The woman leaned back in the black leather chair and stared unseeingly past the uncluttered Plexiglas desktop at the bleak winter scene outside the office window. Oblique lines of wet snow and freezing rain were being driven across the pane, and the thin light of a March afternoon was fading fast.
Eventually, all things came to an end. Her youth, her hopes of having a husband and her own babies, even of growing old with the only man she had ever loved, were gone. A bitter smile curled her lip and her black eyes narrowed. Her self-centered lover was sure that he could have it all. He was confident she'd be content with the scraps of his affection; that she'd tolerate his marriage of convenience and still spend all her waking hours assuring his success and even, when he could find the time, welcome him to her bed.
Underestimating her was going to cost him. She would see that his dreams, too, went up in smoke. She had already arranged to have the big deal for the money he needed for his campaign to fall through. She could hardly wait to see the dismay on his arrogant face when it happened. And her cousin had promised to eliminate that pale, sexless woman her treacherous lover planned to marry. He would never take her to his bed.
She looked at her watch. Only a few hours now before her plans were set in motion. Within the week, he would pay for taking her years of devotion lightly.
Mike's eyes wandered dispassionately over yet another woman's body. There were dozens of them, alone or in pairs, all bright-eyed and eager. Every one of them seemed more than ready to leave the frigid temperatures that gripped the Lower Great Lakes area for a blast of sunshine and fun. One tall, dark-eyed woman of about his own age met his gaze with a challenging smile and an appreciative scrutiny of her own.
Too aggressive, he decided, a little taken aback by her frank interest in the lower part of his anatomy. Have to make sure I'm the predator here.
He was having trouble believing that he, Mike Garson, senior partner of Garson Construction International, was leaning against a concrete pillar, blatantly girl-watching like a lout in a fifties' movie. All he needed was a Fedora tilted down over his eyes and a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth.
From his vantage point near the entrance to the departure lounges, he had a good view of the passengers lined up to go through airport security. Many of them would probably be heading for the charter flight that connected with the MS Theseus. If the right ones were taking it, the cruise mightn't be a total washout. He hadn't expected so many of the women traveling alone to be young and attractive. So far, two or three of them had been well worth his critical appraisal.
Of course, no one else was in a class with the blonde being kissed good-bye by the smooth article in the gray suit. She had the cool Scandinavian look that had always intrigued him. Her shoulder-length hair was the color of the palest yellow rose, her back slender and her bottom curved and tempting.
Mike was getting a kind of vicious satisfaction from this cold-blooded search for an acceptable woman. He continued to study every woman who passed, but his eyes kept returning to the blonde. Gray Suit was going a little overboard on the kiss, but he was keeping his hands discreetly above the waist. Mike, however, could feel his own palms itching to cup the round firm flesh discreetly covered by well-tailored, pale green trousers.
Whoa, Mike! An angry man could too easily get caught up in this role. Trying to steal someone else's woman had never been part of his plan. All he wanted was to salvage his vacation, and some of his pride. He felt a twinge of distaste at the self-centered male on the prowl he had decided to become.
Gray Suit was still kissing her! The woman evidently was beginning to find it tedious. He watched her open one startling turquoise eye to peek at her watch. Another insincere blonde. This one had Gray Suit fooled. The poor sap was probably convinced she cared about him. She had the grace to blush when she realized Mike had caught her checking the time, but he recognized her type.
There was no danger of emotional involvement with this woman. If she was taking the cruise, and if she wasn't meeting another man on the ship, she might fill the bill, not to mention the empty half of the double bed in his stateroom. His pulse quickened at the thought. Yes, it was a long shot, but if he played his cards right, there was a chance he could become intimately acquainted with that luscious body. And that was definitely something to look forward to.
At the moment, all Sara Tolberg was looking forward to was distance from Stephen. She was beyond mere annoyance at him. In spite of the fact she had booked an airport limousine, he had insisted on driving her in from Rochester at four o'clock this morning. And now he was acting as if they were lovers parting. It wasn't that she found his embrace repulsive; she simply wasn't enjoying it. Didn't he care she wasn't kissing him back? She tried to move away, but he pulled her firmly back to him.
She would never have tolerated this display from any other man. However, since the senator's health had forced his retirement, Stephen and his fledgling political career had been very important to her father, and, of course, to her. Stephen knew very well that, although she was seething, she'd never make a scene. Short of hitting him or kneeing him in the groin, she didn't know how to make him end his one-sided kiss.
She hadn't agreed to his marriage proposal, but he seemed to think that simply stating his intentions gave him some sort of rights over her. Of course, her father had led him to believe it was just a matter of time before she came to her senses.
She managed to pull away from him and take a deep breath.
"Good-bye, Stephen," she said, patting his cheek. "You can tell the senator you got me safely to the plane."
"I will. Is there anything else I can do for you, my sweet?"
"No, nothing," she said, a little too vehemently. She lightened her reply with a laugh. After all, she reminded herself, she was fond of him. "You even provided more than my quota of kisses for the next two weeks," she added, dryly.
Stephen joined in her laughter, but though his lips smiled and his laugh lines crinkled, there was little amusement in his blue eyes.
"That was my intention," he said.
A few feet away, Mike wondered if maybe he'd heard a trace of relief in the blonde's laugh when she finally ended the kiss with some sort of quip that made Gray Suit smile. She looked more approachable when she laughed.
As she was disengaging herself from Gray Suit's arms, a short, gray-haired man in a three-piece suit with a folded Wall Street Journal tucked under his arm walked briskly past them. Without a hesitation in his step, he stooped slightly, then continued on his way with the blonde's briefcase in his hand.
It took Mike a full second for the theft to register and for him to shout, "Hey! Put that down."
It took even less time to get his body in motion. He was already in full flight when he heard the blonde cry, "Stop him."
The gray-haired thief must be younger than he looked. He sure could run and, from the way he was dodging around, he seemed to know the airport. However, Mike's deck shoes had a better grip on the tile floor than the thief's leather soles and his speed was fuelled by a completely inexplicable rage at the thief for choosing the intriguing blonde as his victim. Mike had almost caught up to him when his quarry suddenly turned a corner and headed towards a door marked "Airport Personnel Only."
Mike became aware someone else had joined in the pursuit.
"Stop him!" the man who was pounding along a few feet behind him shouted.
The gray-haired man spurted towards the door. Mike put on a burst of speed and was ready to tackle him when the thief tossed his folded newspaper at Mike's face.
Mike knocked it aside easily, but the unexpected move almost cost him his momentum. He cursed, then launched himself at the man just as he was yanking the door open. They crashed to the floor together and the briefcase went flying. Mike immobilized the smaller man easily with the sheer force of his weight and wrenched his arm up between his shoulder blades.
At that moment, the uniformed airport security officer overtook them, still speaking on his cordless telephone.
"Yes, we've got him. We're at the top of the northeast stairs," he panted, replacing the receiver on the hook at his belt.
"Thanks." He mopped his brow. "The lady screamed and you were already chasing this guy before I was sure what was happening. Man, you took off like a rocket."
Mike was getting to his feet, still holding the thief in an armlock, when two large men in airport uniforms emerged from the stairway. Relinquishing his prisoner to them, he brushed the dust off the knees of his pants.
The garrulous security man who had followed Mike in the chase was still talking. "I figure he's part of the gang that's been working the terminal for two weeks now. It's a pretty good bet people will keep their valuables in their carry-ons.
"This is the first break we've had. He looks a bit older than the descriptions we have, but the technique's the same. They've taken at least thirty pieces of hand luggage that we know of, but this is the first one we've caught in the act." He stopped to take a breath. "What time's your flight?"
"That's good. It won't take more than a few minutes for you to give us a statement. Don't worry. You'll make your flight," he assured Mike as his associates snapped handcuffs on the wrists of the silent, middle-aged man.
Under closer scrutiny, he looked more like a disgruntled banker than a luggage thief. The security man retrieved the briefcase from its resting place against the wall and checked the tag.
"Smart woman. She put the flight number on it. We'll see that she gets her bag on the plane."
Mike leaned closer to read the tag. The blonde was on his flight. Great! Things were looking up. But, first, he had to go and make his statement. He'd learned many countries ago that arguing with minor officials only delayed proceedings. Resigned to the inevitable, he followed the security officer to a nearby airport office, where he identified the stubbornly silent thief and dictated a brief statement.
As he left the office, Mike shook his head at his impetuous action. He had completely lost his cool. Jim Greco would never believe that "good, old let's-go-over-that-again Mike" had gone tearing off after a thief without a moment's hesitation.
His childhood buddy had played on Mike's patriotism a few times to get him to do an unofficial errand here and there for the low-profile government agency that he worked for. Jim always found Mike's caution and meticulous planning for those missions amusing.
Why on earth had he gone chasing after the blonde's briefcase? Was he adding grandstanding to his new playboy act? He was beginning to wonder if it was really preferable to being understanding and infinitely usable. He set his jaw. He was going to go through with it. No woman was ever again going to walk all over Mike Garson.
The boarding had not begun yet when he entered the departure lounge. He stood just inside the door and scanned the crowd for S. Tolberg. That's how the discreet little tag on her briefcase had identified her. She had even attached one of the bright blue MS Theseus tags that informed him her cabin was on Apollo Deck, the same deck as his own. Perfect.
A small group of first class passengers was called for boarding and began filing out of the lounge. S. Tolberg was not among them. Then he spotted her. There was nothing flamboyant about her trim pale green jacket and slacks, but she drew his eye as if she had a spotlight trained on her. She was sitting quietly by the huge windows that looked out on the east-west airstrip. She had a sketchbook on her lap and was rapidly sketching a little boy, who was seated opposite her beside his dozing mother. So, she was an artist.
The old Mike had always avoided artistic types--thought they might be too emotional and quirky for his tastes. Maybe it was time for a change of pace. Besides, S. Tolberg didn't look either emotional or quirky. She seemed remarkably cool and self-possessed for a woman who had just been robbed.
Her briefcase was already on the seat beside her. Spotting the theft had been a stroke of luck. It gave him a good excuse to approach her.
His mouth twisted in an ironic smile. Another blonde. This one was better looking than Angela, though. Her hair was longer and paler, and her figure was definitely trimmer, but she appeared to have the same talent for feigning passion as his ex-fiancée. That poor guy who'd been kissing her certainly hadn't received her full attention. She'd flushed guiltily when he'd caught her checking the time. Was she hurrying to another lover? He realized with a shock how disappointed he'd be if she was.
When the airline representative announced the boarding of the center section of the aircraft, S. Tolberg stood up. Even though Mike's seat was in the same section, he decided to wait until after she had boarded to get into line.
When she turned to pick up her briefcase, her loose blouse tightened momentarily over breasts that were at least as well-formed as her shapely derrière. He felt a slight, localized surge of heat at the possibility of getting close to her. What did he care if she had no more depth than a glossy photograph? If she was available, she might suit him very well.
He ignored the nudging of his conscience. His new attitude was totally justified, he told himself as he took his place at the end of the line. What had his considerate treatment of women ever earned him?
He'd never had any trouble attracting women, but he had been intimate with very few. He had chosen his chères amies carefully and had gone out of his way to avoid misleading them. He had made sure each of those cherished friends had understood their romance would last only until he moved on to the next job in a few months. His recent experience with Angela had certainly opened his eyes. Those former lovers had probably been amused at his naive concern about their feelings.
His big mistake had been breaking the rule of a lifetime never to settle for second best. On his thirty-fifth birthday, he had done some serious soul-searching and accepted that, as far as falling in love was concerned, he'd missed the boat. If the exciting and loving woman of his dreams existed, it was unlikely he was ever going to find her. However, if he wanted a wife and children of his own, he would simply have to be more realistic about what he expected in a wife.
During his annual return to the States to visit with his parents last July, he'd been seduced as much by the contentment of his brothers' lives and their warm invitations to come home and join the family business as he had by Angela. He'd known her since grade school and they had dated occasionally over the years, but he hadn't slept with her until this summer.
He'd thought they were going to have a good life together built on mutual affection and trust. And they would have the home and children they both wanted. Angela had agreed to marry him in eight months' time when he finished building the power plant in Africa.
He'd lived up to his part of the bargain. The lack of passion in Angela's occasional newsy letters was no surprise. He'd answered in kind. But he never expected to find, when he arrived home, that she had eloped with her boss.
He prided himself on being a good judge of character, but he sure had misread Angela. If the little girl he had protected from bullies in grade school and who had been a good friend for over twenty years could betray his trust, what woman could be trusted?
Mike stood up abruptly and, with icy deliberation, picked up his carry-on bag. From now on, he resolved, female companions would join him at their own risk. He might be embarking on his honeymoon today without a bride, but he was not going to be alone long!
Not far ahead of him, Sara sank into her aisle seat with a sigh of relief. She was on her way. Thank goodness, the couple who occupied the other two seats in the row were so obviously wrapped up in each other that they wouldn't try to make conversation with her. It wasn't even eight o'clock, but already it had been a long, difficult morning.
Even at the unearthly hour she'd had to check in, the terminal had been jammed with excited vacationers eager to escape winter's last few unpleasant gasps. Then, she certainly hadn't expected Stephen, surrounded by those crowds of gawking people, to be so determined to make an exhibition of them both with his overly long good-bye kiss. The attempt to steal her briefcase had topped it all off. The thief would have been disappointed to find it only contained a change of clothes, her journal, a sketchbook and a paperback novel. No jewels.
She touched her mother's pearls at her throat. Apart from them, she wore only costume jewelry. Even though her case had been returned and no damage was done, the episode had left her uneasy.
Disturbing, too, had been the large, tanned man who had chased the thief. Before she'd even seen him, she'd been uncomfortably aware of his eyes on her. With her anger at Stephen growing second by interminable second, she'd peeked at her watch. And those penetrating obsidian eyes had held her pinned for an embarrassing moment. A moment that was long enough to imprint his image firmly in her mind. With those mesmerizing eyes and his longish dark hair bound with a leather thong at the back of his neck, he was an imposing sight.
Then the owner of those critical eyes had sprung into action like an attack dog when the thief took off with her case. By the time she had realized what was going on, it was too late for her to chase him herself.
She took a long, deep breath and forced herself to relax in her seat. This was the first moment she'd had to herself since she'd opened her eyes this morning.
If she ever saw the man with the eyes again, she'd have to thank him. Sara had never been easily intimidated, but she had to admit she would prefer not to face the full force of the stranger's personality just yet. She didn't think he'd been in the departure lounge. With any luck, he was bound for some other destination and their paths would never cross.
Just thinking about his glowering black eyes made her shiver. That was ridiculous. On her worst day, she could face down an angry, even belligerent, union leader. The way she was overreacting to a man who had never even spoken to her showed how much she really needed this vacation. His glare probably had nothing to do with her anyway. Maybe his morning had been just as frustrating as hers. She picked up her novel.
As she opened the paperback, someone in the aisle brushed against her arm.
"Sorry," a male voice said.
As if she had conjured him up, the darkly tanned man with the snapping black eyes stood towering over her. He was folding his jacket into the overhead storage compartment. The friendly smile that beamed down on her changed his broad face completely. It was surprisingly attractive.
"I see airport security returned your case."
His voice was deep and considerably warmer than she expected. The resonance in his bass voice struck a responsive chord that vibrated deep inside her.
"It's you!" she blurted. Where was the cool control she could usually maintain through endless hours of negotiations? "Thank you for getting it back for me. Most people wouldn't want to get involved." My goodness, he's big! With his flat midriff at eye level, she could see he didn't carry an ounce of flab on his muscular frame.
"I'm relieved you weren't injured rescuing my briefcase," she babbled. "There wasn't anything in it worth getting hurt for. Though I am thankful to have my book."
She waved the thick paperback at him. Sara knew she sounded as if she'd never seen an attractive man before. But his silent condemnation in the terminal had thrown her off balance.
"I'm glad I could help," he said, closing the lid on the overhead bin with a loud snap. "I'll let you get back to your reading now. Maybe you'll join me for a drink on board ship?"
He was polite and charming, but there was a twinkle in his eye. He was amused that he made her nervous.
"I'd like that," she replied. She watched him sit down across the aisle a couple of rows away. Wouldn't you know he was taking the cruise, too!
Sara lowered her eyes to her book. She was still embarrassed at how blasé and insensitive she must have appeared earlier. She was being ridiculous. Why was she getting herself into this state about a stranger's opinion? She was probably the only single woman on this plane who wasn't hoping to meet an attractive man. A fleeting glance across the aisle assured her that the man in question was reading his newspaper, totally oblivious to the impact he had made on her.
Anyway, he wasn't the man she was supposed to be thinking about. She winced at the memory of her attempt to muster some enthusiasm for Stephen's kiss. She was fond of him. He knew that. What he refused to accept was that was probably all she would ever feel for him. Was that enough to base a marriage on? She had been totally honest with him about her feelings, but he was sure she could learn to love him. Her father was equally determined she should marry Stephen.
With a flash of irritation, she remembered her father's face when he had pointed out, as if it were a grave character flaw, that she had recently passed her thirtieth birthday.
Stephen was just the kind of son her father should have had. Will Tolberg had been a state senator from New York until a coronary had forced his retirement. Almost from the moment Sara had begun dating Stephen, the two men had hit it off. Her father admired everything about him--his brilliance as an electronics engineer, his proven business success, his charm, and his public spirit that he demonstrated by running citywide food drives.
The two of them were always in a huddle about Stephen's imminent debut into state politics. That kind of activity was much more to Will Tolberg's taste than trying to make himself useful in the travel agency his partner had run capably ever since Will went into politics. As Stephen's only family consisted of a sister who lived in Barbados, the two men thought that marrying into the Tolberg family would be perfect for his image.
It was too bad he couldn't marry the senator, she thought peevishly.
When she forced herself to think about it, she doubted there was a man alive whom she'd actually want to spend the rest of her life with. But how else was she going to have the children she was pretty sure she wanted? Perhaps she should settle for Stephen. She sighed. When she returned in two weeks, she would give him her answer. Alone on the MS Theseus, she would have time to examine her reluctance to marry him.
"Think about me while you're away, Sara. I miss you already," Stephen had whispered into her hair, just before the thief had taken off with her briefcase, chased by the muscular giant with the dark tan.
Stephen, probably embarrassed he hadn't been the one to spring into action, had fussed about which valuables she had lost until she had described to him every item in the case and convinced him that she could afford to lose any one of them. Then he'd finally left, insisting she call him if she had any more trouble.
Even though he could be tedious, she had come to count on him. She smiled. He had a lot going for him. She made herself think about his intelligent gray eyes, his well-groomed, thick blond hair, and his lean, elegant body. And she was still learning things about him that could surprise her. It had been unexpectedly thoughtful of him to send the birthday present to his nephew. According to Stephen, teddy bears were virtually impossible to get in Barbados and every boy should have his own Winnie the Pooh. Yes. She was glad he was fond of children.
"I will think about us, Stephen," she had promised. And she would. But not this minute.