First impressions, p.17
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       First Impressions, p.17

           Nora Roberts
 
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  It was barely eleven, but Vance answered smoothly, “If it’s not too much trouble.”

  “None at all.” Anne glided to a small table. She felt particularly grateful that she had packed the silk dressing gown and hadn’t yet drummed up the energy to change. It was, she knew, both becoming and alluring. A quick glance in the mirror as she poured assured her she looked perfect. Thank God she’d just finished putting on her makeup. “But tell me, Vance,” she continued, “what in the world are you doing in this dull little place? You’re not a hometown boy, are you?”

  “Business,” he said simply, nodding his thanks as she handed him a neat bourbon.

  Anne’s eyes narrowed a moment, then widened. “Oh, of course. How could I be so foolish!” She beamed at him as the wheels began to spin in her head. “I’ve heard Tod speak of you. Riverton Construction, right?”

  “Right.”

  “My, my, I am impressed.” Her tongue ran lightly over her teeth as she considered. “It’s about the biggest in the country.”

  “So I’m told,” he answered mildly, watching her eye him over the rim of her glass. Without much interest, he wondered how much bait she would toss out before she tried to reel him in. If it hadn’t been for Shane, he might have enjoyed letting her make a fool of herself.

  With her carefully languid grace, Anne sat on the edge of the bed. As she sipped again, she wondered how soon he would try to sleep with her and how much resistance she should feign before she obliged him. “Well, Vance, what can I do for you?”

  Vance swirled the bourbon without drinking. He sent her a cool, direct stare. “Leave Shane alone.”

  The change in her expression might have been comical under any other circumstances. She forgot herself long enough to gape at him. “What are you talking about?”

  “Shane,” he repeated. “Your daughter.”

  “I know who Shane is,” Anne said sharply. “What has she to do with you?”

  “I’m going to marry her.”

  Shock covered her face, then dissolved with her burst of laughter. “Little Shane? Oh, that’s too funny. Don’t tell me my cute little daughter caught herself a live one! I’ve underestimated her.” Tossing her head, she sent Vance a shrewd glance. “Or I overestimated you.”

  Though his fingers tightened on the glass, he controlled his temper. When he spoke, his voice was dangerously mild. “Be careful, Anne.”

  The look in his eye checked her laughter. “Well,” she continued with an unconcerned shrug, “so you want to marry Shane. What’s that to me?”

  “Not a damn thing.”

  Masking both apprehension and irritation, Anne rose gracefully. “I suppose I should go congratulate my little girl on her luck.”

  Vance took her arm. Though he applied no pressure, the meaning was very clear. “You’ll do nothing of the kind. What you’re going to do is pack your bags and get out.”

  Enraged, Anne jerked away from him. “Who the hell do you think you are? You can’t order me to leave.”

  “Advise,” Vance corrected. “You’d be wise to take the suggestion.”

  “I don’t like the tone of your suggestion,” she retorted. “I intend to see my daughter—”

  “Why?” Vance stopped her cold without raising his voice. “You won’t get another dime, I promise you.”

  “I haven’t any idea what you’re talking about,” Anne claimed with frigid dignity. “I don’t know what nonsense Shane’s been telling you, but—”

  “You’d be wise to think carefully before you say any more,” Vance warned quietly. “I saw Shane shortly after you left her last night. She had to tell me very little before I got the picture.” He gave her a long, hard look. “I know you, Anne, every bit as well as you know yourself. There’ll be no more money,” he continued when Anne fell silent. “You’d be smarter to cut your losses and go back to California. It would be a simple matter to stop payment on the check she’s already given you.”

  That annoyed her. Anne cursed herself for not getting up early and cashing the check before Shane thought better of it. “I have every intention of seeing my daughter.” She gave him a glittering smile. “And when I do, I’ll have a few words to say to her about her choice of lovers.”

  His eyes neither heated nor chilled, but became faintly bored. Nothing could have infuriated her more. “You won’t see Shane again,” he corrected.

  Under the silk, her lovely bust heaved. “You can’t keep me from seeing my own daughter.”

  “I can,” Vance countered, “and I will. If you contact her, if you try to wheedle another dollar out of her or hurt her in any way, I’ll deal with you myself.”

  Anne felt the first prickle of physical fear. Warily, she stepped back from him. “You wouldn’t dare touch me.”

  Vance gave a mirthless laugh. “Don’t be too sure. I don’t think it’ll come to that though.” Casually, he set down the glass of liquor. “I have a number of contacts in the movie industry, Anne. Old friends, business associates, clients. A few words in the right ears, and what little career you have is out the window.”

  “How dare you threaten me,” she began, both furious and afraid.

  “Not a threat,” he assured her. “A promise. Hurt Shane again and you’ll pay for it. You’re getting the best of the deal, Anne,” he added. “She doesn’t have anything you want.”

  Smoldering, she took a step toward him. “I have a right to my share. Whatever my grandmother had should be split fifty-fifty between Shane and me.”

  He lifted a brow in speculation. “Fifty-fifty,” he said thoughtfully. “You must be desperate if you’re willing to settle for that.” Without pity, he shrugged off her problems. “I won’t waste my time arguing legalities with you, much less morals or ethics. Just accept that what Shane gave you yesterday is all you’ll ever get.” With this he turned toward the door. In a last-ditch effort, Anne sank down on the bed and began to weep.

  “Oh, Vance, you can’t be so cruel.” She lifted an already tear-drenched face to his. “You can’t mean to keep me from seeing my own daughter, my only child.”

  He studied the beautiful tragic face, then gave a slight nod of approval. “Very good,” he commented. “You’re a better actress than they give you credit for.” As he pulled the door to behind him, he heard the sound of smashing glass on the wood.

  Springing up, Anne grabbed the second glass, then hurled it as well. No one, no one, she determined, was going to threaten her. Or mock her, she fumed, remembering the cool amusement in his eyes. She’d see he paid for it. Sitting back on the bed, she clenched her fists until she could bring her temper to order. She had to think. There had to be a way to get to Vance Banning. Riverton Construction, she reflected, closing her eyes as she concentrated. Had there been any scandal connected with the firm? Frustrated, she hurled her pillow across the room. She could think of nothing. What did she know about a stupid firm that built shopping centers and hospitals? It was all so boring, she thought furiously.

  Grabbing the second pillow, she started to toss it as well when a sudden glimmer of memory arrested her. Scandal, she repeated. But not about the firm. There had been something … something a few years back. Just a few whispers at a party or two. Damn! she swore silently when her recollection took her no further. Sheila Hourback, Anne thought, tightening her lips. Maybe the stuffy old bird could be useful. Scrambling over the unmade bed, Anne reached for the phone.

  Shane was busy detailing a skirmish of the Battle of Antietam for three eager boys when Vance walked in. She smiled at him, and he heard enthusiasm in her voice as she spoke, but she was still pale. That alone brushed away any doubts that he had done the right thing. She’d bounce back, he told himself as he wandered into the antique shop, because it was her nature to do so. But even someone as intrinsically strong as Shane could take only so much. Spotting Pat dusting glassware, he went over to her.

  “Hi, Vance.” She sent him a quick, friendly grin. “How’re you doing?”

  “I’m f
ine.” He cast a look over his shoulder to be certain Shane was still occupied. “Listen, Pat, I wanted to talk to you about that dining-room set.”

  “Oh yeah. There was some mix-up about that. I still haven’t gotten it straight. Shane said—”

  “I’m going to buy it.”

  “You?” Her initial surprise turned into embarrassment. Vance grinned at her, however, and her cheeks cooled.

  “For Shane,” he explained. “For Christmas.”

  “Oh, that’s so sweet!” The romance of it appealed to her immediately. “It was her grandmother’s, you know. She just loves it.”

  “I know, and she’s determined to sell it.” Idly, he picked up a china demitasse cup. “I’m just as determined to buy it for her. She won’t let me.” He gave Pat a conspirator’s wink. “But she can hardly turn down a Christmas present, can she?”

  “No.” Appreciating his cleverness, Pat beamed at him. So the rumors were true, she thought, pleased and interested. There was something going on between them. “She sure couldn’t. It’ll mean so much to her, Vance. It just about kills her to have to sell some of these things, but that’s the hardest. It’s … ah, it’s awfully expensive though.”

  “That’s all right. I’m going to give you a check for it today.” It occurred to him that it would soon be all over town that he had a great deal of money to spend. He would have to talk to Shane very soon. “Put a Sold sign on it.” He glanced back again, seeing Shane’s three visitors were preparing to leave. “Just don’t say anything to her unless she asks.”

  “I won’t,” Pat promised, pleased to be in on the surprise. “And if she does, I’ll just say the person who bought it wants it held until Christmas.”

  “Clever girl,” he complimented. “Thanks.”

  “Vance.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “She looks kind of down today. Maybe you could take her out for a while and cheer her up. Oh, Shane,” she continued quickly in a normal tone, “how did you manage to keep those little monsters quiet for twenty minutes? Those are Clint Drummond’s boys,” she explained to Vance with a shudder. “I nearly ran out the back door when they came in.”

  “They were thrilled that school was called off because of the snow.” Instinctively, she reached for Vance’s hand as she came in. “What they wanted was to work out the fine details of a few engagements so they could have their own Battle of Antietam with snowballs.”

  “Get your coat,” Vance told her, planting a kiss on her brow.

  “What?”

  “And a hat. It’s cold outside.”

  Laughing, Shane gave his hand a squeeze. “I know it’s cold outside, fool. There’s already six inches of snow.”

  “Then we’d better get started.” He gave her a friendly swat on the seat. “You’ll need boots too, I suppose. Just don’t take all day.”

  “Vance, it’s the middle of the day. I can’t leave.”

  “It’s business,” he told her gravely. “You have to get your Christmas tree.”

  “Christmas tree?” With a chuckle, she picked up the duster Pat had set down. “It’s too early in the season.”

  “Early?” Vance sent Pat a grin. “You’ve got just over two weeks until Christmas, and no tree. Most self-respecting stores are decked out by Thanksgiving.”

  “Well, I know, but—”

  “But nothing,” he interrupted, taking the duster from her and handing it back to Pat. “Where’s your holiday spirit? Not to mention your sales strategy. According to the most recent poll, people spend an additional twelve and a half percent in a store decorated for the holidays.”

  Shane gave him a narrow glance. “What poll?”

  “The Retail Sale and Seasonal Atmosphere Survey,” he said glibly.

  The first genuine laugh in nearly twenty-four hours burst from her. “That’s a terrible lie.”

  “Certainly not,” he disagreed. “It’s a very good one. Now go get your coat.”

  “But, Vance—”

  “Oh, don’t be silly, Shane,” Pat interrupted, giving her a push toward the stairs. “I can handle the shop. We’re not likely to have customers pouring in with all this snow. Besides,” she added, shrewd enough to know her employer, “I’d really love a tree. I’ll make a place for it right in front of this window.” Without waiting for a reply, Pat began to rearrange furniture.

  “Gloves too,” Vance added as Shane hesitated.

  “All right,” she said, surrendering. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

  In little more than ten, she was sitting beside Vance in the cab of his small pickup. “Oh, it’s beautiful out here!” she exclaimed, trying to look everywhere at once. “I love the first snow. Look, there’re the Drummond boys.”

  Vance glanced in the direction she indicated and saw three boys pelting each other violently with snow.

  “The battle’s under way,” he murmured.

  “General Burnside’s having his problems,” Shane observed, then turned back to Vance. “By the way, what did you and Pat have your heads together about when I went upstairs to get my things?”

  Vance lifted a brow. “Oh,” he said complacently, “I was trying to make a date with her. She’s cute.”

  “Really?” Shane drew out the word as she eyed him. “It would be a shame for her to be fired this close to Christmas.”

  “I was only trying to develop good employee relations,” he explained, pulling up at a stop sign. Taking her by surprise, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her thoroughly. “I love that little choking sound you make when you try not to laugh. Do it again.”

  Breathless, she pulled away from him. “Firing a trusted employee is no laughing matter,” she told him primly, and adjusted her ski hat. “Turn right here.” Instead of obeying, he kissed her again. The rude blast of a horn had her struggling out of his arms a second time. “Now you’ve done it.” She ruined the severity of the lecture with a smothered chuckle. “The sheriff’s going to arrest you for obstructing traffic.”

  “One disgruntled man in a Buick isn’t traffic,” Vance disagreed as he made a right turn. “Do you know where you’re going?”

  “Certainly. There’s a place a few miles down where you can dig your own tree.”

  “Dig?” Vance repeated, shooting her a look. Shane met it placidly.

  “Dig,” she repeated. “According to the latest conservation poll—”

  “Dig,” he agreed, cutting her off.

  Laughing, Shane leaned over to kiss his shoulder. “I love you, Vance.”

  By the time they arrived at the tree farm, the snow had slowed to a gentle mist. Shane dragged him from tree to tree, examining each one minutely before rejecting it. Though he knew the color in her face was a result of the cold, the spark was back. Even if he sensed some of the energy was a product of nerves, he was satisfied that she was bouncing back. The simple pleasure of choosing a Christmas tree was enough to put the laughter back in her eyes.

  “This one!” Shane exclaimed, stopping in front of a short-needle pine. “It’s exactly right.”

  “It doesn’t look much different from the other five hundred trees we’ve looked at,” Vance grumbled, slicing the point of his shovel into the snow.

  “That’s because you don’t have a connoisseur’s eye,” she said condescendingly. He scooped up a handful of snow and rubbed it into her face. “Be that as it may,” Shane continued with remarkable aplomb, “this is the one. Dig,” she instructed, and stepping back, folded her arms.

  “Yes, ma’am,” he said meekly, bending to the task. “You know,” he said a few moments later, “it suddenly occurs to me that you’re going to expect me to dig a hole to put this thing in after Christmas.”

  Shane sent him a guileless smile. “What a good idea. I know just the place too. You’ll probably need a pick though. There are an awful lot of rocks.” Ignoring Vance’s rude rejoinder, she waved over an attendant. With the roots carefully wrapped in burlap and the tree itself paid for—by Shane over Vance’s objection—they he
aded home.

  “Damn it, Shane,” he said in exasperation. “I wanted to buy the tree for you.” The truck rumbled over the narrow wooden bridge.

  “The tree’s for the shop,” she pointed out logically as they pulled in front of the house. “So the shop bought the tree. Just as it buys the stock and pays the electric bill.” Noting that he was annoyed, Shane walked around the truck to kiss him. “You’re sweet, Vance, and I do appreciate it. Buy me something else.”

  He gave her a long, considering look. “What?”

  “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve always had a fancy for something frivolous and extravagant … like chinchilla earmuffs.”

  With difficulty, he maintained his gravity. “It would serve you right if I did buy you some. Then you’d have to wear them.”

  She rose on her toes, inviting another kiss. As he bent down, Shane slipped the handful of snow she’d been holding down his back. When he swore pungently, she made a dash for safety. Shane fully expected the snowball that bashed into the back of her head, but she didn’t expect to be agilely tackled so that she landed facedown in the snow.

  “Oh! You really aren’t a gentleman,” she muttered, hampered by a mouthful of snow. Vance sat back, roaring with laughter while she struggled to sit up, wiping at her face.

 
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