The Courting of Thomasyna

 

 

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

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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?

 

<><><><><><><><><><>

Mistaken Identity

<><><><><><><><><><>

 

Rikkayla Tollefson flicked through the blouses on the racks, sighing. If she could just find a top to wear with her new jean shorts! It seemed, however, that her trip’s success would end with the few selections already in her cart. Rain beat heavily on the sidewalk outside, and thunder bellowed frightfully, making her wish she were safe at home—which, fortunately, was not far away. She had little control over her dread, no wish to be consumed by it in public.

Besides, she’d been gone for almost three hours. Thomi’s apprehension at being alone at Cliff Top seemed to have lessened now that she knew Charley Ascott had left Littleton. But still, her memories of the weekend lived fresh in her mind. Probably would stay in some corner of it forever. It probably wasn’t good for her to be left alone long.  She’d begged Thomi to come with her, but she’d refused. Said she’d just hang out on the cliffs till she got back.

Hey, wait! The summer outfit she was looking for! Peach culottes with a sleeveless v neck cotton blouse. Were there more? Yes! Impulsively, she dragged the outfits off their respective hangers. One for Halleigh and one for Thomi. Even one for Lyndsay.

It wouldn’t hide Thomi’s horrible bruises, though, nor could it lift her out of her depression. A new face or some new project might help. Since Rikki was quite aware that her sister’s pain, both physical and emotional, was going to require some time in healing, the first prospect would have to be fabulously special.

Dreams and Fairy Tale Special.

Not terribly likely.

A new project then. The summer’s benefit play at the Littleton Little Theater might do it. While scripts that would bring in cash for Thomi’s own benefit sat gathering dust on her shelves, the one that’d given hope to a very sick little girl was the only one Thomi had any interest in. Perhaps if everyone let the memory of this disastrous affair die quickly, she could get over it sooner; get on with her life, and her career. Thomi’s sadness was almost harder to bear than was her arrogance. Which had surfaced a little more often than normally these past few months. Thanks to Charley Ascott!

A streak of lightning invaded her musings, freezing her grasp on her cart. She cast a swift scared glance toward the storefront windows. Heart stopping thunder motivated her toward the nearest checkout. Fingers trembling, she paid for her purchases, grabbed up the blue and white Corbett’s bags, and fled. But at the next deafening, dazzling display, she stopped dead in the doorway, uttering another frightened whimper as she estimated the distance from Corbett’s to where she’d parked her purple Mustang convertible. Across the street by the Green under the shade of a huge maple.

She cursed her imprudence. For a certainty, a wicked finger of lightning would zap the biggest branch from the trunk and send it crashing upon her the instant she was under it. Trapping her there and devouring her like firewood. As it had done to her friends, Terry and Frieda.

However, people expected clear exit out of the store, some exhibiting impatience with her terror. One woman even rebuked her for behaving childishly. Squelching terrible memories, Rikki scurried up the sidewalk, veering to cross over as she got up by Richmond’s Jewelers.

A tall red headed man, exiting that establishment, tucked a small package into his shirt pocket as he came out. Right smack into him, Rikki plowed, her bags flying out of her grasp, landing here and there among the puddles. Instinctively his arms encircled her, preventing her from stumbling to her knees.

Much too desperate to reach her car to be embarrassed, Rikki begged a hasty pardon, and pulled away, intending to pick up her bags and run. To her surprised consternation, he held her firmly. Gently—but firmly. The warm familiarity in his eyes, and in his smile, jolted her. Which one of her sisters did he think she was?

“Now look, this has to mean we’re destined for each other, Thomasyna! Dinner is just about a half hour away! Both of us deserve a new beginning!”

Dinner? Thomasyna? New beginning? In so short a time, Thomasyna had met this guy, and been invited out to dinner?

A thundering roll dissolved her intrigue for the story. She wanted to run, only he wouldn’t let go. Drawing her under the protection of an awning, he took possession of both her hands. That beauteous voice remarked, “You’re awfully pale, Thomi. Are you sure you’ve recovered from your fall?”

Was that the cause of her nagging uneasiness a while ago? Rikki analyzed her feelings. If Thomi wasn’t all right, she certainly would have felt it. Therefore, she replied, “I’m fine! No big deal!” with confidence.

He squeezed her fingers in rebuke, and a touch of impatience colored his tone. “Might be the next time you play too near the edge of that cliff! If your furry bodyguard hadn’t permitted a rescue, the story might’ve ended differently! And you know it!”

Only by a widening of her eyes, and the slight parting of her lips, did Rikki betray a fearful worry. Thomi often took daring chances—performed her own stunts in her films. Was this depression more serious than Thomi would admit? Was that why she’d refused to go with her to bring Lyndsay home? No, no, she would have known that, too. Wouldn’t allow herself to feel differently in that regard.

His look altered; Rikki’s heart involuntarily flipped. “Make a happy ending happier, Thomi. Come! I’ve performed a valuable service—for your family, at least! Is one dinner so much to ask!”

He smiled, and she forgot her own name. Almost forgot the storm. Thomi’d kept her senses beside this man? There was a danger staring into those sapphire blues, in permitting his wonderful voice to intoxicate her senses so deeply! In letting her hands stay within his warm clasp—his fingers massaging hers persuasively.

In about two minutes, she’d be the one having dinner with him! Then, what?

Thomi ought to appreciate his preserving their set whole! Still, there was no belittling her right to refuse. So summoning all the cold resolution she could, Rikki shook her head.

He said gently, “Thomi, I’m not my cousin!”

Ah! Enlightenment! So, that’s how she withstood his smile and his look! That Voice! Put a different cover on the book! Instead of declaring, “Well, and I’m not Thomi!” she flung back, “So, I’m supposed to fall at your feet and swear myself your most loyal slave forever!”

He regarded her strangely, but said with sincerity, “And I told you—I’d be honored!”

Rikki’s stomach knotted painfully, and not because of the storm. Her brain had as much body as the rain puddles, incapable, therefore, of counseling her. Every one of her senses wanted to enjoy the warmth of his arms, and they dreamed a little of what his kiss might be like. Unnerved by the effect he was having upon her, she stammered, “Look, I’m sorry— This just—it’s not a good time! Look, I have to go!”

She managed to wrench free of him. Deafening thunder, on the heels of a flash of lightning that seemed to zing close by, made her flinch and gasp—just as long fingers, curling around her upper arm, hauled her back under the awning.

At once he set her free, saying with disarming contriteness, “I’m sorry. I was forgetting.”  A pause, then, “Your injuries are quite recent?”

Only momentarily confused, she realized he had mistaken her fearful reaction for one of pain. Thomi would never have confided in him. She didn’t either. “I have to leave!” This last display of nature had torn away most of her courage. The next one could probably take her over the edge.  Unless he did first.

He caught her hand in both of his, those blue eyes irresistibly imploring. “I gave you your life. Give me just one evening!”

Oh, no, please! Don’t say it like that!

“Thomi, I promise you, the rules are always yours to make!”

Never had she seen such integrity in the gaze of any man before. Nor heard such a statement uttered in just those tones. She believed him—that he was not a thing like Charley. That he would never do anything she didn’t want done. Her lips parted to accept his dinner plea, but then her conscience pricked. It wasn’t up to her to fulfill his wish. It was up to her to escape him. Ten minutes ago!

“No! And that’s it!” With a mighty yank, she gained freedom. Forgetting her bags laying still on the wet sidewalk, Rikki dashed across the street, heedless of traffic and dove into her car. Burning rubber, she pulled away from the curb, terrified of pursuit almost more than she was of the storm.

 

* * * * *

Thomi paced the wide stone porch, anxiously awaiting her sister. Partly because she’d had enough of being in the big house alone and partly because she knew in what case Rikki was likely to be in right now. Most of the time, she hadn’t the presence of mind to even remember the code in a storm like this. Sometimes someone had to dash up to the gates and drive her car for her up to the house.

The purple Mustang appeared at the huge wrought iron gates. Just at the moment, she seemed to be in possession of her senses. The gates swung open and the car rolled through, stopped even with the walkway. Rikki dashed across it to the porch, grabbed Thomi in a frightened shuddering embrace as thunder exploded overhead and lightening teased the treetops just yards away.

A fearful sob escaped Rikki, her hold viselike on her sister. Thomi encouraged her to move inside. Her legs carried her as far the drop leaf table in the hallway by the living room entrance. Collapsing onto a ladder back chair beside it, Rikki buried her face in her hands, her whole body shaking in response to the violence of the storm and with her sobs.

Thomi left her long enough to go get the wine that would calm her and get her through the storm. Slipping a supportive arm around her, she gently, firmly, pressed a glass of sweet, potent, tomato wine to her sister’s lips. “Here, swig this down, Rikki! Oh, more than that. Come on, you’ll feel better!”

Rikki pushed away the half empty glass, drew a ragged breath. “Don’t . . . make me sleep!”

If the storm continued in its present intensity long, Thomi knew she’d be persuading Rikki to imbibe enough until she did just that. She could feel her sister’s terror building as if it were her own. However, she didn’t push it now. “Come upstairs then. You need to change.”

Surrendering to the pressure of Thomi’s fingers, Rikki went with her upstairs. She held up through a succession of rolling rumbles, but once in her room, she flopped upon her bed, hiding her face in her pillows.  “Aah, ma-an . . . I hate this!”

Thomi, searching the drawers, cast her a sympathetic glance. “It’ll be over shortly.” Dragging out a pair of shorts and a blue shirt, Thomi tossed them onto the bed, hiking the drawer shut with her hip.  “Here, get up! You’re soaking your spread!”

Took considerable persuasion to get her to come out of the pillows. Between the workings of the storm and the effects of the wine, Rikki fumbled her way into dry things, obliged to accept more assistance from Thomi than she liked.

Thomi smiled, said placatingly, “Well, look; one day your husband will take over for us!” She threw back the damp spread, and made Rikki lie down, found a light afghan to drape across her. Withdrawing, then, to the window seat, she sat absently watching the antics of the storm; the awesome displays not troubling her own nerves.

“I met someone who must have hopes of becoming yours!”

Thomi glanced round at her. “There’s no one—” She made an instant sound of annoyance. “Stephan Deverill!”

“Ran into him making a dash for my car. He thought I was you. I let him.” A splendid display of thunder and lightning interrupted so near it made the lights flicker and windows rattle. Her breath caught on a whimper. “Thomi, move away from the window!”

“Nothing’s going to happen to me, Rikki!”

“Oh, sure! You owe him your life!”

Thomi turned, cast her a frowning look. “Oh, that’s gonna haunt me!” She fingered the cord of the blinds, declaring with conviction, “Actually, I’d’ve been fine had he just stayed away!”

Rikki looked an inquiry, but nature’s fireworks hushed a verbal prompting. Louder and more brilliant than the last, it sent her trembling into the depths of her pillows. Thomi watched her a moment, then came to pull a pillow’s corner. “Should I get the wine?”

“Pull the shades first!”

Thomi complied. Aware Rikki struggled against hysteria, she hurried downstairs for the wine decanter and the glass. Back directly, she urged her ashen-faced sister to sit up.

“Th-thought you said it was almost over?”

Thomi smiled at her accusing tone and helped her steady a trembling hand. “Well, it can’t last forever!”

“Feels like it has!” Rikki sipped some of the wine, then let go her hold on it.

“No, drink more. That little bit won’t do any good! Rikki, you need to sleep out this storm!” With a little more wine and some conversation, she would inevitably do so. Of course, she might just become silly—a circumstance Thomi didn’t have time to handle today. Sleep had to be the objective.

“I don’t want to sleep!” Rikki pushed her hand away. “I want to hear what happened!”

“I’ll tell you,” promised Thomi. “Just drink!”

Rikki stared at the glass in front of her face and thought to protest further. But with the next crackling boom, she guzzled the wine without further complaint.

“Okay, then,” said Thomi, satisfied. “Thing is, if he hadn’t come, I wouldn’t have imagined him a target next to Charley, so I wouldn’t have heaved that rock so mightily, and my foot wouldn’t have gone over the edge—and so, neither would have I!”

Rikki stared, horrified. “And you say nothing’s going to happen to you? Amazing it hasn’t before this! Thomasyna, if he had stayed away—” She caught her breath slightly. “Which would have given me stronger hysterics, do you think—the storm . . . or your death . . .?”

“You idiot!” Thomi took her sister’s meaning precisely. Setting aside the glass, she curled up at the foot of the bed with Ming, “You’re saying you’d’ve missed me only because you can’t uncork that bottle for yourself! Poor thing! You’d’ve been left to weep and wail under the bed or somewhere all alone!”

Rikki chuckled sleepily at the truth of it. “What’ll you do when he comes back?”

“He knows I don’t want him to. And Ming’s not a fan, either. He wouldn’t try!”

“He saved your life, Thomasyna! You know he’d be honored if you committed it to him! Of course, he’s coming back!”

Despite her annoyance, Thomi looked amused. “Challenged him, too?”

“But he’s got an answer for everything! Oh-hoho, what a voice!”

“Take my place!” Thomasyna promptly invited.

“Ah, I’d like to! He’s—different. Most of the guys we’ve dated, especially those you have . . . except maybe Simon—they deserved the games we played. This one—I don’t know . . . Not telling you what to do; just saying maybe—” Rikki broke off abruptly, intimidated again by the thunder and lightning. “Maybe—” she began bravely, then stopped, looking confused. “Ah, I forgot what my maybe was!”

Thomi had a fair idea of what Rikki’s maybe was, and she replied coolly, “Don’t indulge in fantasies, Rikkayla! He’s Charley’s cousin. How different can he be?”

“You’ll never know unless you go!” murmured Rikki incorrigibly, only smiling foolishly when Thomi pinched her toes in retaliation. She couldn’t feel it. “Simon’s okay—for an older brother type, but this guy’s awesome!”

Thomi wouldn’t admit that. And before Simon, whose friendship survived despite her callous treatment, there’d been less honorable men—some of her profession, some not—whose agenda decreed that adding her name to their conquest sheets epitomized the ultimate challenge. She’d dated each of them long enough to crush that spirit of conquest. Between her unpredictable temper and the deliberate switching of identities with her sisters, they’d tucked tail and fled.

Until recently, her heart had never been affected by anything she’d done. It was sorry she’d hurt Simon. Now. He’d been safe—or at least safer. Really, she was lucky no one else had given in to their exasperation—and their passion—in the same way Charley had.

Massaging her sore arms as she spoke, she pushed up one sleeve, revealing the ugly black and blues, and reflected, “Maybe Dad was right!”

“What? That one day you’d meet your match? But they deserved it, and we thoroughly enjoyed helping you torment them . . . do it again if you asked! Can’t believe Dad meant . . . well . . . this!”

“I think he did,” responded Thomi, and then spoke her haunting guilt. “What if you’d taken my place Saturday and he’d done this to you? I’d really hate myself for that! And so will Dad when—if he finds out about this—and the money I wasted on Charley.”

Rikki appreciated her sister’s feelings on these issues. Nicholas Tollefson was not a man whose ire ought to be raised at any time. Thomi did it frequently. Sometimes without meaning to, but other times quite purposely, having challenged his authority. He’d often voiced his uncomplimentary opinion of Charley, and Thomi countered it with insolent defiance. Their respective opinion of each other wavered between fire and ice. Which had put a strain on the entire family.

“If I had fallen . . . What do you think—would people believe I’d killed myself over Charley?”

Rikki, who’d thought that very thing earlier, resisted the drowsiness. Dragging herself upon an elbow, she surveyed her sister frankly. “It might cross their minds! Did mine when Stephan refreshed your memory of your fall! You’ve roamed around here so sad.”

“And Dad will make me sadder! How am I to back the boys and him off?”

“You could remind him—again—that you are of age and on your own.”

“Oh, no, thank you! I’ll let that line go for a while—until I’m eighty-six!”

Rikki lay back down, chuckling. “Well, if he didn’t care—”

“Yeah, yeah. He wouldn’t bother! Forgive and forget would be nice, too!”

“Give it time; he does.” Rikki shifted her position in an effort to stay with it just a little longer. “His fondest wish, despite your arrogant . . . insubordinate ways, is for you . . . is for you to give up acting and go back to DreamWynd.” She struggled to sit a little more upright, hoping to speak this piece before succumbing. Shaking her head, she pressed a hand to it. “Ah, this is awful. You and Halleigh always do this to me!”

Thomi smiled and waited. Apparently, she would bypass Stage Silly and go directly to Sleep. When Rikki didn’t resume, she prompted, “Ye-es? Go back to DreamWynd . . .”

“We all love DreamWynd . . . but you—you and Geoffrey share his goals . . . his dreams. Plus you’re good with dealing with the boarders.” Which put her in mind of a matter. “Marianne McNicoll’s more than three months delinquent! She evades Dad, but you’ve always influenced her to pay up. There’s something about you and your method of–of—” She paused, her brain disinclined to cooperate.

“My method of persuasion is patience and tact—with a friendly warning! The same as yours!” said Thomi, getting up. She pressed Rikki gently back against her pillows. “Sleep. We’ll talk about this another time!”

“He’d . . . pay you more if you went back,” murmured Rikki. “But if you keep messing with his breeding stock . . . there’s going to be Hell to pay!”

Thomi merely shrugged, unmoved. “I enjoy acting, too, but he doesn’t want to hear that. He’s not been a fan of Keath’s since Mom came out on location with us to film Kate!

Rikki’s eyes slowly closed. “Lets him know it, too! Gonna be war before Mom sees his point . . . or makes him see hers!”

“Really!” with feeling. “But I’d’ve never had this chance if Mom hadn’t talked him into letting me go with Keath in the first place.”

“Oh . . . you would have!” Rikki murmured but hadn’t the will to elaborate.

Thomi thanked her for her confidence, and then said, “Speaking of acting, I have to go down to the Little Theater to read over the script. You’ll be all right while I’m gone?”

Rikki, eyes tightly closed, considered this as thunder bellowed and lightning teased the lights. Then, sitting up, she tossed off the remainder of the wine in her glass and bade Thomi fill it once more—just in case. Settling back upon her pillows, she yanked the coverlet over her head. “Okay . . . go! Doubt if I’ll be . . . awake when . . . Halleigh calls. But hey—she’ll call back!”

“I hope she sells that miserable portrait of me!”

Rikki chuckled drowsily. “She won’t! She’ll . . . save it for your . . . wedding day!”

 

* * * * *

“This for real?” The exclamation was wholly involuntary. Thomi looked up from her copy of the script opened to the title page. Three Loves Hath Lidia Rose.

Keath Lindell finished passing out script copies to the rest of the cast, which included besides herself and his younger brother, Simon, the local talent of Vernon Parker, Jevon and Cecily Grayson, (Cecily presently dating Simon), Kelly and Kaycie Kester, Henry Dawes, and others who had lesser parts.

Keath handed a copy to Mrs. Kester, the high school drama instructor who normally directed Littleton’s Summer Productions. Mrs. Kester was thrilled, not only to have the opportunity to work again with Thomasyna—as well as to have her daughter Kaycie chosen as Thomi’s understudy—but also to work with an actor-director of Keath Lindell’s caliber. He took a seat and crossing one leg over the other, he met Thomi’s disbelieving look.

Kate of the Oglala won’t be your mother’s only triumph,” he informed. “She has a talent for this!”

Thomi glanced at the cover of the script. “I see her full name’s here—Anetra Joelene Ellyce Royce-Wyndham Tollefson. Dad’s approved this one, then?”

Said Keath lightly, eying her with a certain look, “I think we can leave it for another time, Thomasyna. We don’t wish to bore everyone with these trivialities!” He opened his copy. “Shall we begin?”

No one appeared in the least bored by these “trivialities.” But his gentle rebuke curbed her tongue. Thomi had no wish for her family’s affairs to become household talk—at least not to the extent some of her own were. The tabloids, even a couple reputable magazines, had had plenty to say about her life of late. One had even dug up a nugget of damaging worth concerning a certain party she’d reluctantly attended with Charley.

If only she’d fallen asleep or been silly herself on that occasion! Had no clue if the allegations against her were true or made up.

Truth was, she didn’t remember a thing—except accepting Eddy’s challenge to a habanera pepper eating contest . . .  washing down the fire with a concoction resembling a milkshake she couldn’t taste.

Which must have been the objective. For if she couldn’t taste it, then she might not realize right away that it’d been spiked.

Heaven preserve them from ever learning about Saturday’s events, or what had really become of those vast sums of money Charley’d sweet-talked her out of! She wouldn’t be happy to discover someone had leaked ‘family concerns’ to the media at any time. Would be mortified if it turned out she’d been the unwitting cause herself!

“All right, people,” Keath began, as pages were opened. “As you know, this is a fairy tale and a musical, which I believe you’ll find quite enjoyable! We have four weeks to prepare it! With your commitment, your hard work, we’ll put on a production we’ll be proud to be associated with—one that will draw in the crowd that’ll help Jaimee Kelmann’s family cope with her expenses. This goal in mind, Thomasyna, as our lovely Lidia Rose and Jevon, as the romantic Eric the Poet, will begin our story!”

As the script was read and different aspects discussed, Thomasyna’s instincts suspected this tale wasn’t simply from her mother’s imagination. Set in an obscure year after the manner of most fairy tales, it had, nevertheless, the feel of real. Unable to define her reason for why she felt it so, she formed the intention to question Keath about it.

However, Mrs. Kester claimed Keath’s attention afterwards, having ideas and questions about the costumes. Thomi looked, then, for Simon Lindell, the hero of the tale as Sir Anthony Bearcroft. However, Cecily, who’d coveted the role of Princess Lidia Rose, but who’d landed that of Queen Garianna, seemed awfully worried that Simon’s passion for Thomi might still flame. The instant the reading was over, she’d hurried him away. Not permitting even a good night to pass between them.

What a fool! Ah, well . . . Rikki needed to be looked in on, anyway.

Cliff Top Manor sat, as its name implied, upon the cliffs at the end of the road bearing its name. The girls’ offer, modest in comparison with others received, had found favor with the sole heir of the estate, whose ill-health prevented him from caring for it as it deserved.

Intrigued by their identical looks, their similarities, the subtle differences in their personalities, his old heart warmed to the earnest sincerity in their pledges to cherish the estate as he and his had done till now. Satisfied with their assurances, he’d bestowed his blessing upon them. While they had promised his beloved Cliff Top would never become a museum, because of Thomi’s growing popularity, it drew considerable attention, nevertheless.

Therefore, it was no surprise to Thomasyna, when she topped the hill, to find a car parked outside its gates. Such encounters could, from time to time, be an annoyance. Generally, she was friendly, seldom shrinking from confrontations, begrudging no one an autograph. Occasionally, though, turning around and coming back later was a better choice. Hiding, however, might work tonight, and she hoped her visitor would leave very soon, for Rikki’s sake. Although, likely, she was still asleep.

A narrow track ran the length of the left side of the stone and wrought iron wall that protected the house and the grounds within, and gave out onto the cliffs beyond. Thomi quickly turned onto it, hoping in the gloom of a rainy evening, her action wouldn’t be perceived. Intent upon getting safely behind the wall, she buzzed her purple convertible Mustang along the track—until she hit a deep rut she wasn’t quick enough to avoid. Slick with mud from the day’s storm, it held her fast.

“Oh, great!” Disgusted, she switched off the motor. She could maybe rock it out, but she didn’t want to call attention to herself should that green Vette drive past. She kept watch in her rearview mirror for evidence of its leaving.

And here it came.

But no—no, it was stopping!

The emerald green Corvette blocked the way out of the track, and a man got out. Eyes widening in lively horror, she bounced around in the seat to get a better look out the rear window. “Ah, you gotta be kidding . . .! It can’t be!”

It was.

Stephan Deverill strolled up and took a leisurely walk around the car. After surveying her predicament from every possible angle, he halted by her window, waiting expectantly. With irked exasperation, Thomi rolled it down part way. “If you’d only had dinner with me tonight,” he opined, gesturing toward her imprisoned wheel, “you’d’ve saved yourself this embarrassment!”

She gave a reluctant laugh, responding swiftly, “A small price to pay!”

His eyes lit with amusement, and he leaned out to cast another look at the tire buried to its hub in the hole. “Well, maybe—had it worked!” Holding her gaze with his smiling one, he reached in, unlocked her door. “Doesn’t pay to run away from me! Now come walk with me.”

“I melt in the rain!”

“A gentle mist!” He held out one hand to prove that while the other curled around her arm. Lightly. He wasn’t forgetting her injuries this time.

Still, she flinched and moved away with telling swiftness. “I melt in the rain!” she insisted with obnoxious determination.

He watched her a moment in silence, then informed her, “You’re safe without your furry bodyguard! Walk with me, Thomasyna!”

“Why are you bothering me?”

“You left behind the things you shopped for!” He flashed her an audacious grin. “Fabulous excuse for me to see you again. I’m determined not to dine alone tomorrow!”

Stephan—!”

“See! We’ve been on a first name basis for hours! Walk with me!” His smile together with his coaxing look knocked another brick out of the wall that was supposed to be protecting Heart.

Thomi made a sound of amused annoyance. “You’re wasting your time!”

Unmoved, he shrugged. “My time. I can waste it as I see fit!”

“Then, you’re wasting my time!”

Supremely serene, he answered, “But I have a right to!”

Thomi shot him up an angry resentful glance. “Look—”

“Don’t you deny it!” he told her softly. “This conversation wouldn’t be possible had I not rescued you!” He cut off her hot dispute. “Too close to the edge, Thomasyna! You ought to be more careful! Especially when your emotions are disordered!”

Disregarding that reproof, which sounded much like Rikki’s earlier, she retorted, “You don’t know a thing about my emotions!”

“You’ve been dumped; you’re hurting! Let me help you through it! Give us the chance to know each other better. All these stories about you can’t be true! And I can be,” he insisted, “the gentleman Charley apparently wasn’t. I’ve promised you the rules are yours to make.”

When had he promised that? She poised to ask it, but then it occurred to her. He must’ve vowed it to Rikki. What else had he vowed to Rikki?

“You were almost ready to say yes. Plus,” and he grinned, “I know you were wondering what my kisses might be like!”

She choked on an outraged laugh.

Thank you, Rikkayla!

Pulling out of his light hold, she slid a little away from him. “Was the storm—it scrambled my brains! I am really not interested!”

His look, his tone altered. “Look, if you fall off a horse, you get back on! I’m willing!”

“Totally different thing!”

“Not at all! Let me prove it to you!” When she flung him a look of skepticism, he went and impulsively picked her a handful of wildflowers blooming along the track. He thrust them in at her. “These flowers are growing where almost no one sees them. But your life isn’t like that. It’s in the open, bringing a great deal of pleasure to a lot of people.” Earnest blue eyes met emerald green. “You’re able to continue doing it.”

Listen, if you want me to find pleasure in working for you, go with him! Heart danced with eager anticipation and a certain desperation. Kind of like a little kid needing to pee.

Thomi switched on the ignition. “I’ve got to get my Mustang out of this canyon!”

“You know what they say about resistance!” Her swift exasperated glance made him exhort, “You’ll be loving me the instant I’ve helped you free your Mustang from this chasm!”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, get a life!”

“I’m trying to!” he answered plaintively, walking to the back of the car to give it a push.

 

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

An Unexpected Proposal

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

 

Tuesday dawned with a lazy attitude. Thomi spent most of the morning just sitting on her favorite flat rock on Cliff Top’s private beach, watching the waves roll in. They swirled around her, sometimes lapping over the edge, wetting her pant legs. So peaceful . . . the soothing sound of the waves coming in and that of shells and pebbles washing back out. Gulls calling overhead. Sailboats and yachts of every size took advantage of a more perfect day than yesterday had been to be out on the water. Beyond them, a huge tanker chugged toward Newport Harbor. The salty air was something she never tired of, and there was no place else she’d rather be right now.

Nothing like yesterday, when the waves wanted to rip her out to sea with them.

Picking up a stick, she absently wrote in the sand:

S-T-E-P-H-A-N   G-R-E-G-G-O-R-Y   D-E-V-E-R-I-L-L

After helping her free the Mustang, he’d persuaded her to walk with him. Considerately keeping the talk general, he’d displayed a marvelous sense of the ridiculous, in which she had delighted—yet, not enough to jump back into the fire.

First, he informed her that his name was NOT pronounced Stefan but was Steven. “Don’t forget that or the two g’s in Greggory!” He then harassed her about the spelling of her nickname. “T-h-o-m-i . . . Too-me! Or is it Thoomi?” Pronouncing the th as in thumb.

“It is Tommy—don’t you forget that!” The memory of his amused laughter, his teasing glance brought a reluctant smile to her lips.

“Ah, what am I doing?” Flinging the stick, she kicked the letters out of existence. Frustratingly, his image lingered. His last words to her had been, “I’ve enjoyed this, Thomi. You have to let me see you again . . . I will see you again!”

Well . . . maybe . . . maybe not . . .!

She picked up a shell fragment, wrote:

J-A-I-M-E-E   S-H-A-I-N-E   K-E-L-M-A-N-N

Jaimee, the young cousin of one of her friends, had a serious heart condition. With three other little girls, all under ten, David and Marsha Kelmann had their hands full, and their wallets woefully empty.

David tended bar at the island’s only hotel, and the insurance benefits were fast reaching their limits. Joleigh-Anna Kelmann hadn’t been fishing for help for her relatives when she’d mentioned their situation to Thomasyna. Merely, she’d expressed her concern for them. However, Thomi, her compassion aroused at once, insisted upon meeting the family. Had immediately been captivated by all four of the girls, and straightway determined to help them from that very first meeting.

Her kindheartedness overwhelmed Jaimee’s parents, and David, at first, was reluctant to accept her offer of assistance. It wasn’t his way to allow anyone to help solve his problems. Even his relatives had difficulty making him accept assistance from them—those inclined to help, that is.

“Look,” he’d said, “I don’t want to sound ungrateful; I really appreciate you coming here with Joleigh. You’ve made the kids’ day. You’re probably their favorite performer—more family friendly that most . . . but I made up my mind we’d never be a burden to anyone because of Jaimee’s illness! Not to my family—and certainly not to strangers!”

“Then, don’t think of me as a stranger!” Thomi returned earnestly. “Please, it’s no burden to me! How many cars do you think I need? Or clothes, or houses, or anything else? You have a beautiful family you’re working hard to take care of! But as hard as you’re working, you’re slipping into a hole you may lose your house over!”

At that, David had shot an accusing glance at Joleigh-Anna. That she’d admitted that her aunt and uncle had debts that exceeded their ability to handle figured as a gross disloyalty to him.

Thomi’d quickly implored, “Oh, no, don’t hate Jo for telling me! Please, now that I am aware of your need, how can I walk away from here and do nothing?”

“But I wasn’t expecting you to do this when I told you,” said Joleigh. “I was just—just talking. Was just a response to your story about the little boy in Illinois you’d helped a couple months back . . . Got him his open heart operation when it’d been refused him. Just—it just made me think of-of Jaimee.” She’d rested her gaze upon her little cousin, her affection and her worry evident in it. “That’s all!”

It hadn’t mattered to Thomi whether Joleigh had hoped for this outcome or not. She answered, “Joleigh—ever think I should have known about this sooner? How can I ignore someone in this kind of need who lives in my home state in my hometown? Especially when it is common knowledge that I have helped other people? Not just in this country, either! You know as well as anyone that I’d want to help them! We’ve known each other since we moved here, how many years ago?” She’d turned back to David. “Please . . . don’t be offended that she told me. If I’ve helped the families of strangers, how can I turn my back on those of my friends?”

He couldn’t withstand her reasoning or her sincerity. “All right,” he finally agreed. “But only if I can pay you back!”

“If that’s what you’d like to do.” She’d refrained from insisting there wasn’t a need to worry about it. Went on to more important concerns. “The thing right now is to be sure she’s never turned down for the care she needs. One of my brothers helps me with this kind of thing. He’ll contact you for all the details we’ll need so we can get started . . .”

And once he had them, Adrien lost no time in coordinating a plan of action. One of the first things he’d done was to get Jaimee’s name before the committee who voted on the recipient of the profits from the benefit productions from the Little Theater in Littleton-by-the-Sea.

It was Adrien who’d gotten Keath Lindell to give some time to the project of the summer’s benefit play. No one had to convince Thomi to take part in it. She would have accepted even the smallest role.

But Keath, after sitting through hours of auditions, finally had decided he could work with no other as the heroine in the production. While she was used to hearing her abilities termed as brilliant, Thomi hadn’t wanted to eclipse any member of the amateur theater group. With but one exception, however, no one felt slighted, and she’d been persuaded to accept the lead role.

If it had been possible for Jaimee to jump for joy when she heard about it, the frail seven-year-old, no doubt, would have. “Now everyone will come and see it! And Mommy and Daddy won’t have to pay a lot for my operation, huh!” Happy bright blue eyes animated Jaimee’s pale little face.

Amused at the child’s enthusiasm, Thomi’d challenged her, “Oh, I’m that good, you think?”

“Yup!” Naively, she’d confided, “We like your dog commercials. Ming really likes VetPro, huh? But we like the car ones best ‘cause you drive so fast! We got ‘em all on DVR, too—and your shows!”

“Did you?” She’d been impressed—and touched. Arrogance she possessed, but it had never occurred to Thomi that anyone, other than family and friends, would record her stuff. “Well, thank you for liking what I do! Now, you just have to worry about getting better after that operation!”

Jaimee hugged Thomi with all the strength her delicate body possessed. “I will—b’cause you’re Lidia Rose in my play! Everyone knows you’re the best!”

Thomi’d flicked her cheek and responded with another display of rare humility, “Ah, I’m not the only one that good! You’d still get better if someone else were to do—”

Jaimee’d thrown an instant and vehement protest; changing color and becoming alarmingly breathless. Dismayed and certain the little girl would suffer harm from her spell, Thomi hastily assured her that nothing and no one would entice her away. When she knelt by her, Jaimee left her mother’s embracing arm to cuddle into Thomi’s.

“You promise? A Big Time Promise?”

“The Biggest! Remember, the seats center front will be reserved for your family! No one else!” In her arms, the child quieted. Thus, offers she’d received of late sat in her study, disregarded. This obligation came first.

Now, there was her father’s unofficial proposal. Before Keath Lindell had opened doors to her present career, she’d been content working on the family run equestrian center—except for those clashes of will between her and her father. Some days he could be just impossible! She wrote his full name in the sand:

N-I-C-H-O-L-A-S   N-A-P-A-Y-S-H-N-I   B-J-O-R-N-O-L-F  T-O-L-L-E-F-S-O-N

An imposing name for an imposing man. He’d called earlier, wanting her help exercising his horses. If only that was all he wanted! Ah, well . . . maybe she ought to go. Ruffina, her Paso mare, also needed a good workout.

Collecting the cooler, Thomi called Ming to her. “At least out at DreamWynd, Mingi,” she informed her trusty canine companion as they started back up the rocky path to the house, “I won’t have to worry about some tall redheaded idiot badgering me for a dinner date!”

 

* * * * *

Situated a comfortable distance from the road, the big white colonial house at DreamWynd topped a knoll that sloped sharply behind to the stable yard. The front lawns, tiered in two levels with stone walls for support, were tastefully planted with varieties of flowers, shrubs and trees. An ageless, but well maintained, stone wall enclosed much of the land belonging to the Tollefsons, adding a good deal to the charm of the place.

The driveway, white stone gravel as far as the parking lot, emptied into the stable yard. There it became a lane that went beyond the barns, the indoor arena, and the three riding rings outside, and led to the pastures, fields, and the wooded trails; some of which in turn, went to sandy beaches lining ocean coves.

Thomi parked in the family’s private parking area—next to an older model white Lincoln she wasn’t familiar with. Who could this be? Hardly had she gotten out of the car, when her youngest brother and sister besieged her. A little girl of about three or so tagged along. With gorgeous blue eyes and coppery curls, how much like Stephan she looked!

“Hi, Thom! This is Kailey Van Kirk, and she don’t talk!” said four-year-old Stacia-Lynne breathlessly. She hauled her new friend forward, still chatting away. “Don’t know why, she just don’t. And she came with your new boyfriend. Know what? Her mom’s name is Karla Storm, just like Geoffrey’s horse is April Storm! That’s funny, huh? But we like her! And they’re in the boarding barn. And I like Stephan lots better than Charley, Thomi! Maybe Daddy will like him too, huh, Thomi? But he don’t wanna get his hopes up, ’cause you never pick the good guys!”

“Stacia, spare me Dad’s remarks, okay?”

“But this guy’sth a good guy, huh, Thomi! He talksth to us and he gabe us candy, and Kaiwey’sth mom let her ride my pony,” exclaimed Stacia’s twin brother, Daine-Anthony, obviously thrilled to be so honored. “They came to sthee Fairwind and Wogue, ’cause they’re the onesth who used t’ own ‘em. They’re Stephan’sth cousinsth, y’ know. But Mom’sth not here and Dad’sth busy, so they’re waitin’ for him. You want me to show you?”

“No,” replied Thomi, quelling the unexpected fingers of thrill that mingled with an equally unforeseen apprehension. Not safe from tall redheaded idiots anywhere! Figures he’d be the cousin of someone they’d done business with in the past! Figures he’d know how to charm children! “Where is Dad?”

“Out in the field. Heidi foaled out there, so he’sth checking on her. Know what? Stephan thaid he wants to mawr—”

Sudden angry brays and equally outraged squeals ripped the air, together with the sound of splintering wood. “Oh, great! You kids stay out here! Don’t come in!” Thomi sprinted for the boarding barn.

Seven-year-old Jacqlyn burst out of the barn and spying her, cried at the top of her young lungs, “Thomi! Thomi, quick! Cedric and Squeaky are kicking the barn down! Mrs. Green’s gonna kill Wanda and Louise for this, and your new boyfriend’s here with his cousins, and I’m getting Dad!” She dashed away in the direction of the pastures.

“Jacqi, I don’t have a new boyfriend!”

“Yeah, y’ do!” called back Jacqi, without stopping.

Thomi uttered a sound of annoyance and hurried down the aisle toward Mrs. Green, who was certain her precious spotted mammoth jack was about to be murdered by the much smaller red dun Quarter Horse mare. Mrs. Green alternated between crying out her concern for Cedric and upbraiding an absent Wanda and Louise, DreamWynd’s hired help, for ignoring her orders not to put her mule and that mare next to each other. Just now, fortunately for them, they were in the main barn, grooming two of the animals Nicholas wanted exercised today.

Already, Stephan and his cousins had responded to the emergency. The tallest of the girls slipped into Cedric’s stall, undaunted by the mammoth jack’s furious tantrum—which Squeaky answered with a nasty one of her own from her side of the wall. There’d be nothing left of those stalls shortly! Or Stephan’s cousin, either. Cedric wasn’t fond of strangers!

“Stormi, be careful! He’s no pony!”

“Stephan, he’s got deep cuts! If he strikes again he could—” Cedric let fly his hooves, and caught one in the jagged opening he’d kicked in the wall between the stalls. “Damn! He’s done it! I’ll calm him! See if you can get him free!” Stormi went closer to the trapped mule, unafraid. Cedric scrambled about, trying to intimidate her and free himself at the same time. But his unpredictable disposition and his imposing height didn’t frighten her. She spoke to him confidently and softly. His ears went from laid back flat to perked forward interestedly within a few short, but harrowing minutes.

Stephan, trying to get nearer to the mule’s back end, glimpsed Thomi’s arrival. He called out, “Thomi! Run back and get my case from the Lincoln! This could be bad!”

Mrs. Green made a small cry and pressed her hands to her mouth. For a few moments, her worry overshadowed her vexation with Nicholas’ hired girls.

Thomi about-faced, took a second to grip Mrs. Green’s arm in reassurance, then sprinted out to the parking lot. Now she knew who the Lincoln belonged to! Considered himself family already! And she’d thought she’d be safe from him here! Ha! Wouldn’t be safe probably if she went to the moon!

Stephan’s large saddle brown medical case sat on the backseat floor. She yanked it out and hurried back. Yeah, didn’t it just figure, too, that he’d be something useful—like a vet!

By the time she got back with Stephan’s medical case, Stormi had succeeded in totally winning Cedric over. With no halter or rope, she kept the mule under control with just her low sweet voice and the soothing touch of her hand. Thomi halted by the open stall door and simply watched in amazement as the ornery animal lipped at Stormi’s dark auburn hair and nuzzled her cheek. Let himself be persuaded into cooperating with his liberator—who possessed an equally mesmerizing voice. And an infinitely gentle, patient manner in dealing with temperamental creatures . . .

Well, at least, Ming wasn’t swayed!

In the next stall, Stormi’s sister had, despite an obvious disability, done the same with Squeaky. Now that Cedric had quit his foolishness, Squeaky lost interest in the quarrel. Both girls had clear, musical voices, although Stormi’s seemed lower and sweeter—and Thomi halted outside the stall, not announcing her return—just so she could listen herself. Watched Stephan free the mule’s trapped back leg and assess the damage done.

“He’s cut it deeply, yet, luckily, hasn’t done it permanent damage! Be laid up a while, however.” He stood and glancing out, perceived Thomi at the door. “Thanks, Thomi. Is there someplace else we can get him so I can stitch him up? I don’t think I want to attempt anything in such close quarters with him.”

“You can use the paddock right outside,” said Thomi, swinging the door open wide. “It’s closest. If you can actually get him to move . . .”

Not a problem. Even as she spoke, Cedric, deep under Stormi’s spell, willingly hobbled outside. One could only admire her way with the usually anything but tractable mule.

Stephan at once began to prepare Cedric for his operation. Then, sedating the animal, Stephan repaired the gash and neatly bandaged the leg. While his cousins were perfectly capable of attending him, he was inclined to enlist Thomi’s aid in assisting with the operation. As she was no stranger to such occurrences, and had, in the past, assisted Dr. Ayer, she acquitted herself well, earning his praise when the job was done.

In the meantime, Mrs. Green, upset over the occurrence, and the sight of her mule’s bloodied hock, had gone off on her own search of Nicholas Tollefson—and his hired hands. First, she ferreted out Wanda and Louise, since they were the easiest to locate. A new ruckus raged.

Nicholas, dragged out of the field by Jacqi, found himself in the center of it. Unable to sort out all the complaints and the pleas of innocence besieging him all at once, he told everyone to calm down, and he strode off in the direction of the paddock.

Naturally, a parade of people followed him, not a one of them inclined to heed his command. They all hustled toward the paddock where Thomi, Stephan, and his cousins stood watch over the slumbering mule, their disagreement plainly reaching them.

Jacqi ducked between the rails, and ran over to report cheerfully, “Mrs. Green is gonna make Dad fire those two nutheads!”

Mrs. Green felt her grievance legitimate. Everyone in the county knew that Quarter Horse mare and the mammoth jack loathed each other. Why had Wanda and Louise changed the mare’s stall to that next to Cedric’s?

“Nicholas, you’re well aware they don’t get along! That mare instigates these scenes! And if your ‘help’ can’t follow orders, I say fire ‘em! Get someone who can!”

Mrs. Green then collared Louise. Nearly fainting with dread confronting the old lady’s displeasure, Louise could only whimper apologies. She was cut off ruthlessly. “I don’t want you near my animals, do you understand me? And as for you, my girl—” She glared at Wanda.

They, yet again, swore the animals were getting along when they’d left. In her mind, the two were twits, and Mrs. Green refused to listen. Thomi didn’t blame her. Wanda, in general, had an inflated opinion of her equine knowledge, while Louise dissolved into tears at the slightest reprimand. Such babies!

“Mrs. Green,” Nicholas interrupted, trying for control of the situation, “I’ll deal with them! Go settle up with Deverill!”

Of Scotch-Irish, Native American, and Norwegian parentage, Nicholas Tollefson possessed, besides great height, a powerfully built frame, and he wore his blue-black hair at shirt collar length. His bearing, that of one accustomed to having his will obeyed, encouraged few to pluck up heart to cross him. A glance from those remarkable emerald eyes caused bold men to give way. However, there were a few who weren’t intimidated by any of this. Notably, his wife, certain of his offspring—and Mrs. Emmajean Green.

She regarded him quite in the light of a recalcitrant boy. “Nicholas, I won’t insult you by threatening to take my animals elsewhere, although I daresay you’d lose more than my business if I took them out! But I will have to seriously consider alternative measures if you can’t train these two featherbrained nitwits better than this!”

“That’s it! I’ve had it with this crap!” Wanda burst out indignantly. “We don’t have to put up with her garbage! Keep your stupid mule here! We’re leaving! Come on, Louise!”

Louise, head bowed and tears flowing, followed her friend and fellow worker back the way they’d come.

Jacqi hopped with glee, chanting, “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it! YES!” and she and Thomasyna hit a high five, flipped a thumbs up at Mrs. Green. It incurred their father’s frown, but beyond that he didn’t censure them, nor did he try to stay the girls’ departure.

Mrs. Green, thrilled to see the back of the incompetents, scolded him, “I should think someone like you, Nicholas, could judge a person’s worth within five minutes—or less—and weed out the undesirables! Whatever possessed you to hire those two twits in the first place?”

“I didn’t hire them,” he answered, “my wife did. But don’t go looking to rake her down for it! She operates under the principle that everyone needs a break sometimes. Even you, Mrs. Green! So, I won’t insist you take this troublesome creature elsewhere! I’ll even be big enough to admit you’ve done me a service in scaring them off! Saves me from having to tell Anetra to get rid of them!”

“Nicholas, it’s a good thing I admire you!” she retorted with a reluctant twinkle. “But I’m not joking here! I’m quite taken with this trio! Inform Ayer I’m dropping him in favor of young Dr. Deverill here! And if these girls are available, you ought to hire them!”

“If they were, I would,” he said promptly, and he turned his head to Kourtnay, addressing her in familiar accents. “Kourtnay Deverill! It’s been a long time! Glad you all could drop by to impress Mrs. Green! Are you here to check up on Rogue and Fairwind? They’re doing well!”

Kourtnay smiled, coloring deeply. “Yes, Stormi wanted to see them. I know they’ve been safe with you.” She paused, fidgeting with a pretty diamond and sapphire ring on her finger. With a shy hopefulness and a certain glow in her gray eyes, she asked, “Is . . . is Nicky here?”

An odd look came into Nicholas’ eyes. “You’ll find him in the garage under the blue pickup! I hope the shock doesn’t give him a stroke!”

Kourtnay flushed a deeper red, uttered a quick, “Thank you!” and limped away in the direction Nicholas indicated.

Nick watched her go, a speculative look in his eye. “He’d wanted to marry her before he ever knew her name! Before we got out of the truck, as I recall! Thought it merely infatuation of the moment at the time but—a few things are beginning to make sense now.”

“Whoa!” uttered Thomi, impressed. Her gaze followed Kourtnay’s progress till she rounded the corner of the boarding barn. “You mean St. Nick had a reason for ignoring all those girls trailing after him these past three years? Thought he just felt he was too good for any of ‘em!”

Imagine that! Nicky forsaking all others for the love of one he’d met only briefly! Just for the moment of the sale of the two mentioned animals, as far as anyone knew. Heh . . . maybe the man (her very own brother!) was a saint after all! Be kind of fun to go check out his face when he slid out from under that truck and saw her there! Be a whole lot of fun to tease him about it, too! Which she fully intended to do, anyway!

“Nothing wrong with a good strong romance,” opined Mrs. Green. “What’s better is when they last! If they’ve lived apart all this time and still have deep feelings for each other, then they’ll do fine! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go meet my own sweetheart! Married sixty-two years come September!”

Informing Stephan, then, in her most gracious manner, that if he’d leave a bill with Nicholas, she’d settle her account with him the instant she returned with her husband. Getting Stephan’s promise for it, she departed.

“Know what I told Stephan, Thomi?” piped up Jacqi, tugging her shirttail. “Told him we think Charley’s a jerk, and we don’t like him! And you’re kinda dumb for staying with him and—”

“Jacqi, I’m not with him, anymore! Quit dragging him up!”

“So you gonna be with him?” She pointed happily at Stephan. “He said you and him were gonna have dinner, and I said—”

“Yeah, I’m probably going to be sorry for what you said!”

“She loves to talk about you,” observed Stephan, amused.

Thomi pinched Jacqi’s cheeks, making her lips pooch. “Yes, and she’ll blab her lips to anyone! Enough now!”

Jacqi danced free of her hold and hopped in front of her father. “I like him better than Charley, Daddy, don’t you? I think she can go eat dinner with him, and you don’t gotta worry! Really!”

“He doesn’t have to worry about anything, anyway!” returned Thomi, irked.

At the same time, her father said, “Jacqi, I’m going to re—”

“I know, I know,” broke in his little daughter, “You’re gonna ‘serve judgment, ‘cause Thomi never picks the good guys! I heard y’ before!”

Thomi choked on an outraged laugh. Was bad enough to hear it once, but twice in the same day was beyond tolerance!

A muscle twitched beside Nicholas’ mouth, but he gravely replied, “Then you don’t need to ask what I think, do you? Be quick now, and go find Lyndsay for me. Tell her I need her right now!”

Feeling important, Jacqi scampered off on her mission.

Ignoring Thomi’s resentful stare, Nicholas spoke then to Stephan. “I appreciate your quick acting here with this idiot mule! Obviously, you’ve prevented a worse disaster—for this time, anyway! I warn you, though—you accept her as a client, and you’ll have her so much in your life you’ll think you’re married to her! The only one worse would be Marianne McNicoll!”

Having said that, he extended his hand to Stormi, saying, “Karla, I’m sorry circumstances didn’t permit us to meet at the time Nicky and I met Kourtnay. Had Ascott Meadows not been destroyed, you might have become our stiffest competition!”

She smiled, accepted the friendship of his handshake, but declined his compliment. “I’m only relieved that my horses could go to someone who’d appreciate them. I wish more of them had survived . . .” Sad regret darkened the smoke gray eyes, but she seemed disinclined to talk of the tragic fire that destroyed her stable and its valuable stock.

With a look difficult to define precisely, she gazed off in the direction her sister had gone and changed the subject. “Forgive me! I hadn’t a clue she knew any man well enough to have feelings for him! I would never have let her waste her time running with me if I had! All she said at the time of the sale was she liked both of you and trusted you’d take care of the horses the way we would ourselves. She’s never once given her secret away. Although . . . as you just said, a few things suddenly seem to make sense now!”

“Nothing to forgive. I’ll be willing to bet some of those times you may be recalling coincide with those that I have a keen memory for! He seemed to have an urgent eagerness to volunteer for trips to specific areas more often than before his meeting her. Never could get him to want to go further than Connecticut or Massachusetts! New York on occasion . . . if I insisted.

“Suddenly, he’s willing to go there and points south on an instant’s notice! Generally left within the hour of my asking him to go . . . even if there wasn’t the least need for him to start off until the next day or within the week. Eventually, he began requesting certain jobs each month.

“I never questioned him. Whatever his personal business was, I knew he’d attend to mine as it needed to be. Plus, his willingness to go let me stay here and take care of things. I’ve appreciated that more than I’ve probably told him!”

Nicholas tugged Thomi’s hair playfully. “Then, too, he probably didn’t want to be interrogated, harassed or teased. So why give anyone the ammunition for that?”

“Well, hey! Who’d’ve thought? I mean, he used to check out the menu every day!”

“Ah, and you don’t?”

“Dad! I don’t check out the menu—I’m one of the selections on it. And I’m always trying to prove I’m not the Special of the Day!”

Murmured Stormi dryly, “Yes, I know that feeling well . . .”

Nick acknowledged her remark with a quick understanding glance, but then leaned a hand against a fence post and regarded his daughter skeptically. Abandoned Nicky’s issues for hers. “So what’s the story now? Or is Jacqi making one up?” He looked from Thomi to Stephan and back again.

“There’s no story!” retorted Thomi, her hot defiance steaming to the surface. “It’s Jacqi’s fantasy!”

“Oh, not just Jacqi’s! Be truthful, Thomi,” Stephan cut in with smiling reproach. “Our story began yesterday when I hauled you up over that cliff!”

She shot Stephan a black look, informing him she wouldn’t be bullied into anything—only his tolerant smile, his sunny amusement, the very sweetness of his regard ripped the reins out of her hands, and Heart was ready to run that story ahead a few chapters—oh, maybe, someplace in the middle!

Nicholas watched them with no lessening of his skepticism. “And how’s it going to end?”

“If I don’t think it has a beginning yet, how should I know how it’s going to end? How’s Nicky’s going to end?” Thomi flung back. Wasn’t he concerned about him? Man, he’d had a secret passion for someone—figures it’d be Stephan’s cousin—for years. Probably now, there’d be nothing holding it back!

“Happily—as ours will,” promised Stephan. “I’ve participated in my last unhappy one!”

Nick pushed away from the post. “Well, I hope she has too, but I’m not putting faith in words. So, how’d it happen you were nearby to haul her up over a cliff? Although, it shouldn’t surprise me you had to do it! She’s bound and determined to dance along the edge of ‘em whatever anyone says!”

Stephan’s gaze rested upon Thomi’s face, his smile holding both sweetness and a hint of teasing. “I needed to see her about—some mutual business. Found her out on the cliffs there, tossing rocks into the water. The last one, though, she threw with such force, it carried her right over. Imagining someone on the receiving end of it, I’ll bet!”

She gave him up a look that told him precisely how right he was!

Amused and unoffended that he apparently had been that someone, he went on, “For a few minutes I really expected to be coming here with the worst news for you. His Highness there let me near enough, finally, so I could grab her before her scrawny bush got completely ripped out of the cliff side. She has courage,” he finished. “She never really panicked!”

“And let me guess,” said Nick, his gaze on his daughter. “It’s partly what attracted you to her! Still neither of you needs to build a relationship on this! She ought to learn what makes one work first!”

Countered Stephan, “Sure, but how do you learn if you don’t begin one?”

“She’s begun many more than I have time to enumerate,” returned Nicholas unmoved. “In any event—”

“He don’t wanna worry ‘bout her all his life!”

Jacqi ducked through the rails in time to hear this exchange. She was immediately followed by a taller version of Thomasyna. “You got other things to worry ‘bout too, huh, Dad?”

Oh, good. Pretty soon, she’d know her father’s whole conversation on this subject, one small child at a time!

Which could lead to related but more dangerous topics. “Well, who says he has to?” She punched Lyndsay’s arm playfully and challenged her father. “Why can’t you worry about her?”

“She’s given me no cause to! Just now, you’re the one likely to drive me back to the bottle! Look, I am going to pray you can exercise better judgment this time—and bow out of it! In the meantime,” he said to Stephan, ignoring her protesting outcry, “I’ll thank you for saving her from a messy demise! And for acting so promptly in our crisis here—it occurs approximately twice a week!”

He favored both Stephan and Stormi with a long considering glance. “I’ve been searching for the right sort of person to hire on here. Someone who could be trusted with more than mucking a stall and grooming the trail horses. Those two were fine for that sort of thing but not—as you heard—for anything requiring real responsibility. Would you be interested in doing me the favor of exercising a couple of my horses today? If each of you four take one, it’ll free me to get started on a new project I took on today.”

Knowing which animals he likely needed help with, Thomasyna immediately spoke for her preference. “I’ll take Vespry!” It wasn’t often that he let anyone other than Anetra ride his favorite chestnut mare.

“No, I’m asking Karla to ride her.”

“Oh, that’s not fair!”

Nicholas shrugged. “It’s not about fairness, Thomi. It’s about giving the best man—or woman—the job! Sherwyn seems to respond best to you, and Lyndsay’s able to handle Thaena. Stephan, I’d be honored if you’d ride Valient for me.”

Stephan showed no hesitation in accepting that honor. Even as she gave him a skeptical stare, Thomi noticed that Stormi favored him with a similar look. Stephan smiled at them both and addressed his cousin, “You can’t be thinking of refusing his offer, Storm? I saw the dream in your eyes when you expressed the wish to be able to ride a certain chestnut mare in that field by the drive!”

“Well, yes, but—”

“So, your wish is granted,” Lyndsay told her. “That’s Vespry!”

Stormi seemed torn between two desires. “Ah, look—I know I’ve no right anymore, but—I had hoped to be able to take Rogue or Fairwind for a short ride . . . if it’s possible.”

“Fairwind’s due to foal anytime now,” replied Nick. “As for Rogue—I’ve made him my personal mount. Not even Anetra has my permission to ride him.” Not missing the disappointment in her face, he temporized, “Come work for me if you’re not engaged anyplace else, and we’ll see. He’s made considerable progress since you saw him last. Calmed down quite a bit! I think you’ll be pleased!”

Oh good! If his cousins were hired here, Stephan would have a wonderful reason for hanging around, wouldn’t he? Of course, when his magical way with Cedric came to be known and respected, everyone would likely drop Dr. Ayer and engage Stephan in his place. Dr. Ayer was one of those types who should have taken up mining or some other occupation that kept him deep underground and away from people. Still, to be bumping into Stephan every other time she came to DreamWynd, well, who needed that worry?

On the other hand, she instinctively liked Stormi—who obviously didn’t know what to say to Nicholas’ offer. In her eyes was a definite light and a yes. Yet, she hesitated. Nick prompted, “Are you available?”

She hesitated a moment more. Then, “Yes. We both are—Kourtnay and I.” With a decided emphasis on the word both.

Nick answered with a slight nod, “Naturally, I wouldn’t hire one without the other. Ride then, and we’ll talk afterwards.” With that, he left them in the charge of Thomi and Lyndsay, and went off to get started with the retraining of a new client’s problem horse.

Just then, Nicky, finished with the pick-up, came walking out of the garage, Kourtnay within the circle of his arm.

Ten months younger than his eldest brother, Geoffrey, he was. Both men were close images of their father, but Nicky’s disposition was far more impulsive and inclined to a hotter temper. The only time he evaluated the consequences of a venture was when it pertained to someone else’s ill-considered actions. Any of his siblings, for example.

Just now, all his attention centered upon Kourtnay Deverill. Didn’t care who was watching when he kissed her. Kisses of such joy and passion, it was rather amusing to witness. Nicholas, on his way to the new horse’s stall, stopped to exchange a few words with the couple, then continued on his way.

Kourtnay, seeing the others approaching them, stayed his next kiss. Thomi couldn’t help herself, she said, “Wow, you sure kept her a deep dark secret, Nicky! Why? Can’t be for the shame of her!”

Kourtnay flushed, and Nicky responded with pride, “Oh, no! I’m not ashamed of her! It’s just the way things happened.”

“The way things happened?” echoed Stormi. “Kourtnay—!”

“Storm, I couldn’t leave you by yourself—wouldn’t leave you! Nicky understood. We . . . kept in touch . . .”

“Yes, I’m aware of that . . . now! But—ah, Kourt! Three years!”

Kourtnay left Nicky’s side to come hug her sister. “It’s all right, Storm. It was my choice, and Nicky was okay with it. I couldn’t let you go alone, and I couldn’t let anyone know about Nicky. Couldn’t take a chance that if any one of our relatives knew of it then Dean would get to know of it and . . . well . . . you know!”

“Who is Dean?”

Storm rested her gaze upon Thomi for a second. “My ex. Look, we’re wasting time I’d rather spend riding. Shall we?” She returned her sister’s hug. “I understand, Kourt. We can talk more about it later—if you want to.”

Kourtnay stepped back into Nicky’s embrace. “I do,” she said. “Go get the horses. I’d like to help groom them!”

“I’ll get Valient and Sherwyn,” Nicky offered. But didn’t immediately head off to do that. Too interested in stealing a couple more kisses from his beloved.

They started up the driveway. Jacqi danced between Thomi and Stephan, a hand in each of theirs. “Maybe you and Nicky could get married together, Thomi! That’s be fun, huh? And we could have a big party and ‘vite ever’body, huh, Thomi! And Rikki could write a song for you and Stephan and for Nicky and Kourtnay and we could sing it with her for y’ and you could kiss Stephan like Kourtnay kisses Nicky and—”

Lyndsay burst out laughing, and Thomi again backhanded her. “Oh, lord! Shut up! Both of you!”

Jacqi’s voice carried back to Nicky and Kourtnay. “Brat! Keep those opinions to yourself, if you know what’s good for you!” called Nicky with warning.

To which Kourtnay replied with a protesting laugh, “Ah, don’t tease her, Nicky! She’s such a sweetheart!”

“I like her way of thinking myself!” murmured Stephan, smiling down upon his little champion.

“I’m reserving judgment!” Stormi countered.

“I’m cutting through the parking lot!” said Thomi, and letting go Jacqi’s hand, she stepped back, went around Stephan, and headed for the field by that direction.

Naturally they all altered course and followed her. As she ducked between the rails of the fence, she called out to the animals they were after. Lyndsay, in her fashion, whistled for them. At once, Vespry and Thaena came trotting over. While they nuzzled the Tollefson sisters with welcoming nickers, it wasn’t many minutes before they were bestowing the same welcome upon Stormi and Stephan. With the same charm she’d used on Cedric, Storm soon had Vespry following her to the lower gate, no lead or halter needed. Thaena was happy to follow.

Neither Thomi nor Lyndsay would have needed a lead either, but the mares knew them. That they would give their trust to a stranger so quickly impressed both girls.

“I think she’s another who could charm a cobra up the sharp side of a butcher knife!” observed Thomi without rancor.

“Depends on the cobra,” Stephan replied. “Some have bitten her back!”

If the sisters hoped for an expansion on that, he didn’t offer one. He turned the chat to horsey subjects again, inquiring for more information of what the center offered. Lyndsay and Jacqi were happy to educate him. Thomi merely listened, her thoughts on other things.

Nicky had both Sherwyn and Valient waiting for them in crossties in the aisle of the main barn. This expanse had been built wide enough for a horse to be led by any in crossties. Stormi led the mares to an unoccupied spot and they stopped, waiting for someone to hook them up. Lyndsay tossed her a halter for Vespry while she took another over to Thaena. In a moment, they were busy with the task of grooming and chatting together as easily as if they’d been friends forever.

Kourtnay seemed to have formed a bond with Sherwyn. He kept turning his head to watch her. When she got up beside his neck, he nuzzled her cheek. She chuckled and kissed his velvety nose. Immediately, he returned it.

“Hey! That’s my girl, Sherwyn Bay!” Nicky warned him and laughed when the colt ignored him, giving Kourtnay another “kiss”.

“Guess he loves you as much as I do!” Nicky cheerfully observed.

Hard blaming him—or Sherwyn! Kourtnay’s five foot ten complemented Nicky’s six foot three. Her hair, of a rich chocolate brown, framed an unblemished sensitive face. In the dark gray eyes lurked a seriousness not always banished by her laughter. Apart from the awful limp with which she walked, which by itself summoned sympathy for her, there was an air of vulnerability about Kourtnay Deverill that drew one instinctively to her. That, plus her engaging smile and that melodious voice that made the sound of Nicky’s name seem far more poetic than it was.

Like her own name sounded from Stephan’s lips.

These Deverill cousins seemed to be a dangerous lot—male or female! No, it was no wonder Nicky had waited for her! Heh, no wonder he’d been eager to drive for their father on those long road trips to either pick up or delivery an animal wherever at the time. West Virginia had been the last one. She’d give almost anything to hear their story of the past few years!

Storm had no qualms of speaking her mind when the occasion warranted with disconcerting frankness. Her wit was quick and her laugh infectious, making Thomi forget her depression for the moment. O, to say nothing of her fabulous voice! Yes, she could probably charm the fangs off any dangerous animal! How could she not?

Magnificently built, her inches measured much closer to Nicky’s than Kourtnay’s did. Her dark auburn hair which fell in thick waves to the middle of her back, she wore in a  pony tail held loosely by a leather hair tie. Those smoke gray eyes held uncanny power, their stare capable of turning one totally inside out.

Finding herself under that scrutiny, Thomi gave it back levelly. Stormi flashed her a sudden smile of genuine liking, giving Thomi the impression she’d made a friend if she wanted one. However, the glance she directed down the way at Stephan held a meaning quite different.

An unmistakable warning.

What? Was she aware of the vengeful plot he wished to wage against Charley but didn’t approve? An ally from his family’s side at last? It seemed possible but she hardly dared credit it. Might be she was just reading the look wrong.

“You’re all set!” Nicky tucked the reins of Sherwyn’s bridle into Thomi’s hands. “Watch him! He’s full of it today! And Dev—!” he called to Stephan, who was encouraging Valient to accept the bit. “Take care of yourself! Thomi’ll scramble your brains if she gets the chance! And Lyndsay will help her do it!”

Thomi ignored it, started to lead the colt out of the barn through the back doors.

“Oh, we’re assuming he has brains?” inquired Stormi, surprised. Leading Vespry, she started out after Thomi. “That might challenge my imagination, I’m afraid!”

Stephan turned Valient around to follow. “Thought yours was vivid, Karla! What happened to it?”

“Took a walk early yesterday afternoon! I think you know about when! Hasn’t been seen since!”

Thomi shoved the huge double doors open wider. She sent a long appraising look at both cousins, and said, resolutely, “Don’t worry! I’m not going to be so stupid twice!”

Nicky gave a crack of derisive laughter.

Thomi led Sherwyn out, mounted, and reined the blood bay colt around. “Care to have me enlighten Kourtnay that your temper’s like a simmering volcano, Nicholas Napayshni Quenton? You’re a great guy—if you get your way!”

“Ride, Thomasyna!” he called with cheerful nonchalance, not terribly worried that her dig would change Kourtnay’s opinion of him. “Bring ‘im back alive!”

“Naturally!”

Nicky had another retort, but never had the chance to utter it. Just as Lyndsay swung into the saddle and told him to stand away, the iron-gray mare immediately tried to unseat her.

“You’ve been stuck with a challenge, haven’t you?” remarked Stephan as he mounted Valient. “Don’t fear on my account, though! I’ll be astride this animal when we return!”

And his mount gave him the chance to prove it. Valient, five years younger than his mother, Vespry, was a spirited colt, not above testing the mettle of a strange rider. Throwing back his head and tossing his black mane in Stephan’s face, the mahogany bay colt reared up. For a suspenseful moment, it appeared he’d take his rider over backwards. If he jabbed harshly at his mouth, he would undoubtedly do that.

With a light hand and his seat as immovable as Lyndsay’s, Stephan brought the colt down easily. He seemed to know instinctively that the merest cue was all the animal needed. His patience and his soft words soon won Valient over, and he settled down, willing to carry him anywhere.

While Vespry didn’t seem to desire testing her rider, it didn’t invalidate Karla Storm Van Kirk’s abilities. The young woman rode with an alert confidence, but yet, a casual ease that silently proclaimed her experience. Here was one who truly knew how to become one with her mount. Thomi reluctantly conceded that her father’s whim hadn’t been foolish after all.

Sherwyn conducted himself in a gentlemanly fashion until Thaena took exception to a goat running up to the rails along the lane. Thomi kept the young colt from rearing, took him around in a couple of tight circles, persuading him to change his mind. Not possessed of the same restive disposition as Valient or Thaena, Sherwyn submitted.

Lyndsay, disciplining Thaena in a similar manner, finally convinced her to quit her foolishness as well. As she came back to the others, her mount more docile, Stephan gave her an approving smile. “Nicely done! You’ve shown her who’s boss!”

“She shows ‘em all!” replied Thomi. “Think it’s those long and powerful legs! She could probably hang onto a greased pig!”

Lyndsay laughed. “You’re just jealous I grew taller than you! Don’t you sleep long on Sherwyn, little big sister! You’ll be walking home!”

Thomi cast her a narrow glance. “I never sleep on horses! Timothy sleeps on horses! Of course, Timothy sleeps everywhere!” Appraisingly, she looked Stephan over. “You guys don’t!”

“No,” he responded, amused. “Our grandfather made sure none of us slept anywhere around an animal—nor rode with a clumsy hand!” His hand went to his backside, and he grimaced. Stormi chuckled and confirmed his claim.

Thomi bit back the impulse to fling, “Good, then I won’t have to baby-sit you!” and canter away. It’s what she really wanted to do. Leave him in the dust and ride the trails alone. However, she unaccountably cared about Stormi’s opinion of her. Probably because she wouldn’t mind the chance to form a friendship with this tall cousin of Stephan Deverill. She said instead, “So tell us about him. Did you learn to ride young, like we did?”

If she kept the conversation on anything to do with horses, maybe this outing wouldn’t be so bad. If he deviated from that, she could showcase all of Lyndsay’s virtues and get him to see a truly superior specimen of young womanhood. Maybe he’d fall for Lyndsay, and she wouldn’t have to worry about him bugging her anymore! Lyndsay was more his size, too.

Maybe not as tall as Kourtnay and Stormi, but still! Generally labeled the quiet type by those who didn’t know her well, Lyndsay could display a wickedly mischievous spirit. Today, however, she seemed to be showing her more reserved side.

A prick of conscience set in then, and Thomi rebuked herself for even considering tossing her younger sister to any wolf in Charley’s family den. If she didn’t want to be there herself, it would be heinous of her to try unloading Stephan onto Lyndsay—or any of her sisters, for that matter.

Although, if Rikki’s experience was anything to go by, it seemed he probably possessed enough charm to persuade any one of them to his dinner table in minutes.

Her concern was for nothing, however. Neither Stephan nor Stormi brought up any mention of Charley nor any supposed obligation on her part to submit to dinner with Stephan.

They roamed every trail they came upon, comfortably engaged in horse talk. The pressure she’d felt herself under since arriving at DreamWynd, had at some point, melted away. Lyndsay was always an agreeable companion, and she’d expected that Stormi would prove to be as well. The admission, however, that Stephan Deverill was also, came with reluctance, triggering debate between Heart and Mind.

Heart, sinking deep in physical attraction, urged, Give him a chance. He’s gorgeous!

So’s Timothy when he’s all dressed up! retorted Mind. But he’s still a little snake just the same! Listen to me, Thomasyna! Beware!

This dispute abruptly quit when the riders encountered a fallen tree in their path. Positioned so that they could neither go under nor over it, and the way around complicated by thickets and brush, they opted to move it.

Stormi’s greater height made her the best assistant to Stephan in clearing the trail. The tree was small enough to afford hope of removing it, yet large enough to pose a problem for a space. Eventually, they managed to drag it off the path enough to get by.  Just ahead lay a small clearing.

“Hey! Strawberries!” Lyndsay promptly dismounted, passed the reins of the horses she held to Stormi and Thomi, and hurried off to sample some.

Stephan made a casual suggestion to Storm that she might like some strawberries as well. She took the hint, giving the reins of the horses over to him. “Just to be sure you have enough to keep yourself occupied!” she said meaningfully.

Ming reveled somewhere in the delights of the forest, leaving Thomi unprotected there in charge of Sherwyn Bay and Thaena. Greedily they munched the lush grass beside the trail, yanking impatiently at the reins for more freedom. Got to be a struggle to maintain her balance.

His own hands full with Valient and Vespry, Stephan shot her that heart stopping smile and asked, “So—since your family feels we’re officially seeing each other—”

You let them think it! We’re not seeing each other!”

“We’re seeing each other right now! Should Persistence become my first name?”

She gave a sound of annoyance. “Thought it already was! Anyway, exercising my father’s horses together doesn’t mean we’re dating! Look, you were going to marry—Whatshername! Don’t you feel anything?”

He shook his head. “Nope.”

“Seriously?”

“She wasn’t worth having feelings for.”

She couldn’t let it go. Just couldn’t believe he could honestly feel nothing over such a cruel break up. “You aren’t angry or resentful? Disappointed? You can forget her—just like that?”

“Someone’s made me forget her—just like that!”

“Yeah, right!” But flushed at his soft caressing tone.

He chuckled and retorted, “Admit it! You’ve been doodling my name on every available blank space since yesterday!”

The blush deepened; she gave an involuntary choke of laughter and countered, “What’s the surprise? You keep turning up! But, that doesn’t mean I want you to!”

“I don’t know . . . I hardly think you’d waste time doodling my name if you didn’t! Besides, you want to forget Charley, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I’d like to forget him. Only how do you forget someone who’s—” She broke off abruptly, sucked a long breath and ended, “Look, I can’t forget! And being with you won’t change it! Don’t waste your breath trying to convince me it will!”

For a moment, he just stood watching her. Then, passing the two pairs of reins to his left hand, he advanced. Misliking his look, Thomi backed away. Thaena, urgently clipping the grass in that little area, found her in her path, and shoved her out of it. Still clutching both pairs of reins, Thomi stumbled into Stephan’s willing free arm.

Stiffening, Thomi let go the reins and twisted in his hold, wrenching free with more force than he ever expected from a person of her small stature. She backed again; this time into Sherwyn’s grazing spot. The colt wasted not a second in ridding it of her. Catching her this time, Stephan prepared for her struggle, trying for a hold that would be firm but gentle.

His consideration meant nothing to her.

She exploded into action, doing all she could to free herself. Luckily for him, Ming still hadn’t put in an appearance. Although that could happen any second if her loyal pet caught wind of her complaints! He recalled her acting something like this on the street yesterday. Strange that she hadn’t displayed such panic hanging from that scrubby little bush before that!

“Thomi! Thomi, I am not going to hurt you! Will you just calm down! I—ugh!” For she’d elbowed him squarely in the gut, winding him.

He hugged her tightly against him so she couldn’t do it again. But it only made her worse. He decided then, that she needed to face him. Not that she made that maneuver easy. Dropping the reins, he ordered, “Stop it, Thomi! I only want to talk to you!”

“Let . . . go!” She put all her weight into the attempt to free herself, her breath coming in hard gasps. No trust glowed in those dark green eyes.

“There’s no reason for you to—” He stopped, an unthinkable notion coming to mind. “What happened between you and Charley, Thomi? He has his faults, but I’ve never known him to be—”

Rebellion displaced fear. “Nothing happened! Let me go!”

He succeeded in making her face him. Acting on impulse, he took both her wrists in one hand, shoved back her sleeves. Unprepared for what he uncovered, for a moment he could only stare in disbelief. “Charley did this? Thomasyna . . .”

Her hands twisted agitatedly in his. “What do you care?”

There were many things he could have answered then. Things that might have helped him gain at least a sliver of her trust. None of those came front and center in his brain. Keeping her imprisoned with one hand, he plucked a ring out of his shirt pocket and held it up. “I’ll always care what happens to my wife, Thomasyna!”

Thomi gasped, taken totally off guard by both his passionate declaration and his producing of the ring. She recalled, all at once, her little brother’s happy statement earlier. “Know what? Stephan thaid he wantsth to mawr!”

“Mawry . . .  Marry you!”

That’s what Daine had been about to tell her when the ruckus occurred in the barn! Well, how could this idiot dare say that to little kids? Especially ones who’d blab it all around town within thirty seconds! And naturally, almost everyone would believe it.

Eight small, but perfect diamonds ringed an exquisite emerald—the two set left and right slightly larger than the pair fore and back—and all set in a white gold filigree band. A shaft of sunlight touched the stones, setting off the green fire in the emerald and making the diamonds flash and glitter. O, never had she seen stones as fine as these. Fabulous!

Didn’t that figure, though! Just like a guy to expect dinner and marriage—or sex, usually sex—just like that! Well, she might have to be grateful he’d saved her life; she might owe him a dinner for it. But marriage wasn’t open for debate.

Nor, at any moment before the ring—the wedding ring—was sex.

She stared up into those determined blues and stated flatly, “You are crazy!”

“I am,” he agreed. “About you!”

There was that in his deep blue gaze that seemed to confirm that idiotic pronouncement. For an unguarded instant, she lost her way in it, and he dared to gather her closer to him to prove it.

Her trance broke.

Thomi caught her breath in a little frightened gasp, for now these arms encircling her reminded her of Charley’s . . . possessive, unyielding, demanding. In her experience, this kind of hold meant but one thing.

With a strength borne of fear and wrathful desperation, she broke free of it.

“Thomi, wait!”

Not giving him so much as a glance to show she’d heard him, Thomi snatched up Sherwyn’s reins. Pulling him around between her and Stephan, she vaulted upon the colt’s back. Valient spooked just then, and Thaena bolted.

Stephan didn’t bother trying to catch them. Thinking only of stopping Thomi’s retreat, he made a grab for Sherwyn’s bridle. At the same time, Ming burst out of the bushes to Thomi’s right. He flew straight for Stephan, his eyes an unnerving shade of red.

Anticipating Stephan’s move, Thomi yanked on the reins, her hand unusually heavy. The colt reared, forcing Stephan back. Now he had to deal with Ming, who showed every sign of launching an attack.

As she wheeled Sherwyn about, pressing him into a headlong gallop, she heard Stephan’s stern command to her dog. His voice emitted a good deal of authority, but she didn’t stop to find out whether Ming had obeyed it. Down the trail she bolted, plowing through or going over whatever got in her way. Branches snagged her clothes and hair.

She never noticed.

The main trail came up before Thomi had time to cue Sherwyn toward the stable. Crossing the path into the brush, he skirted berry bushes and a stand of pines. The bay colt obeyed her signal to circle back, never breaking stride. Another branch whipped her face, stinging her eyes, making tears stream. She tried to check his speed for she couldn’t see a thing. Checked it just as she felt him collect himself for a mighty leap.

Desperate to gage her situation, Thomi managed to open her eyes a slit. She sucked in an apprehensive breath.

A large downed log blocked the trail completely. Much larger than anything Sherwyn had yet been schooled over.

If only she’d known—if only she hadn’t checked him!

A powerful thrust lifted him off the ground. Maybe, his gallant attempt would—

The sharp tick of hooves striking wood cut off that hope. As Sherwyn tumbled down hard on the other side, Thomi somersaulted through the air, slamming into a merciless elm . . .

====================

Find out if Stephan has the audacity to keep pursuing Thomasyna HERE!

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