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Blithe Images

Nora Roberts

  To Ron’s Patience …

  Chapter One

  The girl twisted and turned under the lights, her shining black hair swirling around her as various expressions flitted across her striking face.

  “That’s it, Hillary, a little pout now. We’re selling the lips here.” Larry Newman followed her movements, the shutter of his camera clicking rapidly. “Fantastic,” he exclaimed as he straightened from his crouched position. “That’s enough for today.”

  Hillary Baxter stretched her arms to the ceiling and relaxed. “Good, I’m beat. It’s home and a hot tub for me.”

  “Just think of the millions of dollars in lipstick your face is going to sell, sweetheart.” Switching off lights, Larry’s attention was already wavering.


  “Mmm, so it is,” he returned absently. “We’ve got that shampoo thing tomorrow, so make sure your hair is in its usual gorgeous state. I almost forgot.” He turned and faced her directly. “I have a business appointment in the morning. I’ll get someone to stand in for me.”

  Hillary smiled with fond indulgence. She had been modeling for three years now, and Larry was her favorite photographer. They worked well together, and as a photographer he was exceptional, having a superior eye for angles and detail, for capturing the right mood. He was hopelessly disorganized, however, and pathetically absentminded about anything other than his precious equipment.

  “What appointment?” Hillary inquired with serene patience, knowing well how easily Larry confused such mundane matters as times and places when they did not directly concern his camera.

  “Oh, that’s right, I didn’t tell you, did I?” Shaking her head, Hillary waited for him to continue. “I’ve got to see Bret Bardoff at ten o’clock.”

  “The Bret Bardoff?” Hillary demanded, more than a little astonished. “I didn’t know the owner of Mode magazine made appointments with mere mortals—only royalty and goddesses.”

  “Well, this peasant’s been granted an audience,” Larry returned dryly. “As a matter of fact, Mr. Bardoff’s secretary contacted me and set the whole thing up. She said he wanted to discuss plans for a layout or something.”

  “Good luck. From what I hear of Bret Bardoff, he’s a man to be reckoned with—tough as nails and used to getting his own way.”

  “He wouldn’t be where he is today if he were a pushover,” Larry defended the absent Mr. Bardoff with a shrug. “His father may have made a fortune by starting Mode, but Bret Bardoff made his own twice over by expanding and developing other magazines. A very successful businessman, and a good photographer—one that’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.”

  “You’d love anyone who could tell a Nikon from a Brownie,” Hillary accused with a grin, and pulled at a lock of Larry’s disordered hair. “But his type doesn’t appeal to me.” A delicate and counterfeit shudder moved her shoulders. “I’m sure he’d scare me to death.”

  “Nothing scares you, Hil,” Larry said fondly as he watched the tall, willowy woman gather her things and move for the door. “I’ll have someone here to take the shots at nine-thirty tomorrow.”

  Outside, Hillary hailed a cab. She had become quite adept at this after three years in New York. And she had nearly ceased to ponder about Hillary Baxter of a small Kansas farm being at home in the thriving metropolis of New York City.

  She had been twenty-one when she had made the break and come to New York to pursue a modeling career. The transition from small-town farm girl to big-city model had been difficult and often frightening, but Hillary had refused to be daunted by the fast-moving, overwhelming city and resolutely made the rounds with her portfolio.

  Jobs had been few and far between during the first year, but she had hung on, refusing to surrender and escape to the familiar surroundings of home. Slowly, she had constructed a reputation for portraying the right image for the right product, and she had become more and more in demand. When she had begun to work with Larry, everything had fallen into place, and her face was now splashed throughout magazines and, as often as not, on the cover. Her life was proceeding according to plan, and the fact that she now commanded a top model’s salary had enabled her to move from the third-floor walk-up in which she had started her New York life to a comfortable high rise near Central Park.

  Modeling was not a passion with Hillary, but a job. She had not come to New York with starry-eyed dreams of fame and glamour, but with a resolution to succeed, to stand on her own. The choice of career had seemed inevitable, since she possessed a natural grace and poise and striking good looks. Her coal black hair and high cheekbones lent her a rather exotic fragility, and large, heavily fringed eyes in deep midnight blue contrasted appealingly with her golden complexion. Her mouth was full and shapely, and smiled beautifully at the slightest provocation. Along with her stunning looks, the fact that she was inherently photogenic added to her current success in her field. The uncanny ability to convey an array of images for the camera came naturally, with little conscious effort on her part. After being told the type of woman she was to portray, Hillary became just that—sophisticated, practical, sensuous—whatever was required.

  Letting herself into her apartment, Hillary kicked off her shoes and sank her feet into soft ivory carpet. There was no date to prepare for that evening, and she was looking forward to a light supper and a few quiet hours at home.

  Thirty minutes later, wrapped in a warm, flowing azure robe, she stood in the kitchen of her apartment preparing a model’s feast of soup and unsalted crackers. A ring of the doorbell interrupted her far-from-gourmet activities.

  “Lisa, hi.” She greeted her neighbor from across the hall with an automatic smile. “Want some dinner?”

  Lisa MacDonald wrinkled her nose in disdain. “I’d rather put up with a few extra pounds than starve myself like you.”

  “If I indulge myself too often,” Hillary stated, patting a flat stomach, “I’d be after you to find me a job in that law firm you work for. By the way, how’s the rising young attorney?”

  “Mark still doesn’t know I’m alive,” Lisa complained as she flopped onto the couch. “I’m getting desperate, Hillary. I may lose my head and mug him in the parking lot.”

  “Tacky, too tacky,” Hillary said, giving the matter deep consideration. “Why not attempt something less dramatic, like tripping him when he walks past your desk?”

  “That could be next.”

  With a grin, Hillary sat and lifted bare feet to the surface of the coffee table.

  “Ever hear of Bret Bardoff?”

  Lisa’s eyes grew round. “Who hasn’t? Millionaire, incredibly handsome, mysterious, brilliant businessman and still fair game.” These attributes were counted off carefully on Lisa’s fingers. “What about him?”

  Slim shoulders moved expressively. “I’m not sure. Larry has an appointment with him in the morning.”

  “Face to face?”

  “That’s right.” Amusement dawned first, then dark blue eyes regarded Lisa with curiosity. “Of course, we’ve both done work for his magazines before, but I can’t imagine why the elusive owner of Mode would want to see a mere photographer, even if he is the best. In the trade, he’s spoken of in reverent whispers, and if gossip columns are to be believed, he’s the answer to every maiden’s prayer. I wonder what he’s really like.” She frowned, finding herself nearly obsessed with the thought. “It’s strange, I don’t believe I know anyone who’s had a personal dealing with him. I picture him as a giant phantom figure handing out monumental corporate decisions from Mode’s Mount Olympus.”

  “Maybe Larry will fill you in tomorrow,” Lisa suggested, and Hillary shook her head, the frown becoming a grin.

  “Larry won’t notice anything unless Mr. Bardoff’s on a roll of film.”r />
  Shortly before nine-thirty the following morning, Hillary used her spare key to enter Larry’s studio. Prepared for the shampoo ad, her hair fell in soft, thick waves, shining and full. In the small cubicle in the rear she applied her makeup with an expert hand, and at nine forty-five she was impatiently switching on the lights required for indoor shots. As minutes slipped by, she began to entertain the annoying suspicion that Larry had neglected to arrange for a substitute. It was nearly ten when the door to the studio opened, and Hillary immediately pounced on the man who entered.

  “It’s about time,” she began, tempering irritation with a small smile. “You’re late.”

  “Am I?” he countered, meeting her annoyed expression with raised brows.

  Pausing a moment, she realized how incredibly handsome the man facing her was. His hair, the color of corn silk, was full and grew just over the collar of his casual polo-necked gray sweater, a gray that exactly matched large, direct eyes. His mouth was quirked in a half smile, and there was something vaguely familiar about his deeply tanned face.

  “I haven’t worked with you before, have I?” Hillary asked, forced to look up to meet his eyes since he was an inch or more over six feet.

  “Why do you ask?” His evasion was smooth, and she felt suddenly uncomfortable under his unblinking gray glance.

  “No reason,” she murmured, turning away, feeling compelled to adjust the cuff of her sleeve. “Well, let’s get to it. Where’s your camera?” Belatedly, she observed he carried no equipment. “Are you using Larry’s?”

  “I suppose I am.” He continued to stand staring down at her, making no move to proceed with the task at hand, his nonchalance becoming thoroughly irritating.

  “Well, come on then, let’s not be all day. I’ve been ready for half an hour.”

  “Sorry.” He smiled, and she was struck with the change it brought to his already compelling face. It was a carelessly slow smile, full of charm, and the thought passed through her mind that he could use it as a deadly weapon. Pivoting away from him, she struggled to ignore its power. She had a job to do. “What are the pictures for?” he asked her as he examined Larry’s cameras.

  “Oh, Lord, didn’t he tell you?” Turning back to him, she shook her head and smiled fully for the first time. “Larry’s a tremendous photographer, but he is the most exasperatingly absentminded man. I don’t know how he remembers to get up in the morning.” She tugged a lock of raven hair before giving her head a dramatic toss. “Clean, shiny, sexy hair,” she explained in the tone of a commercial. “Shampoo’s what we’re selling today.”

  “O.K.,” he returned simply, and began setting equipment to rights in a thoroughly professional manner that did much to put Hillary’s mind at ease. At least he knows his job, she assured herself, for his attitude had made her vaguely uneasy. “Where is Larry, by the way?” The question startled Hillary out of her silent thoughts.

  “Didn’t he tell you anything? That’s just like him.” Standing under the lights, she began turning, shaking her head, creating a rich black cloud as he clicked the camera, crouching and moving around her to catch different angles. “He had an appointment with Bret Bardoff,” she continued, tossing her hair and smiling. “Lord help him if he forgot that. He’ll be eaten alive.”

  “Does Bret Bardoff consume photographers as a habit?” the voice behind the camera questioned with dry amusement.

  “Wouldn’t be surprised.” Hillary lifted her hair above her head, pausing for a moment before she allowed it to fall back to her shoulders like a rich cloak. “I would think a ruthless businessman like Mr. Bardoff would have little patience with an absentminded photographer or any other imperfection.”

  “You know him?”

  “Lord, no.” She laughed with unrestrained pleasure. “And I’m not likely to, far above my station. Have you met him?”

  “Not precisely.”

  “Ah, but we all work for him at one time or another, don’t we? I wonder how many times my face has been in one of his magazines. Scillions,” she calculated, receiving a raised-brow look from behind the camera. “Scillions,” she repeated with a nod. “And I’ve never met the emperor.”


  “How else does one describe such a lofty individual?” Hillary demanded with a gesture of her hands. “From what I’ve heard, he runs his mags like an empire.”

  “You sound as though you disapprove.”

  “No,” Hillary disagreed with a smile and a shrug. “Emperors just make me nervous. I’m plain peasant stock myself.”

  “Your image seems hardly plain or peasant,” he remarked, and this time it was her brow that lifted. “That should sell gallons of shampoo.” Lowering his camera, he met her eyes directly. “I think we’ve got it, Hillary.”

  She relaxed, pushed back her hair, and regarded him curiously. “You know me? I’m sorry, I can’t quite seem to place you. Have we worked together before?”

  “Hillary Baxter’s face is everywhere. It’s my business to recognize beautiful faces.” He spoke with careless simplicity, gray eyes smoky with amusement.

  “Well, it appears you have the advantage, Mr. —?”

  “Bardoff, Bret Bardoff,” he answered, and the camera clicked to capture the astonished expression on her face. “You can close your mouth now, Hillary. I think we’ve got enough.” His smile widened as she obeyed without thinking. “Cat got your tongue?” he mocked, pleasure at her embarrassment obvious.

  She recognized him now, from pictures she had seen of him in newspapers and his own magazines, and she was busily engaged in cursing herself for the stupidity she had just displayed. Anger with herself spread to encompass the man in front of her, and she located her voice.

  “You let me babble on like that,” she sputtered, eyes and cheeks bright with color. “You stood there taking pictures you had no business taking and just let me carry on like an idiot.”

  “I was merely following orders.” His grave tone and sober expression added to her mounting embarrassment and fury.

  “Well, you had no right following them. You should have told me who you were.” Her voice quavered with indignation, but he merely moved his shoulders and smiled again.

  “You never asked.”

  Before she could retort, the door of the studio opened and Larry entered, looking harassed and confused. “Mr. Bardoff,” he began, advancing on the pair standing under the lights. “I’m sorry. I thought I was to meet you at your office.” Larry ran a hand through his hair in agitation. “When I got there, I was told you were coming here. I don’t know how I got it so confused. Sorry you had to wait.”

  “Don’t worry about it,” Bret assured him with an easy smile, “the last hour’s been highly entertaining.”

  “Hillary.” Her existence suddenly seeped into Larry’s consciousness. “Good Lord, I knew I forgot something. We’ll have to get those pictures later.”

  “No need.” Bret handed Larry the camera. “Hillary and I have seen to them.”

  “You took the shots?” Larry looked at Bret and the camera in turn.

  “Hillary saw no reason to waste time.” He smiled and added, “I’m sure you’ll find the pictures suitable.”

  “No question of that, Mr. Bardoff.” His voice was tinged with reverence. “I know what you can do with a camera.”

  Hillary had an overwhelming desire for the floor to open up and swallow her. She had to get out of there quickly. Never before in her life had she felt such a fool. Of course, she reasoned silently, it was his fault. The nerve of the man, letting her believe he was a photographer! She recalled the fashion in which she had ordered him to begin, and the things she had said. She closed her eyes with an inward moan. All she wanted to do now was disappear, and with luck she would never have to come face to face with Bret Bardoff again.

  She began gathering her things quickly. “I’ll leave you to get on with your business. I have another session across town.” Slinging her purse over her shoulder, she took a deep breath. �
��Bye, Larry. Nice to have met you, Mr. Bardoff.” She attempted to brush by them, but Bret put out his hand and captured hers, preventing her exit.

  “Goodbye, Hillary.” She forced her eyes to meet his, feeling a sudden drain of power by the contact of her hand in his. “It’s been a most interesting morning. We’ll have to do it again soon.”

  When hell freezes over, her eyes told him silently, and muttering something incoherent, she dashed for the door, the sound of his laughter echoing in her ears.

  Dressing for a date that evening, Hillary endeavored, without success, to block the events of the morning from her mind. She was confident that her path would never cross Bret Bardoff’s again. After all, she comforted herself, it had only been through a stupid accident that they had met in the first place. Hillary prayed that the adage about lightning never striking twice would hold true. She had indeed been hit by a lightning bolt when he had casually disclosed his name to her, and her cheeks burned again, matching the color of her soft jersey dress as her careless words played back in her mind.

  The ringing of the phone interrupted her reflections, and she answered, finding Larry on the other end. “Hillary, boy, I’m glad I caught you at home.” His excitement was tangible over the wire, and she answered him quickly.

  “You just did catch me. I’m practically out the door. What’s up?”

  “I can’t go into details now. Bret’s going to do that in the morning.”

  She noted the fact that Mr. Bardoff had been discarded since that morning and spoke wearily. “Larry, what are you talking about?”

  “Bret will explain everything in the morning. You have an appointment at nine o’clock.”

  “What?” Her voice rose and she found it imperative to swallow twice. “Larry, what are you talking about?”