Authors: Debby Conrad
For Mary Campisi, friend and fellow author. I could not have done any of this without you. Whether it was choosing a title or brainstorming a book idea, you have been there for me every step of the way. I could not ask for a better friend.
“YOU WANT ME TO do what?” Luke Galloway demanded, while focusing hard on his friend Sam. “Have you totally lost your mind? I’m not going to tell your daughter you’re dying!”
“It’s the only way she’ll come.” Sam Paris held Luke’s gaze and refused to back down. He ran a hand over his red and silver whiskers, took a long drink of bourbon, then set the empty glass down on the kitchen table. “You owe me.”
Luke hated it when Sam tried to make him feel guilty, which the old coot did often enough. Of course, Luke owed Sam. For a lot of things. But the implication still rankled him. Releasing his breath in a huff, he said, “Fine. I’ll do it. But what are you going to do when she finds out you lied to her? Do you actually think she’s going to stick around then?”
Sam grinned, and his green eyes twinkled with satisfaction. “We’ll worry about that when the time comes. All I want right now is for you to go get her and bring her back to the farm. This is where she belongs. Right here, with me. I’m the only family she has left now.”
Reaching into the breast pocket of his plaid flannel shirt, Sam pulled out a folded piece of paper. “Here’s the last address I had for her, and the name of that race car driver she’s been seeing, in case you run into a problem finding her.”
Luke scowled. He knew all about Burke Marcell and his reputation with women. The man had a new babe attached to his arm every few months or so, according to those rags Sam read. After shaking his head, Luke stared at the slip of paper. It would be a miracle if Sam’s daughter was still in Palm Springs. And if she weren’t, she could be anywhere; the Greek Isles, Rome, Switzerland, Rio. Hell, she’d lived all over the world. What made Sam think she’d want to give up her high society life and come live on a small, struggling horse farm in Kentucky? Refolding the scrap of paper, Luke tucked it in his shirt pocket. “I’ll go sometime next week—”
“Like hell,” Sam said, cutting Luke off. “You need to go tomorrow. I already made a plane reservation for you.”
“But your surgery’s tomorrow.”
Sam waved a hand in the air. “I’m having my heel spurs removed. You think I can’t handle that without you hanging around the hospital?”
“The way you’ve been swearing, moaning and carrying on lately, I wonder.” Luke reached across the table, grabbed the bottle of bourbon and poured himself a double shot.
“Pour me another one, too,” Sam said, nudging his empty glass forward.
Luke tossed his drink back. “Nothing doing. You’re not allowed to eat after nine, or drink anything after midnight. Remember?” He made a show of looking at his watch. It was already a quarter past twelve.
“Who died and made you my mother?”
Grabbing the bottle from Sam’s reach, Luke laughed as he scraped his chair on the hardwood floor and stood. “And you’d better get to bed. You don’t want to be cranky for those pretty little nurses in the morning.”
Sam mumbled something under his breath, and Luke had a pretty good idea what he’d said. Sam was right. Luke was a bastard. And Sam’s daughter Rusty was about to find that out, too.
Rustina Paris came around the bend at nearly seventy miles an hour and almost rear ended a black Ford. She was thankful no one was in the opposite lane, which allowed her to maneuver her Jaguar around the other car. The driver, a man sporting a cowboy hat, glared at her through the window, then blasted the horn as she passed.
“Tourists,” she groaned. They drove like snails while they leisurely took in the Palm Desert scenery. Checking her rearview mirror for signs of Burke, and catching a glimpse of his red convertible directly behind the Ford, she pressed down on the accelerator a little more.
Even after the near-miss, she continued to drive like a crazy woman. Because crazy she must be to have gotten involved with a man like Burke Marcell. She should never have befriended him. She’d heard rumors about his reputation as a lady’s man, but since she’d never been one to listen to gossip, she hadn’t let the rumors bother her. Until several few weeks ago.
She and Burke had become friends. They’d gone to dinner a few times; he’d invited her to several of his races, and she’d accepted the invitations. He’d been on a winning streak and had called her his lucky copper penny because of her red hair. They’d had fun.
Then things had changed. He’d started pressuring her to sleep with him. And no matter how many times she’d told him no, he’d continued to beg and plead until she’d finally told him she didn’t want to see him anymore.
At the beginning of their friendship, he’d said that after three divorces he didn’t plan to marry again, and she could hardly blame him. Burke wasn’t husband material, and he certainly wasn’t the faithful type— according to those rumors. But he seemed to think she’d rejected his sexual advances so he would propose.
Then, a little over a month ago, he’d surprised her with a diamond ring and a proposal of marriage. Of course, she’d told him she couldn’t marry him, that she didn’t love him, but he’d refused to take no for an answer. Since then her life had been turned upside down. He refused to stop calling her. And not only would he call in the middle of the night, pleading with her to marry him, but he’d show up at the most inopportune times. She’d finally threatened that if he didn’t leave her alone she would call the police.
But involving the police was the last thing she wanted to do, and Burke knew it. It would only end up getting their photos and some cheesy story about them in one of those rags. So instead, she’d gone on a ten- day cruise in the Caribbean, hoping that by the time she returned home, Burke would have forgotten all about her.
No such luck. The minute she’d stepped off the plane, he was there to greet her. She’d wanted to scream. The only way she’d managed to escape was by slipping into the ladies room. Watching from the doorway, she’d made a run for it when he’d turned his head.
She’d sighed with relief, thinking she’d succeeded in losing him, when she’d spotted his car on the freeway behind her. Now, she only wanted to get home. She should call Zuri and let her know she was on her way, but she didn’t trust herself to take her eyes off the road for a second.
The Jaguar’s tires squealed as she took a turn a little too sharply, forcing her to slow down a bit. Quickly, she checked the rearview mirror again. There was no sign of Burke or the black Ford that had been behind her a few moments ago. Taking a deep breath, she tried to relax some.
Not only didn’t she want to marry Burke, but she had no intention of marrying anyone. After her mother’s track record—six husbands and six divorces—thoughts of marriage had left a bitter taste in Rustina’s mouth.
She didn’t bother slowing down when she reached the long winding drive to her twenty-four room house. A piece of long, red hair worked its way from her French twist and slapped her cheek as she turned into the drive. She brushed it behind her ear with the back of her hand. The gardener must have thought she’d waved at him, because he raised his hand to return her greeting and smiled a toothy grin.
Forcing a smile, she gave the man a small wave, although smiling was the last thing she felt like doing at the moment. Not only because Burke had unnerved her, but also because she’d noticed Ramon had trimmed her privacy bushes. Again. The boxwood hedges that used to reach eight feet in the air barely came up to his knees now. She sighed helplessly and shook her head. Ramon wasn’t much of a gardener; he barely knew the difference between a rose bush and a palm tree, but he needed the work. And besides, he was Zuri’s son.
Screeching to a stop in front of the Spanish style, white, stucco house, she ripped off her Armani sunglasses and flung the car door open. After letting herself in the front door of her house, she turned to shut and lock it behind her and was instantly greeted by her housekeeper.
“Senorita Paris,” the woman said, obviously surprised to see Rusty.
“Why you no call me to say you come home? I could have cooked something fancy.” Zuri had light cocoa skin, hair and eyes the color of Texas crude oil, and was extremely attractive for a woman in her mid- sixties.
“I’m sorry. I was sort of in a hurry,” Rusty said, tossing her handbag and keys on the hall table.
“Senor Marcel miss you. He call every day since you been gone.” When Rusty went to move past the woman, Zuri brought her hands to her face and added, “He so handsome, that one.”
Ignoring her, Rusty headed for the terrace doors, her heels clicking a tune on the polished marble floor. Just as she’d thought, the glass doors were standing wide open. She pulled all four doors shut and locked them. It would be just like Burke to sneak around back and walk right in.
Zuri couldn’t seem to comprehend that Rusty didn’t want to marry Burke. She didn’t understand why a woman would choose to spend the rest of her life alone, rather than marry. Even though Rusty had repeatedly explained to the woman that she didn’t love Burke.
“So, you learn to love him,” Zuri had said. Rusty rolled her eyes, remembering the conversation.
Hearing a man’s voice echoing through the hall, and assuming it was Burke, she hurried back toward the foyer. Zuri must have let him in. “Once and for all the answer is no!” Rusty shouted as she turned the corner. But instead of Burke standing there, a dark-haired stranger dressed in well-worn blue jeans, a red flannel shirt and cowboy boots stood in the doorway, staring back at her.
“How do you know?” he drawled with a slight Texan accent, adding, “When you haven’t even heard the question yet?”
Luke had recognized the sleek Jaguar parked in front of the house. The one that had almost climbed over him ten minutes ago. So, Rusty Paris was not only rich, but careless and reckless as well. He’d already had his mind made up that he didn’t like the woman, in spite of all the nice things Sam had to say about her. So what if she gave tons of money to charity each year? And what did he care that she’d donated enough to a children’s hospital that they’d built a brand new wing with state of the art equipment? Tax deductions, nothing more. The woman was still a menace on the highway.
His gaze took in the expanse of the entry hall. It was bigger than the whole first floor of his and Sam’s house, but it didn’t impress him in the least. Huge white columns the size of tree trunks supported the high ceilings, and off the hall was a room that, from where he stood, looked like a small art museum. But the house was cold. Everywhere he looked he saw marble and glass. There was very little wood, and no warmth. And even though he was dressed too warmly for the California sunshine, the house gave him the shivers.
“Senorita, this man is here to see you,” the housekeeper announced.
Rusty Paris had a head of red hair twisted behind her head, her father’s green eyes and high cheekbones, a pert little nose and a perfectly-shaped mouth with lips the color of ripe cherries. She wore a skimpy, yellow and white polka dot, tank-style dress—belted at the waist- -which showed off her long, bare legs. Her creamy, white flesh was decorated with several gold trinkets, and diamonds—the size of marbles— adorned her ears and fingers.
The woman reeked of money, although Luke happened to know she’d never worked a day in her life. And neither had her mother. Natalie Paris had made a career of marrying rich men and then divorcing them. One of those men had died a few years back and had remembered Rusty and Natalie in his will. Then, just six months ago, at age forty-eight, Natalie had swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills and made her daughter an even wealthier woman. Luke had heard she’d inherited over fifty million dollars. A nice chunk of change for a woman of twenty-eight.
“I’m Rustina Paris,” she said, walking toward him, a thin smile on her lips. She stuck her hand out. “You wanted to see me about something?”
Luke took the hand she’d offered and shook it as he met her green eyes. “Yes,” was all he had a chance to say when the doorbell chimed.
Dropping her hand, she said, “I’ll get it, Zuri. Why don’t you take Mr.—” She stopped and looked up at him, her eyes wide and questioning.
“Galloway,” he said, and she nodded.
Turning back to the housekeeper, she said, “Please show Mr. Galloway to the gallery and maybe get him a refreshment of some kind. I’ll just be a minute.”
The doorbell rang again, but she waited until he and the housekeeper were out of sight before he heard her open the door.
The room she’d called the gallery was the one he’d thought looked like a museum. He was no art expert; in fact he didn’t know the difference between a Rembrandt and a twenty-dollar water color. But he’d be willing to bet there was several million dollars worth of loot in this room alone. He moved slowly, careful not to touch or bump anything. That’s all he needed was to break something. Even the ugly purple vase sitting on the corner table was probably worth more money than he made in a year. Whistling through his teeth, he backed into the hall. He’d feel much safer standing out here, he thought.