ELL, PETE, I've sent my boy off to see your girl.” Ernie Tremayne lay in the white hospital room alone and listened to the beep of the heart monitor punctuate the rumble of thunder outside. “Too bad I can't be there to referee, like in the old days.”
A hell of a referee you were, Ernie, bribing those kids with ice cream if they'd stop arguing. Beth and Alana told me they used to start fights with Mike on purpose, just to get the damned ice cream!
Ernie chuckled, although it made his chest hurt where they'd opened him up. “Yeah, Mike told me that once, too. I miss those days, Pete. Miss âem bad. This heart attack is a hellacious nuisance, but if it helps get those kids talkin' again, then it's okay.”
A nurse walked by and poked her head in the door. “Mr. Tremayne? Visiting hours are...oh, you're alone.”
“Yeah. Just talkin' to myself, Judy.”
“Is there anything I can do for you? It's not quite time for your injection yet, butâ”
“You got any cigars on you?”
She grinned. “Sorry. I smoked my last one an hour ago.”
“There ain't nothin' you can do for me, then. You'd best go tend to some sick folks.”
“Okay. Buzz the nurses' station if you need anything. Besides cigars, that is.” With a smile she backed out of the doorway and continued down the hall.
Ernie wondered what Judy would say if he told her he was talking to his old friend and business partner Pete Nightingale. Probably wasn't the first time she'd had patients in his particular fix, talking to dead friends and relatives. Of course she probably wouldn't believe that Pete answered back.
Ernie figured it was because he'd made contact with Pete during the few seconds he'd spent on the other side while the emergency room docs worked to get his heart beating again. Pete had been real glad to see him, and now they seemed to be able to talk to each other, which was a considerable comfort to Ernie, and he hoped it was the same for Pete.
Of course Ernie wouldn't mention any of this to the hospital staff. Sure as the world they'd write
on his chart, right next to
. So Ernie kept the information strictly to himself. Someday, though, he might tell Beth and Alana.
THE EVENING DRIVE from Tucson Medical Center to the small town of Bisbee gave Mike Tremayne an hour and a half to consider what he'd say to Beth Nightingale when he saw her. He could start with an apology. Hell, he had a basketful of them to make.
What a mess he'd created eight years ago, alienating both sisters and ruining what had been the best friendships of his life. Worse than that, his guilt had kept him from spending time with his father. He'd only come home twice since he'd left town the night before he and Alana were to be married. His visits had been short, because like a damned coward, he'd been worried about running into Beth and Alana. For years he'd shortchanged himself and the man he loved most in the world. Although Ernie hadn't spoken one word of reproach tonight in that sterile, frightening hospital room, Mike was filled with regret for the precious time he'd thrown away.
As he drove across the desert, storm clouds piled against the dark mountains and fragments of lightning cut through the blackness. The sweep of night sky and the sparse vegetation beneath it contrasted sharply with the jungle environment he'd become used to. But Arizona could be as wild in its way as the Amazon, and he'd always loved these dramatic summer storms. So had Alana, but Beth had cringed with every roll of thunder.
Beth. He hadn't seen her in eight yearsâan eternity. And through those eight years, he'd been plagued with thoughts of what might have been, if he hadn't run out on her and Alana. Yet even in the depths of the rain forest, thousands of miles away from Beth, he'd sometimes awakened from dreams so vivid he could still taste their forbidden kiss, the kiss that had changed everything....
THUNDER GROWLED in the distance as Beth opened the back door of her glass studio and hurried inside. Flipping on lights as she went, she passed through the workroom into the gift shop, where rainbow-hued examples of her art hung in the windows and from wrought-iron racks Ernie had made for her in his machine shop. Colby Huxford would arrive any minute. She wished she'd had time to eat dinner, but seeing Ernie at the hospital this afternoon had been more important.
Her visit to Ernie hadn't worked out as well as she'd hoped, though. She'd thought he'd be relieved that she'd found somebody to take over manufacturing the glass cutters they'd begun marketing under the Tremayne-Nightingale partnership agreement. Although she and Ernie would have to lease the patent to Handmade, Colby's Chicago-based company, at least orders would be filled on time.
But Ernie hadn't liked the idea at all. He'd begged her not to lease the patent, promising he'd be out of the hospital and back in his machine shop in a matter of days. She didn't believe that, much as she wanted to. Leasing the patent to Handmade seemed to be their only option.
As she surveyed the studio, her glance lingered on the large circle of stained glass that dominated the front display window. Inside the shop the colors lost their brilliance at night, but to anyone standing outside on the sidewalk, the interior lights made the piece glow with passionate intensity. She knew she was tempting Fate to leave it hanging there, but Ernie hadn't mentioned anything about Mike coming home, and the piece represented her finest work. Fortunately no one had guessed that it also represented the most sinfully glorious moment of her life.
Mike would guess immediately, but last she heard, he was headed off to guide another botany expedition into the Brazilian rain forestâliving his dream. He'd been fascinated with the Amazon jungle ever since he was a kid. She still remembered the mural that had covered one wall of his room with a panorama of parrots, monkeys and jaguars roaming in a lush tropical setting. Mike had loved visits to the zoo and had vowed to see each of those same animals in the wild. But leading scientists into uncharted jungles meant he was often unreachable, and Ernie's doctors hadn't been able to contact him after the heart attack.
Still, it would be just like Mike to appear without notice. Perhaps she should take the stained-glass piece down, at least for the next few days. As she reached for the wooden frame to lift it from the hooks in the ceiling, a rental car pulled up to the curb in front of the studio. Beth abandoned the task as Colby Huxford got out of the car and started across the sidewalk.
JUST OUTSIDE of Bisbee Mike entered the tunnel that penetrated the Mule Mountains guarding the west entrance into town. Locals called it the Time Tunnel, and as Mike drove through it and looked down on the lights of the former mining town, he wished he really could go back in time, back to that night eight years ago. If he could wipe out the single stupidest thing he'd ever done in his life, everything would be different now.
The winding, mountainous streets of Bisbee were deserted at nine-thirty on a weeknight as Mike drove the rental car down Main toward Nightingale's Glass Studio. His father had told him it was called Nightingale's Daughter, now that Pete was dead, but the business partnership between the studio and Tremayne's Machine Shop remained intact. Anxiety constricted Mike's windpipe. He'd faced prowling jaguars and deadly vipers with more composure than this meeting with Beth. He would love to postpone it, but he'd promised his father he would talk to her tonight, before she made some irrevocable decision.
Apparently a business shark from Chicago wanted to take over the manufacture of the glass cutters that were Beth and Ernie's latest business venture. Ernie had asked Mike to step in and keep Beth from agreeing to anything. Mike had warned his father that Beth might throw him right back out again.
“Don't let her do that,” Ernie had said. “The cutter could make us lots of money. I think this Huxford fellow plans to swindle us out of it.”
Some white knight he was, Mike thought as he neared the studio. Black sheep was more like it. But he'd try, for his father's sake, and for Beth's sake, too. He certainly owed her that much.
The studio, a brick two-story with a storefront below and living quarters above, sat in a row of nineteenthcentury buildings along Main Street. Mike parked behind a nondescript sedan, no doubt Colby Huxford's rental. Ernie had said Beth would be meeting Huxford tonight, which was why Ernie had shooed Mike out of the hospital room and told him to get his behind back to Bisbee before it was too late.
Mike thought it might be eight years too late, but he got out of the car anyway and walked between the two vehicles to reach the curb. On his way he took his first good look at a large circle of stained glass hanging in the window. What he saw stopped him cold.
He stared at the work, a good thirty inches in diameter, and couldn't believe the scene created within it. Eight years disappeared in an instant, and his heart began to pound as memories came rushing back...her red silk dress whispering as he pulled her against him, her auburn hair caressing the back of his hand as she tilted her face up to his, her lily-of-the-valley fragrance surrounding him as he leaned close, inhaling her champagne-sweetened breath, touching his lips to hers...
And now they were captured in a circle of glass hanging in the studio window, frozen in their forbidden embrace.
Mike closed his eyes. He'd been slightly drunk and in a crazy mood. And that dress...Beth had never worn anything like it. He'd stupidly thought he could kiss her once, just to satisfy his curiosity before he became a married man. After all, he'd known her almost all his life, so what was the harm? But he'd known nothingâuntil his lips found hers. He could still feel the emotions that ran through him at that moment, the wonder of everything falling into place and the terror of knowing that everything would soon fall apart.
He'd tried to imagine telling Alana that he couldn't marry her because he was in love, and had probably always been in love, with her little sister. He simply couldn't imagine it. Alana had been a substitute mother for Beth ever since their real mother had died when they were five and three. He, of all people, understood the bond between the sisters, and everything in him rebelled at the thought of driving a wedge into that relationship. The simplest solution had been to leave town. Then they could both hate him, which he was pretty sure they did.
At least he had been sure until now, standing here looking at Beth's interpretation of that passionate kiss. For one hopeful moment, he imagined she'd put the work in the window as a signal to him. But that couldn't be. The doctors had spent a week trying to reach him and had caught him just as his float plane was about to leave Manaus. Another twenty-four hours and he'd have been deep in the rain forest, out of touch. Even Ernie hadn't known he was coming until he'd walked into the hospital room tonight.
He looked past the stained-glass piece into the studio and saw her standing inside, talking to a skinny guy in a gray suit. Nobody wore suits in Bisbee, so it had to be Huxford. Beth was listening intently, although she'd wrapped her arms around herself in a protective gesture.
His gut twisted at how beautiful she was. He'd forgotten, or else pushed her so far to the back of his mind it seemed like forgetting. He ran a hand over his day-old beard and wished he could have taken the time to shave and change out of his rumpled khaki shirt and chinos, but his dad had told him to hurry.
Now that he was here, hurrying didn't seem as important. He took some time to study her. She wore a longsleeved purple blouse tucked into a flowing, anklelength skirt patterned in purple and blue. The blouse clung to her breasts, and the skirt's waistband emphasized a figure as slim as he remembered when he'd held her in his arms. Beaded earrings dangled almost to her shoulders. He reacquainted himself with the delicate features and smooth skin that appeared as translucent as the glass she used in her work. She'd kept her hair the same luxurious length, and it rippled down to the middle of her back. The red highlights caught the gleam of the overhead fixtures as she moved behind the sales counter.
When Mike realized she'd gone after a pen, he swung into action. His appearance would do no good three seconds after she'd signed away the rights to the glass cutter.
The door to the studio was locked. He rapped on the glass set into the top panel of the door.
She glanced up, frowning. Then her eyes slowly widened, and her throat moved in a convulsive swallow. She put down the pen and came from behind the counter as if she were a sleepwalker. Huxford must have asked her something, because she turned her head briefly and spoke to him. Then she brought her attention right back to Mike.
Through the barrier of the glass in the door, he held her gaze. This was no time to look away. As she drew closer, his heart slammed against his ribs. He'd gazed into the eyes of several lovers in eight years and had never had a reaction like this. He'd forgotten the mesmerizing intensity of those blue eyes. Yet her eyes didn't sparkle in welcome as they had so long ago. Instead they burned with a cold, deadly fire.
She twisted the lock and opened the door. “So, you're here.”