Holding the Dream

Chapter Five

"It's outrageous. It's insulting."

In a rare show of temper, Laura stormed around the solarium. Thirty minutes before, Kate had interrupted homework time, and Laura had shifted from solving the mysteries of punctuation and multiplication tables with her daughters to the shock of hearing Kate's story.

Watching her friend, Kate was glad she'd had the presence of mind to ask to speak to Laura privately. The flash in the gray eyes, the angry flush staining those cool ivory cheeks, and the wild gestures might have frightened the children.

"I don't want you to be upset," Kate began.

"You don't want me to be upset?" Laura rounded on her, the curling swing of chin-length bronze hair flying, the soft, pretty mouth pulled back into a snarl. "Then what exactly should I be when my sister gets plugged between the eyes?"

Oh, yeah, Kate thought, this definitely would have given the girls a jolt. If she hadn't been so miserable, she would have laughed. Laura the Cool had metamorphosed into Laura the Enraged. Despite being five two, she looked capable of going ten rounds with the champ.

"Don't want me to be upset!" Laura repeated, her small, almost fairylike frame revving high as she stalked around the lush glass-walled room. "Well, I'm not upset. I'm past upset and heading beyond pissed. How dare they? How dare those pinheaded idiots think for one minute, for one instant, that you'd steal money?"

She slapped at the swaying fronds of a potted palm. "When I think how many times the Bittles have been guests in this house, it makes my blood boil. Treating you like a common criminal. Escorting you out of the building. I'm surprised they didn't bring out the cuffs and the SWAT team." Sun pouring through the glass walls glinted fiercely in her eyes. "Bastards, idiot bastards."

She pounced, all five feet two inches of raging fury, on the slim white phone beside the padded chaise. "We're calling Josh. We're suing them."

"Hold it. No, hold it, Laura." Torn between tears and laughter, Kate slapped a hand over her friend's. For the life of her, Kate couldn't remember why she'd hesitated to come here, to Templeton House. This was exactly what she'd needed to snap her back. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate the tirade, but - "

"You haven't begun to see a tirade."

"I've got nothing to sue them about. The evidence - "

"I don't give a fuck about evidence." At Kate's bubble of laughter, her eyes narrowed. "Just what the hell are you laughing at?"

"I'll never get used to hearing you say 'fuck.' It's just not natural." But she swallowed because the laugh had come perilously close to hysteria. "And seeing you storm around this elegant room with all the hibiscus and ferns is quite a show." She caught her breath. "I didn't come here to send you on a rampage, though it's doing wonders for my bruised ego."

"This isn't about ego." Laura struggled to get a grip on her temper. She lost it rarely because it was a powerful thing, a dangerous thing. "It's about defamation of character, loss of income. We're not going to let them get away with this, Kate. We've got a lawyer in the family, and we're going to use him."

There was no use in pointing out that Josh wasn't a litigator. She certainly wouldn't have told Laura that the very thought of pursuing the matter, particularly through the legal system, had her feeling nauseated again. Instead, she struggled to keep it light.

"Maybe we could have him tack on loss of consortium, just for kicks. I always liked that one."

"How can you joke?"

"Because you've made me feel so much better." Suddenly she felt like crying again, and hugged Laura tight instead. "I knew in my heart you'd stand behind me, but in my head, in my gut... I was just so shattered. Oh, God." She eased away to press a hand to her stomach. "I'm going to start again."

"Oh, Kate. Oh, honey, I'm so sorry." Gently now, Laura slipped a hand around her waist. "Let's sit down. We'll get some tea, some wine, some chocolate, and figure this out."

Kate sniffed back the tears, nodded. "Tea's good. Alcohol hasn't been agreeing with me lately." She managed a smile. "Chocolate never fails."

"Okay. Just sit right here." Normally she would have gone to the kitchen herself, but she didn't want to leave Kate alone. Instead she crossed the glossy fieldstone floor to the intercom by the doorway - the system Peter had insisted they install to summon the servants. After a few murmured instructions, she came back to Kate and sat down.

"I feel so useless," Kate said. "So stripped. I don't think I appreciated, really, how Margo must have felt last year when she had the rug pulled out from under her."

"You were there for her. Just like Margo and I, and everyone, will be here for you. Anyone who knows you won't believe you did anything wrong."

"Even one who doesn't," she murmured, thinking of Byron. "Still, plenty will believe it. It's going to get out, I can promise you that. I'm used to defending myself," she continued. "Skinny girls with more brains than charm tend to hide through high school, or fight through it."

"And you always fought."

"I'm out of practice." She closed her eyes and leaned back. The room smelled like a garden, she thought. Peaceful, calm. She badly needed to find calm again. "I don't know what I'm going to do, Laura. It's probably the first time in my life I don't have a plan." She opened her eyes again, met the concern in Laura's. "I know it's going to sound foolish, but everything I am and wanted to be was tied up in my career. I was good at it. More than good. I needed to be. I chose Bittle because it was an old, established firm, there was plenty of room and opportunity for advancement, because it was close to home. I liked the people there - and I don't like that many people. I felt comfortable and appreciated."

"You'd feel comfortable and appreciated at Templeton," Laura said quietly and took her hand. "You know there's no question that you could have a position there tomorrow. Mom and Dad wanted you in the organization."

With a taint on her, she thought, that stretched back a generation. No, that she would not ask. "They've done enough for me."

"Kate, that's ridiculous."

"Not to me. I can't go crawling to them now. I'd hate myself." It was the only thing she felt capable of standing firm on. Maybe it was pride, but it was all she had left. "It's going to be hard enough to call them and tell them about this."

"You know exactly what their reaction will be, but I'll do it if you like."

Would they remember? Kate wondered. Just for an instant, remember? And doubt. That she had to face as well. Alone. "No, I'll call them in the morning." She ran a hand over her slim navy skirt and tried to be practical. "I've got a little time to weigh my options. Money isn't an immediate problem. I've got some set aside, and there's the income, meager though it is, from the shop." Her hand jerked. "Oh, God. Oh, my God, is this going to affect the shop?"

"Of course not. Don't worry."

"Don't worry?" Kate sprang up. Her stomach began doing flip-flops again. " 'Pretenses' third partner suspected of embezzlement.' 'CPA skimming client accounts.' 'Former Templeton ward under investigation.'"

She squeezed her eyes shut, terrified of what that investigation might uncover. Blood will tell. Think of now, she ordered herself. One step at a time.

"Jesus, Laura, it never occurred to me until this second. I could ruin it. A lot of my clients shop there."

"Just stop it. You're innocent. I wouldn't be surprised if a great many of your clients dismiss this whole business as nonsense."

"People have a funny attitude about their money, Laura, and about the people they hire to handle it for them."

"That may be, but you're going to start handling mine. Don't even think about arguing," Laura said before Kate could open her mouth. "I don't have a lot to work with since Peter scalped me in the divorce, but I expect you to fix that. And it's about time you started pulling your weight at the shop. Margo and I are adequate bookkeepers, but - "

"That's a matter of opinion."

Pleased, Laura cocked a brow. "Well, then, you'd better get busy protecting our investment. You were too busy before, but now you've got time on your hands."

"So it seems."

"And by putting in some time behind the counter as well, you can take some of the pressure off Margo and me."

Kate's mouth fell open. "You expect me to clerk? Regularly? Damn it, Laura, I'm not a saleswoman."

"Neither was Margo," Laura said placidly. "And neither was I. Circumstances change. Bend or break, Kate."

She wanted to remind Laura that she had an MBA from Harvard. She'd graduated with honors a full year early. She'd been within a breath of a partnership at one of the most respected firms in the area, had handled millions of dollars a year in accounts.

She closed her mouth again because none of it was worth a damn at the moment. "I don't know an Armani from... anything."

"You'll learn."

It was self-indulgent, but she pouted anyway. "I don't even like jewelry."

"The customers do."

"I don't understand why people need to clutter up their house with dust catchers."

Laura smiled. If Kate was arguing, she thought, she was coming around. "That's easy. To keep us in business."

"Good point," Kate conceded. "I haven't done too badly the few Saturdays I've been able to help out. It's just dealing with people, day after day."

"You'll learn to live with it. We really need you on the books. We didn't push it before because we didn't want to pressure you. Actually Margo did, but I talked her out of it."

One of the many wounds she'd been planning to lick healed over. "Really?"

"No offense, Kate, but we've been open about ten months. Margo and I decided after about ten days that we really hate accounting. We hate spreadsheets. We hate percentages. We hate figuring the sales tax we have to send off every month."

Laura let out a sigh, lowered her voice. "I shouldn't tell you, she asked me not to, but..."


"Well, Margo... We didn't think we could add to our overhead with a full-time bookkeeper, not yet anyway. So Margo's been looking into taking classes."

"Classes." Kate blinked. "Accounting classes? Margo? Jesus Christ."

"And business management, and computers." Laura winced. "Now, with the baby coming along, it seems like a lot to handle. I'm fairly computer-literate," she added, hoping to press her point. "I have to be, working conventions and special events at the hotel. But retail's a different matter entirely." Knowing the value of timing, she waited a beat, let it sink in. "I just don't see how I could squeeze any classes in myself, between working at Templeton, the shop, the girls."

"Of course not. You should have told me you were having that rough a time. I'd have picked up the ball."

"You've been cross-eyed with work for six months. It didn't seem fair."

"Fair? Hell, it's business. I'll come in first thing in the morning and take a good look at the books."

Laura managed to keep her smile pleasant rather than smug as Ann Sullivan wheeled in a tea cart. "The girls have finished their homework," Ann began. "I brought extra cups and plates so they could join you. I thought you might enjoy a little tea party."

"Thank you, Annie."

"Miss Kate, it's good to see - " Her smile of greeting faded the minute she looked into Kate's swollen, red-rimmed eyes. "What's the matter, darling?"

"Oh, Annie." Kate caught the hand Ann had lifted to her cheek, soothed herself with it. "My life's a mess."

"I'll get the girls," Laura said, rising. "And another cup," she added, nodding at Ann. "We'll have our tea party, and work on straightening it out."

Because Kate had always been the awkward one, and the feisty one, she held a special place in Ann's heart. After pouring two cups, selecting two chocolate-frosted cakes, Ann sat down and draped an arm around Kate's shoulder.

"Now, you drink your tea and eat some sweets and tell Annie all about it."

Sighing, Kate burrowed. Dorothy from Kansas was right, she decided. There really was no place like home.

* * * * *

"I don't like the way she keeps talking about software." Behind the counter of Pretenses, Margo muttered into Laura's ear. "The only software I want to know about is cashmere."

"We don't have to know," Laura muttered right back. "Because she knows. Think about all the Sunday evenings we sweated over the books."

"Right." But Margo pouted. "Actually, I thought I was getting pretty good at it. The way she talks, it's like I was brain-dead."

"Want to go into the back room and help her out?"

"No." That was definite. Margo scanned a browsing customer, calculated nine more seconds before the next subtle sales pitch. "But I don't like the way she's taking this whole mess. No way our Kate walks away from a fight."

"She's hurt, shaken." Though Laura was worried over it herself. "This is just recovery time."

"It better be. I'm not going to be able to hold Josh back from storming into Bittle much longer." A martial light glowed in her Mediterranean blue eyes. "I'm not going to be able to hold myself back, for that matter. Creeps, jerks."

She continued to mutter as she approached the customer, but her face underwent a metamorphosis. Easy, sophisticated beauty. "That's a gorgeous lamp, isn't it? It belonged to Christie Brinkley." Margo trailed a finger down the mother-of-pearl shade. "Confidentially, it was a gift from Billy, and she didn't want to keep it around any longer."

Truth or fiction? Laura wondered, muffling a laugh. The ownership was fact, but the little sidebar was probably fantasy.

"Laura." With the long-suffering look she'd worn after the first hour with the books, Kate stepped out of the back office. "Do you realize how much money you're wasting by short-ordering boxes? The more you order at a time, the less each costs. The way we go through them - "

"Ah, yes, you're right." Out of defense and necessity, Laura looked at her watch. "Oops, piano lessons. Gotta go."

"You're buying tape at the dime store rather than through a wholesaler," Kate added, dogging Laura to the door.

"I should be shot. "Bye." And she escaped.

Her foot tapping, Kate turned, with the intent of nagging Margo. But her partner was busy fussing with a customer over some silly little lamp that didn't look as if it could light a closet, much less a room.

It helped to nag. It felt good to take charge. Even if it was over boxes and tape.

"Miss. Oh, miss." Another woman came out of the wardrobe room carrying a pair of white spangled pumps. "Do you have these in an eight narrow?"

Kate looked at the shoes, looked at the woman, and wondered why anyone would want a pair of shoes covered with iridescent sequins. "Everything's out that's in stock."

"But these are too small." She all but wailed it, thrusting the shoes at Kate. "They're perfect with the dress I've chosen. I have to have them."

"Look," Kate began, then ground her teeth together as Margo caught her eye with a fiery warning look. She remembered the routine Margo had drummed into her head. Hated it, but remembered. "Pretenses is almost exclusively one of a kind. But I'm sure we can find something that works for you." Already missing her computer, she guided the customer back into the wardrobe room.

It took a great deal of control not to yelp. Shoes were tumbled everywhere, rather than neatly arranged on the shelves. Half a dozen cocktail dresses were tossed haphazardly over a chair. Others had slipped to the neat little Aubusson.

"Been busy, haven't we?" Kate said with a frozen smile.

The woman let out a trill of laughter that cut right through the top of Kate's skull. "Oh, I'm just in love with everything, but I'm very decisive once I've made up my mind."

That was a statement for the books. "Okay, which dress have you become decisive about?"

It took twenty minutes, twenty hemming and hawing, oohing and ahing minutes, before the customer settled on a pair of white slingbacks with satin bows.

Kate struggled to arrange the yards of white tulle in the skirt of the dress the woman couldn't live without. Tulle, Kate thought as she finally zipped it into a bag, that would certainly make the woman resemble an oversized wedding cake.

Her work complete, Kate handed over dress, shoes, and sales receipt and even managed a smile. "Thanks so much for shopping at Pretenses."

"Oh, I love it here. I just have to see these earrings."

"Earrings?" Kate's heart sank.

"These. I think they'd be wonderful with the dress, don't you? Could you just take it out of the bag again so I could see?"

"You want me to take the dress out of the bag." With a fierce smile, Kate leaned over the counter. "Why don't you - "

"Oh, the Austrian crystals just make those earrings, don't they?" Dashing around the counter, Margo gave Kate a shove that knocked her a full foot sideways. "I have a bracelet that's just made to go with them. Kate, why don't you take the dress back out while I unlock the case?"

"I'll take the damn dress back out," Kate muttered with her back turned. "But I'm not putting it in again. No one can make me." Spoiling for a fight, she scowled as the door jingled open. Her scowl only deepened at Byron's quick smile.

"Hello, ladies. I'll just browse until you're free."

"You're free," Margo said meaningfully to Kate. "I'll finish up here."

One devil was the same as another, Kate supposed and walked reluctantly out from behind the counter. "Looking for something?"

"Mother's Day. I bought my mother's birthday present in here a couple of months ago, and it made me a hero. I figured I'd stick with a winner." He reached out, skimmed a knuckle along her jaw. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine." Embarrassed at the memory of sobbing in his arms, she turned stiffly away. "Did you have anything specific in mind?"

In answer, he put a hand on her shoulder, turned her around. "I thought we'd parted on semi-friendly terms at least."

"We did." She reeled herself in. There was no point in blaming him, though it was more satisfying. "I'm just a little wired. I nearly punched that customer."

Lifting an eyebrow, Byron glanced over Kate's head at the woman currently sighing over a bracelet. "Because?"

"She wanted to see earrings," Kate said between her teeth.

"Good God, what is the world coming to? If you promise not to hit me, I swear I won't even look at a pair of earrings in here. I may never look at a pair anywhere again."

She supposed that deserved at least a smile. "Sorry. It's a long story. So, what does your mother like?"

"Earrings. Sorry." He let out a rumbling chuckle. "Hard to resist. She's an internist with nerves of steel, a wicked temper, and a sentimental streak for anything that has to do with her children. I'm thinking hearts and flowers. Anything that falls into that basic symbolism."

"That's nice." She did smile. She was a sucker for a man who not only loved his mama but understood her. "I don't know the stock very well. It's my first week on the job."

She looked neat as a pin, he mused, in her tidy little gray suit with a Windsor-knotted striped tie. The sensible shoes shouldn't have led him to speculate on her legs. Surprised that that was exactly what he was doing, he cleared his throat.

"How's it going?"

She glanced back at Margo. "I think my coworkers are plotting my demise. Other than that, good enough. Thanks." But when he continued to study her, she shifted. "You did come in for a gift, right - not to check up on me or anything?"

"I can do both."

"I'd rather you - " The door opened again, heralding the entrance of three laughing, chattering women. Kate grabbed Byron's arm in a steely grip. "Okay, I'm with you. You need my undivided attention. I'll give you ten percent off if you take up all my time until they leave."

"A real people person, aren't you, Katherine?"

"I'm a desperate woman. Don't screw with me." She kept her hand firmly on his arm as she steered him to a corner of the shop.

"Your scent's different again," he commented, indulging himself with a sniff close to her hair. "Subtle, yet passionate."

"Something Margo squirted on me when I was distracted," she said absently. This was her new life, she reminded herself. The old was gone, and she was going to make the best of what she had left. "She likes us to push the merchandise. She'd have hung jewelry all over me if I hadn't escaped." From her safe distance, she glanced back and made a face at her partner. "Look, she made me wear this pin."

He glanced down at the simple gold crescent adorning her lapel. "It's very nice." And drew the eye to the soft swell of her breasts. "Simple, classic, subdued."

"Yeah, right. What do pins do but put holes in your clothes? Okay, back to business. It so happens, there's this music box that might make you a hero again."

"Music box." He brought himself back to the business at hand. "Could work."

"I remember it because Margo just picked it up at an estate sale in San Francisco. She'd know the circa this and the design that. I can tell you it's lovely."

She lifted it, a glossy mahogany box large enough for jewelry or love letters. On its domed lid was a painting of a young couple in medieval dress, a unicorn, and a circle of flowers. The lid opened to deep-blue velvet and the charming strains of "Fur Elise."

"There's a problem," he began.

"Why?" Her back went up. "It's beautiful, it's practical, it's romantic."

"Well." He rubbed his chin. "How am I going to take up all your time when you've shown me the perfect gift first thing?"

"Oh." Kate glanced over her shoulder again. The three fresh customers were in the wardrobe room making a lot of female-on-the-hunt noises. Trying not to feel guilty, she looked over at Margo, who was expertly rebagging the tulle. "Want to buy something else? It's never too early to shop for Christmas."

He angled his head. "You've got to learn to gauge your clientele, kid. Here's a man coming in to buy a Mother's Day gift three days before the mark. A gift that he will now have to have shipped overnight to Atlanta. That type doesn't shop for Christmas until sometime after December twenty-first."

"That's very impractical."

"I like to use up my practicality at work. Life is different."

When he smiled at her, the creases in his face deepened. She liked the look of them, caught herself wondering how it would feel to trace her finger along those charming dents. Surprised at herself, she blew out a breath. Steady, girl.

"Then maybe you should look at something else, to like, compare."

"No, this is it." It intrigued him to see that he was making her uncomfortable, and that the discomfort was sexual. Deliberately, he put his hands over hers so that they held the box together. "Why don't I dawdle over the wrapping paper?"

That, she decided, was definitely a come-on. She'd have to think about whether or not she liked it later. "Okay, that'll work." She sent Margo a beaming smile as they crossed paths, then set the music box carefully on the counter.

Margo closed the door behind her now-satisfied customer and aimed an automatically flirtatious smile at Byron. "Hello, Byron. It's wonderful to see you."

"Margo." He caught her hand, brought it to his lips. The gesture was as automatic as her smile. "You look incredible, as always."

She laughed. "We just don't get enough men in here, particularly handsome, gallant ones. Have you found something you like?"

"Kate saved my life with a Mother's Day gift."

"Did she?" As Kate studiously boxed Byron's selection, Margo leaned over the counter, caught Kate by her red-and-blue-striped tie, and tugged viciously. "I'm going to kill you later. Excuse me, Byron. I have customers."

Kate kept her hot eyes on Margo's retreating back. "See, I told you. She wants me dead."

"One definition of family is a constant state of adjustment."

Kate lifted a brow. "From Webster's?"

"From De Witt's. Let's try the paper with the little violets. Margo's a remarkable woman."

"I've never known a man who didn't think so. No, that's wrong," she said as she measured wrapping paper. "Laura's ex-husband couldn't stand her. Of course, that was because she's the housekeeper's daughter, and he's a puss-faced snob. And I think it was because he wanted her. Men do. And it irritated him."

Intrigued by the brisk way she worked, the almost mathematical manner in which she aligned the box and folded corners on the gift wrap, he leaned on the counter. Her hands were really quite lovely, he noted. Narrow, competent, unadorned.

"How did he feel about you?"

"Oh, he hated me, too, but that didn't have anything to do with sexual fantasy. I'm the poor relation who has the nerve to say what she thinks." When her stomach jittered, she glanced up and frowned. "I don't know why I told you all that."

"Could be repressed conversation urges. You don't talk to people for long periods, then you get caught in a conversation and forget you don't like to talk to people. I told you, it can be a pleasant hobby."

"I don't like to talk to people," she muttered. "Most people. You want purple ribbon or white?"

"Purple. You interest me, Kate."

Wary, she looked up again. "I don't think that's necessary."

"Just an observation. I assumed you were cold, prim, rude, annoying, and self-involved. I'm not ordinarily that far wrong with people."

She jerked the ribbon into a knot, snipped off the ends. "You're not this time, either. Except for the prim."

"No, the rude and annoying probably stick, but I've been reevaluating the rest."

She chose a large, elaborate bow. "I don't want an evaluation."

"I didn't ask. It's another hobby of mine. Gift card?"

Frowning again, she found the one to match the paper and slapped it on the counter in front of him. "We can overnight it."

"I'm counting on it." He handed her his credit card, then took out a pen to write on the card. "Oh, by the way, I made an offer on the house you recommended. Like the music box, it's exactly what I was looking for."

"Good for you." After a brief search, she found the shipping form, set it down beside the box. She suppressed the urge to ask him about it, the house, what had appealed to him, the terms. Damn conversation.

"If you'll fill in the name and address where you want it shipped, we'll have FedEx pick it up in the morning. She'll get it with twenty-four hours to spare and save you a whining phone call."

His head lifted. "My mother doesn't whine."

"I was referring to you." Her smug smile faltered when two more customers came in.

"Isn't that handy?" Byron dashed off his mother's name and address. "We're all done, just in time for you to help some new customers."

"Listen, De Witt. Byron - "

"No, no, don't bother to grovel. You're on your own." He pocketed his card, the receipt, then tore off his copy of the shipping form himself. "See you around, kid."

He strolled toward the door. The sound of "Miss, could you show me these earrings?" was music to his soul.

Copyright © novelfull thefreeonlinenovel.com All Rights Reserved.