Holding the Dream

Chapter Nineteen

Days later, she was still there.

Byron's idea of a break from weight training was a three-mile jog on the beach. It was difficult for a woman whose idea of a morning start had always been two very hot, very strong cups of coffee to adjust to the concept of running at dawn.

Kate told herself it was the experience that mattered. And, more important, the waffles he'd promised her if she stuck it out.

"So you, like," she puffed, huffed, and tried to concentrate on her pace, "really enjoy this."

"It's addictive," Byron assured her. He was going at a snail's pace to bring her along gradually, and admiring the way her legs looked in baggy shorts. "You'll see."

"No way. Only sinful stuff is addictive. Coffee, cigarettes, chocolate. Sex. Good stuff never becomes addictive."

"Sex is good stuff."

"It's good but sinful - sinful in a good way." She watched the dogs race into the surf and shake themselves so that little bullets of water flew and sparkled in the strengthening sun.

She supposed there was something to be said for dawn, after all. The light was achingly beautiful, and the smells so fresh, so renewed, they seemed unreal. The air was just cool enough to be bracing.

She had to admit her muscles felt loose. Oiled, in a way, as if her body was becoming a well-tuned machine. It made her feel foolish to realize she'd accepted feeling unwell for so long simply because she'd found it too much trouble to change.

"Where did you run in Atlanta? No beaches there."

"We've got parks. Indoor tracks when the weather's bad."

"Do you miss it?"

"Bits and pieces. Magnolia trees. The sound of slow voices. My family."

"I've never lived anywhere but here. Never wanted to. I liked going to school back east. Seeing snow, frost on the windows. The way the leaves look in New England in October. But I always wanted to be here."

She saw the beach steps in the distance. Her aching calves all but applauded. "Margo's lived lots of places, and Laura's done much more traveling than I have."

"Someplace you'd like to see?"

"No, not really. Well... Bora Bora."

"Bora Bora?"

"I did this report on it in high school. You know, a geography report. It seemed so cool. One of those places I told myself I'd go when I took a real vacation. Just a hang-out-and-do-nothing vacation. Oh, thank goodness," she breathed and sank to the sand in front of the beach steps. "I made it."

"And you're going to cramp up if you don't keep moving." Unsympathetically, he hauled her to her feet. "Just walk. You've got to cool down. Why haven't you gone to Bora Bora?"

She walked, for three paces, then bent over at the waist and breathed. "Come on, Byron, real people don't just go to Bora

Bora. It's one of those daydreams. Do you think jogging can dislocate internal organs?"


"I was pretty sure I could hear my ovaries rattling."

He paled a bit. "Please." He handed her the bottle of water he'd screwed into the sand at the base of the stairs. He whistled for the dogs before starting up the steps with her.

"Normally, I'd just be getting up now, stumbling into the kitchen, where my timed coffee machine would be finishing up its last few drips. Leave the house at eight twenty-five, hit the office at eight forty-five. Have the coffee machine there brewing away and be at my desk with the first cup by eight fifty-five."

"Eat the first roll of antacids by nine fifty-five."

"It wasn't quite that bad." She fell silent as they crossed from steps to lawn toward the house. The dogs winged through the gate, streaking toward their bowls in anticipation of breakfast. "I haven't had a chance to tell Margo and Laura about going back to Bittle."

Byron hefted the twenty-five-pound bag of dog food out of the pantry. "Haven't had a chance?"

"All right - haven't found the right way." She shifted as the nuggets clattered into plastic. "I feel like I'm letting them down. I know that's not right. I know they won't feel that way. They'd understand this is right for me."

Byron replaced the bag, signaling the dogs to chow down. "Is it?"

"Of course it is." She brushed back her hair. "What a thing to say. It's what I studied for, worked for. It's what I've always wanted."

"All right, then." He gave her a friendly pat on the rump and headed in.

"What do you mean by that? 'All right, then'?" She rushed in behind him, scowling. "It's a partnership, with all the bells and whistles. I've earned it."

"Absolutely." As a matter of habit, he started upstairs toward the shower. Kate followed at his heels.

"Well, I have. That whole business about the altered documents is just about cleared up. In any case, I'm clear. The rest is Detective Kusack's problem. And the firm's problem. I'll have more control over what's done after I'm a partner."

"Are you worried about it?"

"About what?"

He tugged off his short-sleeved sweatshirt, flung it toward the hamper. "About clearing up the escrow discrepancies."

"Of course I am."

"Why haven't you pursued it?"

"Well, I - " She broke off as he flicked on the shower and stepped inside. "I've been busy. There's not a hell of a lot I could do, in any case, and with Margo being pregnant, and the auction, and Laura tossing me all these details about this holiday fashion show she wants, I haven't had time."

"Okay," he said agreeably.

"That doesn't mean it doesn't matter." Disgusted, she stripped and joined him under the spray. "It just means I've had other priorities. It all came to a head a couple of weeks ago. The forgeries, the offer, the baby. It didn't seem fair to tell Margo and Laura I'd have to cut back at the shop just when Margo had to cut back herself. And until I do, and I'm back at Bittle, I don't see what I can do about finding out who tried to screw me and the firm. But once I'm there, you can bet your ass I'm going to find out who set me up."

"That makes sense."

"Of course it makes sense." Irritated for no reason she could name, she stuck her head under the spray. "Just like it makes sense for me to accept the offer. It's the most practical course."

"You're right. It's definitely the most practical. Pretenses is an investment. Bittle is your career."

"That's right." Instead of being soothed by his agreement, she bristled. "So what are we arguing about?"

"I don't have a clue." He gave her an absent kiss on the shoulder and stepped out to dry off. "I'll get breakfast going," he announced, and chuckled his way down the stairs.

She was, he thought, as easy to see through as a chain-link fence.

Kate worked with Laura shoulder to shoulder throughout the morning. She told herself the minute they had a real break in traffic, she would sit Laura down and explain about her plans. She would, of course, continue to take care of the books. A few evenings a week, the occasional Sunday - that would be enough for her to run Pretenses' finances. Naturally, she would be very busy as a partner at Bittle, but she would also be in a position to delegate a great deal of the grunt work that she had been accustomed to handling herself.

She would have more leeway, more freedom. And, of course, more clout. Her schedule would be crammed, but she was used to that. Working at the shop had certainly kept her busy, but it had also given her large chunks of free time that weren't necessary.

She told herself she would be glad to have her hours prioritized again. That was her way.

And she would be thrilled not to have to chitchat with strangers. Not to be asked to give fashion opinions or have a say in gift-giving decisions. What a relief it would be to settle back at her computer and not have to speak to a soul for hours on end.

"My sister's going to be thrilled with that," a customer said, as Kate carefully removed the tag from a coral cashmere tunic.

"I hope she is."

"Oh, she will be. This is her favorite shop. And mine, too." The woman beamed at the varied selections she'd placed on the counter. "I don't know how I managed before you opened up. Look at the wonderful dent I've made in my Christmas shopping."

"Getting an early start," Kate commented and blinked her self back into focus. "I'd say everyone's going to be happy."

"My mother would never buy herself something as frivolous as this." The woman trailed a finger over the delicate lines of a crystal Pegasus. "That's what gifts are for. And where else but here could I find an antique pocket watch for my father, cashmere for my sister, sapphire studs for my daughter, a crystal flying horse for my mother, and a pair of navy suede Ferragamo pumps for me?''

"Only at Pretenses," Kate said, her own spirits lifted by the woman's exuberant good nature.

The customer laughed and stepped back. "You have the most wonderful place here. If you could gift-box everything but the shoes? I think I'll take one more turn around in case I missed something I have to have."

"Take your time." Smiling to herself, Kate began to box the selections. She caught herself humming as she settled the pocket watch in a bed of cotton. Well, what was wrong with humming? There was nothing wrong with enjoying your work, even though it wasn't your chosen field. Being temporary, it was like playing at a job.

She glanced up as Laura came down the winding stairs from the second floor, chatting with a customer. "I know Margo picked this up on a buying trip to London last year, Mrs. Quint."

"Oh, call me Patsy, please. I shop here so often I feel like we're old friends. And this is just what I was looking for." She gloated over the cherry slant-top writing box Laura set on the counter. "But then, I always find what I'm looking for here. That's why I'm here so often." She laughed at herself, then caught sight of the crystal horse. "Oh, how wonderful! How charming. Someone beat me to it."

"I did." The first customer straightened from her survey of jeweled compacts and smiled. "He's beautiful, isn't he?"

"Gorgeous. Tell me you have something else like him," she begged Laura.

"I think we have a winged dragon - Baccarat, that we haven't shelved yet. Kate?"

"In inventory, priced but not tagged. In the storeroom. I'll find it as soon as I'm done here."

"No, I'll find it. I hope. If you don't mind waiting a minute."

"Not at all. You know, even my husband likes to shop here," Patsy confided to Kate when Laura slipped into the back. "No small accomplishment that, since getting him to stop for a can of peas is a major feat. Of course, I think he likes to come in and look at the pretty girls."

"We're here to serve." Kate affixed a gold seal to the tissue she'd wrapped over the cashmere.

"This compact here." The first customer tapped on the glass. "The heart-shaped one. I think my sister-in-law would love it."

"Just let me get it out for you."

While the two customers chatted about the compact, Kate boxed the horse. A fresh discussion broke out when Laura brought out the dragon. When the door opened, everyone sighed.

"Oh, what a gorgeous baby!" Patsy pressed her hands together under her chin. "Why, he's an absolute angel."

"He is, isn't he?" Margo shifted the baby carrier to show off her son. "He's seventeen days old."

Business ground to a halt, as it was necessary to admire his fingers, his nose, to comment on how bright and alert his eyes were. By the time Kate brought the cradle out of the back room and John Thomas was settled in it, the women had bonded over the baby.

"You should have called me if you wanted to get out for a little while," Laura scolded. "I'd have picked you up."

"Mum dropped me off. She had some marketing she wanted to do. I think her plan is to stock my kitchen so that if we're locked in for a year, we'll have provisions." Margo settled in a chair with the cradle at her side. "God, I've missed this place. So, how's business?"

"The pair who just left?" Kate began, pouring tea.

"On their way to lunch, yes."

"They became fast friends about fifteen minutes ago over mythical glass animals. It was kind of fun to watch."

"This is the first time the shop's been empty since we opened this morning," Laura added. "We're getting a lot of those people who always have their holiday shopping done by Thanksgiving."

"And to think how I used to hate them," Margo sighed. "I checked with my doctor. He says if I keep it to mostly sitting behind the counter, I can start coming in a few hours a day starting next week."

"There's no need to rush," Kate objected. "We're handling it."

"I don't like you handling it without me. I can bring J. T. with me. Babies mist shoppers' brains."

"I thought you were going to interview nannies."

"We are." Pouting a little, Margo bent over her son, adjusted his blanket. "Soon."

"She doesn't want to share," Laura murmured. "I know how it feels. When Ali was born, I - " She broke off as a trio of fresh customers came in.

"I'll take them," Kate volunteered. "You two indulge yourself in mommy talk."

For the next twenty minutes, she showed one customer every diamond earring in stock while the second poked through the bric-a-brac and the third cooed over a napping J.T.

She helped serve tea, saved a frantic husband with a last-minute anniversary gift, and rehung the castoffs left in the wardrobe room.

Shaking her head at the way some people treated silk, she stepped out again. New customers were browsing amid a hum of female voices. Someone had switched on an Art Deco lamp to test the effect, and smooth golden light shimmered in the corner. Margo was laughing with a customer, Laura was stretching on her toes to reach a box for a purchase. And the baby slept.

It was a wonderful place, she thought suddenly. It was a magical little treasure chest filled with the sublime and the foolish. Crafted, she realized, by the'three of them. From desperation, from practicality, and most of all from friendship.

How odd that she had ever considered it a business to be measured in profit and loss, overhead and expenditure. And odder still that she hadn't realized until this moment how happy she was to be a part of something so risky, so ridiculous, so entertaining.

She walked to Laura. "I have an appointment I'd forgotten about," she said quickly. "Can you handle things here until I get back? It should only take an hour or so."

"Sure. But - "

"I won't be long." She grabbed her purse from behind the counter before Laura could ask any questions. "See you later," she called out, and bolted.

"Where's she going?" Margo demanded.

"I don't know. Just out for a little while." Concerned, Laura stared through the glass after Kate. "I hope she's all right."

She wasn't sure that she was. It was a test, Kate told herself. Going back to Bittle, gauging her feelings. Her reaction would be a test.

The lobby was familiar, even comforting, with its quiet colors and no-nonsense furniture. Chrome and leather, efficient and easily cleaned, made up the small sitting area where stacks of Money, Time, and Newsweek were handy for the clients' perusal.

The main receptionist offered Kate a quick and slightly embarrassed smile. She took the steps, as was her habit and passed through the first floor. No nonsense here either, she mused. Clerks and computer operators went about their business, busy as bees and just as focused on the task at hand. One of the mailroom clerks pushed his cart along, passing out the afternoon deliveries. Someone's fax was clicking.

On the second floor, the hum of business continued. Account executives plowed through the daily routine in their own offices. The phones were active, reminding her that it was, after all, the middle of the last quarter of the year. Clients were beginning to call for advice on how to squeeze in more deductions, how to defer income until the next tax year, how much they might need to contribute to their Keoghs or IRAs.

Of course, she thought, twice as many would wait until the last week of December and call in a panic. It kept accounting interesting.

She stopped at her old office. No one had claimed it, she mused. Her computer and phone sat on the desk, but otherwise it was bare. The fax machine was silent, but she could remember the way it had beeped and clicked along.

The blinds were closed on the window behind the desk. She'd often left them that way herself, she realized. Working in artificial light, never taking notice of the view.

The shelf was a handy stretch away from the desk and would have held her research books, tax manuals, supplies. No tchotchkes, she thought. No distractions. And, she decided with an inner sigh, no style. Just another bee in the hive.

Good God, she was boring.


She turned, shaking off the moment of self-pity. "Hello, Roger."

"What are you doing?"

"Taking a good look in the mirror." She gestured toward her empty office. "No one's using it."

"No." His smile was a little weak as he glanced in. "There's talk about hiring a new associate. There's a lot of talk," he added, looking back at her face.

"Is there," she said coolly. "And?"

"I'm just surprised to see you here. That cop's been around a lot."

"That doesn't worry me, Roger. I didn't do anything to be worried about."

"No, of course you didn't. I never believed it. I know you too well." He glanced over his shoulder, the movement jerky and ripe with nerves. "Bittle Senior called a full staff meeting last week, made the announcement that you'd been cleared of any implication. Now everybody's looking at everybody else. Wondering."

"That's not surprising, is it?" Curious, she studied his face. "Still, only one person should be worrying as well as wondering. Don't you think, Roger?"

"The finger pointed at you," he said. "Who knows who it might point to next?''

"I think Detective Kusack knows how to do his job. Then there's the FBI."

"What do you mean, the FBI?"

"Tampering with tax forms is a federal offense."

"Nobody tampered with the forms filed with the IRS. Nobody fucked with the government."

"Just with me, and a few clients. You bastard."

His head snapped back as if she'd slapped him. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"You're sweating. You know, I don't believe I've ever seen you sweat before. Not in bed. Not when you told me one of my top accounts was transferring to you. But you're sweating now."

When she started to pass him, he grabbed her arm. "Don't be ridiculous. Are you actually accusing me of doctoring files?"

"You son of a bitch. You knew where I kept all my records. You knew just how to pull it off and point the finger at me. You found out about my father, too, didn't you?" Fury was pouring through her hot blood. "And you had the nerve to come on to me again after what you'd done. I couldn't figure out why you were suddenly interested in me again. Just another way to cover your ass."

"You don't know what you're talking about."

Yeah, he was sweating, she noted. Scared. Scared as a fucking rabbit caught in oncoming headlights. She hoped to God he suffered. "Take your hand off me, Roger. And do it now."

He only tightened his grip, leaned closer. "No way you can prove any of this. If you try to put this off on me, you're going to look like a fool. I dumped you. I got that account because I'm better, I'm more innovative. I work harder."

"You got that account because you slept with a lonely, vulnerable woman."

"Like you never slept with a client," he said in a furious undertone.

"No, I never did. And you took the money because you were greedy, because it was easy, and you'd found a way to set me up."

"I'm warning you, Kate, if you go to Bittle and try to put me on the hot seat, I'll - "

"What?" she tossed back, her eyes alight with eager challenge. "Exactly what?"

"Is there a problem here?" Newman glided down the hall in her eerily silent way. Her mouth was pursed, as usual, in disapproval.

Kate sent her a feral smile. "I don't believe there is." She jerked her arm out of his loosened grip. "Is there, Roger? I believe Mr. Bittle's expecting me, Ms. Newman. I called in on the car phone."

"He'll see you now. Your phone's ringing, Mr. Thornhill. If you'll come with me, Ms. Powell." Newman glanced over her shoulder once, measuring Roger as he stood grim-faced in the hall, then looked down when Kate rubbed her aching arm. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." She drew in a breath as Newman opened the door to Bittle's office. "Thank you."

"Kate." Bittle rose from behind his desk, held out a hand in welcome. "I'm very glad you called." He closed both hands around hers. "Very glad."

"Thank you for seeing me."

"Please, sit. What can we get you?"

"Nothing. I'm fine."

"Ms. Newman, inform the partners that Kate is here."

"No, please, that's not necessary. I'd like to speak just with you."

"As you wish. That'll be all, Ms. Newman." He took the chair beside Kate rather than the one behind his desk. "I wish I could tell you about the progress on the investigation. But Detective Kusack asks more questions than he answers."

"I'm not here about that." She thought of Roger. No, she wouldn't point the finger, not yet. She would let him stew, and sweat, and she would find a way to prove what he'd done. Then she'd watch him fry. "I came about your offer."

"Good." Pleased, he sat back, folded his hands. "We're very anxious to have you back. We're all agreed that the partners could use some fresh young blood. It's too easy for a firm such as this to become stodgy."

"It isn't stodgy, Mr. Bittle. This is a good firm. I've just started to realize how much I benefited from my years here."

Without any idea of what she was going to say, she, too, folded her hands in her lap. "First, I want to say that I've thought about what happened a great deal and come to the conclusion that under the circumstances you did what you had to do. What I would have done in your position."

"I appreciate that, Kate, very much appreciate it."

"My mistake was in not facing it, and maybe I'm starting to give myself a break about that, too. I can't always handle things by myself. I don't always have all the answers." She let out a little breath. That was a tough one to admit.

"Mr. Bittle, I had one goal when I got my M.B.A. That was to work my way up in this firm to a partnership. Working for you was one of the best experiences of my life. I knew that if I made it here, if I met your standards and became a partner, it meant I was the best. It was very important to me to be the best."

"This firm has never had an associate with a finer work ethic. While I realize the timing of our offer might worry you, I'll assure you again that our regret for your involvement in this police matter has nothing whatever to do with the terms of partnership."

"I know that. It means a great deal to me to know that." She opened her mouth, acceptance hovering on her tongue. Then shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Bittle, I can't come back here."

"Kate." He reached out to take her hand again. "Believe me when I say I understand your discomfort. I expect that you'd be reluctant to accept until this matter is completely cleared up. We're certainly willing to give you time."

"It's not a matter of time. Or maybe it is. I've had time to readjust, reevaluate. For the past few months I've deviated from the path I set for myself when I was still in high school. I like it, Mr. Bittle. No one's more surprised than I am that I'm happy running a secondhand shop on Cannery Row. But I am, and I'm not willing to give it up."

He sat back, tapping his fingertips together as he did when he faced a knotty problem. "Let me talk to you a moment as an old friend, someone who's known you most of your life."

"Of course."

"You're goal-oriented, Kate. You've put all your time and effort into achieving success in your chosen field. A field, I might add, that you're eminently suited for. Now perhaps you've needed a break. We all do from time to time." He spread his fingers, tapped them together again. "But to lose sight of that goal, to settle in a position you're not only over-qualified for, but unsuited for, is a waste of time and talent. Any adequate bookkeeper could handle the daily finances of a shop, and a high-school girl can ring up sales."

"You're right." Delighted to hear it all put into logical, unemotional terms, she smiled at him. "You're completely right, Mr. Bittle."

"Well, then, Kate, if you'd like a few more days to sort out your thoughts - "

"No, I've got them sorted. I've told myself basically the same thing you've just said to me. What I'm doing makes absolutely no sense. It's illogical, irrational and emotional. It's probably a mistake, too, but I have to make it. You see, it's our shop. Margo's and Laura's and mine. It's our dream."

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