Holding the Dream

Chapter Fourteen

"He doesn't believe me." Reaction set in the minute the door closed behind her. All the anger and righteousness jittered away into fear.

"I'm not so sure of that," Josh murmured and navigated her out of the interviewing area. He could feel her body vibrate through the hand he held to her back. "But what matters is they don't have a case. There isn't enough to take to the DA, and Kusack knows it."

"It does matter." She pressed a hand to her churning stomach. Not the ulcer this time, she hoped. But that was little comfort when the alternative diagnosis was shame and fear. "It matters what he thinks, what Bittle thinks, what everyone thinks. However much I don't want it to, it matters."

"Listen to me." He turned her in the corridor to face him, kept his hands on her shoulders. "You did fine in there. Better than fine. It might not have been the exact route I would have recommended as your attorney, but it was effective. The records in your Filofax open up a whole new area of investigation. Now consider who led you to that."

"You did." When he shook his head, she drew her brows together. Because Josh expected it, she ordered herself to think clearly. "He did. Kusack did. He wanted me to tell him I had the code written down somewhere."

"Somewhere where it could be accessed." Josh's hands gentled on her shoulders. "Now I want you to put this aside. I mean it, Kate," he continued even as she opened her mouth to protest. "Let Kusack do his job, let me do mine. You have people behind you. That's something I don't want you to forget again."

"I'm scared." She pressed her lips together, wanting her voice to be level even in the admission. "The only time I wasn't scared was when he made me mad. Now I'm scared all over again. Why did he bring up my father, Josh? How did he know about it? What reason would he have for looking that far into my background?"

"I don't know. I'm going to find out."

"They have to know at Bittle." Despair was a stone sinking in her gut. "If Kusack knows, so do the partners. Maybe they knew about it before, and that's why - "

"Kate, stop."

"But what if they never find out who did it? If they don't find out, then I'm always going to - "

"I said stop. We will find out. That's a promise - not from your lawyer but from your big brother." He drew her close, kissed the top of her head, then spotted Byron striding down the hall. He recognized barely controlled fury when he saw it and decided it was just what Kate needed to take her mind off the interview.

"By, good timing. You'll run Kate home, won't you?"

She spun around, confused and embarrassed. "What are you doing here?"

"Laura tracked me down." He shot a look at Josh that clearly stated they would talk later and began to usher Kate down the hall. "Let's get out of here."

"I need to go back to the shop. Margo's alone."

"Margo can handle herself." He towed her down the steps, past the desk, and outside, where the sun was blinding bright. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah. A little turned around inside, but okay."

He'd driven his 'Vette, the sleek, streamlined two-seater in muscle-car black. Settling inside a thirty-year-old car only made the entire day all the more surreal.

"You didn't have to come all the way down here."

"Obviously." Despising the impotency, he gunned the engine viciously. "You'd have called if you'd wanted my help. Now you're stuck with it."

"There wasn't anything you could do," she began and winced at the molten look he shot her before he cruised out of the parking lot. "They didn't charge me with anything."

"Well, it's our lucky day, isn't it?" He wanted to drive. He wanted to drive fast to dissipate some of the bubbling anger before it boiled over and burned them both. To cancel any possibility of conversation, he flicked up the volume on the car stereo, and Eric Clapton's angry guitar licks scorched the air.

Perfect, Kate thought, and shut her eyes. Mean music, a muscle car and southern-fried temper. She told herself the migraine brewing and the highly possible visit by her old pal Mr. Ulcer were enough to worry about.

She found her sunglasses in her purse and put them on before dry-swallowing medication. Through the tinted lenses, the light seemed calmer, kinder. The wind whipped, cooling her hot cheeks. She had only to lay her head back, raise her face, to see the sky.

Byron said nothing, but sent the car slashing up Highway 1 like a bright black sword cleaving through sea and rock. It tore through a low-lying cloud, burst out of the thin vapor, and roared back into the flash of sun.

He'd been battling feelings of impotence and hot fury since Laura's call. The police took Kate in for questioning. We don't know what they're going to do. A detective came to the shop, and he took her.

The jingle of fear in Laura's usually calm voice had set off a violent chain reaction in him. The fear had been fueled by hurt. Kate hadn't called him.

He'd imagined her alone - it hadn't mattered that Laura had assured him Josh was with her. He'd envisioned her alone, frightened, at the mercy of accusations. His overworked imagination had pictured her handcuffed and led off in chains.

And there was nothing he could do but wait.

Now she was sitting beside him, her eyes shielded by dark glasses that made her skin all the more pale in contrast. Her hands were clasped in her lap, deceptively still until you noted the knuckles were white. And she had told him there was no need for him.

He didn't question the impulse, but swung to the side of the road. At the Templeton House cliffs where she had once wept on his shoulder.

She opened her eyes. It didn't surprise her in the least that he had stopped there, there at a spot of both peace and drama. Before she could reach for the door handle, he was leaning across her to jerk open the door himself.

An old habit, she decided. With all that temper swirling around in him, the gesture couldn't be considered courtly.

In silence they walked to the cliffs.

"Why didn't you call me?" He hadn't meant to ask that first, but it popped out of his mouth.

"I didn't think of it."

He whirled on her so quickly, so unexpectedly, that she stumbled back a step, crushed a scattering of tiny white wild-flowers underfoot. "No, you wouldn't. Just where the hell am I on that agenda of yours, Katherine?"

"I don't know what you mean. I didn't think of it because - "

"Because you don't need anyone but Kate," he shot back. "Because you don't want to need anyone who might upset that profit-and-loss ledger in your head. I wouldn't have been of any practical use, so why bother?"

"That's not true."

How could she deal with an argument now? she wondered. How could she handle that brilliant fury in his eyes? She had a terrible urge to simply press her hands to her ears, squeeze her eyes shut so that she could neither see nor hear. So she could just be alone in the dark.

"I don't understand why you're so angry with me, but I just don't have the energy to fight with you now."

He gripped her arm before she could turn away. "Good. Then you can just listen. Try to imagine what it was like to be told by someone else that the police had taken you in. To visualize what might be happening to you, what you were going through, and to be powerless to change it."

"That's just it. There wasn't anything you could do."

"I could have been there." He shouted over the wind that raked through his hair like wild fingers. "I could have been there for you. You could have known there was someone who cared there for you. But you didn't even think of it."

"Damn it, Byron, I couldn't think at all." She jerked away, walked along the cliff path. Even a few steps would distance her from the upheaval of emotion, the avalanche, the flood of it, before she broke into pieces. "It was like being shut down, or frozen up. I was too scared to think. It wasn't personal."

"I take it very personally. We have a relationship, Kate." He waited while she slowly turned around, watching him through eyes guarded by dark glasses. With some effort, he drew in his temper and spoke with measured calm. "I thought I made it clear what that entails for me. If you can't accept the basic terms of a relationship with me, then we're wasting our time."

She hadn't thought anything could squeeze past the pain in her head, the ache in her stomach, the sizzle of shame in her blood. But she hadn't counted on despair. Somehow despair always made room for itself.

Her eyes burned as she looked at him, standing in the sun and wind. "Well, you dumping me certainly puts a cap on the day."

She started past him with some idea of running up to Templeton House, getting inside and shutting everything else out.

"Goddamn it." He spun her around, crushing his mouth to hers in a kiss that tasted of bitter frustration. "How can you be so hardheaded?" He shook her, then kissed her again until she wondered why her overtaxed brain didn't simply implode. "Can't you see anything unless it's in a straight line?"

"I'm tired." She hated, resented, the shakiness of her voice. "I'm humiliated. I'm scared. Just leave me alone."

"I'd like nothing better than to be able to leave you alone. Just walk away and chalk it up to a bad bet."

He pulled off her sunglasses, stuck them in his pocket. He'd wanted to see her eyes, and now he recognized swirling in them the same anger and hurt that twisted in him. "Do you think I need the turmoil and complications you've brought into my life? Do you actually think I'd tolerate all that because we're good in bed?"

"You don't have to tolerate it." She fisted her hands on his chest. "You don't have to tolerate any of it"

"Damn right I don't. But I am tolerating it because I think I'm in love with you."

She'd have been less surprised if he'd simply hauled her up and tossed her over the cliff. In an attempt to keep her reeling head in place, she pressed a hand to her temple.

"Hard to come up with a response?" His voice was as sharp and smooth as a newly oiled sword. "That's not surprising. Emotions don't add up in neat columns, do they?"

"I don't know what I'm supposed to say to you. This isn't fair."

"It's not about fair. And at the moment I don't like the situation any more than you do. You're a far cry from the girl of my dreams, Katherine."

That had her eyes clearing. "Now I know what to say. Go to hell."

"Unimaginative," he decided. "Now get this into that com puter-chip brain of yours." He pulled her up onto her toes until their eyes were level. "I don't like to make mistakes any more than you do, so I'm going to take the time to figure out exactly how I feel about you. If I decide you're what I want, then you're what I'll have."

Her eyes narrowed, glinting with dangerous lights. "How incredibly romantic."

His lips curved in quick and genuine humor. "I'll give you romance, Kate, and plenty of it."

"You can take your warped concept of romance and - "

He cut her off with a soft, quiet kiss. "I was worried about you," he murmured. "I was afraid for you. And you hurt me because you didn't turn to me."

"I didn't mean to - " She snapped back before her bones could melt. "You're twisting this around. You're trying to confuse me." Surrendering to pain, she shut her eyes. "Oh, God, my head aches."

"I know. I can see it." As a parent might soothe a child, he touched his lips to her left temple, then her right. "Let's sit down." He eased her down onto a rock, then stood behind her to massage the tense muscles of her neck and shoulders. "I want to take care of you, Kate."

"I don't want to be taken care of."

"I know." Over her head he watched the sea gleam as the sun burned through a cloud and streamed down. She couldn't help that, he supposed, any more than he could help his own need to protect and defend. "We'll have to find an area of compromise there. You matter to me.''

"I know. You matter to me, too, but - "

"That's a nice place to stop," he told her. "I'm asking you to think of me. And to accept that you can turn to me. For the little things - and for the big ones. Can you handle that much?"

"I can try." She wanted to believe it was the medication finally kicking in that was making the pain slide away. But a part of her, the part she'd long considered foolish, thought it was the sea and the cliffs. And him. "Byron, I didn't mean to hurt you. I hate hurting people I care about. It's the worst thing for me."

"I know." He pressed his thumbs to the base of her neck, searching out stubborn knots of tension. And smiled when she leaned back against him.

"When I saw you in the police station, I was embarrassed."

"I know that too."

"Well, it's nice to be so transparent."

"I know where to look in you. It seems to be some kind of innate skill. It's one of the reasons I think I may be in love with you." He felt the tension leap back into her muscles. "Relax," he suggested. "We may both learn to live with it"

"My life is, to put it mildly, in upheaval."

She stared straight ahead to the horizon. The sky always met the sea, she mused, no matter how distant. But people didn't always, couldn't always find that joining point

"I also know my own limitations," she continued. "I'm not ready for that kind of leap."

"I'm not sure I am myself. But if I take it, I'm pulling you with me." He came around the rock to sit beside her. "I'm very good at handling complications, Kate. I'll handle you." When she opened her mouth, he pressed his fingers to it. "No you don't. You'll tense up again. You're just going to say you won't be handled, then I'll have to say something about how if you let someone take part of the control now and again you wouldn't have so many headaches. Then we'd just go around until one of us gets pissed off again."

She frowned at him. "I don't like the way you fight"

"It always drove my sisters crazy. Suellen used to say I used logic like a left jab."

"You've got a sister named Suellen?"

He raised an eyebrow. "From Gone With the Wind. My mother chose all our names from literature. Got a problem with that?"

"No." She plucked at a speck of lint on her skirt. "It just sounds so southern."

He chuckled, wondering if she realized she made the South sound like another planet. "Honey, we are southern. Suellen, Charlotte as in Bronte, Meg from Little Women."

"And Byron, as in Lord."


"You don't have the poetic pallor or the clubfoot, but you do sort of have the dreamy good looks."

"Flattery." He kissed her lightly in response. "I guess you're feeling better."

"I guess I am."

"So." He draped an arm over her shoulders. "How was your day?"

With a weak laugh, she turned her face, nuzzled it against the curve of his neck. "It sucked. It really, really sucked."

"Want to talk about it?"

"Maybe." It wasn't really so hard to lean against a strong shoulder, she decided, if she just concentrated. "I should call Laura. I told her I would."

"Josh will tell her you're with me. She won't worry."

"She'll worry whether I call or not Laura worries about everyone." Kate let the silence soothe a moment, then began with Kusack's appearance at the shop.

Byron didn't interrupt, but listened, assessed, and considered.

"I don't think he believed me. The way he kept watching me, with this kind of cat patience, you know? When he mentioned my father, my brain just froze up. I knew I should have been prepared for it Right from the start of this I knew that would be the worst and I should have been prepared. But I wasn't"

"It hurt you," Byron murmured. "More than any of the rest."

"Yes." She reached back, gripped his hand, baffled and relieved that he would understand so easily. "It hurt that this stranger, this cop, should damage the man I'm trying to remember. The one who used to spin ridiculous dreams for me, who I'm trying to believe only wanted the best for me. And

I can't defend him, Byron, because what he did is against everything I believe in."

"That doesn't mean you didn't love your father and aren't entitled to remember the best parts of him."

"I'm working on that," she murmured. "The problem is I have to stay focused on what's happening now. It's harder than I imagined. When Kusack brought out the forms, I couldn't explain why they both had my signature. But Josh seemed to think it went well, especially that business with the security code."

"Electronic thievery rolled in right along with the microchip. You said the siphoning off started about a year and a half ago. Who's had access to your computer during that time period?"

"Dozens of people." Isn't that why it's all so hopeless? she thought. "There's not a big turnover at Bittle. It's a good firm."

"So who needs money, who's smart, and who would point the finger at you?"

"Who doesn't need money?" she countered, irritated because her mind was refusing to travel a logical path. "Bittle hires smart, and I don't know anyone in the firm who has it in for me personally."

"Maybe it wasn't personal so much as convenient. A cautious amount of money," he murmured. "Like a test - or a way to offset small, annoying debts. And the timing, Kate, haven't you considered the timing?"

"I can't follow you."

"Why now, why you? Is it just a coincidence that you should find out about your father at essentially the same time this skimming was noticed?"

"What else could it be?"

"Maybe someone else found out and used it."

"I didn't tell anyone."

"What did you do? The day you found out, what did you do?"

"I sat there at my desk, reeling. I didn't want to believe it, so I checked."

He would have banked on it "How?"

"I accessed the library back in New Hampshire, ordered faxes of newspaper articles, contacted the lawyer who handled the details. I hired a detective."

He considered. Every one of those steps generated data. Phone records, computer records, paper trail. "And noted the data in your Filofax."

"Well, yes, the names and phone numbers, but - "

"And the transmissions to and from New Hampshire were on your computer?"

"I - " She began to see, began to feel ill all over again. "Yes. The records of faxes sent and received. If someone wanted to look. But still, they'd have to have my password, and - "

"Which is noted in your Filofax," he finished. "Who would be the last person questioned coming out of your office if you weren't mere?"

"Any one of the partners, I suppose. One of the executive assistants." She shrugged, unsurprised to find that her shoulders were tightening up again. "Hell, any of the other accountants on that floor. No one would think twice about seeing an associate breeze out of another associate's office."

"Then we'll concentrate on those. The third Bittle you talked about. Who is it... Marty?"

"Marty wouldn't embezzle from his own company. That's ludicrous."

"We'll see. Meanwhile, how do you think he'd react if you asked him to get you copies of the forms in question?"

"I don't know."

"Why don't we find out?"

An hour later, Kate hung up the phone in Byron's kitchen. "I should have known he'd come through. He'll make copies as soon as he's able to and bring them to you at the hotel." She worked up a smile. "It's like a little intrigue. I'm surprised he didn't ask for passwords. He's actually enjoying it."

"Our man on the inside."

"I should have thought of this angle right from the beginning. Now I can add feeling stupid to the rest of it."

"Emotions tend to cloud logic," he told her. "Otherwise I might have hit on it earlier myself."

"Well..." She wasn't sure she was ready to deal with that line of thought just now. "Anyway, Marty told me that they decided to turn it over to the police after my showdown the other day. His father's not happy about it, but the vote carried."

"Do you regret facing up to them?"

"No, but there's going to be gossip now. Plenty of it." Trying to keep it light, she smiled at him. "How do you feel about having an alleged embezzler of dubious lineage for a lover?"

"I think that requires a test." He gathered her close, skimming his hands up her back and into her hair in the way she'd come to anticipate.

Her mouth lifted to his, opened for his. "I guess this means you're not going back to work this afternoon."

"Good guess." His mouth stayed busy as he circled her out of the kitchen.

"Where are we going? Haven't I already mentioned all this floor you have around here?"

He chuckled against her throat. "I haven't shown you my new sofa."

"Oh." She let him ease her back on the generous cushions. "It's very nice," she murmured as his weight pressed her deeper into them. "Long." His fingers parted her blouse, exposing her as she arched to his touch. "Soft."

"We so rarely make it to the bedroom." He lowered his head, nipped lightly at her breasts. "I wanted something... accommodating... on the main level."

"Very considerate of you." She gasped when his mouth closed over her, sucked her in.

It was so easy to let the heat take her, to spin her mind away, to follow the demands of her own body. For pleasure. For sensation. For tastes and textures. She tugged his tie loose when his mouth sought hers again, loosened the buttons that prevented flesh from meeting flesh.

But he wouldn't let her hurry, and her impatience drained away until she was steeped and savoring.

Strong, broad shoulders, hair glorious gold at the tips, the subtle creases in his cheeks. That long, rippled torso. She luxuriated in the feel of those smooth hands gliding over her, lingering here, pressing there, then skillfully bringing her to a long, shimmering orgasm that poured through her system like warmed wine.

He thought it stunning to watch her, the flickers of pleasure and tension and release that played over her face. Arousal had blood rising to her cheeks, caused her eyes to darken and glow like rich, aged brandy. The body beneath his arched and flowed, quivered and grew erotically damp.

The taste of soap and salt between her breasts enchanted him. The feel of those narrow, restless hands enjoying his own flesh delighted him, darkly. The need to be in her, to join body to body and bury himself deep was overpowering.

He filled her, shuddering when those exotically female muscles clutched around him. Yet it wasn't enough.

He pulled her up until her arms were wrapped around his neck, her legs around his waist. With his mouth he swallowed each of the moans that trembled from her throat, then raced his lips over that long white column where a pulse beat like fury.

She panted out his name, blinded by the single primal urge to reach the summit. Her hips pumped, jackhammer quick, as the craving grew maddening, the pleasure unbearable. She was willing to beg, if only the words would come, but instead she sank her teeth into his shoulder.

It flashed through her like an overstoked furnace, hot and violent. Stunned and helpless, she clung, then felt the magic pulse between them as he poured himself into her.

* * * * *

The phone awakened her an hour later. Disoriented, Kate fumbled for the receiver before she remembered she wasn't home. "Yes, hello."

"Oh. I'm sorry. I must have the wrong number. I'm calling Byron De Witt's residence."

Dazed, Kate stared around the room. The antique oak chest of drawers, the warm green walls and white curtains, the clever watercolor seascapes. A thriving ornamental lemon tree in a glazed pot in front of the window. And the lulling, ceaseless sound of the sea.

Byron's bedroom.

"Ah..." She sat up, rubbing a hand over her face. Cool ivory sheets slipped down to her waist. "This is Mr. De Witt's residence."

"Oh, I didn't realize he'd gotten a housekeeper already. I expect he's at work. I was just going to leave a message on the machine for him. Tell him Lottie called, won't you, honey? He can reach me anytime this evening. He's got the number. 'Bye now."

Before Kate was fully awake, she was staring at the receiver and listening to the rude buzz of a dial tone.

Housekeeper? Lottie? He's got the number? Well, fuck.

She slammed down the phone and scrambled up. The scent of him was still on her skin, and he was getting calls from some bimbo named Lottie. Typical, she decided, and looked around for her clothes. Which were, she recalled, downstairs where he'd left them when he carried her up to bed. Ordered her to take a nap. And she'd been so softened by lovemaking that she meekly obeyed.

Hadn't she told herself from the start that men like him were all the same? The better-looking they were, the more charming they were, the bigger scum they were. Men who looked like Byron had women crawling all over them every day of the week.

And he'd said he thought he loved her. What a crock. Energized with righteous fury, she marched downstairs and snatched up her clothes. Scum. Swine. Slime. Ignoring her hose, she struggled into skirt and blouse, fumbling with her buttons as he came through the deck door with the dogs at his heels.

"Thought you'd still be sleeping."

She eyed him narrowly. "I bet you did."

"I took the dogs for a run on the beach. We should go down later. The storm's brought some nice shells in." He walked into the kitchen as he spoke. Swaggering like a gunslinger, she followed. "Want a beer?" He twisted the cap off one, guzzled. As he lowered the bottle, he caught the glint of steel in her eyes. "Problem?"

"Problem? No, no problem at all." Before she could stop herself she'd bunched up her fist and plowed it into his belly. It was like hitting rock. "Be sure when you see Lottie you tell her I'm not your goddamn housekeeper."

He rubbed his belly more in surprise than discomfort. "Huh?"

"Oh, brilliant. You always have such a sharp riposte, De Witt How dare you? How dare you say the things you said to me, do the things you did, and have some... some tramp named Lottie on the side?"

It wasn't quite clear, but he thought he was starting to catch up. "Lottie called?" he ventured.

She made the same sound in her throat that he'd heard once or twice before. As much for her sake as his own, he held up a hand and backed off. "You're going to hurt yourself if you hit me again."

Her gaze shifted, lingered on the kitchen block filled with black-handled knives. He didn't believe it, not for an instant. But he stepped between her and the sharp implements.

"Now, I'm going to guess that the phone woke you up, and it was Lottie. And Lottie, by the way, is not a tramp."

"I say she is, and either way, you're still a lying, two-timing scum. How long did you expect to get away with telling her I was your housekeeper? And just what were you going to tell me she was?"

He studied his beer for a moment, tried to keep the gleam out of his eyes when they met hers. "My sister."

"Oh, very original. I'm out of here."

"Not so fast." It wasn't much of a challenge to grab her one-armed around the waist and haul her to a chair. She was kicking, swinging, but he managed it easily. "Lottie," he said as he shoved her in place again, "is my sister."

"You don't have a sister named Lottie," she fired back. "You idiot, you told me your sisters' names just a few hours ago. Suellen, Meg, and - "

"Charlotte," he finished, and didn't bother to conceal the smugness. "Lottie. She's a pediatrician, married, three kids. And she has just the kind of warped sense of humor that might make her appreciate having my lover call her a tramp." He watched the embarrassed blush stain Kate's cheek. "Want that beer now?"

"No." Voice strained, pride forfeited, she got to her feet. "I apologize. I don't normally jump to conclusions. It's been a difficult and emotional day."


Damn him. "I was asleep when she called, and she never gave me a chance to say anything."

"That's Lottie."

"And I just assumed. I was asleep," she said, furious. "Disoriented. I was - "

"Jealous," he finished and backed her up against the refrigerator. "That's okay. I like it - to a point."

"I don't like it, to any point. I'm sorry I hit you."

"You're going to have to work on those arms if you want to have any impact." He put a hand under her chin to lift it. "You wouldn't have gone for the knives, would you?"

"Of course not." She slanted her gaze toward them, shrugged. "Probably not."

He let his hand drop, took another swig of beer. "Honey, you terrify me."

"I'm sorry, really. There's no excuse for behaving that way. It was knee-jerk." She pressed her hands together. Confession always hurt. "I was involved with someone a couple of years ago. I don't get involved easily, and he wasn't what you could term the faithful type."

"Did you love him?"

"No, but I trusted him."

He nodded, set the beer aside. "And trust is more fragile than love." He cupped her face in his hands. "You can trust me, Kate." He pressed his lips to her brow, then eased back with a grin on his face. "I would never risk having you slice off any important appendages with a chef's knife."

Feeling both soothed and foolish, she settled into his arms. "I would never have used it." Her lips curved against his. "Probably."

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