Authors: Sherryl Woods
“I have time. And I meant what I said on the phone, I would love to see pictures.”
“We’ll save those for another time, I think.” Then she told him about how it had been when she’d gone back to Virginia. She told him about the three terrified, lost boys she had found on her return home, about the struggles to adjust to an entirely new way of life for all of them, about the mistakes she’d made trying to do what she thought her brother would have wanted, rather than what her heart told her was in their best interests.
“Eventually we settled for something more in the middle, a path that included duty and responsibilities, as well as quite a lot of spontaneous fun. In the end, we all seem to have survived,” she said with pride and not a small amount of amazement.
“And what now, Destiny? Now that they’re grown, what will you do?”
“Isn’t that obvious? I’m here with the rather huge task of running our European division.”
He gave her a knowing look. “Then you’ve developed a head for business.”
She shrugged off the vaguely insulting remark. Once it had been true, she’d had no inclination toward business at all. “I’m smart enough to know when someone is making a concerted effort to destroy us.”
“And to foil those efforts?”
She leveled a steady look straight into his eyes. “Yes, absolutely. I think you’ve already seen a glimmer of just how determined and competitive I can be.”
He nodded, unsuccessfully trying to hide the grin tugging at his lips. “Good. Then our cards are on the table.”
“I’d say so.”
He lifted his glass of wine. “May the better man—”
“Or woman,” she corrected.
“Indeed. May the better man—or woman—win.”
Destiny studied the unnerving glint in his eyes and had a sudden flash of insight. Despite what he’d have her think, despite the very aggressive forays into Carlton Industries’ business, it was entirely possible that she and William weren’t after the same stakes after all. How absolutely fascinating.
“Where the devil can she be?” Richard grumbled after hanging up the phone. It was the fifth time he’d tried to reach Destiny on Christmas Day, only to get her damnable answering machine, instead. He could have sworn she’d told him she intended to spend a quiet day on her own.
“Have you ever known Destiny not to manage some sort of holiday celebration wherever she is?” Ben remarked. “Remember the time we got caught in a blizzard after going off on impulse on Christmas Eve to see the tree at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. Where did we wind up?”
“Somewhere off the New Jersey Turnpike,” Mack said.
Richard groaned. “In what had to be the worst dive with the worst food ever set on a table.”
“But it had a tree,” Ben remembered. “And a packed house. By the time the storm ended the next morning, we had dozens of new friends and had spent the whole night singing Christmas carols. Destiny absolutely refused to let us feel sorry for ourselves that our presents were back home. She’d even charmed
that awful owner into letting her make pancakes, so the entire crowd had an edible Christmas breakfast.”
“Any chance that she’s off somewhere making the holiday cheery for the downtrodden this year?” Richard asked without much hope.
“No, I suspect she’s celebrating with friends,” Melanie said.
“Or one friend in particular,” Kathleen chimed in.
“Bite your tongue,” Richard groused. “I wish all of you would stop acting as if she’s off on some romantic lark over there. Am I the only one who considers Harcourt to be the enemy?”
“Yes,” his sisters-in-law said at once.
His wife grinned at him. “Sorry. I’m with them.”
Richard turned to his brothers. “It’s been days since I’ve been able to reach her. If I don’t get her on the next try, I swear to you that I’m going over there to see for myself what’s going on.”
“No, you’re not,” Melanie said just as emphatically. “At least not right away.”
“Why the hell not?”
“Because for the foreseeable future, you are a stay-at-home dad,” Melanie declared. “You promised that this holiday season you were spending time with your family.”
He stared at her blankly. “Isn’t that what I’m doing today?”
was the operative word there,” Melanie said. “That’s one whole week, minimum. Don’t even think about trying to get out of it.”
He heard the finality in her voice and knew that she was perfectly capable of making his life hell if he tried to renege on some promise he didn’t even remember
making. She’d probably wheedled it out of him when he was in the middle of a conference call and not paying attention.
Suddenly his mood brightened. “We could all go to London,” he suggested.
“Not a snowball’s chance in hell,” Mack said. “In case you’ve forgotten, my football team is heading for the play-offs. None of you are going anywhere unless you’re back in time for the games.”
“Play-offs?” Ben asked. “I have a dim recollection of what those are. It’s been a while, though, hasn’t it? Are they important?”
“Go to hell,” Mack retorted. “We’re there now. That’s all that matters.”
Resigned to staying put to pacify his wife and support his brother, Richard looked at his watched and calculated that it was nearly 10:00 p.m. in London. “I’m calling again,” he announced. “If she’s not there by now, I’m calling Harcourt.”
“What so damn funny about that?” Richard asked.
“I was just picturing Destiny’s expression if she does happen to be there when you call to check up on her,” she said, her grin spreading.
“Oh, yes,” Mack said. “I can see it, too. Why don’t you do it, bro? Call Harcourt.”
Richard regarded them all sourly. “Don’t think I won’t,” he muttered even as he dialed Destiny’s London flat.
When she picked up on the second ring, sounding perfectly healthy and cheerful, he snapped irritably, “Where the hell have you been?”
Silence greeted him.
Richard finally took a deep breath. “Sorry. I’ve been trying to reach you for hours. I was worried.”
“That’s much better,” Destiny said happily. “Merry Christmas, darling. Is everyone there?”
“We’re all here,” Richard confirmed, relieved to hear her in such good spirits and forcing himself to ignore the nagging suspicion he had about why she was so cheerful. “We miss you, though.”
“Oh, and I miss all of you. Thank you so much for the lovely presents. You all went overboard.”
He laughed at that. “You can thank Melanie, Beth and Kathleen for those gifts. The ones from Mack, Ben and me didn’t get in the mail until yesterday.”
“Just last night I was imagining all three of you rushing around with your last-minute shopping,” she said, a surprising hitch in her voice.
“Destiny, are you okay?” he asked, alarmed.
“Fine, darling,” she said with a faint sniff. “Sorry. I suppose I’m just a little emotional. It’s been years and years since we haven’t been together for the holidays.”
“Since we were boys,” Richard said quietly. “I wish you’d waited to go to London.”
“Right this instant, so do I,” she said. “But I am having a wonderful time. The work is a real challenge. I have so many plans we need to discuss, but we’ll save all that till after the first of the year. We’re both on holiday now, unless you’ve reneged on your promise to Melanie.”
“You know about that, too?”
“Of course. She told me herself when we spoke the other day.”
“You’ve talked to my wife?” he asked, shooting a
fierce look in Melanie’s direction. She merely shrugged, her expression totally innocent.
“It’s not a crime, is it?” Destiny asked lightly.
“No, of course not. You never did say how you spent your Christmas,” he said.
“I had a lovely dinner with a friend,” she said.
“You’re being evasive,” Richard accused. “That can only mean one thing.”
“Was Harcourt the friend?” he asked.
“If you must know, yes.”
“Dammit, Destiny! I will not allow you to consort with the enemy.”
Behind him he heard a chorus of “uh-ohs.” In fact, there was an immediate warning din in his head, as well.
“I beg your pardon,” Destiny said icily.
He ignored his family, the warning clamor in his head and her tone. “I mean it,” he said stubbornly. “The man is not to be trusted.”
“I didn’t say I trusted him. I said I had Christmas dinner with him.”
“Did you at least get him to back off the Fortnum Travel acquisition?”
“The subject never came up,” she told him.
“Why the hell not?”
“Because it’s Christmas, in case you’ve forgotten. Now, I think you’d better let me speak to the others. Perhaps they’re in a better frame of mind.”
Richard bit back the retort that was on the tip of his tongue. “Merry Christmas, Destiny. I do love you, you know.”
“I know,” she said softly.
Richard turned and handed the phone to Mack, then crossed the room to stare out the window. Melanie came up behind him and put her arms around him. “She’s an intelligent woman, Richard. Stop worrying. I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.”
“How can she? If she was in love with the man once, then she’s vulnerable to him. She could get her heart broken if she discovers he’s only using her.”
“You’re forgetting something. She’s also a Carlton, and nothing is more important to her than family loyalty. He tried to hurt you and the company, Richard. She won’t forget that. Her guard is up. You’ve told her how important this travel company deal is to you, right?”
“Then you have nothing to worry about.”
Melanie gave him an impatient shake. “You
” she said emphatically. “Now, come along and let’s get dinner on the table before it’s all ruined. I want you well fed and strong for tomorrow.”
He gave her a questioning look. “What’s happening tomorrow?”
“The holiday sales,” she said cheerfully. “We’ll need to be there early.”
“Oh, no.” He trailed behind her to the kitchen to help get dinner on the table. “No sales,” he added emphatically in case she’d missed his point. “Not a chance. There is not enough money on earth to get me into a store tomorrow.”
She stopped in her tracks, turned and stood on tiptoe to kiss him, rather thoroughly, in fact. He was a bit dazed when she finally pulled away.
“No fair,” he muttered, then gave her an indulgent look. The woman could twist him around her finger and she knew it. She was watching him expectantly. “Okay, okay. What the hell time do we have to go?”
“Just think of it as another workday,” she told him cheerfully. “I’ll get you up around five-thirty. You’ll need time for a hearty breakfast.”
“I suppose this is one more thing I can thank Destiny for,” he grumbled. “She’s usually the one you go with, isn’t she?”
“But having you along will be so much better,” Melanie told him.
He gave her a doubtful look. “Why is that?”
“You’re bigger and stronger.”
“And that’s an advantage?”
“Darn straight. Some of these people are crazy. Besides, you’ll be able to carry more packages.”
“Why do we even bother shopping before Christmas, if the sales are so much better afterward?”
“Trust me, if you and your brothers get much more last minute with your shopping, you will be buying things after Christmas.” She gave him a considering look. “I think next year we’ll work on that.”
“Haven’t you reformed me enough already?”
She patted his cheek. “Oh, sweetie, please. I’ve barely gotten started.”
To his dismay, Richard was pretty sure she meant it.
he morning after Christmas, Destiny was still indignant that Richard had ordered her to stop seeing William. How dare he? Did he think she was some foolish girl who couldn’t be trusted to keep corporate secrets? Nobody knew better than she did what was at stake. The fate of the entire European division, to say nothing of her own self-respect, hinged on her making a success of this assignment. She wasn’t going to mess that up over a bit of nostalgia for what had once been. Perhaps her nephew would finally believe her once she pulled off this Fortnum Travel acquisition.
Fortnum was a relatively small, but very prestigious, travel agency specializing in luxury tours and cruises. With most major airlines and hotels offering online ticketing these days, Fortnum had found a niche for itself that kept its customers coming in and its bottom line solid. It also promised to provide Carlton Industries with an in-house travel division to book the extensive amounts of travel its executives were required to do. Richard really wanted this company, and Destiny intended to see that he got it.
She absentmindedly fingered the pin on her sweater as if it were a talisman. But was it lucky? Or had accepting it been the first step down a dangerous
slope, after all? And if so, had sharing Christmas dinner been the second? Was she even now in danger of losing her footing and sliding straight into disaster, as Richard believed? If only she could know for certain.
No, she thought fiercely, she knew exactly what she was doing. And, more important, she was confident she could pull it off. William was the one in danger of hitting an icy patch that would put him—and his company—in jeopardy. She intended to use every occasion she spent with him trying to learn his corporate plans so she could counter them effectively. There would be surprises aplenty for him by the time she taught him what it felt like to be on the receiving end of betrayal.
When her phone rang, she almost ignored it. She wasn’t in the mood for more of Richard’s nagging and that’s what any call home was likely to be. She knew him well enough to know that he hadn’t really given up after her outburst the day before.
Another insistent ring and she finally braced herself and picked up the receiver. “Hello,” she said cautiously.
Relief nearly overwhelmed her at the sound of William’s voice, when quite the opposite should have happened. He was second on the list of people she really didn’t want to speak to this morning. She was feeling unsettled and vulnerable and yes, dammit, lonely. The novelty of having time to herself had already worn off.
“William,” she said a little too cheerily as guilt over her happiness immediately kicked in. “You’re up bright and early.”
“A habit I picked up years ago,” he said quietly.
There was no need to add a comment about where or when. Those simple words were enough to remind her of how many early mornings they’d spent watching the first rays of sun spill into their bedroom, wrapped in each other’s arms and half asleep from making love.
“Yes, I know,” she said softly, then caught herself and determinedly sought to achieve a less intimate connection. “Anyone in business knows that dawn is the best time to get anything done at home or at work. Once the phones start, control of the day shifts to other people.”
He laughed, clearly understanding why she’d so deftly turned the topic to something less personal and risky. “So, my dear, what are you up to this morning, then? Planning your takeover of my company?”
“I am giving that some thought,” she told him. “When I have my strategy formulated, you’ll be the first to know. I believe in giving fair warning.”
This time his laugh wasn’t quite so lighthearted. “Yes, I imagine you would. You always believed life should be fair, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did,” she admitted. “Even after I’d learned the bitter lesson that it usually wasn’t.”
“Because of your brother and sister-in-law’s deaths,” he said.
“And you,” she reminded him. “Let’s not forget about your role in my awakening to reality.”
“We talked about that, Destiny. I thought we’d decided that we both shared some of the blame for not adequately communicating in the days and weeks after the tragedy struck your family.”
“But it was so much easier when I could lay all the blame at your feet,” she said plaintively. Then there had been no conflicting feelings churning inside her to keep her safely immune to him.
He laughed. “Yes, I imagine it was. You never liked being in the wrong. You certainly never liked admitting to it. In fact, you always went to great lengths to avoid acknowledging a mistake.”
“Few people like admitting they’ve made a miscalculation about something important.”
“And some of us wait entirely too long,” he said candidly. “But I’m admitting it now, Destiny. I was wrong back then. I was stupid and stubborn and far too proud. I won’t make that mistake with you ever again.”
Her heart flipped over, the wall around it cracking just a bit in the process. Because she recognized the danger in that, she said briskly, “I really must go, William. I have things to do.”
“Then you’re too busy for a drive in the country?”
It was tempting, and because of that, she knew she must decline. “I’m afraid so. Another time, perhaps.”
“I’ll count on it, Destiny. We’ll do it before the start of the New Year.”
“Yes,” she said, happy enough for the delay. It would give her time to shore up her defenses, as well as time to formulate a long string of satisfactory excuses that wouldn’t suggest for a second that she was running scared.
In the meantime, she needed to do some thoughtful reevaluation of her plan to keep the enemy so close. Much as she hated to admit it—William had been on the mark about her aversion to making any such ad
mission—she could see now that Richard was right. She’d been setting herself up—if not the company—for disaster.
With the whole day stretching ahead of her and way too many uncomfortable thoughts tumbling around in her mind, Destiny decided it was time to do a little firsthand market research. She would pay a visit to the nearest H&S Books and then, perhaps, stop for afternoon tea at one of the Harcourt Tea Shoppes, which could generally be found in the same neighborhood. There was nothing like a little snooping to get her juices flowing.
The original H&S Books was on Charing Cross Road. Since the morning fog had yet to burn off and she had no desire to get lost in the pea-soup atmosphere, she found a taxi to take her. Deposited at the curb a half-hour later, she paid the fare, then stood on the sidewalk to study the bright window display. It featured piles of books, in no discernable arrangement. There was nothing cohesive about it, no theme. Cookbooks were jammed up against children’s storybooks. Novels had been stacked next to political nonfiction. The only qualification for being granted such a prime showcase seemed to be quantity. There were no fewer than a dozen copies of any of the books displayed.
Inside, the aisles were wide, the bookcases well lit, but the displays practically begged for a knowledgeable person to make sense of them. In fact, Destiny found herself so annoyed at being unable to determine where to look for any particular genre, had she been the average busy customer, she would have left in dismay. Perhaps some of the confusion could be
blamed on post-holiday chaos, but she doubted it. It looked more as if the books had never been properly sorted and displayed in the first place.
She would have left then, content that Jameson’s could make better sense of its stock than H&S Books ever would, but her eye was suddenly drawn to an art book of paintings featuring scenes from Provence.
She plucked the book from the shelf and stood leafing through it. When she came upon a scene of an outdoor café, one she’d been to many times herself, she paused, suddenly lost in memories once more.
The young woman in the café was blatantly flirting with William. In fact, she’d been trying to make eye contact ever since he and Destiny had sat down. It was beginning to get on Destiny’s nerves. She’d never thought of herself as a possessive woman, but apparently she was. It was quite a rude awakening to discover she was capable of pea-green jealousy.
“You needn’t shoot daggers at her,” William said, clearly amused by her reaction.
“And why shouldn’t I?” she groused defensively. “Can’t she see you’re taken?”
“If you’re confident that I am taken,” he said mildly, “then what is it you’re afraid of?”
She sipped her wine and thought about that. What was she worrying about? In the time they’d been together, William had never so much as glanced at another woman with interest. He’d given her no reason whatsoever to doubt him. If he’d done nothing to earn her distrust, then it must have something to do with
her and her own self-doubts. It was an embarrassing thing to have to admit, so she didn’t.
“Perhaps I’m merely sending up warning flares,” she said. “I can’t have you or some indiscreet stranger thinking I won’t mind if you stray.”
His smile spread. “Really?”
Something in his tone caught her attention and suddenly she was riveted on William’s face, the woman forgotten. “You seem surprised.”
“I am. It’s the closest you’ve ever come to admitting your feelings for me.”
She stared at him, truly shocked. “Don’t be absurd. I tell you all the time how I feel.”
“You do,” he agreed. “You tell me how you feel about the weather. About local politics. About the latest gallery showing. Not about what’s in your heart.”
“But I’ve told you I love you,” she argued. “I’ve said the words.”
“In passing, yes, as if they meant no more than ‘how are you?’ or ‘what’s the weather like?”’
The accusation stung, but she couldn’t immediately deny it. She did tend to say the words casually, dropping them in at the least intimate moments. As well, she scattered them thoughtlessly around with her friends.
“Love you. Bye,” was her ready line whenever she ended a phone call, whether to family, a neighbor or the friendly owner of their favorite restaurant. No wonder William considered the words alone to have little meaning.
Filled with chagrin, she met his gaze. “I’m sorry. I never realized how it must appear to you. I never
made it seem as if there was any distinction at all between you and the butcher.”
He laughed then, breaking the somber mood. “Trust me, I know that I hold a different place in your heart than the butcher.”
She grinned at him. “Not when he’s offering a special on lamb chops. Then I truly do adore him.”
“Adore, perhaps, but not love, Destiny. Not the kind of love I’m beginning to believe you feel for me.”
“No, not that,” she agreed, leaning forward and putting a hand on his cheek. “I’m sorry I’m so careless about your feelings. I suppose it’s because I’m still scared that I’ve got this all wrong, that it’s too good to be true.”
“Even after all this time?”
“Even now,” she confirmed.
“What will it take to convince you that I will never even notice another woman if you are in the room?”
“Time, I suppose.”
“Then isn’t it lucky that we have years and years ahead of us?” he said.
But they hadn’t had years and years, of course, Destiny remembered as she closed the book and returned it to the shelf. They’d had barely another twelve months, as it had turned out.
She traced a finger along the spine of the book, tempted still to buy it, but filled with misgivings over the memories it was likely to dredge up.
“I’ll buy it for you,” William said quietly, coming up behind her. “I have a copy on my shelves, as well. The first time I saw it, I knew I had to have it.”
Destiny didn’t turn around. She didn’t want him to catch the flush of embarrassment in her cheeks over having been caught indulging in pure sentimentality.
“No, thanks. I was just browsing and noticed the title.”
“Oh? It looked more as if you were lost in thought, perhaps remembering another place, another time.”
She did face him then. “Please don’t make anything of this. You’d be mistaken.”
He nodded slowly and the spark in his eyes dimmed just a bit. “Were you here spying on the competition, then? Checking out our extensive inventory to see what Jameson’s is missing?”
“I could spend all day and not know that,” she said tartly. “You could use some organization in here, William. Not that I’m trying to tell you how to run your business, of course.”
“Of course,” he said solemnly, even as the corners of his mouth tilted up in a barely suppressed grin. “I know you would never dream of doing such a thing.”
He gave her a knowing look. “Since you’re in the neighborhood, would you like to come along with me for tea? There’s a Harcourt Tea Shoppe in the next block.”
Destiny feigned amazement. “Really? How perfectly lovely! As a matter of fact, I would love a cup of tea.”
He laughed, obviously not buying the act. “I suspect you have the address jotted down on a paper in your purse,” he chided. “And if I hadn’t come along to invite you, you’d have gone there on your own.”
She shrugged. “It does pay to know the competition.”