Authors: Sherryl Woods
“What is it?” he asked.
“Take a look at the papers and see for yourself,” Ben suggested.
“Maybe you’d better just tell me. Use Destiny’s favorite tactic and sugarcoat it.”
Ben grinned. “Can’t be done this time. It’s all there in black and white. She’s obviously taken this assignment to heart. She’s going after Harcourt with a vengeance.”
Richard gave the papers a wary glance. “Oh, God, not in the media. Please tell me she is not attacking him in the London press.”
“Not the way you mean,” Ben reassured him. “She’s got more class than that. And this is definitely all about business.”
Richard reached gingerly for the first paper and spread it open on his desk. It didn’t take long to find the full-page ad heralding the opening salvo from Harcourt, a slashing of prices on bestsellers.
“I suppose it could have been worse,” he muttered. “I’d expected something like this. I knew he wouldn’t take our acquisition of Jameson’s lying down. If that little store turns out to be a nuisance or a distraction, we can get rid of it.”
“Then you’ll be happy to know that Destiny’s not sitting back and taking it lying down, either,” Ben said cheerfully.
Richard opened the second London paper and found the full-page ad for Jameson’s, “Now offering tea in elegant surroundings while you browse.”
“She’s gone after his tea business,” he said weakly.
“That’s the heart and soul of his company, aside from books. He’ll bury us. What was she thinking? She’s only tossing fuel on the fire.”
“I imagine she was thinking that she couldn’t let him get the better of her,” Ben suggested. “You have to admire her gumption. She’s a lot like you in that regard. She doesn’t like anyone getting the better of her.”
“You admire her,” Richard said grimly. “I’m going over there to strangle her.”
“No, you’re not,” Ben said fiercely. “You gave her this assignment—”
Richard cut him off. “Unwillingly,” he reminded his brother.
“Nevertheless, Destiny’s there and she’s in charge. You can’t second-guess her at every turn.”
“I most certainly can,” Richard said, then sighed. Ben was right. Even if she weren’t his aunt, he couldn’t do that to her. It would destroy company morale, undermine her and give Harcourt way too much satisfaction. He had to let this play itself out.
“I need a drink,” he told his brother.
“Let’s go,” Ben said at once. “But I promised Melanie I’d have you home in time for dinner.”
“You saw her before coming here?”
“Who did you think gave me the London papers?”
“Why the hell didn’t she give them to me herself?” Richard grumbled.
“I believe that was in the interest of marital harmony. She doesn’t care if you shoot the messenger as long as it’s me.”
“Am I that predictable?” Richard asked.
“And then some,” Ben told him. “But we love you, anyway.”
Richard sighed. It wasn’t much comfort.
On Christmas Eve Destiny stayed on at the office long after everyone else had gone home to celebrate the start of the holidays with their families. Even Chester had taken off to visit friends in Devon for a week, and Miriam had flown back home to see her son after assuring herself that Destiny would be all right on her own.
And she was. She was alone with her sales reports, eager to see how her strategy had paid off.
The figures weren’t bad. Sales were definitely up over a year ago, even without today’s last-minute purchases figured in. The tea strategy had worked. The manager at Jameson’s told her that the customers were anxious that the experiment continue after the New Year and perhaps be expanded to include some sort of food service, as well.
“And newspapers for the customers to read, while they linger over tea,” Jillian had suggested. “It will be a place for people who love books to gather and to meet one another. I think we’ll do a brisk trade with single young professionals who don’t like hanging about in pubs. I’ve been thinking of a series of events, as well. We could do author signings, but I’d like to offer more than that—speakers, perhaps.”
Destiny had promised to consider the idea and to discuss it further after the holidays. She would have to move cautiously. As Chester had reminded her, Jameson’s was a new acquisition and a relatively unimportant one. She couldn’t devote too many
resources to it, even if its competition with H&S Books did make it more valuable in her mind. There were a dozen other fires that needed to be put out to get the European division onto solid ground, and she needed to start paying attention to them. She’d asked for reports from all of her key managers and anticipated that they would make dull reading for quiet holiday afternoons. The stack had been sent over by courier this morning and was awaiting her in her apartment.
In the meantime, though, not every hour of the week that stretched ahead of her needed to be devoted to work. She intended to use at least some of that free time to refurnish her dreadful apartment and make it her own. Browsing for a few paintings and a new sofa would fill some of the empty hours. Once the Christmas decorations came down, she wanted the dreary fabrics replaced by bright chintz and airy draperies that would let in the rare London sunlight.
She’d heard nothing from William since they’d had breakfast. He was probably somewhere licking his wounds. Or perhaps off visiting some country estate with a houseful of friends. She tried not to be envious, but she couldn’t deny that a part of her wished she’d had time to acquire her own circle of friends here.
That would come, though, she told herself briskly, impatient with herself for displaying so much as a hint of self-pity given the richness of her life.
Tonight she would have a lovely dinner, a glass or two of an excellent Bordeaux, then sit quietly in front of the fire and savor this time on her own. Tomorrow there would be calls home and presents to open, followed by an excellent holiday feast already delivered
by the same caterer who’d done her party. And there were stacks of new books she’d been dying to read. She would be alone, but not lonely.
It had been a long time since she’d been so completely and totally on her own. Since before she’d met William, in fact, and even then she’d been surrounded by friends in Provence, an eclectic mix of visiting artists and writers, as well as the locals who’d befriended her.
Back then, if she’d faced the prospect of more than a few days alone, she would have packed her bags and taken off for some livelier setting, sometimes Paris, sometimes London or even the casinos of Monte Carlo. She’d been a gadabout with few responsibilities and boundless energy. There was always a house party somewhere where she would be welcome.
Once William had come along, though, she’d settled into a kind of domestic bliss. They’d seldom traveled except to Paris, content to spend their days with long walks, companionable meals, an occasional concert and impromptu gatherings of friends. He’d filled not only her heart, but every waking hour of her day.
For a time, she’d thought of what they had as an informal marriage. Perhaps if they’d ever formalized it and taken the vows, they wouldn’t have been so quick to throw it all away when the tragedy back home had struck.
Ah, well, water long since under the bridge, she concluded. There was no point in dawdling in her office on Christmas Eve, wondering if they could have changed what happened.
She gathered up her things, wrapped herself snugly in her cashmere coat and bright red muffler, then
struck out for home, hoping the walk would chase away the last of her ridiculous blues.
The night was clear with stars shining and a waning slip of a moon. The air was crisp and invigorating, rather than damp, as she joined a parade of weary last-minute shoppers, laden down with packages.
Seeing them, she imagined the frantic rush back home, where none of her nephews ever gave a thought to presents until the last possible second. They were probably desperately fighting their way through the crowded aisles of Alexandria’s boutiques at this very moment. Later they’d be haphazardly slapping paper, tape, tags and ribbon on the purchases, which despite being bought in haste, were always exactly right.
Missing that scene—missing them—she went into her flat and straight to her phone, only to find the message light blinking.
“Destiny, it’s William,” the first message began. “I’ll try to catch you later.”
And then, “Destiny, it’s me again. Perhaps you’re out for the evening, so I’ll wish you a happy Christmas and speak to you tomorrow.”
Hearing his voice, she sat down, her knees suddenly weak. Blast it all, how could the mere sound of his voice still get to her all these years later? She couldn’t possibly still be in love with him, could she?
No, she told herself emphatically. Absolutely not. It was impossible. He was the sworn enemy now. Even if her heart wavered, there was Richard to think of and the company. She couldn’t betray either one by getting entangled with a man who was a threat to them.
And yet, rather than calling home as she’d intended,
she played the messages one more time, then went and crawled into her bed and fell asleep, knowing that tonight she would dream of the way they’d once been when life had been far simpler and love was all that mattered.
illiam had his solitary cup of strong tea, a boiled egg and toast on Christmas morning. There was a stack of unopened presents under a tree in his living room, but he had no particular interest in determining their contents. The only gift he truly cared about was being delivered right about now. The piece of jewelry hadn’t been outrageously expensive, but he’d known that anything more would be rejected out of hand. This, however, Destiny might accept, might wear and think of him.
It was a small artist’s palette made of gold. The colors on it were chips of jewels—a patch of emerald, a tiny ruby, a bit of sapphire, and a slash of rare yellow diamond. The moment he’d seen it, he’d known it was meant for Destiny. He’d been anxiously awaiting the right moment to give it to her.
Now that he’d sent it over by courier, though, he was having second thoughts. What if she’d really meant it when she’d said her painting no longer mattered to her? What if he was trying to remind her of a time she truly did prefer to forget? After all, she was here as a prominent businesswoman now. Clearly times had changed.
Even so, he found it difficult to accept that she could have tossed aside something that had once been
so intrinsic to her being. He’d been counting on that when he’d chosen the pin. To him their past would be forever linked to her paintings, to the aroma of oils on her palette and the scent of turpentine cleaning her brushes. It saddened him to think that she’d given it all up, had begun to think of it as an indulgence rather than a life-affirming passion. He wanted her to see it that way again.
In fact, in some odd way, he was hoping that if he could coax her back to art, he could also persuade her to come back into his life. He’d even managed to convince himself it wasn’t a fool’s errand. He’d seen a spark in her eyes at her party and again at their breakfast a few days later that hinted that she was still the same lively, adventurous woman he had known. Of course, there was always the chance that the spark in her eyes had to do with their business competition and had nothing to do with him. She’d felt victorious over that tea business, no question about it.
Whichever it was, he hadn’t been deceived by her generally cool demeanor into believing that the old Destiny was gone forever. He wanted her back and he intended to get her, making use of fair means or foul to do it. The present was just the beginning of the campaign.
He calculated the time it would take for the courier to reach her flat, then watched the clock nervously as the minutes ticked by. Was she opening it now? Was her face alight with pleasure? Or had she merely opened the card, seen his name and tossed the gift aside unopened?
Dammit, why hadn’t he taken it to her himself and avoided all this damnable waiting? He was no good
at waiting. He certainly hadn’t demonstrated any patience when they’d met. He’d followed her to Provence after that first night and had never left. Now he was leaving things to chance. He’d made that mistake once before and look at the years it had cost him.
He was about to dress and head on over to her flat when his phone rang. His voice was gruff, filled with irritation when he grabbed the receiver. “Yes?”
“Merry Christmas, William, and thank you.”
At the sound of Destiny’s soft, musical voice, his impatience died. “You like the brooch?”
“You knew I would. You always gave the most thoughtful gifts.”
“Did I? I was afraid I might have lost the knack for it where you’re concerned. You said the other night that you rarely paint these days.”
“I do when I have the time and only for myself. My nephew, Ben, is the painter in the family. He’s better than I ever was. He’s become quite a critical success.”
“I always thought your paintings were wonderful.”
She laughed. “Who’s revising history now? You thought they were too saccharine and had no hesitation at all about saying so.”
William groaned. “You’ll never forget how I insulted you on the night we met, will you?”
“Obviously it didn’t crush me. I fell in love with you, anyway.”
His heart stumbled. “Yes, you did. And I with you.”
Destiny cleared her throat. “Yes, well, that was a long time ago. We’re older and more sensible now.”
“Older certainly,” he agreed. “But more sensible?
I hope not. I’d like to think there are a few madcap adventures ahead of us yet.”
Silence fell. Destiny, never without words, seemed to be speechless at the suggestion he was looking ahead into the future.
“Will you have Christmas dinner with me?” he asked, pressing this tiny advantage. “Or have you been deluged with invitations?”
“There’s a pile of them on the hall table,” she said, then added, “but I turned them down.”
“I wanted a quiet day to myself.”
“That doesn’t sound like you.”
“I’ve changed, William. Settled a bit. We all do.”
“Not everything changes. I’m sure there’s an impetuous streak still buried inside you. Be brave and have dinner with me. I’ll cook here. You can come whenever you’re ready. No need to dress up. We can talk about old times.”
“I think that’s precisely the topic we should avoid,” she said.
“Then we’ll talk about whatever you like—the weather, American football, business.”
She laughed at that. “I think business is another of those topics that ought to remain off-limits.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“With good reason,” she replied tartly.
“Then there will be no talk of business,” he said readily. “You can brag all about your nephews, instead. Bring pictures, whole albums, in fact.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” she warned.
“No need. I promise you won’t bore me.”
“And what will you tell me about?” she inquired. “All the women in your life?”
It was his turn to laugh. “Only if you insist, since I’m afraid it would make a rather boring tale.”
“I doubt that.”
“Then I’ll tell you everything and you can decide for yourself whether or not my life has been dull without you in it. Will you come, Destiny? It’s just two old friends sharing a holiday. No one can make too much of that.”
“And your family?”
“All gone now. You’ve nothing to fear. Not even a ghost.”
Again there was silence, and he thought for sure she was going to turn him down.
Then at last she said, “Will three o’clock be all right?”
He bit back a sigh of relief. “Three will be perfect.”
“Don’t go to any trouble. I’m not expecting a feast. Tea and sandwiches will do.”
“It’s Christmas, Destiny. I think can do better than that. Let me surprise you by demonstrating how domesticated I’ve become.”
In fact, if he had his way, there would be many surprises before the day was done.
She didn’t trust him. She
trust him. Destiny repeated that refrain to herself on the taxi ride to William’s house on Cavendish Square. It had been years since she’d been there, but she remembered it well, remembered the oppressive sense of family history she’d felt walking through the wrought-iron gates
and up the wide, impressive steps to the double front doors with their gleaming brass lion’s head knockers. It had made the long history of the Carltons in their lavish town house in Alexandria, Virginia, pale by comparison.
Inside, William’s family home had been filled with dark, forbidding portraits of past generations, as well as heirlooms that were both priceless and ugly, far too massive for the small rooms. She’d hated it on sight and wondered how anyone could survive in such dreary surroundings, much less cultivate any liveliness or sense of humor. That William had thrived and prospered there and turned into a man of wit and intelligence with a zest for life made him seem all the more remarkable.
Destiny lifted the heavy knocker, then let it fall. A doomsday knell? she wondered.
William was there in an instant, as if he had been waiting nearby. When he threw the door open, the first thing she was struck by was the unexpected light pouring through the foyer. The heavy tapestries that had hung on the walls were gone, replaced by paint in a pale shade of blue with white trim. The ugly portraits were gone, as well. In fact, over a delicate antique table hung one of her own paintings…that poppy field in Provence that had always enchanted her in the ever-changing light, the field he’d sought to remind her of with his bouquet a few days earlier.
Inexplicably, Destiny’s eyes stung with tears. She couldn’t be sure if they were for that carefree, magical time in her life, or for the hint of sentimentality the painting’s presence suggested. She quickly busied herself with removing her coat so that William wouldn’t
see how shaken she was. She was totally composed by the time she met his gaze.
“You’ve made changes,” she said, understating the obvious.
“I think every home should have a good shaking up every century or two, don’t you?”
She smiled. “At the very least.”
“Are you starving? Would you like to eat right away or would you care for a glass of wine first?”
“Wine would be nice.” It would steady her nerves, which were more jangled than they’d been in years. All the self-confidence she’d gained over the last two decades seemed to have vanished, leaving her feeling like the awkward, shy girl she’d been before she’d learned to mask it with brazenness.
“You know the way to the drawing room,” he said, gesturing down the long hall. “Right through there. I’ll fetch a bottle and be right with you.”
There were more surprises in the drawing room, at one time the dreariest of places. Now another of her paintings hung over the mantel. This one had come from the gallery on the Left Bank, the one where they’d met. Destiny recalled packing it up and sending it to Violetta just before she’d gone back to the States for her brother’s funeral. It had been the last one she’d painted in France.
It wasn’t one of her favorites and she couldn’t imagine that it was to William’s taste. She’d been experimenting with a still life, playing around with the bolder strokes of van Gogh just to see how it felt. The result had been vivid splashes of color, but little more. Oddly enough, it seemed to suit this room, which had been redecorated in the same bold colors. The heavy
drapes she remembered had been stripped away and light poured through the tall, mullioned glass windows. With a fire in the grate, it was a welcoming room now, and the small Christmas tree in the corner with its multicolored lights gave it an even more festive air.
When William returned and caught her staring at her own painting, he gave her a vaguely chagrined shrug. “It was a sentimental purchase. I bought it when I began to miss you, when I realized you were never coming back, that our time together was truly over. I bought it to remind myself of all the color that had gone out of my life the day you left.”
Destiny felt the tears well up again. She hadn’t expected the sentiment, the open display of vulnerability. “William, you shouldn’t say things like that.”
“Why not? I’m being honest here. I’m baring my soul. Some would say it’s past time I did that.”
Was it belated honesty or was he cleverly trying to manipulate her? She wished she could be sure. For all she knew, he’d acquired the paintings only after learning she was on her way to London, a gesture meant to impress her. But, despite all the anguish he’d caused her years ago, despite the more recent attacks on her family, some traitorous part of her wanted to believe in him.
“If you missed me so dreadfully, why didn’t you get in touch with me?” she challenged. “You knew where I was. You called often enough at the beginning. And then, nothing.”
“It took a while, but I finally understood that you had made a choice, one that didn’t include me.”
She met his gaze, saw with some surprise the hurt
in his eyes. She hadn’t intended to be led down this particular path, but she owed him the truth. “You always seemed so content with the way things turned out. I thought our time was simply over for you.”
“It’s never been over, not for me,” he said quietly.
“Oh, William, didn’t you understand that I would have made room for you, if only you’d asked?”
“How could I? I always thought you were so wise. I imagined you were doing what you thought was best.”
“I was, for Richard, Mack and Ben, but not for me.” She looked away because the raw emotion in his eyes made her feel guilty for something that had never been her fault, not entirely, anyway. Half to herself, she added, “And then, in time, it became what was best for me, too. They brought so much into my life, William, things I’d never expected, small joys at first, then unimaginable satisfaction. I was good at motherhood.”
“Of course you were,” he said, as if there had never been a doubt about it.
Destiny laughed and the moment was broken. “If only I had shared your confidence. For such frightened young boys, they scared me to death when I first arrived, especially Richard with his stoic determination to become the man of the family.”
“Tell me about them,” he said with an eagerness that caught her off guard.
“Are you sure you know what you’re asking? I could talk about them all day and into the night. They’re very accomplished young men.”