Authors: Heather Graham
“I was very sorry to hear about your husband, Sloan,” he said softly, sincere compassion in the sea-green eyes that met hers easily.
“Thank you.” His unpatronizing sympathy touched a chord in her heart she had thought long since dead.
“I’m sorry again. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No, no, it’s all right.” She grudgingly gave him a faint smile. “Terry has been dead for two years. I assure you, I don’t become hysterical at the mention of his name.”
“You’ve changed,” he remarked oddly.
“Have I?” Her smile became ironic. “I didn’t realize you had known me well enough to judge such a thing.”
The friendly smile he had been wearing remained glued to his face, but Sloan saw his facial muscles tighten as the warm spark in his eyes went cold. She winced imperceptibly at her own behavior. There was no need for her to be so uncivil.
Wesley Adams shrugged as he withdrew a pack of cigarettes from his vest pocket. He lit a cigarette, returned the pack to his pocket, and exhaled a long plume of smoke. His eyes were still on her, speculative and cold. Absurdly, she shuddered. Low-keyed and polite as he was, she had the strange feeling he could be dangerous if crossed.
“I didn’t know you very well,” he said casually, “but I do know that you never used to be out-and-out rude.”
Sloan straightened as if she had been slapped. Of all the nerve! What a comment to make in her house! She drew breath for a caustic reply but snapped her mouth shut as Cassie gracefully sailed in from the kitchen with a tray of drinks.
“Wes,” Cassie said as she placed the tray on the mahogany coffee table. “That’s your bourbon on the left. Sloan, scotch in the middle.”
Sloan fell silent as Wes and Cassie began to converse with a pleasant camaraderie. Moments later, George put in his appearance, and after kissing his wife and sister-in-law, he accepted the Wild Turkey and soda his wife had precipitously prepared and assured her the boys were safe in bed and his mother happily ensconced before the television set enjoying an oldie about a monster that was threatening to eat New York. He, too, readily joined in the light banter, and the talk turned to football. Sloan allowed her mind to wander.
She admitted to herself that she had been rude and wondered why. Wes Adams meant nothing to her, yet he disturbed her. She had the strange feeling that he saw more with those unusual oceanic eyes than most people. He watched her as if she were an open book and he could read her every weakness.
Ridiculous. There were no weaknesses. Not anymore. She had learned to rely on Sloan Tallett and on no one else. She didn’t know, not in her conscious mind, that the very goodness of her marriage now blocked an open heart. Terry had loved her; Terry had been wonderful. Terry had left her in the terrible mess she was in now. If someone had realized what lay in the uncharted recesses of her heart, they might have pointed out to her that she was blaming love for pain; blaming Terry for his own death as desertion. And if she could see, her eyes would widen and she would wince with horror at the reasoning that had left her as cold and as hard as steel. But she didn’t see, and so she stiffened and went on.
And Wes Adams, the all but forgotten intruder who sat in her living room as if he belonged, was ruining the well-structured format of her life with his simple presence and cool words. It didn’t matter, she told herself. He would be gone soon. And so would the inane feeling he gave her that she was losing control in some unclear way. She was always in control of any situation.
“And of course Sloan always joins in too,” George was saying, his kindly gray eyes on her. He winked. “She’s the high point of the summer!”
They were all looking at her now, and she flushed guiltily. “I’m sorry, George. I’m afraid I wandered. What do I join in to make this high point of the summer?”
“The school’s annual summer dance!” Cassie hopped in impatiently. “Wes said he’d love to see you in a performance, and we told him he came at just the right time!”
“Oh,” Sloan murmured, annoyed to feel herself blushing again as she met Wes’s unfathomable, soul-piercing stare. What was the matter with her, she wondered impatiently. For the sake of the dance department she should be pushing the performance—glad of anyone who purchased a ticket and helped fill the immense auditorium. And by her own volition or not, Wes was a guest in her own home. A little cordiality wouldn’t hurt. She slowly smiled and found it wasn’t difficult at all when Wes curved his lips in return. “Our summer dance is quite a show,” she told him, her enthusiasm growing. “We have some wonderful students.”
He laughed easily. “I’ll be looking at the teacher.”
Absurd, but she felt herself blushing again, only this time the feeling wasn’t uncomfortable. “What are you doing back in Gettysburg, Wes?” she asked, anxious to change the topic of conversation to anything other than herself.
“Business,” he replied with a grimace. “And, of course, a little pleasure. This will always be home in a way. Mainly, I’m here on a buying trip—there’s a man on the outskirts of the city who I do a lot of buying from. He has a knack with up-and-coming Thoroughbreds.” Once again, Sloan was treated to a slow, subtly alluring smile. “At the moment,” he continued, “I can honestly say I’ve never had a more pleasurable business trip.”
Sloan managed not to blush again. With the hint of an enticing smile on her own lips, she inclined her head ever so slightly. Touché. He had learned to be a charmer when he chose.
From that point the night passed with surprising swiftness. Wesley, whom she had once found so boringly dull, proved to be an interesting speaker. His voice was a low tenor which still penetrated the room when he spoke, his words so appealingly phrased that Sloan was later shocked to realize she had listened to information on horses and football without once wandering from the conversation. It was after midnight when George finally looked at his watch and groaned that they had to leave.
“I’m sure New York has either been long consumed or saved by now,” he said dryly, “and that my mother probably has her eyes propped open with toothpicks. How long will you be here, Wes?”
“A couple of weeks,” Wesley replied, rising to shake his old friend’s hand. “I’m sure we’ll be able to get together again.” He kissed Cassie lightly and took Sloan’s hand. “Thank you, Sloan, for a pleasant evening.”
“Thank you for coming,” she parroted politely.
“Perhaps, if we have dinner one night, you’ll join us.”
Sloan wasn’t sure if the invitation was sincere or not. She was being scrutinized by those uncanny eyes again, and the firm hand holding hers was mocking in its gentle but undeniable pressure. She smiled vaguely. “Yes, perhaps. But I have a problem with the children.”
“I’m her only nighttime sitter,” Cassie explained. “George’s mother is too nervous to handle all five.”
“That’s no problem!” Wesley laughed, and for a moment his eyes seemed very warm and tender. “My housekeeper is with me, since I’m staying at my folks’ home. They’ve been in Arizona for years now, so I assumed I’d need a bit of help with fixing up. Florence adores children. She’ll be thrilled to watch them for us.”
“I...” Sloan faltered helplessly. She didn’t want to tell him that she didn’t leave her children with just anyone—it would sound frightfully insulting.
But Wesley astutely sensed her dilemma. “I’ll bring Florence by at your convenience so that you can meet her and she can meet the children. Then, if all goes well, we’ll make a definite date for Saturday night, a week from tomorrow. Does that suit everyone?”
A little awed, Sloan nodded. It didn’t just suit her, it sounded lovely. One of the reasons that she so seldom went out was the lack of available, trustworthy baby-sitters and a determination not to take advantage of her sister. She would also have trouble affording a regular sitter. “Loaded” Wesley was solving all her problems.
Wesley released her hand. George and Cassie kissed her goodnight, and she was alone in her silent house with her sleeping children.
She was reflective that night as she showered and donned a light flannel gown, studying her face in the bathroom mirror. She winced at what she saw.
Although faint, tiny lines were forming around her eyes. Unlike Cassie, she certainly couldn’t pass for eighteen. At least, she thought, giggling at her mirrored image, if she were to go prematurely gray, no one would notice. Her hair was already composed of too many colors.
Anyway, the hell with vanity. She was the mother of three. Still...her hand slid over her flat stomach. She was lucky. She had borne three children, yet come out of it without a scratch. Her figure was tighter than that of a teenager, her skin as smooth. Dancing, she told herself wryly. Her passion had kept her in shape.
But what difference did it make. There was no longer a man in her bedroom to tell her she was beautiful, to tell her what he loved about her...No one to try to please...
Sloan snapped out the light and peeked in on six-year-old Jamie, four-year-old Laura, and two-year-old “baby” Terry. They all slept soundly, their even breathing peaceful. Unable to resist, she tenderly kissed each little forehead. They were beautiful children, plump and healthy. Again, she reminded herself that she was lucky, and that she should be grateful and fulfilled.
I am fulfilled! she told herself sternly. There is nothing more I need than their love.
But she didn’t sleep well that night. She was plagued by dreams of worry and emptiness.
Sloan pressed her hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone. “Jamie!” she wailed. “Quit torturing your sister! Give her back her doll! And hush up for five minutes!”
Jamie pursed his little lips, shot his mother a baleful glance, and returned his sister’s doll. With a sigh, Sloan returned to her conversation.
“I’m sorry about the payment, Mrs. White, it must have been an oversight. I’ll put it in the mail immediately. Please don’t turn off the electricity!”
The woman on the other end spat off a few epitaphs about people who didn’t pay bills on time and finally agreed to give her four days to have the payment in. Sloan hung up the receiver and rested her head tiredly on the phone.
“Mommy?” A tiny hand tugged on her sleeve, and she opened her eyes. Jamie—her devil, her love. “Mommy, I love you.”
She picked him up and hugged him. “I love you, too, sweetheart. Now run along and see what your brother is doing.”
She set him down and rubbed a hand across her forehead. No wonder she was getting wrinkles. She was always frowning.
“Mommy!” It was Jamie again. “Terry is putting the laundry in the toilet!”
“Eeeeeek!” Sloan screamed, racing into the bathroom. Lord, what next? She unstuffed the toilet and washed the baby, who gurgled happily with pleasure and lisped a few words. Then she returned to the kitchen to morosely sip her coffee, slumped into a chair.
“The morning,” she told herself aloud, “is not going well at all.”
Her mind, for no explicable reason, turned to Wesley Adams. He was a handsome man, polite and gracious. She unconsciously moved a hand over her face. He was attracted to her; she knew it intuitively. And he
Wheels began to turn in her mind.
She sprang to her feet and raced back into the bathroom to anxiously study her reflection again. She smoothed the worried frown from her brow and smiled brightly. That was better. Much better. Maybe Jim’s ideas for her future weren’t quite so bad...
She continued to stare at herself unseeingly for several seconds, oblivious to the playful ramblings of the children.
“I don’t love him, I don’t really like him, I hardly even know him!” she told the face that was forming before her, the face that had a bewitching but frighteningly predatory cast.
The children...I have to think of the children...and I’m so dreadfully tired of dealing with it all!
The face wasn’t really predatory, she assured herself. Conniving, maybe, devious, yes perhaps...and hard. But not
She swallowed, wincing, ashamed of her thoughts.
Sloan closed her eyes and turned away from the mirror, burying all sense of shame with purpose and determination as she did so. Like a marionette she jerked back to the phone and dialed her sister’s number.
She chatted idly for a few minutes, then casually brought up the subject on her mind.
“What do you really know about Wesley Adams?” she asked.
Cassie rushed on with enthusiasm. Wes was wonderful. He had led his team to victory in the Super Bowl. He donated to charities all over the country. He had a beautiful spread in Kentucky where he raised his horses and held a summer camp for deprived children every year...
“Does he really have that much money?” Sloan queried innocently, thankful that her sister couldn’t see her face over the phone.
“Tons of it!” Cassie laughed. “His salary was unbelievable, and he seems to have the Midas touch with investments. Everything he touches turns to gold, silver, and green. They had a big write-up on him in
magazine when he left pro ball a few years ago...”
Cassie had more to say, but Sloan was no longer listening. A slow buzzing was seeping coldly through her. She couldn’t allow herself to think; she couldn’t afford to moralize.
“I’m here, Cass.”
“So—you’ve decided you like him after all! I knew you would. He’s such a super guy! And he’s interested in you. Half the women in this country would sell their souls to be in your place!”
“Yes, Cass.” Sloan held her breath for a minute. She wasn’t much of a liar, and she had never lied to Cassie in her life. Suddenly she felt hot, dizzy, and nervous—what she was planning was preposterous. She might have joked, but the idea of actually doing it had never occurred to her. Until now. And it had hit her with a jolt. It would be wrong; she couldn’t...
But the last two years of her life flashed through her mind in a split second—a tumult of events that was dark and sobering. Terry’s disappearance, the baby’s premature birth, her own long haul back to health, having to quit the Fife Dance Company, moving back to Gettysburg and teaching at a salary that was more than she had made with Fife but still barely allowed her to make ends meet. “Yes, Cassie,” Sloan repeated. “I think I like Wes very much now. I’m looking forward to our dinner.”