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Authors: T Davis Bunn

Winner Take All

BOOK: Winner Take All
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ALSO BY T. DAVIS BUNN

———————————————

The Great Divide

Drummer in the Dark

W
ATER
B
ROOK
and its deer design logo are registered trademarks of W
ATER
B
ROOK
Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

THIS BOOK IS PUBLISHED BY WATERBROOK PRESS
12265 Oracle Blvd, Suite 200,
Colorado Springs, CO 80921, a division of Random House, Inc.

All of the characters in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file with the Library of Congress

ISBN 1-57856-530-8
eBook ISBN: 978-0-385-50896-4

Copyright © 2003 by T. Davis Bunn

All Rights Reserved

v3.1

For Thom and Becky Bradford

With Love

Contents
CHAPTER
———
1

T
OURISTS MEANDERED DOWN
the brick walk, laughing in the way of people who had spent too much money not to have a good time. Dale Steadman licked his lips and searched the close Carolina night. Across the street beckoned the last remaining bar from Wilmington’s bad old days, a Barbary Coast dive whose music thumped in time to his own lurching heart. Gas lamps flickered and mocked him with shadows that threatened to reveal Erin coming from both directions at the same time. When she finally appeared, dancing across the bricks and waving excitedly, Dale could not even raise his arm in response. He watched heads turn up and down the street, some because of her poise and beauty, others because they recognized the newly arrived celebrity. Dale accepted her kiss of greeting, followed her into the restaurant, and knew a strong man’s terror at watching the world slip utterly out of control.

The Wilmington harbor area had known its share of hard times. Two decades earlier, the streets fronting the Cape Fear River had been home to some of the raunchiest dives this side of Trinidad. Back then, even sailors off the rusting bulk carriers had walked in pairs. Eight Front Street was a product of recent renovation, with French cuisine served in a pre-Revolutionary War warehouse. The waiters liked to thrill the tourists with tales of former nude bar dancers and the three Hudson Bay outlaws who had carved each other up with bone-handled scimitars. But tonight the candles and the gas wall lamps glowed like ghosts of the here and now, and Dale found scant room for bygone days. Across from him, Erin showed a vulnerable enchantment
that was all her own, a waif in Hermès silks. As the waiter took their orders, Dale wondered anew why this world-renowned opera diva had ever come to marry him. Or how he had ever let her go.

They talked of her recent roles at La Scala and Vienna’s famed opera house. Candles brushed her features with featherstrokes of youth, as though she were forever seventeen. Erin had been born in Germany and raised in Belgium. That night her accent was an erotic purr. They talked of his recent appointment as chairman of the New Horizons board. They cast those special looks across the table. They pretended she had never abandoned him, leaving for a role in Paris and never coming back. At least, she pretended it had not happened, and he pretended to let it go.

Erin was an odd mixture of softness and edges. Her nose was far too strong, a single line drawn from forehead to tip. At a certain angle she hearkened back to a distant age of hunter-gatherers, which was perhaps the source of her ruthless intent. Whatever she needed to dispatch, she did so without a solitary hint of remorse. She ate what she killed. And she murdered with grace and song.

Erin carried a childlike zest about her. She ate with a gusto that was her trademark in everything and brought the burning to his gut once more. She responded with the rounding of her dark eyes, still open to his signals and reading them before they were ever fully formed. After ten and a half months of hellish pain, an hour back in her company was enough to chain him once more.

She drank sparingly, but encouraged Dale to go the distance. She had always professed to love his drinking and his cigars and his hunting, calling them manly traits in an emasculated world. He was a winner and a giant among pygmies, she had often said, compliments he had always loved to hear from her lips, for the words had usually triggered nights of astonishing passion. Erin had been the first ever to release him from the prison of restraint. The one and only.

The first difficult moment came as they were finishing the main course. She tossed out the question with a casual glance at other tables, little more than an aside. “Who is keeping you company these days?”

He was saved by what in earlier times had been a constant barb, but now was a windfall. An older couple approached with pen and smiles outstretched. They had seen her recent PBS opera special and read about her in the
New York Times
. They were thrilled to meet her.
Just so delighted. Erin resumed the role of star and signed their pages, then dismissed them as pleasantly and swiftly as only a diva could.

She turned back to him. “Am I meant to be jealous already?”

“I don’t want to spend our time talking about this, Erin.”

“No. Of course not. My prim and proper husband dislikes any hint—”

“Erin. Please.”

She lifted her wine and drained it. She had scarcely tasted it before then. She did not ever drink very much. The dreams came after that, and the terrors. He knew the dreams, but he could only guess at the reasons. Which made her adolescent beauty even more remarkable. Not even having a child had diminished her lissome radiance. It was only in moments like this, when her features tightened in anger or distress, that she aged from a perpetual seventeen to her actual thirty.

Erin’s dark eyes did not so much focus upon him as take aim. “My glass is empty.”

“Sorry.” He refilled hers, then his own. “Congratulations on your recent success, by the way.”

“A smooth change of subject. Very smooth.”

“Not to mention the front page of the Sunday
Times
Arts and Leisure section. Quite a coup.”

Three years ago, Erin had come to New York hoping for a chance to make it at the Met, the crown of America’s operatic world. They had met her first week in New York and his second, two outcasts to the Apple’s high society. The magnetism was mutual and instantaneous. Or so he liked to think.

Entry into the New York Metropolitan Opera had never come for Erin. She had hammered upon the backstage entrance with all her might. She had paid her dues by singing every American venue that would have her, from San Francisco to Miami to Chicago. She had gained accolades from virtually every place. But still the Met did not grant the invitation she so desperately craved.

Dale had followed whenever and wherever he could. Theirs had been an international romance, a fairy tale that fit well into the European magazines. Pictorial spreads appeared in France and Switzerland and Belgium, where opera stars were granted the same status as the Hollywood imports. Beauty and the Beast, was how the German magazine
Bild
put it, a backwoods hick from a town redolent of slave
labor and brown lung. Dale disliked admitting it even to himself, but he had occasionally asked himself the same question. Why had this woman, who could have had almost any man in the entire world, ever married the likes of him?

Now she was back in Europe. His love had not been enough to keep her content. This was only the second time she had returned to America since their divorce. The other occasion had been to record a PBS special as the precious innocent in
Carmen
. The telecast had received to-die-for publicity when the
New York Times
had blasted the Met’s new lead conductor for refusing Erin a debut. As a result of the
Times
’ coverage, PBS had gained the largest audience for a televised opera in history.

Dale had not even known she was in the country until he read of the upcoming broadcast. He had gotten so spectacularly drunk the third act remained a scotch-scented blur.

BOOK: Winner Take All
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