Read Envy Online

Authors: Sandra Brown

Tags: #Women editors, #Islands, #revenge, #Fiction, #Romantic suspense novels, #Editors, #Psychological, #Georgia, #Authors and Publishers, #Suspense, #Novelists

Envy (9 page)

BOOK: Envy
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"I thought I told you not to snoop," Noah said, nuzzling her ear.

"I didn't know that I was. When are you going to tell me why you leased this apartment?"

"In good time. Be patient."

"Is my present behind door number one?"

"Let's take a look." He walked her toward the door. "You may open it now."

The room was a small cubicle, but a generous window made it appear larger. It was furnished with a desk, a leather swivel chair, and shelves only partially filled with books. It was further equipped with a telephone, a computer and printer, and a fax machine. A yellow legal tablet lay on the desk beside a metal pencil holder filled with sharpened pencils.

Maris took in every detail, then turned and looked at Noah.

He laid his hands on her shoulders and massaged them gently. "I know you've wondered about the late hours I've been keeping, as well as the unaccounted-for time I've spent away from

#home and office." ###################137

"I confess."

"I apologize for causing you to worry. I wanted this place to be completely set up before you saw it. It's taken me weeks to get it ready.

Months, if you factor in the time I spent searching for a suitable space."

"A suitable space for what?"

"Well, not for conducting the illicit affair you thought I was having."

She lowered her eyes. "Again, I confess."

"With Nadia?"

"She topped the list of suspects."

"Maris," he said reproachfully.

She tossed her head back and shook out her hair, as though freeing herself of a burden. "God, I'm glad it's not that."

"Feel better?"

"Immeasurably. But, if this apartment wasn't designated as a love nest, what did you lease it for?"

He ducked his head in what could only be described as shyness. "Writing."

"Writing?" she repeated on a thin breath.

"That's your anniversary present. I've begun writing again."

For several moments she was too stunned to speak, then she threw herself against him. "Noah! That's wonderful. When? What made you ... You always get so defensive whenever I mention it. Oh, I'm thrilled. Thrilled!"

She rained kisses over his face. He

laughed and indulged her enthusiasm. Finally he set her away, keeping her at arm's length.

"Don't get carried away. I'll probably fail miserably."

"You won't," she said adamantly. "I don't believe for a moment that you're the one-book wonder you fear you are. The author of _The _Vanquished--was

"Which I wrote years ago, Maris, when I was full of passion, a young man with stars in his eyes."

"And _talent," she stressed. "Talent like yours isn't depleted by one book, Noah. It doesn't simply disappear. On the contrary, I think it ripens with age and experience."

"We'll see." He glanced at the computer dubiously. "In any case, I'm willing to test your theory. I'm going to give it a shot."

###"You're not just doing it for me, are you?" ##139

"I couldn't do it just for you. Writing is damn hard work. It's borderline masochistic. If your heart's not in it, you're doomed before you start."

He rubbed his knuckles against her jaw. "This is something I want to do. Very much. And if it pleases you, that's a bonus."

"It pleases me very much. I couldn't be more pleased." She hugged him tightly, then kissed him with more heat than she could remember feeling for a long time.

As their lips clung, Noah slipped off his jacket. Her heart quickened. The surroundings were unfamiliar and untried. It would feel a shade illicit if they made love in this new apartment, on the sofa, on the rug. Hell, on the desk.

Why not? They were grown-ups.

She slid her hands up his chest and began working on the knot of his necktie. But he moved her aside, sat down at the keyboard, and booted up the computer.

"I'm so anxious to get started."

"_Now?"

He swiveled his chair around and looked up at her, grinning sheepishly. "Do you mind? It's taken me weeks to set up my new playground, but I haven't had time to play in it. I barely got the finishing touches put on this afternoon before the chef and waiters arrived. I'd like to install my software and maybe jot down a few notes.

I've been toying with an idea. I'm afraid if I don't commit it to paper, it'll vanish.

Do you mind if I work awhile?"

She forced herself to smile. "No. Of course not. Not at all."

There wasn't to be a romantic conclusion to the evening, and that was disappointing. But, fairly, she couldn't complain. This was what she had wanted. This was what she had been encouraging him to do for years.

"I'll say good-bye and leave you to your work."

"You don't have to go, Maris. You can hang around if you like."

She shook her head. "I don't want to be a distraction. Besides, I need to go home and pack for my trip."

He took her hand and kissed the palm. "Will you be all right hailing a cab?"

"Don't be silly. Of course." She leaned on the arms of his desk chair, bringing her face down to the level of his. "It was a lovely

#surprise party, Noah. Thank you for ###141

everything, but especially for this. I can't wait to read your next novel. Look what happened after I read the first one."

As they kissed, his hand followed the curve of her hip down to the back of her thigh. When she withdrew, he continued to stroke her leg. "On second thought, maybe I'll postpone starting until tomorrow."

She aimed her finger at the computer keyboard.

"Plot!"

Fifteen minutes later, Noah let himself into another apartment. It was half a block away

--seventy-seven steps, to be exact--from the one where he had set up an office he planned never to use. He dropped his key onto the console table in the short entry hall and moved into the living area, where he drew up short.

"I started without you," Nadia said.

"So I see."

She was lying on the sofa, one foot on the floor, naked except for a royal blue silk robe that lay open. Her eyes were half closed.

Her hand was rhythmically moving between her thighs.

"I'm close. You'd better hurry if you want to get in on this one."

He sauntered over to the sofa, reached down, and fingered her stiff nipple. It was enough to make her come. Smiling as he watched, Noah continued tweaking her until her arching body had squeezed every bit of pleasure it could from the orgasm, then relaxed and resettled into the sofa cushions.

"You're shameless, Nadia."

"I know." She raised her arms above her head and stretched. "Isn't it delicious?"

He began undressing. "The surprise party was a stroke of genius. Maris is now

completely defused."

"Ooh, tell me."

"She admitted to harboring a suspicion that I was having an extramarital affair."

"And who, pray tell, was the suspected correspondent?"

He gave her a look that caused her to purr with wicked satisfaction.

Continuing his account, he said, "Now that my wife has seen my writer's retreat, which made her positively misty, I can use it as an

excuse to get away at any time of day or

#night." ###########################143

"For this."

"Definitely for this. Along with the other business in which we're involved."

"Maris is only half the problem, though.

What about Daniel?"

"He's an old man, Nadia. In his

dotage."

"He'll never sell Matherly Press.

He's gone on record a thousand times."

Nonchalantly Noah pulled his belt through the loops of his trousers and lightly spanked her thigh with it. "Not to worry, my dear. I'll have Matherly Press sold before either of them knows what's what. Maris is hot for a new author she's discovered in her slush pile. That'll keep her distracted. Daniel has virtually

retired, entrusting the company's business dealings almost entirely to me. The first they hear of the pending sale will probably be when they read about it in _Publishers _Weekly, and then it'll be too late to stop it. I'll have Daniel's position and all the benefits that go with it, along with ten thousand shares of WorldView stock in my portfolio, and a cool ten million in my bank account."

"And the Matherlys will be left with only each other."

"I suppose. I really couldn't care less."

He stepped out of his trousers and underwear.

Nadia's eyes widened with appreciation for his jutting penis. "Is Maris responsible for that?

Remind me to thank her."

"Nothing to thank her for."

"You didn't get any tonight?"

"This morning."

"I thought tonight's party was an anniversary celebration."

"Maris has her way of celebrating, and I have mine."

Laughing, she encircled his penis with her hand and stroked it. "Sometime you must tell me all about it."

"Nothing much to tell."

She rolled her thumb over the smooth bulb.

"Miss Maris doesn't fuck dirty?"

"Miss Maris doesn't fuck." He knelt between Nadia's thighs and pushed them wider apart. "She makes love."

###"How sweet." ###################145

"That's what I like about you, Nadia."

"There's a lot you like about me. You'll have to be more specific."

He jammed himself inside her. "You're never sweet."

CHAPTER 6

The roads on St. Anne Island were banked on either side by woods that were deeper and darker than any Maris had seen in the Berkshires near their country house, deeper and darker than any she had seen anywhere. They were as deep and dark as the menacing forests described in a story written by the Brothers Grimmediate.

The undergrowth was dense and the trees were towering, making the shadows beneath them impenetrable. Occasionally the rustling of leaves in the thick brush alerted her to the presence of animals, the species and level of danger to human beings unknown. Afraid of what she might see if she looked too

closely, she felt safer keeping her eyes fixed on the road.

She had arrived later than anticipated.

Stormy weather in Atlanta had delayed her connecting flight to Savannah for three hours.

By the time she checked into a hotel and made arrangements for transportation to the island, the sun was setting. The sea island would have been alien territory to her in broad daylight, but the gloaming exaggerated its strangeness and lent it a sinister quality that filled her with misgivings.

As she chugged along in her rented golf cart, she felt extremely vulnerable. The menacing woods intimidated her. They were as unfriendly as the man at the landing from whom she had rented the golf cart.

When she asked him for directions to the home of the local writer, he had responded with a question of his own. "Whada ya want with 'im?"

"Do you know him?"

"Yeah."

"Do you know where he lives?"

"Sure do."

"Can you give me directions, please? He's expecting me."

He looked her up and down. "Is that right?"

She'd unfolded the crude map of the island, given to her by the pilot of the small boat she had

#hired to bring her over from the mainland. ######147

"I'm here, right?" She indicated on the map the landing where the boatman had docked only long enough for her to disembark. "Which way do I go from here?"

"Well, there's only one road leading outta here, ain't there?"

"I can see that," she said with strained patience.

"But according to the map the main road branches off in three directions. Here." She pointed out the marking to him.

"You ain't from around here, are you? You from up north someplace?"

"What difference does it make?"

He had snorted a derisive sound and spat tobacco juice into the dirt, then a stained, chipped fingernail traced the fork she should take.

"You go along, hmm, 'bout three-quarters of a mile beyond the split. A turnoff to the left takes you straight to the house. If you wind up in the 'lantic, you've done went too far." His grin revealed large gaps where teeth should have been.

She had thanked him curtly and set out on the final leg of her trip. The landing's "commercial district" was limited to two places of business

--the cart rental, and Terry's Bar and Grill.

So read a hand-painted sign nailed above a screened door.

Terry's was a circular structure with a corrugated tin roof. The top two-thirds of the exterior walls were screened, but the interior lighting was so dim that all Maris could see was the glow of neon beer signs on the far wall and light fixtures hanging from the ceiling, the kind usually suspended above pool tables. Several vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, were parked at one side of the building. Recorded music emanated through the screened walls.

Out front, a man, presumably Terry, was cooking meat on a large grill while sipping from his longneck bottle of beer. Even after she drove past, she could feel his eyes boring holes in her back until she rounded a bend in the road and was no longer in sight.

She had the road all to herself. No cars or trucks had passed. It seemed the dock was the last outpost of civilization. Having endured this harrowing--and she felt that was a fair adjective

--journey, she wished she could look forward to being graciously received when she arrived at the author's home. Unfortunately, her

#expectations of how she would be greeted were ##149

very low.

Eventually she detected salt air over the dominant scent of evergreens. Realizing that the beach couldn't be much farther, she began looking for the turnoff, but when she reached it, she overshot it.

There was no sign to mark it. It was so narrow and so well camouflaged by foliage that had she not been specifically looking for it, she would have missed it altogether.

Executing a tight U-turn, she steered the cart into the lane. The roadbed was rougher than the main road. The cart jounced over potholes.

Tree branches formed an opaque canopy overhead. The forest here was even thicker, more silent, more foreboding.

She was beginning to think that this venture was foolhardy, that she should be sensible and retreat to the safety of her hotel room in gracious and hospitable Savannah. She could have a room-service meal, a bubble bath, a glass of wine from the mini bar. Thus restored, she could call and try to persuade the author to meet her on neutral turf.

But then she caught her first glimpse of the house and was instantly enchanted.

It was beautiful. Poignantly so.

Beautiful in the way that evokes sadness. An aging film star whose once-gorgeous face now evinced the passage of decades. An antique wedding dress, its lace now yellowed and tattered. A gardenia whose creamy petals had turned brown. The house showed visible signs of former grandeur now lost.

But with its obvious flaws softened by the waning light, it was as lovely as a watercolor painted from a faded but fond memory.

Maris stepped out of the cart and followed a pathway marked by twin rows of spectacular, moss-shrouded live oaks. She climbed the steps as soundlessly as possible. When she reached the veranda, she had a silly urge to tiptoe across it as Jem Finch had done in __To Kill a

_Mockingbird, so as not to alert the spooky Boo Radley to his presence in a place where he was a trespasser, where he didn't belong, and where he wasn't welcome.

Instead she bolstered herself with a deep breath and walked boldly to the front door and reached for the brass knocker.

###"Maris Matherly-Reed?" ##########151

Startled, she jumped. The knocker dropped against the metal plate on the door with a loud clatter. Following the direction from which the unexpected voice had come, she stepped back and looked down the long veranda. A face was peering at her through one of the tall front windows.

"So," he said, "you really came."

"Hello."

He continued to stare at her through the screen, putting her at a distinct disadvantage. She was aware that he could see her much more clearly than she could see him, but she stood her ground. She had come this far.

Finally he said, "Come on in."

She pushed open the glossy black front door and stepped into a wide foyer. He emerged from one of the rooms opening off it, wiping his hands on a stained rag. He was dressed in khaki shorts and an ordinary chambray work shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Both articles of clothing were rather baggy and as stained as the rag. On his feet he wore a pair of sneakers that had seen better days.

He glanced beyond her. "You came alone?"

"Yes."

"Mosquitoes are getting in."

"Oh. Sorry." She turned and closed the front door.

"No deputy sheriff along for the ride?"

His voice contained a trace of admonishment.

She felt an explanation was called for. "I resorted to calling the sheriff's office out of desperation. I asked Deputy Harris if he knew anyone living in his county who went by the initials P.M.E. I had no idea he would conduct a search, and I apologize for any embarrassment that caused."

He harrumphed, but whether to accept her apology or dismiss it, she couldn't tell. She was just relieved that he hadn't cursed her and ordered her out. He wasn't as intimidating as she had anticipated. He was older and less physically imposing than his telephone voice had suggested. The drawl was there, but not the brusqueness.

However, he wasn't being overly friendly. His blue eyes were regarding her warily.

"I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived," she said, hoping to disarm him with her

#honesty. "I was afraid I wouldn't #####153

even be invited inside."

He gave her a once-over that made her rethink her decision not to take the time to freshen up in Savannah. Now she wished she had at least changed clothes. Her traveling suit had been seasonably lightweight for New York, but was too heavy for this climate. It looked citified and grossly out of place. It was also wrinkled from rides in taxis, planes, and a boat.

"You're a long way from Manhattan, Mrs.

Matherly-Reed."

His remark more or less summed up everything she'd been thinking. "More than just geographically.

Except for the golf carts, St. Anne could be in another century."

"The island is primitive in many ways. The people who live here want to keep it that way."

From that she inferred that she was an outsider whom they would have rather remained outside. Feeling self-conscious and wanting to divert attention away from herself, she took a quick look around.

A commanding, unsupported staircase swept upward from the floor of the foyer, but the second story was dark. A dozen questions about the history of the house sprang to mind, but, not wanting to press her luck at having gotten this far, she merely said,

"The house is extraordinary. How long have you lived here?"

"A little over a year. It was in total disrepair."

"Then you've already done a lot to it."

"There's still a lot to be done. In fact, I've been working on a project in the dining room. Would you like to see it?"

"Very much."

He smiled at her, and she smiled back, then he turned and made his way back into the room from which he'd come. The crystal chandelier in the center of the ceiling was swinging slightly. He caught her looking at it.

"One of the first renovations was to install central air-conditioning. The vent blows directly on the chandelier and causes it to sway. At least that's what I choose to believe." He gave an enigmatic laugh, then motioned toward the fireplace.

The ornately carved mantel had been

stripped down to the naked wood and was being prepared for refinishing. "It's become more of a project

#than I had counted on," he admitted. ##155

"Had I known how many layers of varnish and paint former owners had applied, how painstaking and time-consuming it was going to be to strip it all off, I would have hired a professional to do it."

She moved to the mantel and reached out to touch it, then hesitated and looked back at him. "May I?" He motioned for her to go ahead, and she ran her fingertips over the intricate carving of a flowering vine.

"The owner who built the house kept a detailed diary of its construction," he explained. "A slave carved that mantelpiece as well as the balustrade of the staircase. His name was Phineas."

"It's lovely. I'm sure it will be even lovelier when you're finished."

"Parker's expecting it to be. He's a perfectionist."

"Parker?"

"The owner."

She dropped her hand and turned back to him.

"Oh. I assumed you owned the house."

He shook his head in amusement. "I only work here."

"That's awfully generous of him."

"Generous of who?"

"Of Mr. Parker. That he opens his home to you and lets you write here."

He stared at her with perplexity for a moment, then began to laugh. "Mrs. Matherly-Reed, I'm afraid that you're operating under a misconception here, and it's entirely my fault. Obviously you've mistaken me for Parker, the man you've come to see. Parker Evans."

It took a second for her to process, then she smiled with chagrin. "Parker Evans.

Middle initial M."

"You didn't know his name?"

"He didn't tell me."

"You've never heard his name before?"

"Not that I recall. Should I have?"

He studied her for a long moment, then smiled and extended his hand. "I'm Mike Strother.

Forgive me for not making that clear to you when you arrived. I thought you would know immediately that I wasn't Parker."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Strother."

"Mike."

She smiled at him, liking the older

#gentleman and wondering how she could have #####157

mistaken him for the abrasive individual she had spoken to on the telephone. His eyes were kind, although she sensed that he was still taking her measure, sizing her up, appraising her. His wariness of her had diminished somewhat, but it was still there. Of course, there was no telling what his boss had said about her. It couldn't have been flattering.

"Are you the contractor in charge of the house's restoration?"

"Lord, no. I'm just trying my hand at this refinishing. I've worked for Parker since long before he bought this place."

"In what capacity?"

"I do a little bit of everything," he explained.

"I'm the chief cook and bottle washer, housekeeper, gardener, valet."

"Is he a demanding taskmaster?"

He chuckled. "You have no idea."

Apparently she didn't. Her

preconceptions of Parker M. Evans were being dispelled one by one. He certainly hadn't sounded like a man who would have a manservant at his beck and call. "I'm looking very forward to meeting him."

Mike's eyes shifted away to avoid looking directly at her. "He's not here."

Although she had already gathered that, having it confirmed was not only a crushing disappointment, it was perturbing. "He knew I was coming."

"Oh, he knew, he knew," Mike said, nodding. "He said you sounded just stubborn enough to travel all this way even after he'd told you it would be a waste of your time. But nobody on earth can outstubborn Parker. He didn't want to be sitting around here when you arrived as though he were waiting on you. So he went out."

"Out? Where?"

Maris angrily marched up to the man who'd rented her the golf cart. "Why did you send me all the way out to Mr. Evans's house?"

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