Holding the Dream

Chapter Twenty

She copped a bottle of champagne from the shop, then decided to go one better and attempt to cook a meal. She had a tacit agreement with Byron that he would cook and she would wash up, as he was light-years ahead of her in culinary skills. But since this was to be a celebration of a new stage of her life, she wanted to give it a shot.

She'd always considered cooking a kind of mathematical skill. She could handle the formulas, like calculus, calculate the answer, but she didn't particularly enjoy the process.

Wrapped in a bib apron, her sleeves rolled up past the elbows, she lined up her ingredients like elements in a physics lab.

First the antipasto, she decided, and warily eyed the mushrooms she'd washed. It couldn't be easy to stuff them with cheese, but the recipe claimed it could be done. She removed the stems and chopped them fine, as directed. Following the steps she cooked them with the green onions and garlic and found herself smiling at the scent.

By the time she'd finished with the bread crumbs and cheese and spices, she was enthralled with herself.

It wasn't long before she was happily smearing the stuffing mixture into the caps, then popping them into the oven.

There were cucumbers to marinate, peppers to slice, tomatoes to deal with. Oh, right - and the olives. She fought with the lid on a jar of plump black olives, cursing it as the oven timer beeped. Out came the mushrooms.

She was in control, she told herself as she sucked on the thumb she'd brushed against the hot baking dish. It was just a matter of efficiency. What the hell came next?

She sliced cheese, struggled over the perfect consistency for the basil and olive oil she wanted for the bread she intended to serve.

An emergency call to Mrs. Williamson, the cook at Templeton House, calmed her down enough that she could arrange the antipasto meticulously on a platter.

Where the hell was Byron? she wondered and nibbled her nails over the recipe for pasta con pesto. "Coarsely chopped basil leaves," she read. What the devil did "coarsely chopped" mean, exactly? And why the hell did you have to grate Parmesan when anybody with half a brain could buy a nice can of it in the market? And where was she going to find pine nuts?

She found them in a labeled canister in his cupboard. She should have known he would have them. The man had everything that had to do with eating, preparing to eat, and serving eats. The carefully measured ingredients went into the blender. Deciding that a little prayer couldn't hurt, she closed one eye, sent it up, and hit the switch.

Everything whirled satisfactorily.

Smug now, Kate put water on to boil for the pasta and set the table.

"Excuse me," Byron said from the kitchen doorway. "I seem to have walked into the wrong house."

"Very funny."

The dogs, who had been keeping her company, and keeping an eye out for scraps, dashed to greet him. Since he'd followed his nose and his curiosity straight into the kitchen, he still had his briefcase with him. He set it aside now to pet the dogs and grin foolishly at Kate. "You don't cook."

"'Don't' doesn't mean 'can't.' " Anxious for feedback, she took a mushroom off the platter and popped it into his mouth. "Well?"

"It's good."

"Good?" She arched a brow. "Just good?"

"Surprisingly good?" he ventured. "You're wearing an apron."

"Of course I'm wearing an apron. I'm not getting splatters all over me."

"You look so... domestic." He slid his hands over her shoulders, kissed her hello. "I like it."

"Don't get used to it. This is pretty much a one-shot deal." She went to the refrigerator to take out the champagne. "I remember when Josh went through this phase and wanted to marry Donna Reed."

"Donna Reed." After opening the door to let the dogs streak out, Byron settled on a stool. "Well, she did look pretty hot in those aprons, now that I think about it."

"He got over it and decided he'd rather go for Miss February." With a quick, efficient twist, she popped the cork. "Of course, he always wanted Margo anyway. Donna and Miss 42-D Cup were just distractions."

She took flutes out of the cabinet and turned back with a wicked grin. "Now, if I have the line right, I say, 'And how was your day, dear?'"

"It was good. This is better." He took the glass she'd filled for him, toasted her. "What's the occasion?"

"I'm glad you realize there has to be one for me to go through this mess." She blew out a breath as she looked around the kitchen. No matter that she'd tried to be careful, there was a hell of a cleanup in store. "Why do you do it? You know, cook."

"I enjoy it."

"You're a sick man, Byron."

"Your water's boiling, Donna."

"Oh, right." She picked up the clear canister of pasta, frowned at it. "You take this stuff out of the box and put it in here. Okay for aesthetics, I guess, but how am I supposed to know how much is ten ounces?''

"Estimate. I know that goes against the grain for you, but we all have to live dangerously now and again."

He watched her worry over it, started to tell her she was putting in too much, then shrugged. It was her dinner, after all. In any case, he found himself easily distracted by the way the neat bow of the apron strings accented her tidy little butt.

Just how would it look if she was naked under that sturdy white apron?

At his laugh, she glanced around. "What?"

"Nothing." He drank more wine. "Just an unexpected and slightly embarrassing fantasy. It passed. Mostly. Why don't you tell me what happened to set you off on this domestic campaign?''

"I'll tell you. I was - Shit, I forgot the bread." Her brow furrowed as she slid the pan into the oven, adjusted the heat and timer. "There's no way you can hold a conversation and deal with all the details of a meal in progress. Why don't you put on some music, light the candles. Do that kind of stuff while I finish this."

"All right." He rose, started out, turned back. "Katherine, about that little fantasy..." Amused at himself, he shook his head. "Maybe we'll try it later."

Too preoccupied to pay attention, she waved him away and got back to business.

She thought she'd managed very well when they were settled at the table, scents wafting, candles flickering, and Otis Redding crooning on the stereo. "I could handle doing this," she decided after she'd sampled and approved the pasta. "About once a year."

"It's fabulous, really. And very much appreciated. It's quite a feeling coming home to a pretty woman and a home-cooked meal."

"I had some excess energy." She broke bread, offered him half. "I thought about just dragging you up to the bedroom when you walked in, then I figured that could wait until after dinner. Anyway, I was hungry. My appetite's definitely improved in the last few months."

"So has your stress level," he commented. "You've stopped popping aspirin and antacids like candy."

It was true, she admitted. She had. And she certainly felt better than she remembered feeling in years. "Well, I've done something today that is going to either keep me on that same route or send me back to the pharmacy." She took a hard look at the bubbles in her wine, swallowed some. "I turned down the partnership."

"Did you?" He laid a hand over hers, toyed with her fingers. "Are you okay with that?"

"I think so." Out of curiosity she said, "You don't sound very surprised. I didn't know I was going to turn it down until I was sitting in Mr. Bittle's office."

"Maybe your head didn't know it, but your gut did. Or your heart. You've wrapped yourself up in Pretenses, Kate. It's yours. Why would you give it up to be a part of something someone else had built?"

"Because it's what I've always wanted, always aimed for." A bit unsure of him, she shrugged her shoulders. "It turned out it was enough just to know I was good enough. It's a little scary, changing directions this way."

"It's not that radical a change," he corrected. "You're partners in a business, in charge of accounts."

"My degree, all that education - "

"You don't really believe that's wasted, do you? It's part of who you are, Kate. You're just using it in a different way."

"I just couldn't go back to that office, to that - life," she decided. "It all seemed so rigid. Margo was in the shop today with the baby. People were fussing over him, and Margo was sitting there with the cradle beside her, and Laura had to look for this winged dragon, and I boxed a pocket watch and put away shoes..." Embarrassed, she trailed off. "I'm babbling. I never babble."

"It's all right. I get the drift. You're having fun working there, being part of it. You're enjoying the surprises of something you helped create."

"I never liked surprises. I always wanted to know the when, where, and how, so I could be prepared. You make mistakes if you aren't prepared, and I hate making mistakes."

"Are you doing something that feels right to you?"

"It looks that way."

"Well, then." He lifted his glass, touched it to hers. "Go for it."

"Wait until I tell Margo and Laura." The idea of it made her laugh. "Margo was gone when I got back, and Laura had to run pick up the girls, so I didn't have the chance. Of course, we're going to have to make some changes. It's ridiculous not to have a regular posted schedule of our work hours. And the pricing system needs to be completely overhauled. The new software I've just installed will completely streamline our - " She caught herself and found him grinning at her. "You can't change overnight."

"You shouldn't change at all. That's the kind of thing they need you for. Play to your strengths, kid. Which apparently include Italian cooking. This pesto is terrific."

"Really?" She sampled more herself. "It is kind of good. Well, maybe I could throw something together. On special occasions."

"You won't get an argument from me." Thoughtfully, he twirled pasta on his fork. "Speaking of special occasions, now that you're going to continue to be self-employed, you should be able to flex your schedule a bit. For a variety of reasons, I'm not going to be able to get back to Atlanta for Christmas, so I'm making plans to take a few days for the trip over Thanksgiving."

"That's nice." She refused to acknowledge the thud of dis appointment. "I'm sure your family will be happy to have you, even for a few days."

"I'd like you to come with me."

"What?" Her fork paused halfway to her mouth.

"I'd like you to come to Atlanta with me for Thanksgiving and meet my family."

"I - I can't. I can't just fly across the country like that. There's not enough time to - "

"You have the best part of a month to arrange your schedule. Atlanta's not Bora Bora, Kate. It's Georgia."

"I know where Atlanta is," she said testily. "Look, besides the time factor, Thanksgiving's a family holiday. You don't just bring someone and dump them on your family on Thanksgiving."

"You're not someone," he said quietly. Oh, it was panic in her eyes, all right. He could read it perfectly. Though it irritated him, he determined to follow through. "It's traditional where I come from to invite the woman who's important to you to meet your family, to have them meet her. Particularly if it's the woman you're in love with and want to marry."

She jerked back as if scalded, nearly knocking over the chair as she sprang to her feet. "Wait a minute. Hold it Whoa. Where did that come from? I cook one stupid meal and you get delusions of grandeur."

"I love you, Kate. I want to marry you. It would mean a great deal to me if you'd spend a few days with my family. I'm sure Margo and Laura would be willing to adjust the work schedule to accommodate a short trip over the holiday."

It took several tries before the sounds coming out of her mouth could be fashioned into words. "How can you sit there like that and calmly talk about scheduling in the same breath as marriage? Have you gone insane?"

"I thought you'd appreciate the practicality." Not sure who was irritating him more, himself or Kate, he topped off his wine.

"Well, I don't. So just stop it I don't know where you got this brainstorm about marriage, but - "

"I wouldn't call it a brainstorm," he said, contemplating his glass. "I've given it quite a bit of thought."

"Oh, have you? Have you really?'' Temper began to bubble beneath panic. Preferring it, Kate let it spew. "That's how you work, isn't it? That's how Byron De Witt works, in his quiet, thoughtful, patient way. I see it all now," she fumed, storming around the center island. "I can't believe I didn't see it all along. How clever you are, Byron. How canny. How fucking devious. You've just been reeling me in, haven't you? Taking over, step by little step."

"You're going to need to explain that for me. What have I taken over exactly?"

"Me! And don't think I can't see it all perfectly now. First it was sex. It's hard to think rationally when you're nothing more than one big throbbing gland."

He might have laughed, but instead carefully chose an olive. "As I recall, the sex was as much your idea as mine. More, actually, in the beginning."

"Don't try to confuse the issue," she spat out, slamming her hands on the counter.

"Far be it from me to confuse the issue with facts. Keep going."

"Then it was the let's-get-Kate-healthy campaign. Hospitals, damn doctors, medicine."

"I suppose it would be confusing the issue again to point out that you had an ulcer."

"I was handling it. I could have gotten myself to the doctor just fine on my own. Then you're cooking and feeding me all this healthy stuff. 'You've got to have a decent breakfast, Kate. You really should cut back on the coffee a little.' And before I know it I'm eating regular meals and exercising."

Byron ran his tongue around his teeth, stared down at his plate. "I'm so ashamed. Setting this diabolical trap for you. It's unforgivable."

"Don't you get glib with me, buster. You bought puppies. You tuned up my car."

He rubbed his hands over his face before he rose. "Now I got the dogs and fixed your car in order to blind you to my evil plot. Kate, you're making a fool of yourself."

"I am not. I know perfectly well when I'm making a fool of myself, and I'm not. You set everything up in clever little stages until I'm practically living here."

"Honey," he said with a mix of affection and exasperation, "you are living here."

"See?" She threw up her hands. "I'm living with you, without even realizing it. I'm cooking meals, for God's sake. I've never cooked for a man in my entire life."

"Haven't you?" Touched, he moved forward, reached for her.

"Don't you do that." Still blazing, she retreated behind the island. "You've got a hell of a nerve confusing things like this. I told you you weren't my type, that it wasn't going to work."

His patience straining, he rocked back on his heels. "The hell with types. It has been working, and you're perfectly aware of just how well it works with us. I love you, and if you weren't so damn pigheaded you'd admit that you love me."

"Don't you assume my feelings, De Witt."

"Fine. Then I'm in love with you. Deal with it"

"I don't have to deal with it. You have to deal with it. And as far as your half-assed proposal of marriage - "

"I didn't propose marriage," he said coolly. "I told you I want you to marry me. I didn't ask you. Just what are you afraid of, Kate? That I'm a replay of that jerk Thornhill who used you until something more appetizing came along?"

She went cold. "Just how do you know about Roger? You've been poking around in my business, haven't you? And why am I not surprised?"

It was no use biting his tongue now. Better, he thought, to play it out "When someone is as important to me as you are, her business is important to me. Her welfare is important to me. So I made it my business to find out. You mentioned his name to Kusack, I've kept in touch with Kusack."

"You've kept in touch with Kusack," she repeated. "You know it was Roger who set me up."

He nodded. "And apparently so do you."

"I just figured it out this afternoon. But at a guess I'd say you've known a bit longer and didn't find it necessary to mention it to me."

"The trail led back to him. A personal clash between the two of you, access to your office. He made phone calls to New Hampshire around the time you were told about your father."

"How do you know about the phone calls?"

"Josh's investigator accessed the information."

"Josh's investigator," she repeated. "So Josh knows, too. But still no one thought it necessary to pass any of this handy information along to me."

"It wasn't passed to you because you'd have stormed right up into Thornhill's face and blasted him." The way, Byron admitted, he'd wanted to take Thornhill's face apart with his fists. "We didn't want him tipped off before the investigation is complete."

"You didn't want," she shot back. "Too bad, because I've already blasted him and ruined your neat plans. You had no right to work around me, to take over my life."

"I have every right to do whatever I can to protect you, and to help you. And that's what I've done. That's what I'm going to continue to do."

"Whether I like it or not."

"Essentially. I'm not Roger Thornhill. I'm not, and I've never used you for anything."

"No, you're not a user, Byron. Do you know what you are? You're a handler. That's what you do, you handle people. It's what makes you so good at your job - that patience, that charm, that skill at easing people onto your side of an issue without them ever really seeing they've been maneuvered. Well, here's a flash for you. I will not be handled. I sure as hell won't be maneuvered into marriage."

"Just a damn minute."

He shifted to block her path before she could storm out.

When he closed his fingers around her arm, she yelped. Afraid that he'd misjudged his strength in temper, he jerked back holding her arm much more gently. But the bruises he saw on her arm were already formed. The haze that smothered his brain was dark and ugly.

"What the hell is this?" he demanded.

Her heart thudded hard into her throat as his eyes snapped to hers. "Let go of me."

"Who put these marks on you?"

Her chin angled in defense. The fury hardening his eyes was as lethal as the slice of a well-honed sword. "I've seen your white knight routine already, Byron. I'm not interested in a reprise."

"Who touched you?" he said, spacing each word carefully.

"Someone else who couldn't take no for an answer," she snapped. She regretted the words, bitterly, before they were fully formed. But it was too late. His eyes went carefully blank. Smoothly, he stepped out of her path.

"You're mistaken." His voice was cool and calm and deliberate. "I can take no for an answer. And since that seems to be the case, we don't seem to have anything left to discuss."

"I'll apologize for that." She felt the heat of shame burning her cheeks. "It was uncalled for. But I don't appreciate your interference in my business, or your assumption that I'd just fall into your plans."

"Understood." Hurt was a rusty ball of heat in his gut. "As I said, that seems to end it. It's clear you were right from the beginning. We want different things, and this isn't going to work." He walked over to the table, more to distance himself from her than because he wanted the wine he picked up and drank. "You can get your things now or at your convenience."

"I - " She stared at him, stunned that he could close the door between them so neatly. "I don't - I can't - I'm going," she managed and fled.

He listened for the slam of the door, then sat, as carefully as an old man. He put his head back, closed his eyes. It was a wonder, he thought, that she could assume he was such a brilliant strategist when a blind man on a galloping horse could see just how badly he'd bungled it.

She went home, of course. Where else did you go when you were wounded? The scene she burst in on in the parlor was so cheerful, so familial, so much what she had just been offered and refused, that she wanted to scream.

Josh sat in the wing chair near the fire, the pretty lights from the flickering flames playing over him and his sleeping son. Laura, her younger daughter at her feet, poured coffee into pretty china cups. Margo snuggled on the end of the couch with Ali so they could pore over a fashion magazine together.

"Kate." Laura glanced up with a welcoming smile. "You're just in time for coffee. I bribed Josh to bring the baby over with one of Mrs. Williamson's honey-glazed hams."

"He might have left a few scraps," Margo added. "If you're hungry."

"I only had seconds."

"You had seconds twice, Uncle Josh," Kayla pointed out, and got up, as she had every few minutes, to peek at the baby.

"Stool pigeon." He tweaked her nose.

"Aunt Kate's mad." Ali straightened up on the couch in anticipation. "You're mad at somebody, aren't you, Aunt Kate? Your face is red."

"So it is," Margo drawled when she took a closer look. "And I think I hear her teeth grinding."

"Out." Kate pointed a finger at Josh. "You and I, we're going to go round later, but right now, go away and take your testosterone with you."

"I never go anywhere without it," he said easily. "And I'm comfortable right here."

"I don't want to see a man. If I do see a man in the next sixty seconds, I'll have to kill him with my bare hands."

He sniffed, feigning insult. But he rose. "I'm taking J.T. into the library for port and cigars. We're going to talk about sports and power tools."

"Can I come, Uncle Josh?"

"Of course." He gave Kayla his free hand. "I'm no sexist."

"Bedtime in thirty minutes, Kayla," Laura called out. "Ali, why don't you go keep Uncle Josh company until bedtime?"

"I want to stay here." She poked out her bottom lip and folded her arms over her chest. "I don't have to leave just because Aunt Kate's going to shout and swear. I'm not a baby."

"Let her stay." Kate made a grand, sweeping gesture with her arms. "She can't learn too early what men are really like."

"Yes, she can," Laura corrected. "Allison, go into the library with your uncle or go upstairs and have your bath."

"I always have to do what you say. I hate it." Ali stormed out, stomping up the stairs to sulk alone.

"Well, that was pleasant," Laura murmured, and wondered yet again what had happened to her sweet, compliant Ali. "What cheerful note would you like to add to that, Kate?"

"Men are pigs." She grabbed a cup of coffee and downed it like whiskey.

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