Holding the Dream

Chapter Four

Kate knew it was a mistake even when she set up the appointment. It was, she admitted, like picking at a scab, ensuring that a wound would never heal cleanly. Her father's friend, Steven Tydings, was more than willing to meet her for lunch. She was, after all, his new CPA, and he'd told her he was a man who liked to keep his finger on the pulse of his finances.

She was sure she could work with him, do her job. Yet every time Kate had opened his file, she'd fought off a sick feeling in her stomach, flashback memories of her father. Bitter complaints about bills, about just missing that big break.

She had forgotten all of that, forged her memories of her parents more out of need, she realized now, than reality. Hers had not been a happy home, nor had it been a stable one. Though she had woven it as such in her dreams.

Now that it was impossible to pretend otherwise, she realized it was equally impossible not to probe, not to poke. Not to know.

She had nearly balked when Tydings insisted on meeting at Templeton Monterey. The dining room there was the best in the area, the view of the bay superb. None of the excuses that she came up with had changed his mind. So at twelve-thirty sharp, she sat across from him at a window seat with a chef's salad in front of her.

It didn't matter where she was, Kate told herself as she picked at her meal. Laura was working at Pretenses. If anyone recognized her and mentioned it, it would be a simple matter to tell Laura she'd been lunching with a client. It was, after all, true.

For the first half hour, Kate guided the conversation to business. Strictly business. Whatever the circumstances, his account was entitled to and would receive her best. And he was pleased, telling her so often as she constantly eased her dry throat by sipping Templeton mineral water.

"Your dad had a way with numbers too," Tydings told her. He was a toughly built, compact man in his middle fifties who beamed at her out of dark-brown eyes. Success sat as stylishly on him as his suit.

"Did he?" Kate murmured, staring down at Tydings's hands. Well-manicured, businessman's hands. No flash, but a simple gold band on his finger. Her father had liked flash - heavy gold watches, the small diamond ring he wore on his pinky. Why should she remember that now? "I don't remember."

"Well, you were just a little thing. But I'll tell you, Linc had a gift for numbers. He could run figures in his head. You'd have thought he had a calculator in there."

It was her opening, and she had to take it. "I don't understand how someone that good with numbers could make such an enormous mistake."

"He just wanted bigger things, Katie." Tydings sighed, eased back in his chair. "He had a run of bad luck."

"Bad luck?"

"Bad luck, and bad judgment," Tydings qualified. "The ball got away from him."

"Mr. Tydings, he embezzled funds. He was going to prison." She took a deep breath, braced herself. "Was money so important to him that he would steal, that he would risk everything he risked just to have it?"

"You have to see the whole picture, understand the frustrations, the ambitions... well, the dreams, Katie. Linc always felt he was overshadowed, outclassed by the Templeton branch of the family. No matter what he did, how hard he tried, he could never measure up. That was a hard pill for a man like him to swallow."

"Just what kind of a man was he that he would be so envious of someone else's success?"

"It wasn't like that, exactly." Obviously uncomfortable, Tydings shifted in his seat. "Linc had a powerful need to succeed, to be the best."

"Yes." She struggled against a shudder. Tydings might have been describing the daughter rather than the father. "I understand that."

"He just felt that if he could catch a break, just one break, he could build on it. Make something. He had the potential, the brains. He was a smart, hardworking man. A good friend. With a weakness for wanting more than he had. He wanted the best for you."

Tydings's smile spread again. "I remember the day you were born, Katie, how he stood there looking at you through the glass and making all these big plans for you. He wanted to give you everything, and it was hard for him to always settle for less."

She hadn't needed everything, Kate thought later when she sat alone at the table. She had only needed parents who loved her and loved each other. Now she would have to live knowing that what her father had loved most was his own ambition.

"Something wrong with your lunch?"

She glanced over, and the hand she had pressed protectively against her stomach fisted as Byron slid into the chair that Tydings had vacated. "Are you on dining room detail? I thought the brass stayed up in the lofty regions of the penthouse."

"Oh, we mingle with the lower floors occasionally." He signaled to a waitress. He'd been watching Kate for ten minutes. She had sat completely still, staring out of the window, her meal untouched, her eyes dark and miserable. "The chicken bisque," he ordered. "Two."

"I don't want anything."

"I hate to eat alone," he said smoothly, as the waitress cleared the dishes. "You can always play with it like you did your salad. If you're not feeling well, the bisque should perk you up."

"I'm fine. I had a business lunch." Under the table she pleated her napkin in her lap. She wasn't ready to get up, wasn't sure her legs were strong enough. "Who eats at business lunches?"

"Everyone." Leaning forward, he poured two glasses of mineral water. "You look unhappy."

"I have a client with an imbalance of passive income. That always makes me unhappy. What do you want, De Witt?"

"A bowl of soup, a little conversation. You know, I developed this hobby of conversation as a child. I've never been able to break it Thank you, Lorna," he said when the waitress set a basket of warm rolls between them. "I've noticed that you often have a bit of trouble in that area. I'd be happy to help you, as I'm sort of a buff."

"I don't like small talk."

"There you are. I do." He held out a roll he'd broken apart and buttered. "In fact, I'm interested in all manner of talk. Large, small, meaningless, profound. Why don't we start this particular session with me telling you that I've got an appointment to view that house you recommended."

"Good for you." Since the bread was in her hand now, she nibbled.

"The realtor speaks highly of you." When Kate only grunted, then scowled down at the bowl of soup that was slipped under her nose, Byron smothered a grin. Damned if she wasn't too much of a challenge to resist. "I may just solicit your services myself, as I'll be staying in Monterey. Hardly practical to keep my accountant back in Georgia."

"It's not necessary to have an accountant in the same location. If you're satisfied with his or her work, there's no need to change."

"That's the way to drum up business, kid. I also have a habit of eating," he continued. "If you need help along those lines, I can tell you that you start by dipping your spoon into the soup."

"I'm not hungry."

"Think of it as medicine. It might put some color back in your cheeks. You not only look unhappy, Kate, you look tired, beaten down, and closing in on ill."

Hoping it would shut him up, she spooned up some soup. "Boy, now I'm all perked up. It's a miracle."

When he only smiled at her, she sighed. Why did he have to sit there, acting so damn nice and making her feel like sludge?

"I'm sorry. I'm lousy company."

"Was your business meeting difficult?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact." Because it was soothing, she sampled the bisque again. "I'll deal with it."

"Why don't you tell me what you do when you're not dealing with difficult business problems?"

The headache at the edges of her consciousness wasn't backing off, but it wasn't creeping closer. "I deal with simple business problems."

"And when you're not dealing with business?"

She studied him narrowly, the mild, polite eyes, the easy smile. "You are coming on to me."

"No, I'm considering coming on to you, which is entirely different. That's why we're having a basic conversation over a bowl of soup." His smile widened, flirted. "It also gives you equal opportunity to consider whether or not you'd like to come on to me."

Her lips twitched before she could stop them. "I do appreciate a man who believes in gender equality." She also had to appreciate that for a few minutes he'd taken her mind off her troubles. That he knew it, yet didn't push the point.

"I think I'm beginning to like you, Kate. You are, I believe, an acquired taste, and I've always enjoyed odd flavors."

"That's quite a statement. My heart's going pitty-pat."

He laughed, a quick, full-throated, masculine sound that appealed, however much she would have preferred otherwise.

"Yeah, it's definite. I like you. Why don't we expand this conversation thing over a full meal? Say, dinner. Tonight?"

She was tempted to agree, for the simple reason that being around him made her think about something other than herself. But... She set her napkin beside her bowl. She thought it would be best to err on the side of caution with a man like Byron De Witt "I don't want to form habits too quickly. I have to get back to the office."

She rose, amused when he automatically got to his feet. Gender equality or not, she decided, he was southern gentleman through and through. "Thanks for the soup."

"You're welcome." He took her hand, held it lightly and enjoyed the faint line that popped up between her brows. "Thanks for the conversation. We will have to do it again."

"Hmm," was her best response as she slid the strap of her briefcase over her shoulder and walked away.

He watched her go and wondered what problem, business or otherwise, had made her look so devastated. And so alone.

The rumor mill was working overtime at Bittle and Associates. Every tiny, underripe fruit plucked from the grapevine was chewed lavishly at the water cooler, the copy room, the storage closet.

Larry Bittle and his sons, Lawrence Junior and Martin - just call me Marty - continued their closed-door meetings with the other partners every morning. Copies of accounts were delivered to the group by Bittle Senior's tight-lipped, sharp-eyed executive assistant regularly.

If she knew anything, went the wisdom of the water cooler, she wasn't saying.

"They're working their way through every account," Roger told Kate. He'd hunted her down in the stockroom when she went to replenish her supply of computer paper. "Marcie in Accounts Receivable said they're even going over internal ledgers. And Beth, the Dragon Lady's assistant, says they've been on the hot line with the lawyers."

Lips pursed, Kate grabbed a handful of Ticonderoga number 2's. "Are all your sources female?"

He grinned. "No, but Mike in the mail room is coming up dry. What's your take?"

"Gotta figure internal audit."

"Yeah, that's mine. But here's the question, Kate. Why?"

In truth, that very question had been on her mind for days. She considered. Smart, ambitious, ruthless people had the best gossip. Since Roger fit all the requirements, she decided to share her thoughts in hopes of priming his pump.

"Okay, we've had a couple of really good years. In the past five we've increased our client base by fifteen percent. Bittle's growing, so I'm thinking expansion, maybe a new branch. They'd put Lawrence in charge, add more associates, and give some of us the option of relocating. A big step like that would take a lot of thought and planning, and the partners would want to focus hard on the bottom line."

"Could be. There's been noises before about opening in the L.A. area, snagging more media accounts. But I've been hearing other grumblings, too." He leaned closer, lowered his voice, and his eyes were bright with excitement. "Larry's been thinking about passing the torch. Retiring."

"Why would he?" Kate whispered in response. They sounded like conspirators. "He's only sixty."

"Sixty-two." Roger glanced over his shoulder. "And you know how his wife likes those cruises. She's always bugging him to take one to Europe, around the Med, that sort of thing."

"How do you know that?"

"Beth. Assistant to the assistant. She got brochures for the old man. The Bittles' fortieth anniversary is coming up this year. If he retires early, there's going to be a partnership slot up for grabs."

"A new partner." It made sense. Perfect sense. All the meetings, the account checks. The current partners would have to weigh and judge, debate and discuss who would be most qualified to move up. She barely stopped herself from dancing a jig. She had to remember who it was she was talking to. Roger was her toughest competitor.

"Maybe." She shrugged, though inside, glee was spreading like a lovely pink balloon. "But I don't see Larry sailing off into the sunset yet. No matter how much his wife nags him."

"We'll see." Roger kept a sly smile on his face. "But something's going to happen, and it's going to happen soon."

Kate walked sedately back to her office, closed the door, put her supplies neatly away. Then she danced her jig.

She didn't want to get ahead of herself, didn't want to start projecting. The hell she didn't. Dropping into her chair, she spun herself around once, twice, and a giddy third time.

She had an MBA from Harvard, had graduated in the top ten percent of her class. In the five years she'd worked for Bittle, she had brought in twelve new accounts through client recommendations. And had lost only one. To that jerk Roger.

But even that hadn't gone out of house. She personally generated over two hundred thousand a year in billing. So did Roger, she admitted. She kept an eye on him. But when Marty had awarded her a raise last year, he'd told her she was considered the cream of Bittle's associates. Larry Bittle called her by her first name, and his wife and daughters-in-law had been known to drop by Pretenses to shop.

A partnership. At twenty-eight, she would be the youngest partner ever at Bittle. She would have exceeded by years her own rigid expectations of herself.

And wouldn't it, in some way, erase this taint she felt? This secret she had buried inside. If she was a success, it would overshadow all the rest.

She allowed herself to dream about it - the new office, the new salary, the new prestige. She would be consulted on policy, her opinion would be weighed and respected. Giggling, she leaned back in the chair and spun again. She would have a private secretary.

She would have everything she'd ever wanted.

Kate imagined picking up the phone, Calling the Templetons in Cannes. They'd be so happy for her, so proud of her. Finally, she would be able to believe that everything they'd done for her was deserved.

She'd have a celebration with Margo and Laura. Oh, that would be sweet. At long last Kate Powell had come into her own, had done something important and solid. Years and years of work and study, of aching shoulders, tired eyes, and a burning stomach would have paid off.

All she had to do was wait.

Forcing herself to push the dream to the back of her mind, she swiveled to her computer and got to work.

She hummed as she ran figures, calculated expenditures, logged tax deductions, clucked over capital gains, and figured depreciation. As usual, she tuned in to the work and lost track of time. Kate came up blinking when the beep from her watch told her it was five o'clock.

Another fifteen minutes to close the file, she decided, then glanced up in mild annoyance at the knock on her door. "Yes?"

"Ms. Powell." Lucinda Newman - or the Dragon Lady, as she was unaffectionately called among the rank and file - stood imposingly in the doorway. "You're wanted in the main conference room."

"Oh." Kate's heart gave a wild, joyful leap, but she kept her face composed. "Thanks, Ms. Newman. I'll be right there."

Well aware that her hands were trembling with anticipation, Kate pressed them together in her lap. She had to be cool and professional. Bittle wasn't going to offer a partnership to a giddy, giggling woman.

She had to be what she always was, what they expected her to be. Practical, levelheaded. And, oh, she was going to savor the moment, remember every detail. Later, when she was out of sight and earshot, she would scream all the way to Templeton House.

Kate rolled down her sleeves, shrugged into her jacket, and smoothed it into place. She hesitated over taking her briefcase, then decided it only made her look more dedicated to the job.

With measured steps she took the stairs to the next floor, walked past the partners' offices toward the executive conference room. No one who chanced to see her in the quiet corridor would have realized her feet weren't touching the tasteful tan carpet. She thumbed an antacid out of the roll in her pocket, knowing it would do little to calm her jittery stomach.

She wondered if a bride on her wedding night could feel any more nervous and thrilled than she did as she raised a hand to knock politely on the thick paneled door.

"Come in."

She lifted her chin, put a polite smile on her face as she turned the knob. They were all there, and her heart gave another skipping leap. All the partners, the five powers of the firm, were seated around the long, glossy table. Large tumblers of water stood by each place.

She skimmed her gaze over each of them, wanting to remember this moment. Fusty Calvin Meyers with his usual suspenders and red bow tie. Elegant and terrifying Amanda Devin, looking stern and beautiful. Marty, of course, sweet and homely and rumpled. Lawrence Junior, steady, balding, and cool.

And of course, the senior Bittle. She had always thought he looked like Spencer Tracy - that lived-in face, the sweep of white hair, the stocky, powerful little body.

Her pulse bumped, aware that all eyes were on her.

"You wanted to see me?"

"Sit down, Kate." From his seat at the head of the table, Bittle gestured to one at the foot.

"Yes, sir."

He cleared his throat as she took her chair, settled. "We thought it best to meet at the end of the workday. You're aware, I'm sure, that we've been involved for the past several days in a check of our accounts."

"Yes, sir." She smiled. "Speculation's been racing down the corridors." When he didn't smile back, she felt a nervous tickle at the back of her throat. "It's hard not to get on the rumor train, sir."

"Yes." He let out a breath, folded his hands. "A discrepancy in an income tax payment came to Mr. Bittle Junior's attention last week."

"A discrepancy?" Her gaze shifted to Lawrence.

"In the Sunstream account," he clarified.

"That's one of mine." The nervous tickle at the back of her throat changed to a nervous dread in her stomach. Had she made some sort of stupid error in the chaos of the tax crunch? "What kind of discrepancy?"

"The client's copy of the tax form indicates a federal payment due of seven thousand six hundred and forty-eight dollars." Lawrence opened a file, took out a thick stack of papers. "Is this your work, Ms. Powell?"

He was the only Bittle who called her Ms. Powell. Everyone in the firm was accustomed to his formality. But it was the clipped manner of his speech that put her on alert. Carefully she took out her glasses and slipped them on as the papers were passed down to her.

"Yes," she said after a quick glance. "It's my account, I did the tax work. This is my signature."

"And as with several of our clients, the firm cuts the checks for tax payments for this one."

"Some prefer it." She dropped her hands into her lap. "It distances them, a bit, from the sting. And it's more convenient."

"Convenient," Amanda commented and drew Kate's eye. "For whom?"

This was trouble, was all Kate could think. But from what and where? "Many clients prefer to come into the office, discuss the tax situation and the results - argue and vent." They all knew this, she thought, scanning the table again. Why did she have to explain? "The client will sign the necessary forms and the account exec will issue the check out of escrow."

"Ms. Powell." Lawrence took another stack of papers from his file. "Can you explain this?"

As smoothly as possible, Kate wiped her damp palms on her skirt, then studied the forms passed to her. Her mind went momentarily blank. She blinked, focused, swallowed hard.

"I'm not sure I understand. This is another copy of the 1040 filed for Sunstream, but the tax due amount is different."

"Twenty-two hundred dollars less," Amanda pointed out. "This is the form and the payment made on April fifteenth of this year to the IRS. The check drawn out of escrow was for this amount."

"I don't understand when or how the other copy was generated," Kate began. "All work sheets are filed, of course, but any excess forms are shredded."

"Kate." Bittle drew her attention with one quiet word. "The excess money was transferred via computer out of the client's escrow account in cash."

"In cash," she repeated, blank.

"Since this came to our attention, we initiated a check on all accounts." Bittle's face was grave as he watched her. "Since late March of this year, amounts that total seventy-five thousand dollars have been withdrawn from escrow accounts, seventy-five thousand in excess of tax payments. Computer withdrawals, in cash, from your accounts."

"From my clients?" She felt the blood drain out of her face, couldn't stop it.

"It's the same pattern." Calvin Meyers spoke for the first time, tugging on his bright red tie. "Two copies of the 1040s, small adjustments on various forms, to total excess on the client's copy in amounts ranging from twelve hundred to thirty-one hundred dollars." He puffed out his cheeks. "We might not have caught it, but I golf with Sid Sun. He's a whiner about taxes and kept after me to look over his form and be certain there was nothing else he could use to cut his payment."

Embezzlement. Were they accusing her of embezzlement? Was this some awful nightmare? They knew about her father and thought... no, no, that was impossible. While her hand flexed nervously in her lap, she kept her voice even.

"You examined one of my accounts?"

Calvin lifted an eyebrow. The last thing he'd expected from steady-as-she-goes Kate Powell was blank-eyed panic. "I did so to get him off my back, and in examining his copy, I found several small errors. I thought it best to look further and pulled out our file copy of his latest return."

She couldn't feel anything. Even her fingertips had gone numb. "You think I stole seventy-five thousand dollars from my clients. From this firm."

"Kate, if you could just explain how you think this might have happened," Marty began. "We're all here to listen."

No, her father had stolen from clients. Her father. Not her. "How could you think it?" Her voice shook, shamed her.

"We haven't come to any firm conclusion," Amanda countered. "The facts, the numbers, however, are here, in black and white."

Black and white, she thought as the print blurred, as it overlapped with visions of newspaper articles from twenty years past. "No, I - " She had to lift a hand, rub her eyes to clear them. "It's not. I didn't."

Amanda tapped one scarlet nail on the tabletop. She'd expected outrage, had counted on the outrage of the innocent. Instead, what she saw was the trembling of the guilty.

"If Marty hadn't gone to bat for you, if he hadn't insisted we search for some rational explanation, even incompetence on your part, we would have had this meeting days ago."

"Amanda," Bittle said quietly, but she shook her head.

"Larry, this is embezzlement, and over and above the legal ramifications, client trust and confidence have to be considered. We need to clear this matter up quickly."

"I've never taken a penny, not a penny from any client." Though terrified that her legs would buckle, Kate shot to her feet. She would not be sick, she told herself, though her stomach was heaving into her throat. "I couldn't." It seemed to be all she could say. "I couldn't."

Lawrence frowned at his hands. "Ms. Powell, money is easily hidden, laundered, spent. You've assisted a number of clients in investments, accounts in the Caymans, in Switzerland."

Investments. Bad investments. She pressed a hand to her throbbing temple. No, that had been her father. "That's my job. I do my job."

"You recently opened a business," Calvin pointed out.

"I'm a one-third partner in a secondhand boutique." Grief and fear and nausea swirled inside her, made her hands shake. She had to be coherent, she ordered herself. Shaking and weeping only made her look guilty. "It took almost all my savings to do it."

She drew in a breath that burned, stared straight into Bittle's eyes. "Mr. Bittle - " But her voice broke, and she had to begin again. "Mr. Bittle, I've worked for you for five years. You hired me a week out of graduate school. I've never given this firm anything but my complete loyalty and dedication, and I've never given a client anything but my best. I'm not a thief."

"I find it difficult to believe you are, Kate. I've known you since you were a child and always considered my decision to hire you one of my best judgment calls. I know your family."

He paused, waiting for her to rebound, to express her fury at being used. To demand to assist the firm in finding the answers. When she did nothing but stare blindly, he had no choice.

"However," he said slowly, "this matter can't be ignored. We'll continue to investigate, internally for now. It may become necessary to go outside the firm with this."

"To the police." The thought of it dissolved her legs so that she had to brace herself with a hand on the table. Her vision grayed and wavered. "You're going to the police."

"If it becomes necessary," Bittle told her. "We hope to resolve the matter quietly. Bittle and Associates is responsible, at this point, for adjusting the escrow accounts." Bittle studied the woman standing at the end of the table, shook his head. "The partners have agreed that it is in the firm's best interest for you to take a leave of absence until this is cleared up."

"You're suspending me because you think I'm a thief."

"Kate, we need to look into this carefully. And we have to do whatever is in the best interest of our clients."

"A suspected embezzler can't handle accounts." The tears were going to come, but not yet. She could hold them back just a little longer. "You're firing me."

"A leave of absence," Bittle repeated.

"It's the same thing." Accusations, disgrace. "You don't believe me. You think I've stolen from my own clients and you want me out of the office."

He saw no other choice. "At this time, yes. Any personal items in your office will be sent to you. I'm sorry, Kate. Marty will escort you out of the building."

She let out a shuddering breath. "I haven't done anything but my best." Picking up her briefcase, she turned stiffly and walked to the door.

"I'm sorry. Christ, Kate." With his lumbering stride, Marty caught up with her. "What a mess, what a disaster." He started huffing when she took the stairs down to the main level. "I couldn't turn them around."

She stopped, ignoring the pain in her stomach, the throbbing in her head. "Do you believe me? Marty, do you believe me?"

She saw the flicker of doubt in his earnest, myopic eyes before he answered. "I know there's an explanation." He touched her gently on the shoulder.

"It's all right." She made herself push through the glass doors on the lobby level, walk outside.

"Kate, if there's anything I can do for you, any way I can help..." He trailed off lamely, standing by the door as she all but ran to her car.

"Nothing," she said to herself. "There's just nothing."

* * * * *

At the last minute she stopped herself from running to Templeton House. To Laura, to Annie, to anyone who would fold her in comforting arms and take her side. She swung her car to the side of the road rather than up the steep, winding drive. She got out and walked to the cliffs.

She could stand alone, she promised herself. She had had shocks, survived tragedies before. She'd lost her parents, and there was nothing more devastating than that.

There had been boys she'd dreamed over in high school who had never dreamed back. She'd gotten over it. Her first lover, in college, had grown bored with her, broken her heart and moved on. She hadn't crumbled.

Once, years before, she had fantasized about finding Seraphina's dowry all alone, of bearing it proudly home to her aunt and uncle. She had learned to live without that triumph.

She was afraid. She was so afraid.

Like father, like daughter. Oh, dear God, would it come out now? Would it all come out? And how much more damning then? What would this do to the people who loved her, who had had such hopes for her?

What was it people said? Blood will tell. Had she done something, made some ridiculous mistake? Christ, how could she think clearly now when her life had been turned upside down and shattered at her feet?

She had to wrap her arms tight around her body against the spring breeze, which now seemed frigid.

She'd committed no crime, she reminded herself. She'd done nothing wrong. All she'd done was lose a job. Just a job.

It had nothing to do with the past, nothing to do with blood, nothing to do with where she had come from.

With a whimper, she eased down onto a rock. Who was she trying to fool? Somehow it had to do with everything. How could it not? She'd lost what she had taught herself to value most next to family. Success and reputation.

Now she was exactly what she'd always been afraid she was. A failure.

How could she face them, any of them, with the fact that she'd been fired, was under suspicion of embezzling? That she had, as she always advised her clients not to, put all of her eggs in one basket, only to see it smashed.

But she would have to face them. She had to tell her family before someone else did. Oh, and someone would. It wouldn't take long. She didn't have the luxury of digging a hole and hiding in it. Everything she was and did was attached to the Templetons.

What would her aunt and uncle think? They would have to see the parallel. If they doubted her... She could stand anything, anything at all except their doubt and disappointment.

She reached in her pocket, chewed viciously on a Tums, and wished for a bottle of aspirin - or some of the handy tranqs Margo had once used. To think she'd once been so disdainful of those little crutches. To think she had once considered Seraphina a fool and a coward for choosing to leap rather than stay and face her loss.

She looked out to sea, then rose and walked closer to the edge. The rocks below were mean. That was what she'd always liked best about them, those jagged, unforgiving spears standing up defiantly to the constant, violent crash of water.

She had to be like the rocks now, she thought. She had to stand and face whatever happened next.

Her father hadn't been strong. He hadn't stood, he hadn't faced it. And now, in some twisted way, she was paying the price.

Byron studied her from the side of the road. He'd seen her car whiz past as he was leaving Josh's house. He wasn't sure what impulse had pushed him to follow her, still wasn't sure what was making him stay.

There was something about the way she looked, standing there at the edge of the cliff, so alone. It made him nervous, and a little annoyed. That vulnerability again, he supposed, a quiet neediness that called to his protective side.

He wouldn't have pegged her as the type to walk the cliffs or stare out to sea.

He nearly got back into his car and drove off. But he shrugged and decided that since he was here, he'd might as well enjoy the view.

"Hell of a spot," he said as he walked up to her. It gave him perverse pleasure to see her jolt.

"I was enjoying it," she muttered and kept her back to him.

"Plenty of view for two to enjoy. I saw your car, and..." When he got a look at her, he saw that her eyes were damp. He'd always been compelled to dry a woman's tears. "Bad day?" he murmured and offered her a handkerchief.

"It's just windy."

"Not that windy."

"I wish you'd go away."

"Ordinarily I try to comply with women's requests. Since I'm not going to in your case, why don't you sit down, tell me about it?'' He took her arm, thinking the tension in it was edgy enough to cut glass. "Think of me as a priest," he suggested, dragging her with him. "I wanted to be one once."

"To use some clever phrasing, bullshit."

"No, really." He pulled her down on a rock with him. "I was eleven. Then puberty hit, and the rest is history."

She tried and failed to tug free and rise. "Did it ever occur to you that I don't want to talk to you? That I want to be alone?"

To soothe, because her voice was catching helplessly, he stroked a hand over her hair. "It crossed my mind, but I rejected it. People who feel sorry for themselves always want to talk about it. That, next to sex, was the main reason I decided against the seminary. And dancing. Priests don't get lots of opportunity to dance with pretty women - which, I suppose, is the same thing as sex. Well, enough about me."

He put a determined hand under her chin and lifted it. She was pale, those long, spiky lashes were wet and those deep, doe's eyes damp. But...

"Your eyes aren't red enough for you to have had a good cry yet."

"I'm not a sniveler."

"Listen, kid, my sister highly recommends a good cry, and she'd deck you for calling her a sniveler." Gently, he rubbed his thumb over Kate's chin. "Screaming's good, too, and throwing breakables. There was a lot of that in my house."

"There's no point - "

"Venting," he interrupted smoothly. "Purging. There aren't any breakables around here, but you could let out a good scream."

Emotions welling up inside her threatened to choke her. Furiously she jerked her face free of his hand. "I don't need you or anyone to charm me out of a mood. I can handle my own problems just fine. If I need a friend, all I have to do is go up to the house. Up to the house," she repeated as her gaze focused on the towering structure of stone and wood and glass that held everything precious to her.

Covering her face with her hands, she broke.

"That's a girl," he murmured, relieved by the natural flow of tears. "Come here now." He drew her close, stroking her hair, her back. "Get it all out."

She couldn't stop. It didn't matter who he was, his arms were strong, his voice understanding. With her face buried against his chest, she sobbed out the frustration, the grief, the fear, let herself for one liberating moment be coddled.

He rested his cheek on her hair, held her lightly. Lightly because she seemed so small, so fragile. A good grip might shatter those thin bones. Tears soaked through his shirt, cooled from hot to cold on his skin.

"I'm sorry. Damn it." She would have pulled away, but he continued to hold her. Humiliated, she squeezed her aching eyes shut. "I never would have done that if you'd left me alone."

"You're better off this way. It's not healthy to hold everything in." Automatically, he kissed the top of her head before easing her back to study her face.

Why it should have charmed him, wet, blotchy, streaked with mascara as it was, he couldn't have said. But he had a terrible urge to shift her onto his lap, to kiss that soft, sad mouth, to stroke her again, not quite so consolingly.

Bad move, he cautioned himself, and wondered how any man faced with such sexy distress could think like a priest.

"Not that you look better." He took the handkerchief she'd balled up in her fist and mopped at her face. "But you should feel better enough to tell me why you're so upset."

"It has nothing to do with you."

"So what?"

She could feel another sob bubbling in her chest and blurted out the words before it could escape. "I got fired."

He continued calmly cleaning and drying her face. "Why?"

"They think - " Her voice hitched. "They think I - "

"Take a breath," he advised, "and say it fast."

"They think I stole money out of client escrow. Embezzled. Seventy-five thousand."

Watching her face, he stuck the ruined linen back in his pocket. "Why?"

"Because - because there are duplicate 1040s, and money missing. And they're my clients."

And my father - my father. But she couldn't say that, not out loud.

In fits and starts she babbled out the gist of her meeting with the partners. A great deal of it was incoherent, details crisscrossing and overlapping, but he continued to nod. And listen.

"I didn't take any money." She let out a long, unsteady breath. "I don't expect you to believe me, but - "

"Of course I believe you."

It was her turn to gather her wits. "Why?"

Leaning back a little, he took out a cigar, shielding the flame on his lighter with a cupped hand. "In my line of work, you get a handle on people quickly. You've been around the hotel business most of your life. You know how it is. There are plenty of times with a guest, or staff, that you have to make a snap judgment. You'd better be accurate." Puffing out smoke, he studied her. "My take on you, Katherine, in the first five minutes, was - well, among other things - that you're the type of woman who would choke on her integrity before she loosened it to breathe."

Her breath came out shaky, but some of the panic eased. "I appreciate it. I think."

"I'd have to say you worked for a bunch of shortsighted idiots."

She sniffled. "They're accountants."

"There you go." He smiled, ran a finger down her cheek when she glared. "A flash there in those big brown eyes. That's better. So, are you going to take it lying down?"

Rising, she straightened her shoulders. "I can't think about how or what I can take now. I only know I wouldn't work at Bittle again if they came crawling on their hands and knees through broken glass."

"That's not what I meant. I meant someone's embezzling and pointing the finger at you. What are you going to do about it?"

"I don't care."

"You don't care?" He shook his head. "I find that hard to believe. The Katherine Powell I've seen is a scrapper."

"I said I don't care." And her voice hitched again. If she fought, looked too close, demanded too much, they might uncover what her father had done. Then it would be worse. "There's nothing I can do."

"You've got a brain," he corrected.

"It doesn't feel like it at the moment." She put a hand to her head. Everything inside was mushy and aching. "They can't do anything else to me because I don't have the money, and they'd never be able to prove I do. As far as I'm concerned right now, finding who's skimming is Bittle's problem. I just want to be left alone."

Surprised at her, he stood up. "I'd want their ass."

"Right now, I just want to be able to get through the next few hours. I have to tell my family." She closed her eyes. "Earlier today, I actually thought, hoped, that I was going to be called in and offered a partnership. Signs indicated," she said bitterly. "I couldn't wait to tell them."

"Brag?" But he said it gently, with hardly any sting.

"I suppose. 'Look at what I did. Be proud of me because...' Well, that's done. Now I have to tell them that I lost it all, that the prospects of getting another position or finessing any clients are nil for the foreseeable future."

"They're family." He stepped toward her and laid his hands on her shoulders. "Families stand by each other."

"I know that." For a moment, she wanted to take his hand. He had such big, competent hands. She wanted to take it and press it to her cheek. Instead she stepped back, turned away. "That makes it worse. I can't begin to tell you how much worse. Now, I'm feeling sorry for myself all over again."

"It comes and goes, Kate." Well aware that they were doing a little dance and dodge of physical contact, he draped an arm around her shoulders. "Do you want me to go up with you?"

"No." She was appalled, because for an instant she'd wanted to say yes. To lean her head against that broad shoulder, close her eyes, and let him lead. "No, I have to do it." She slipped away from him again, but faced him. "This was awfully nice of you. Really. Nice."

He smiled, his dimples deepening. "That wouldn't have been insulting if you hadn't sounded quite so surprised."

"I didn't mean to be insulting." She managed a smile of her own. "I meant to be grateful. I am grateful... Father De Witt."

Testing, he lifted a hand, skimmed his fingers through her short cap of hair. "I decided I don't want you to think of me as a priest after all." His hand slid down the back of her neck. "It's that sex thing again."

She felt it herself - inconvenient little hormonal tugs. "Hmm." It seemed as good a response as any. And certainly safe. "I'd better go get this done." Eyes warily on his, she backed up. "I'll see you around."

"Apparently you will." He stepped forward, she backed up again.

"What are you doing?"

Amused at both of them, he raised his eyebrows. "Going to my car. I'm parked behind you."

"Oh. Well." As casually as possible, she turned and walked to the car as he fell into step beside her. "I, ah, have you seen the house yet, the one on Seventeen Mile?"

"I have an appointment to view it tonight, as it happens."

"Good. That's good." She jangled her keys in her pocket before pulling them out. "Well, I hope you like it."

"I'll let you know." He closed a hand over hers on the door handle. When her gaze flew suspiciously to his, he smiled. "My daddy taught me to open doors for ladies. Consider it a southern thing."

She shrugged, slid into the car. "Well, 'bye."

"I'll be in touch."

She wanted to ask what that was supposed to mean, but he was already walking toward his own car. Besides, she had a pretty good idea.

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