Daring to dream, p.29
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       Daring to Dream, p.29
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         Part #1 of Dream series by Nora Roberts
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  Margo spotted Kate, gave her a raised-eyebrow look even as she continued to chat up her customers. "I don't think you could have found anything more perfect for you. That red St. Laurent is going to draw every eye."

  The woman currently clutching it gnawed on her lip. "Still, it's a little early to be shopping for holiday parties."

  Margo only smiled, and Laura caught the steel in her eyes. "It's never too early. Not for something that special."

  "It is a wonderful price." As she laid it on the counter, she ran a loving hand over the satin skirt. "I've never owned a designer anything."

  "Then you're overdue. And that's just what Pretenses is for. To give everyone a chance to feel lush."

  "You can't waffle," the woman's companion ordered, giving her friend an encouraging nudge. "You couldn't pry this green velvet away from me with a crowbar." She laughed as she handed it to Margo. "Well, just ring it up and box it. But don't seal the box," she ordered. "I'm going to have to drool over it in the car."

  "That's the spirit." Margo took the plastic card, and her eyes softened. "It really did look fabulous on you. I'm sorry we didn't have any shoes that worked."

  "I'll find some—or go barefoot." Flushed with the pleasure of the hunt, the woman elbowed her friend. "Give her your credit card, Mary Kay, and live a little."

  "Okay, okay. The kids can always get new shoes next month." When Margo snatched back her hand, appalled, Mary Kay let out a long, cheerful laugh. "Only kidding. But if you want to take an extra ten percent off…"

  "Not on your life." She rang up both sales while Laura competently wrapped and boxed the gowns. "I ought to charge you an extra ten for making my heart stop."

  "How about we call it even and I tell you I love it in here. When my conscience is clear again, I'm coming back for that silver evening bag shaped like an elephant."

  "Buy it now and take the ten percent."

  "I—" Mary Kay's mouth worked for a moment, then she shut her eyes tight. "Ring it up. Go ahead, but I can't watch."

  A few minutes later, Margo watched the door close, then dusted her hands together. "Another satisfied victim—I mean customer."

  "Right, killer." Laura filed the credit slips. "You gave her a hell of a deal."

  "Yeah, but they'll both be back—and the formal wear is slow to move. What's going on, Kate? Did you run out of red ink?"

  "Oh, I can always find a fresh supply. Actually I had a couple of errands to run, so I slipped out a little early. And I like to check up on my investment."

  "Going to audit the books?"

  "Not until the first of the year," she said blithely. "How much is my partner's discount on those wineglasses there, the ones rimmed with gold? My boss's grandson is getting married."

  Margo decided to sneak a cigarette. "You pay the full shot and get your share out of the profits."

  "God, you're tough. Well, box them up pretty, but I want Laura to wrap them. You still screw it up."

  Margo smiled sweetly. "Sorry, I'm on my break. Box them yourself."

  "Can't get decent help anymore," Kate muttered. But she ran her tongue around her teeth as she took the box Laura handed her and carefully began to pack the glasses. "Oh, guess who called the office right before I left?"

  "Donald Trump, looking for a new accountant."

  "I wish." She glanced casually at Margo and brought the box to the counter. "Josh."

  Out of the corner of her eye she watched Margo's hand freeze on the way to her lips, jerk, then continue. Smoke billowed out in a shaky stream. "I'd better straighten up the other clothes Mary Kay and her pal tried on." She started to crush out her cigarette in nervous taps, and Kate continued.

  "He's back in town."

  "Back?" The cigarette kept smoldering as Margo's hand dropped away. "Here?"

  "Well, at the hotel. I want the silver bells, Laura, with a silver ribbon. He said he had some business to finish up." She smiled sweetly at Margo. "Something he left… hanging."

  "And you just had to rush right over here to rub my face in it."

  "Nope. I rushed right over here to slap your face in it."

  "A rude but effective wake-up call," Laura commented and earned a shocked stare.

  "I expected better from you."

  "You shouldn't have." Hands brisk and competent, she affixed a shiny silver bow to the box. "If you don't want to tell us what happened between you and Josh, fine. But you can't expect us to sit around quietly while you mope."

  "I have not been moping."

  "We've been cleaning up the blood spilling out of your heart for weeks." Kate passed Laura her credit card. "Face it, pal, you're just no fun anymore."

  "And that's all this friendship is about? Fun? I thought I might get a little support, a little sympathy, a little compassion."

  "Sorry," Laura imprinted the card with a steady sweep. "Fresh out."

  "Well, the hell with you." She snatched up her purse. "The hell with both of you."

  "We love you, Margo."

  That stopped her. She whirled back to glare at Kate. "That's a lousy thing to say. Bitch." When Kate grinned, she tried to grin back. Instead she dropped her purse back behind the counter and burst into tears.

  "Oh, shit." Shocked, Kate leaped forward to gather her close. "Oh, hell. Oh, shit. Lock the door, Laura. I'm sorry, Margo. I'm sorry. Bad plan. I thought you'd just get mad and go tearing off to fix his butt. What did the bastard do to you, honey? I'll fix his butt for you."

  "He dumped me." Thoroughly ashamed, she sobbed wretchedly on Kate's shoulder. "He hates me. I wish he were dead. I wish I had slept with Claudio."

  "Wait. Whoa." Firmly, Kate drew her back while Laura brought over a cup of tea. "Who's Claudio and when didn't you sleep with him?"

  "He's a friend, just a friend. And I never slept with him." The tears were so hot it felt as though her eyes were on fire. "Especially not when Josh found us in the bedroom."

  "Uh-oh." Kate rolled her eyes at Laura. "Is it a French farce or a Greek tragedy? You be the judge."

  "Shut up, Kate. Come on, Margo. Let's sit down. This time you tell us everything."

  "Christ, I feel like a fool." Now that everything had poured out, she felt not only foolish but empty.

  "He's the fool," Laura corrected. "For jumping to conclusions."

  "Give the guy a break." Kate handed Margo another tissue. "The evidence was pretty damning. Not that he should have taken off before he listened," she added quickly when Margo sniffled. "But you have to look at it from his side a little."

  "I have looked at it from his side." And she was finished weeping. "I really can't blame him."

  "I wouldn't go that far," Kate began.

  "No, I can't. The history was there. Why should he trust me?"

  "Because he loves you," Laura put in. "Because he knows you."

  "That's what I told myself when I was busy hating him. But now, saying it all out loud, it's hard for me to believe me. He thinks I look at him and the whole relationship as one more exciting amusement. And it's probably better that it happened before I…"

  "Before you…?" Kate prompted.

  "Before I asked him to marry me." Suddenly she covered her face with her hands, but this time it was laughter that poured out. "Can you believe it? I was going to propose. I was going to set the scene—candlelight, wine, music—and when I had him wrapped around my finger, I was going to pop the question. What a brainstorm!"

  "I think it's wonderful! I think it's perfect." This time it was Laura's eyes that overflowed.

  Kate tugged a tissue free for herself. "And I think you should go get him."

  "Go get him." Margo snorted. "He can't even look at me."

  "Pal, you go fix your face, get yourself back in gear, and he won't have a chance."

  It was such a huge risk. Margo told herself he wouldn't even come, and if he did he wouldn't listen. But she was willing to dream, one more time. Fingering the gold coin in her pocket, she wandered the sloped lawn in front of the house.

/>   It was everything Kate had said, a magnificent example of California Spanish at its best, with the elegant arched windows, the dull red of hand-rolled tile on the roof. The recessed doorway of the entrance tower was framed in floral tiles. Bougainvillea climbed riotously.

  And the view. She turned to it, drew in a long, greedy breath. All sea and cliffs beyond the sweeping road. Perhaps Seraphina had stood there, walked there, mourning her lost love. But Margo wanted to believe she had walked there with him, when hope and dreams were still vivid. She needed that hope now as she saw Josh's car zip down the road and swing up the snaking drive.

  Oh, God, just one more chance. All or nothing now.

  Her heart was pounding like the surf when he stepped out of his car. The wind blew through his hair, the sun shot light off the dark glasses he wore. And she couldn't see his eyes. But his mouth was set and cold.

  "I wasn't sure you'd come."

  "I said I would." He was still reeling from her call, one that had come even as he'd cursed himself and reached for the receiver to call her. "These your new digs?"

  "No, I haven't risen back up in the world quite that much. It belongs to a client of Kate's. She's moved out. It's empty." Her breath was almost steady, and she was pleased with the easy, measured tone. "I thought neutral ground would be best."

  "Fine." He wanted to touch her, just touch her, so badly his hands ached with it. "Do we start with small talk? How are you? How's business?"

  "No." It was easier to walk than to look at him looking at her. She could already feel the humiliation, and she accepted it. She'd already lost him once. She could live through anything now. "I'll just say this straight out so we can get it done with. I didn't sleep with Claudio. In fact, I never slept with him. He's one of those rare finds. A true male friend. I'm not telling you this to put things back the way they were. I don't want them the way they were. But I don't want you believing I was unfaithful."

  "I apologize," he said stiffly. He still wanted to touch her, if only to wrap his hands around her throat. He'd come knowing he would beg her to take him back, to forgive him for being a jealous, insensitive idiot, and she was already telling him she didn't want him.

  "And I don't want an apology. I might have reacted the same way if the situation had been reversed." She turned her head toward him and smiled. "After I'd torn her eyes out and stomped on your throat."

  "It was a close call," he said, struggling to match her light tone.

  "I know." Her smile warmed. "I've known you long enough to recognize murder in your eyes when I see it." She only wished she could see his eyes now. "And I think I understand that you left the way you did before you did something or said something neither of us could live with."

  "I said more than I should have, certainly more than was warranted. I'll apologize for that, too."

  "Then I'll say I'm sorry for kissing Claudio, even though it was a kiss of friendship and gratitude. He'd come to offer me his help, and a part in his next movie."

  It took him only a moment. "Oh, that Claudio." Emotions swirled and tightened and threatened to strangle him. "Well, that's a break for you."

  "Could be," she said with a careless shrug and started walking again. "In any case, in retrospect, I can see just how it looked and why you reacted the way you did."

  He swore lightly. "Just how guilty do you want me to be?''

  "That's probably guilty enough." She turned, and this time she laid a hand on his arm. "But I need to tell you that you were wrong about something else. I don't think about you the way you seem to believe. I know you're not spoiled and careless. Maybe I used to think that, and maybe I once resented the fact that you were born to all the advantages I thought I wanted. Hell, I did want them," she corrected with a quick smile. "It used to irritate me that you didn't have to fight for them."

  "You always made that clear."

  "I suppose I did. But what I haven't made clear is how much I admire the man you've made of yourself. I know how important you are to Templeton, and how important Templeton is to you. I've come to understand just how much responsibility you have, and how seriously you take it since we—well, since we've been together. It's important to me that you believe that."

  "You make me feel like an idiot." He had to walk away from her, crossing the tiled terrace to look out to the cliffs. "It matters," he managed. "What you think of me matters." He turned back. "I was fascinated, and often irritated by the girl you were, Margo."

  She cocked a brow. "You always made that clear."

  "I still am, fascinated and often irritated, but I admire the woman you've made of yourself, Margo. I admire her a great deal."

  So there was hope, she thought, closing her eyes briefly. And where there was hope, there could be trust and respect, and certainly love. "I want us to be friends again, Josh. You're too important to my life to do without. We managed to be friends before. I want us to be friends again."

  "Friends." It threatened to choke him.

  "I think both of us forgot that part of our history along the way. I wouldn't want that to happen again."

  She was smiling at him, the wind making a sexy mess of of her fancy braid, the sun slanting in her eyes as it drifted lazily down in the west. "You can stand there and tell me you think friendship is the answer."

  "It's one of them. An important one."

  He couldn't start all over again. It would kill him. The rage of love inside him would never settle for something as patient as friendship. Slowly, he crossed back to her. "One of us has lost his or her mind."

  "Let's give it some time. We can start with you giving me some friendly advice." Smooth as silk, she tucked her hand through his arm and guided him around the side of the house. "Isn't this place fabulous? Wait until you see the fountain in the back. It's charming. Of course, I think it should have a pool. There's enough land for a small free-form. And the view from that upper balcony—that must be the master suite, don't you think? It's got to be incredible. I guess there's at least two fireplaces. I haven't been inside yet, but I'm hoping there's one in the master bedroom."

  "Wait a minute. Hold on." His mind was spinning. Her perfume was clouding his brain, and her words jammed into his consciousness.

  "And look at this bougainvillea. It really should be cut back, but I love it wild. The terrace is perfect for entertaining, isn't it? And the location couldn't be better. Just up the coast from the shop and all but next door to Templeton House."

  "I said, hold it." He turned her around, took a firm grip on her shoulders. "Are you thinking of buying this place?"

  "It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance." Her only chance. "Kate says it's a fabulous deal, a solid investment, and you know how pessimistic she is. It isn't even going on the market until next week—there was some problem with clearing the deed—so it's ground floor."

  "Jesus, duchess, you never change."

  Her heart lightened a bit at the amused exasperation in his tone. "Should I?"

  "Listen, this place has got to run at least three hundred K."

  "Three hundred fifty, but Kate thinks three hundred will close it."

  "Dream on," he muttered.

  "I am."

  "You've been in business less than a year, a month before that you were sniffing at bankruptcy. There isn't a bank on the planet that's going to approve a loan of this size. Margo, you just can't afford it."

  "I know." She aimed her best smile, the one that had earned her fleeting fame and fortune. "But you can."

  He did choke. "You want me to buy a damn house for you?"

  "Sort of." She toyed with the button of his shirt, shot a look up from under her lashes. "I thought if you bought it, and married me, we could both live here."

  He couldn't get a word out. When his vision hazed, he realized he wasn't breathing either. "I have to sit down."

  "I know how you feel." She linked her hands together, found them damp, as he lowered himself to a bench.

  "You want me to buy a house and marry you so you ca
n live in it?"

  "So we can live in it," she corrected. "Together. When we're not traveling."

  "You just got finished telling me you didn't want things back the way they were."

  "I don't. It was too easy before. Too easy to dive in, too easy to walk. I want to make it hard. I want to make it very, very hard. I love you." Because her eyes were filling, she turned away. "I love you so much. I can live without you. You don't have to worry that I'll jump off a cliff like Seraphina if you walk. But I don't want to live without you. I want to be married to you, have a family with you, build something here with you. That's all I have to say."

  "That's all you have to say," he repeated. His heart had settled back in place, but it seemed to be taking up too much room. So much that it hurt his chest. Just as the grin was so wide it hurt his face. "I guess it's my turn to say something."

  "I'd never cheat on you."

  "Shut up, Margo. You lost your chance to see me crawl over that one. I was wrong, I was stupid and I was careless with you, and it won't happen again. And I'm going to add that I always thought a hell of a lot more of you than you thought of yourself. That's all I have to say."

  "All right, then." She struggled to find a dignified exit. But he laid a hand on her shoulder and put what he had in his hand under her nose.

  The ring caught fire and light and promise. She covered her mouth with her hand as it shot out dreams that dazzled her eyes. "Oh, my God."

  "Grandmother Templeton's engagement ring. You remember her."

  "I—Yes. Yes."

  "It came to me. I got it out of the safe deposit box, had it in my pocket the day I walked in on you and your Italian friend."

  "Oh. Oh."

  "No, you're not going to sit down." He jerked her upright and into his arms. "I want your knees weak. I wouldn't mind if you babbled too, since you've spoiled my romantic plans of giving you this on one knee in candlelight."

  "Oh." She dropped her head on his chest. "Oh."

  "Don't cry. I can't stand it when you cry."

  "I'm not." To prove it, she lifted her face and showed him she was laughing. "I was going to ask you."

  "Ask me what?"

  "Jesus, why can't we keep up with each other?" She mopped at tears with her fingers. "That night, I was going to ask you to marry me. I figured it was going to take a lot of work and flare to talk you into it. So I had it all planned. I was going to dare you."

  "You're kidding."

  "Take off those damn glasses." She snatched them off herself, tossed them recklessly over her shoulder, heard them shatter on the terra-cotta. "I still beat you to it. I still asked you first." Before he could move, she snatched the ring out of his hand. "And you said yes. This proves it."

  "I didn't say anything yet," he corrected and made a grab for her. "Damn it, Margo, come here. If I don't get my hands on you, I'll explode."

  "Say yes." She danced out of reach, holding the ring aloft like a torch. "Say yes first."

  "All right, yes. What the hell. I'll take you on."

  He caught her on the fly, whirled her around. And she felt something swirl inside her. No, it's not the spinning, Mum, she thought. It is the man.

  His mouth was on hers before her feet touched the ground. "For life," he murmured, cupping her face.

  "No. Forever." She tipped her mouth to his again. "I want forever."

  He took her hand, holding her gaze as he slipped the ring on her finger. It fit like a dream. "Done," he said.

 
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