Daring to dream, p.21
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       Daring to Dream, p.21

         Part #1 of Dream series by Nora Roberts
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  "Closed up in your little room counting your money like Silas Marner," Laura finished.

  "I'm not counting my money—though I have been able to pay off another five thousand, despite Candy Litchfield's plot to see me dragged off in chains—I'm—"

  "She'll start gibbering any minute," Kate put in. "Told you we should have brought the nets."

  "Such wit." Margo grabbed her cigarettes, lighted a fresh one. "Since you're so bright and sharp, explain all this insurance to me again. How come we have to pay these—what are they?"

  "Premiums," Kate said dryly. "They're called premiums, Margo."

  "I think they should be called extortion. I mean, look at this. There's fire and theft, there's mortgage insurance, title insurance, earthquake insurance, comprehensive—whatever that means, because it's incomprehensible to me. And this umbrella. Is that some cute insurance-speak for flood protection?"

  "Oh, yeah, that's it." Kate rolled her eyes. "Insurance companies are filled with jokers. Those boys are a laugh a minute. You'll see that for yourself the first time you file a claim."

  "Look, smart-ass, if you'd just explain how it works again."

  "No, no, I'm begging you." Laura grabbed Kate's shoulders. "Please, don't explain how it works again. And don't get into the thing again."

  "The thing?" Kate repeated.

  "You know the thing."

  "Yeah, the thing." Shifting in her chair, Margo jabbed at the air with her cigarette. "I'd like to talk about the thing, actually."

  "Oh, that thing." Kate sniffed at Margo's coffee, decided it was probably palatable, and picked up the cup. "Okay, here's the thing. Estimated tax payments are split into quarters—" She broke off, staring blandly at Laura. "That's a very good scream. I see where Kayla gets it." With a sigh, she leaned over and to Margo's distress and envy, batted a few keys and had the screen blinking off. "There, all gone. Feel better now?"

  "Much." Laura shuddered. "But it was close."

  "Well, the two of you are in a rare mood." Margo snatched her coffee back from Kate. "Now run along and play. Some of us have work to do."

  "It's worse than I thought." Laura heaved a sigh. "Okay, Sullivan, come quietly, or we'll have to get tough. It's for your own good."

  Margo wasn't sure whether to laugh or call for help when they flanked her and took her arms. "Hey, what's the idea?"

  "Shock therapy," Kate said grimly.

  An hour later, Margo was naked and sweating. Lying on her back, she let out a long, heartfelt moan. "Oh, God. God. God."

  "Just roll with it." Sympathetically, Laura patted her hand. "It'll be better soon."

  "Mum? Is that you?"

  With a chuckle, Laura leaned back. Steam billowed in clouds and drained some of her own tension away. Maybe she'd come up with the idea of a day in the spa facilities of the resort for Margo's sake, but it wasn't doing her any harm either.

  "How do you all just lie here like this?" From her perch on the second-level bench, Kate rolled over, stared down at Margo. "I mean, are we really having fun?"

  "I could weep," Margo murmured. "I'd forgotten, actually forgotten what it was like." She reached out to pat Laura's naked knee. "My life for you. I'm getting a facial, and a fango, and a pedicure."

  "You know, honey, you're staying right at the hotel. The facilities there aren't as extensive as here, but you could use the sauna, get a massage. And they give very good facials in the beauty salon."

  "She's too busy boffing Josh."

  Laura winced. "Do you mind? That's an image I'd just as soon not have in my head."

  "I kinda like it." Kate peeked over the edge. "It's like something on the Discovery Channel. Two sleek golden animals mating." When Laura moaned, Kate's grin widened. "So is he good, or what? Like on a scale of one to ten."

  "We're out of high school. I don't rate men," Margo said primly and rolled onto her stomach. "Twelve," she muttered. "Maybe fourteen."

  "Really?" The idea perked Kate up. "Good old Josh. Our Josh."

  My Josh. Margo nearly said it before she caught herself. "Ignore the idiot in the balcony," she told Laura. "Does it really bother you? Josh and me?"

  "Not bother." Uncomfortable, Laura shifted. "It's just weird. My brother and one of my closest friends and sex. It's just… weird. It's none of my business."

  "She's worried you'll toss him out like an old Ferragamo pump when you're done with him."

  "Shut up, Kate. And I don't throw my shoes out anymore. I sell them. Laura, Josh, and I understand each other. I promise you."

  "I wonder if you do," Laura murmured, and whatever else might have been said was interrupted as the door to the steam room opened.

  "Look who's here," Kate said brightly. "It's Candy Cane." Because her teeth threatened to grind together, she set them in a feral smile. "Won't this just be cozy?"

  With her turbaned head erect, Candy sat down on the bench opposite Laura. "The three of you still travel in a pack, I see."

  "Like rabid dogs," Kate agreed. "And since you're the one who's been trying to steal our bone, be careful we don't bite."

  "I have no idea what you're talking about."

  "Inferior, overpriced merchandise, my ass," Kate shot out. "You'd better watch your mouth, Candy, before you find yourself in the middle of a slander suit."

  "Expressing an opinion isn't slander." She'd checked with her second husband, the lawyer, to be sure. "It's a matter of taste." Proud of the body her first husband, the plastic surgeon, had helped create, Candy spread her towel open. "One might have thought you had more, Laura. But apparently bloodlines and breeding aren't always enough to ensure taste in companions."

  "You know, I was just thinking that." Margo sat up. "Both of your exes had such sterling pedigrees. Go figure."

  With some dignity, Candy crossed her naked legs. "I wanted to speak to you, Laura, about the Garden Club. Under the circumstances, I think it would be best if you resigned as co-chair." When Laura only lifted a brow, Candy dabbed at her throat with the edge of her towel. "There's gossip brewing, about you and Peter, about your association with…" She skimmed her eyes over Margo. "Certain unsuitable elements."

  "I'm an unsuitable element," Margo told Kate.

  "That's nothing. I'm an undesirable element. Aren't I, Candy?"

  "You are simply detestable."

  "See?" Grinning, Kate leaned over, staring into Margo's upturned face. "I'm detestable. It's because I'm the poor and distant relation. The Powells were a questionable offshoot of the Templetons, you know."

  "I'd heard that."

  "And I'm an accountant," Kate went on. "Which is much worse than a shopkeeper. We actually talk about money."

  "That's enough," Laura said quietly. "You want the chair to yourself, Candy, it's all yours." She only regretted she wasn't able to break it over Candy's empty head. "That'll give me more time to associate with unsuitable and undesirable elements."

  The easy capitulation was disappointing. Candy had so hoped for a fight. "And how is Peter enjoying Hawaii?" she said with a sneer. "I heard he took that clever little secretary of his with him this time. Though now that I think of it, they did take several… business trips before. It must be devastating to find yourself replaced by an employee of your own company. She's quite young too, isn't she?"

  "Candy likes them young," Kate said, as fury bubbled through her. "How old is the pool boy you're, bumping, Candy? Sixteen?"

  "He's twenty," she snapped, then seethed at the way she had stepped into the trap. "At least I can get a man. But then, you don't want a man, do you, Kate? Everyone knows you're a lesbian."

  Margo snorted, had to slap a hand over her mouth to hold the next one in. "Oh-oh, Kate, secret's out."

  "It's a relief." Kate scooted forward on the bench so that she could leer at Candy's body. "I've had my eye on you for years, Sugar Lips, but I was too shy to tell you."

  "It's true." Conspiratorially, Margo leaned toward Candy. "She's been afraid of her love for you."

  Unsettled, u
nsure, Candy shifted. "That's not amusing."

  "No, it's been painful, wrenching." Kate swung her legs over the bench, slid down. "But now that you know the truth, I can make you mine at last."

  "Don't touch me." Squeaking, Candy jumped up, fumbled with her towel. "Don't come near me."

  "I think they want to be alone," Laura commented and wrapped her towel over her breasts.

  "I hate you. I hate all of you."

  "God." Kate gave a quick shudder. "Isn't she the sexiest little thing?"

  "You're revolting." Fearing for her life, Candy dashed out of the steam room, leaving her towel behind.

  "Pervert," Margo said mildly when Kate collapsed on the bench.

  "Careful, you might get me hot. If I was a lesbian, I'm sure you'd be more my type." Catching her breath, she looked over at Laura. "Honey, don't let her get to you."

  "Hmm?" Distracted, Laura glanced back. "I was just thinking—how much do you think she paid for that boob job?"

  "Not enough." Margo rose and tucked the towel in place. "Come on, let's go stuff her in a locker. For old time's sake."

  "I do like men," Kate insisted, fidgeting as her toenails were painted. The salon's cotton-candy-pink and spun-sugar-white decor was designed to put a woman into a relaxed and festive mood. It made Kate itchy. "I just don't have a lot of time for them."

  "You won't need time after Candy gets done," Laura said. She sipped her sparkling mineral water and relaxed in the deep cushions of the high-backed swivel chair. "By the time she gets through spreading the word, any man within a hundred-mile radius is going to avoid you like a vasectomy."

  "Well, maybe it's a blessing." Kate flipped through the stack of fashion magazines on the table beside her and found nothing of interest. "It might discourage that jerk Bill Pardoe from calling me all the time."

  "Bill is a very sweet and decent man."

  "Then you go out with him, let him tickle your knee under the table and call you honeybunch."

  "She's always been too picky." Margo kept her eyes closed, nearly purring as her feet were massaged. "She'd have had more fun in her life if she'd gone looking for Mr. Goodbar instead of Mr. Perfect."

  "I look for more in a date than a fat portfolio and a penis."

  "Girls, girls." Laura picked up her mineral water again. "We have to stick together now. If Candy follows through and files charges for assault, it could get sticky."

  "But, officer," Margo cooed, batting her lashes. "It was just high-spirited, girlish fun. Shit, she'd never humiliate herself by admitting in public that for the second time in her life she'd been trapped naked in a gym locker. She'll be more subtle than that. I say within a week we all have new identities. The slut, the shrew, and the dyke."

  "I might like being the shrew," Laura decided. "Being the wimp gets old fast."

  "You were never the wimp," Margo said loyally.

  "Oh, yes, I've been a practicing wimp for years. It's going to take some doing to make the leap to shrew. But I might give it a shot. Josh?" She blinked as her brother walked into the salon, looking hot and harassed.

  "Ladies." He plopped down in a vacant chair, picked up Margo's glass of water, and guzzled it down. "Well don't you all look…" He paused, skimmed his eyes over three faces packed in green goo. "Hideous. Been having fun?"

  "Go away." Living with a man didn't mean he had to see you in a seaweed pack, Margo thought. "This is a girl thing."

  He set her empty glass down, picked up Kate's, and guzzled that too. "I was into my second set with Carl Brewster on the courts here. You know Carl Brewster, television journalist, investigative reporter, and anchor on Informed, that long-running, highly rated, and revered newsmagazine."

  The tone of his voice had Laura biting her lip. "I've heard of it. How is Carl?"

  "Oh, fit and sassy, not that I wasn't whipping his ass, but I digress. Informed is planning to do a series of reports on the fine hotels of the world, with Templeton, of course, as a highlight. I've spent weeks arranging for various crews to film our hotels, interview staff, certain guests. All to show the viewing public the fine, upstanding, sophisticated, and unrivaled class and hospitality of Templeton, worldwide."

  He set aside Kate's glass. Laura wordlessly handed him hers. "I'm sure they got some wonderful footage."

  "Oh, they did. Naturally when Carl suggested we get some clips of the two of us playing tennis at our landmark resort here in Monterey, I agreed. A nice, human touch, the VP of Templeton enjoying the pleasant surroundings where his guests are always pampered and satisfied."

  He paused, smiled charmingly at the hovering beauticians. "Would you mind giving us a moment?" After they'd moved away a discreet distance, his smile turned to a snarl. "Imagine my surprise, my distress, when one of our regular patrons raced screaming into camera range, her Templeton Spa robe flapping open, her eyes wild as she sputtered accusations about being attacked—bodily attacked—by Laura Templeton Ridgeway and her cohorts."

  "Oh, Josh, I'm so sorry." Laura turned her head away, hoping he'd take it for shame. It would never, never do to laugh.

  He showed his teeth. "One snicker, Laura. Just one."

  "I'm not snickering." Composed, she turned back. "I'm terribly sorry. It must have been very embarrassing for you."

  "And won't it just be a laugh riot when they run that little scene? Of course, they'll beep out most of the dialogue to conform to Standards and Practices, but I think the viewing audience, the millions of people who tune into Informed each week will get the gist."

  "She started it," Kate said, then winced when he turned flinty eyes on her. "Well, she did."

  "I'm sure Mom and Dad will understand that completely."

  Even the stalwart Kate could be cowed. "It was Margo's idea."

  Margo hissed through her teeth, "Traitor. She called Kate a lesbian."

  Shaking his head, Josh covered his face with his hands and rubbed, hard. "Oh, well, then, get the rope."

  "I suppose you'd have let her get away with it. She's been trying to damage the shop. She said nasty things to Laura," Margo went on, heating up. "And just the other day she came into the shop and called me a slut. A second-class slut."

  "And your answer was to gang up on her, three to one, smack her around, strip her naked, and shove her into a locker?"

  "We never smacked her. Not once." Not, Margo thought, that she wouldn't have liked to. "As for the locker business, it was a matter of tradition. We did nothing more than embarrass her, which is no more than she deserved after the way she insulted us. And anyway, a real man would applaud our actions."

  "Unlike you, and your idiot sisters here, pitiful insults from crazy women don't bother me. And your timing was rare and perfect." He leaned forward, pleased to be able to pay her back, in spades, for the "real man" comment. "I'd just begun to get Carl to nibble at the idea of doing a sidebar story on the latest innovation of a Templeton heir. Laura Templeton Ridgeway's partnership with old and dear friends Margo Sullivan—yes, the Margo Sullivan, and Kate Powell. Smart, savvy women creating and running a smart, savvy business."

  "We're going to get air on Informed? That's fabulous."

  He shot Margo a disgusted look. "Christ, you are an idiot. What you're going to get, unless I can do some fast and sweet talking, is sued and very possibly charged in a criminal action. She's claiming assault, verbal and physical abuse—and now that I know Kate's a lesbian, that explains the sexual abuse she tossed in."

  "I am not a lesbian," Kate fumed. "Though the way she said it was an insult to any rational person who supports freedom of sexual preference." From his expression she realized it wasn't the time to get up on any liberal or feminist soapbox. Instead, she shifted, sulked. "And I never touched her in any sexual way. This is completely out of proportion, Josh, and you know it. She gave us grief, and we gave her some back. That's all."

  "That's not all. The Templeton Resort isn't second-period gym class. This is the adult world. Didn't any of you remember her second husband was a litigator?
A litigator who delights in pursuing and winning just this sort of nuisance suit. She could go after the shop."

  Every ounce of blood in Margo's face drained. "That's ridiculous. She'd never get it. No court would take her that seriously."

  "Maybe not." His voice was a cold snap, an unmerciful whip. "But the time and expense you'd have to put into fighting her off could go a long way toward draining your capital." He rose, shook his head at the three of them. "If you haven't been paying attention the last decade or so, school's out. So, you sit here and enjoy having your toenails painted while I go back to work and try to save your sorry butts."

  "He's really steamed," Kate murmured as he stormed out. "One of us should go talk to him." She looked from Margo to Laura. "One of you should go talk to him."

  "I'll go." Laura rose, feeling ridiculous in her little paper slippers and cotton balls.

  "No, you'd better warn your parents, tell them we've put our foot in it." Margo sighed, struggled not to be terrified. "I'll do what I can with Josh."

  She gave him an hour. It took her nearly that long to put herself together, in any case. When facing a furious man, she thought it wise to look her best.

  He was on the phone at the desk in the office when she walked in, and he didn't so much as flick a glance at her. So much, she thought, for a five-hundred-dollar session at the spa. Saying nothing, she crossed to the desk and waited for him to complete his call.

  He'd frightened her, he noted. And he'd meant to. Her wild temperament was part of what he found so appealing about her. But in the past weeks, he'd watched her channel that temperament, all that passion and energy into building something for herself. It infuriated him that with one careless tantrum, she'd risked damaging it.

  "Yes, I said for a full year. Any and all services. I'll draft a memo to that effect. You'll have it by tomorrow." He hung up the phone, drummed his fingers on the desk.

  "Tell me what I have to do," she said quietly. "If an apology will help, I'll go over and apologize to her right now."

  "Give me a dollar."


  "Give me a goddamn dollar."

  Baffled, she opened her purse. "I don't have a single. I have a five."

  He snatched it out of her fingers. "I'm now your legal counsel, and as such I'm advising you to admit nothing. You're not going to apologize for anything because you didn't do anything. You don't know what she's talking about. Now if you tell me there were six other naked women and three attendants hanging around who saw you shove her into the locker, I'll have to kill you."

  "There was nobody else there. We're not idiots." She grimaced. "I know you think we are, but we're not stupid enough to have done it in front of witnesses. Actually, we timed it that way so she'd be stuck in there longer." She smiled weakly. "It seemed like a good idea at the time." When he said nothing, she felt her temper simmer again. "Aren't you the one who broke Peter's nose?"

  "I could afford to indulge myself."

  "Oh, that's typical. The Templeton heir can behave any way he pleases and damn the consequences."

  His eyes flashed, a dangerous, edgy glint. "Let's just say I pick my battles."

  She forced herself to stop. Josh's attitude and position were hardly the point. "How much trouble am I in?" she demanded. "I know you're not a trial lawyer, so that five bucks isn't going to do me much good if this actually goes to court."

  "It depends on how stubborn she is." With an effort, he calmed himself. Her little jab at his character was nothing new. "Templeton's official stand will be shock and distress that such an incident occurred while she was a guest. We're compensating her for her inconvenience and stress with a year's complementary services at any of our Spa Resorts. That, and the fact that publicizing the incident will be embarrassing for her, might do it."

  He ran the five-dollar bill through his fingers, laid it on the desk blotter. "She might be satisfied with bad-mouthing you and the shop and using her influence to have her friends boycott. And since she does have a wide range of acquaintances, a boycott will likely sting."

  "We'll get over that." Calmer, she pushed her hands through her hair. She'd come to apologize, and intended to do it right. "I'm sorry. I know the whole thing was—is—embarrassing for you and your family."

  He braced his elbows on the desk, his brow on his fists. "She came shrieking across the court. I'd just hit a line drive, barely missed beaning her. Cameras rolling, and there I am trying to look my sixth-generational-hotelier best, the athletic yet intelligent, the world-traveled yet dedicated, the dashing yet
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