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Haunting Rachel

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년:
2004
출판사:
Bantam Books
언어:
english
ISBN 13:
9780553587715
파일:
EPUB, 499 KB
다운로드 (epub, 499 KB)

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언어:
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Synopsis:

Danger wears many faces....


Ten years ago Rachel Grant’s fiancé, Thomas, disappeared. His body was never found. Now there’s a stranger in town, a man who could be Thomas’s twin  —  or his ghost.


His name is Adam Delafield. He’s been watching Rachel for days. He has the locket she gave Thomas before he vanished. And he says he owed her father three million dollars.


But there’s no record of the loan  —  or a shred of proof that Adam is who he claims to be. And he’s always nearby as accidents begin to threaten Rachel’s life.


Is he an innocent man who only wants to repay a debt? Or a figure from the past with a score to settle? Rachel must expose lies and unravel stories, find out who wants her dead and why… before the next attempt to kill her succeeds.







 

[image: book cover]

 



Haunting Rachel


Kay Hooper

 


Copyright ©1998 by Kay Hooper


 
 

For my parents



 
 

 
 

PROLOGUE

 


May 24, 1988

 


“It won’t take long,” Thomas said reassuringly. “A week, maybe a bit more. Then I’ll be back.”

“But where are you going? And why does it have to be now?” Rachel’s demand held all the natural impatience and indignation of a nineteen-year-old who was about to be deprived of the company of her fiancé at a somewhat inconvenient time. “Tom, you know Mercy’s giving that shower for me on Thursday, and—”


“Honey, men are never welcome at those things. I’d just be in the way.” He was still soothing, but also a little amused, and he smiled at her with the complete understanding of a man who had known her since her auburn hair had been worn in pigtails and at least two front teeth had been missing. He was ten years her senior, and at that moment every year showed.

Rachel didn’t exactly pout, but when she sat down in a chair by the window, it was with a definite flounce, and her expressive face was alive with frustration and disappointment. “You promised. You said there wouldn’t be any more of these mysterious trips of yours—”

“There’s nothing mysterious about them, Rachel. I’m a pilo; t, and I deliver cargo. It’s my job. You know that. All right, I know I said there wouldn’t be any more trips out of the country, but Jake asked me to do him a favor, and he is my boss. So — just a quick run down to South America.”

“You promised,” Rachel repeated, not much interested in reasons.

Thomas put his hands on the arms of her chair and bent down, smiling at her with all the charm in his definitely charming nature. “Would it make you happier if I said that Jake’s giving me an extra week off if I take this run? That’s another week in Hawaii, honey. Think about it. Lazing around in the sun on Waikiki, breakfast on a balcony with a magnificent view — and shopping. Lots more time for shopping.”

She couldn’t help but smile. “You know that isn’t my thing.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, but you’re no slouch at it. Come on now, say you’re not mad anymore. I’ll have a miserable few days if I fly off knowing you’re mad at me.”


It was virtually impossible for Rachel to resist his blandishments, a fact both were well aware of, and her sigh held resignation as well as a touch of resentment. “Oh, all right. But you’d better not hang around down in South America. Just remember what’ll be waiting for you back home.” She wreathed her arms around his neck and kissed him.

The passion between them had been nearly impossible for them to handle since the night of her sixteenth birthday and their first real kiss; familiarity had not bred anything except a better understanding of just how powerful desire could be, especially when it went unsatisfied. Though Rachel’s willpower was shaky where he was concerned, Thomas, very conscious of the years between them and of her youth, had decided for both of them that sex would wait until marriage.

It wasn’t a decision Rachel was happy with, and this wasn’t the first time she had made an attempt to force his hand.

His voice was a little ragged when he pulled back slightly and muttered, “Stop that. I’ve got to go.”

Rachel didn’t want to let go of him. “You’ll miss me. Say you’ll miss me.”

“Of course I’ll miss you. I love you.” He gave her a brief kiss and then firmly unlocked her arms from his neck and straightened. “Make my excuses to your parents about tonight, all right, honey?”

She sighed again. “Right. And I get to spend a boring Saturday night all by myself. Again.”

“Just three more weeks, and that will no longer be a problem,” Thomas reminded her with a grin. “I promise, honey, no more lonely nights for either one of us.”


“I’ll hold you to that.”

Rachel walked with him to the front door of her parents’ house, received another quick kiss, and stood there watching him stride down the walkway to his fast little car. He loved speed, Thomas Sheridan did, whether on the ground or in the air, and often teased her that she was the only love in his life that characteristically moved at a lazy pace.

He turned and waved before opening his car door, and Rachel admired the way the sunlight glinted off his pale silvery hair. He was a rare blond Sheridan on a mostly dark family tree, so different from his raven-haired sister Mercy that both had frequently maddened their mother by speculating humorously about blond-haired strangers in her past despite Thomas’s undeniable resemblance to his dark father.

“See you in a week or so, honey,” Thomas called out.

He slammed the car door before Rachel could respond in kind, so she merely waved with a smile. She watched the car until it vanished from her sight, then went back into the house to tell her parents that her fiancé would not be joining them for dinner that night.

 
 

Rachel woke with a start and sat up in her bed before she even knew what had awakened her. The room was filled with the somber light of dawn, and she was astonished to see him standing near the foot of the bed.

“Thomas? What’re you doing back so soon? I—” Her voice broke off as though it had been cut by something sharp. It wasn’t right, she realized. He wasn’t right. Because she could almost see the curtains through him. A coldness more gray than the dawn seeped into her body, into her very bones, and she heard herself make an anguished little sound when Thomas seemed to reach out toward her, his handsome face tormented.


“No,” Rachel whispered. “Oh, no…” She stretched her hand out toward him, but even as she did so, he was gone. And she was alone in the stark dawn.

 
 

Thomas Sheridan’s plane never reached its destination, and no trace of it was ever found.


 
 



ONE

 

April 21, 1998

 

It was no more than a glimpse of movement on a street corner that caught Rachel’s attention. She turned her head more or less automatically, drawn as always by the glint of sunlight off silvery blond hair. She expected to see, as she always had, a stranger. Just one more blond man who would, of course, not be who she wanted him to be.

Except that it was Thomas.

She stood frozen, with four lanes of cars filling the space between her corner and his, and when their eyes met, she almost cried out. Then the light changed, and traffic began moving briskly, and a noisy semi blocked her view of the corner. When the truck had passed, Thomas was gone.

Rachel stood there until the light changed again, but when she rushed across the street, there was no sign of him.

No. No, of course there wasn’t.

Because it hadn’t been him.

Realizing that her legs were actually shaking, she found a table at a nearby sidewalk café where she could keep an eye on that corner, and ordered a cup of hot tea.

It hadn’t been him, of course.

It was never him.

“Are you all right, miss?” the waitress asked when she returned with the steaming cup. “You look sort of upset.”

“I’m fine.” Rachel managed a smile she doubted was very reassuring, but it was enough to satisfy the young waitress. Left alone again, she dumped sugar into the tea and fixed her gaze once more on the corner.

Of course it hadn’t been Thomas. Her mind knew that. It had been only a stranger with a chance resemblance that had seemed stronger because distance had helped it seem that way. And perhaps a trick of the light had helped, as well as her own wishful thinking. But it couldn’t have been Thomas. Thomas had been dead nearly ten years. No, they had never found a body, or even the wreckage of the plane, but Thomas’s life had certainly ended somewhere in the impenetrable depths of a South American jungle.

Even though he had promised to come back to her.

Her knees were steady once more when Rachel finally got up nearly an hour later and left the café. And she didn’t let herself stop or even pause when she passed the corner where a memory had so fleetingly stood. Knowing that she was late helped her to walk briskly, and common sense pushed the memory back into its quiet room in her heart.

It was after three o’clock on this warm and sunny Tuesday when she went into a building in downtown Richmond. She went up to the fourth floor, entered the law offices of Meredith and Becket, and was immediately shown in to see Graham Becket.

“Sorry I’m late,” she said at once.

“Rachel, you didn’t have to come down here at all,” Graham reminded her as he moved around the desk to take her hand and kiss her lightly on the cheek. “I told you I’d come to the house.”

“I needed to get out.” She shrugged, then gently reclaimed her hand and sat down in his visitor’s chair.

He stood looking down at her for a moment, a somewhat rueful expression on his face, then went back around the desk to his own chair. A tall, dark, good-looking man of thirty-eight, and a highly successful attorney, he was accustomed to female interest.

Except from Rachel. He knew Rachel fairly well. He had been her father’s attorney for nearly ten years and one of the executors of the estate after Duncan Grant and his wife had been killed eight months ago. But knowledge didn’t stop Graham from hoping that one day she would notice he was a man who was closer to being one of her contemporaries than her father’s.

And a man, moreover, who had been half in love with her for years.

Today, she hadn’t noticed.

“More papers to sign?” she asked, her slight smile transforming her serene and merely pretty face into something haunting.

Graham had tried to figure out what it was about that smile that made Rachel instantly unforgettable, but to date had been unable to. Her features, taken one by one, were agreeable but not spectacular. Her pale gray eyes were certainly lovely, but the dark lashes surrounding them were more adequate than dramatic, and her nose might have been a trifle large for her heart-shaped face.

Gleaming auburn hair framed that face nicely, but it was unlikely that fashion mavens would copy the simple shoulder-length style. Her mouth was well-shaped and her teeth even and white, but there was nothing especially memorable about either.

Despite all that, Rachel had only to smile that slow smile of hers to become a stunningly beautiful woman. It wasn’t only Graham who saw the transformation; he had heard more than one man and a number of women comment on it over the years.

And even then, her smile was only a shadow of what it had once been. Before Thomas Sheridan’s death. Until the loss of her fiancé had changed Rachel so fundamentally, she had smiled often, her face so alive that strangers had stared at her on the streets. Afterward…

“Graham?”

He recalled his wandering thoughts and opened a file folder on his desk. “Yes, more papers to sign. Sorry, Rachel. But I did warn you that Duncan’s estate was complex.”

“It’s all right. I’m just wondering when it’ll all be over.”

He looked at her across the desk. “If you intend to keep a hand in the business, it’ll never be over. But if you mean to accept Nicholas Ross’s offer to buy you out…”

“I’m still thinking about that. Do you think Dad would have wanted me to sell out, Graham?”

“I think he expected you to. The past few years, your life hasn’t been in Richmond except for holiday and vacation visits home, and those were brief. Ever since you moved to New York, I think he realized it wasn’t likely you’d come back here to live.”

“Yes — but I don’t have to live here to keep the business. I could hire a manager to run my half, you know that. Between you, Nicholas, and a manager taking care of things day to day, I’d have to show up only periodically for board meetings.”

He nodded. “True enough.”

“I don’t know beans about investment banking, so I could hardly be a hands-on boss anyway. And all those investments Dad had personally, they’re so diverse, there’s no way I could keep track of them on my own.” She seemed to be arguing with herself, frowning a little. “At the same time, several of the companies Dad invested in aren’t in a position to buy out his interest right now, so I’d have to find other investors if I wanted out — that, or take a loss. Either way, it means time and trouble.”

Graham looked at her searchingly. “In a hurry to get back to New York? I thought you said you’d taken a leave of absence and didn’t mean to go back until summer.”

“That’s what I said, and what I meant. But… I don’t know, I’m getting restless, I guess.” She shrugged. “I’m not used to being idle, Graham.”

After a moment, he said, “But it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s memories. The house is getting to you.”

Rachel got up and went to stand before a window that offered a view of the busy street below. Graham remained in his chair, but turned it to keep watching her, and when she remained silent, he went on quietly.

“After Thomas was killed, you couldn’t wait to get out of that house. Went back to college first and then to New York. And your visits home even then were always brief, because you were always busy.”

“Trying to make me feel guilty for neglecting my parents?” Her voice was a little tight.

“No. They didn’t feel neglected, if that’s been worrying you. They understood, Rachel.”

“Understood what?”

“How much of your past was bound up in Thomas. How old were you when you first knew you loved him? Twelve? Thirteen?”

Rachel drew a breath. “Ten, actually. He came to pick up Mercy from my birthday party, and he kissed me on the cheek. I knew then.”

It required an effort, but Graham kept his voice dispassionate. “And since his sister was your best friend, you saw a lot of him. I imagine he was at the house quite often even before you two began dating. You were sixteen then, weren’t you?”

She didn’t seem surprised by his knowledge, probably attributing it to her father and casual conversation rather than any extraordinary interest in her. “Yes.”

“So Thomas spent a lot of time at the house. Years, really. All the time you were growing up. Eating meals in the dining room, sitting with you in the den, listening to music in your bedroom, walking by the river. That place is filled with him, isn’t it?”

She turned and leaned back against the window casing. She was smiling just a little, wistful, and it made her beautiful again. “Yes, the house is filled with him. And even now, after all these years, it hurts to remember him.”

“Of course it does. You never really let him go, Rachel. You couldn’t. There was no funeral where you could say good-bye, just a memorial service months later when his parents had finally given up hope. And, by then, you’d bolted off to college, where there weren’t any memories of Thomas. For you, there was never any… closure.”

She looked at him almost curiously. “You knew him, went to school with him. Was it so easy for you to accept his death?”

“Easier than for you, because I was never close to him. I wasn’t… emotionally involved. His death was a tragedy and I was sorry, but no memories haunted me.”

She hesitated, then let out an unsteady laugh. “Haunted. That’s a good word. I thought I saw him today.”

“What?”

“On a street corner while I was waiting for the light to change. I looked across — and there he was. I could have sworn it was Thomas.”

“What happened?”

“A truck went past, and when I could see the corner again, he was gone. I ran across and looked, but… My imagination, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Well. My imagination of course.”

“Or just a man with blond hair,” Graham said steadily.

“Yes. I know.”

“But this isn’t the first time you thought you saw him.”

Lightly, she said, “I’m going nuts, is that what you’re saying?”

“What I’m saying is, don’t let memories and wishful thinking become an obsession, Rachel. Thomas is dead. Don’t you believe that if he were alive, he would have somehow gotten word to you, that he would have managed to come back to you?”

“Yes. Yes, I do believe that. Because he promised he’d come back to me.” And because he came back to me once, came back from death to say good-bye to me.

But she didn’t say that, of course. She had never told anyone about that, not even on that horrible dawn when she had awakened both her parents insisting her father try to get in touch with Thomas’s boss because she was certain something terrible had happened.

“Then you know that what you saw was simply someone who looked a bit like Thomas.” Graham’s voice was still matter-of-fact.

Rachel felt a faint flicker of amusement as she left the window and returned to her chair. “I think you really are worried about my sanity, Graham. Well, don’t be. I was shaken at first, but my common sense asserted itself pretty quickly. I know I didn’t really see Thomas on a street corner.”

Except for that first instant, when she had been sure…

“I’m glad. But, Rachel, if you need someone to talk to—”

“Thanks.” She was grateful for his concern and the offer, and it showed in her affectionate smile. “But I think it’s just as you said. I never got the chance to say good-bye to Thomas, and I’ve never faced up to all the memories at home. He’s just very… alive to me right now. It’s something I’ll have to work my way through, that’s all.” She smiled at him. “Now — didn’t you say something about papers to sign?”

 
 

The house where Rachel had grown up was an elegant Georgian mansion built on extensive acreage on the James River. The house was more than two hundred and fifty years old, and had been in the Grant family for much of that time. Remodeled from time to time by various Grants, it now contained such luxuries and conveniences as carpet, closets, and bathrooms, as well as modern wiring, central heating, and air-conditioning. Yet it had maintained its graceful air despite those changes, and was considered one of the most beautiful houses in Richmond.

Rachel got out of her mother’s sedan at the front drive and stood for a moment, studying the house. Not for the first time she wondered if she was being hasty in even considering selling the place. Yes, the house was far too large for one young woman who didn’t care for entertaining and didn’t have to in her work — the only real excuse for a single person to own such a place. And, yes, there were too many memories here, many of them painful. And her uncle Cameron wanted it, would enjoy it, and would keep it in the family at least a while longer.

But… it was her home. She had actually been born in this house, with a doctor in attendance, since her parents had been determined to uphold that tradition. Until she had gone away to college and then moved to New York, Rachel had always lived here, just as her father and grandfather before her. Her roots were here.

Did she really want to give it up? And if she did, were her reasons the right ones? Or was she just being cowardly in wanting to run away once more to New York without facing the pain of loss?

Not questions that were easily or simply answered, she knew. Shrugging them off for the moment, Rachel went into the house. She was greeted just inside the door by the housekeeper, Fiona, who was as dour as usual. A part of the Grant family for more than twenty years, Fiona moved more slowly these days in late middle age, and her superstitious nature could be a trial at times, but she loved this house and took excellent care of it.

Which was why she resented any intrusion into her routine.

“That Darby Lloyd has been sending things down from the main attic all day. How’m I supposed to do my work with those men of hers tramping up and down the stairs, Miss Rachel?”

Rachel had known Fiona too long to be disturbed by the forbidding stare or acid complaint. Laying her purse on a side table in the large entrance hall, she shrugged and said, “You know it has to be done, Fiona. We have to have a complete inventory and appraisal of everything in the house — and that includes all three of the attics. Just be glad it’s only Darby doing the appraisal. You’d really hate it if a bunch of strangers were constantly underfoot for the next few weeks. Wouldn’t you?”

The housekeeper ignored the question. “But she has the second floor hallway filled wall to wall, and I can’t even vacuum—”

“Fiona, you can vacuum later. I’m sure Darby’s just moving the stuff out temporarily while everything’s getting tagged, otherwise she wouldn’t have room to work. Just be a little patient, all right? I’ll go speak to her about blocking the hallway.”

“If you can get through,” Fiona sniffed.

Rachel was able to get through the upstairs hallway, though it required a bit of maneuvering. A family could fill large attics with an astonishing variety of furniture, especially over generations and many shifts in style and taste; items partially blocking the hall ranged from Revolutionary chests and Regency tables to — of all things — a sixties-style beanbag.

“My God,” Rachel said when she finally managed to make her way up the fairly narrow staircase to the main attic. “Has this family kept every blessed stick of furniture ever to cross the threshold?”

“That would be my guess.” Strands of her coppery hair escaping from the casual ponytail she wore and a smudge of what looked like soot on her otherwise creamy nose, Darby Lloyd came around a huge wardrobe with a clipboard in her hand. “Sorry for the stuff in the hall, but there was no other way to sort through everything.”

Rachel waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, I know Fiona’s upset.” Darby grimaced. “One of my guys swore she put a hex on him when he asked if he could leave a Chippendale desk at the top of the stairs.”

“She doesn’t really hex people,” Rachel said.

“Never underestimate the power of suggestion. Ten minutes later, Steve developed a migraine. Sam had to take him home. Which is why I’m up here alone and at my wit’s end. Do you know, I think there’s a fairly spectacular Queen Anne desk in that far corner, and I can’t get to it. That’s very frustrating, Rachel.”

Rachel had to smile at Darby’s intensity. A friend since elementary school, Darby had remained in Richmond after college, starting her own interior design company with a generous investment from Duncan Grant’s bank. She was also an antiques dealer, which was why she was nearly drooling at what she was finding in the attic of this old house.

“You’ll get to it eventually,” Rachel reassured her soothingly. “Have you started the list of things you want to buy for your business and things you think you can sell for me?”

Darby rolled her eyes. “Have I ever. In case you don’t know, there’s a fortune in this attic alone. That first appraisal after your parents were killed was conservative, Rachel. Very conservative. I don’t think that tax guy knew what he was doing, seriously. But you should send him flowers, because I’m willing to bet he saved you hundreds of thousands in inheritance taxes.”

“I don’t think he did more than open the door and glance in here,” Rachel agreed. “All the antiques downstairs sort of dazzled him.”

“They dazzled me too. But I’ve learned to roll up my sleeves and crawl into corners. And aside from all this glorious furniture — most of which is in fabulous condition, by the way — I’ve found three trunks so far, all filled to the brim with the kind of stuff to make an interior designer’s mouth water. Vases, candle holders, figurines, picture frames. Jeez, Rachel, it’s going to cost me a fortune to buy what I want just from in here.”

“I told you we’d work something out. A consignment deal, maybe. I’m in no hurry for the money, you know that.”

Darby’s blue eyes brightened, but she shook her head even so. “You’re being too damned trusting and way too generous.”

Rachel laughed. “I don’t think so. Look, Darby, financially, Dad left me in great shape. What I really want is for all these beautiful things to be seen and enjoyed by people. They’ve been locked away up here for far too long. And why shouldn’t you benefit from that? You’ve worked your tail off to get your business established, and you’ve already developed a reputation for finding exquisite furniture for people who appreciate it. Clearly, you’re the best woman for the job.”

“Thanks, Rachel.”

“Don’t mention it. Now, why don’t you knock off for the day? It’s after four and, besides, you need your guys to move these big pieces for you. You can get a fresh start tomorrow.” She smiled. “And I’ll be sure and tell Fiona not to hex Steve again.”

“I would appreciate that.”

The two women left the attic together, and when they reached the second floor hallway, Darby said immediately, “I hadn’t realized we’d moved so much out of the attic. God, Rachel, I’m sorry—”

“I told you not to worry about it.”

Darby bit her lip, then said, “Tell you what. I’ll make a list tonight of a few things I know I can sell quickly, and tomorrow I’ll have the guys haul the pieces to my shop. They’ll be out of your way and mine, and we’ll get the ball rolling. Okay?”

“That’s fine.”

“I’ll check with you first, of course, before taking anything away. There might be a few things you want to keep for yourself, maybe transport to your apartment in New York.”

Like most of the people around her, Darby assumed Rachel would be selling out and leaving Richmond, an assumption encouraged by Rachel’s attitude and decisions so far. It wasn’t something Rachel disputed, even though she was still uncertain about what she meant to do.

So she merely nodded in response and said, “Sounds good.”

“Great. Then I’ll see you tomorrow.” Darby rushed down the stairs with an energy that belied her rather fragile appearance, and a moment later the front door closed behind her.

Rachel went to her second-floor bedroom in the east wing and stood at the doorway, looking down the hall toward her parents’ bedrooms. Though she had gone through her father’s desk here at the house as a business necessity, she hadn’t yet been able to sort through his and her mother’s personal belongings. It was something she knew she had to do, not a chore she could assign to anyone else. It would take time and require decisions as to what to do with clothing and so on, and so far Rachel had simply not been up to the task.

And still was not. She shied away from opening those doors just as she had shied away from any other chore that threatened her control. She wasn’t ready yet. Not yet.

She went into her bedroom, a room she had been allowed to furnish for herself when she was sixteen. Since Rachel had inherited her mother’s elegant taste in antiques, even as a teenager she had not been fond of the fads and often peculiar color combinations in vogue with her friends; her room was decorated in quiet tones of blue and gold, virtually all the furniture Louis XV pieces, delicate and lovely.

Rachel was comfortable in the room, and after so many years took the stunning antiques for granted. She went into the adjoining bathroom and turned on the faucets to fill the big oval tub, deciding that a hot bath might ease her tension and soothe the restlessness she couldn’t seem to get rid of. It only half worked, but half was an improvement, and by the time she climbed from the tub thirty minutes later, Rachel definitely felt better.

She wandered back out into her bedroom wearing a silk robe, and went to stand at a window that looked out over the front drive and lawns. Plans for the evening were simple; dinner, probably with her uncle Cameron, who was currently staying in the house, and then television or a book. It had become her routine since she had come home two weeks ago.

“Jet-setting heiress, that’s me,” she murmured to herself wryly.

The irony, of course, was that she could have jetted off to wherever she wanted — and simply had no interest in doing so. Money was not one of the things Rachel had ever had to strive for, and so it was not something that represented success or achievement. Not to her.

Achievement, to Rachel, was bound up in whether the designs she had created would successfully adorn the fashion runways when next year’s spring collections made their debut. She had apprenticed herself to one of the best New York designers, and after years of hard work had the satisfaction of knowing that her designs would be shown under her own name.

But that was months and months away, and in the meantime she had to decide just how much of her past she wanted to abandon.

Rachel sighed and began to turn away from the window, when a flicker of movement down by the front gate caught her attention. There was considerable distance between the house and the gate, but what Rachel saw was clear enough.

And definitely real.

A man with silvery blond hair was standing at the gate, looking up toward the house. He was very still for a moment, and then, with a hunching movement of his broad shoulders that might have been a shrug or some gesture of indecision, he turned and walked away, hidden immediately by the high brick wall and numerous tall trees.

Rachel lifted a hand as though to stop him, but her flesh touched nothing except the cold glass of her window.

 
 

TWO

 

“I’m sorry, Rachel. I should have done this months ago.” Mercy Sheridan, Duncan Grant’s former assistant, had come to the house to bring Rachel a box of personal articles she had cleared from Duncan’s office at the bank. She was still with the company at least through the process of settling the estate; she hadn’t announced her decision about what to do beyond that time.

She grimaced slightly. “But it was hard enough to go through his files when I had to, never mind his personal things. I think this is everything not directly related to the business, though — unless I come across something misfiled.”

Rachel had meant only to thank her, but heard herself say a bit dryly, “Does Nicholas want to move into Dad’s office?”

Obviously surprised, Mercy replied, “Not that I know of.” Her violet eyes softened, and she said gently, “He isn’t trying to take your dad’s place, if that’s what you think. In fact, he’s been pretty adamant about keeping Duncan’s memory alive at the bank. He wants his office left just as it was, wants that portrait to hang in the lobby with a brass plaque saying that Duncan founded the company. And he doesn’t mean to change the name after you sell out to him, Rache. It’ll go on being known as Duncan and Ross Investments, Ltd.”

Rachel hadn’t known that, and it made her feel she had done Nicholas Ross an injustice. But all she said was “I’m glad. Dad would have liked that.” He had chosen to use the name Duncan in his business because it was his mother’s family name and because he’d liked the sound of it — especially once Nicholas Ross’s name had been added to the letterhead.

The two women were in the den, a comfortable room where Rachel spent much of her time. Mercy left the box she had brought on a side table, then joined Rachel on the Victorian settee near the fireplace.

“You are going to sell the business to Nicholas?”

“Probably. It makes sense to, after all.” Rachel shrugged. “I guess I just have to get used to the idea first.”

Mercy leaned back and crossed one long, elegant leg over the other. A beautiful, raven-haired woman with a voluptuous figure, she was still single at thirty despite the attentions of half the bachelors — and more than one married man — in Richmond. Rachel suspected she was involved with someone at the moment, but Mercy seldom offered details even to her best friend, and Rachel had been too preoccupied these last months to ask for them.

“Rache, are you thinking of staying in Richmond? I thought going back to New York was the plan.”

“I’m just having second thoughts. Natural enough, I suppose.”

“Sure. You’ve got a lot of history in this house.” She paused a beat, then added quietly, “And a lot of memories.”

“Yes.” Rachel started to tell Mercy about the blond man she had seen twice, but bit back the words. Mercy had adored her brother, and Rachel couldn’t bring herself to open up those old wounds. There was nothing to be gained by having Mercy as upset as she was herself, she thought.

“And maybe it’s time you dealt with those memories,” Mercy went on steadily. “You didn’t go on with your life after Thomas was killed, you just started a whole new one.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Rachel frowned. “You know I’d always wanted to be a designer, and the best place to learn was in New York—”

“Yes, I know that. But, Rachel, you didn’t move to New York, you bolted there. Virtually cut yourself off from everybody back here, including your parents and me. Put your emotions in a deep freeze — all of them, as far as I can see. And though you haven’t brought up the subject, I’m willing to bet you haven’t dated at all.”

“I have dated,” Rachel objected.

Unmoved, Mercy said, “Then you haven’t gone out more than once or twice with the same guy. True?”

Instead of trying to deny that shrewd guess, Rachel said, “The fashion business is demanding and competitive, Mercy — I’ve been trying to build a career. That hasn’t left me much time for a personal life.”

“Which is just the way you wanted it.”

“And I don’t see anything wrong with that.”

“I didn’t say there was anything wrong with it.” Mercy’s voice was patient. “The problem is that you never came to terms with what you left behind.”

Rachel wanted to dispute that but couldn’t. “So?”

“So maybe it’s time you did that. Maybe it’s past time. Rachel, Thomas wouldn’t have wanted you to bury your heart with him. And I think we both know you aren’t the kind of woman who’ll be happy to spend the rest of your life alone — in New York or here.” Mercy smiled slightly. “Maybe your doubts about selling out and moving away for good are trying to tell you something. Maybe you need to face the past before you can decide whether to abandon it.”

“Maybe,” Although, Rachel could have added, not feeling very much had its benefits.

Mercy hesitated, then said, “You changed so much after Thomas was killed. Part of you died — or else got buried so deeply under grief that you lost it. Your laughter and enthusiasm. Your spirit. What Thomas loved most in you.”

Shaken, Rachel murmured, “I just grew up, Mercy, that’s all. I stopped being a child.”

“You stopped being the Rachel we all knew and loved.”

Rachel was silent.

In a gentler tone, Mercy said, “It’s the first time you’ve been home long enough for us to really talk, so forgive me if I blurt out what I’ve been thinking all these years. But it’s true, Rache. When you smile, there’s just a shadow of what you used to be. Even your voice is quieter. And though you’ve always moved as if you had all the time in the world, there’s a stillness in you that wasn’t there ten years ago.”

“I can’t help how I’ve changed,” Rachel said, uncomfortable under this dissection of her character.

“You can start living again. Let yourself feel again.”

“I feel.”

“Do you?” Mercy got to her feet, then added deliberately, “You haven’t let yourself grieve for your parents any more than you let yourself grieve for Thomas. But sooner or later you’ll have to. And if it all hits you at once… it’ll be like a mountain falling on you.”

It was an image that stayed in Rachel’s mind throughout the afternoon, while she went over furniture lists with Darby and found other chores to keep herself occupied. She knew that she had indeed run away ten years ago, run away from pain and loss, and she knew she had not allowed herself to grieve as she should have. And when her parents had been killed, the same urge to flee had sent her running back to New York immediately after the funeral, where work had beckoned and there was no time to think. Or feel.

But now she was home. Surrounded by memories, and by people who would not let her keep running away from them. Feelings she didn’t want were lurking too close now, just around the next corner, and it was a corner she knew she would have to turn. This time. That was probably why she felt so on edge, so restless.

And why she had twice seen the image of Thomas — nearby but out of reach.

 
 

The offices of Duncan and Ross Investments, Ltd., occupying a single building on a tree-lined side street near downtown Richmond, were elegant and rather formal, as financial institutions tended to be. Strictly speaking, this place was not a bank, or at least not the usual sort; clients of Duncan and Ross offered their deposits to be invested in whatever business ventures the firm saw fit to back. The rewards could be enormous.

So could the losses.

Duncan and Ross, however, had a solid reputation for backing winners, and their clients were, for the most part, happy. If they thought it odd that Duncan Grant had chosen to put his first name on the letterhead, and if they wondered why he had suddenly taken on a rather unusual and rather mysterious partner around five years before, both circumstances were, by now, accepted and hardly worth comment.

Mercy Sheridan strode briskly across the marble-floored lobby on this Wednesday afternoon, headed for her office. She wasn’t sure just how much longer it would be her office, but for now she still had work to do. The paperwork involved when a partner died suddenly was incredible, and between that and the work she had been doing for Nicholas as a favor — he had never used a personal assistant, but found the need for one now that Duncan was gone — she had managed to keep herself busy.

Once Duncan’s affairs were settled, however, she would have to start sending out her résumé.

“Mercy?” Leigh Williams came suddenly out of her side office, frowning. “Now that you’re back, I need those balance sheets for the auditor. I hadn’t realized you’d be gone so long. You could give me the combination to Duncan’s safe, you know.” A tall and sophisticated blonde, the office manager always made Mercy feel both underdressed and overly cautious, to say nothing of tardy and inefficient.

“Not without Rachel’s permission,” she said lightly, resisting an impulse to remind Leigh that she knew this fact of Duncan’s will very well. “I’ll get the papers and bring them to your office, Leigh.”

“Thanks. Oh — and congratulations, by the way.”

Mercy frowned. “For what?”

“For trading up. Or, at least, not losing ground.”

“Leigh, what’re you talking about?”

“Why, I’m talking about you becoming Mr. Ross’s personal assistant.” Leigh’s pale blue eyes were coolly amused and not a little speculative. “That seems to be on the agenda.”

Mercy shook her head. “You’ve been misinformed.”

“Then so has Mr. Ross. He’s been telling everyone you’re going to stay on and work for him. I need those papers as soon as possible, Mercy.” Smiling, Leigh turned and went back into her office.

Mercy stood there for only an instant, gazing thoughtfully at nothing, then went on through the quiet lobby. But instead of going to her own office or the one that had belonged to Duncan Grant, she went directly to the big corner office occupied by Nicholas Ross.

His door was open, but he was on the phone. Mercy closed the door behind her, then sat on the arm of one of his visitor’s chairs. And while she waited, she studied him.

Even sitting as he was, and behind a huge mahogany desk, he was obviously an unusually large man, and unusually powerful. His dark suit was expensive and well made, his shoulders could fill doorways, and his presence was nothing less than massive and overpowering. One glance, and anyone would want Nicholas on his or her side no matter what the fight was about.

No one would ever call Mercy a small woman, yet Nicholas made her feel absurdly delicate. He also made her feel incredibly feminine, especially when her quiet voice was contrasted by his harsh growl.

She supposed some people would be afraid of him.

Maybe most people.

Because he was so big, because he sounded so rough and angry — even when he wasn’t. And because he was ugly.

With the best will in the world, she could describe him only as ugly.

He was barely forty, but looked older. He looked, as the saying went, like ten miles of bad road. Maybe twenty. His face, tanned years ago almost to the color and consistency of old leather, was marked by several small scars he had gotten God only knew where or how, making him look even more thuggish. His cheekbones were high but flat, his brow high and wide, and his nose had most certainly been broken at least twice. There was a ludicrous dimple in his strong chin, his mouth was a straight, thin slash without any particular shape and definitely without softness or charm, and his deep-set eyes were such a light shade of brown that they were almost eerily hypnotic.

Like the eyes of a cat. Or a snake.

Mercy knew almost nothing of his background, except that it had been hard and that he had seen parts of the world tourists were warned away from. He didn’t talk about himself, so what little she knew or had guessed came from observation, and from the occasional snippets of information he let slip while talking of something else. Such as when he had once said absently that the summer heat of Richmond was worse than the Kalahari. And when he had recommended to a Europe-bound client all the best places to eat in Florence.

And when he had startled her on various occasions by being fluent in French, German, Italian, and Japanese.

Wherever he had been, and whatever he had done, Nicholas Ross had turned up in Richmond about five years previously, his ugly face already worn by time and experiences and his unsettling gaze cynical. He had been obviously wealthy, though the source of his wealth remained a mystery, and he had wanted to get into investment banking.

For reasons he had never explained to anyone, Duncan Grant — who had never needed and seemingly never wanted a partner — had invited him to join the firm.

Mercy had signed on as Duncan’s assistant not long after that, and even that early Nicholas was already becoming known for his uncanny instincts for seemingly risky business ventures that would prove to be wildly profitable.

He was smart and he was lucky. Or maybe he was smart enough to make his own luck. In any case, Nicholas Ross was a success.

“You’re looking very serious,” he said to her as he hung up the phone, his voice harsh and deep.

“I have a serious problem,” she told him. “Someone keeps telling people around here that I’m going to be your personal assistant.”

Heavy lids veiled his eyes as Nicholas glanced down at his immaculate blotter, and continued to half hide his gaze even after he looked at her once again. “That doesn’t have to be a problem.”

“Nick, we’ve had this discussion before.”

“I know.” He grimaced slightly, producing a face likely to frighten small children. “But I hate losing. You know I hate losing.”

Mercy sighed. “I’ll say it one more time. I will work for you, or I will sleep with you. But I will not do both. You choose.”

His eyelids lifted and those pale eyes flickered. “I want both.”

“No.” It was said very simply, very quietly.

It was his turn to sigh. “Have I ever told you what a stubborn woman you are? Dammit, Mercy, what would be the harm? I need an assistant and you’re the best I’ve ever seen at the job. So what if we’re sleeping together? We’ve managed to be discreet for nearly a year. The sky hasn’t fallen in, and our clients haven’t turned up at the door foaming at the mouth because you spend an occasional night at my place or I sleep over at yours. Nobody could even imagine you might be promoted or get a raise for any reason other than solid good work. So why the hell not?”

“I’m not going to sleep with my boss. Period. Full stop. End of statement. How much plainer do I have to be?”

“That’s plain enough,” he growled, clearly annoyed.

Mercy shrugged. She was actually getting quite good at pretending to be indifferent. “Hey, if a personal assistant is more vital to you, just say the word. I’ll pack up the stuff I’ve left at your place and tear up my résumé.”

He grunted. “You would too.”

“Well, of course I would. Good lovers may be scarce, but good jobs are almost impossible to come by — and the latter pays the rent. Look, stop giving me a hard time about this, will you? You think I’m looking forward to being on the job market again?” Her family background held wealth, but Mercy always had and always would make her own way in the world.

Instead of replying to her hypothetical question, Nicholas rose from his chair and came around the desk to her.

“There’s no lock on that door,” she warned, but made no further protest when he pulled her to her feet and then into his arms.

He was always careful with her, always consciously gentle — or so it seemed to Mercy. It was the trait of a physically powerful man who knew only too well his strength could hurt and damage, and it never failed to move her in some way she couldn’t explain even to herself.

He kissed her with astonishing skill, his hard mouth so sensual that her knees instantly went weak. Her arms slid up around his neck and held on. Even after a year and countless hours spent mindless in his bed, the hunger he roused in her was sharp-edged and intense, demanding satisfaction. It was not something she could fight, not even something she could manage, but, rather, an elemental force that overwhelmed her.

And it irritated Mercy no end that she was never the one to pull back, never the one to regain control easily and swiftly.

He was always able to.

Always — damn him.

Raising his head and smiling very faintly as he looked down at her, Nicholas unlocked her arms from around his neck and eased her down on the arm of the chair behind her. “So sure you could turn your back on my bed, love?”

He had always called her that when they were alone like this, ever since the stormy spring evening nearly a year before when he had offered her a ride home, and they had somehow — to this day, Mercy wasn’t sure just how it had happened — wound up naked on the rug in front of her fireplace.

He called her love, but she didn’t deceive herself into thinking it meant anything. Nicholas Ross was a hard, abrupt, and rather secretive man with very strong physical appetites, and a “relationship” was clearly not something he wanted in his life. Just a woman in his bed three or four nights a week, with no ties or promises.

Mercy had learned to play the game just the way he liked.

So, when she caught her breath, she made herself say dryly, “It would naturally be a severe blow, but I think I could manage.”

He let out a bark of a laugh and stepped back to half sit on the edge of his desk. Crossing his arms over his broad chest, he stared at her. “You’re not going to back down on this, are you?”

“Afraid not.”

“So once Duncan’s estate is settled and the bank back to normal, you’ll resign?”

“That is the plan.” She shrugged. “Look, you know I’m not doing this just to make things harder for you or the bank. There are some lines I won’t cross, and sleeping with my boss is one of them.”

“I’m your boss now,” he reminded her.

“No, you’re my boss’s partner. Until Duncan’s estate is settled and the future of the bank decided, I still work for him. It may be splitting hairs, but that’s the way I see it.”

Nicholas frowned. “Suppose Rachel decides to keep her interest. You could stay on here as her representative. Then she’d be your boss, not me.”

Mercy was a little surprised. “I hadn’t thought of that. But, anyway, it isn’t likely, is it? You’ve always seemed so determined to buy her out. Aren’t you?”

His frown deepened. “Yes, I’m still determined. But if she’s anything like Duncan, she has a mind of her own. Is she like him? I haven’t spent enough time with her to know.”

“She’s like him in some ways.” Mercy considered the matter. “Smart, intuitive, creative. Like Duncan, she’s capable of flashes of inspiration. Problem is, Rachel’s carting around a lot of baggage right now, most of it painful. Until she sorts through that, there’s really no telling what her decision about the bank will be.”

“Your brother’s death?”

Mercy nodded. “She’s coping with that as well as the loss of her parents — or will be whenever that frozen shell of hers shatters. She needs time, Nick.”

“I don’t know how much time I can give her.” He spoke absently, his gaze abstracted and his face curiously immobile.

Mercy felt a tingle of uneasiness, but said lightly, “I wasn’t aware you had some kind of deadline in mind.”

Those hypnotic eyes focused on her, unreadable, and after an instant he smiled slightly. “I don’t. I’m just naturally impatient. You should know that by now.”

What Mercy knew was just the opposite, that he had the patience of a hunting cougar, perfectly capable of hunkering down in utter stillness and waiting as long as it took to get what he wanted.

He always got what he wanted.

What she didn’t know was if he had deliberately lied just now or if he honestly had no idea that he had given away that character trait of patience. Either way, it made her uneasiness increase.

Reluctant to question him, she got to her feet and changed the subject. “I have to get some papers out of Duncan’s safe before Leigh has a fit, so I’d better go. Anything you need me to do?”

Before Nicholas could answer, there was a soft knock followed instantly by Leigh peering around the door. She had been so quick that if they had been doing anything indiscreet, they would have been caught. But if she had hoped for that, the office manager hid her disappointment well.

She smiled brightly. “Sorry to interrupt — but, Mercy, I really need those papers.”

“I’ll get them now, Leigh.”

“Good. Thanks. Sorry again.” She retreated, closing the door quietly.

“Yes, there is something I need you to do,” Nicholas said. “I need you to have a lock put on that door.”

“Oh, no!” Mercy turned away, adding over her shoulder, “Then she’d know she was right to suspect sinful things going on in here. See you later.” She heard Nicholas laugh as she left his office, but thought the sound didn’t hold much amusement.

And that bothered her more than anything.

 
 

It was Friday afternoon when Rachel decided to go into Richmond. She was planning to do a bit of shopping, more to get out of the house than because there was anything she wanted or needed. Her restlessness had not abated; if anything, it had only gotten stronger. And her vacillation between selling out and returning to New York or staying here was really beginning to bother her.

She got into her mother’s Mercedes sedan and drove down to the front gate, which was standing open because Darby’s workmen had been hauling attic furniture from the house since early morning.

Rachel turned toward Richmond, and her car began to pick up speed as it moved down a long slope. She reached absently to change the radio station. When she glanced back up at the virtually deserted road, she felt a shock as she once again saw the blond man.

He was standing at the bottom of the slope, still a quarter-mile away, but Rachel knew it was the man she had seen before. Sunlight glinted off his silvery hair, and his lean face was turned toward her. He was just off the road, near a big oak tree and the corner of the brick wall that surrounded much of the Grant estate.

Without arguing with herself, Rachel stepped on the brake, determined not to let him slip away this time. She had to see him, talk to him, had to find out who he was—

The brake pedal resisted for an instant, and then went easily all the way to the floorboard.

The emergency brake proved equally useless, and the gearshift refused to budge.

She couldn’t stop the car.

In the space of only heartbeats, Rachel knew that her only choice was to somehow get off the road. Just beyond the bottom of the slope was a traffic light, always busy; she couldn’t take the chance of getting through it without hitting another car or a pedestrian.

She waited until the blond man flashed by on her right, then she wrenched the steering wheel to the right, praying desperately that she could avoid the trees.

There was no curb to provide even a nominal barrier, and the heavy sedan barely slowed as it plowed through the spring flowers, weeds, and bushes filling what was essentially an empty lot. Still, Rachel thought she might make it.

Until the rear of the sedan began to fishtail, and she lost control.

Seconds later, the car crashed headlong into an old oak tree.

In those first confused moments, Rachel’s mind seemed to function at half speed while her heart pounded in triple time. She found herself sitting behind the wheel, dazed, the air bag deflating now that it had done its job. The car horn was wailing stridently, and the hood was crumpled back almost to the windshield.

Rachel was surprised to be alive and apparently undamaged.

The passenger door was wrenched open suddenly, and a handsome blond man with intense violet eyes leaned in to stare at her. “Rachel, my God, are you all right?” he demanded.

The shock of the accident was forgotten. Her stunned gaze searched that face, as familiar to her as her own, and she was barely aware of whispering, “My God. Thomas.”

Then everything went black.

 
 

THREE

 

In the hospital, where paramedics had taken her, the doctor who examined Rachel was not happy. He could find no serious injury barring a slight bump on the side of her head where she had apparently hit the window frame of the car, yet she had remained unconscious long enough to raise grave concerns. Rachel tried to explain that the cause had been emotional shock rather than physical, but apparently only she had seen Thomas.

He had vanished once again.

When she had awakened in the ambulance, the paramedic treating her insisted that there had been no blond man at the scene of the accident.

Rachel didn’t want to sound like a lunatic by insisting on the reappearance of her long-dead fiancé, so she finally just submitted when the doctor ordered tests and an overnight stay to keep her under observation.

She was ruefully aware that her father’s generous endowment to the hospital — and her own possible future interest — was largely responsible for the doctor’s caution.

It was more than two hours before she was in a private room and could call the house to inform Fiona and her uncle, and ask that Graham be called so he could find out about the car. She was fine, she told the anxious housekeeper. There was no need for anyone to come to the hospital, because she’d be home in the morning anyway. She just wanted to rest.

But when the silence of the room closed around her, Rachel began to wish she had asked for visitors. Anything to distract her from her muddled thoughts.

Thomas? How could it have been him? He was dead. He had been dead for nearly ten years. And yet… it was no ghost that had leaned into her car, no ghost’s voice that had called her by name and demanded to know if she was all right. No ghost, but a real flesh-and-blood man. She had even felt the heat of his body, caught the scent of aftershave.

Think it through.

It couldn’t have been Thomas, surely it couldn’t have. Because if he had been alive all this time, and had let her go on believing him dead… No, the man she had loved would never be so cruel.

Unless he hadn’t been able to tell her the truth?

He had often been somewhat mysterious about his trips out of the country, so much so that it had bothered her. Yet whenever she had expressed that worry, he had merely laughed and told her she was imagining things. He was a pilot who worked for a shipping company, and he hauled cargo. Normal stuff, he told her. Supplies and equipment.

Yet something in his eyes had made Rachel wonder.

Mercy had often said that her brother loved intrigue and invented it in his own life, that that was why he sometimes seemed mysterious about his activities, but Rachel had not been reassured. She had been certain that he was sometimes in danger, and with a young woman’s flair for drama, she had imagined that danger to involve guns and bullets even though there had been no evidence at all to support that.

Now, with an older woman’s rationality, Rachel found it difficult to think of any reason Thomas might have faked his own death, any reason he would have needed to stay away for nearly a decade from those who loved him. It just didn’t make sense.

But if it hadn’t been Thomas she had seen, alive or dead, then who was this man that might have been his twin? He knew her, or at least knew her name. Three times he had been nearby, seemingly watching her, only to vanish before she could touch him, speak to him. Who was he? What had brought him into her life, and why did he stand back as though uncertain or wary of approaching her?

That didn’t make sense either.

She was still arguing with herself about an hour later when a hasty knock at the door heralded Graham’s arrival. He was carrying a vase filled with her favorite yellow roses and looked very much upset.

“Rachel — my God, are you all right?”

Odd that he used the exact same words the stranger had.

“I’m fine, Graham. A little bump on the head and an overly cautious doctor, that’s all. Lovely flowers, but you didn’t have to.”

He set the vase on the table by her bed and stood staring down at her with a frown. “From what Fiona told me on the phone, I expected to find broken bones.”

Rachel smiled. “By now you should know how Fiona exaggerates.”

“I do. But I also checked on your car. After seeing it, I expected worse than broken bones.”

“I’m fine, really. The air bag worked like a charm. Remind me to send a note of thanks to whoever invented the things.”

“I’m more interested in what caused the accident.” He drew a chair close to the bed and sat down, still frowning. “How did you lose control? The police say there were no skid marks.”

“I didn’t lose control. Well, I mean, I didn’t until the car started to slide all over the place on the grass. I had to steer it into that empty lot because I had no brakes.”

“What? You mean they were just gone?”

For the first time, Rachel thought about something other than Thomas, and a shiver of remembered panic crept up her spine. “The pedal felt a little spongy for an instant, then went all the way to the floor. I guess the brake line was somehow broken.”

“I don’t see how.” Graham shook his head. “But I’ll have the car towed to a good garage and checked out bumper to bumper. And I’ll arrange for another car for you. You don’t want to drive Duncan’s Rolls, do you?”

Rachel grimaced. “Hardly.”

“Didn’t think so.” He smiled. “Any preferences?”

“Anything but a sports car. I hate them.”

“So that’s why you never want to ride in my ’Vette.”

“That’s why,” she agreed.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Graham’s faint smile died, and he added very seriously, “You’re sure you’re all right?”

“I’m sure.” Just losing my mind, that’s all “The doctor wants me here for observation because I was… unconscious for a little while. But I’m okay. I’ll be able to go home in the morning.”

“Then I’ll come by and pick you up — not in the ’Vette.” He got to his feet. “In the meantime, I should go and let you rest.”

Rachel wanted to object, because she really didn’t want to be left alone with her bewildered thoughts. But she also didn’t want to explain to Graham that she had once again seen Thomas’s ghost or his twin, and he would certainly wonder if she expressed an unusual desire for his company.

So she merely said, “Will you do me another favor?”

“Of course I will.”

“Stop by the house and reassure Fiona and Cam? Tell them I’m fine and I’ll see them in the morning?”

“I’ll do that.”

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” He hesitated, then briefly touched her hand. “See you in the morning.”

She nodded, and held on to her smile until the door swung shut behind him. Then she sighed and turned her gaze to the uninspiring ceiling.

It was going to be a long night.

 
 

It was probably after midnight when Rachel half woke from a drugged sleep. The doctor had insisted on the sedative once he’d found no evidence of concussion, saying she needed a solid night’s rest. But now she wanted to be awake and the drug was fighting her. She didn’t know why she wanted to be awake, not at first. It was very quiet, and the room was dimly lit by the panel light above the head of her bed.

Then he moved out of the shadows near the door and came toward the bed, and Rachel felt her heart leap.

He came to the side of the bed and stood looking down at her for a moment, his face grave. She made a little sound, wordless but urgent, and reached out a wavering hand to him. And when he took her hand in his, the warmth of his flesh touching hers was so solid, so real that it was shocking.

“Who…?” It was all she could get out, and Rachel concentrated fiercely on fighting the drug that was trying to drag her back toward unconsciousness.

He bent down, closer to her, and for a moment Rachel could only stare at that familiar face. Then her heart clenched in pain.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured.

His eyes were blue.

Rachel wanted to cry. She thought she might have, but the drug in her system finally won the struggle, and the familiar face of a stranger grew hazy and then disappeared into the dark peace of sleep.

 
 

In the bright light of day, the sedative cleared from her system, her night-time visitor definitely seemed ghostlike at best, and a total figment of her drugged imagination at worst.

Except that she knew he had been there.

She couldn’t explain the certainty, but didn’t doubt it. The blond man had been in her hospital room last night. He had held her hand, and he had said he was sorry. And his eyes had not been violet as she had thought at the scene of her accident, but pale blue. Despite the dim light of her room last night, she was sure of that.

He was not Thomas.

In one sense, that fact was a relief; at least now she could stop agonizing over whether Thomas had been alive all the time she had believed him dead. He hadn’t lied to her, hadn’t been cruel enough to hide himself from her.

He had, quite simply, died in a tragic plane crash before his thirtieth birthday.

No, this was another man entirely. A man at least a few years younger than Thomas would have been, maybe thirty-five at most. But the resemblance was certainly uncanny. It made her seriously ask herself if maybe everyone really did have a twin somewhere in the world.

So. There was a stranger who looked like Thomas, a man who knew her name and who had seemingly been watching her for at least several days. The question was — why?

That question remained in Rachel’s mind after she went home and all through the weekend, while Fiona fussed over her and Cam exclaimed, and the phone rang with worried inquiries from concerned friends — this surprising her, since she had not realized so many people still thought of her as a friend after she had spent so many years away from Richmond.

She found herself going often to her bedroom window, where there was a view of the front gate, her gaze searching for sunlight glinting off blond hair. But she didn’t see what she looked for. Who she looked for. And without information only he could supply, there was no way for her to know who he was and why he had come into her life as he had.

By Monday afternoon Rachel had reached the point of wondering if she should take out an ad in the newspapers asking the mysterious blond man to give her a call. She didn’t, but the thought was definitely tempting.

No one seemed to notice her preoccupation over the weekend, or if they did, chalked it up to her brush with near death. Graham was the only one to comment on Monday afternoon when she went to his office to sign yet another stack of legal documents.

“You’re very quiet today,” he said, leaning back in his chair to study her thoughtfully. “Aftereffects of the crash?”

“Probably.” She made her voice reassuring. “I don’t know, maybe everybody should crash their car into an oak tree at least once. It sort of puts things into perspective for you.”

“What kinds of things?”

Her shoulders lifted and fell. “What really matters. Graham, I don’t think I want to sell the house after all. Even to Cam.”

He didn’t seem surprised. “What about the business?”

“I haven’t decided about that yet. But the house… Mom and Dad loved it so much, and they’re very much there in spirit.” Despite control, her voice quivered. “I started cleaning out their bedrooms yesterday, finally going through everything, and I couldn’t believe how close to them it made me feel. When I thought of Mom’s letters and her collection of lace handkerchiefs being packed away, and all the books Dad loved going into storage because I don’t have room for them in my apartment in New York… it just hit me what I was thinking of doing.”

She hadn’t actually begun cleaning out their bedrooms. What she had done was take two steps into her dad’s room and then sit in a chair, crying for the better part of an hour. But the result had been the same. She couldn’t bear the thought of selling out.

Graham smiled. “Well, there’s enough money to maintain the house, no question. Would you move back to Richmond and commute to New York? Keep the apartment in Manhattan and visit here on weekends? Or do your design work out of the house?”

Rachel sighed. “I haven’t made those decisions yet — except there’s no way I could work totally out of the house and keep my job. To make a name for yourself in the fashion industry, you have to be where it’s happening — and that means New York.”

“So that’s still important to you? It’s one of the things the accident put into perspective?”

She thought about it, nodding slowly. “It’s not fame I’m after. It’s not even success, really. It’s… being creative the only way I know how. It’s the excitement I feel whenever I see an idea actually taking shape in a sketch and then in fabric and on a model.”

“You could have that here in Richmond,” he said neutrally. “Open a boutique, maybe, with one-of-a-kind designs. The label of Rachel Grant, a Richmond exclusive. I’d say most of the ladies around here would eat it up. In time, New York could come knocking on your door.”

Even as he spoke, Rachel knew it could work, could be a huge success. She was only surprised she hadn’t thought of it before then.

“It’s a possibility,” she said slowly.

Graham nodded. “Definitely something to think about. I mean, if you’re going to keep the house, it’d be a shame to have it go unoccupied for long stretches. Living here, working here. Makes sense to me.” And it would keep her in Richmond, which was what he wanted.

She smiled at him. “You should have stayed with trial work, Graham. You can be very persuasive when you want to be.”

“That’s why I stopped criminal trial work.” He smiled slightly in return. “I was able to sway a jury to believe my client was innocent when he was actually guilty as hell. Didn’t much like the way that made me feel, so I switched to corporate law.”

“I never knew that.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t run my car into an oak tree, but what happened did put things into perspective for me. I’ve found life often forces us to make choices, whether we think we’re ready for them or not.”

“I’m beginning to think you’re right about that.” Her voice was somewhat rueful. “When I came back here, it seemed there were nothing but choices to make, and I didn’t want to make them. Yet, somehow, every time I’ve had to choose, it’s been easier than I expected. More simple and clear-cut.”

“Maybe you’re getting back on balance. You’ve had a hell of a rough year, Rachel, don’t forget that. Give yourself time. There’s no decision you absolutely have to make now, no choice so imperative that it won’t wait a few weeks. As with the house, you’ll know the right choice when it hits you.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Of course.”

She laughed and got to her feet. “I’ll let the whole situation simmer for a while and see what happens. Satisfied?”

“For the moment.” He rose as well, smiling. “How’s the car?”

“Drives like a dream, thanks. I meant to ask if it’s a rental or leased?”

“Leased. Let me know if you want to buy it.”

“Okay.” If she lived in Richmond on a permanent basis, she would need to own a car, something she had not needed in New York. Then there would be insurance, and a tag, and maintenance… responsibilities. Ties to this place. If she kept the house — and she was fairly certain she would — that would be the biggest tie of all. She felt a tinge of uneasiness but pushed that reaction aside.

“Rachel?”

She looked at Graham, saw his frown, and realized that she must have flinched or otherwise betrayed discomfort. “It’s nothing. For a minute there, I let the… weight of choices overwhelm me. But you’re right. There’s nothing I have to decide right this minute. Which reminds me—”

“I’ll tell Nicholas you need more time to decide about the business.”

“Thanks. I’ll see you later, Graham.”

“You bet.”

Rachel left his office and drove her leased sedan home without incident. Except that she couldn’t stop scanning her surroundings in search of the blond stranger. She didn’t see him.

That newspaper ad began to seem more inviting.

When she went into the house, it was to discover that Fiona was upset because Darby’s workmen had been “tramping” up and down the stairs all day, getting in her way, and Cam wanted to talk to her about buying a rosewood wardrobe that had been found in the attic even though Darby was desperate to have it for her shop, and Darby needed to check with Rachel because she had a list of requested pieces from clients.

Rachel dealt with each of them patiently, soothing, answering, or making a decision — whatever was called for. Fiona was promised fewer difficulties caused by workmen, Cam was promised the rosewood wardrobe, and Darby’s list was gone over and selected items agreed upon. Then Rachel retreated to her father’s study so she could be alone for a little while.

It was a room she had always loved, a fairly small room off a side hall on the first floor, where her father had spent much of his time when he was home. It was one of the few rooms in the house not furnished with delicate antiques — though the huge Regency table that had served as his desk was certainly an exquisite piece. The remaining furniture consisted of big, comfortable, overstuffed chairs and a sofa that faced the marble fireplace, as well as big, solid end tables and occasional tables. The floor was hardwood, but covered with a lovely rug in muted shades of blue and burgundy, and bookshelves lined the wall between the two large windows.

Rachel had already been through all the business papers her father had kept in this room, but she was still in the process of sorting through his remaining personal papers. He had been quite a letter writer, especially in his younger years, and Rachel was loath to throw away his correspondence without reading it just to make sure nothing important was discarded by accident.

She was sitting at the desk bemusedly reading a letter to her father from a rather well-known sixties actor, when the door opened and Fiona stepped in, a peculiar expression on her face.

“Miss Rachel…”

“What is it, Fiona? Darby said she’d speak to her guys, so they should stay out of your way now. Is that it? Or is there another problem?”

“No. That is — I don’t know. There’s a — a gentleman here to see you.” The housekeeper’s voice was as odd as her expression, a little shaky and more than a little hesitant.

“Oh? Who is he?”

“He says his name is Delafield, Miss Rachel. Adam Delafield. He says.”

Rachel frowned at the housekeeper. “Did he say what it was about?”

“Something about your father, he said.”

“All right. Show him in.” Since her parents had died, she had been getting calls and visits from people they had known, and in particular from people who had been helped in some way by her father.

“Miss Rachel—” Fiona hesitated, then turned away, muttering something under her breath. And crossing herself.

So Rachel probably should have expected her visitor to present something of a shock. But she didn’t. And when the blond man walked into the room a few moments later, she could only stare at him in astonishment.

“Hello,” he said, his voice low and curiously compelling. “I’m Adam Delafield. It’s nice to finally meet you, Rachel.”

His eyes were definitely blue.

He was tall and athletic in appearance, with wide shoulders and an easy way of moving that spoke of an active life. His lean face wore a tan that had obviously come from time spent outdoors over the years. He was dressed casually in dark slacks and a black leather jacket worn over an open-necked white shirt, and looked perfectly at ease.

He also looked, amazingly, incredibly, heartbreakingly, like Thomas.

Of all the questions swirling around in Rachel’s mind, the first one to find voice was “Who are you?”

He smiled slightly. “I just told you.”

She got up and went toward him, stopping when she could rest her hands on the back of a chair, keeping it between them as a barrier. “You told me your name. But who are you? Why have you been watching me? Why did you leave the accident and — and come to my hospital room, and how do you know my name?” And how is it that you look so much like him?

“Lot of questions.” His smile remained. “Can we sit down while I try to answer them?”

Rachel hesitated, then gestured for him to sit on the sofa while she chose the chair across from it. She couldn’t take her eyes off his face, and even as he began speaking in a voice that was — surely it was! — eerily like Thomas’s, she realized that he was not as at ease as he appeared. There was tension in him; she could feel it. And those blue eyes held a muted intensity that stirred a new and wordless uneasiness in her.

“My name, as I said, is Adam Delafield.” He spoke slowly, consideringly, and his gaze was intent on her. “And the simple answer to all your questions is that I knew your father.”

“How did you know him?”

“He invested money in a… project of mine.”

Rachel frowned, trying to take in what he was saying, to separate his words from the overwhelming confusion of his looks. “I don’t recall seeing your name on any of Dad’s financial records.”

“No, you wouldn’t have. The investment wasn’t through the bank. He used personal money and there were no records of the transaction.”

Her frown deepened. “I know Dad occasionally invested his own money in ventures he considered too risky for the bank, but no records? A handshake deal? How could he report his profits or losses if there was no paperwork?”

“In my case, he didn’t expect either profit or loss. The deal was simple, a turnaround of the money. He invested a considerable sum, which I was to repay within ten years.”

“Interest free? That sounds like a loan rather than an investment. And a pretty good deal for you.”

Adam Delafield nodded. “An excellent deal for me. But he called it an investment because he was sure we would do business together in the future. That was a little more than five years ago. I expect to be in a position to pay off the… loan — within the next six months.”

“And that’s why you showed up here? Why you watched me from a distance for days?”

“You make me sound like a stalker.” His voice was light, but that intensity lingered and lent the words shadows. He sighed. “Rachel — I hope you don’t mind, but Duncan talked about you and I got into the habit of thinking of you as if I knew you.”

She hesitated, then shrugged. “No, I don’t mind.”

“Thanks. Rachel, I just wasn’t sure how to approach you. I intended to introduce myself to you earlier, right after Duncan and your mother were killed, but you had already gone back to New York, and until the estate was settled, or nearly so, you weren’t expected back. I didn’t want to intrude on your grief. And — I knew about the resemblance.”

Taken aback, she said, “You did?”

He nodded. “Duncan commented on it, even showed me a photograph of Thomas Sheridan. So I knew my appearance would probably come as a shock to you. I didn’t want to upset you, that’s why I hesitated to just come up and knock on the door. At the same time, the investment Duncan made in my project was substantial, and since I knew there were no documents, and that he wouldn’t have mentioned it in his will, and possibly not even in his personal papers, I had to see you and explain the situation.”

She thought it said something about this man’s character that he insisted she know about a part of her inheritance she would never have missed; she couldn’t help wondering how many people would have just kept the money and their silence. But all she said was “It doesn’t really sound like Dad, investing money with no records. He must have trusted you a great deal.”

Adam looked down at his clasped hands. “He was very kind to me at a point in my life when kindness meant more than money. And he had faith in my future, something I didn’t have myself. I don’t know why he trusted me, but he did. I’ll always be as grateful to him for that trust as for the money that put me back on my feet.”

Rachel was moved despite both uneasiness and fascination. Dear God, he looks so much like Thomas! And sounded like him. She clasped her hands together and made herself concentrate. “How did you know Dad? I mean, how did you meet him?”

“It’s a bit involved.” He raised his gaze to her face and smiled faintly. “He came out to California, where I’m from, more than five years ago on a business trip. I had, the week before, called up an old friend to ask for help. The friend, as it turned out, was away in Europe. His partner, as it turned out, was Duncan Grant.”

“Nicholas Ross?” That surprised her, although she couldn’t have said exactly why.

“Yes. We’d known each other a long time and Nick… sort of owed me a favor. Anyway, when I couldn’t reach him, I spoke briefly to Duncan. I found out when lie came out to San Francisco the next week that he had called Nick and asked about me. To this day I don’t know what Nick told him, but he came out to California specifically to see me. He listened to my problems and my plans, and offered me the money I needed on the spot.

“Over the next three or four years I flew out here several times to see him. To let him know how his investment was doing. How I was doing. We’d have lunch, maybe even do a flyover of the city in that little plane he was so proud of. And then I’d go back to California.”

Rachel flinched a little as she thought of the sleek twin-engine plane her father had loved — and that had taken both her parents to their deaths. Adam obviously saw her reaction.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause you any pain, Rachel.”

“No, it’s just… I don’t like to think about that plane, that’s all.” Planes had taken all the people she loved. She conjured a smile. “So you know Nicholas. Didn’t you assume he’d tell me about Dad’s investment?”

Adam shook his head. “No, I knew he’d leave it to me. Nick isn’t exactly the most candid of men, you know. I mean, he isn’t apt to discuss other people’s business.”

“Or even his own,” Rachel observed dryly.

“Very true.” Adam’s eyes grew even more intense when he smiled at her, and it made her feel strange. He isn’t! Thomas. He isn’t! No matter how much he looks like him. But those logical reminders did nothing to curb her growing desire to reach out and touch him.

Unwilling to let a silence fall between them, she said, “Why did you leave the scene on Friday when I hit that tree? The paramedics told me only the highway patrol was there near the car when they arrived.”

“You should have asked the highway patrol about me,” he told her with a touch of amusement. “When they reached the scene, they made everyone else stand back. You were in expert care and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do, so I left when I heard the ambulance coming.”

She half nodded, then said, “Why did you come to my room at the hospital so late? You did, didn’t you? I didn’t imagine it?”

“No, you didn’t imagine it.” He hesitated. “I just wanted to make sure you were all right. Didn’t expect you to wake up, but you were obviously groggy and went back to sleep almost at once, so I didn’t stay.”

“You came late. After visiting hours.” That still bothered her.

“There were some things I had to take care of first,” he said rather vaguely, looking briefly down at his hands in a way that shuttered his gaze for a moment. “It was late when I finished up and got to the hospital. To be honest, I snuck in.”

She thought his smile was very disarming. “I see. All right — Adam. I suppose all this makes sense.” But it doesn’t, none of it does.

“But you still have your doubts?”

“Well, let’s just say it surprises me that Dad would have done business the way you say he did. However, you didn’t have to come and tell me all this, and I can’t think of any devious reason why you would have. And I imagine Nicholas will vouch for you.”

A flicker of some emotion Rachel couldn’t read crossed his handsome face, but he merely said, “I’m sure he will. In the meantime, I just want to assure you that Duncan’s investment will be repaid as promised. By the end of the year, I believe.”

Realizing suddenly that she had no idea, she said, “I suppose I should ask what kind of business Dad invested in.”

“It was more a project than a business, initially. I had dreamed up an electronic gadget that would improve most manufacturing facilities. I had to get the design patented, a prototype built, and try to sell it. It was so successful that I was able to start my own electronic design and engineering firm. All possible due to the investment Duncan made.”

“I’m sure he was pleased with your success. Dad loved to see people achieve their dreams.” Rachel started to rise to her feet. “How much was the investment, by the way?”

Matter-of-factly, Adam replied, “Three million dollars.”

 
 

FOUR

 

Rachel sat back down. “Three million dollars?”

He nodded.

“You’re telling me that my father invested three million dollars of his own money on a handshake?”

Patient, Adam said, “I’ve already told you that, yes.”

“You didn’t tell me it was three million dollars.” She was incredulous. “Adam, I’ve seen Dad’s bank records going back years. There was no unexplained withdrawal anywhere near that size, not five years ago and not ever. Every penny has been accounted for.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. Except — as I remember, he transferred the funds to my bank from a Swiss bank account.”

She blinked. “He what? He doesn’t have a Swiss bank account.”

“He did five years ago. I was sitting in the room, admittedly a bit numb, but I remember the call clearly. He definitely called Geneva.”

Rachel had passed bewilderment; now she felt distinctly unnerved, and not only because the image of her long-dead fiancé was sitting across from her. What would an honest businessman want with a Swiss bank account? And why had no sign of such a thing come to light during all the months countless experts had combed through Duncan Grant’s financial records?

It naturally occurred to her that she was hearing this from a virtual stranger, and that she had every reason to doubt what he was telling her. Except that he seemed about to hand her three million dollars, and she couldn’t imagine how that could be part of some tangled deception. And — he looked like Thomas. He looked so damned much like Thomas.

“Rachel? Are you all right?”

“No, I’m not.”

He hesitated, then said reassuringly, “I’m sure there’s no reason for you to be concerned. Duncan may have routed some of his funds through Geneva temporarily for some tax reason. If the account still existed, you surely would have found some record of it among his papers.”

“Would I? I found no record of a three-million-dollar investment, so I would say nothing’s certain where my father is concerned.”

Adam hesitated once again before saying, “He wouldn’t have wanted you to miss getting part of your inheritance, so I’m sure he would have left some kind of word for you if he had money… put aside somewhere you wouldn’t expect it to be.”

“You mean if he had money hidden somewhere.”

“I didn’t want to put it that way,” he murmured.

“My father,” she told him fiercely, “was an honest man. He earned every nickel he had. Every last one. There was no reason for him to hide money.”

“I’m sure you’re right.” Adam shook his head. “Look, Rachel, I’m sorry I’ve upset you. It wasn’t my intention to do that. I just wanted to let you know that Duncan’s investment will be repaid this year. You might want to talk to whoever advises you financially. That’s a pretty large chunk of money.”

“No kidding.” It was Rachel’s turn to shake her head. “And how do I explain it? How will you explain it?”

“Repayment of a personal loan,” he said promptly. “It started my business, so I’ve had to be fairly specific in my own paperwork, but since the repayment is coming out of clear and already taxed personal profit, I don’t expect there’ll be many questions.”

Obviously, his “dreamed-up” design and new company had proven to be enormously successful if he could repay three million dollars from his personal bank account. “Simple for you, but I know enough about finance to be fairly certain that if I can’t prove that loan was made to you out of already taxed earnings, I’m going to have problems. Somehow, I doubt that’s the way Dad planned it.”

“So do I,” Adam agreed with a slight frown. “Which means he must have left some record somewhere, if only a notation about making a personal loan and where the funds came from. Have you gone through all his personal papers?”

“Not all of them, not yet.”

“There you go. Until you do and nothing turns up, let’s not borrow trouble.”

Rachel managed a smile, even though too many questions remained unanswered. “I guess you’re right. Besides, an hour ago this money didn’t even exist for me. Anything realized from it is more than I expected.”

“That sounds like a sensible way of looking at it.” Adam got to his feet. “And now, since I’ve taken up enough of your time, I’ll be going.”

Rachel got to her feet as well, and hoped her voice didn’t sound as anxious to him as it did to her when she asked “Back to California?”

“No, not yet. I plan to stay in Richmond another week or two. I’ll be at the Sheraton if you… need to get in touch.” He took a step toward her and held out his hand.

Rachel hesitated only an instant before giving him her hand, and as braced for it as she was, the touch of him was still a little shocking. He isn’t Thomas. He isn’t But that certainty didn’t have the power to change what she felt. She gazed up into his eyes and felt stirrings of sensations she hadn’t experienced in a long, long time.

This is wrong. I don’t know him. I know only what he looks like.

“I realize I’m a stranger to you,” he said abruptly, still holding her hand, “but — I’d like to see you again, Rachel. May I call you, say in a day or two? We could have dinner, see a movie. Something casual.”

He isn’t Thomas.

“I’d like that.” She hadn’t planned to say it until the words came out, but once they did, she didn’t regret them.

“Good.” He smiled at her and squeezed her hand gently, then released it. “I’ll see myself out. It was very nice meeting you, Rachel — at last.”

“And it was nice finding out you weren’t a ghost or a figment of my imagination,” she told him, keeping it light.

He had a nice laugh.

When she was alone in the study, Rachel sat in the chair and stared across the room at nothing, thoughts and emotions swirling within her and her hand still tingling from the touch of his.

“My God,” she murmured.

 
 

“Three million dollars?”

Rachel nodded, gazing across his desk at Graham’s surprised expression. “That’s what the man said.”

“Duncan lent this man three million dollars on a handshake?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Startled me too,” she murmured.

“No, I mean I flat-out don’t believe it. Rachel, that’s not the way Duncan did business. It’d be insane to risk that kind of money with absolutely no written promise of repayment. What if this man — Delafield, you said his name was?”

“Adam Delafield.”

Graham made a note on the legal pad on his blotter. “What if he denied getting the money? Or simply decided not to repay it? Duncan would have had no recourse, no legal means of demanding the debt be repaid.”

Calmly, Rachel said, “Obviously, Dad thought he could trust this man. And the proof of his good judgment came to see me yesterday. If he hadn’t, I never would have known about the loan — not unless something turns up in Dad’s private papers, anyway. All he had to do was sit on the money and keep silent. But he came to tell me the debt will be repaid in the next six months or so.”

Graham shook his head. “There’s something fishy about it.”

“Well, if you can figure out some way a con artist would benefit by promising to pay me three million dollars, let me know. I couldn’t think of a damned thing.”

“Did he ask you for anything? Anything at all?”

I’d like to see you again, Rachel

She shook her head. “No.”

Graham drummed his fingers on the legal pad. “And you say you saw him watching you before he came to the house? That he was the man you mistook on that street corner for Thomas? And that you saw him just before your car’s brakes went out?”

“I told you why. He wasn’t sure how to approach me, especially since he looks so much like Thomas.” Despite her own uneasiness, Rachel smiled. “Graham, you’re so suspicious. Why can’t Adam Delafield just be an honest man trying to repay a loan? Why does there have to be more to it?”

Graham reached to open the top drawer of his desk and drew out a sheaf of papers. “I got this just a couple of hours ago. Since you’d already called to say you were dropping by, I decided to wait until you got here to discuss it.”

“Discuss what?”

“This is the mechanic’s report on the Mercedes. The brake line didn’t fail, Rachel. It was cut.”

She didn’t even blink for a moment, but then drew a deep breath. “Cut. You mean — deliberately?”

“That’s what it looks like. The mechanic says it would be difficult to prove in court, that it’s possible the line could have been cut accidentally, but he knows his job and he believes it was no accident.”

“You’re saying someone wanted to — to hurt me? To cause an accident?”

“I’m saying we should both cultivate a little healthy distrust, especially where strangers are concerned.” Graham’s voice was deliberate.

Rachel leaned back in her chair and stared at him. “You think it was Adam?”

“I think it’s a damned suspicious coincidence that he turns up mysteriously in your life with a convenient resemblance to your dead fiancé, and a few days later your car smashes into a tree.”

She felt a chill, but even so had to object. “What would he have to gain? Graham, he told me about the money he owes Dad. Why would he have done that if he wanted to renege on the debt?”

“Rachel, you have only this man’s word for it that a debt exists.”

“But why would he—”

“Think about it. What better way to ingratiate himself into your life than by claiming that your father helped him when he was down on his luck. That he’s so grateful your father’s investment let him turn his life around. And by telling you he’s going to pay you three million dollars by the end of the year.”

“What could he hope to gain by lying about those things?”

“You’re an heiress,” Graham reminded her bluntly. “Worth a hell of a lot more than three million dollars.”

“So he cut the brake line on my car? That is what you’re implying?”

“What I’m saying is that his story is damned suspicious, especially following what looks very much like a manufactured accident. Rachel, given where the accident happened — had to happen — the chances were good you wouldn’t be driving very fast. It wasn’t likely to be a serious crash. He could have planned it that way.”

“But why?”

“As a distraction, a diversion of your attention. Or mine.”

After a moment, Rachel shook her head. “That’s too Machiavellian for me, Graham. A possibility only a lawyer could consider.”

He didn’t smile. If anything, Graham’s grimness increased as he slowly realized something. The crash might have put “things” into perspective for Rachel, but something else had happened since then. She was… waking up. Coming out of the deep freeze where Thomas’s death had left her. Her features were more animated than he could remember seeing them, her smile quicker, and even her voice held more life.

It was a subtle change — but it was a definite change. A hint of more changes to come. And there was only one reason for it that he could think of.

Adam Delafield.

If Graham had been a man given to shouting and throwing things, he would have done so then. All his patience. All his undemanding, understanding friendship, his help and concern for Rachel all these months, and none of it had so much as chipped her frozen serenity. Then came Adam Delafield, looking, apparently, like Thomas Sheridan’s twin — and Rachel was thawing.

Keeping his voice level, Graham said, “There have been more involved plans to gain a fortune, Rachel. Plenty of them.”

She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head. “No, I don’t believe that he’s — what? Trying to sweep me off my feet? Marry me before I discover he’s a con artist?”

“It’s been done before.”

Rachel couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s absurd! Graham, I’m not an idiot. Nor am I so trusting that I’d give anyone power over me unless I was absolutely certain that power wouldn’t be misused.”

“How’s he supposed to know that? Until he gets to know you, I mean.”

“And I thought my imagination was working overtime when I was so sure I’d seen Thomas.” She shook her head again, this time bemusedly. “Yours is really overactive, you know that?”

Graham’s mouth firmed stubbornly. “Maybe so, but humor me. I’m going to have him checked out, Rachel. His background. Find out if there’s really a company out in California.”

Her first impulse was to tell him not to, but Rachel knew it would be the sensible thing to do. And since she had just claimed she wasn’t foolish, she could hardly object to a sensible and responsible precaution. Because he’s not Thomas, after all.

“Fine,” she said. “And you might want to check first with Nicholas, since they’re old friends.”

If Graham had expected an argument, it didn’t show; he merely nodded. “I’ll get right on it. But in the meantime, do me a favor? Park your car in secure places and stay away from Adam Delafield?”

“I’ll be careful,” Rachel promised. Which was not, of course, quite what Graham had asked for, but he didn’t realize that until she was gone.

Swearing softly, he reached for his phone.

 
 

It was almost midnight on Tuesday night when Mercy’s pillow moved under her, and she murmured a sleepy complaint.

“Sorry, love, but I can’t stay tonight.” Nicholas eased away from her and slid from the bed.

“Why not?” She winced when he turned on the lamp on her nightstand, then rolled on her side and blinked owlishly.

“Just some things I need to take care of at my place.”

“At this hour?” Mercy raised her head and propped it on one hand, watching as he got dressed. She enjoyed watching him dress. Or undress, for that matter. He had an incredible body, so powerfully muscled there was almost no give to his flesh at all. At the same time, he didn’t look like those weight lifters with their exaggerated physiques. He was strong in ways they couldn’t begin to match, and his muscles were not for show, but for use. Hard use.

Or so Mercy guessed. She guessed he had needed to be strong more than once in his past, probably for his very survival. The several long scars marking his back, chest, and rib cage told that story.

When she had asked, he had said only that he’d been in “a fight or two” in his past, offering no further details. Wary of asking for more than he wanted to give, she had not brought up the subject again. But his silence only encouraged the sometimes incredible tales she made up to account for his various marks and traits and abilities. It was not an unpleasant occupation.

But wearing a bit thin after five years of knowing him and a year of physical intimacy.

Replying to her plaintive question, Nicholas said, “I’m a night owl, you know that. I work best this time of night.” He sat on the edge of the bed and began to put on his socks and shoes.

“You could have warned me earlier. I put out a steak to thaw.”

Mercy did not cook for Nicholas since he was perfectly able to cook for himself; in fact, he tended to fix breakfast for them both whenever he stayed over at her apartment or she stayed over at his. And, being a very large man with a correspondingly large appetite, he favored substantial breakfasts such as steak and eggs.

“Mmm. Leave it in the refrigerator and we can have it next time. Okay?”

“Sure.” It was, strictly speaking, his steak, anyway — bought and paid for. At least once a week he arrived bearing a bag of groceries, always replacing what he had eaten at Mercy’s place, and she had never objected. It was just one more way he had of keeping their relationship on a carefully balanced footing, with neither of them beholden to the other.

Dressed now except for the jacket he had left in her living room, he half turned to look down at her consideringly. “Or… I could come back in a couple of hours.”

Mercy didn’t know quite what she was supposed to say to that; it wasn’t a suggestion he had ever made before. So she shrugged and murmured, “Suit yourself. You have a key.”

He looked at her a moment longer, his ugly face unreadable, then nodded and got to his feet. “Go back to sleep, Mercy.” He turned off the lamp, plunging the room into darkness.

Like a cat, he could see easily in the dark.

Mercy lay back on her pillow, listening to the very faint sounds of him leaving the bedroom and then, moments later, the apartment. She didn’t go back to sleep for a long time.

 
 

In its heyday, it had been known as The Tavern, a nice restaurant and bar that had served good food and good booze to most of the upper class of Richmond. Its Old English-style sign hanging out front had been a landmark, and it had been the place to be on Saturday nights.

That was then.

Neither the neighborhood nor The Tavern had aged gracefully. Most of the surrounding stores were either vacant or else provided shelter for Richmond’s population of homeless and aimless. The rest had thick steel doors and iron bars on the windows, and inside went on the quiet, desperate kinds of business that destroyed lives and souls.

The police seldom bothered to patrol the area, and the denizens had learned to take care of trouble on their own.

As for The Tavern itself, the sign out front had long ago vanished, and nobody had bothered to replace it. The interior had been trashed so many times that the current owner had finally stripped the floors down to the stained concrete and the furnishings to little more than scarred pool tables.

The place was incredibly dark and smoky, to say nothing of being three deep at the bar with most of the worst citizens of Richmond, but no one gave Nicholas any trouble. In fact, men gave way for him instantly and without a murmur of complaint or abuse, even the drunkest ones.

He found Adam Delafield in the back corner, occupying one of only three booths not torn out long ago to provide more room for the pool tables and the clientele — a standing man taking up less space and much less furniture than a sitting man.

“Nice place.” Nicholas slid into the booth across from Adam, automatically shifting the unsteady table a bit more toward Adam to make room for himself.

Adam rescued two wobbling glasses as the table rocked, then handed one across to Nicholas. “Have a beer. You sound disgruntled.”

“I am disgruntled. You dragged me out of a warm bed.”

“The beers not bad. Honest.”

Nicholas sipped, then grimaced slightly. “Okay, it’s not bad. But that was a very warm and comfortable bed I had to leave, Adam. Couldn’t this have waited until morning?”

“You tell me. Did you get the call?”

“From Graham Becket? Yeah. Asked me if you were on the level with Rachel. If Duncan really had loaned you three million dollars.”

“And you told him?”

“That you were, and Duncan had. Wasn’t that what I was supposed to say?”

“I hope you managed to sound a bit more convincing, Nick.”

Nicholas smiled. “Naturally. Fair warning though — Becket’s a suspicious bastard at the best of times, and where Rachel’s concerned, he’s even more so.”

Adam frowned. “Is he that protective of her?”

“He’s that in love with her.”

“You’re sure about that?”

Nicholas shrugged. “As sure as one man can be of another man’s feelings. He’d just love to slay dragons for her. Protecting her and her money from an ex-con with a fishy story would suit him right down to the ground.”

Adam scowled. “Great.”

“I did try to warn you this wouldn’t be easy.”

“I know. But I’m an optimist.” Adam took a drink of his beer, still frowning.

“You’d also better know that Becket will turn up the conviction and jail time in pretty short order. I don’t like the son of a bitch, but he’s efficient as hell and definitely motivated. So you’d better start planning to look at Rachel with big, sad eyes while you tell her your long, sad story.”

Adam grunted.

Nicholas looked at him with cynical amusement. “Pretty long limb you’re crawling out on.”

“It’s no place I haven’t been before.”

“True.” Nicholas studied him across the table. “And this time you’ve dressed for the part. That’s a new look for you, isn’t it?”

Adam shrugged.

Refusing to be warned off, Nicholas went on coolly. “Longer hair, more casual clothing. I seem to recall that was Thomas Sheridan’s style.”

“You don’t say.”

“You’re taking a big chance, Adam.”

Once again Adam shrugged, but a frown drew his brows low. “Maybe. But I don’t have much choice, do I? She wouldn’t have let me in the door otherwise.”