, you were out with Lover Boy,” he began in his own defense, “and I didn’t think you’d want me waiting outside in the rain, so – ”
With her hand she waved him quiet. Then she brushed the tabletop with her fingertips and rested her forearms there.
“Mind telling me why you’re here in the first place? It’s way after midnight.”
“Like I told you, I needed some Scotch.”
“Looks like you already had some.”
“Not enough. Not nearly enough.”
Chelsea made a quick survey of Dallas. He hadn’t escaped from one of Royal’s extravagant dinner parties, that much was certain. At the moment he was wearing a neon green and black nylon windbreaker over some advertising T-shirt, and a pair of faded gym shorts that, at an earlier time, might have been black. Or blue. Dallas rarely threw away any clothes. His straight, brandy colored hair still bore a slight indentation from the iridescent green bike helmet on the table in front of him.
Then her eyes caught on his face. He looked sallow, drawn. His lightly tanned skin stretched tightly over his cheekbones and darkened to hollows just beneath his deep-set eyes. It was not a look she’d ever seen him wear before.
“How about some coffee instead?”
Dallas glanced down at his watch, squeezed shut his eyes for a moment and looked again. “It’s not even one o’clock. Scotch.” Then his forehead furrowed in a frown. “You’re back kind of early. You and Lover Boy have a spat?”
“We didn’t have any fight. He brought me home at a respectable hour, just like I asked him to. And I wish you’d call him Chris, not Lover Boy.”
Dallas shrugged off the suggestion.
“How long have you been here? You must have ridden your bike. That’s your helmet, isn’t it? Did you come on your bike? I didn’t see your car.”
Dallas closed his eyes while her questions rained down on him. “Didn’t drive,” he responded when the barrage seemed to halt.
“Well, I’m glad you showed some common sense. It’s not good to drive when you’ve been drinking.”
“That’s not why.”
Dallas wasn’t sure he wanted to go where this conversation was taking him, but he was sure he wanted some Scotch. And he wanted to forget. He raked back the chair against the old stone kitchen floor and stood.
“Now, if you’d be so kind as to point me in the direction of your Scotch.”
Dallas was an intimidating presence – solid muscle, like a well-trained athlete, taller than her brother, but not nearly as stocky. His well-defined musculature, easily discernable in his raggedy T-shirt, affirmed uncompromised strength. Below his shorts, his long and powerful legs showed golden tan, a vestige from a midwinter trip to Aruba.
“Dallas,” she began softly, “you’ve had a – ”
“ – lot to drink. I know. But not as much as I intend to have.” He towered over the table. “The Scotch?”
“It’s late. Won’t Royal wonder where you are?”
Dallas gave her a considering look before answering. “Not a chance,” he said at last. His soft Southern tones had hushed almost to a whisper.
“Well, why don’t I give her a call and let her know you’re here anyway? Just in case.” Chelsea stood, and walking to the counter, reached for the phone.
In two steps Dallas was there. His long fingers closed over her hand. “A waste of time,” he told her.
Something in his tone made Chelsea look up. Sadness, or pain, had disrupted his strong features.
He left his hand over hers until he was certain she would move away.
“A glass of wine, maybe? I opened a very good bottle before we went out to dinner. Turns out Chris has decided not to drink wine, or anything else.”
Dallas nodded and returned to the table, where he sat. He leaned back in the ancient chair, dwarfing it, making it look more fragile than it truly was. Then he drove his fingers through his thick, straight hair and swore quietly.
Chelsea let it go. Whatever was bothering him, he’d tell her when he was ready.
“Thanks,” he said a short time later.
“Being here is what I do best.” She smiled and set a glass of wine in front of him.
Dallas picked the goblet up by its stem and held it to his nose. “Nice,” he said. He took a sip and set it down. “Supple tanins, soft finish. Lover Boy doesn’t know what he was missing.”
“Chris,” Chelsea corrected automatically.
Dallas hadn’t always been a wine connoisseur. In high school his drink of choice was milk. Gallons of it. He and her brother Jack had chugged it straight from the carton, heedless of her mother’s lectures on sanitary practices. And before that it was pitchers of grape Koolade that took their collective fancy, a flavor that inevitably turned their tongues the blue-black color of a Chow’s. But after college Dallas began to move in more sophisticated circles and acquired, along with his own business and a great deal of money, a taste for expensive wines.
Dallas set down his goblet. “You need a new lock,” he said.
“Did you break it? Dallas, I don’t want to buy a new lock right now. You know spring is my busiest season and I don’t have time to fiddle with locks and locksmiths.”
“I didn’t break it. Didn’t have to. A five-year-old could get in here.”
“Only if that five-year-old knew how to pick locks.”
“Didn’t have to pick it, Chelsea. Just used my good old platinum card and bammo! Inside in a flash.” He settled a look on her that said he had just won a round. The smug smile that upturned his lips at the corners was meant as challenge and Chelsea knew it. Still, she took the bait.
“Not everyone knows all the in’s and out’s of burglary, Dallas. You just happen to because it’s part of your business.”
“Burglars know and they’re the only ones that count. I promised Jack I’d look after you and that’s what I intend to do. It’s dark and pretty isolated here at the back of the Kensington’s property. You need a new lock.”
“Thanks for the concern.” Chelsea wasn’t sure why Dallas had appeared in her kitchen in the middle of the night but she was certain of one thing. It had very little to do with the viability of her door lock. “More wine?” She stood and walked behind him to the counter.
“You’re not going to do a thing about it, are you?” He held his glass up over his head for her to refill.
Chelsea shrugged. “It’s late, I’m tired, could we discuss this some other time?”
Chelsea always had known how to handle what she called Dallas’ meddling ways. Right now she was doing it by packing up the evening.
Dallas took another sip of his wine and rolled the glass meditatively between his palms. “Look, Chels,” he began, “I know this is an imposition but I’m kind of in a stuck place, here.” Uncertainty swirled about him, darkening his eyes.
Chelsea finished the last of her wine and carefully set down the glass. “Just how stuck are you?”
He’d been stuck before – for rides, for advice, even for the occasional date, and she’d always helped out. But that was before Royal.
He took a deep breath. The flush on his face was unmistakable. “Big stuck.” He rubbed at his eyes. “Do you think I could borrow your couch?”
“To sleep on, right?”
“Just for tonight. I won’t get in your way. I even brought my own toothbrush.” With his head he indicated the backpack he had dropped near the back door.
Relief cleared away the apprehension that had been lingering on his face. Then he stood and carried his glass to her sink. “It’s not what you think,” he told her.
“It’s also not my business. I’ll get you some sheets.”
* * *
With a groan Chelsea fumbled for the ‘off’ button on her alarm clock. Spring arrived late in western New York but when it finally decided to show she knew she needed to be ready. Her business depended on it. She had to get up.
A short time later, dressed in fresh jeans and a T-shirt that bore the Campbell’s Plantscapes logo, she headed down the narrow hallway that bisected the three-room cottage.
In the living room Dallas lay face down on her corduroy sofa, his bare feet dangling over the arm. A twisted rope of sheets that began near his shoulders trailed to the floor. He’d had a restless night and Chelsea would bet even money that Royal lay at the root of whatever it was that had upended his world.
Royal was self-involved and demanding, a woman who sought notoriety through public liaisons with local men in high places. The frequent scandals, which had constantly circled about her, eventually necessitated a relationship of a more permanent nature. And so she had set her sights on Dallas, a single man and owner of a company of some regional celebrity.
Friends’ attempts to reason Dallas out of the relationship proved fruitless. It was time for him to be married, Dallas had said, and Royal would make the perfect partner. Clearly he had made up his mind and he had left no room for dissenters. And so at the engagement party over a year ago, Chelsea and Jack could do nothing but shrug and wish them both the best.
Now with the wedding little more than a month away Chelsea wondered if Royal had finally gotten around to showing Dallas her scandalous side.
Dallas deserved better.
Chelsea’s hand reached for the knob to close the living room door.
“I’m awake,” Dallas said into his pillow. “I just haven’t worked up the courage to move yet.”
“But you’re thinking about it. That’s a good thing.”
Dallas groaned and rolled over, and with his forearm shielded his eyes from the morning sun. Sometime after Chelsea had gone to bed, he had taken off his windbreaker and T-shirt and tossed both in the direction of the ladder-back arm chair across the room. Now all he wore were his faded black shorts. Gym shorts, running shorts – whatever they had been, the coverage they provided for a man of Dallas’ size and proportions was minimal. It was, at the moment, no simple matter to remind herself she had given sleeping space to her older brother’s best friend, a man soon to be married. She cleared her throat and lowered her eyes to the floor.
“Feel like some juice?”
“I feel,” Dallas said, dragging himself to a sitting position, “like someone ran over my head with a semi.”
“I’m not surprised. You must have crawled around inside a bottle of Scotch for some time before you ever showed up here.” She walked to the kitchen and poured two glasses of orange juice. “Juice?” she asked again and waggled a tumbler full of the icy liquid in front of him.
Dallas took the glass and leaned back against the couch. “Chelsea,” he began, “I’m sorry about barging in here last night. There was a . . .” He stopped talking and took a long swig of his juice. “. . . a situation at the house,” he went on after a lengthy pause. “And, well, I apologize if I let myself get out of hand.”
Chelsea had never actually seen Dallas drunk, until last night. He possessed too much control ever to allow drink, or anything else for that matter, be his master.
“You were a gentleman, Dallas. You always are. Now, why don’t you hit the showers, Hotshot, and I’ll fix you some breakfast.”
Dallas upended his glass of juice, retrieved his T-shirt and headed down the hall to the bathroom.
Chelsea cracked some eggs into a bowl for an omelet and began to stir them absently. She was worried about Dallas. This morning he looked disoriented, and it wasn’t entirely from the Scotch. He’d practically grown up in her family’s house and she knew him pretty well. But she didn’t know him to be the kind to show up drunk at her cottage. He must be in some kind of trouble.
At the sound of his footsteps, Chelsea’s hand went to her hair. She brushed the unmanageable mane of ebony curls from her face and stood on her toes to catch her reflection in the glass cabinet doors.
“I’m all finished, if you’d rather use the bathroom mirror.”
Chelsea spun around, her fingers still lightly in her hair.
Dallas was easing himself onto one of the chairs. The shower had brought back his color and his smile.
“I found some disposable razors on the shelf and helped myself. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.” And then Chelsea remembered the razors were sitting right next to an unopened box of condoms. He was bound to have noticed. She felt her cheeks darken as she worked the fork in the bowl of raw eggs. She just knew he wouldn’t let it alone.
“You and Chris haven’t made it past the ‘Hi, how are you’ stage, I gather.”
There it was.
“Meaning?” Chelsea asked without looking up.
“Meaning he hasn’t . . .”
“Compromised my integrity?” Chelsea offered brightly.
“Meaning you two haven’t slept together,” came his rapid return.
“That, Dallas Quinn, is none of your business,” she said with a righteous air she hoped he noticed.
“Probably not,” he agreed. “Still, the evidence is hard to overlook. If you want people at least to think there’s something happening between you two, I’d tear the end off the box and take– ”
The idea of her bedding down with Chris stopped him cold, midsentence. Images seared his mind and scorched his skin. The idea of her bedding down with anyone was not a thought he had ever consciously entertained. And now, quite suddenly, he found that he didn’t like the idea at all. He drove his fingers into his still-damp hair and looked at his best friend’s little sister.
Chelsea stood next to the stove, her fork poised midair while raw eggs slithered from the tines to the counter top. Her full lips were slightly parted. Her eyes were wide. Big and pale blue and wide.
Dallas felt his body stir and then tighten. Undone by an intimate sensation he had for years been able to prevent at will, he squeezed shut his eyes and waited for the feeling to pass.
This was crazy. He was six, no seven, years older than Chelsea, and her brother was his closest friend. The three of them had practically grown up together. He had taught her how to roller skate and how to ride her first bike. He had come to take her home the night the high school quarterback, Bill Flanders, had left her at the prom. And when Jack had moved to California, he had promised to keep an eye on her. And besides, he was going to be married in thirty-seven days.
Chelsea was looking straight at him. A fierce flush had worked its way up from his neck to his cheeks.
He cleared his throat and looked away, hoping to clear his mind as well.
“And take what, Dallas?”
Eventually Dallas spoke. “A few out. I’d take a few out. You know. Just to make it look more authentic.”
Chelsea never had time to tell him a gentleman wouldn’t have noticed, or at least, having noticed, would have said nothing. Because somewhere in the small cottage, a cell phone rang.
“Yours or mine?” she said instead.
“Mine.” He retrieved it from his backpack and glanced down at the number. “Work,” he said and punched some numbers into the keypad.
“Quinn,” he announced to the other party a moment later, and turned his back on Chelsea as if doing so afforded him all the privacy he needed. His voice was soft but audible, carrying the gentle Southern nuances he had taken from his mother.
Dallas listened for a time, nodding repeatedly into the phone. All the while a deep red inched its way up the back of his neck and, finally, to his ears. His shoulders repeatedly rose and fell in heavy breaths, like he couldn’t get enough air. Like he was being smothered.
Finally he spoke. “No, you did the right thing. I’ll take care of it from here. I’m sure she was just overwrought. I apologize for any embarrassment this may have caused you. I’ll be along as soon as I can. Give me the number, why don’t you, and I’ll call the client myself and explain.”
Dallas’ company, QSys, developed and installed high tech security systems for businesses and residences. He had melded the electrical skills he’d culled from his father with his own computer aptitude and, in twelve years, managed to all but corner the local market. His was a highly successful firm in a burgeoning field of increasingly protective and nervous clients.
Chelsea had been doubtful when Dallas first explained his idea. She was naive, her brother Jack had told her, to think that people didn’t want electronic protection, if they could get something that fit their lifestyles. And Jack had been right. QSys had become successful because Dallas tailored security systems to individual needs and backed it up with personal service. But today it sounded like one of those elaborate systems had misfired, much to the consternation of his client. And Dallas had some cleaning up to do.
Dallas entered another phone number and paced while he waited for the party to connect. On his third pass through Chelsea’s oversized kitchen he caught her eyes. He held the phone momentarily away from his mouth.
“Won’t be a minute. A misunderstanding downtown this morning,” he told her and smiled.
Chelsea was buying neither his time estimate nor his briefly affable expression. Concern had tightened his eyes.
A moment later, Dallas turned his attention back to his call. He identified himself and wandered into the living room.
Chelsea decided onions and maybe some green peppers would augment the omelet and proceeded to wash and mince the vegetables. From time to time she gained glimpses of Dallas as he paced her living room, but distance muffled his conversation.
At last he made his way back. He set his phone on the kitchen table and sat heavily. He spun the small device on the polished wooden surface of the table with his forefinger. Then his shoulders heaved in a deep sigh.
Chelsea stopped chopping.
“Got something for a headache?” he asked eventually, without looking up.
She made him smile. In spite of everything that was going on around him, Chelsea always was able to make him smile. Herbal tea. His head was pounding from way too much Scotch. His personal life paled some of the lead articles in the grocery store tabloids because just this morning his fiancée had staged one of her well-known tantrums in his downtown office in front of a potential client. And Chelsea offered herbal tea.
“Anything stronger?” he asked.
“I’ve got ibuprofen. In the bathroom, on the shelf.” She started to add that it was right next to her unopened box of condoms, but thought better of it. “And I think maybe some aspirin.”
“Ibuprofen’s good,” he said and stood.
A few minutes later she heard him heading to the living room. “Should I start the omelet now?” she called out.
“Might as well. I’ll be right in. Just want to get my stuff together,” he told her. “I’ve got to leave right away.”
Chelsea had just poured the raw egg mixture into her iron skillet when she heard a knock on her front door.
“Come on in,” she called and pulled the skillet off the stove.
At the cottage door stood Royal.
“Royal. Good morning. I was just fixing some eggs. Are you hungry?”
Royal’s face was gathered into rigidly composed wrath. “This isn’t a social call, Chelsea.”
Somehow Chelsea had gathered as much. Despite the longstanding friendship Chelsea shared with Dallas, Royal had never managed more than polite disdain for her.
“Tea, then? Or coffee? I have some coffee, I think.”
Royal didn’t answer right away.
“Well, come in at least,” Chelsea told her, “while you think about what you want.”
Royal looked down at the immense quarried Medina stone, which formed Chelsea’s stoop as if unsure of her footing, and stepped carefully into the kitchen.
For consistently stark drama, nobody could beat Royal, and this morning was no exception. Perhaps reflective of her mood, she wore unrelieved black. Her closely tailored suit with its deeply cut neckline permitted just a hint of a black bustier beneath. Her long raven hair had been carefully caught in a severe bun at the nape of her neck, underscoring the delicate structure of her finely boned face. Her lips carried a shimmering blood red hue which created an abrupt contrast to her translucent skin.
“Coffee, then?” Chelsea asked, “or tea?” She opened the cabinets above the butcher-block work island and took out two mugs.
“I told you this wasn’t a social call, Chelsea.”
Chelsea set the mugs on the counter top and rubbed her palms against the thighs of her jeans. “All right. You don’t mind if I have some tea, do you?”
Royal turned her face elegantly up and away from Chelsea. Then her eyes swept the kitchen and narrowed dangerously.
“What can I do for you?” Chelsea asked and set the tea kettle full of water on to boil.
A shuffling noise from the living room brought Royal’s head quickly to her right.
Chelsea looked up in time to see Royal’s face darken slightly and her full scarlet lips draw into a thin, angry line.
“In there?” Royal asked. With an elegant sweep of her hand she indicated the living room.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Don’t try to be coy with me, Chelsea,” Royal returned. Then she took a step forward. But the ancient stone floor in the kitchen had been laid for work boots, not for Christian Louboutin heels and Royal stumbled. Her momentary loss of balance seemed only to compound her anger.
“How can you live in this hovel?” Royal said.
Chelsea turned off the tea kettle and faced the unpleasant woman who had intruded on her morning.
From the next room came another shuffling noise and then Dallas’ unmistakable drawl. “Chels, those eggs ready yet? I’m starved,” he called.
Royal lofted one of her finely arched eyebrows. “It will be interesting,” she said with icy calm, “to see how you both try to wriggle out of this.”
Chelsea didn’t answer. She couldn’t. She was standing squarely in the middle of a nightmare.
Royal dropped her head slightly back over her shoulder until Chelsea’s face came into view. “Why don’t you answer him?”
“Even found a clean shirt in my backpack, Chels.” Dallas walked through the living room door, pulling a T-shirt on over his head. He shook his hair back from his eyes, blinked hard and then stood right where he was at the entrance to the kitchen.
“Surprise.” Her voice sounded almost sweet.
“My secretary said you showed up at the office earlier this morning.”
“But of course you weren’t in yet.” Royal’s voice was dangerously even. “And now we know why, don’t we?”
The tension in the room was palpable.
“Look,” Dallas said, “whatever is bothering you, I’m sure we can work it out, but here isn’t the place. And neither is my office. There’s no need to involve my staff. What’s between us is personal and private and it should stay that way.” His tone was soft, almost pleading.
In response, a sardonic laugh issued from Royal’s throat. “Personal? Private? I’ll involve anyone I choose. After all, you’ve involved Chelsea, here, haven’t you? You’ve managed to put her right in the middle of us.”
Dallas’ brows knitted together briefly. “No, Royal,” he said and shook his head. “No. I haven’t involved Chelsea.” He shook his head again. “I just needed a place to stay last night. That’s all.”
Chelsea stood there, frying pan in one hand while Royal seized the truth that Dallas had offered and turned it on him, twisting the words about him like barbs.
“Is that a fact?” Royal shot back. “Well, the way I see it, you’re here at,” she glanced down at her Rolex wrist watch, “nine in the morning, putting on your clothes in another woman’s house. Nice, Dallas. Very nice. You’ve just wiped away any doubts about what I was going to do.”
The moment froze with Dallas standing in the doorway to the kitchen, his long fingers still buried in his thick, damp hair. When at last he spoke, his voice was quiet and controlled.
“Don’t involve other people in your problems,” he said evenly.
“My problems?” Royal bit out.
Dallas walked up to her and took her by the elbow to draw her into the living room.
At his touch Royal stiffened.
“Here,” she said, “this is yours.” She twisted the immense solitaire from the third finger of her left hand and held it out for him to take.
Dallas stopped cold.
“Take it. Take it.” She pushed the ring at him in a short, stabbing motion. When he didn’t reach for it, she pushed it at him again.
Dallas turned to Chelsea. “I’m sorry,” he told her and let out a deep breath.
“Sorry?” Royal echoed derisively. “That’s what you should be saying to me. I am, after all, the injured party here.” Again Royal pushed the ring at his chest. “Take it, Dallas. Take the ring.”
Dallas held out his hand and allowed Royal to drop the ring into it. For a moment his arm stayed poised in midair. Then slowly his fingers closed around the stone and he let his hand drop to his side.
“You’re mistaken, Royal. Mistaken about being an injured party. And mistaken about what you think I’ve done. This,” he held the engagement ring up to her, “won’t solve anything. This is not the way.”
“Oh, but you’re wrong, Dallas, my love. It’s the only way.”