Holding the Dream

Chapter Nine

A week of pampering was excellent medicine. For Kate it was also nearly an overdose. Yet anytime she made noises about going home and getting back to work, everyone within earshot ganged up on her.

Telling herself she would turn over a new leaf if it killed her, she struggled to let it ride, to go with the flow, to take life as it came.

And wondered how anyone could live that way.

She reminded herself that it was a gorgeous evening. That she was sitting in the garden with a child snuggled in her lap, another at her feet. Her ulcer - if it was an ulcer - hadn't given her any real trouble in days.

And she had found there, in the home of her childhood, a peace that had been missing.

"I wish you could live with us forever and ever, Aunt Kate." Kayla looked up, her gray eyes soft in her angel's face. "We'd never let you get sick or worry too much."

"Aunt Margo says you're a professional nitpicker." Ali giggled at the term and carefully brushed pink polish on Kate's toenails. "What's a nit?"

"Aunt Margo." Wasn't it bad enough, Kate thought, that she was going to have hot-pink toenails, without adding insult to injury? "Good thing for her I happen to like nits."

"If you didn't go back to your apartment, we could play with you every day." For Kayla, this was the ultimate bribe. "And you and Mama could have tea parties like Annie said you used to when you were little."

"We can all have tea parties when I come visit," Kate reminded her. "That's more special."

"But if you lived here, you wouldn't have to pay rent." Ali capped the polish and looked entirely too wise for a ten year old. "Until you regain your financial feet."

A fresh smile flitted around Kate's mouth. "Where'd you get that?"

"You're always saying stuff like that." Ali smiled and pressed her cheek against Kate's knee. "And Mama's working a lot now and nothing's the way it used to be. It's better with you here."

"I like being with you, too."

Touched and torn, Kate stroked Ali's curly hair. A sunshine-yellow butterfly flitted through the air and landed gracefully in the cup of a red petunia. For a moment, Kate caressed the child and watched the butterfly's wings gently open and close as it fed.

How hard would it be, she wondered, to simply stay here, like this, forever? Just drift. Forget everything. Not hard at all, she realized. And wasn't that part of the reason it wasn't possible for her?

"I have to go back to my own place. That doesn't mean I won't spend lots of time with you. Every Sunday for sure, so we can find all of Seraphina's gold."

She looked up in relief at the sound of footsteps. If this kept up, she'd be ready to agree to anything her nieces wanted. "There's the nit now."

Margo only raised an elegant eyebrow as the girls giggled.

"I'll consider that a private joke. I'm too jazzed to be annoyed with you. Look!" After tugging up her sleek linen tunic, she pulled out the elastic waist of her slacks. "I couldn't get my skirt zipped this morning. I'm starting to show." Her face glowing, she turned to the side. "Can you tell?"

"You look like a beached whale," Kate said dryly, but Kayla bounced up and rushed over to press an ear against Margo's tummy.

"I can't hear him yet," she complained. "Are you sure he's in there?"

"Absolutely sure, but I can't guarantee the he part." Abruptly her lips trembled, her eyes filled. "Kate, it moved. This afternoon I was helping a customer decide between an Armani and a Donna Karan, and I felt this, this fluttering. I felt the baby move. I felt - I felt - " She broke off and burst into wild tears.

"Oh, Jesus." Jolting up, Kate gathered the goggle-eyed girls and nudged them toward the flagstone path. "This is a good thing," she assured them. "She's crying because she's happy. Tell Mrs. Williamson we want a whole jug of lemonade, the kind she makes that fizzes."

Whirling back to Margo, she hugged her close. "I was only kidding before. You're not fat."

"I want to be fat," Margo sobbed. "I want to waddle. I want to stop being able to sleep on my stomach."

"Okay." Torn between amusement and concern, Kate patted her. "Okay, honey, you will. In fact, I think you're already starting to waddle. A little."

"Really?" Margo sniffed, caught herself. "Oh, shit, listen to me. I'm crazy. I'm doing this kind of thing all the time these days. I felt the baby move, Kate. I'm going to have a baby. I don't know anything about being a mother. I'm so scared. I'm so happy. Hell, I've wrecked my mascara."

"Thank God, she's coming back." A little shaky herself, she eased Margo into a chair. "What does Josh do when you have one of these crying jags?"

"Passes the tissues."

"Great." Without much hope, Kate searched her pockets. "I don't have any."

"I do." Margo sniffed and blew and sighed. "Wacky hormones." She used a fresh tissue to dab, then ran an expert hand over her fancy French braid. "I came out here to see how you were feeling."

"Unlike you, there doesn't seem to be anything going on in my stomach. It's fine. I think that ulcer business was just bullshit."

Recovered, Margo lifted a brow. "Oh, do you? Do you really?"

Because she recognized that tone, Kate braced for a fight. "Don't start on me."

"I've waited for days to start on you. But you're feeling fine now. So I can tell you, you're an insensitive, selfish idiot. You sent everyone who has the poor judgment to care about you into a tailspin of worry."

"Oh, and it would have been sensitive and selfless of me to whine and complain - which you're an expert at - and - "

"Take care of yourself," Margo finished. "See a doctor. No, not you, you're too smart for that, too busy for that."

"Get off my back."

"Pal, I've just climbed on, and I'm staying there like that monkey in the story. You've had a week of everyone patting your head and stroking you. Now you can take your dose of reality. Mr. and Mrs. T are on their way back here."

Guilt heaped on Kate's head. "Why? There's no need for them to come all this way. It's just a stupid ulcer."

"Ah, now you admit it's an ulcer." Margo popped up again, whirled around the chair. "If this was a twelve-step program, you'd have made it to step one. They'd have been on the first plane the minute Laura called them, but she and Josh convinced them everything was under control and to finish up their business first. But nothing would stop them from seeing for themselves that their Kate was well."

"I talked to them myself. I told them it was nothing major."

"No, no, nothing major. You get suspended under suspicion of embezzlement, end up in the ER. Nothing for them to worry about." She propped her hands on her hips. "Who the hell do you think you are?"

"I - "

"Josh is furious, blaming it all on Bittle, and beating himself up because he didn't jump on them the minute they axed you."

"That has nothing to do with it." Kate sprang up as well, her shouts matching Margo's decibel for decibel. "Josh has nothing to do with it."

"That's just like you. That's just perfectly like you. Nobody has anything to do with anything when it applies to you. That's why Laura's been blaming herself for not paying attention to how you were feeling, what you were doing. That doesn't mean a damn to you."

With fizzing lemonade sloshing in a glass pitcher, Laura all but ran toward the sounds of battle. "What's going on here? Margo, stop yelling at her."

"Shut up," Margo and Kate shouted in unison as they faced off.

"I could hear you all the way in the kitchen." Struggling not to slam glass on glass, Laura set the pitcher down on the table. Wide-eyed and fascinated, her daughters watched the three-way bout.

"I have to yell," Margo insisted. "To get the sound through that thick head of hers. You're too busy feeling sorry for her to yell."

"Don't drag Laura into this." But even as she said it, Kate whirled on Laura. "And you have no business blaming yourself for my problems. You are not responsible for me."

"If you took better care of yourself," Laura snapped back, "no one would have to be responsible for you."

"Ladies." Not sure whether he should be amused or wary, Josh stepped behind his nieces, took the glasses they carried out of their hands. "Is this any way to throw a party?"

"Stay out of this." Kate's voice vibrated with fury. "All of you stay out of my life. I don't need to be watched over and worried over. I'm perfectly capable - "

"Of making yourself sick," Margo finished.

"Everybody gets sick," Kate roared. "Everybody has pain."

"And those who are capable, seek help." Laura put her hands on Kate's shoulders and firmly shoved her into a chair. "If you'd had any sense, you'd have gone to the doctor, gone into the hospital for tests. Instead, you act like an idiot and send the entire family into an uproar."

"I couldn't go to the hospital. You know I can't...! can't."

Remembering, Laura rubbed her hands over her face. This is where temper got you, she thought. Sniping at a hurting friend. "Okay." Her voice gentle now, she eased onto the arm of Kate's chair. When her eyes met Margo's, she saw that Margo had also remembered Kate's shuddering childhood fear. "That's done now. You have to start taking care so it doesn't happen again."

"Which means you have to start practicing to be human," Margo said, but there wasn't any sting in it.

"Are they still mad?" Kayla whispered, still clutching Josh's trouser leg with one hand.

"Maybe a little, but I think it's safe now."

"Mama never yells." Unsettled, uneasy, Ali chewed on her nails. "She never yells."

"She used to yell at me. It takes a lot to make her yell. It has to really, really matter. And once she hit me right in the nose," Josh said.

Fascinated, Kayla reached up and rubbed her fingers over Josh's nose as he bent down. "Did it bleed and everything?"

"And everything. Kate and Margo had to pull her off me. Then she felt really bad." Then he grinned. "Even though I started it. What do you say we have some of that lemonade?"

Ali walked behind her uncle and studied her mother with a curious and considering eye.

* * * * *

It had to be done, Kate reminded herself. It was Sunday morning. Her aunt and uncle were expected by mid-afternoon. Before she faced them, she had to face Byron.

It was her new plan for a healthy life. Deal with your personal and emotional problems as carefully as you dealt with the practical ones. Why, she wondered, was it so much harder?

She'd secretly hoped he wouldn't be home. A lot of people went to brunch on Sunday mornings, or to the beach. Somewhere. But both of his cars were in the drive. Even parked behind them, she could hear the music pounding out of the windows. Creedence Clearwater Revival. She spent a moment listening to John Fogerty's fervent warning about a bad moon on the rise.

She hoped it wasn't an omen.

It was difficult to reconcile a man with his looks - smooth, elegant - and his obvious preference for down-and-dirty rock and edgy Motown. Well, she wasn't here to analyze his musical tastes. She was here to thank him and then turn the page on this awkward chapter in her life.

Prompting herself as she went, Kate got out of the car, started toward the house. She would be casual, brief, friendly, cheerful. She would turn the whole matter into a joke on herself, show the proper appreciation for his consideration and concern. And get out.

She drew a breath, rubbed her hands over the thighs of her jeans, then knocked. And laughed at herself. Superman wouldn't have heard a knock over the blast of CCR. She pressed the doorbell hard. At the tinny notes of "Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here" she gaped in shock, then shook with laughter. Enjoying the absurdity, she pressed it again, then a third time.

He came to the door, sweaty and incredibly sexy in tattered shorts and a sweatshirt with the sleeves torn off. "The doorbell tune isn't mine," he said immediately. "I can't change it until after the settlement."

"I bet-that's what you tell everyone." She indulged herself with a long, thorough look. "Did I interrupt a wrestling match?"

"Weight lifting." He stepped back. "Come on in."

"Look, I can come back when you're not busy pumping iron." Christ, he had amazing muscles. Everywhere. How had she missed that?

"I was nearly finished anyway. Gatorade?" He held up the bottle in his hand, and when she shook her head, glugged from it himself. "How are you feeling?"

"Fine. That's why I dropped by. To - " He leaned close, closed the door behind her, and made her jump. "To tell you I was fine. And to thank you for... things. The flowers. They were nice."

"Any flare-ups?"

"No. It's not a big deal. Really." Nervous, she shrugged her shoulders, rubbed her palms together. "One out of ten people ends up with a peptic ulcer. All socioeconomic levels, too. There's no clear evidence that they hit on, you know, people with a lot of stress and harried schedules."

"Been researching, have we?" A smile flirted around his mouth.

"Well, it seemed the logical thing to do. All in all."

"Uh-huh. And did your research also reveal that people with chronic anxiety tend to be more susceptible and to aggravate the condition?''

She dipped her restless hands in her pockets. "Maybe."

"Sit down." He gestured to the single chair before he walked over to turn down the music.

"I can't stay. My aunt and uncle are coming in today."

"Their flight's not due until two-thirty."

He'd know, of course. She caught herself twisting her fingers together, and made herself stop. "Yes, but I have things to do, and so do you. So, I'll just..."

She was saved by a scrabbling sound and the surprising sight of two running balls of yellow fur. "Oh, God." Automatically, she went down on her knees and caught the deliri ously happy puppies in her arms. "Oh, you're so cute. Aren't you sweet? Aren't you wonderful?"

In unanimous agreement, they bathed her face with eager tongues, yipped and wiggled, crawling over each other to get closer.

"That's Nip and Tuck," Byron informed her as he got down on the floor with them.

"Which is which?"

He sent one puppy into slant-eyed ecstasy by scratching a furry belly. "I don't know. I figured we'd work it out with time. I've only had them a couple of days."

Kate picked one up to nuzzle and forgot she'd been anxious to get in and out. "What are they?"

"A little of this and a little of that. Some golden retriever, some Lab."

Before the second puppy could desert her, she kissed his nose. "Followed you home, right?"

"I adopted them from the animal shelter. They're eight weeks old." Byron found the remnants of a well-chewed rawhide bone on the floor and skidded it over the polished wood for the pups to chase.

"Mind if I ask what you're going to do with two puppies when you're at work?"

"Take them with me - for a while. I figure I can fence in part of the backyard, and they'll have each other for company when I'm not here." They came barreling back, jumped him. "I was only going to get one, but then... well, they're brothers and it seemed only fair." He glanced over, found her smiling at him. "What?"

"You wouldn't know it to look at you."

"Wouldn't know what?"

"You're a sucker."

He shrugged, tossed the bone again. "I'd think a practical woman like you would see the value of taking both. A backup dog is a sensible plan."

"Yeah, right."

"Jesus, Kate, have you ever been in one of those shelters? They break your heart." He tolerated wet, sloppy kisses from the rebounding puppies. "They're doing a great job - don't get me wrong - but all those cats and dogs, just waiting for somebody to come along and take them. Or..."

"Yeah. Or." She reached over, rubbing her hand over the dog in his lap. "You saved them." Her gaze came back to his. "You're good at that."

He reached out, curled a hand around her calf and slid her over until their knees bumped. "I tend to get attached to things I save. You look good." Anticipating her, he kept his hand on her leg and kept her from scooting back. "Rested."

"I didn't do much more than rest all week. And eat." She smiled a little. "I gained three pounds." .

"Well, strike up the band."

"It may not seem like much to you, ace, but I've spent most of my life trying to develop something resembling a figure. I tried everything you read about in the back of magazines and Sunday supplements."

He had to grin. "Get out of here."

"No, really. There I was, faced with Margo - who I think was born built - and Laura's feminine little body. I always looked like their undernourished younger brother."

"You don't look like anyone's younger brother, Kate. Believe me."

Feeling foolishly flattered, she shrugged. "Anyway - "

"Despite the amazing weight gain and the lack of symptoms," he interrupted, "you are going to see your regular doctor."

"I don't have much choice. My family's ganged up on me."

"That's what family's for. You gave us a scare."

"I know. I've been lectured by experts on my careless, selfish ways."

He smiled and patted her legs. "Sting?"

"Big-time. I'm thinking about just having 'I'm sorry' tattooed on my forehead so I don't have to keep repeating myself. And speaking of apologies." She blew out a breath, fluttered her bangs. "I was going to try to get out of here without bringing this up, but I'm trying to reform."

Her brows knit, as they did whenever she had to face a thorny problem or unsettling task. This qualified for both. "The other night, before I had my little... attack, we were..."

"On our way to the floor, as I remember." He reached over the puppy that had fallen asleep in his lap, brushed at the hair above her ear. "Looks like we got there after all."

"What I want to say is that things got out of hand. My fault as much as yours," she added.

"Fault's assigned when there's a mistake."

"That's my point." She should have known it wouldn't be simple. Nip or Tuck was draped across her thigh, snoring. She busied herself with stroking his head. "We don't - I don't jump into bed with men I hardly know."

"It was going to be the floor," he reminded her. He still had a hard time going into his own kitchen without imagining what might have been. "And I never assumed you did. Otherwise, it wouldn't be two years since you've had sex."

Her mouth dropped open. "Where did you get an idea like that?"

"You mentioned it," he said easily, "when I was trying to get your clothes off."

She closed her mouth, let air out her nose. "Oh. Well, that only strengthens my point." Uneasy, she watched him gently lift the puppy from his lap and set it aside, where it curled deeper into sleep. "What happened was just a moment." He repeated the procedure with the second puppy. Kate's heart began to thud. "A hormone burst."

"Uh-huh." He didn't even touch her, just leaned forward until his mouth slid expertly over hers.

Kate could almost feel her mind tilt and her brains flow out. Well, she needed a distraction, didn't she? An outlet for all this tension. It seemed like the most sensible thing in the world to unfold her legs, wrap them around his waist and dive in.

"This only proves it," she murmured. She threaded her hands through his hair and gripped. "Proves I'm right."

"Shut up, Kate."


It was wonderfully, brutally hot. She hadn't known until that instant how cold she had been. Until his unshaven cheeks rubbed roughly over her skin, she hadn't known how soft she could be. Or how gratifying it could be to be the soft one.

She let out a long, grateful moan when his hands streaked under her T-shirt to stroke her back, slid around to cup and squeeze her tingling breasts. The flick of his thumbs over her nipples shot a bolt of heat through her center that vibrated achingly in her crotch. Arching back, she pulled his head down until his mouth replaced his hands.

He suckled through cotton, tormenting himself with fantasies of what her flesh would feel like, taste like, sliding under his tongue. She was so... slight. That neat, almost boyish torso should never have appealed to him. There was no womanly flare of hip, and her breasts were small.

And firm, and warm.

The way she moved against him, that edgy eagerness of a woman already teetering on the edge, was viciously arousing. He wanted, needed, to shove her back, rip aside that denim and drive himself inside her until they were both screaming.

Instead he dragged his mouth back to hers, slid a hand between their bodies and sent her free-falling over the edge. He shuddered himself when she convulsed, ordered himself to breathe when her head dropped limply on his shoulder.

Well, he thought, that should hold one of us.

It took her a moment to realize that he'd stopped, was just holding her. "What?" she managed. "Why?"

The dazed questions nearly made him smile. "I decided I didn't want it to be a hormone burst. For either of us." He eased her back, studied her flushed face, the heavy, glazed eyes. "Better now?"

"I don't think - " Couldn't think. "I don't know - Don't you want to - ?"

He crushed his mouth to hers in a kiss that tasted of dark and swirling frustration. "Does that answer your question?" Taking her by the shoulders, he gave her a quick, satisfying shake.

"You're trying to confuse me." Part of her brain was starting to regenerate, and with it, temper. "This is some kinky version of Gaslight."

This time he did smile. "God, you're a pain in the ass. Listen to me, Katherine, I want you. I haven't the smallest clue why, but I just want the hell out of you. If I'd followed my first instinct, you'd be flat on your back, naked, and I'd be feeling a lot better than I do right now. But I'll be goddamned if you're going to pick yourself up afterward and claim I just helped you end your sexual drought."

Her eyes snapped back into focus. "That's a hideous thing to say."

"Yeah, it is. And that's just how you'd have rationalized it. I'm not giving you the chance. What I am doing is giving you the chance to get used to the idea of having me as a lover."

"Of all the - "

"Just keep quiet for once," he said mildly. "We're going to take this slow, go out together in public, have a few reasonable conversations, take some time to figure each other out."

"In other words, it's going to be all your way."

He angled his head, nodded. "Yeah, that sums it up." When she tried to wriggle free, he simply sighed and held her in place. "Honey, I'm as stubborn as you are, and a hell of a lot stronger. That puts me one up."

"You're not going to keep me here when I don't want to be here."

He gave her a friendly kiss on the nose. "You may be a scrapper, but you've got toothpick arms. We can work on that," he added, ignoring the strangled sounds she made. "In fact, there's no time like the present."

She thought she'd had all the shocks she could handle for one morning, but she got a fresh one when he hauled her up and slung her over his shoulder. "Are you insane? Put me down, you muscle-bound son of a bitch. I'll have you hauled in for assault."

"It's muscles we're going to deal with," he said mildly, as he carted her into an adjoining room. "Believe me, there's nothing like a good workout to relieve tension. Considering your ulcer and your desire to gain weight, this is something you should add to your daily routine." He set her down, caught the fist she swung at him in his hand, gave it an affectionate squeeze. "You want to be able to put some power behind that punch. We'll work on your biceps."

"This isn't happening," she said and closed her eyes. "I'm not even here."

"We need to work on diet and nutrition, too, but we'll get to that." They were going to get to a lot of things, he thought, as soon as she didn't look as if he could knock her flat with one exhale. "Right now, I think you should start off with three-pounders." He took two metal dumbbells from a rack. "You'll work up to five. You're going to want to go buy yourself some girl weights."

She opened her eyes again. "Did you say girl weights?"

"No offense. They make these nice plastic-coated sets of free weights in colors." He put a weight into each of her hands, curled her fingers around them. The only thing that stopped her from dropping them on his feet was curiosity.

"Why are you doing this?"

"You mean besides because I find myself oddly attracted to you?" He smiled into her eyes as he positioned her elbows at her waist. "I think I'm starting to like you. Now pretend you're lifting and lowering these through mud. Concentrate on your biceps and keep your elbows in place."

"I don't want to lift weights." Hadn't this man just minutes ago taken her to rough and blistering orgasm? "I want to hit you."

"Just think about how much harder you'll be able to hit me once you've got some muscle." He guided her arms down, then up. "Just like that, but resist both ways."

"These are too light. It's silly."

"They won't feel so light after a few sets. You're going to work up a nice sweat before I'm finished with you."

She sent him a sweet smile. "Yeah, that's what I thought before." Pleased with herself, she lowered the weights, lifted them. Then her brain flashed. "Goddamn you, Byron, are you saving me again?"

He stepped behind her, positioned her shoulders. "Just pump iron, kid. We'll work out the details later."

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