Daring to dream, p.5
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       Daring to Dream, p.5

         Part #1 of Dream series by Nora Roberts
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  "Like pepper?"

  Ali, three years superior to Kayla's six years, snorted. But Margo hauled Kayla up on her lap and nuzzled her. "In a manner of speaking. Want a dab, Ali?''

  All but salivating over the fascinating bottles and pots on the vanity, Ali tried her best to sound nonchalant. "Maybe, but I don't want what she has."

  "Something different, then. Something…" Playing it up, Margo waved her hand over this bottle and that. "Bold and daring."

  "But not obvious," Kayla chimed in.

  "That's a girl. Here we are." Without a thought, Margo sacrificed a few dabs of a two-hundred-dollar-an-ounce scent. It was Bella Donna's new Tigre. She probably had twenty of the gorgeous handblown bottles in her Milan flat. "You're growing up on me," she accused and tugged the gold curls spilling to Ali's shoulders.

  "I'm old enough to have my ears pierced, but Daddy won't let me."

  "Men just don't understand these things." Because she did, perfectly, she patted Ali's cheek before shifting Kayla on her knee. "Decorating ourselves is a woman's privilege." Giving Ali a bolstering smile in the mirror, she went back to perfecting her makeup. "Your mom'll talk him into it."

  "She can't talk him into anything. He never listens."

  "He's very busy," Kayla said solemnly. "He has to work and work so we can stand."

  "So we won't lose our standing," Ali corrected and rolled her eyes. Kayla didn't understand anything, she thought. Sometimes Mama did, and Aunt Kate always listened, but she had hope, great new hope that her glamorous and mysterious Aunt Margo would understand everything.

  "Aunt Margo, are you going to stay now that those bad things happened to you?''

  "I don't know." Margo set down her lipstick with a little click.

  "I'm glad you came home." Ali wrapped her arms around Margo's neck.

  "So am I." The unstable emotions were stirring again. She rose quickly, grabbing each child by the hand. "Let's go down and see if there's anything fun to eat before dinner."

  "We're having hors d'oeuvres in the front parlor," Ali said loftily, then giggled. "We hardly ever get to stay up for dinner with hors d'oeuvres."

  "Stick with me, kid." She stopped at the top curve of the stairs. "Let's make an entrance. Chins up, eyes bored, stomachs in, fingers trailing carelessly along the banisters."

  She was halfway down behind the girls when she saw her mother at the bottom landing. Ann stood with her hands folded, her face solemn.

  "Ah, Lady Allison, Lady Kayla, we're honored that you could join us this evening. Refreshments are being served in the front parlor."

  Ali inclined her head regally. "Thank you, Miss Annie," she managed before she bolted after her sister.

  It wasn't until Margo had reached the bottom that she caught the twinkle in her mother's eyes. For the first time since her return, they smiled easily at each other.

  "I'd forgotten how much fun they are."

  "Miss Laura is raising angels."

  "I was thinking the same thing myself. She's done everything right—everything I haven't. Mum, I'm sorry—"

  "We won't talk about it now." But Ann laid a hand briefly over her daughter's on the newel post. "Later—but they're waiting for you now." She started to walk away, then paused. "Margo, Miss Laura needs a friend just now as much as you do. I hope you'll be a good one."

  "If something's wrong, tell me."

  Ann shook her head. "It's not my place. Just be a good friend." She walked away, leaving Margo to enter the parlor alone.

  Ali was already crossing the room, her tongue caught in her teeth, her hands full of a flute of fizzing champagne. "I poured it for you myself."

  "Well, then, I'll have to drink it." She lifted the glass, scanned the room. Laura had Kayla on one hip, and Kate was sampling the finger food arranged on Georgian silver. A sedate fire flickered in the hearth framed by rich lapis. The stunning curved mirror over the mantel tossed back reflections of glossy antiques, delicate porcelain, and rosy light from globe lamps.

  "To being home with friends," Margo said and sipped.

  "Eat some of this mini quiche," Kate ordered over a full mouth. "It's outrageous."

  What the hell, Margo thought, her weight was hardly a burning issue any longer. She took one bite, hummed in pleasure. "Mrs. Williamson's still a wonder. Lord, she must be eighty by now."

  "Seventy-three last November," Laura corrected. "And she can still whip up the most incredible chocolate souffle." She winked at Kayla. "Which, rumor has it, is on for tonight."

  "Daddy says Mrs. Williamson should be retired and we should have a French chef like the Barrymores in Carmel." Because Margo had, Ali sampled a quiche.

  "French chefs are snooty." To demonstrate, Margo put a finger under her nose to lift it into the air. "And they never make jelly tarts with leftover dough for little girls."

  "Did she do that for you, too?" The image delighted Ali. "Did she let you flute the edges?"

  "Absolutely. I have to admit, your mother was the best at it. According to Mrs. Williamson, I was too impatient, and Kate worried too much about getting it just right, but your mom had a feel. She was the champ jelly tart maker."

  "One of my major accomplishments." Margo heard the edge in Laura's voice and lifted a brow. With a shrug, Laura set Kayla on her feet. "That's a fabulous dress, Margo. Milan or Paris?"

  "Milan." If Laura wanted the subject changed, she could oblige. She struck a pose, head tilted, one hand on her hip. The clinging black silk molded itself to her body and stopped daringly short at the thighs. The low square neckline hinted at cleavage, while sheer sleeves journeyed from the curve of her shoulders to wrists where twin diamond bracelets winked. "A little something I picked up from a sassy new designer."

  "You'll freeze before the night's over," Kate commented.

  "Not when my heart's so warm. Are we waiting for Peter?"

  "No," Laura decided on the spot, then buried her annoyance when she caught Ali's worried look. "He was afraid his meetings might run over, so there's no telling when he'll get away. We'll start dinner without him." She took Kayla's hand, then glanced over as Ann came to the doorway.

  "I'm sorry, Miss Laura, there's a phone call."

  "I'll take it in the library, Annie. Have another glass of champagne," she suggested as she started out. "I won't be long."

  Margo and Kate exchanged a look, one that promised they would talk later. Deliberately cheerful, Margo topped off the glasses and launched into a story about gambling in Monte Carlo. When Laura came back, the children were wide-eyed and Kate was shaking her head.

  "You're certifiable, Margo. Betting twenty-five thousand on one spin of a little silver ball."

  "Hey, I won." She sighed in memory. "That time."

  "Was it Daddy?" Ali wanted to know, hurrying over to tug on her mother's hand. "Is he coming?"

  "No." Distracted, Laura brushed her fingers over Ali's hair. "It wasn't Daddy, honey." She wasn't so distracted she didn't notice the way her daughter's shoulders drooped. To soothe, she crouched down, smiling. "But it's really good news. Something special."

  "What is it? Is it a party?"

  "Better." Laura kissed Ali's cheek. "Uncle Josh is coming home."

  Margo dropped to the arm of the sofa and found she needed to gulp down the champagne. "Wonderful," she muttered. "Just wonderful."

  Chapter Four

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  Joshua Conway Templeton was a man who did things in his own time, and in his own way. He was driving south from San Francisco because he'd decided not to fly to Monterey from London. He could have excused the detour by pretending that Templeton San Francisco needed a quick study. But his family's landmark hotel ran like a well-wound clock.

  The simple fact was that somewhere along the flight he'd decided to buy a car.

  And a honey it was, too.

  The little Jag roared down Highway 1 like an eager Thoroughbred at the starting gun. It took a wide, sweeping curve at seventy and made him grin.

  This was home, this rugged, lonely coast. He had tooled along the spectacular Amalfi Drive in Italy, sped through the fjords of Norway, but not even their heart-stopping beauty could match the sheer drama of Big Sur.

  It had more. The glinting beaches and gleaming coves. The cliffs that speared defiantly from savage sea to pristine sky. Brooding forests, the surprise of a stream that cascaded out of a canyon like liquid silver. Then there were miles of tranquillity, broken only by the din of seals, the cold fire of the surf. Always, the glory of it grabbed at his throat. Wherever he had been, however long he had traveled away, this single spot on the globe pulled at him.

  So he was coming home, in his own time and in his own way. Recklessly he tested the Jag on the wild, twisting curves that dropped off to jagged rocks and unforgiving sea. He punched the gas on the straightaway and laughed as the wind rushed over him.

  It wasn't hurry that pushed him, but the simple love of speed and chance. He had time, he mused. Plenty of it. And he was going to use it.

  He was worried about Laura. There'd been something in his sister's voice on the phone that alerted him. She'd said all the right things. But then, Laura always did. He would do a bit of probing there, he decided.

  There was business to see to. He'd been happy enough to leave the California executive offices of Templeton Hotels primarily in Peter's hands. Spreadsheets simply didn't interest Josh. He took an interest in the vineyards, the factories, even in the day-to-day running of a busy five-star hotel, but bottom lines were Peter's concern, not his.

  For most of the past decade, he'd enjoyed the freedom of traveling through Europe, spot-checking, overseeing the necessary renovations, revamping policy changes of the family chain. Wineries in France and Italy, olive groves in Greece, orchards in Spain. And, of course, the hotels themselves, which had started it all.

  Josh understood and supported the long-held Templeton view that the difference between a hotel and a Templeton was the fact that they served their own wines, used their own oils, their own produce, manufactured their own linens. Templeton products were always offered in Templeton hotels. And part of his job was to see that they were used well.

  His title might have been executive vice president, but in essence he was a troubleshooter. Occasionally he handled or supervised the handling of a few of the legal complexities. A man with a Harvard law degree was expected to keep his hand in. Still he preferred people to papers, enjoyed watching a harvest, drinking ouzo with the staff, or closing a new deal over Cristal and beluga at Robuchon in Paris.

  It was his charm that was his most valuable asset to Templeton—so his mother said. He did his best not to disappoint her. For despite a careless, somewhat reckless lifestyle, he took his duties to his family and the business seriously. They were one and the same to him.

  And as he was thinking of family, even as gravel spit out from under his tires and had the family of four in the sedan he shot past gaping in shock, he thought of Margo.

  She would be depressed, he mused. Shattered, penitent, miserable. Not that she didn't deserve to be. His lips curved in something between a smile and a sneer. He'd pulled strings, cashed in markers, and generally executed a wild tap dance to see that she was quickly and completely cleared of any criminal charges in Athens.

  After all, Templeton Athens was an old, dignified hotel and, with Templeton Resort Athena, it lured a great deal of money to the country.

  There was little he could do about the scandal, or the damage it had done to the career she'd built in Europe. If you could call sending sulky looks into a camera a career.

  She'd just have to get over it, he decided, his smile now tinged with arrogance. And he intended to help her. In his own way.

  In an old habit he was hardly aware of, he swung over to the side of the road and brought the car to a screeching halt. There, higher still on the rugged hill, surrounded by trees going lush with spring and trailing vines spilling rich blossoms, was home.

  Stone and wood, two of the resources Templeton had profited by, rose out of the rugged earth. The original two-story structure had been built by an ancestor as a country home and stood for more than a hundred twenty-five years, surviving storms, floods, quakes, and time.

  Wings had been added by subsequent generations, spearing out here, there, tumbling down to follow the shape of the hill. Twin turrets rose up defiantly—an addition of his father's fancy. Wide wooden decks and sturdy stone terraces shot beneath tall, arched windows, wide glass doors to offer dozens of panoramas.

  Flowers and trees were blooming, pink and white and yellow. Spring colors, he thought, fresh and inviting. And the grass was the soft, tender green of beginnings. He loved the way it flowed up out of a rocky base, growing more lush and more tended as it met the house.

  The land and the sea were as intricate and as intimate a part of the house as its curving trim and glinting stone.

  He loved it for what it was, what it had been, and what it had given him. Knowing Laura watched over it, nurtured it, warmed him.

  Pleasure at simply being there had him swinging fast across the road, shooting up the snaking lane carved into the rock, then, in shock, slamming on the brakes to avoid crashing into a high iron gate.

  He scowled at it for a moment before the intercom beside his car buzzed on.

  "Templeton House. May I help you?"

  "What the hell is this? Who put this damn thing up?"

  "I—Mr. Joshua?"

  Recognizing the voice, he struggled to bank down on his irritation. "Annie, open this ridiculous gate, will you? And unless we're under attack, leave the damn thing open."

  "Yes, sir. Welcome home."

  What the hell was Laura thinking of? he wondered as the gate swung silently back. Templeton had always been a welcoming place. His friends had roared up that curving lane constantly during his youth—on foot, on bikes, then in cars. The idea of its being closed off, even by something as simple as a gate, spoiled his pleasure in the drive from rugged ground to manicured lawns and gardens.

  He swung bad-temperedly around the center island, planted magnificently with hardy spring perennials and nodding daffodils. He left both his keys and his luggage in the car and, jamming his hands in his pockets, mounted the lovely old granite steps to the front terrace.

  The main entrance door was recessed, ten feet high and arched, framed by intricately placed mosaics that formed a pattern of trailing purple bougainvillea echoed by the trellises of living blooms spilling over the archway. He'd always thought it was like walking through a garden.

  Even as he reached for the door it was swinging open. Laura literally leapt into his arms.

  "Welcome home," she said, after she'd rained kisses over his face and made him smile again.

  "For a minute I thought you were locking me out." The puzzlement in her eyes made him pinch her chin. An old habit. "What's with the gate?"

  "Oh." She flushed a little as she backed up and smoothed her hair. "Peter thought we needed some security."

  "Security? All you have to do is climb over a few rocks to skirt around it."

  "Well, yes, but…" She'd said the same herself, and since it was Josh, she gave up. "It looks secure. And important." She cupped his face in her hands. "So do you. Look important, I mean."

  Actually, she thought he looked windblown, dangerous, and annoyed. To soothe, she tucked her arm through his and made admiring noises over the car in the driveway. "Where did you get the new toy?"

  "In San Francisco. She drives like a bullet."

  "Which explains why you're here a full hour before you were expected. Lucky for you Mrs. Williamson has been slaving all morning in the kitchen preparing all that sweet Master Josh's favorite foods."

  "Tell me we're having salmon cakes for lunch and all's forgiven."

  "Salmon cakes," Laura confirmed. "Allumettes, asparagus, foie gras, and Black Forest cake. Quite a combination. Come in and tell me all about London. You did come from London, right?"

  "Just a quick bus
iness trip. I'd been taking a few days off in Portofino."

  "Oh, that's right." She moved into the parlor to pour him a glass of the sparkling mineral water that Templeton bottled. The curtains were open, as she preferred them, forming frames around window seats made welcoming with colorful pillows. "That's where I hunted you down when I heard about Margo."

  "Um-hmm." He'd already been hard at work on Margo's behalf when Laura had called. But he didn't pass that information along. Instead he gave a sprig of freesia tucked with its fellows into a Meissen vase a careless brush. "So how is she?"

  "I talked her into sitting by the pool for a while, to get some sun. Josh, this is so terrible for her. She looked so beaten when she came home. Bella Donna is going to drop her as their spokeswoman. Her contract with them was coming up for renewal, and it's pretty much a given that they'll let her go."

  "It's rough." He sat in the wide wing chair nearest the hearth, stretched out his legs. "So maybe she can tout someone else's face cream."

  "You know it's not that easy, Josh. She'd made a mark in Europe endorsing Bella Donna. It was her main source of income, and now it's cut off. If you've paid any attention to the press, you know that the chances of her being offered anything like it here in the States is slim to none."

  "So, she'll get a real job."

  Loyalty had her jerking up her chin. "You've always been so hard on her."

  "Somebody has to." But he knew that arguing about Margo with his sister was useless. Love always blinded Laura. "Okay, sweetie, I'm sorry for what happened to her. The fact is, she got a raw deal, but life's full of them. She's been raking in the lire and francs for the last few years. All she has to do now is sit on her portfolio, lick her wounds, and figure out what comes next."

  "I think she's broke."

  That shocked him enough to have him setting his glass aside. "What do you mean broke?"

  "I mean she asked Kate to look over the figures. Kate hasn't finished yet, but I have a feeling it's bad. Margo knows it's bad."

  He couldn't believe it. He'd taken a good long look at the Bella Donna contract himself, and he knew that the salary and benefits should have set her up comfortably for a decade.

  Then he let out a sound of disgust. Why couldn't he believe it? They were talking about Margo, after all.

  "For Christ's sake, what has she been doing, heaving her money into the Tiber?"

  "Well, her lifestyle… after all, she's a celebrity over there, and…" Wasn't she worried enough without having to explain? Laura wondered. "Hell, Josh, I'm not sure, but I know she had that slime who got her into this mess managing her for the last few years."

  "Pinhead," he muttered. "So she comes crawling home, sniveling."

  "She did not snivel. I should have expected you to take this line," she went on. "It must be men. None of you have any loyalty or compassion. Peter wanted to toss her out as if—

  "Let him try," Josh murmured with a dangerous glint in his eye. "It's not his house."

  Laura opened her mouth, closed it again. If this emotional roller coaster she was stuck on didn't stop soon, she was going to jump. "Peter didn't grow up with Margo the way we did. He isn't attached to her the way we are. He doesn't understand."

  "He doesn't have to," Josh said shortly, and rose. "She's out by the pool?"

  "Yes. Josh, you're not going out there and start poking at her. She's unhappy enough."

  Josh shot her a look. "I'll just go and rub some salt in her wounds, then I think I'll run out and kick some puppies on my way to foreclosing on my quota of widows and orphans."

  Laura's lips curved. "Just try to be supportive. We'll have lunch on the south terrace in about half an hour." It would give her time to have his luggage taken upstairs and properly unpacked.

  * * * * *

  Margo knew the moment he stepped off the flagstone path onto the skirt of the pool. She didn't see him, hear him, smell him. Her instincts when it came to Josh went into a sixth sense. When he didn't speak, merely sat on one of the padded lounges on the pool terrace, she continued to swim.

  It was too cold to swim, of course. But she'd needed to do something. The water was warm enough. Steam rose from it into the cooler air, and every stroke
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