The Courting of Thomasyna Tollefson

THIS PAST WEEKEND for actress Thomasyna Tollefson has not been a pleasant one. Wasn’t a good one for Dr. Stephan Deverill, DVM either.

Not only has Stephan’s cousin Charley Ascott run off with most of Thomi’s money and a good deal of her dignity, he’s run off with Stephan’s fiancée, Aveleen Hallwell—leaving Thomi with nightmares and deep, deep regrets, and Stephan with a dilemma and a determination to beat Charley at his own game.

Thomasyna is not interested in helping Stephan exact revenge upon his cousin. Even when he’s quick to save her from a tragic death out on the cliffs behind her Rhode Island home.

She’s had enough drama in her life lately—not including any associated with her career. Who needed to add to it?

In fact, the only drama Thomi’s interested in now is Littleton-by-the-Sea’s Summer Benefit play; the proceeds of which would be going to the family of frail seven-year-old Jaimee Shaine Kelmann enabling them to seek further treatment for her serious heart condition. And she pinky promises Jaime that she will star in that play for her.

But gradually, Stephan’s handsome face, sweet, sweet smile, eyes the color of a summer sky, and his fascinatingly hypnotic voice that could charm a cobra up the sharp side of a butcher knife,  breaks down her defenses.

Which puts her in the unenviable, and to her, unfair position of having to choose between Stephan expectations and little Jaimee’s.

Which one ought she to disappoint? Whose trust did she wish for most? Which decision would likely damage her very public reputation more?

Very likely, she’d be damned no matter what her decision was . . .

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STEPHAN

Waves, crashing against jagged boulders below, sent spray upwards as far as the sparse bushes that poked determinedly out from the cliff side. The Atlantic, an ominous deep slate gray and rolling with huge white-capped waves, reflected the sky in one of its blackest moods. Dark clouds towered into thunderheads, and the awesomely booming clashes and dazzling flashes that had teased in the distance, now threatened the immediate vicinity. The storm wouldn’t hold off much longer, but at least it would alleviate the heat of a late June day.

Thomasyna Tollefson stood near the cliff’s edge, absently pulling the ears of her magnificent black Chow, and contemplating the events of the past several weeks. One in particular haunted her—made her jump at any sudden sound, her heart freezing, then racing like a Porsche on a straightway—rendering her bones and her will nothing but a pitiful blob of gelatin.

The Villain had peeled off his Princely disguise entirely Saturday night. Now he was on his way back to Los Angeles with someone else. But who knew with him? He might change his mind and return.

She would really rather jump off this cliff than face him.

Musing through the ‘if onlys’, Thomi came to the conclusion finally that, if only she’d had a working brain in her head, she could have avoided the whole mess in the first place! Both it and her heart had betrayed her.  Not even to Simon Lindell had she given trust so completely! So readily . . . so blindly . . . oooh, so gullibly!

Simon had some faults too, but none like Charley Ascott’s! In addition, his love for her had been real. Was still, as a matter of fact.

Never had she appreciated that—until this moment. He’d been a friend of the family for so long she’d had trouble thinking of him as a lover. They’d done some films together and two television mini series. He and his actor/director brother ran tame at her family’s stable, DreamWynd Equestrian Center, for they both boarded horses there. For all the time they’d spent together these past few months, somehow Simon’s devotion hadn’t impressed her enough to see him the way he’d wanted to be seen by her. A little late to beg him to take her back too. He’d found someone else. Ah, why—why had she kissed him off so heartlessly?

Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Why did you think Charley was worth it? demanded her mind for the ten billionth time.

What had it been that’d lassoed her like a wild filly on the prairie? That soft caressing tone that none other had used with her before? His insistence—at first—of doing everything for her? Or was it his smile? No, no . . . probably was those oh, so sincere, happy brown eyes when he begged her to let him see her—that the wrap of the filming of Kate of the Oglala shouldn’t be the last time they saw each other.

Of all her suitors, only he and Simon had presented her with more than just a few roses and the rare card. Gratifying—except Simon had actually used his own wallet to get them for her. Charley—

And people say you can act! Never again, honey!! Never, NEVER, again!!!

Probably she’d have a bonfire later on and burn all the things he’d given her. They’d only been tools to him. Tools to impress the heart and lull the mind’s defenses.

Charles Wolfram Ascott IV not only dazzled, then drained, her heart, he’d pretty much vacuumed her bank account down to paper dust. Which must have been his principal reason for wanting to be with her in the first place—hence all the sweet smiles and gifts . . . well, sweet smiles. Those gifts she’d more than likely bought herself!

Had been a sizable account too. She’d risen quickly in the ranks of higher paid performers and was still rising. Likely, she wouldn’t be in this empty state long. But she’d pledged some of her resources to her favorite charities and other good causes.

Her altruistic spirit was no secret. A virtue that served to offset some faults, chiefly a maddeningly insolent arrogance she reserved for those apt to mind her business for her. It didn’t surface often, fortunately, but still, often enough to exasperate those on the receiving end of it.

She ought to have employed more of it with dear Charley, for this attitude had always seemed to serve her well where men were concerned. She’d certainly curbed Simon’s ardor with it when he’d taken liberties she’d given him no permission to take. Was a great defense in difficult situations . . . any difficult situation . . .

Well . . . most situations . . . nothing had helped Saturday night.

Oh, sigh . . .  Talk about blind infatuation!

The door of her mind opened a crack, and the events of the weekend peeked out. As had been his habit of late, Charley’d spent the whole of Friday with his friends, missing the date he’d earlier made with her. She and her sisters had gone to Christie’s for the evening without him. Actually, she’d had an excellent time without him.

The notion she ought to bail out of this affair became, that night, more of a conviction when the girls returned home and found he’d missed the last curve in the road and had run his car into a ditch. The Camaro sustained no damage, but Charley had left the scene. They came upon him staggering in the middle of the road, as drunk as he normally was—but this time he had no remorse for it.

His expression ugly, his mood belligerent, he wasted no words in apology to her, no plea for forgiveness. While she found she could still feel concern for him, she hardened her heart against his problems and gripes.

Particularly this one. Which he probably wanted to cry about all the rest of his life.

She’d heard this many times before—his Grandfather Ascott’s illogical decree of disowning Charles III when his second wife left him so long ago, never telling him she was pregnant.

“My grandmother is better people than he ever was, but did he care? No, he did not—and he punished my father for her leaving him! What was he supposed to do? He wasn’t even born yet, for God’s sakes!”

They’d gotten Charley into Rikki’s purple Mustang, but then they couldn’t get him out once they passed through the gates and parked as close to the house as they could without driving on the lawn. He just kept up his harangue.

“All their lives, he’s given them whatever they wanted! Sent ‘em to the schools they wanted to go to—Stephan, Storm, and Kourtnay, even Dyana—who’s the snobbiest bitch! Must ‘o felt sorry for her—or no . . . must o’ been he’d seen how like himself she was, and that’s why he loved her! The others ain’t so bad . . . it’s just the principle!”

He was silent a moment thinking about this, then he spouted on, “So, only they got mentioned in his will! Only they get to split his wealth! Papa Ascott’s a fool! Rejecting his firstborn like that—my father! Never even asked to see him once Gramma Freddy left him. So, I can’t think why he favored Karley so much! She’s a damned clone of my grandmother!

“I tell you that no one’s allowed to even mention my grandmother’s name? Probably burned her portraits. I would’ve liked to’ve had ‘em! But no-oo, I’m her grandson, so I’m nothing too! Then the old man turns around and marries my grandmother’s sister, Theadora! Now there’s an intelligent move! But I’ll bet my life he did it to spite my grandmother!”

Between his anger and his intoxication, it’d been difficult to get him to understand it was time to let it go and find a place to crash for the night. Naturally, they’d help him find someone to come for him and his car. He’d finally come out of the Camaro, but he could hardly stand, much less walk.

It looked, at first, like they’d have to leave him on the lawn. But after a couple false starts, Charley’d picked himself up, and staggered up the steps to the porch. Once inside, he’d fallen in the space between the overstuffed white sofa and the light oak and glass coffee table. Made one attempt to get himself up again, but he hadn’t the strength.

He’d looked up at the three sisters, all in a row, identical as team uniforms, and informed them, “I’m gonna . . . be the nail in their tire when . . . when I take her away like I took the others! My father’sh not good enough—they ain’t either! I’ll fix ‘em all!”

“Charley—”

“You wanna bet on that?” His tone mean, daring her to challenge him.

“No. Be quiet now. I have to find someone to come get you!”

“Go ahead, call somebody. Don’t matter to me!” His gaze narrowed, and he’d peered at each girl in turn. “Which one o’ you is . . . Tami? Dammit, you all do this to me on purpose! I’m seein’ . . . triple as it is . . .! Care about you, Tami! Gonna prove it to you, too! Gonna get you things you never dreamed of! Gonna . . . I’m gonna . . . love you like . . . shweet—”

She’d cut him off then, not in the mood to listen to his drunken claims of affection and his empty promises. Moreover, right at that moment, she loathed hearing that particular nickname on his lips. Good chance she’d never want to hear it again ever—from anyone!

“Sure, fine, whatever. I’m calling Tony now! Don’t get comfy there!”

For Charley’d collapsed entirely before she’d spoken three words. Which, while inconvenient, thankfully ended his ranting. Ming stood guard over the inert form, just in case. The young Chow hadn’t liked Charley from the beginning. Of course, the feeling had been totally mutual.

Thomasyna began calling around, hoping to find someone with the first one.  Unfortunately, all of Charley’s friends were in the same shape he was.

“Any point in calling his uncle’s place?” Rikki’d asked. “You should’ve listened to me; taken him back down the hill and dumped him outside his gates instead of bringing him home with us!”

“Yes, this is one puppy we’ve been saying no to for months. Listen to us! Take him to the pound! Put him to sleep! Put us all out of our misery!”

Thomi had acknowledged Halleigh’s suggestion with, “He is sleeping! Although that doesn’t put us out of our misery . . . not completely anyway.” Then she’d addressed Rikki. “Oh, you know there’s no point in calling his uncle’s place. He hates me so much I barely get to say my name. If one of his servants answers, they tell me there’s no one available to take my call.” Thomi eyed his prone form regretfully. “No getting him up now if I wanted to dump him off at his uncle’s gates . . .”

“Not asking him to come get you!” Halleigh said, royally annoyed. “He could send someone else for him, couldn’t he?”

“He could, but he won’t. So, we’ll just leave him where he is—again! Ming’ll watch him for us! He won’t be waking up until past noon anyway! And I’d wanted to ride tomorrow! Figures! Why couldn’t he have just crashed at Tony’s?”

Because he liked giving the illusion that he was welcome to stay at Cliff Top at any time! Between your sheets, dear, to be specific . . . 

All right, all right, yes! She ought to have corrected that early on. Now, almost no one believed it when she said it wasn’t true. Since that was the case, Charley kept hoping she’d simply give in and make it true.

Nope, not happening.

She ought to have investigated more closely all the instances he’d asked for money, too. But she hadn’t wanted to believe he’d do anything other than what he’d vowed he was doing. Hadn’t wanted to admit he wasn’t much different than most of the other men she’d dated—except Simon. For Charley’s claims of seeing to “investments for their future” hadn’t had anything to do with their future at all. He’d been clever about hiding his real purpose for asking her for so much money. Kept buying her things, taking her to exclusive nightclubs and restaurants . . . All, apparently, with her money—and that was the only bet she’d place right now!

He’d gambled every coin in his pockets and under his car seats to oblivion—an obsession of his she hadn’t realized the depth of until a half hour ago when someone had shown up at her gates looking for him and the vast sum of money he owed.

On Saturday, however, he’d seemed like himself again. Apologized for his behavior of the night before, begging just one more chance, and wouldn’t you know it, right after that, he’d pleaded for one last loan. The last one, really!

“What for this time?”

He’d been a little taken aback by her cold tone, but not daunted. “Tami, please! I’ll pay you back, I promise. I’ve lent some cash to Tony—which I was expecting to get back last night—so I could lend it to my brother, Ryon. I don’t want to go into what sort of trouble he’s in, but I can’t abandon him like that! We’re brothers! Please, Tami! He’s a great guy—just  . . . impetuous!”

Well, she had impetuous brothers too, and she’d come to their rescue more than once, so she’d allowed herself to be persuaded one more time. He’d kissed her so sweetly, and promised he’d spend the afternoon with her, doing anything she wanted to do. Even go to DreamWynd. Put up with her family—none of whom admired him.

Though, why would they? Charley’d largely ignored their existence, and never troubled to make himself agreeable to any one of them. Her family was large; it had tired his mind to keep track of them all. Especially her sisters; so very alike were she and they . . . although Lyndsay was fourteen months younger and five feet six inches to their five two.

But he’d been as good as his word. He’d been civil, at least, to her brothers and sisters, and hadn’t minded Lyndsay and Jacqi coming along on their trail ride. Even agreed to stay to supper afterwards.

“What happened to him?” had demanded Lyndsay, “He’s actually human today!”

He’d found enough favor with most of her family, that her younger brother, Brett invited him and Thomi to go sailing with him as they’d gotten up from the supper table.

With a possessive arm about Thomi’s waist, Charley’d replied with smiling politeness, “Thank you, but we have plans!” At Thomi’s protest, he’d laid a finger across her lips, chiding, “It’s a surprise for you! I’ve gone to a lot of trouble for it—you can’t refuse!”

But you should have! Only once again, you were foolishly lulled by his sweet attentions! That smile.

To be fair, she had insisted they go for Brett hadn’t hidden his disappointment. If she could bail out his brother from his trouble, well, he could give a couple hours more to her and her brother!

Only then, little Stacia had run up to inform her that Ming was sick in the pony ring.

You could have gotten Geoffrey to take you and Ming to Dr. Ayer! You should have! What are older brothers for? Especially favorite ones?

Mechanically, Thomi’s hands moved to rub her maltreated arms. Gingerly, for the bruises were tender, and quite vivid. In spite of the day’s warmth, she wore jeans, and a long full sleeved tunic to hide her injuries. The thoughts her mind threw at her wouldn’t be stilled, and it served to exacerbate her feelings of guilt. She should never have been so trusting.

Ming, attuned to her moods, whined. His short broad nose nudged her leg, and he glanced up worriedly. Dropping down on the ground beside him, she hugged him to her, and some of the tension left her body.

Fortunately for her, whatever drug had been administered to him hadn’t lasted as long as Charley’d intended. But for her loyal pet’s intervention . . .

And here, all thought of Saturday night, she cut off abruptly. Now if she could only shake this incredible guilt—this sad humility.

O, Humility . . .! Rather a new experience for her! She’d treated them all with unpardonable callousness while she’d dated Charley, but in an instant, her sisters forgave her all, rallying about her now, ready to defend her no matter what.

Ah, man, if only she could take back all the unkind things she had flung at them. At them all! She’d been particularly obnoxious to her father and most of her brothers. How difficult it was to swallow crow! Almost every syllable of what they’d warned about Charley was true! The only one she hadn’t been obnoxious to, besides the youngest ones, was her mother.

I’m sorry! I’m sorry!! I truly am sorry!!!

Before leaving Sunday morning with their brother, Tristen, to attend an arts and crafts show in Saratoga, at which they would both display their respective works for pleasure or profit, Halleigh’d impulsively pulled Thomi into a close embrace. “How can I go? You had such horrible nightmares last night, and you can’t bear to be alone in a room much less alone in the house! I wish you’d let us call the police—or at least tell the boys! Something’s going to happen while I’m gone, I feel it!”

“Go Halleigh,” Rikki’d said, dragging her away and marching her to the door. “You can’t pass this up—Tristen has all your stuff packed in the van! He’s impatient to leave! Look at him pacing out there! We’ll take care of her. Don’t worry! If Charley tries to see her, I’ll call for help. Call both the cops and the boys!”

Thomi’d mustered a slight smile at that, then wanting to change the subject, recommended that Halleigh sell that dreadful portrait of her which she’d only recently finished.

“I’m not selling it, Thomasyna! If something ever happened to you, I’ll have it to remember you by! It’s the best thing I’ve done so far! I’m going to miss you both! Please, please, be careful while I’m gone!”

She’d promised, but Rikki and Halleigh’s worry only triggered those worthless feelings again. She wasn’t deserving of such concern—from anyone.

If only the earth would open and swallow me up!

Hugging Ming close again, she let out a depressed breath. “You knew what a rat he was. But I thought you were just jealous of him. Not very bright of me, was it?”

From the moment Simon Lindell had placed the ten-month-old puppy, more teddy bear-like than leonine, into her arms Ming had been her willing slave. He’d forgive her any number of transgressions—as long as he was fed, made a fuss over, and allowed to go Everywhere with her. Now he nosed her cheek, flicking it with a blue-black tongue. Pulling his tiny rounded ears, Thomi told him firmly, “I promise you Mingi, I will never do this again! It’s just you and me. And Rikki and Halleigh—and Lyndsay! Okay? Don’t let me forget that!”

He looked her over seriously and licked her face again. He wouldn’t forget!

Thomi’s left hand slipped to the ground. Feeling a smooth stone under it, she picked it up and hurled it over the cliff.

That felt good.

But not good enough.

She rose to her feet in order to put real power into her pitches. Which was considerable when she began to imagine Charley on the receiving end of it.

Not very long after Tristen and Halleigh had departed, hadn’t Charley the nerve to show up at Cliff Top Manor. Announced he was leaving Rhode Island and just wanted her to know it. Had something else he wanted to see her about, but expected her to either let him in or come to the gates in order for him to speak to her.

From the windows of the upstairs hallway, she’d watched; not answering any of the entreaties he’d delivered through the intercom. He no longer had a right to let himself in through her gates. Rikki’d changed the security code immediately after Thomi had come home Saturday night.

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, Charles!” had intervened a querulous female voice.  “She doesn’t want you in her life any more than I want Stephan in mine! Quit wasting time and get us out of here! A month ago!”

Thus, they’d departed on the long road west. From the sounds she’d heard through the intercom, apparently the pair had also the companionship of a snuffily little dog. Poor thing!

Too bad they hadn’t slipped away months ago. She wouldn’t be standing here now in so deep a pile of regret.

The crunch of stone behind her startled her. She turned, expecting to see Rikki back from taking Lyndsay home to DreamWynd. Or, perhaps, a fan bold enough to hop the fence surrounding this area. Ming’s menacing growl became more sinister the closer the intruder came.

Thomi, although glad of her dog’s protection, curbed his belief that she desired an attack in her behalf—at least, just yet—commanding him to be quiet and get back here! He complied, but kept up his strict vigil on her behalf. He had no more trust for this guy than he’d had for Charley.

She knew at once who the man must be. For while his resemblance to Charley was not striking, his likeness to his father was most certainly. Her lone encounter with Greggory Deverill, the island’s most prominent resident, wasn’t one she’d likely forget in a hurry! That disastrous meeting had lasted a mere five minutes, leaving her no doubt of the elder man’s opinion of his nephew’s new love interest.

This man had the same red-gold hair and eyes of a deep sapphire blue as had his father, though she couldn’t remember the elder having such glorious curls. Nor had he this look of sunny warmth and delighted anticipation.

Thomi kept her gaze coldly aloof. Charley’s happy expression had belied his true temperament. Wouldn’t be any different with his cousin! Whatever could he want? Come with an offer from his father to bribe her into leaving Charley alone? Maybe she’d take it so she could face her own father with less trepidation! Wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to figure out what he’d say if, and when, he discovered how generously she’d greased Charley’s wheels!

Not put off by her unwelcoming attitude, the man proceeded leisurely forward, keeping a watchful eye on Ming. Thomi turned away, hurled a few more rocks into the sea, ignoring him rather than challenging his trespass of her property. Hopefully he’d take the hint and go away!

He didn’t. He stopped at what Ming considered to be a safe distance away and watched her, waiting with infinite patience for her recognize his presence.

Irked, then, that she was herself under scrutiny, Thomi mentally set the newcomer beside his cousin Charley and flung a smooth, nicely balanced stone at this vision with force and precision.

But, alas—no regard to safety.

The step taken in order to execute her throw found no ground beneath it. In a winking of an eye, she tumbled over. Twisting desperately, she latched a lucky grip onto a scrubby little bush. There she clung; heart pounding so loud it drowned the thunder of the waves below—and that from the clouds above.

Oh please . . . please! I didn’t mean it when I said the earth could open up and swallow me!

Yes, just about anything would be infinitely preferable to being dashed to pieces on those merciless rocks below and swept away as fish bait thereafter.

The first root of the bush ripped from the soil. Through the thin stuff of her blouse, Thomi felt the rough unyielding rock against her body. With her left hand, she grabbed for a hold in a groove above her, but it wasn’t quite deep enough. Her fingers slipped off, and another root let go of the cliff side.

Above her, Ming whined and barked encouragingly, then suddenly gave an ominous growl. An exasperated, deep, liquid voice responded to it. “Here, we’ve no time to argue! Let me help!”

Ming backed him off; meanwhile the bush loosened its grip some more. Urgently Thomi cried out, “Quit it, Ming! Let him help!” Ming acquiesced, but refused to let down his guard, keeping an eye on the man’s every move, right down to the blink of his eyes.

The bush heartlessly dropped her another couple of inches, and she caught her breath on a frightened gasp. Involuntarily, she glanced down. Foaming, swirling waters beneath her held her mesmerized. They seemed to beckon her to let go and be received into their midst. Time and again, they surged up, reaching to drag her back with them. Each wave more powerful, more insistent, than the last one. Closer; so very close, she could feel the mighty force in their thrust. Their crashing descent back into the sea reverberated through the rock and into her body, dragging her heart with them. She froze, unable to do anything but wait for the inevitable.

“Tami! Look up here! Grab my hand!”

Although her would be rescuer lay as close to the edge as he dared, his hand was just beyond her reach, and she was reluctant to try for it. “I don’t . . . think I can!”

“Don’t think about it! Just do it!”

One . . . two . . . roots popped out from the cliff side as he spoke. She would have to move at once or forever lose the opportunity. Another gave way. A powerful wave slammed into the cliff a mere foot below her, showering her with its spray. Taunting her, bragging the next time would be her last one . . .

“Come on, Tami! NOW!”

The urgency of her situation and that in the man’s voice motivated Thomi to thrust herself upwards, assisted by a small toehold her scrambling foot discovered. His hand caught hers in a strong clasp as the bush parted from the cliff wall and tumbled into the surging sea below in a shower of dirt and rocks. Hauling her unceremoniously over the edge, he guided her to a spot some distance away from the edge. Thomi twisted out of his hold; her legs gave way, and she sank to the ground. Propping her head in her hands, she sought to recover her composure.

“Are you all right?” He bent slightly over her, one hand on his hip, the other at his knee.

Without looking up, she answered, “I’m fine! No big deal!” Never giving it a thought that her trembling fingers would belie that piece of nonchalance.

Ming didn’t believe her. Anxiously, he probed her head and then her arm, finally forcing his way under it. He whined, snuffling her face, begging for reassurance.

She hugged him. “Ah, Ming, it’s okay! I’m all right!”

“Fortunately,” observed the man dryly. “Careless move, wasn’t it—or was it meant to be?”

She shot him up the briefest of impatient glances. “Well, of all the stupid things to say! I’m not about to kill myself over anything—or anyone . . . yet!”

“That’s telling me!” He knelt beside her, keeping an ever-watchful eye on Ming. “I am right—you are Tami, aren’t you?”

Thomi gave him no answer, nor any other indication she’d heard him. Intrigued though he might be with the radiance and thickness of her true black locks—for even in the shadow of the impending storm, he could detect the blue highlights in them—he desired her complete attention and he meant to have it. With imperative fingers, he made her look up.

In her eyes of an emerald green glinted a measure of resentment and a certain hauteur. “I am Thomasyna! Or Thomi!” she informed him coldly. “Sometimes Syna! Don’t call me Tami—or Tami Lynn!”

Taken aback, he uttered, “There’s a name you don’t hear everyday!”

“Yes, I do!”

He laughed. “I meant in the general way it’s not a common name!”

“Take it up with my father,” she told him. “He named me—and all my sisters!”

“I’ll look forward to doing that,” he said smilingly. “I’m Stephan Deverill!”

Replied Thomi, unimpressed, “Yes, I know. Chucklehead’s cousin!”

It surprised a laugh from him. “You’re better off without him, you know!”

Thomi hadn’t the least desire to discuss her affairs with him. “Yes, I know that, too!” She stared at him broodingly a moment, then bluntly stated, “She said she was better off without you too! That why you’re making a gift of her to him?”

“Oh, I’m infinitely better off without her! No one special, believe me!”

Must’ve been true. He displayed no hurt, no anger or resentment, nor even any disappointment. Well, hadn’t Charley mentioned his cousin’s wedding was just around the corner? Despite his claim right now, he must have loved her in the beginning to have considered a marriage with her. Thomi marveled at his supreme indifference. Must be handy to be able to do that!

Oho, but what was this look coming into his eyes? A look like this could only begin new drama. Was starting it already, actually!

Her regard turned both suspicious and apprehensive. He’d come expressly to see her, and not, apparently, to discover what she might have known about this affair between Charley and his fiancée—whatever her name was. Aveleen Something . . . Charley’d generally referred to her as Stephan’s Latest.

For what then?

“Thomasyna, have dinner with me tonight.”

The unexpected request, sincerely delivered, startled even Heart—who betrayed her earlier resolve, threatening to give in to the sweetness of his smile, the lazy warmth of those oh, so blue eyes, and the glory of his chestnut curls. Although, by far, Stephan Deverill’s most dangerous quality was his deep liquid voice, its hypnotic effect lulling the best of defenses.

Nothing like it had she ever heard before. Beside it, Charley’s voice seemed now merely ordinary! It wanted to suck her under just as those waves had. Surely, with that voice and that look, he could charm a hooded cobra up the sharp side of a butcher knife!

Hastily, she rose up, backing away from him, stumbling over Ming close beside her. “Not on your life!” Her voice choked with suppressed emotion.

“No,” he agreed, rising up with her. “On yours; because I’ve saved it!”

Thunder cracked, and twin forks of lightening lit the sky. But that didn’t cause her to catch her breath as did those words. Oh, she couldn’t allow him to hold this circumstance over her. One dinner could lead to the very situation she vowed to avoid—for life if possible. At least for the next ten years!

“So, I’m supposed to fall at your feet and swear myself your most loyal slave forever!”

“I’d be honored!” he answered simply.

“Oh, please!” with great skepticism, and she turned abruptly to leave.

Stephan prevented her. His fingers closed upon one of the tender bruises Charley had inflicted, and she involuntarily cried out. Ming swiftly revealed his opinion of that move. Stephan swiftly released Thomi. Her sharp command prevented disaster. Just barely.

Assured that Ming wouldn’t finish the attack unbidden, Stephan watched her gently massage the arm he’d just released. He said contritely, “I’m sorry! I hadn’t the intention of hurting you!”

Unthinkingly Thomi uttered, “Ah, it wasn’t you who did!” Her bitter tone piqued his interest, but she put up a defiant chin. “You’ve no right to be here! Leave—please!” Her please decidedly more a command than a plea.

“Such a small favor I’m asking,” he said mournfully, showing no inclination of obeying her.

Her eyes narrowed. “Don’t do that!” she warned him. Lightning illuminated the gloom. In the same instant, so did a certain revelation. “But that’s what you came for—isn’t it? To get me to go out with you! Why? Because he took What’sherface so you think you’re entitled to me? I don’t think so!”

“Tami—” It flamed her anger, and he corrected hastily, “Thomi! Thomi . . . ! I’m sorry—Thomi! But Charley always referred to y—”

“So? I don’t want to hear those names again! Thank him for that!”

“I promise; I’ll never make that mistake again!”

“You won’t have the chance!”

In his eyes, she read otherwise. With annoyed indignation, she demanded, “Oh, look, why would you want to? Your father would disown you as fast as Charley says your grandfather disowned his father—faster!” There was that in his manner, in his gaze, and the way his mouth tightened for just that instant. “Ah, no! Come on! You actually want some kind of revenge!” Her emotions raced through stages of anger, incredulity, and frank bewilderment. “What makes you think he’ll care?”

“Long before they reach L.A., he’s going to realize what he’s left behind and want you back. Charley has an aversion to winter, and he’s making the trip with the Snow Queen!”

It gave her pause. Could that have been Charley’s purpose yesterday? To beg forgiveness of his brutal treatment of her? Of having used her for whatever the relationship might gain him. Was it possible he would at some point return to beg for it again? Even claim his love for her still burned? Actually expect her to forgive him freely and run right back into his open arms?

Oh, no! No, I couldn’t handle that!

To Stephan, she replied obnoxiously, “So, let him suffer! Why should I care what happens between them? And don’t look at me like that! You’re all the same! Always wanting something! Somebody’s body or else their money—or both! Never a real relationship!”

His hand shot out as she backed another step away, but dropped back to his side at Ming’s response to the action. Thomi’s cynical gaze conveyed plainly that she wanted this time to be the last time she ever saw him. With a curt word to Ming, she set her back to him and went off down the path opposite the one he had come by, disappearing directly through a slight gap in the thick hedges that hid from sight much of the high white stone wall that surrounded the house.

Pushing open the thick wooden door in the wall that gave entrance to the property, Thomi waved her dog through. “Ming,” she said, locking the door behind her, “if he’s stupid enough to come back—I won’t mind if you charge him an arm and a leg!”

No worries, though. Who’d come back after a reception like that?

Chapter Two – Mistaken Identity

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