Authors: Jennifer Lewis
Tags: #Contemporary romance
Panic surged through her. She was recently widowed and still grieving her dead husband, she had no idea what she felt about anything.
“It started by accident,” she stammered. “When we first met I had no idea who he was, and I tried to stop, but—” The words jammed in her throat.
“But we couldn’t.” Louis materialized beside her, tall and self-assured.
He shrugged, maybe a hint of apology in his expression as he looked at Dominic and Amado. “We should have told you earlier, so you didn’t waste your energy arguing with the rabble out there.”
His casual “we” stirred a warmth, mingled with fury at the way he spoke so easily for both of them. Couldn’t she even express her own thoughts without someone jumping in to put words in her mouth?
She glanced at Dominic. His face would make quite a painting. A baroque mask of horror somewhere between Goya and El Greco.
Her stomach curled into a knot.
Then he started to laugh. The sound boomed through the wide marble entrance hall and up the stairs. Contagious, it rippled first to Amado, then Fiona, then to the junior staffers.
Louis joined in, then even Sam found herself unable to control the explosive release of tension.
“They are going to
“It really isn’t funny,” gasped Sam. Horrible, breathy bursts of laughter exploded from her throat. Hysteria. Everything was moving too fast, going all wrong.
“It is, though,” Dominic’s often serious face bore a huge grin. “And it’s wonderful. I thought you had a mysterious glow ever since you came back from New Orleans. I figured it was because you were so excited to find Louis, now I can see it was a little more than that.”
Sam wrung her hands. “I didn’t want anyone to find out.”
“Why? You’re not related,” said Amado. “It’s a family tradition to fall madly in love with the wrong person. Look at Dominic, getting involved with a corporate spy planning to sue his father, and me, crazy about the woman who showed up to destroy my family.” He grinned. “Welcome to the club, Louis.”
Louis, standing calm and unruffled, smiled and glanced at Sam. “You okay?”
“I have no idea,” she said honestly. She suspected not. There was an unpleasant pulsing sensation in her left temple and her heart kept beating faster. “What about Tarrant?”
Fiona stepped forwards. “He’s probably laughing his head off somewhere. You know he wanted you to live a full life after he died.”
Sam wrapped her arms around herself as grief cascaded through her, cold and painful. “He said that, but I know he didn’t really mean it. I promised him that he’d be the last.” She tried to keep her breathing steady, to remain standing as her legs grew shaky.
“And he told me to make sure he wasn’t.” Fiona winked. “If I know my dad, he’d be on the phone trying to hook up an exclusive deal to sell the story for a million bucks.” She glanced at Dominic.
“Don’t look at me.” Dominic narrowed his eyes. “I took over his role in the company, but I didn’t turn into him.”
Fiona bit her lip. “What about Sam’s charities? We could sell the story to raise money for Save the Children or something.”
“Hey, that’s not a bad idea.” Louis half smiled.
Sam’s ears rang with all these lunatic suggestions. The hallway had started to pulse and throb with color. The floor had grown wobbly and unsteady under her and she wasn’t sure she could keep standing much longer.
Her train was going off the tracks.
“You’re standing here talking about my personal life like I don’t even exist.” Her high-pitched wail rang through the hallway.
She gasped for air, a sob rising dangerously in her throat. She stared right at Louis. “I’m a grown-up. I can make up my own mind. I don’t need anyone to tell me what to do.” Even as she tried to convince them that she was rational, her mind seemed to be shattering, thoughts and sensations clashing and colliding into a kaleidoscopic nightmare.
She needed to get away. “Please, don’t follow me.”
As tears clouded her eyes, she ran for the stairs.
“Sam.” Louis’s voice vaguely penetrated the roar of blood in her ears as a wave of hurt and anger crashed over her. Now she was crying in front of Dom and Amado and Fiona and all the staff. She’d wanted so badly to be a reassuring mother figure to them all, nurturing them and supporting them, instead she was a hysterical wreck. A source of scandal and humiliation.
She flew up five flights of stairs, right to the top of the house. She paused for breath, hands gripping the polished baluster.
No one followed. Good. At least they had some sense of decency not to hound her in the supposed privacy of her own home.
She unlatched the door to the roof deck, flung it open and plunged outside into the bright sunlight. The sky crouched over her, bright and clear. She gulped air, trying to stop the horrible sobbing sounds racking her body and escaping through her trembling lips.
One minute everything was okay. Fine. Wonderful even. The next minute the world was crashing in. She didn’t seem to have any control over her own body, or even her own thoughts.
She couldn’t live like this.
She wouldn’t live like this.
If she continued on this course, the tabloids were quite capable of hounding them for years, of disrupting all their lives and damaging the company’s reputation.
It hadn’t been easy to transform herself into Samantha Hardcastle, wife of one of the most powerful men in the world. She’d achieved considerable success, raising money for charities, cultivating friendships with people who were important to the company, helping to promote Hardcastle Enterprises and enhance its reputation in everything she did.
And most importantly, she’d worked hard to build the Hardcastle family and sustain it now that Tarrant was gone.
Her selfish, personal desires could not be allowed to draw hostile attention and ugly innuendo to her private circle.
Sam dragged in a long, shuddering breath of air. Her pulse rate slowed and the jagged edge of tears started to subside.
She’d made her decision, and this time she was sticking with it.
Louis pushed open the door to the roof. Sunlight blinded him and he raised a hand to shield his eyes. Sam stood, a frail figure in her skinny jeans and dark shirt, silhouetted against the bright sky.
Of course she was upset. He understood. Once he held her, she’d—
“It’s over between us.” She hurled the words at him like a handful of stones.
“Relax, Sam. You’re just upset because of the press.”
She held his gaze, her blue eyes bright. “I’m not upset, or overwrought or hysterical. I’m perfectly rational, and I’ve made the right decision.”
Irritation rippled through him. “For who?”
And despite what you and all the other men in my past might think, I’m quite capable of making decisions for myself.” She crossed her hands over her chest, defensive. “Or do you disagree?”
She’d issued a challenge. If he did disagree, he was no better than the other men in her life who’d tried to tell her what to do.
He spoke softly. “I think you should take some time to reflect. We could go to Europe for a while, Barcelona, perhaps. I have business to do there and we could...”
Sam squeezed her eyes shut. “No! I’m not running away. I don’t want to go to Europe or anywhere else. I just want to stop this crazy affair that’s going to derail all of our lives if we let it.”
How could he make her see sense without proving that he didn’t respect her?
For once words seemed to have deserted him, so he simply took a step toward her.
“Stop! Don’t push me, Louis. I’ve made up my mind and all I ask is that you respect my decision.”
Her delicate features now formed a mask of determination that echoed in her stern voice.
She was shutting him out and bolting the door.
A wave of desperation unleashed a tide of anger. “There are two of us in this relationship.” His voice emerged as a growl.
“No. There is no relationship.” Her expression didn’t alter. She’d morphed into the polished society matron smiling from the party pages in the magazines. “It’s all over. Now I’d appreciate you leaving me in peace.”
He stared at her, his mind reeling.
He'd offered her his heart...his whole life.
He planned to raise a family with her, something he’d never imagined doing, but that he now wanted with a painful and unfamiliar urgency.
He’d offered her
everything he had,
and now she replied with a haughty dismissal.
A steel band of emotion tightened around his chest and his muscles ached and throbbed.
But he wasn’t going to beg.
Without another word, he turned and strode for the door.
amantha, darling, you’ve outdone yourself! Everyone—simply everyone—has been talking about this party for days. Who did the flowers? Marcel? He’s such a talent, such an artist...”
Sam kept her smile in place while Cecilia Dawson-Crane exclaimed over the lilies. She should be glad. She put a lot of effort into getting those damn lilies just right.
So why did she feel like such a fraud standing here? The grand ballroom was abuzz with chat and laughter. She was surrounded by two thousand of her closest friends, all of whom had paid hundreds of dollars for the privilege of joining her for an intimate gourmet dinner.
She’d already raised over a million dollars, not including the raffle, for the World Refugee Fund. She should be ecstatic.
Instead she felt...desperate.
“Samantha, sweetheart!” She swung around to kiss another powdered cheek, this one belonging to her friend, Kitty. “Congratulations on snagging an art show.”
Sam blushed. “It’s just the church hall.”
“It’s not any old church hall, it’s on Madison Avenue and I’m bringing all my art world friends.”
“You’re sweet. I just started experimenting with oils and I’m not sure I’m ready, but Margo insisted. And if anyone’s foolish enough to buy one, it’ll help pay for the church’s new roof.”
“Everyone will want one. Mark my words. I’m not the number-one selling agent for Darcy and Maclaine for no reason. Who knew you had so much talent hidden under that well-sculpted exterior?”
Not me, that’s for sure. A
few lessons with Louis’s friend Margo had unlocked something inside Sam that had her up in her new studio day and night, diving into a turpentine-scented world of light and color.
“I do enjoy painting so much.”
“Trust me, we can tell by looking at your work. That big one of the Louisiana bayou at dusk...” Kitty shook her head, which had no effect whatsoever on her spiky blond tresses. “It’s magic.”
Sam gulped. She’d been reluctant to include that in the show, given all the potboiler publicity over her affair with Louis. But Margo insisted that was all forgotten. And she was pretty much right. Since Sam never responded to the accusations and Louis had left for Europe, people assumed it was just more lies.
So she’d agreed to include the painting of Louis’s special place. “That was my first painting.”
“You’re kidding?” Kitty’s hazel eyes widened.
“No, it formed in my mind one morning and I couldn’t put down the brush until it was done. It took me three days and nights. Anna brought me meals in my studio.” She touched Kitty’s forearm. “Lucky thing I’m a lady of leisure, huh?”
Kitty stared. “First of all, I’ve never met anyone in my life who works harder than you. Second of all...wow. I’m going to be keeping an eye on you as an investment, as well as a friend.”
Sam flushed with pride. It seemed she actually was good at painting. Louis had been right about that.
Ugh, why did he keep sneaking into her mind when she least expected?
Even painting and lunching and making phone calls around the clock didn’t squeeze him out of her consciousness.
Especially at night. When she was in bed. Alone.
She excused herself from Kitty and hurried to the green room to see how the speakers were doing, then checked with the caterers on whether the take-home gifts were ready.
Everything in place. All going smoothly.
Sam tried not to roll her eyes at the annoying name only one person called her. “Hi, Bethanne,” she said and kissed her on both cheeks. “How’s the house in Amagansett coming?”
“Appallingly slow, but what do you expect? Apparently the marble shipment from Italy got impounded by customs or some such nonsense. But never mind that, where are those dangerously handsome young men you rounded up to be your lifelong consorts?”
Sam blinked. “Oh, you mean Dominic and Amado and—” Her throat closed as she tried to say Louis’s name.
“Of course I do. What a marvelous idea to have sturdy young knights at your disposal and you don’t even have to sleep with them. Honestly, some aspects of marriage are better left unexplored after a certain age.” She winked a heavily mascaraed eyelash. “I don’t imagine you’ll remarry, dear, will you? Too much trouble defending your fortune from young turks, what with prenups being overturned in the courts every day. No, I wouldn’t, either, in your shoes.”
Bethanne Demarist leaned in, until her horrid scent threatened to choke Sam, “But just between you and me, I could quite understand enjoying the talents of those adorable young men.”
“Dominic and Amado are both married,” stammered Sam.
“That’s not who I was talking about,” replied Bethanne, with a knowing look.
“I...I...I must see if the hors d’oeuvres are being circulated.”
“Come on, Sammy. I saw that picture in the paper.”
“We weren’t kissing. It was a trick of the light.”
Bethanne narrowed her eyes. “A trick of the light, huh?”
“Yes, and you’d be amazed what they can do with digital photography these days.”
And how easily I can tell a boldfaced fib on this topic.
She really should be ashamed to outright lie about it. But it was in self-defense. And people got off even for murder when it was in self-defense, right?
“Ah, well,” Bethanne’s expression slipped into a smirk. “I have seen him pictured with a lot of beautiful women since then.”