Amanda

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এই বইটি আপনার কতটা পছন্দ?
ফাইলের মান কিরকম?
মান নির্ণয়ের জন্য বইটি ডাউনলোড করুন
ডাউনলোড করা ফাইলগুলির মান কিরকম?
ক্যাটাগোরিগুলো:
সাল:
1996
প্রকাশক:
Bantam Books
ভাষা:
english
ISBN 10:
0307567117
ISBN 13:
9780307567116
ফাইল:
EPUB, 309 KB
ডাউনলোড (epub, 309 KB)

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আপনি একটি বুক রিভিউ লিখতে পারেন এবং আপনার অভিজ্ঞতা শেয়ার করতে পারেন. অন্যান্য পাঠকরা আপনার পড়া বইগুলির বিষয়ে আপনার মতামত সম্পর্কে সর্বদা আগ্রহী হবে. বইটি আপনার পছন্দ হোক বা না হোক, আপনি যদি নিজের সৎ ও বিস্তারিত চিন্তাভাবনা ব্যক্ত করেন তাহলে অন্যরা তাদের জন্য উপযুক্ত নতুন বইগুলি খুঁজে পাবে.
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2007
ভাষা:
english
ফাইল:
PDF, 7.00 MB
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Joe Pike 02 The First Rule

সাল:
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ভাষা:
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Contents


Synopsis

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15





Synopsis




Others have claimed to be Amanda Daulton , but now a beautiful, self-assured woman has stepped out of the shadows of the past, insisting she's the missing heiress to a multimillion-dollar fortune. One look is all it takes to assure the family patriarch that she's his beloved granddaughter. But others at the magnificent Southern mansion called Glory are not as easily convinced, others with much to lose from her sudden reappearance. Soon suspicion erupts in a chilling attempt on her life, and after the traumatic ordeal, she begins to have flashes of a nightmarish vision. What, if anything, happened twenty years ago to drive a mother and her nine-year-old daughter away from their privileged life? The struggle to find the elusive answer exposes a frightening trail of secrets - a trail that leads shockingly to the present and to the enigmatic woman who calls herself Amanda.





Chapter 1




July, 1975



Thunder rolled and boomed, echoing the way it did when a storm came over the mountains on a hot night, and the wind-driven rain lashed the trees and furiously pelted the windowpanes of the big house. The nine-year-old girl shivered, her cotton nightgown soaked and clinging to her, and her slight body was stiff as she stood in the center of the dark bedroom.

“Mama.”

“Shhhh! Don’t, baby, don’t make any noise. Just stand there, very still, and wait for me.”

They called her baby often, her mother, her father, because she’d been so difficult to conceive and was so cherished once they had her. So beloved. That was why they had named her Amanda, her father had explained, lifting her up to ride upon his broad shoulders, because she was so perfect and so worthy of their love.

She didn’t feel perfect now. She felt cold and emptied out and dreadfully afraid. And the sound of her mother’s voice, so thin and despe; rate, frightened Amanda even more. The bottom had fallen out of her world so suddenly that she was still numbly bewildered and broken, and her big gray eyes followed her mother with the piteous dread of one who had lost everything except a last, fragile, unspeakably precious tie to what had been.

Whispering between rumbles of thunder, she asked, “Mama, where will we go?”

“Away, far away, baby.” The only illumination in the bedroom was provided by angry nature as lightning split the stormy sky outside, and Christine Daulton used the flashes to guide her in stuffing clothes into an old canvas duffel bag. She dared not turn on any lights, and the need to hurry was so fierce it nearly strangled her.

She hadn’t room for them, but pushed her journals into the bag as well because she had to have something of this place to take with her, and something of her life with Brian. Oh, dear God, Brian She raked a handful of jewelry from the box on the dresser, tasting blood because she was biting her bottom lip to keep herself from screaming. There was no time, no time, she had to get Amanda away from here.

“Wait here,” she told her daughter.

“No! Mama, please.”

“Shhhh! All right, Amanda, come with me but you have to be quiet.” Moments later, down the hall in her daughter’s room, Christine fumbled for more clothing and thrust it into the bulging bag. She helped the silent, trembling girl into dry clothing, faded jeans and a tee shirt. “Shoes?”

Amanda found a pair of dirty sneakers and shoved her feet into them. Her mother grasped her hand and led her from the room, both of them consciously tiptoeing. Then, at the head of the stairs, Amanda suddenly let out a moan of anguish and tried to pull her hand free. “Oh, I can’t.”

“Shhhh,” Christine warned urgently. “Amanda.”

Even whispering, Amanda’s voice held a desperate intensity. “Mama, please, Mama, I have to get something I can’t leave it here, please, Mama it’ll only take a second.”

She had no idea what could be so precious to her daughter, but Christine wasn’t about to drag her down the stairs in this state of wild agitation. The child was already in shock, a breath away from absolute hysteria. “All right, but hurry. And be quiet.”

As swift and silent as a shadow, Amanda darted back down the hallway and vanished into her bedroom. She reappeared less than a minute later, shoving something into the front pocket of her jeans. Christine didn’t pause to find out what was so important that Amanda couldn’t bear to leave it behind; she simply grabbed her daughter’s free hand and continued down the stairs.

The grandfather clock on the landing whirred and bonged a moment before they reached it, announcing in sonorous tones that it was two a.m. The sound was too familiar to startle either of them, and they hurried on without pause. The front door was still open, as they’d left it, and Christine didn’t bother to pull it shut behind them as they went through to the wide porch.

The wind had blown rain halfway over the porch to the door, and Amanda dimly heard her shoes squeak on the wet stone. Then she ducked her head against the rain and stuck close to her mother as they raced for the car parked several yards away. By the time she was sitting in the front seat watching her mother fumble with the keys, Amanda was soaked again, and shivering despite a temperature in the seventies.

The car’s engine coughed to life, and its headlights stabbed through the darkness and sheeting rain to illuminate the graveled driveway. Amanda turned her head to the side as the car jolted toward the paved road, and she caught her breath when she saw a light bobbing far away between the house and the stables, as if someone was running with a flashlight. Running toward the car that, even then, turned onto the paved road and picked up speed as it left the house behind.

Quickly, Amanda turned her gaze forward again, rubbing her cold hands together, swallowing hard as sickness rose in her aching throat. “Mama? We can’t come back, can we? We can’t ever come back?”

The tears running down her ashen cheeks almost but not quite blinding her, Christine Daulton replied, “No, Amanda. We can’t ever come back.”





Chapter 2




Late May, 1995



“Stop the car.”

It was more a plea than an order, and as he pulled to the side of the private blacktop road and put the car in park, Walker McLellan was already probing the three small words for a deeper meaning.

“Lost your nerve?” he asked in the practiced neutral tone of a lawyer.

She didn’t answer. As soon as the car was stationary, she opened her door and got out. She closed the door and walked along the side of the road a few yards until she could cross the ditch and enter the pasture through the gap of a missing board.

Walker watched her move about thirty yards into the lush green pasture until she reached a rise. He knew that from where she stood the house was visible. He wondered how she had known that.

After several minutes, he turned off the car’s engine and got out. He didn’t forget to take the keys with him, even though the car was safely on Daulton land and most unlikely to be stolen or even disturbed in any way. Walker had spent some years in Atlanta, which had effectively cured him of any tendency to rely on the kindness of strangers not to steal his belongings.

Of course, his legal training had left him with little trust in his fellow manor woman.

“People will lie to you,” his favorite professor had stated unequivocally. “Clients, cops, other lawyers, even the man who puts gas in your car. People who sincerely believe they have nothing to hide will still lie to you. Get used to it. Expect it. Assume you are being lied to until you have proof of the truth. Then double-check the proof.”

Words to live by.

Walker swung himself easily over the three-rail fence rather than go through as she had, and joined her at the top of the rise. “How did you know the house was visible from here?” he asked casually.

She glanced aside briefly to meet his gaze, her own smoke-gray eyes unreadable. Obviously not deceived by the dispassionate tone he had used, she said, “You have no doubt at all that I’m a liar, do you?”

“On the contrary. If I didn’t doubt that, you wouldn’t be here.”

She looked across acres of lush green pasture, her gaze fixed on the tremendous house still nearly a mile away. “But you don’t believe I’m Amanda Daulton,” she said.

He replied carefully. “I’ve been unable to prove you aren’t. The practice of fingerprinting children was virtually unheard of twenty years ago, so that proof is denied us. You have the right blood type but that means only that you could be Amanda Daulton, not that you are. You’ve answered most of my questions correctly. You seem to have a thorough, if not complete, knowledge of the history of the Daulton family as well as some familiarity with living family members.”

Still looking toward the distant house, she smiled slightly. “But I couldn’t answer all your questions, and that makes you very suspicious, doesn’t it, Mr. McLellan? Even though it’s been twenty years since I was home.”

It was just that kind of hesitation that he mistrusted, Walker reflected silently. This woman was quite familiar with details concerning the Daulton family, but most of those were a matter of public record and available to anyone with the will to dig for them. She could have easily enough. And if she had, she wouldn’t be the first; Walker had disproven the claims of two other women in the past five years, both of whom had sworn they were Amanda Daulton.

With Jesse Daulton’s estate valued in the tens of millions of dollars, it was no wonder women of the right age and with the right general appearance would turn up hopefully claiming to be his long-missing granddaughter especially now.

But this one, this Amanda Daulton, Walker thought, was different from the two earlier pretenders he had discredited. Not at all eager, bold, or emphatic, this woman was quiet, deliberate, and watchful. She hadn’t tried to charm him or flirt. She had not floundered for answers to his questions, either replying matter-of-factly or else saying she didn’t know. I don’t know. I don’t remember that.

But was it lack of memories? Or merely holes in her research?

“Twenty years,” he repeated, turning his head to study her profile.

She shrugged. “How much does anyone remember of their childhood? Fleeting images, special moments. An odd mixture of things, really, like a patchwork quilt. Do I remember the summer I was nine? I remember some things. How the summer began. It was hot even in May that year, the way it is now, today. The honeysuckle smelled the way it does now, so sweet. And the air was still and heavy nearly every day, like it is now, because there’s a storm nearby, maybe just over the mountains. If you listen, you can hear the thunder. Can you hear it?”

Walker refused to allow himself to be swayed by the dreamy quality of her voice. “It frequently storms this time of year,” he said simply.

A little laugh escaped her, hardly a breath of sound. “Yes, of course it does. Tell me, Mr. McLellan, if you’re so doubtful of me, why am I here? You could have said no when I suggested it, or advised the Daultons to say no. You could have insisted we wait a few more weeks for the results of the blood test. They might be conclusive, proving or disproving my claim beyond doubt.”

“Or they might not,” he said. “DNA testing is still an infant science, and the courts are still divided as to how reliable the results are especially when establishing a familial connection between grandparent and grandchild.”

“Yes, it would have been simpler if my father had lived,” she murmured. “Do you think it’s true? That there’s a strain of madness in the Daultons?”

The question was no non sequitur, Walker knew, and he replied imperturbably. “Brian Daulton was unfortunate not insane. We should go on to the house. Your Jesse’s expecting us.”

She hesitated, but then seemed to stiffen a bit before she quickly turned and headed back toward the road. Walker paused a moment himself, his attention caught by several horses that had noticed the visitors to the pasture and, curious as horses usually are, were moving up the rise toward him. He frowned, then made his way back to the road and got into his car.

“You’re afraid of horses?” he asked as he started the engine.

In a slightly vague tone, she said, “What? Oh, I don’t like them very much. Did you say all of my family would be here today?”

Walker wasn’t sure if the change of subject meant anything beyond her probable and natural preoccupation with what was to come, so he didn’t comment. Instead, he merely replied, “According to Jesse, they will be. Kate is always at Glory, of course; Reece and Sully both moved back home after college.”

“None of them are married?”

“No. Reece came close a few years ago, but Jesse took care of the problem.”

She looked over at Walker as if she wanted to ask another question, but he turned the car off the paved road and onto the graveled drive just then, and she turned her attention ahead to study the house looming before them. Walker wondered what she thought about it. What she felt.

One of the most magnificent mansions ever built in the South, it had originally been named Daulton’s Glory with a conceit typical of its owner but no one had called it anything except Glory in more than a hundred years, probably because the name was so apt. It was massive, with an extraordinary presence. Two very old and very grand magnolia trees flanked the circular drive in front of the house, their waxy ivory blooms magnificent. In addition, there were several huge old oak trees near the house, as well as a scattering of smaller flowering trees: dogwoods and mimosas. Numerous neat evergreen shrubs and azaleas provided perfect landscaping for the house.

But the house itself was the centerpiece, as perfect in its setting as a gem surrounded by gold. A striking colonnade stretched across the front, with ten tall, fluted columns of carved wood four of them set forward under a pediment so that the house seemed to step boldly out to greet anyone approaching. The columns were painted white and stood out against the sandy facade, while the side walls of the house were unpainted brown brick.

“Know anything about architecture?” Walker asked.

“No.”

He stopped the car just to the right of the walkway and shut off the engine, then looked at her. She was gazing toward the house, and he could read nothing from her profile. Conversationally, he said, “Glory is a type of Southern mansion that uses columns as a symbol of wealth and pride. It was said at the time the house was built that most rich people could manage four columns, a rare family six and the Daultons ten.”

She turned her head to look at him, and though her delicate features remained expressionless and the smoky gray eyes were hard to read, Walker had the sudden impression that she was scared. Very scared. But her voice was calm, mildly curious.

“Are you an expert on the Daulton family, Mr. McLellan?”

“Walker.” He wasn’t sure why he had said that, particularly since he’d been at some pains to keep his attitude toward her both neutral and formal since their first meeting. “No, but local history is a hobby of mine and the Daulton family is responsible for most of that history.”

“What about your family? Didn’t you say both your father and grandfather had been attorneys for the Daultons?”

She doesn’t want to go in. “Yes, but we’re relatively new to the area. My great-grandfather won a thousand acres of Daulton land in a poker game in 1870, and built a house about a mile over that hill there to the west. He was a virtually penniless Scottish immigrant, but he ended up doing all right. In time, the Daultons even forgave him for naming his house after that winning poker hand.”

Still mild, she said, “I suppose I should remember all this, shouldn’t I? But I’m afraid I don’t. What was the house named?”

“King High. Both the house and the name stand to this day, but the animosity’s long forgotten.” Without commenting on whether she should have remembered Glory’s only neighboring house for miles around, Walker got out of the car and walked around to her side. She hadn’t moved, and didn’t when he opened her door. He waited until she looked up at him, then said, “Now or never.”

After a moment, she got out and stepped aside so that he could shut the door. Her gaze was fixed on the house, the fingers of one hand playing nervously with the strap of her shoulder bag, and she didn’t budge from the side of the car. She had obviously dressed with care for this first meeting, and her tailored gray slacks and pale blue silk blouse were flattering as well as neat and tasteful.

Walker waited, watching her.

“It’s big,” she said finally.

“No bigger than it was, at least from this angle. Don’t you remember Glory?”

“Yes, but.” She drew a breath, then murmured, “I’ve heard it said that things from childhood are always smaller than you remember when you come back to them. This isn’t.”

Unexpectedly, Walker felt a pang of sympathy. Whether she was the real Amanda Daulton or a pretender, she was about to face a group of strangers, all of whom would be waiting for her to betray herself with some mistake. It would be an ordeal no matter who she was.

He took her arm in a light grip and, quietly, said, “We’ll leave your bags in the car for the time being. If this interview doesn’t work out, or you feel too uncomfortable to stay, I’ll take you back to town.”

She glanced up at him with a curious expression, as if he had taken her by surprise, but merely nodded and said, “Thanks.”

They went up the walkway that was bordered by low, neat shrubs and climbed the wide, shallow steps, passing between the two central columns to reach the portico. Several pieces of black wrought-iron furniture were placed here and there in the cool shade, breaking up the expanse of pale stone, and two planters on either side of the massive front door held neatly trimmed miniature trees.

Walker didn’t ring the bell, but simply opened the right-hand side of the double doors and gestured for her to precede him. If she hesitated, it was only for an instant.

As they stepped into the cool quiet of a spectacular entrance hall, he said somewhat dryly, “Jesse isn’t overly fond of antiques, so you won’t find many original furnishings in Glory. Some of the bedrooms still have theirs, but most of the house has been thoroughly modernized in most respects. Except for air conditioning.”

She gazed at the curving staircase broken only by a graceful landing as it swept up to the second floor, looked down at the beautiful gold and cream tapestry rug spread out over the polished wood of the floor, then turned her attention to Walker. “Does the house stay so cool all summer?”

“Not really,” he replied. “By mid-July, it tends to get pretty stuffy in here especially upstairs. But Jesse prefers fresh air, no matter how hot and humid, and Jesse is very much in charge here at Glory.” He wondered if she heard a warning in his voice. He wondered if he meant to warn her.

Before she could respond, their attention was caught by the sound of voices raised in argument. One of a set of double doors opposite the staircase was wrenched open, a harsh, furious voice shouted, “Sully!” and a big, dark-haired man in jeans and a dirty tee shirt erupted from the room. He slammed the door behind him with a vicious thrust, then caught sight of the visitors and froze.

Even though they weren’t touching, Walker felt the woman beside him stiffen. He didn’t blame her. The fury emanating from Sullivan Lattimore, Jesse’s youngest grandson, was so strong it was visible, like heat shimmering off sun-baked pavement. And since he was a physically powerful man who looked like he wanted to destroy anything he could get his hands on at the moment, even Walker who knew for a fact he could take Sully one on one, eyed him warily.

For a long moment, Sully didn’t move. He was staring at her, his gaze fierce, and she seemed unable to look away.

In the silence, Walker shifted his gaze between them, waiting to see what would happen. All they had in common, he thought, was black hair and gray eyes, both Daulton family traits. There the resemblance ended, though they were supposedly cousins. She was petite, only a few inches over five feet tall, and delicate, with small bones and finely textured fair skin; he was big, well over six feet tall, with the heavy bones and robust build of most of the Daultons. His skin was darkly tanned and his strong hands were calloused. Her exquisite features were still, composed, giving away nothing of her feelings; his handsome, surly face was so expressive it held all the subtlety of neon.

Though his thinned lips writhed in a snarl, Sully didn’t speak. He merely stalked past them and out the front door, slamming it behind him.

She didn’t turn when he passed them, but Walker saw her let out a little breath after Sully had gone. Then she looked up at him and said steadily, “Not a promising beginning.”

Walker hesitated, then shrugged. “Don’t let Sully throw you. He likes to think he’s as mean as a junkyard dog, but it’s mostly bluff.”

“Mostly?”

Her wry tone made Walker smile. “Well, I wouldn’t advise making him mad for no good reason, but his temper usually takes the form of yelling and cussing rather than hitting or throwing things. He’ll probably spend an hour or so riding through the woods and pastures until he calms down, and be relatively civilized by suppertime.”

“He doesn’t want me here.”

“No, he probably doesn’t.” Walker hesitated, but decided not to comment on the subject further. She would find out soon enough if it hadn’t already occurred to her that the arrival of Amanda Daulton had put more than one nose out of joint in the family, and that it was likely only Jesse wanted her to be who she claimed to be.

The door Sully had slammed opened again to reveal a tall, dark-haired woman who stepped briskly out into the entrance hall, shut the door quietly behind her, and stopped when she saw them. She might have been any age between forty-five and sixty-five; her mahogany-brown hair, worn short and stylish, had no more than a few threads of gray, but her face bore the deeply tanned, leathery appearance of someone who had spent a great deal of time out in the sun for many years. She was slim and trim, handsome rather than pretty, and her brown eyes were completely unreadable.

Without a smile or a glance toward Amanda, she said, “Are you waiting for an invitation, Walker?”

“No, Maggie,” he replied imperturbably, accustomed to the brusque manner of Glory’s longtime housekeeper. “Just pausing a moment to recover from Sully’s charge through here.” He was about to add an introduction when he realized that the only name he had for the silent woman at his side was one he didn’t believe to be the truth. Christ, was he supposed to preface every introduction by saying “She says she’s Amanda Daulton.”?

Taking the matter out of his hands, the housekeeper turned her attention to the younger woman, eyed her shrewdly, and spoke in the same brusque tone. “Just so you know, I don’t plan on playing guessing games about what you do or don’t remember. Twenty years is a long time no matter who you are. I’m Maggie Jarrell, and I run the house.”

“I’m Amanda Daulton.” Her voice was very quiet, matter-of-fact rather than defiant.

Maggie pursed her lips and nodded. “Okay. How do you take your iced tea?”

“Sweet, with lemon.” The response was prompt and offered with a smile.

Maggie nodded again, sent Walker a glance he couldn’t read to save his life, and headed toward the back of the house.

“Walker.”

He looked down, too conscious that it was the first time she’d used his given name. “What is it?”

“I realize it must be difficult for a man trained in the precision of the law to accept something he doesn’t believe to be the truth,” she said evenly, without looking at him. “But just to make the situation easier on all of us, I would appreciate it if you could bring yourself to at least call me Amanda. You don’t have to worry. I won’t be stupid enough to think it implies any admission on your part. You think I’m a liar fine. Even liars have names.” She looked up at him, gray eyes steady. “My name is Amanda.”

Until then, Walker hadn’t realized that he had managed to avoid calling her anything at all, at least while he was with her. He hadn’t intended a deliberate slap in the face, but it seemed obvious she had with reason felt slighted.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it. He gestured toward the room both Sully and Maggie had left. “Shall we Amanda?”

Squaring her shoulders visibly, she nodded. They walked to the door, Walker knocked briefly, and when there was an impatient reply from inside, he opened both doors so that they could enter the room side by side. It was a half-conscious gesture on his part, impulsive, and he was glad he had done it when she glanced at him with the flicker of a grateful smile.

The room they entered was very large and looked even more so with its high ceiling and oversize windows. The furnishings were comfortably modern without shouting about it, the colors were pale and soothing, and the floor was covered with a thick, plush wall-to-wall carpet. There were three people in the room: two men on their feet near the fireplace, and a woman seated on one of two long sofas at right angles to it.

Walker didn’t hesitate this time. Taking her arm in a light grasp, he led her across the room to the taller and older of the two men, and said simply, “Here she is, Jesse.”

Jesse Daulton could have been taken for a man fifteen years younger than his seventy-five. A couple of inches over six feet tall, powerful and big-boned, he appeared robustly healthy with few signs of age and none of frailty. His face was a romantic wreck, startlingly handsome features ruined by a lifetime of temper and indulgence, but he was still a very attractive man. His black hair was only now beginning to gray around his tanned face, and his eyes gleamed like lightly tarnished silver.

“Amanda,” he said, and seemed unable to say anything else.

His normal speaking voice was deep and usually harsh; Walker had never heard it quite so soft and unsteady as it was now. He watched the slim, pale hand she extended be gently engulfed in both of Jesse’s big, leathery hands, and he thought that if she had given the old man any sign of encouragement, he would have swept her off her feet in a bear hug.

But she was reserved, polite, and watchful, and showed no desire for any gesture of affection. “I seem to remember that you wanted me to call you Jesse when I was a child,” she told him as she gently drew her hand free of his grasp. Her voice was quiet, her smile slow and curiously charming.

Before Jesse could respond, the man on the other side of the fireplace did.

“All of us call him Jesse, even Kate,” he told

Amanda, and when she looked at him he offered her a smile that was only a little strained. “I’m Reece. Reece Lattimore. Welcome to Glory, cousin.”

From that last statement, Walker drew two conclusions. One, that Jesse had made it plain to his family that he considered this Amanda the genuine article until proven otherwise and expected them to behave accordingly. And, two, that Reece was too smart to openly betray as Sully would the hurt, frustration, and bitterness he had to feel about the matter.

Amanda took a step away from Jesse and offered her hand to Reece with that slow smile of hers. “Reece. I think didn’t you offer to give me your horse one summer?”

Jesse gave a bark of a laugh that was more than a little derisive. Color rose in Reece’s face, but he continued to smile as he shook hands with her. “Yeah,-I think I did. Never was as horse-crazy as Sully, I’m afraid.”

Unlike his younger brother, who was indisputably a Daulton physically and emotionally, Reece took after their father’s family. He was tall enough, nearly six feet, but lacked the heavy bones and imposing physical strength of the Daultons. He was fair and blue-eyed, not especially handsome but with pleasant features, and the laugh lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes indicated he was quicker to smile than to frown.

He and Sully were too dissimilar to be close, but differing ambitions at least kept them from destructive conflict with each other. Most of the time.

Walker touched Amanda’s arm to draw her attention, and spoke to the other woman in the room because he knew Jesse wouldn’t. “Kate? Come and meet Amanda.”

Immediately, Catherine Daulton rose from the sofa and stepped forward. Youngest and only surviving child of Jesse and the wife he had buried just days after her birth, Kate was five foot eleven in her bare feet and built on noble lines, voluptuous without an ounce of excess flesh. She had the Daulton coloring, and at forty her smoothly tanned face was still astonishingly beautiful, with hardly a line to mar its perfection.

In all honesty, Walker had never seen a woman more beautiful than Kate. Heads turned when she walked by, and mouths fell open in shock. He had even once seen a man literally hit by a car because he’d been staring mindlessly at Kate as he stepped off the curb. She could have made a fortune as a model, and might well have brought princes to their knees if only she had left Glory and ventured out into the world.

But Kate had spent her life here, and though many men in the area had been still were, in fact eager to court her, none had been successful. In fact, she had never shown interest in marrying, and rarely dated. Her secrets hidden behind the tarnished-silver eyes she had inherited from Jesse, generally calm and self-possessed, she acted as Jesse’s hostess when necessary and filled her time with volunteer and charity work.

Extending a hand to Amanda, she said politely, “How do you do? Welcome to Glory.”

Amanda looked up at the older woman for an instant with no expression, then smiled as she shook hands. “Thank you, Kate.”

Jesse, who had rarely taken his eyes off Amanda, urged her now to sit down, and took a place for himself beside her on the sofa facing the one where Kate had been sitting. His voice was still quieter than normal for him, and Walker had never seen Jesse’s face so softened.

Kate had resumed her seat, silent once more, and Reece sat at the other end of her sofa. Walker took up a position at the fireplace, leaning a shoulder against the mantel. He was as comfortable in this house as he was in his own, and accepted by the family to the point of having long since abandoned any attempt to be businesslike except when he was going over legal documents with Jesse.

Strictly speaking, his part in this little drama had been completed. He had conducted the preliminary interviews with the woman claiming to be Amanda Daulton, had obtained the most thorough background check possible, had sought and arranged the necessary blood tests, and had reported all information available to Jesse. He had relayed her suggestion that she spend some time at Glory, and had counseled the older man to wait until all possible evidence was in before meeting Amanda. Overruled on that point, he had delivered her to Glory, where she was to remain at least until the DNA test results were provided by a private laboratory sometime during the next few weeks.

There was no reason for Walker to remain. No legal reason. And it wasn’t as if this were an off day for him; there was a stack of paperwork on his desk, a series of meetings he needed to schedule, and no doubt a dozen or more phone messages requiring his attention. Despite all that, he had no intention of leaving just yet. He told himself it was merely that he was absorbed in the drama and, naturally, concerned that his client’s interests be protected.

He ignored the little voice in his head that insisted he remained because he didn’t want to desert Amanda. That was absurd, of course. He was far too skeptical of her claim to feel in any way protective of her.

She glanced over at him as Jesse sat down beside her, and Walker could have sworn there was a flicker of relief in her eyes. But it was a fleeting thing; as soon as Jesse spoke, she turned her attention to him.

“So you grew up in the North?” What might have seemed an inane or awkward gambit was made less so by Jesse’s tone, which was as intent as his gaze. He was half turned toward her, and though his hands rested on his thighs, his upper body was just slightly inclined, so that he seemed to lean toward her.

“In Boston,” she answered readily, but offered nothing more.

Reece gave a little laugh. “You don’t sound it. In fact, you don’t have much of any kind of accent.”

She looked at him, smiled slightly. “I’ll probably sound more Southern after I spend more time here.”

“Deliberately?” Kate asked almost absentmindedly, as if she were only half aware of the conversation, but she was looking at the younger woman.

“No, not really.” Amanda shrugged, un-offended. “But Mother’s accent was pretty strong, and since I had that in my ear for so many years, I’ll probably take the path of least resistance once I hear it all around me.”

There was an odd little silence, and then Kate spoke again in that same detached tone. “I don’t remember Christine having much of an accent.”

“Don’t you?” If she was nonplussed, Amanda gave no sign of it. Instead, she shrugged again. “Maybe it just seemed stronger to me, living in the North.”

“Natural,” Jesse decided with a nod. Having reclaimed Amanda’s attention, he held it. With a vengeance. “Walker tells us you don’t remember the night your mother took you away from us. Is that true?”

Watching the two of them, Walker decided that Amanda would make a good witness and one he wouldn’t hesitate to put on the stand. She didn’t blurt out a response to Jesse’s abrupt question, and when she did answer after a deliberate pause, her gaze met his steadily.

“There’s a lot I don’t remember, including that night. Before then, the time I spent here seems almost dreamlike. I remember just bits and pieces, flashes of scenes and conversations. I think I could find my way to the bedroom I had here, but I didn’t remember how to get to the house from town. I remember a litter of kittens in a barn loft, but I can’t recall the games I must have played with my cousins. I remember kneeling at a window to watch a storm seeing a foal born hearing my father laugh.” She tilted her head a little and her voice dropped to something just above a whisper. “But I don’t remember why we had to leave Glory.”

Damn, she’s good. The voice in Walker’s head this time belonged to the cynical lawyer trained in suspicion. He glanced at Jesse’s face, unsurprised to find that the old man was visibly moved. Even Reece seemed affected, his ready sympathy stirred by Amanda’s wistfulness. Neither of them apparently realized that her “memories.” were so vague they could easily have been created out of thin air and shrewdness.

“Give it time,” Jesse urged, one hand reaching over to cover hers.

“You’re bound to remember more now that you’re here,” Reece agreed.

Only Kate appeared impervious to the younger woman’s appeal, her enigmatic gaze moving among the others as if she were watching some performance staged to entertain.

Walker slid his hands into his pockets, forcing himself to remain silent. Christ, she was winning them over already, the men at least. That hesitant, pensive voice He was torn between the professional urge to remind Jesse yet again that nothing had been proven and the increasingly personal urge to find some way of penetrating Amanda’s smooth and deceptive mask of self-control to find what lay underneath. She was hiding plenty, he was sure. He could feel it. Every time she opened her mouth, all his instincts tingled a warning for him to beware of what she said.

Jesse was patting her hand with the slightly awkward touch of an undemonstrative man, and when she stirred and smiled at him, Walker could have sworn there was a flash of something calculating in the smoky depths of her eyes.

“I’m sure I’ll remember more eventually,” she said, as if reassuring herself more than them.

“Of course you will,” he said, giving her hand a last pat. “It’ll all come back to you.”

Maggie came into the room then, carrying a tray which she set down on the coffee table between the two sofas. She handed out tall glasses of iced tea, unsmiling, then took one for herself and sat down in a chair opposite the fireplace.

“Have I missed anything?” she asked.

In a colorless tone, Kate reported, “Amanda doesn’t remember the night Christine took her away.”

“Am I supposed to find that surprising?” Maggie slumped in her chair and propped sneaker-clad feet on the coffee table. She was wearing jeans and a crisp white man’s shirt, hardly the usual housekeeper attire but standard for her. “It was twenty years ago, for God’s sake, and she was a child.”

“Nobody expects her to remember everything,” Jesse said, reaching out to pat Amanda’s hand once more and giving her a smile. “We were just curious.” He hesitated, then said, “It must have been hard on you and your mother all those years.”

It wasn’t precisely a question, but she accepted it as one and nodded. “Yes. Mother held down two jobs most of the time while I was in school, and even then there wasn’t much money.”

As if the question had long haunted him, Jesse said, “Why did she cut us off like that? I would have helped her even if she’d felt she couldn’t come back to Brian. And, later, after he was killed.”

Amanda was shaking her head as she leaned forward to set her glass on the coffee table. “I don’t know. She didn’t talk about any of you or about Glory, and all she ever said about my father was that she had loved him very much.”

“She changed her name, your name,” Jesse said, and it was an accusation of betrayal.

Again, Amanda shook her head. “I don’t know why she did that. I don’t know how she did it. Until she was killed last year and I found my birth certificate among her papers, I didn’t even remember being Amanda Daulton.”

“How could you forget your name?” Maggie asked, the question honestly curious.

Amanda looked at her for a moment, then gazed off at something only she could see. Her eyes were wide, almost blank, and her voice was oddly distant when she spoke. “How could I forget my name. It was what my mother wanted. She insisted, over and over, that I was Amanda Grant. I had to forget the rest, that’s what she told me. I was Amanda Grant.”

“Did she hate us so much?” Jesse asked in a voice that ached.

With a blink, Amanda returned from that distant place and looked at him. Focused now, she said, “I don’t know. Try to understand she didn’t want me to ask her questions, so I didn’t. It was like she had a wound she couldn’t bear to have touched. Maybe we would have talked about it one day if she hadn’t been killed in that car accident, but I can’t know that. It seems to me that for my mother, all of you and this place just stopped existing the night she left.”

There was a stricken expression in Jesse’s eyes. “She must have heard about it when Brian was killed. She must have known. Didn’t his death matter to her?”

Watching them, Walker thought that Amanda almost reached out to the old man, almost offered a comforting touch. But in the end, she clasped her fingers lightly together in her lap and merely looked at him gravely.

“That’s a question I’ve asked myself. Among her papers, I found a newspaper clipping about his death, but it happened so soon after we left here and that time is fuzzy in my mind. I don’t remember if she seemed different then, more upset than she had been. I just don’t remember.”

“She didn’t tell you he was dead?” Reece wondered in surprise.

Amanda frowned slightly. “I don’t know. I have the feeling I knew, but I don’t remember her telling me. I know I wasn’t surprised when I found the clipping, except...”

“Except what?” Walker spoke for the first time, watching her intently.

She met his gaze, her face utterly without expression for a split second before she smiled sadly. “Nothing, really. I was just surprised he was so young, that was all.”

She turned her attention back to Jesse, and Walker didn’t say a word. She had just lied and he knew it. The question was, what did it mean?





Chapter 3




“Jesse.”

“Don’t say it, Walker.”

“I have to say it.” Walker watched as Jesse went to the compact wet bar tucked away in a corner of the big room and poured himself a scotch. He wasn’t supposed to drink, but that hardly mattered now. “Somebody has to say it. There’s not a shred of evidence to support her claim. No proof.”

“She has her birth certificate.”

Maggie had taken Amanda up to her room, with Reece going along to carry the luggage, so only Walker and a silent Kate were left with Jesse. And the old man’s features were set in a stubborn expression that would have been familiar to anyone who had ever known him.

“She has a photocopy of the birth certificate.”

Walker said, trying anyway. “Which anybody can get. And the notary dated that photocopy barely more than a year ago shortly before Christine supposedly died.”

“Supposedly?”

“I haven’t been able to confirm it, I told you that. I checked in Boston and then the entire state, and found no record of any traffic fatality by the name of Christine Grantor Daulton or her maiden name, for that matter.”

Quietly, Kate asked, “And what did Amanda say to that?”

“She was vague,” Walker replied. “Damned vague. She said her mother was cremated, the ashes scattered okay, fine, I’ll buy that. But what about the accident itself? Various state and local officials like to keep track of things like that, and why couldn’t I find any record? It happened on a highway somewhere outside Boston, she said, and she’s not sure where the death would have been recorded. Rhode Island, maybe, or Connecticut. Or, hey, how about New Hampshire?”

“She didn’t put it that way,” Kate decided with a faint smile.

“No,” Walker agreed, “but almost.”

“For God’s sake,” Jesse said impatiently, “she was probably in shock when Christine was killed, and it’s been months since then. Maybe she just doesn’t remember where it happened.”

“Maybe,” Walker said. “But I can take you to the precise curve in the road where my parents were killed and it’s been nearly ten years.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Kate said gently, “You travel that road almost every day. How could you ever forget?”

Walker offered her a slight smile but changed the subject quickly, annoyed at himself for having dragged anything personal into this discussion.

“The point is, precious little this woman claims can be verified.” He stared at Jesse and added deliberately, “I don’t believe she’s Amanda Daulton.”

“She’s got the right coloring,” Jesse said.

“She doesn’t look like Brian or Christine.”

“Christine was delicate.”

“She was tall. She also had blue eyes.”

“Gray eyes are dominant in our family,” Jesse snapped.

“So is unusual height and heavy bones,” Walker reminded him evenly. “Genetically, the real Amanda is far more likely to be tall and imposing.”

Jesse frowned down at his glass. “Her blood’s AB positive, and that’s rare.”

“Three percent of the population. In a country with a quarter billion people, that’s quite a few possibilities. About seven and a half million if my calculations are correct.”

Jesse shrugged. “If you say so. But still rare, and what are the odds for someone claiming to be Amanda to just happen to have that type? Slight, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I don’t play odds,” Walker reminded him. “I’m interested in what I can prove. Her background’s full of holes, Jesse. Maybe Christine did somehow manage to get them new identities twenty years ago by claiming that a hospital fire had destroyed records of Amanda’s birth and that her own birth certificate was somehow lost during the chaos of World War II, something like that. Stranger things have happened. But I can’t find elementary-school records for an Amanda Grant in Boston, where she supposedly grew up, and high-school records are incomplete and oddly enough missing photographs of Amanda Grant.”

Impatient, Jesse said, “So maybe she’s camera-shy or just happened to miss school that day.”

“All four years? Eight years counting college, because she isn’t in those yearbooks, either. And here’s another odd thing; Amanda Grant minored in architecture, but when I casually asked the lady upstairs if she knew anything on the subject she said no.”

“Probably misunderstood you,” Jesse decided.

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, I do!”

Walker sighed, but didn’t give up. “Okay, then what about medical records? She claims they didn’t have a family doctor, that there was a clinic in their neighborhood, but it was rather conveniently closed down a few years ago and I haven’t been able to find out where the paperwork went.”

“Who the hell cares about medical records? Do you think it matters when she got her vaccinations or how many times she had the flu?”

Walker held up a hand to stem the old man’s irascibility. “That’s not the point. The point is what’s normal. People leave a paper trail, Jesse, a trail of photographs and documented facts. But not her. In twenty years of living, even under a false name, she should have accumulated documents in different areas of her life. School records, medical records, bank records. But all hers are either remarkably incomplete or unavailable. She has a checking account less than a year old. She signed the lease on her apartment in Boston just six months ago. Before that, she’d rather not say’ where she lived. No credit cards or accounts. She’s never owned a car, according to the DMV, and claims she’s misplaced her driver’s license.”

“Well, so what? Hell, Walker, I have no earthly idea where my license is.”

Walker didn’t bother to point out that since Jesse hadn’t driven himself in thirty years his license had long ago expired. “Look, all I’m saying is that her story looks suspicious as hell. There are too many questions. And whoever she is, I’m willing to bet she’s fabricated a background with just enough information to sketch in a life. She can’t prove she’s Amanda Daulton but I can’t prove she isn’t. Maybe the DNA tests will be conclusive, but it’s doubtful since there’s nothing distinctive enough about the Daulton family genetically speaking to show up in the blood. And having to use your blood for comparison instead of the parent’s makes it even more difficult. At best, we may be told there’s an eighty percent probability that she is who she claims to be.”

“I’ll bet on eighty percent,” Jesse said flatly, his eyes fierce.

Walker didn’t have to have that explained to him. As the only child of Jesse’s only son, Amanda occupied a very special place in the old man’s heart. He had loved Brian so much that his two other children had been all but excluded from his affections, and Jesse was as ruthless in his paternal feelings as he was in everything else. He had seemed virtually unmoved when Adrian died with her husband, Daniel Lattimore, in a plane crash in 1970, leaving her two boys for Jesse to raise, and Kate might as well have been invisible for all the attention her father gave her.

But Brian had been different, and his daughter was all Jesse could have of that favored son.

If Jesse convinced himself the woman upstairs was indeed his granddaughter, he was entirely capable of leaving no more than a pittance to his daughter and grandsons and bestowing the bulk of his estate on

Amanda. Never mind that Reece worked hard as a junior VP of Daulton Industries, that Sully had done an excellent job raising and training the Thoroughbred hunters for which the Daulton family was justly famed, and that Kate had spent her entire life as the gracious hostess of Glory.

None of that mattered.

“Jesse.”

“It’s her. Walker, I know it. I knew it the minute she walked into the room.” Jesse’s eyes were still fierce. He downed his scotch in a gulp, grimaced briefly at the liquid fire settling into his belly, then nodded decidedly. “Amanda’s come home.”

“You can’t be sure, not so quickly.” Walker knew he wasn’t making much headway, but he had to try. “At least give it a little time, Jesse. Wait for the test results, and in the meantime talk to her, question her about her life, her background. Don’t jump the gun on this.”

Jesse laughed briefly. “You’re as cautious as your father was, boy. All right, all right I won’t change my will just yet.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Actually, it was more than Walker had hoped for. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to the office and try to work a couple of hours today.”

“Come for supper tonight,” Jesse said, more command than invitation.

Too curious to invent other plans, Walker merely accepted with polite thanks.

“I’ll walk out with you,” Kate murmured, rising to her feet.

From the front window of her corner bedroom on the second floor, Amanda watched the lawyer stroll to his car with Kate Daulton at his side. They made a striking couple. He was a little above six feet tall and built athletically, which made him a good match for Kate’s height and impressive figure, and his dark, hawk like good looks complemented her flawless beauty.

They paused by his shiny Lincoln for a few moments, talking intently, and Amanda wished she knew what the conversation was about. When he had spoken to Kate downstairs, his voice had been oddly gentle, and something about his posture now indicated a kind of protectiveness Amanda would have sworn was alien to his nature. Walker McLellan was not a man given to macho protect-the-little-lady impulses, Amanda thought.

But Kate, it seemed clear, occupied a special place in the lawyer’s affections. Were they lovers? It was possible, even probable, given the circumstances. He was clearly at home here at Glory and seemed to be treated virtually as one of the family; he and Kate had known each other all their lives; both were single; and it was doubtful Jesse would have objected to the relationship.

Walker was a good seven or eight years younger than Kate, Amanda thought, but he didn’t seem like a man who would give much consideration to the age difference if he loved her. Odd, though, if they were lovers and hadn’t married. With passion as well as affection, what would prevent them? It certainly appeared a good match, and since both were prominent citizens in a small Southern town where reputations still mattered and sex out of wedlock was still eyed askance, they would have found it troublesome if not downright unacceptable to conduct a discreet affair for any length of time.

Amanda waited to see if Walker would kiss Kate before he left, and she was a bit unsettled to feel a pang of relief when the lawyer got into his car with no more than a casual wave of his hand. Probably not lovers, then or else extremely undemonstrative ones. And she wasn’t relieved, she told herself, just

Just what, Amanda? Just glad the sharp-eyed, lazy-voiced, and suspicious lawyer who thought she was a liar wasn’t having an affair with her aunt?

Shaking her head a little at her own ridiculous thoughts, Amanda watched Walker leave and then turned from the window with a little sigh. He hadn’t exactly been on her side in all this, but she felt oddly alone now that he was gone. Natural, she supposed, since he had been her sole contact during all the interviews that had preceded her arrival here.

She could clearly remember him rising from the big leather chair behind his desk when she had walked into his office for the first time a few days ago. Still see his impassive face and the vivid green eyes weighing her.

“Mr. McLellan. I’m Amanda Daulton.” And his cool response.

“Are you? We’ll see.”

With an effort, she pushed that wary meeting out of her mind and stood for a moment looking around the room. Maggie, true to her word, hadn’t played guessing games; she hadn’t hesitated to explain that this had not been Brian and Christine Daulton’s bedroom, nor Amanda’s as a child, but had always been used for guests. It was one of the larger available rooms, and Jesse wanted her to have it.

Modernization during the last thirty years or so had given the room a private bathroom, spacious and lovely in shades of blue, as well as plenty of closet space, but the furnishings were some of the few remaining antiques left in Glory.

There were two tall chests, a long dresser with numerous drawers and a wall-hung oval mirror, and a marble-topped nightstand with a small lamp beside the bed. The bed itself was stunning, queen-size and custom-built by a famed New Orleans cabinetmaker. It was a half-tester, or half-canopied, bed, designed with curved outlines and rococo ornamentation, with a striking carved cartouche on the headboard. The canopy was rich scarlet velvet, a color picked up in the print of the wallpaper and the pattern of the tapestry rug that stretched nearly wall to wall. A loveseat designed in the same restrained rococo style as the bed stood near the front window.

Amanda might not have known much about architecture, Southern or otherwise, but she knew a little about antiques. This furniture was as valuable as it was beautiful.

She liked this room. Even with the elaborate furnishings and rich colors, it was more a comfortable room than an opulent one, and Amanda felt comfortable in it. She opened the front window to take advantage of a slight breeze, pausing to breathe in the faint scent of honeysuckle and absently noting that Kate had apparently come back inside the house since she was no longer visible, then went to a set of gauze-curtained French doors that opened out onto a cast-iron balcony at the west side of the house. Stepping out, she discovered that it was a small balcony for this room only, with its own spiral staircase providing a private entrance.

No doubt intended for guests to be able to take a moonlight stroll through the woods or rolling pastures and return to their room without disturbing the rest of the house, the balcony and spiral staircase were designed with a Louisiana flavor, the fine metalwork done with intricate vines and honeysuckle, and the balcony supported by slender Gothic columns. It wouldn’t have looked out of place in the French Quarter in New Orleans, and it was lovely.

Amanda liked the fact that her room had a private entrance, but when she went back inside, she checked the French doors carefully to make certain they had a sturdy lock. Then, leaving the doors open, she began unpacking.

She worked briskly, trying not to think too much. Already, she could feel the strain of being forced to weigh every word before she spoke it, and she had been in this house no more than a couple of hours. What would it be like in a week? Two weeks? A month? With so many people watching her, waiting for her to make a mistake, how long would it be before, inevitably, she betrayed herself?

Amanda carried her toiletries bag into the bathroom, hung blouses, slacks, and her few summer dresses and skirts in the roomy closet, and put several pairs of shoes neatly on the closet floor. Then she began filling the dresser drawers with piles of tee shirts and other cotton and knit tops, as well as jeans, shorts, and underwear. She ignored the two tall chests since she didn’t need them; unpacked, she was ruefully aware that all her belongings occupied a very small amount of the available space.

She went to the bedroom door, hesitated for a moment listening, then gently turned the old-fashioned brass key in the lock. She was a little amused at herself for taking that precaution while leaving the balcony doors wide open, but told herself that none of the large people in this house could possibly climb the iron staircase outside in silence. So she’d have warning before an unfortunate interruption. Probably.

She went back and sat down on the bed beside her biggest suitcase, now emptied of clothes. Carefully, she opened the concealed false bottom. Handy for keeping papers neat, the salesman had offered without a blink. The two manila folders Amanda had placed there were certainly un-creased, as were the three small hardbound books.

Amanda smoothed her fingers over the books slowly, then set them aside and opened one of the manila folders. It was filled with photocopies of magazine articles and photographs. There were quite a few, because Glory was probably the most-photographed and most-written-about house in the entire South. She flipped through the pages, studying the pictures she’d gone over so many times and skimming the articles where, with a yellow marker, she had highlighted entire paragraphs.

Glory. By now, it was equal parts strange and familiar to her. Blindfolded, she might have been able to find her way through the house, but its sheer size in the flesh, so to speak had surprised her. The master bedroom, Jesse’s bedroom, had been identified and photographed in exhaustive detail but Amanda wasn’t sure where the other occupants of the house slept.

Would Sully be in the rear wing rather than this main section, as far away from Jesse as possible? What about Reece? And Maggie, obviously much more than a housekeeper where was her room?

So many questions.

Frowning, Amanda closed that folder and set it aside, then opened the second one. This one also held numerous clippings, mostly from newspapers, as well as photocopies of very old articles from myriad newspapers, books, and magazines. From their earliest days in America, around the time of the Revolution, to the present, these pages contained the varied and colorful history of the Daulton family.

Important even before old Rufus Daulton had acquired thousands of acres of Carolina land in speculation deals in the 1700s, the Daultons had made a name for themselves during the Revolution when twin brothers George and Charles Daulton had become heroes of that war. Only one had survived, George having been betrayed by a woman whom Charles later strangled with his own hands. He had been tried as a matter of form, acquitted promptly, and gone on to marry the dead woman’s sister and sire seven children.

Amanda shook her head over that, as she had the first time she’d read the story and every time since, bemused and wishing the sister had left a journal or letters to explain her thoughts and feelings about such a bizarre situation and its outcome. But history kept that woman silent, just as most of the Daulton women were. The men, with larger-than-life personalities and actions, seemed to delight in making themselves heard in every generation, but the women were, at least to history’s eyes, mere footnotes.

It must have been difficult, Amanda thought, for any woman to hold her own with those big, darkly handsome, and fiery-tempered Daulton men, especially given the times. Yet women had married them, borne them, nursed them when they were sick, and buried them when their uncommon strength failed them.

Amanda flipped through the pages slowly, studying the photographs and scanning the sections of text she’d highlighted. An interesting family, to say the least, with plenty of stories at least as curious as the one concerning the twins. Hard-drinking, like most mountain Southerners, the Daultons had fought for their country, brawled with their relatives, and feuded with their neighbors generation after generation.

Lucky enough to plant Burley, a popular tobacco that grew well in the sandy soil of the Carolina mountains, they were also shrewd enough to begin branching out even before the Civil War brought about changes in their way of life. While continuing to grow tobacco, they established a sound program of breeding and training Thoroughbred horses, mined gold and other precious metals in the mountains, and, later, got into textiles and the manufacture of furniture as well.

The Daultons, always lucky in finance, made money hand over fist while other great families floundered in the ever-changing rush of progress. Yet, in every generation, the reins of control for the family were held in one pair of hands usually that of the oldest male who, rather like the masters of the old British and Dutch trading houses of Hong Kong, enjoyed a position of ultimate power and authority. He wasn’t called a tai-pan, and his authority wasn’t spelled out in ancient documents, but the leader of the Daulton clan was very much in charge.

Amanda continued through the clippings until she reached more recent times. Separating this group of articles from the earlier ones was a sheet of white paper on which was hand-drawn a simple, three-generation family tree.





Amanda studied the tree, one finger tracing the lines from parent to child. She let her thoughts drift. Their thirties seemed an especially arduous time for the Daultons. Adrian had been killed at thirty, Brian at thirty-three, and their mother had died in childbirth at thirty-five. Reece and Sully were in their thirties now with Kate barely past hers definitely a stressful period, what with the abrupt arrival of long-lost Amanda.

Shaking those thoughts off, Amanda considered for a moment and then returned the folders to the suitcase. It was not an obvious hiding place, since few people would think to keep searching a conspicuously empty bag, so it seemed to her the most secure place in the bedroom.

She looked at the three small books, then opened the topmost one. On the first page, handwritten in neat but flowing letters, was the word Journal. Farther down the page, in the same writing, was Christine Daulton. And at the very bottom was the notation 1962-1968.

The second journal was dated 1969-1975. Both journals covered her life from the date Christine married Brian Daulton until the year of his death. The third and final journal covered the same period, but in a much more specific way. It was labeled Glory, and the notation of dates read Summers 1962-1975.

Amanda found herself lightly touching the first page of the third journal, her index finger tracing the letters forming the name of this house. Interesting, how Christine had set apart the time spent here. They had spent every summer here after their marriage, from late May to early September. As a world-class horseman, Brian had enjoyed riding in the shows and hunts common in this area, and it was clear from her writings that Christine had loved this place.

Amanda had read the journals. What she hoped was that, now that she was here at Glory, some of the enigmatic and ambiguous entries might make more sense. Probably because these were journals rather than diaries, with no locks meant to keep the contents secret, Christine’s entries were sometimes vague or oblique. She often wrote, Amanda thought, as if guardedly aware that other eyes would read what she wrote.

Whose eyes? Her husband’s? Had Brian Daulton been the kind of man who believed there should be no privacy between husband and wife?

Amanda found that speculation unsettling. As adults, children often found their parents to be relative strangers with unsuspected secrets and undisclosed pasts, but Amanda felt herself even further removed than that. Brian Daulton had been dead for twenty years, and Christine Daulton’s journals revealed only snippets of feelings and the occasional noting of a problem or argument between them; there was no journal for the years after Brian’s death, and not so much as a hint in any of the personal papers she’d left behind of her thoughts and feelings about him.

What, if anything, did it mean?

Amanda shook off the thoughts and looked around her room. There was a shelf holding a number of books near the door, and she contemplated it for a few moments before electing to return the journals to the suitcase’s hidden compartment. The journals might have fit in anonymously with the several hardback and paperback novels provided for a guest’s bedtime reading, but Amanda preferred not to chance it.

She closed the bag and set both her cases inside the closet. Her makeup case was on the dresser; she opened it and lifted out the tray holding various brushes and compacts to reveal the small niche de-signed to hold jewelry. Amanda had very little good jewelry: a small diamond cluster ring and one emerald band with very small stones, a couple of bracelets and chains of fine gold, some delicate earrings.

She ignored those pieces, drawing out a small velvet pouch, which contained a small pendant on a delicate chain. The pendant, hardly more than an inch from top to bottom, was the outline of a heart done in tiny diamonds. It was not an expensive piece or an impressive one, but when she put it on and looked in the mirror above the dresser to study the heart as it lay in the V opening of her blouse, it felt to Amanda as if she had fastened something very heavy around her neck.

Pushing her luck, there was no question about it. The smart thing would be to say very little and listen to everything during these first days, especially while she was trying to get the feel of this place and these people. Why ask for trouble so soon? She touched the little heart with a fingertip, hesitating, then sighed and left it.

She fingered a few other items in the jewelry niche thoughtfully. A man’s gold seal ring, a pair of very old pearl earrings, an ivory bracelet all pieces much older than the others in the niche.

Tucked into a corner and wrapped in tissue was a small crystal trinket box, which Amanda carefully unwrapped and placed upon the dresser. She took off the lid and removed another bit of tissue paper, this wrapped around an opaque dark green stone.

There was nothing particularly memorable about the stone. It was hardly more than a couple of inches from end to end, a roughly oval shape with several jutting facets common to quartz. Amanda held it for a moment, her fingers examining the shape and hardness of the stone, rubbing the smooth facets. Then she returned it to the trinket box, adding the two delicate rings and several pairs of earrings from the jewelry niche. Satisfied with the resulting jumble, in which the green stone seemed merely a bit peculiar, she replaced the lid on the box.

After a moment’s thought, she deliberately cluttered the dresser’s polished surface, putting out her hairbrush and comb, a bottle of perfume, and several items of makeup. She left the case open.

A glance at her watch told her it was only three-thirty, which meant she had some time to kill. Supper at six, Jesse had told her, and she might want to wander around and explore this afternoon. Obviously eager to spend time with her, he had nevertheless made a conspicuous effort to avoid overwhelming her, to give her room and time to herself. There would be a car and driver at her disposal if she wanted to go into town, he had said, and if there was anything she needed anything at all she should tell either him or Maggie.

Amanda felt a brief craven impulse to remain here in her room until suppertime, but shook it off. She’d come this far, and so going on was inevitable.

She left the window open since it was screened, but closed the balcony doors; summer wouldn’t officially begin for another month, but until Amanda found out how bad the flies and mosquitoes were around here according to what she’d read, it varied from year to year she had no intention of issuing a blatant invitation to the insects to enter her bedroom. She went to the hall door and unlocked it, and went out into the hall.

She turned left to head toward the stairs, moving slowly as she studied several landscapes and the occasional furnishings lining the wide, carpeted hallway. She had stopped to examine a beautiful gilt mirror and was still a good twenty feet from the head of the stairs when she heard a low, guttural sound that caused the fine hairs on the nape of her neck to rise, quivering.

Very slowly, she turned her head. Back toward her room and not six feet away stood two black-and-tan dogs. Like so much else about Glory, they were big, heavily muscled, and wickedly powerful. They were Doberman pinschers, and they were not happy to find her here.

Amanda considered her options rapidly and decided that one thing she couldn’t do was stand here and scream for help. Even if the dogs didn’t get more pissed off just because of the noise, she didn’t want any of the large and undoubtedly courageous people in this house to find her frozen with fear and yelling her head off.

So, forcing herself to relax, she turned to face the dogs and dropped to her knees in the same motion. “Hi, guys,” she said to them, her voice calm. “Want to be friends?”

It took nearly ten minutes and all the patient tranquility Amanda could muster, but she liked dogs and that helped her to get on the right side of these two. Whether it was her voice, her scent, or her attitude, the dogs decided to accept her.

They were extremely friendly once that decision was made, and she ended up having to (gently) push one of them off her lap before she could get to her feet. Both the dogs were wearing silver chain collars, and she paused to examine the engraved tags announcing their names.

“Hope you guys haven’t heard the stories,” she murmured with a wince, wondering if she had just been granted a glimpse into the darker or, at least, darkly mischievous side of someone’s nature. To whom did the dogs belong, and who had named them?

Filing the question away to be answered later,

Amanda continued on her way downstairs, a dog on either side of her. She paused only once, reaching out to gently touch the ancient grandfather clock on the landing, then shook her head a little and went on.

She had just reached the polished floor of the entrance hall when Maggie appeared in the hallway leading to the rear of the house and looked at the threesome in surprise.

“I’ll be damned,” she said. “You made friends with those hellions?”

“I didn’t have much choice,” Amanda replied with some feeling. “They were just there in the hall upstairs when I came out of my bedroom.”

Maggie frowned. “They were supposed to be shut up in Jesse’s bedroom until he could introduce you.”

Which answered the question of the dogs’ ownership.

“Maybe he let them out,” Amanda offered.

“No, he wouldn’t have. Besides which, he’s down at the stables looking over a couple of new horses.” Maggie studied the two dogs, which stood on either side of Amanda so that her fingertips brushed their glossy black coats, and shook her head slowly. “I’ve never seen them take to anybody but Jesse; they just tolerate the rest of us.”

“I like dogs.”

“A good thing, I’d say. Are you exploring?”

“I thought I would. If it’s okay.”

With a lifted brow, Maggie said, “I thought Jesse had made it pretty clear. You can do just about anything you please here, Amanda.” Then, briskly, she added, “The garden is beautiful this time of year. Just go straight down that hall and out through the sunroom, exploring along the way, of course.”

“Thanks, I will.”

They passed each other in the entrance hall, since

Maggie was going upstairs. But with one foot on the bottom tread, the housekeeper called Amanda’s name.

“Yes?”

“That necklace you’re wearing. Christine had one just like it.”

“Yes.” Amanda’s voice was deliberate. “She did.”

Maggie looked at her for a long moment. “Keep the dogs with you. They’ll protect you.”

Amanda felt a chill. “Protect me? What do I have to be afraid of here?” she asked.

“Snakes.” Maggie smiled. “Watch out for snakes. The black snakes won’t hurt you, but copperheads are poisonous.” Then she continued on up the stairs.

Alone once more but for her canine companions, Amanda drew a breath and looked down at them. “Come on, guys. Let’s take a look at Glory.”

The mountain trail was narrow and winding, crossed here and there with fallen trees and rusting barrels and moldy bales of hay that made up crude but effective jumps. Only an expert rider with a highly trained or suicidally obedient horse would have attempted the rugged course, and then only at a carefully balanced canter.

Not a flat-out gallop.

But the big Roman-nosed black climbed the trail like a mountain goat, taking the jumps in stride, his ears flat to his head and his gait so smooth that the man on his back hardly felt the unevenness of the trail.

It took an unusually large and powerful horse to carry Sully for any length of time, particularly at top speed over rough terrain. That was the major reason he’d stopped competing in his late teens, because he was simply too big and too heavy to give most horses a fighting chance over jumps, and that was the only kind of riding he really loved. This kind of riding. And this horse, the only one he currently owned that was capable of taking him up this trail.

Beau soared over the last jump, a stack of hay bales sprouting oat seedlings, and shook his head fiercely when Sully eased back on the reins. But he gradually obeyed the skilled and patient touch of his rider, and by the time the trail began meandering back down the mountain toward Glory, the stallion was moving at a shambling walk.

Sully wished his own edgy temperament could be as easily calmed. Not, of course, that the hand on his reins was overly patient but Jesse was certainly skilled at forcing obedience from those around him. Give the old man his due: even on his last legs he was still firmly in charge.

Automatically, Sully guided his horse off the main trail, stopping a moment later on an overlook formed by a small granite outcropping. From here there was an exceptional view of the valley below. An exceptional view of Glory.

Back in college, Sully could remember when one of his friends had been dumped by the girl he’d dated since puberty. “She broke my heart,” he had said numbly. Some of the guys had laughed, but Sully hadn’t. Because he knew how it felt to love something so much it was terrifying, the loss or threatened loss of it crippling. He knew.

Sprawling out across the valley, Glory was so beautiful it made his chest ache almost unbearably. The house and garden, the rolling pastures dotted with glossy horses, the neat stables fanning out on a hill on the other side of the house and, beyond them, the training ring he had designed and built almost entirely with his own hands. It was more than home, it was his soul, his lifeblood. The years away at college had been agony, and he literally couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Sully saw Beau’s ear flick back, felt the animal shift uneasily, and realized only then that some curse had escaped his lips with a viciousness the horse responded to instinctively. He made a conscious effort to relax, reaching up a hand to stroke the shining black neck.

“Easy, boy. Easy.” The high-strung stallion was perfectly capable of launching himself off this overlook if he took a mind to, and then they’d both end up at the base of the mountain with maybe two unbroken bones left between them. That would solve his problems once and for all. Yes, sir. He’d be gone, and when Jesse finally met his Maker, Reece and Kate could join forces and fight the will the old man would undoubtedly make in favor of his long-lost Amanda.

Sully stroked his horse with a gentle hand and scowled out over the peaceful beauty of Glory. Amanda. But was she Amanda? Walker McLellan didn’t think so, and though he tended to be a cautious bastard even for a lawyer, he was no fool when it came to people. She looked sort of right, even if she was about half the size of most Daultons, but Sully had been so furious when he’d stared at her that he couldn’t remember much beyond black hair and grayish eyes.

Not that any of that mattered. All that mattered was whether Jesse accepted this woman as Amanda, and he’d made it pretty damned plain even before she’d arrived that he believed even in the face of vague holes in her story and Walker’s repeated warnings to be skeptical that she was his granddaughter.

He wanted his precious Amanda back before he turned up his toes, and by God he meant to have her back.

This time when Sully spoke, it was softly so as not to disturb his nervous horse, but the words were no less fierce.

“You won’t take Glory away from me. I’ll see you in hell first.”





Chapter 4




The dogs showed no signs of wanting to stray from her side. While Amanda wandered toward the rear of the house, looking into rooms as she slowly got her bearings, they matched their pace to hers. She stroked them from time to time or scratched idly behind a pointed ear, but she was paying more attention to her surroundings than to the dogs.

The large front parlor where she had met Jesse and the others took up most of one side of the long hallway, but on the other side was a room with a locked door (Jesse’s study, she was willing to bet, and interesting that he apparently felt the need to lock doors in his own house); another parlor or den boasting an extensive audio and video entertainment system top of the line, naturally; a small, neat half bath (or powder room); and a spacious formal dining room.

Across from the dining room was the kitchen, where Amanda hesitantly introduced herself to the tall, bone-thin cook for Glory, a middle-aged woman named Earlene. She was peeling potatoes, and when Amanda asked again diffidently she explained that there were three maids who did the housework, coming in daily and always finished by noon.

“Always?” Amanda asked, surprised.

“Of course. Mr. Jesse can’t abide tripping over people every time he turns around, so the household staff, gardeners, and groundskeepers come early and get their work done by noon. 'Cept me, naturally. But the cooking’s no problem, and I’d just as soon have the kitchen to myself. Maggie helps serve and clean up after meals, and that’s all the help I need most days.” She handed Amanda a slice of raw potato with the reflex action of someone born to feed others.

Absently munching on the starchy treat, Amanda said, “Then I should be out of my room early every morning?”

“Lord, no, child, you get up whenever you please. The girls will do the downstairs first, and any unoccupied rooms on the second floor, but they won’t disturb you. Maggie has them trained right. They aren’t even allowed to run a vacuum until Mr. Jesse’s up and has his breakfast usually by about ten. Just leave your bedroom door open when you leave the room, and they’ll take care of it.”

“Mmm. And the groundskeepers do their work in the morning?”

“Yes the mowing last thing, of course, after everybody’s up. Sherman he’s the head gardener always asks me or Maggie, just to make sure. Mr. Jesse would not be happy if one of those god-awful machines woke him up.”

“I guess not. Are there many gardeners?”

“Four. Well, Luke is really the pool man, but he helps out with the rest once his work is done.”

“There’s a pool?”

Earlene seemed a little amused by all the questions, but not especially surprised by them. “Mr. Jesse put it in about ten years ago, just before I came to work at Glory. It’s out past the sunroom.”

Amanda accepted another slice of potato, then looked down guiltily when one of the dogs leaned against her leg and whined softly. “I guess I should have kept them from coming in here,” she said to the cook.

“They have the run of the house.” Earlene was concentrating on her work again. “Looks like they’ve taken a shine to you. Mr. Jesse’ll be pleased by that, I expect.”

“Are they attack dogs?” Amanda asked.

“Guard dogs, supposedly, whatever the difference is. Either one will tear an arm off a stranger if he invades their territory, is what I hear. Nice names he gave them, don’t you think?”

There was no sarcasm in that calm voice, but Amanda’s response was wry. “Just dandy. Was he trying to make a point, or was the aim to scare the pants off unwary visitors?”

“You’ll have to ask Mr. Jesse that.” Earlene paused, then added deliberately, “He’s not an easy man to understand. Hard, some say, but I’ve always found him fair.” She turned her head suddenly and smiled. “Of course, I know how to make all his favorites just the way he likes them, so I generally see his good side.”

Amanda smiled in return. “Well, I’ll get out of your way. Thanks, Earlene. Come on, guys let’s go see the sunroom and the pool.”

It was only a few more steps down the hall and around an unexpected corner to the sunroom, a large addition built onto the house sometime during the past fifteen or twenty years from what had been a tiled patio. The ceiling was half glass to let in a maximum amount of light, the walls were made up almost entirely of French-style windows, most of which could be opened like doors, and the combination of white wicker and black wrought-iron furniture with floral cushions was set off beautifully by a stunning profusion of healthy plants and flowers growing in decorative clay pots and wicker baskets.

Set at the north end of the main house and half shaded on its western side by the rear wing, which gave Glory its L shape, the sunroom was clearly designed to be a pleasant place from morning to afternoon. And, judging by the wrought-iron, glass-topped table that could easily seat six or eight people, any number of meals were probably taken out here.

At least Amanda hoped that was so. This was much nicer and considerably less daunting than the formal dining room down the hall.

One set of French doors was standing open, and she walked outside into the bright sunlight and down several wide steps to find the promised pool. It was there, a neat oval on the same large scale as everything else here, surrounded by ceramic tiles that formed a wide patio all the way to the house on two sides and beautifully lush landscaping that included a truly exquisite waterfall spilling into the pool.

With her canine escorts still pacing dutifully at her sides, Amanda walked to the ribbon of tile along the side of the pool nearest the garden and stood looking around. Since the house was on a slight rise, the land fell away gently and gradually just past the pool, and she could see over the casually laid-out garden all the way to the stables, about a mile away to the northeast. She could also see, beyond the garden and directly north between mountains that shouldered each other as if for room, the rolling green pastures that spread out for the length of the huge valley, seemingly forever.

Daulton land. As far as she could see, farther, was Daulton land. The mountains that looked down on this valley were Daulton, and the next valley over was Daulton and probably the one beyond that. Even the small town ten miles away was named Daulton for the family that had helped found it and sustain it

Amanda fought the sudden panic, telling herself fiercely that she would not let herself be overwhelmed by these enormous people with their forceful personalities and effortless power. She would not.

The panic subsided, if slowly, and Amanda flexed her stiff shoulders methodically in an effort to relax. She patted the whimpering dogs, then murmured, “Onward, guys,” and followed a neat graveled path down into the garden. It was, as Maggie had said, lovely, with any number of flowers and blooming plants offering their colors. There were stone benches scattered here and there, a massive oak tree at the northwest corner of the garden provided plentiful shade for those plants and people preferring it, and the meandering paths invited lazy strolls.

She hadn’t intended to go beyond the garden, at least not today, but her escort had other ideas. When she would have turned away from a path that clearly led out of the garden and toward the distant stables, the dogs rather insistently objected, whining as they stood on the path.

They were no doubt anxious to be reunited with their master, and inexplicably wanted her company, and though she didn’t feel ready to face the stables yet, she felt even less inclined to protest. Like Earlene, Amanda wasn’t entirely sure of the distinction between an attack dog and one trained to guard, and she was reluctant to upset her new chums just to find out how they would react.

“All right, all right, we’ll do it your way. But if you two intend to get anywhere near a horse you’re on your own,” she told them uneasily.

It wasn’t an overly long or unpleasant walk out to the stables, and since Amanda habitually wore comfortable shoes she wasn’t worried about her heels sinking into the ground or grass stains on her loafers. Instead, she occupied her time in erecting the calmest facade of which she was capable, knowing that she would very likely need it. Even before she reached the stables, the breeze brought her the scent of horses, and her stomach tied itself into queasy knots.

Horses. Why did there have to be horses}

The path led toward the center two of four separate buildings arranged in a fan shape, and she was relieved to immediately see Jesse leaning against the fence surrounding a small training ring between the two center barns; she wouldn’t have to actually go inside one of the stables, then, thank God. Jesse was watching a chestnut horse on a long line trotting in a circle around yet another tall man this one blond and ruggedly handsome with Kate standing nearby holding another horse.

“Reverse him, Ben,” Jesse called, then caught sight of Amanda approaching. An immediate smile lit his face, but it faded a bit when he noticed the dogs still at her side, and his voice was a rather incongruous blend of gentleness and censure. “I’m glad you’ve made friends with them, honey, but you should have waited for me to introduce you. It’s dangerous to approach trained guard dogs when they don’t know you.”

Amanda hesitated, then shrugged as she stopped a couple of feet away from him. “I didn’t have a choice, I’m afraid. Somebody must have accidentally let them loose.”

Jesse frowned. “Nobody in my house would do such a stupid thing, Amanda.”

She shrugged again, unwilling to make an issue out of it. “Well, it worked out all right. They wanted to come down here, so I came along.” The dogs were frisking around Jesse now, obviously happy to be with him, an interesting reaction, since he didn’t pet or speak to them. Amanda glanced past him at Kate and nodded a greeting, tentative because the older woman was so preternaturally serene.

Kate nodded in return, but all she said was, “You don’t like horses, do you?”

“Nonsense, of course she does,” Jesse snapped without looking at his daughter.

Amanda, who had hoped her wary glances toward the horse trotting in a circle only a few feet away had passed unnoticed, managed a faint smile. “Actually, Jesse, I’m afraid I don’t. Sorry to disappoint you.”

A shadow crossed his face. “You loved horses when you were a child. And you were fearless you’d climb up on any horse, no matter how wild, and go anywhere. We could hardly keep you out of the stables.”

“People change.” She knew it was a lame comment, but it was the best she could do.

“I’m sure it’ll come back to you if you’ll just.”

“No.” Amanda took a step backward before she could stop herself, then went still as she realized he wasn’t going to grab her and throw her up on the nearest horse willy-nilly. “No, II don’t like them, Jesse. Really. In fact, I think I’ll go back to the house.”

“Wait a minute, and we’ll walk up together.” Jesse was clearly disappointed by her feelings, but showed none of the scorn he had demonstrated when Reece had indicated his lack of passion for horses. He watched the horse in the ring a minute or so longer, his gaze intent, then nodded and called out, “Okay, Ben, that’s enough.”

“I think he might be up to Sully’s weight,” the blond man called back as he stopped the horse and gathered up the long longer line.

Jesse grunted. “Maybe.” He waited until the man led the chestnut up to the fence, then said, “Honey, this is Ben Prescott, one of our trainers. Ben, my granddaughter, Amanda.” His voice was filled with pride on the last three words, and his smile was exultant.

Made uncomfortable by the repeated endearment and peculiarly conscious of Kate’s silent attention, Amanda forced herself to smile at the blond man. “Hi, Ben.”

“Nice to meet you, Amanda,” he returned politely. He was about her own age, maybe a year or two older, she thought, and she liked the steady way he met her gaze. She also liked the fact that he didn’t show a sign of scorn or even awareness when she eased back away from the fence and the horse.

“Put him in with Sully’s string for the time being,” Jesse told Ben. “The bay needs to go to Kathy; she has the lightest touch.”

“Right. I’ll see to it.” Ben led the chestnut toward the gate on the far side of the ring. He nodded at Kate as he passed her, saying, “I’ll take the bay over to barn four as soon as this one’s stabled.”

“Don’t bother,” she replied. “I’ll take him.”

Amanda looked at Jesse, then at Kate. “You aren’t coming to the house?”

“Not just yet.” Kate smiled suddenly. “I have something to take care of first.”

Amanda hesitated a moment longer, then turned away from the older woman and joined Jesse on the path that would take them back to Glory. Them and the guard dogs he had named Bundy and Gracy after two of the most vicious killers ever known.

Each of the four barns had a small apartment taking up about a quarter of the loft space. The apartments could be reached either by an exterior stair or a second stair inside each barn; each apartment had water and power and all the other modern conveniences except air conditioning. Jesse claimed it would bother the horses.

The apartments were occupied according to seniority and choice; most of the trainers and riders preferred to live nearer to town, but several found it more comfortable or convenient to remain here even during most of their off hours.

It was to the apartment above barn number four that Kate went after she’d taken the bay horse to his stall in the building. She didn’t sneak, but she did take care that no one observed her climb the outer stairs and let herself into the quiet, neat little apartment. There were a few sounds from the barn below, the snorts and knickers of the horses, an occasional laugh or shout from one of the trainers or young riders, the clank of a chain and the thud of something heavy falling to the ground.

She didn’t have long to wait. It was mid afternoon, hardly the best time to expect privacy, but Kate didn’t care. As soon as he came into the apartment, she pushed the door shut and went into his arms. He smelled of leather and horses and sunlight, strong, earthy scents that made her blood run hot and her heart thud wildly against her ribs.

His mouth ground into hers and she moaned, her fingers lifting quickly to her blouse and coping with the buttons in feverish haste. She could feel him struggling with his own clothing, but the heat between them built quickly to such a frenzied pitch that neither of them managed to get completely naked. Her bra, unfastened between the cups, dangled from her shoulders, and though she managed to get her panties off, the buttons of her skirt were stubborn and the garment was rucked up around her waist when he pushed her back against the wall and kneed her legs apart. And though he managed to get rid of his shirt, his jeans and shorts were shoved down only as far as necessary.

Even in the grip of lust, however, he automatically put on a condom; she had made her wishes on that subject very, very clear, and by now the habit was ingrained. Upon getting dressed every morning, sliding a couple of condoms into his pocket on the chance of a meeting with Kate was as routine a practice as putting on his socks.

“Yes,” she whispered when he slid his hands around to grasp her buttocks and begin lifting her. “Yes, Ben.” Her legs closed around him, gripping him, and he groaned when her hot, slippery sheath enveloped his aching flesh.

With her back braced against the wall and her legs wrapped around his waist, he was supporting most of her weight, and she was not a small woman. But he was strong, and so caught up in lust he never noticed the effort as he heaved and thrust. She was urging him on frantically, her low voice strained and throaty as she moaned and whimpered her pleasure, and they knew each other’s responses so well that their climb toward orgasm was swift and perfectly in sync.

When they climaxed, almost in the same second, it was with the slightly muffled cries of two people always conscious of the need to keep their activity as quiet as possible.

For a few moments they remained locked together, breath rasping and bodies trembling, the wall and willpower holding them upright. But, finally, she loosened her legs and allowed them to slide down over his, and he steadied her as their bodies disconnected and her feet still wearing neat and ladylike espadrilles found the floor.

Ben looked at her as he eased back away from her. Her hair was still tidy in its customary French twist, her face serene as always, but there was a sensual flush over her excellent cheekbones, a heavy, languid expression in her eyes, and her mouth was softened and redder than normal.

He kissed her slowly, wanting her even more now, which was also a customary thing; having Kate, though it was, God knew, wildly exciting and always satisfying, seemed to only intensify rather than satiate his desire for her. But he could tell by the relaxed way she returned his kiss that it would only be once today and, wary of pressing her, he drew away.

He pulled his jeans partway back up, then went into the bathroom to take care of himself. When he came back out a couple of minutes later, his jeans fastened and a damp washcloth in his hand, she had her bra in place and was working on the blouse, hiding her magnificent breasts from him. He sighed with more than a pang of regret.

“You needed it bad,” he noted, bending to pick up her discarded panties.

“And you didn’t?” Her voice was dry rather than defensive, and he grinned.

“Always. We both know I can’t get enough. As a matter of fact, if you stand there much longer with your skirt hiked up like that.”

“No, I have to get back to the house.” She took the damp cloth from his hand and cleaned herself with the fastidious deftness of a cat, then handed him the cloth, took her panties, and finished dressing.

He watched her, admiring her beauty but even more fascinated by her self-possession. She had been completely natural from the first with him, utterly comfortable in her own skin and lustily interested in his, and Ben found that a refreshing change. All the other women he’d known always seemed either self-conscious or anxious after sex, worried about how they looked naked and about how they felt or were supposed to feel and how he felt or was supposed to feel.

But not Kate. She came to him to get laid pure and simple. He hadn’t been the first, and he knew damned well he wouldn’t be the last, and once he’d gotten past the natural worry that it might cost him his job, he’d enjoyed their frequent couplings just as any healthy thirty-year-old male would have. It had been more than six months now, and if she was getting bored with him he hadn’t seen a sign of it.

“It’s Amanda, isn’t it?” he probed as she smoothed her skirt down over the long, sleek legs he loved. “Her coming back here got you tied in a knot.”

“You think I only come to you when I’m tense?” Her voice remained calm, a long way from the husky moan that passion roused from her.

“I think you usually come to me when you’re tense. I’m a glass of warm milk, Kate. I’m a pleasant way of unwinding after a rough day.”

She looked at him oddly. “And that doesn’t bother you?”

Ben shrugged. “Why should it? I sleep a lot better myself after a visit from you. Hey, if you just wanted something presentable to wear on your arm in public, you bet your ass I’d be bothered. In fact, I’d be gone. I’m no toy. And I’m no gigolo to be pampered and paid and turned into a rich woman’s pet. But as long as you want to have fun between the sheets or against a wall I’d be out of my mind if I objected.”

Her gaze was still thoughtful, considering. Automatically, her slender fingers checked to make sure her blouse was buttoned correctly and tucked into her skirt, that the skirt hung as it was supposed to. A quick touch reassured her that her hair was still neat, caught up in a twist.

Every inch the lady, Ben thought. There was just something about her, something beyond the way she dressed and moved, beyond the tranquil beauty of her face and the cool intelligence of her voice. Catherine Daulton was the kind of lady that a man instinctively respected even when he watched her dress after a bout of hot sex.

“God, you’re gorgeous,” he said, shaking his head.

She was momentarily surprised, and a faint smile flitted across her lips. “For an old bag, you mean?”

Honestly surprised himself, Ben said, “Somebody been calling you old? It sure as hell wasn’t me. If it comes to that, I don’t even know how old you are. What the hell difference does it make, as long as we’re both past the age of consent?”

“No difference at all,” she said after a moment. “Give me a few minutes before you leave; we don’t have to go out of our way to stir up any more gossip.”

“About us? There isn’t any, Kate, at least not for public consumption. In case you didn’t realize it, most of the people around here like you.”

She didn’t say anything to that, but Ben thought he had startled her yet again. It didn’t surprise him this time. He was no psychologist, but it didn’t take one to figure out why Kate would be surprised that people cared about her.

After all, her own father didn’t give a shit about her and didn’t care who knew it.

At the door, she turned suddenly to look at him. “Come to the house tonight.”

Ben knew very well he wasn’t being invited to supper. “I told you how I feel about that, Katie.”

“Don’t call me that,” she interrupted. “I’ve told you.”

She had indeed told him; she was as adamant about her name as she was about using protection. Maybe, Ben thought, she believed the diminutive lessened her in some way. He didn’t know, and hadn’t asked her about it.

He half nodded in acknowledgement, then continued on the subject of his visiting the house. “Aside from the danger of running into those bloodthirsty mutts of Jesse’s, I’d rather not creep in and out of your bedroom like a damned thief.”

“It wouldn’t excite you?”

“I don’t need to sneak anywhere to find you exciting. That’s hardly the point.”

“Oh? And what is the point?”

Ben realized he was still holding the washcloth, and tossed it toward the bathroom. “We both know what it is,” he told her wryly. “You aren’t quite brave enough to tell Jesse about us, but you’d love it if he caught us. It might even get a reaction out of him, huh?”

“Shut up.” Her eyes were glittering.

Without pursuing that, Ben merely shrugged. “Kate, I work for Jesse, and I like my job. If you think I’m going to crawl all the way out to the end of that limb you’ve got me on, you’re crazy. I’m out far enough as it is.”

She was silent for a moment, then murmured, “You’re a real son of a bitch, Ben.”

“Yeah.” He grinned. “But a horny son of a bitch, we both know that. I need to try out one of the new horses tomorrow, so I thought I’d ride up along the north trail during the afternoon, toward the waterfall. No training rides tomorrow, so it ought to be deserted up there. Quiet. Private. About three-thirty or so, I was thinking. If you happen to be exercising Sebastian around that time.”

“Maybe.” She drew a breath. “Maybe I will.” Then she slipped out of the apartment.

Ben’s smile died, and he stood there unmoving for a long time. It might have been kinder to tell her the truth, but so far he hadn’t been able to. He wasn’t really averse to sneaking into her bedroom, and he wasn’t afraid of losing his job if Jesse found out about them.

Because Jesse knew. He had always known about Kate’s men. And he didn’t give a shit.

A telephone call sent Jesse to his study to cope with paperwork just after they returned to the house (she’d been right about its being behind the locked door, and Jesse had the key in his pocket), so Amanda found herself alone with the dogs once again. She was a little surprised that they remained with her, but decided to view it as a good thing; being on the right side of guard dogs seemed infinitely preferable to the alternative. In any case, they were merely companionable, staying close without getting in her way, and seemed content to be patted or talked to occasionally.

Neither seemed to take it personally that she chose to address them as “guys.” rather than by name.

Still trying to get her bearings, Amanda found the correct hallway to take her into Glory’s rear wing, and continued exploring. Constructed more recently than the main house, it was nonetheless more than a hundred years old though modernized like the rest.

The ground floor held a parlor or sitting room or den, whatever it was called along with a very large game room that boasted pool and Ping-Pong tables, and several pinball machines that seemed quaintly old-fashioned and would probably be worth a fortune one day. The game room opened out onto a patio by the swimming pool. The wing also contained a couple of guest suites, each composed of a sitting room, bedroom, and bathroom, very private and very nice.

Amanda hesitated when she reached the far end of the wing, where an exterior door provided access to the garden and a narrow but lovely staircase led up to the second floor. She assumed more bedrooms were upstairs, but until she knew if they were occupied, if family members or Maggie slept up there, she felt uneasy about exploring further.

Almost idly, she rested a hand on the newel post that was thick and heavily carved, her thumb rubbing over the time-worn ridges of a swirling abstract design. The entire house was impressive, so much so that it was overwhelming something larger than life. People didn’t live this way anymore, at least not many of them.

She was about to turn and make her way back to the main house when the thuds of heavy footsteps descending the stairs froze her. A quick glance showed her that the dogs were calm, gazing upward with only cursory interest, which told her they didn’t regard whoever