“Are you kidding me?” Corinne Carmichael put down her coffee mug to stare at her father. He returned her gaze without saying a word. She tried again. “You’re saying you want me to stop taking modeling jobs? As of now?”
Her father still said nothing; he merely leaned back in his chair and looked at her steadily, as if waiting for her to give in. Well, she was done giving in. She pushed away from the breakfast table and stood. This showdown was at the breakfast table of their family estate in Boulder. Sunlight streamed in the windows and French doors revealed a backdrop of fir trees and mountain vistas. At least it looked peaceful.
“No.” So there. She put her mug in the sink and turned to leave the room, aware of her four younger sisters still at the table, gaping.
“Corinne.” Her father’s voice was quiet but stopped her in her tracks. She gritted her teeth. When would he stop treating her like a child? When would she stop letting him? She wanted to flounce from the room, but she couldn’t make her feet cooperate. Roger Carmichael was a force to be reckoned with — at home and in the nation’s halls of power.
“I’m asking you to do this for the family.”
Corinne turned to face him. “You’re not asking, you’re demanding. Asking is when you use words like ‘would you mind?’ or ‘how would you feel about?’ Asking includes question marks. I didn’t hear any question in your voice when you told me to clear my schedule.”
“Corinne—“ Now her mother would try to reason with her, coaxing and cajoling until Roger got his way. How predictable. Corinne felt her temper rising to a boil. She heard her father mutter something to his wife, who nodded. They always agreed about everything. They always presented a united front to the world. It was infuriating.
“We let you model. Despite our misgivings,” Claire Carmichael pointed out. Her accent always got a little more pronounced when she was stressed. Corinne snorted. “Only because you couldn’t stop me when I turned eighteen.” “We let you attend UCLA even though we wanted you closer to home.”
“It’s normal to leave home for college! And you’ve still got three kids at home. Why would you need me here?” Her parents didn’t take that bait, but Corinne saw her next younger sister, Daisy, grinning.
“Good point!” Daisy said. “And college showed me how overprotective you guys are.”
Daisy was just back from finishing her first year at Princeton, which was even further from their Colorado home than L.A. Corinne scanned her sisters’ faces as they watched this drama unfold. They each had a role to play in the family. Daisy always did her own thing and never seemed to get in trouble for it, perhaps because their parents understood her ambitions in business and finance better than Corinne’s interest in art. Valerie was quiet and observant, preferring books to people. The youngest sisters, on the other hand, were both athletes who were fiercely competitive. At fifteen, Marie was already winning junior tennis tournaments. Samantha, a year younger, was bringing home trophies as a downhill skier. With five girls in the family, they each had to carve out a niche of their own. And Corinne’s niche baffled her parents: she loved film and fashion, but to them she just seemed frivolous. And that hurt.
“This summer is very important for all of us.” Roger reminded them with a meaningful look. Corinne battled more annoyance. Of course this was about the Big Decision. They were all going to be held in limbo until her father decided whether to run for president. As a member of a famous political family she had had plenty of experience with the compromises required of public life. Her father already spent most of his time in D.C. as a senator for Colorado; he worked long hours when home too. And his daughters had been trained to be image-conscious from an early age. Perhaps that’s why modeling felt so comfortable to Corinne.
“I’ve already signed a contract for a shoot in Hawaii in June,” she announced. “You wouldn’t want me to break my word, would you?”
Her father narrowed his sharp gaze on her and steepled his fingers. “You’re supposed to let me vet your jobs. My staff should check all the personnel, review the contract, evaluate the security on the premises— like we’ve always done. I could have every person at the shoot sign nondisclosures so they can’t talk to the media.” He frowned. “Maybe I still can.”
“No!” Corinne flung up her hands. Then she leaned toward him for emphasis. “No, Dad.”
Roger stood up too, towering over his daughter, though Corinne was tall herself. He pointed a finger at her and opened his mouth.
“Enough,” Claire said firmly. Everyone at the table turned to look at her in surprise. “That job is a fait accompli now, but you must not take on any new ones, Corinne. We’re in a delicate position right now. We’ve tried to keep you all out of the media as much as possible with your father’s career. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that now you want some attention for yourselves—but famous people attract undesirable attention.“
Corinne started to protest. She didn’t want attention, as her mother put it so patronizingly. She wanted independence and control over her own life. She was an adult, damn it! “I’m not famous,” she complained.
“I’m just your daughter. I’m so tired of being the eldest daughter of the rising star, Senator Carmichael.”
“Try being the youngest daughter of blah blah blah,” Samantha said with a huff.
“Or any of us in the middle,” Marie added, making a face.
Claire laughed and even Roger cracked a reluctant smile. Corinne ground her teeth. This was serious!
“Your time will come, like mine before. My father was governor of the state, remember?” Roger said, picking up a newspaper. He probably thought he had “handled” this domestic inconvenience and could go back to running the federal government. Corinne wanted to roll her eyes.
The conversation at the table slowly returned to normal: the logistics of getting Valerie to her volunteer job at the pet shelter, Marie to Nicky’s party, Samantha to her sleepover. Roger was due back in Washington, D.C. later that day and soon Daisy would be accompanying him there for her summer internship. Corinne tossed her long hair over one shoulder and left the room feeling frustrated. She may have won a small battle, but she was still losing the war.
A few weeks later Corinne unlocked the door of her hotel room in Maui and surveyed her home for the duration of the photo shoot. There were no surprises. How many rooms just like this one had she stayed in since she started modeling two years ago? They all looked exactly the same: drab brown carpets, patterned curtains, generic abstract art on the walls. She dumped her luggage on the floor and moved to the window. This, at least, was different. The room was on the ground floor overlooking Wailea beach on the south shore of the island. She slid open a glass door to a paved patio and stepped outside, taking a deep breath of the moist and fragrant air. The sky looked bluer here, the flowers smelled sweeter, the air felt softer. Waves crashed onto the beach and spit out foam and spray. She felt her senses coming alive. She had never been to Hawaii , which was why she had impulsively accepted this job. Despite what her father thought, she did choose her work carefully. As a sophomore at college she had little free time during the year and she didn’t need the money so she could pick and choose the jobs that took her somewhere interesting. Like this.
As she surveyed the long stretch of white sand, Corinne noticed one figure standing apart from the children and sunbathers. A man stood down the beach with his back to her, contemplating the water. Corinne bit her lip. He had a long, lean frame, which was exposed by his swim shorts. His hair and skin looked dark gold in the slanting sunlight, and she let her eyes drift over his smooth back and muscled legs. His hands were at his hips, emphasizing their narrow span, and he gave the impression of grace that was now on hold. He seemed young, perhaps not much older than she was. As if sensing her watching him, he turned his head suddenly and looked behind him. Corinne got a glimpse of an angular face before she sighed and returned to her room. It was getting cooler and she wasn’t needed until 6 a.m. the next morning…. Perhaps she’d go for a run on the beach. She glanced back at the man at the shore, thinking. If this was going to be her last modeling job she should enjoy it, right? But by the time she changed clothes and got to the beach for her run, he was gone.
When Corinne showed up to work the next morning the hotel suite was a hive of activity. There must have been twenty people talking on cell phones, checking equipment, going over clipboards, organizing boxes of clothes, props, and makeup. When she entered the room everyone turned to look at her. She had put on a simple tank top and shorts knowing that she would soon be changing. Her face was bare of make-up and her hair was pulled into a ponytail. Squaring her shoulders, she stood still for their scrutiny. She was used to this.
A smartly-dressed woman detached herself from a group. “Corinne, my dear, lovely to meet you. I’m Susanne Midgely, the editor for this shoot. I’ll introduce you, and then we’ll get you working with makeup and wardrobe. We’re going to do some swimsuits on the beach today, then resort wear around the pool tomorrow. We’ll reshoot whatever we need to after that.” Her high heels clicked on the tile floor as she led Corinne around.
“This is Bob, our prop editor, Renata from fashion. Stacy and Carlos do makeup. Liza, my assistant. Gary and Scott are part of the crew. Jade is a stylist. These folks over here are from the magazine and the fashion companies….”
Corinne tried to keep up with the blur of names, faces, air kisses, and handshakes. The suite had a similar layout to her room, but was much larger, with interconnected rooms. Like hers, it also faced the ocean. Susanne took her through sliding glass doors to the patio outside and Corinne found herself face to face with the man on the beach. Today he was casually dressed in cotton pants and a tee shirt. She froze for a moment, looking up into his clear blue eyes. He stared back at her frankly too, his wide mouth curved in a grin. His dark blond hair fell over his forehead.
“Paul Drouet,” he said before Susanne could introduce him. He stuck out his hand to her. “Enchanté.”
Corinne took his hand automatically. She was right: he was close to her own age. And clearly French. No one she knew would ever say “enchanté” with a straight face.
“Paul is the assistant photographer,” Susanne explained. “That’s Bernard over there. He’s the head photographer on the shoot.”
A stocky, grey-haired man grunted at Corinne without raising his head from the camera he was adjusting.
Corinne realized she was still holding Paul’s hand and quickly let go. She drew a deep breath and turned to Susanne. “So where do you want me?”
Over the next few hours strangers pulled and teased her hair, worked on her face, and ordered her in and out of outfits. Usually she could zone out during the long boring stretches when she wasn’t in front of the camera. But today she was having trouble concentrating. When she first started modeling she had been proud of her beauty and enjoyed being fawned over. She had made small talk with everyone, chatted and laughed. Then it got old. The friendships didn’t last and she no long felt so special. Everyone in the fashion world looked equally glamorous and much of it was faked. In fact, she wondered why she even minded giving this up. If she were honest with herself her career had become just another power struggle with her father. Modeling gave her something of her own, separate from her political family. If her parents were a little shocked or disappointed by her choices, at least they were her choices.
Strange hands rubbed self-tanning lotion onto her limbs to cover her pale skin. By noon she was famished, but food seemed out of the question. She had already overheard one stylist complaining that she was bustier than they had expected. They always complained about something — and she usually tuned those comments out too. She shrugged into a terry cloth bathrobe while she waited for her next change. Her stomach rumbled embarrassingly and someone whose name she had forgotten smirked. She was surprised when a few minutes later Paul appeared and handed her a yogurt without a word. They exchanged a brief smile and Corinne followed him with her eyes as he melted back into the crowd. She ate standing up as more people fussed over her appearance, snapping Polaroids of each look. Finally, the whispering executives had decided on something.
Paul studied the square of white beach they had set up with brightly colored towels. It was a perfect day. Mild breeze, bright sun, balmy. He scouted for the best angles, ignoring the gawking tourists who were watching the shoot. He had done this a thousand times under much worse conditions, but he felt oddly tense. He never second-guessed himself. He knew that working for Bernard these past three years had given him the experience he needed to go out on his own. When he started at eighteen he had been entirely self-taught as a photographer, but Bernard had seen some talent and agreed to mentor him. Still, something was missing.
He turned as a small troop of people hustled the next model in front of Bernard’s waiting camera. This new girl, Corinne, puzzled him. She didn’t seem to fit in, except for her extraordinary beauty. He watched her as she approached, her movements graceful. What was it about her? She was taller than the people around her, and golden all over, from her perfectly straightened long hair to her newly-bronzed skin. Her floral bikini hid little. She was lean, but voluptuous for a model, with rounded breasts almost spilling out of a triangle of fabric and smooth curves leading his eyes down long, long legs. As she walked toward him, her body toned like a volleyball or tennis player, he couldn’t stop staring.
His eyes met hers, which were almost turquoise in this bright light. She watched him back, her gaze wide and alert. He gave her a thumbs up, which earned him a tiny smile. Paul felt the force of that smile almost like a blow. As he turned away, feeling warm, he heard the others barking commands. She was to lie here, look this way, put her arm like this.
“Please don’t touch!” someone scolded her.
Bernard was hunched over a tripod a few feet from her. “These girls are all the same.” He sounded impatient already.
Pas de tout. Not at all, Paul thought, still watching her closely. This one is different. He picked up his camera to try out other angles. He could tell at a glance that she was as tense as he was. The others peppered her with comments and suggestions, but now she just looked uncomfortable. He frowned as she struggled to look serene and mysterious while fussing strangers crowded around her.
“A senator’s daughter,” he heard one of the makeup artists say under his breath. “This isn’t going to work.”
Paul thought he saw her flinch a little. Her mouth tightened. And then she again tried to give the camera the sexy look Bernard kept demanding. All her trying wasn’t helping. Before the head photographer started barking orders, she had sparkled with life and energy. Now she had stiffened into a mannequin.
“They need to give her more space,” Paul muttered to himself in French. “Assholes.”
Corinne threw him a sudden sidelong glance. He froze when she smiled, her face lighting up with mischief. He hoped Bernard had caught it on film. Bernard must have noticed because he stopped barking and grew quiet. “
“Much better! Ça va mieux!” Paul said, meeting her gaze. Another small smile played on her face now as she looked at him.
In surprise, he continued in French. “You understand me?”
She nodded slightly as she turned to look over one shoulder, as directed. He admired the long line of her neck and the graceful chin tilted up. God, he could look at her all day and his eyes would never fill up. He moved closer and saw a light sheen of sweat on her sunlit skin.
“Are you too hot?” Stupid question! But he couldn’t seem to stop talking to her now that she had relaxed. She shook her head lightly, her silky hair lifting a little.
“You are doing beautifully, Corinne. You are like a mermaid lying here, under a spell.” Everyone else had fallen silent as Paul kept up a running commentary in French. “Yes, close your eyes a little more and look up like that, with your mouth so soft.”
Corinne looked dazed. She shifted on the towel to throw her head back to the sun and her legs parted a little. Paul paused, then began again, his voice a little lower.
“Imagine you are waiting for your lover out here on the sand….”
Her eyes shot open to meet his, and he felt the shock of her response. Everything he said seemed visible on her face and in her sensual pose.
“He will come to you and touch your skin with his fingertips and his mouth.” He had to stop this.
“He will murmur in your ear and kiss the softness of your neck.” Paul knew it was not a good idea to play at seduction like this in front of everyone. His pulse was racing.
Idiot. He was the one who felt seduced. He was stunned, in fact, by how fast this little game had gotten serious. They seemed alone out here on the sand.
Suddenly Bernard shouted, “Done! I got the shot.”
People descended on Corinne again. She seemed a little unsteady as she stood, and someone grabbed her elbow. She leaned over to dust sand off her butt, and Paul followed the motion of her fingers, his gaze lingering. He was impossibly, shockingly turned on.
He counted to ten and slowed his breathing before moving back to Bernard to assist. Without a word, Bernard clicked through several of his shots: Corinne, flushed head to toe with innocence and desire; Corinne, her eyes startled and sultry; Corinne, her limbs stretching lazily.
Paul tried hard to control his reaction.
“I don’t know what you said to that girl.” Bernard shrugged. “But it worked.”
The wind was blowing, but the sun was still bright. Daisy Carmichael scanned the people at the outdoor café, relieved when she saw a familiar face. She dropped into a seat at a small table and tried to ignore the looks she had drawn. She had dressed with care today in a stylish navy suit, and carried a briefcase stuffed with notes from her earlier meetings. This was New York City and she needed to make a good first impression. Her future depended on it.
“So good to see you, Paul!” She leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek, then wrinkled her nose. “Smoking? Does Corinne know?”
Paul raised his eyebrows and stubbed out the cigarette. “Please don’t tell her!”
Daisy laughed. It was good to hear his French accent again too.
“She’s on some new super-healthy regime. It’s impossible to eat out with her.” He shrugged and met her eyes. “She’s been too long in L.A.”
Daisy understood the subtle comment. Her older sister Corinne had been having a long distance romance with Paul for six years. Daisy wasn’t sure what kept them from moving to the same city, but she sensed there was tension about it.
Paul stretched his long legs gracefully out in front of him and surveyed her, tapping his fingers on the table. “You look well! How was London? Are you just arrived?”
She nodded. “Yesterday. Still jet-lagged but very glad to be back in the U.S.” A waiter came over and she ordered a coffee.
Daisy tilted her head to study him. He was like a brother to her but she realized there was much she didn’t know about him. “Where do you feel at home?”
Paul shoved his hands in his pockets and his shoulders hunched forward. He was silent for a moment, looking off in space. “I don’t know,” he said finally.
Daisy knew he was from Paris but he had been based in New York for years now. It was convenient for his freelance photography work and closer to Corinne, but maybe that didn’t make it home. He had met Corinne in Hawaii when he was an assistant photographer for one of her modeling assignments and she was still a student at UCLA. Over the years Paul’s path had crisscrossed with each of Corinne’s four younger sisters. Daisy had seen him regularly when she was nearby at Princeton, then occasionally during her time at the London School of Economics.
“What’s your plan now?” he asked. He reached for the pack of cigarettes on the table, then thrust it away, fidgeting. When the waiter brought Daisy her coffee he ordered another espresso.
She leaned forward, brushing back the blond curls that fell out of her hair clip. “I’m going to run my online financial news channel here in New York. This is the obvious place to work in financial media and I’ve already got a good subscriber base. I’ve got it all figured out.”
“I’m not surprised,” he said with a half smile.
Daisy took that as a compliment. “How long are you in town?”
“Another week. Then I’m leaving for Vancouver.”
“You’ll see Corinne in L.A.?”
Paul shook his head. “She’s in Mexico at a preview for her documentary. Maybe on the way back.” He sounded weary and his mouth twisted a little.
She patted his hand. “You two must rack up the frequent flier miles.” The wind scattered some yellow leaves onto the table and she brushed them off.
“It’s getting chilly,” she said, studying him over the rim of her coffee cup. The breeze rustled his hair and his eyes shifted away. He seemed tense.
“Do you want to move inside?”
She shook her head. There was an awkward silence.
“Tell me more about your life.”
Daisy took the bait and started filling him in, eager to discuss her project. “I love my work. It’s my site so I get to do everything—write, research, and deliver the news. It’s my social life that’s less great, though I’m lucky Val’s here for now at least. And I need more friends. And a boyfriend,” she sighed.
“Were you seeing someone in London?”
“No. No one special.” Daisy frowned. “I don’t seem to meet anyone special. I wonder if I’m gay,” she mused.
Paul tilted his head in curiosity. “Are you attracted to women?”
Daisy shook her head. “I’m not really attracted to anyone.”
“Then you haven’t met the right person yet,” he said confidently, then looked away again.
“You miss Corinne,” Daisy said quietly.
“I always miss Corinne,” he admitted. He smiled, but it seemed forced. Paul had been their rock when their parents had died suddenly six years ago, becoming Corinne’s main support and an older brother to her younger sisters. He kept an eye on all of them and made sure they kept their French fluent, as their quebeçoise mother would have wanted. She hated to see him like this.
“He seems sad, Val,” Daisy said to her younger sister when she got back to the apartment they would be sharing. It was really their great aunt’s apartment, but since Aunt Delia rarely used it Valerie had been living there since she had started at New York University five years ago. It was a classic prewar on a top floor of an elegant Fifth Avenue building overlooking Central Park. Valerie pointed to a bottle of wine on the table so Daisy could help herself.
“You should have invited him back here for dinner. I think he gets lonely without Corinne.”
“I didn’t think. Have you talked to Corinne recently? What’s she doing in Mexico?”
Daisy poured herself a little wine while Valerie moved around the kitchen, sautéeing chicken and steaming vegetables for dinner. She started setting the table, falling back into old routines.
Valerie tucked a stray curl behind her ear and looked thoughtful. With her auburn hair, hazel eyes, pale skin, and tall willowy figure she had become a very successful print model.
“She’s at a film festival for her documentary about the idea of home. Here, this is done. Eat.”
They sat and caught up over dinner, though they had seen more of each other than either had seen of their three sisters on the West Coast—Corinne, Marie, and Sam. Marie was finishing up at Stanford and a nationally-ranked tennis player. Their youngest sister Sam had thrown herself into skiing after the tragedy of their parents’ death and was now balancing competitive racing with her studies at the University of Colorado. They all had plans to return to the family home in Boulder for Thanksgiving though, where Sam still lived.
“Are you staying in town for awhile?” Daisy asked.
Valerie nodded. “I have a few jobs here this fall, and one trip to London. I turn down a lot of jobs.” She toyed with her food. “I don’t really need the money.”
“Don’t you like modeling? You’ve got your college degree now. And you even took all those grad school admissions tests last year. You could do something else.” Daisy realized she wasn’t sure what Valerie wanted to do. Maybe Valerie didn’t either. She was always pretty quiet.
“Modeling is okay. It’s easy.” She grimaced. “I sound arrogant, but it’s true. I stay in shape. I show up when and where I’m told. I deposit the checks.” She sighed. “There’s a party scene, but I avoid it.” A slight frown interrupted the classic symmetry of her features.
Daisy smiled. “No, I can’t picture you dancing the night away.”
Valerie gave her the tiniest of smiles. “I dance!”
Daisy snorted. “Ballet!” They both laughed and Daisy stood up to clear the table.
“Seriously, though.” She paused at the kitchen counter, watching Valerie move around. “You don’t mind that I’m invading your privacy?”
Valerie turned and gave her a quick hug. “I’m delighted you’re invading my privacy, Daisy! We never get enough time together. I hope you’ll stay indefinitely—it’s Aunt Delia’s place for us to share. The apartment has plenty of privacy.”
Valerie looked as serene as usual when she shook her head, but Daisy thought she sensed tension.
“And you a supermodel! You must have to beat them away with a stick!” Daisy teased, smiling as Valerie flushed a little.
“Maybe I should throw you out after all.“ Valerie looked less anxious and more exasperated now and Daisy was relieved.
After they finished cleaning up Daisy was sorting through a daunting backlog of email and news, skimming through job offers and new contacts, when her attention was snagged by an email from Boston Financial. Intrigued, she read the email and wondered at the vague invitation to come into their offices to discuss a “business opportunity.”
Boston Financial was Ben Kingston’s company, she remembered. It had started in the last century as a prominent bank and financial services company in Boston, but had moved to New York City and into financial news. In the last four years since Kingston had taken it over, the company had expanded even further into online and subscription-based content, becoming one of the biggest financial media companies in the city.
The email from the office of the CEO invited her to come in for a conversation with Kingston. Daisy felt a throb of excitement. She pictured Ben Kingston from the only time she had seen him in person: he gave a talk at Princeton her senior year that was well attended and fascinating. She was impressed by his intelligence and the strategy behind his business plans. And she had admired him as she sat in the back of an auditorium and looked her fill. He was tall and broad-shouldered in his conservative suit, with dark hair and dark eyes in a hawkish face. His manner was reserved, even tense. Daisy had difficulty focusing on his words when her eyes kept wandering over his body. She was reminded of her conversation with Paul about not being attracted to anyone. Ben Kingston had definitely lit something in her. She answered the email immediately: “I’m available any time.”
Ben drummed his fingers on his desk and reviewed his notes again. He kept careful notes on all of his projects, but this time they didn’t seem to cover everything. Daisy Carmichael would have surprises, he thought. He had all the data he needed about her site, which had snowballed in just two years into one of the most popular financial news sites on the Internet. He had seen her video interviews and she was good—well informed and direct even when she faced major players in the business world. And she didn’t always interview CEOs either. She took interesting angles, approaching London traders and commodity analysts for their opinions about market trends. Ben had learned something from her work, and he couldn’t say that very often.
But how much of her success was based on her looks? She was extraordinarily beautiful, especially in action, as her eyes lit with interest or she leaned forward for some important question. And how much was about her name? There was still a certain amount of public interest in the five daughters of the late Senator from Colorado. Roger Carmichael and his wife had died in a helicopter accident six years before—just as he was on the verge of becoming his party’s candidate for president.
Ben looked down at the file on his desk and studied the iconic photo of the five girls at their parents’ funeral in Boulder. In the photo Daisy’s head was bowed in a graceful sign of grief and a few golden curls blew out behind her in the cold wind that day. Her face was in profile, but he knew from the videos that she had dark blue eyes and the face of an angel—a sensual angel, he thought, his mouth twisting. She had once been known as the “wild” Carmichael, though that adjective seemed to belong to the youngest sister now that she broke speed records in downhill skiing. He wondered how beauty and celebrity and money combined to produce a young woman who wanted to report financial news, of all things. Thinking about it, he realized that she was like a balance sheet that didn’t seem to add up. And that had piqued his interest uncomfortably. He glanced at his watch. Soon he’d be able to judge her for himself.
Daisy Carmichael walked into his office moments later and instantly Ben felt off center. He stood as she approached and his first thought was that neither photos nor videos did justice to her impact in 3D. He had expected her lovely face but her figure was a shock, slender but very curvy even in a tailored skirt and jacket. Her blond curls were pulled back in a clip but not pinned up, which softened the effect of the business suit. In heels she came close to his height so they were almost face to face when he shook her hand. He preferred to look down on people.
“Thank you for coming in, Ms. Carmichael,” he said automatically after a moment when they both seemed to appraise each other in silence.
She smiled widely, which drew his attention to her mouth. “Please call me Daisy.” She waved a hand in the air. “And I shall call you Ben.” She sat down in an armchair and crossed her legs, which drew his attention next. He took a chair facing hers and kept a low table between them.
He frowned a little. She certainly was direct, and the way she was looking at him made him uncomfortable too—as if she knew that he was distracted by her beauty. He supposed she was used to that, he thought, frowning some more. But she also looked as if…. He felt uncharacteristically inarticulate. As if… what? She tilted her head and seemed to be assessing him, her gaze scanning his face and skimming down his body. As if she liked what she saw. Ben felt a jolt of shock and gave himself emphatic orders to move on to business. He held her file in his hand like a life line.
“I’ve asked you here to talk about your site,” he began. She nodded, looking patient. “It’s very successful. Would you be interested in selling it? I….”
“No,” Daisy said, interrupting him. Her eyes met his and he was knocked off balance again. They were as dark as blue could get.
Ben shifted and frowned. “You don’t even want to hear the offer?”
“No,” she said again, looking serious and falling silent again.
“Why not?” he asked, leaning back to study her.
“That’s not really relevant,” she said, spreading her hands. “The site is not for sale. I run it. It wouldn’t work for anyone else.”
She clasped her hands together on her knee, looking perfectly poised and confident. He usually intimidated people. Why wasn’t she intimidated?
“That’s true. Of course we would want you to run it and keep doing the interviews. You are the reason for its success.”
“You are suggesting I go on salary for you?”
Ben inclined his head and added, “With a payout for the rights and a contract for you.”
“Why do you want my site?” She tilted her head charmingly, but Ben got the sudden impression she was toying with him as he answered.
“What happened to the site you were developing in house?”
He was taken aback that she knew about that and paused before admitting reluctantly, “It’s not working out.”
She looked intrigued now. “You can’t get advertisers? They want to see you have viewers first, but it will drain resources until then. Have you tried a sponsor or subscriber model instead?”
Ben frowned, his eyes narrowing. “Why are you offering me advice for a site that would compete with yours?”
She laughed, and he again felt her drawing him in. He understood now why her interviews were so engaging—the woman had a magnetic force field.
“Oh, I have no competition! Like I said, my site is me–-my take on the financial world—and no one else has the same take as me. If your site works out then you won’t need mine and we’ll both be happy.”
She was smiling at him and something about her words felt personal, though he wasn’t sure why. This conversation was not turning out as he had expected.
“I suppose you think it’s cheaper to buy a site than develop one. You may be right.” Daisy shrugged, “But it won’t be mine.”
In frustration Ben said, “The offer would be generous.”
“You mean the payout? I’m not interested in money.”
His mouth actually fell open at that and she laughed again. It was a sexy, feminine sound that slipped under his guard.
“I mean, not in having more of it. I’m very interested in money itself— how it moves through the world, what it means in different contexts. But I have enough money of my own.”
Ben found himself fascinated—both by the things she said and by the mouth that said them. His eyes fell to her legs again, which were long and elegant. One swung restlessly as if she were battling nervous energy. It stilled under his gaze. He looked back at her face, which seemed calm and confident, then rose to his feet in one decisive motion.
“Then I guess we have nothing else to discuss.”
Daisy stayed seated and gave him that appraising look that made him squirm inside. “Let’s talk about us.”
Ben dropped back into his chair. “What?”
He wasn’t sure what had just happened.
“I don’t want your offer, but I do want you.”
She didn’t appear to be joking, but Ben looked around the room in confusion as if she could have been talking to someone else, as if cameramen would burst out and reveal some prank. He still had no idea what to say to this unexpected development, but his body was already responding without his control. His pulse sped up and his muscles tensed.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice had gone husky. “I shocked you. I do that to people sometimes. Let me try again. Would you be interested in going out on a date with me?” Those dark blue eyes looked hopeful and just a tiny bit uncertain.
Ben had a sudden flash of awareness of her desire. For him! He retreated a step mentally and shook his head in confusion. She looked disappointed.
“No? Please let me know if you change your mind,” she said formally, standing and holding out her hand as if their strange interview were over. He stood too, and took her hand and held it.
“You could tell yourself that we were meeting so you could persuade me to sell you the site, if that helps,” she said, biting her lip. It was her only sign of nervousness. “But I have to be honest and say that won’t work. That decision is final. I wouldn’t want to mislead you.”
Ben made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a snort. “No, I have to admit you’ve been extremely candid with me. You know, I usually am the one to ask a woman out.” He studied her intently, trying to figure her out.
“I’m sure you are,” she said as if that were irrelevant. “If you really don’t mind my honesty I’ll tell you that I don’t make a habit of this actually. It’s just….” She suddenly sounded as dumbfounded as he felt. “You’re an exception,” she ended, somewhat enigmatically.
To what rule? Ben wondered. What were the rules with someone like Daisy? She was certainly exceptional in his universe—and unlike any of the demure professional women he dated occasionally, when he wasn’t working.
“Yes,” he said before he could think about it too much. It was his body talking. His eyes locked on hers. She waited and he felt himself teetering on the brink of a precipice. “Yes, I would like to go out on a date with you, Daisy Carmichael.”
Daisy got to the elevator before she gave in to her nerves and gulped in air. Lord, what had she done? She was never impulsive! What happened to her plan? She had been going to coax him out to talk about a deal over dinner and then gradually shift from business to pleasure—not blurt out her intentions like that! She usually had so much self control, but that interview had blown it sky high. He was there in front of her, close enough to touch, and that was so very distracting… and his eyes were so dark and that stern mouth so tempting. He wasn’t conventionally handsome, but even his harsh features and seriousness drew her somehow. His large frame seemed coiled with energy, though wrapped up in a formal suit and tie. Her reaction to him was even stronger than she remembered. And he had responded to her, his body tense and his gaze wandering over her.
She knew he desired her, which was why she had risked asking him out so boldly. But she also could tell he valued his self control, like she did, and pushing him could backfire. She was going to have to go more slowly, she decided, weighing a new plan.
Stepping out of the elevator she automatically thanked the young man who motioned for her to go ahead of him and then the other young man who held the door for her as she left the lobby of Boston Financial’s headquarters. Her heels clicked decisively on the marble floors. Her mind was whirling with plans and her body hummed. She had a lot to think about and something to look forward to now.
It started with hands grabbing at her neck, arms reaching for her shoulders. She struggled, batting the hands away, but then they blocked her face and she couldn’t see. Her whole body tensed with pain, but she couldn’t locate it. It seemed to be everywhere, along with the fear and the panic and the…. She couldn’t think. She could only flinch and twist away from the face leering too close. She opened her mouth to scream.
Valerie fought to wake up and the dream shifted to memory. Shouting and feet pounding nearby, wetness running over her skin, then all sensation fading into darkness. She had fainted; she knew that. She had been attacked; she remembered that. She was still shaking. Awake now, she opened her eyes to look around wildly. Was she in the hospital? Her gaze raced around the room: a closet, a painting on the wall, an old fashioned bureau, a window with the curtains mostly closed, but a glimpse of moonlight sneaked through. Her room. Home. She relaxed a little. She was safe. And alone. She pressed a finger against the rough skin of the scar on her cheek. But it wasn’t just a nightmare.
She calmed herself by repeating what she knew. Her name was Valerie Carmichael. She was twenty-three years old. Her parents were Senator Roger Carmichael and Claire Bellocq Carmichael. They were dead. There was a flash of pain before she continued. She had four sisters. She was born in Colorado, but she lived in New York City. This was her apartment. She worked as a model. No, that wasn’t true any more.
She closed her eyes again, though she knew she wouldn’t go back to sleep. She hadn’t had the nightmare for several weeks. At home with her family for Christmas in Colorado they had tapered off and she had slept well. The house had been full with her sisters and their boyfriends and she had been far removed from the scene of the crime. Which had been right outside that window. Her sister Daisy had been living with her then, but now she had moved in with her boyfriend Ben. So Valerie was living alone and walked nearly every day on the sidewalk where she had been attacked. When she was brave enough to go outside at all.
She knew why the nightmares had returned. The memories were close here and she had to face them again. There were loose ends to tie up: her attacker’s trial and her follow-up medical visit later today. She sighed and got out of bed reluctantly. In a mirror she glimpsed her own reflection: her reddish hair, messy from bed and falling over one shoulder; her wide eyes, shadowed with fear and sleeplessness; her face, pale and now marked by the slash of that scar. There were two more scars hidden under her flannel pajamas. She looked like a ghost, even to herself.
Who was she now? She was a victim of violence, but she hardly wanted to claim that as her new identity. She had an idea about what to do next and she could stumble towards it, but first she needed closure on the attack. That meant tying up those remaining medical and legal threads. A month had passed since the attack. It was January. A new year. Time to return to real life. She forced herself into the shower, avoiding any more mirrors.
Later that morning she dutifully showed up at the hospital for her scheduled appointment and waited for Dr. Talbot in an examination room that was surprisingly sunny. She was standing at the window, watching children run in circles in a playground across the street, when he entered. She turned and they both paused for a moment. He was young and handsome, this Dr. Talbot. Why hadn’t she noticed that before? He was tall and lean, his expression calm and serious. He looked at the file in his hand and Valerie wondered if he was trying to remember who she was and why she was there.
“Ms. Carmichael. How are you feeling?”
“Quite well, thank you.” Valerie paused and flushed, realizing she had given a social answer, not a medical one.
Dr. Talbot studied her without comment, still standing by the door. Valerie felt unaccountably uncomfortable and rushed to fill the silence.
“I don’t know if you remember, but there were three wounds. The one on my face feels tight sometimes, but doesn’t hurt.” She touched it briefly. “The other two, here and here, are fine.” She pulled at her neckline, revealing a bra strap and one scar on her shoulder, and then pushed up her sleeve to show the other on her arm. She had purposefully chosen to wear this cashmere sweater because of its loose boat neck. She still felt overexposed.
“I remember.” He moved closer and she tensed. “Please sit down Ms. Carmichael. I won’t touch you without your permission.” His gaze met hers. “I’m just going to look at them.”
Valerie swallowed, then nodded, perching on the edge of the examination table. He leaned closer then to focus on the scar on her cheek. His face seemed very near hers and she held her breath, staying very still. His eyes were brown, but flecked with gold. His hair was brown too and cut very short so the fine bones of his face stood out—there was a slight hollow beneath his cheekbones, a slighter bump at the bridge of his nose, a slight tension in his mouth…. His face was altogether too close. She flinched.
“May I touch the scar?” Those gold-flecked eyes met hers and she nodded. “Breathe, Ms. Carmichael,” he suggested quietly, as he gently touched the puckered skin.
She smiled slightly and inhaled.
“That’s better. Does this hurt? Do you feel this?” She shook her head.
He frowned slightly. “There’s some loss of sensation,” he said, almost to himself. Valerie was distracted now by the movements of his mouth. It was a nice mouth, nicely shaped, she thought, before catching herself and blushing a little.
Dr. Talbot looked at the other scars then, again asking her permission before touching her. Valerie started to relax. He really was very calming.
“Are you still unwilling to consult a plastic surgeon?” he asked, scribbling a note on the file. She didn’t answer so he looked up.
He met her gaze and his brow furrowed. “Of course. So you haven’t changed your mind? The scars will lighten a little as the skin renews but they won’t change much otherwise. A plastic surgeon could make them almost disappear.” He paused until she said “No thank you” very politely.
“Don’t you work as a model?” he said carefully.
She shook her head. “Not any more.”
“Because of the scars?” He sounded surprised.
Valerie shrugged. “Maybe. I didn’t find out. I don’t want to model any more.” She could almost see him thinking and wasn’t surprised by his next comment.
“Ms. Carmichael. Sometimes after a violent assault such as the one you suffered.” He paused and gathered another breath. “There is some shock or trauma….”
“You think I don’t know my own mind?” She sounded as calm as he did, which seemed to make him pause. “I do,” she finished simply.
He tried a different tack. “Has anyone offered you any counseling for victims of violence?”
He was concerned for her, she realized suddenly. “Oh yes, I know there are resources available.” She trailed off as if reciting from a pamphlet. “I have people to talk to. Don’t worry.”
She smiled reassuringly at him and he looked slightly confounded.
“This isn’t about me,” he said slowly. “But about your recovery—physical and emotional. Are you….” He stopped himself.
She smiled widely then and he blinked, almost stepping back from her. “You’re really very kind! But I think I’m fine now.”
She stood as if ready to leave and he automatically held out his hand to her. She took it and they both looked briefly at the clasped hands.
“Do I need to make another appointment?” She asked, taking her hand back.
He shook his head slowly. “No. We’re done.” He paused and the words sank in. “But you should call me if the wounds start to bother you again. Or call your regular doctor,” he amended as he opened the door for her.
“Of course,” she said and sailed through the door, before turning to catch his eyes again. “Thank you. Really,” she said in a low voice.
He nodded. His face seemed impassive but Valerie had a sense of his inner agitation. She smiled warmly, then left. That was that, she thought, a little ruefully.
Adam walked back to his office in a state of confusion. She thought he had forgotten her? Did she suppose supermodels came through the hospital Emergency Room every day? Her one night in the E.R. had required him to institute a sort of martial law on his floor: otherwise there would have been gawkers at her door, orderlies whining about changing their shifts. It hadn’t been only the men either. The Carmichaels were American royalty and public interest in them had waned in the years since the parents’ tragic deaths, but not faded entirely. He had chewed out a female nurse he caught sneaking a photo of Valerie sleeping. Between the police presence, the media circus, and his own concern for her, it had been a nightmare, but he was fairly sure she had no clue of the attention she drew. What did she suppose his typical day was like?
Oh, right. She didn’t suppose anything about his life because he was her doctor. Besides, she lived in a different world—a rich and glamorous world filled with famous and beautiful people. Not his world of infectious diseases and everyday accidents, blood, vomit, and disinfectants. It was a strange set of circumstances that had brought her to the E.R. that night in December, when he had been working for sixteen hours straight and desperate to go home. But Lenox Hill was the nearest hospital to the scene of the crime, and news of the attack had made his blood run cold.
He remembered his first sight of her that awful night. She had been unconscious, though the paramedics in the ambulance had stopped her bleeding. She was so pale and the wounds so vicious. He shook his head to clear it. Sometimes the ugliness and suffering that came through that E.R. was almost unbearable—and that had been one of those times, though even the violence hadn’t dimmed her beauty or courage or sweetness or the obvious closeness between her and her sisters.
And seeing her again had been troubling. Was she really okay? Was she getting enough help? The attack would leave more than those physical scars. But that wasn’t his job. His job was over.
Marie took a deep breath. This was it. She had set this in motion and now she had to go through with it. She did a last mental check: ponytail, oversizedbutton-down shirt, black leggings, sneakers. She sometimes wore glasses even though she didn’t need them and she never wore any makeup other than mascara and lip gloss. She pushed open the door and thirty oversized football players turned to look at her. She paused, familiar with the feeling of beinglooked over, so she gave them a chance to do it while she scanned the room. She heard some chuckling and lifted her chin. She was the only woman in the room, though it wasn’t a locker room. This time. At least these men were clothed, if intimidating.
“What’s your name, baby?” A tattooed hulk moved closer.
“Not baby,” she said curtly and heard some of the others laugh. “Phineas,”she added.
There was more hooting at that. No one called Fin Stephens by his given name. That was tactical on Marie’s part. Hard-won experience as a sportswriter taught her that a little banter and a little research went a long way. She followedthe retort with a smile that was also practiced—it was warm but not flirtatious, cheeky but not confrontational. She could do this. Her subject wasn’t here yet soshe settled her stuff on a bench and made small talk. She could do that too.
This had to work. Marie had gone out on a limb for it. She had asked her brother-in-law Paul to help her get this assignment and was grateful that he hadagreed. He was a photographer with connections in the magazine world and hadrecently married her oldest sister Corinne. His participation was the only way a national sports magazine was going to assign a profile of the new Pioneersquarterback to a sportswriter who had only just graduated from college. In her pitch she had emphasized her deep knowledge of Denver and the Pioneers, butshe understood that her editor expected something about her family too.
Everyone always wanted to know more about the Carmichaels, especially these days.
Last winter her older sister Valerie had been slashed by a stalker and her younger sister Samantha had won a silver medal skiing in the Olympics, then fallen badly the next day. Since then the American public was again tuned intothe Carmichael orphans, as they once had been called. The tragedy of their parents’ death in a helicopter accident during his presidential campaign still lingered in the public mind. Marie wasn’t sure if or how her profile wouldinclude anything about her, but she would deal with that later. Paul had insistedon a few conditions for this favor, and she’d deal with those later too. Right now she was nervous enough just dealing with Jared himself.
“Hey, you must be Marie. Sorry I’m late.” Jared Mackinnon walked in ten minutes later. She watched him approach and realized she had never seen himup close in person before, only on television or on the field. In person he seemedoverwhelming— tall, broad, effortlessly gorgeous with wavy light brown hair that was a little too long and eyes that were not blue after all, but green. She stood to even the balance a little. She was tall and athletic too but he made her feel small, which didn’t happen often, but then he was six foot four. Research again.
He sauntered over with an easy grace and extended a hand.
“Jared,” he said while Marie was still blinking. Maybe she couldn’t do this.
Jared was surprised by the scene that met him in the rec room. He knew Marie Carmichael was a Stanford tennis star, famous and popular in Denver as a daughter of Colorado’s former senator, who had been tragically killed with hiswife ten years ago. He had imagined this article as some sort of puff piece for a local paper. On his way to meeting her his General Manager had called him in tohis office and practically barked at him:
“You know who the Carmichaels are?”
“Those girls are like princesses around here! Cooperate! You look good, we look good. And I don’t have to tell you to keep your hands off her!”
No, sir, he had said, but he mentally rolled his eyes. Really? A sportswriter? He had better options than that. Besides, he wasn’t ready to getback in that game yet. He was far from the shit storm he had left behind in LosAngeles, but he was still under its heavy cloud.
Now here was this woman ensconced with the team chatting about salarycaps and contract negotiations. He wondered if the guys knew she was a journalist. The front office was always telling them to watch what they said tothe media, but from what he overheard they were venting about the new tradingdeadlines. She looked harmless enough, though she was prettier than he hadexpected too—in a girl next door sort of way. Growing up around here, maybe she was the girl next door for this team. When she stood he could see the tennisstar—she was tall and long-limbed. He found himself curious to see her play.
“No problem,” Marie said easily. “I was getting a lesson in agentrelations.”
Jared frowned, looking over the three defensive backs she had been talking to. “That doesn’t sound very interesting.”
“Oh, but it is!” She smiled now and Jared was disconcerted—by the smile or her odd enthusiasm for the inner workings of the sports world? He wasn’t sure.
“Speaking of agents, mine didn’t tell me much about this except to show up here. What’s the story?” They sat back down in the communal space, and he was aware of having interested listeners.
“It’s a profile of your preseason—the first few months with the Pioneers’first-round draft pick. I’m just going to follow you around and take notes.” She shrugged like it was no big deal and Jared wondered whether that wasintentional.
Marie hesitated. “Trey didn’t tell you much, did he?”
“Agent relations,” Jared said, shrugging too.
“S.I.,” she answered, watching him. There was some commotion around them.
“As in Sports Illustrated?” His eyes widened. She nodded and he leanedback, studying her. “You have some connections, don’t you?”
“Well, it won’t be on the cover,” she said, obviously trying to soundmodest and keep the whole thing casual.
Jared laughed, but it was forced. “That’s something, I guess. But we’re talking photos too?” Maybe she could just write some captions.
Marie nodded again. “Yep. Paul’s taking them at the end of the summer. He’s great. No worries!”
“Paul Drouet. He’s the photographer. He does a lot of work for them.” She looked like she was about to say more, then bit her lip and looked away.
“And it’s professional, not personal?” Jared asked warily. He could getburned real bad.
“That can be pretty tough to keep separate, but yes.” It was a careful answer. She must know what he was worried about.
“Okay,” Jared said, absorbing this information. There was nothing to dobut go forward and hope for the best. “Where do you want to start?”
Marie was exhausted by the end of the day and she wondered how professional athletes kept up this pace. The season hadn’t even started yet, buteven in the off season there seemed to be little down time. Between training andmeetings and publicity events Jared had been booked straight through until 8 p.m. and so Marie had been too as she shadowed him closely.
“You must be so bored!” Jared had said during a break after a two-hour meeting on offensive plays. She had been purposefully quiet all day, justwatching and listening patiently. She wanted to learn something about him. He didn’t need to learn anything about her.
“Hardly,” Marie had replied. “The strategy is what makes sports so fun—and interesting. In fact, I was wondering…” and then they had discussed passingversus rushing plays, arguing about what worked when. She used the opportunity to ask about some of his college games with UCLA, making himdefend and explain various calls he had made..
“You do your research,” Jared said, sounding impressed. He held the door for her as they left the building.
“Well, I went to some of those games, you know, since I was at Stanfordand we’re also Pac 10. And I wrote about sports for the Daily—and sometimes the San Jose Mercury News—so I followed everything,” she said lightly. Theywalked out to the parking lot together. A light wind blew her ponytail into her face and ruffled his hair.
“Were you at our last Stanford game” he asked, grinning. They hadreached his car.
Marie laughed and nodded. “Oh yeah. Not a good day to be a Stanfordfan—or fundraiser.”
“Sorry about that!“ But he didn’t look sorry. UCLA had taken Stanfordapart that afternoon. The game was over by the second quarter and Jared hadthrown seven completed passes for a record 200 yards.
“Not at all! That’s what got you here. You had an amazing game. It was a joy to watch—if you weren’t a Stanford fan.”
He seemed to relax a little.
“Is this your car?” Marie asked, shifting. “Where’s the obligatory hotrod?” He was standing next to a very dusty jeep.
“Too much of a cliché. I have to buy a new car soon though. I drove thisthrough college and all the way here from L.A. so I’m fond of it.”
“You gotta spend your signing bonus on something. My advice though: four-wheel drive. You’re in the mountains now.” Marie gestured toward her SUV and started rummaging for her keys.
“You want to get something to eat?” Jared asked suddenly, surprising her. It was near the end of June so the days were long and it was deceptively light outfor 8 p.m.
Marie smiled carefully. “Thanks, but no thanks. I have to get home to mysister and Boulder’s still half an hour away. I’ll come by practice tomorrow, okay?”
“Sure.” He shrugged like it didn’t matter to him. He seemed to do that a lot, she noticed. Huh. He unlocked his door as she moved toward her car.
“Hey,“ he called out. Marie turned. “How’s your sister doing? The skier?”“Better. Much better. Thanks.“ She got into her car and gave him a little wave. God, he was nice as well as sexy as hell. Definitely no dinners, she told herself. She could do this.
There was a round of applause as Samantha Carmichael finished her talk and satdown. It had gone pretty well, she thought, and now she was done with these community service talks. She’d get her driver’s license back before her semester started up again and she’d get through one more semester and graduate college. It was satisfying to be back on track. This had been a year of great highs andlows. It was good to be getting back to normal: studying, training, and soon skiing! If all went well there would be snow by November and she could be backon the slopes.
She looked around the room and was gratified that it was so full. Her college, the University of Colorado at Boulder, lent out rooms for variousorganizations to use for events and this large lecture hall had been repurposedfor a meeting of a local Sierra Club. Samantha had done three of these sorts of presentations already: she was required to do them as community service after her fourth speeding ticket this year, but they were easy to do. She was an Olympic skier and her father had been a senator from Colorado before his death so she was motivated to address environmental groups about conserving the state’s natural resources. The public was interested in her story— after her silver medal in downhill last winter she had fallen badly and spent the rest of the spring in rehab. She tried to make her talks a mix of personal history andenvironmental education: she gave some background on the mountains she grew up on and then talked about how to preserve them for public use. Now it wastime to take questions.
Samantha leaned back in her chair and let the facilitator call on people. She stretched her long legs under the table and tucked her hair behind her ears. She had dressed up for this, which for her meant skinny jeans, ankle boots, and a white button down shirt instead of a tee shirt. She had added a blazer at the last minute since the weather in early September could get chilly. That was fine with her. Cold meant snow, snow meant skiing, and that was all good.
An older man stood up. “Ms. Carmichael, I just want to say how happy I am to see you recovered from your terrible injury. I’m sure I speak for the whole community in hoping that you and your sisters get a break from the tragediesthat have befallen you.”
“Uh…thank you. We haven’t only had tragedies though – I’m very happywith my medal!” Samantha smiled brightly. She knew he was referring to her family history as well as her accident: her parents had died tragically in ahelicopter accident while her father was running for president. Although thathad been six years ago now, she and her sisters still attracted media attention, especially in their home state.
“But the attack on your sister! It ruined her career!” the man continued. Last December Samantha’s sister Valerie had been attacked by a stalker whoslashed her face.
Samantha took a breath to gather her patience. “My sister gave upmodeling by her own choice. And she’s fully recovered now.” As am I, she wanted to say, but couldn’t quite say that yet. Her injured right leg was still weaker than her left. When the man seemed about to continue, Sam looked at the facilitator.
“I’d rather not talk about my family,” she said, trying to soften the statement with a sweet smile. Or what she hoped was a sweet smile and not a grimace. She looked back over the crowd to see if there were other hands.
And saw Liam leaning against the exit door, filling the frame.
She frowned, meeting his eyes across the room. How long had he been there? Had he heard her whole talk? She looked questioningly at him and he gave a small nod. Huh. She wondered why he had come. They were supposed tobe avoiding each other.
“Ms. Carmichael?” the facilitator prompted her.
“Sam,” she corrected automatically, pulling her attention away fromLiam. It was good to see him though. It was always good to see him—and too rare.
“Sorry. What was the question?”
“Not a question, a comment,” a young man said curtly. “You talked aboutthe slopes you grew up skiing. Your family owns over a hundred acres of thatland.”
Sam studied him. Was that a question? He was about her height, but she was fairly tall, and he had dark hair pulled into a ponytail. She thought she recognized him from some of her Environmental Science classes. In the growingsilence, he continued.
“You can’t really call that public use then, can you?” His tone wassarcastic.
“It’s protected from real estate development, from strip mining…. It’savailable to be seen as part of our shared landscape, as it has been for centuries. It’s public in that sense.”
“You could sell those acres any time. They are not protected. Your father never put any restrictions on their use.”
“We are not going to sell that land. I live on it. That’s my home.” She collected herself with an effort. “Do you have another question?”
“So essentially we, the public, have to trust in the goodwill of one privileged family to maintain that land. Does that seem fair to you?”
“Yes, it does,” Sam bit out. The point might be worth discussing, but her temper ran high to begin with and this innuendo about her family was fraying it. The young man threw up his hands as if to rest his case and sat down looking smug.
“Anyone else?” The facilitator looked nervous.
An older woman rose and said, “I just want to applaud you for your enthusiasm for nature. It’s such a positive influence on society and so few youngpeople seem interested in getting outdoors or appreciating what we have. If more people spent more time in nature there would be less war, less crime, lesspoverty. That’s what I think.” She beamed and several people clapped.
Sam took another deep breath. “Thank you for the compliment…,” she started out. “But nature is a whore.”
Aww, she’d done it. She sensed Liam’s alertness and knew she hadmisstepped. Again. He was better at looking out for her than she was at lookingout for herself. If only he wasn’t so into that protector role (if only she didn’tneed one, he would say). As the audience shifted and gaped at her, Sam leanedforward and tucked her loose hair back again, intent.
“Nirvana? Kurt Cobain? That’s a quote from a song.” She sighedimpatiently. “I don’t think young people are going to be swayed by the argument that nature is a moral force and that’s why we need to protect it. Young people like me…”
She glanced at Liam with a sense of irony. Her age was a problembetween them, though she had just turned twenty-one. She saw him suppress a smile. He did have a good sense of humor.
“…have heard those arguments and seen how little effect they have. Thinking differently about nature, getting outside more—I really don’t see how that will protect endangered resources. We need to make arguments based on quantifiable measures, on empirical data that can be less easily refuted or ignored. Cutting down this many trees affects the carbon in the atmosphere by that much.”
She slapped a hand on the table in front of her. “Strip mining releases these chemicals into the groundwater that results in those health issues.”
Another slap. “I think those arguments are going to be stronger goingforward than any sentimental…logic.” She just caught herself before she said crap. There was silence when she finished and the facilitator glanced aroundnervously again.
“Umm…I guess we’re out of time! Thank you so much for sharing your perspective with us, Samantha.” There was a polite smattering of applause.
Sam wanted to roll her eyes, but limited herself to sighing heavily. At leastshe was done with these. If people didn’t want to know her opinion theyshouldn’t ask her to speak. She collected her bag and went through the motionsof thanking the organizers. She was aware of Liam still standing by the door, talking to someone. Would he wait for her? Even being this near him wasunsettling her. As she moved toward the exit she was waylaid by a few people and chatted briefly, but her eyes kept returning to Liam. His rugged good looksdrew her like a magnet. Dark brown hair curled a little at his nape. A square jaw contrasted nicely with a sensual mouth. Broad shoulders tapered to narrow hips…. He was not too tall, too wide, but just perfect, relaxed in jeans and a lightsweater with hiking boots. He could as easily be a student as faculty.
But, unfortunately, he wasn’t.
Liam watched Samantha approach with trepidation. What was he doinghere? That would be her first question and he couldn’t answer it.
“I know it’s wrong but what can I do?” He heard her mutter as she got nearer. Yeah, that was it exactly.
“Should.“ He stood stock still. She turned toward him and he felt the usual wallop of his attraction to her. She was too damned pretty for her own good— and his. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. She crackled with energy, she lit up a room, she…Shit!
“What?” She bit her lip, confused. His eyes moved to her mouth.
“I know it’s wrong so what should I do? That’s the lyric.” Just like it waswrong to flirt with her, but he couldn’t help it. Especially when it earned him a big smile like that.
“I’d have thought you were too old for Nirvana.” She was teasing now, and that was just as irresistible as the flirting.
“I’m not that much older than you.” Damn!
“Ha! You said it. Not me.” She grinned, satisfied, and tilted her head. “How old are you, anyway, Professor?” They spoke in low voices, but he made sure not to stand too close. A few people glanced at them as they exited.
“Twenty-six. Twenty-seven next month.” He said automatically, then winced. He said the stupidest things around her and she always noticed.
“You know, when people say that it always makes them sound younger than they are. Better just to say twenty-six.” Sam laughed, her dark blue eyesbright. “I turned twenty-one last week. But I’ll be twenty-two next year.”
Liam smiled. He couldn’t help that either. “Happy birthday,” he said softly.
“Yeah.“ She ducked her head, her shiny dark hair falling forward. “I’mlegal for all kinds of things now.” She gave him a mischievous look, and he hadto stop this now.
“You’re still a student here—“ He reminded her, glancing around the auditorium. Most people had already left. He’d just walk her to her car. Oh, wait, she still wasn’t driving. He frowned. “How are you getting home?”
“Bus. And we had that conversation already. Why are you even here?”
They walked out of the room together. The last time Liam had seen her he had given her a ride home and she had warned him that there were rumorsgoing around that they were romantically involved. Even though it wasn’t true—technically—they had agreed to keep their distance. And now here he was.
Liam couldn’t answer her question so he avoided it. “Why can’t Marie getyou?” Marie was one of Sam’s four older sisters and the only one living at home now in Boulder.
“Because Marie has a life? She practically lives with Jared now.”
“How’s Corinne and the baby?” He was stalling because he just likedtalking to her. He had met Sam’s sisters Valerie and Marie at the Olympics in Vancouver, but not Corinne or Daisy, the two oldest. They lived in New York City with their boyfriends. Or husband, now that Corinne had married andrecently had a baby. Going to see Sam race was probably when their relationshiphad veered from the academic to the personal. But they had no relationship, Liam reminded himself sternly. They pushed through the outer door of the building into the evening air.
“Great! I saw them both in New York. His name is Roger Philippe andhe’s the cutest baby ever born. See—” Sam gave him another sidelong glance. “I’ve matured a lot since I last saw you. I’m a year older and I’m an aunt!”
“Stop it, Samantha.“ They stood facing each other awkwardly. Her busstop was a block in the other direction. He hated being unable to do something assimple as drive her home.
She made a face at him. “This sucks.” She spoke his thoughts out loud, then laughed at his expression and shrugged. “Well, I may as well act my age. What’s the point of acting responsible if I don’t reap the benefits?”
It had been like this between them since they first met a year ago, when he was (briefly!) her advisor. She had made her interest in him clear and he hadbackpedaled as fast as he could. Not that it had helped. Much. And then he’dhad the shock of his life when she had fallen in the Super G. Over the last sixmonths he’d watched her recovery from a careful distance, and now he felt…even more.
Liam jammed his hands into his pockets and shifted restlessly. “Is thatwhat that Q and A was about? Shocking people?” A breeze blew some dark hair into her face and she brushed it away. He was painfully aware of her everymotion.
“Sort of. Maybe. But I believe what I said. That sentiment isn’t going tosave the environment—or win any political battles, for that matter. Saying it’s the right thing to do has no leverage.” She stuck her hands in her pockets too.
Her hunched posture did little to hide her lithe form. Her beauty had been a problem from day one, he thought, and her impetuous recklessness too.
She looked up at him with undisguised interest. “You disagree?” A little furrow appeared between her brows.
“No, I agree with you, actually—but you do put things in your own inimitable way,” he said drily. “That Nirvana quote was meant to shock.”
“Gotta find a way…a better way….” She quoted again, softly. Maybe thatapplied to more than just environmental politics.
Liam stared at her for a moment. “Fuck it—let’s go.” He started walking away.
Sam’s eyes widened and she hurried to catch up to him. “Fuck it as in you’ll fuck me?”
Jesus Christ! He stopped dead, shaking his head at her. “No! As in fuck itI’ll drive you home!”
“Oh. I was a little surprised. You’re so honorable and all that. But I couldhope—“
He laughed, though her enthusiasm was turning him on and that wasn’tso funny. “Keep your voice down, would you?”
Sam shut up altogether. She really shouldn’t have blurted that word out tofall so uneasily between them—here in a campus parking lot, alone, at night. Butshe did have a tendency to blurt.
They got to his car and Liam let her in. “So you don’t think doing the right thing is important?” He was curious.
Sam paused to look at him as she slid into her seat. “Wait. What contextare we in now? Environmental conservation or…student-faculty relations?” She finished primly.
“Either. We’re talking about principles, aren’t we?” Liam pulled out of the parking lot, avoiding her gaze as she studied him. “The environment is worth protecting on principle because it’s valuable in many different ways—not justmorally or sentimentally but economically and practically, as you said. Studentsand faculty shouldn’t have relationships on principle because it complicates their academic relationship.”
Sam was silent for so long that he had to glance at her. She was still looking at him, her lovely face serious. “I guess I believe in judging on a case-bycase basis,” she said slowly.
“But we…society…can’t judge everything on a case-by-case basis. That’swhy there are laws, as well as policies like the ones against student-facultyrelationships.”
“Even so—the laws exist as general boundaries, not strict limits.” She seemed to be thinking out loud.
Liam raised his eyebrows. “So it’s okay for some people to break some laws? I have a feeling this is where speed limits—and tickets—come in. Thisexplains a lot.”
Sam flushed. “It’s not that I think speed limits don’t apply to me. It’s justI…like going fast,” she ended lamely. “Okay, I guess I have no defense for thatone.“ She sighed and looked out the window at the passing trees. “I’ll be glad toget my license back.”
They rode in silence the rest of the way until Liam got to her driveway. Sam punched in a security code at the entry gate and he pulled up at the Carmichael residence. It was an imposing red brick structure with extensive grounds set back from the main road amidst pine trees and mountain vistas.
“Liam,” Sam said quietly, her hand on the door. “I behave myself with you,” she grimaced, “as best I can, that is—because I don’t want you to lose your job.” She emphasized the last word and looked up at him. “I don’t see anyprinciple worth protecting in this case. In our case.” Her voice was soft and theywere all alone in a dark car on a dark night. The tension was palpable. Samlooked away.
“I’ll finish in December, you know. You should think about exactly when Iqualify as no longer a student. After my last class? After my last final? Do I have to actually walk through an auditorium in cap and gown?” They both laughedand he was grateful to her for easing their tension.“You just think about that,” she said, getting out of the car and blowing him a kiss. He grinned and made sure she got indoors safely before driving away. Yes, he would certainly think about that.