At ten to nine, Emily settled into one of the leather and mahogany captain’s chairs at the round oak table in the library on the second floor of the Winfield Building and looked out the tall leaded-glass windows into the Flatiron District. A light, late snow fell, delicate and subtly powerful. So far the dusting was pleasantly picturesque, painting the sidewalks and marquees in a fleeting lacquer of white, and not enough to snarl traffic in Manhattan. She’d been in her office before six and hadn’t minded the walk from her apartment in Chelsea. Spring was around the corner, snow or not.
She sipped her Earl Grey and waited for the others, soothed as always by the faint lemony scent of furniture polish and the seductive aroma of parchment. She never used the renovated conference room on the first floor, with its bright lights, steel and glass tables, sleek modern chairs, and absolutely no soul. This room had soul. The shelves were filled with history—history she was part of now—books discovered, sponsored, birthed by the Winfield Literary Agency for a hundred years. She hadn’t been born into this world, but she’d been born with the love of words and she’d found her home.
Home. A flood of melancholy washed through her even after all this time. Almost ten years since home had become a place of sorrows and loss. She brushed the fleeting sadness aside, even while knowing it would return. The past was never truly gone, and she didn’t want it to be. She had forged a new life, but memories, even painful ones, could still bring moments of joy. She did not regret hers.
Right now she had a very busy day ahead of her, and she looked forward to it. She sipped more tea and scanned the agenda on her tablet. Acquisitions, launches, marketing and ads, budget, contracts. Business items to some, but excitement to her. Behind every bullet point a book was waiting.
At five to nine, Ron Elliott arrived, looking neat and polished as he always did in an open-collared, blue button-down shirt and flawlessly tailored black trousers. His chestnut brown hair draped over his forehead in a subtly artful accentuation of his dark brows and piercing blue eyes. He was handsome in the way some men could be beautiful and masculine at the same time. If she’d been interested in men in a personal way, and if he hadn’t been gay and happily married, she would have picked Ron as the perfect match. He loved the work the way she did—as more than a job. He hadn’t even complained when she’d been moved ahead of him into the senior agent position when she was younger and had less time in than him. He claimed he really only wanted to spend his time on acquisitions, and she believed him. Some days she envied him, when her carefully scheduled half-day of reviewing the slush pile went to hell in a handbasket with an unanticipated fiscal crisis, a frantic author with a missed deadline, or an impossible publisher request to advance a pub date.
“New haircut?” Ron sat opposite her at the round table.
Emily fingered the loose curls that just touched her shoulders and feathered back from her face. “Just a few inches off.”
“Looks good. Now you could almost pass for twenty instead of twelve.”
“I do have a mirror, you know. The twelve thing hasn’t been true for at least five years. And you’re the only one who ever thought so anyhow.”
Ron grinned. “Just make sure to have ID if we ever go out clubbing again—or, miracle of miracles, you say yes the next time someone asks you for a date.”
Emily shook her head and concentrated on her tablet. Ron was just about her best friend, but he was also one of those people who thought everyone should be as happily married as he was. She couldn’t convince him she was far too busy and had too much to accomplish to need anything else. Anyone else. Maybe someday, when she was sure Pam’s future was secure. Right now, her life was going according to plan—her plan, and that was all she wanted. No more surprises, no more disappointments.
At 8:59, the senior members of the agency arrived. Her team—two acquiring agents in addition to Ron, their interns, the marketing director and his intern, and the budget supervisor.
“Morning, everybody.” Emily received a chorus of mornings and one barely audible groan. Clearly, one of the interns was not a morning person, but that would change if they wanted to make it in the rapidly transforming and ever-competitive world of literary discovery. Greetings completed, Emily jumped in.
“Okay, we’ve got three months to the launch of the summer season—so where are we in terms of ads, promotions, and tours? Ron—why don’t you start.”
Ron ran down his six forthcoming titles with reports from the corresponding publishers’ marketing divisions, recaps of conversations with the authors, and summaries of his agenda for pushing his titles out to reviewers and bloggers ahead of release. Emily listened but didn’t take notes. Ron was always on top of his list. For nearly an hour, the other agents in turn reviewed the forthcoming titles of the authors they represented, strategies were revised, and projected costs were approved, amended, and revised.
“We should be in good shape,” Emily said, scanning the notes she’d made and projecting the timelines for the intersecting campaigns in her head. “Ron, Terry, you’ve got to keep on top of Heron—they’re going to let the Emery and Rosen titles fall to the bottom of the list if we don’t push, especially now that they’ve moved up the release of Baldwin’s mystery.”
“On it,” Terry said.
“Already talking to them about it,” Ron echoed.
“Good. Any author issues we need to know about?” Acquiring books and promoting them was only part of their job. Once the manuscripts were contracted and handed off to the publishers, a great deal of hand-holding was required to get their authors, especially the new ones, through the long, arduous process of editing, cover design, and advance promotion before the books went to press.
“All my chickens are happy,” Terry said.
“Race Evans doesn’t like his cover,” Ron said. “I can’t say I really blame him, but it’s right for the market and we got Sellers and Saylor’s art department to come as close as we could to what he was hoping for.”
“Hopefully he’ll be happier when he sees the sales.” Emily cast one more look around. Everyone seemed satisfied and on point. “All right, then. I’ll see you all Wednesday for production.”
She stayed seated while the others left, adding a few more notes. She had fifteen minutes before a phone call to a client about acquiring their manuscript, her favorite kind of call. The author was usually excited, and she was happy to be adding another new title to their list.
When her cell rang, she checked the number and answered immediately. “Hi, Vonnie.”
“Hi, Emily,” Vonnie Hall, the president’s personal secretary, replied. “Can you come on by? She wants to talk to you for a few minutes.”
Emily frowned and checked her watch. “Is it urgent? I have a phone conference in five.”
“I’ll let her know you’ll be half an hour.”
Thirty minutes and one about-to-be-signed contract later, Emily tucked her phone and tablet into her shoulder bag and climbed the winding wooden staircase to the fourth floor and made her way down the plush carpeted hall to the office at the far end. The top floor housed the senior agents’ offices and looked as Emily imagined it had a century before with its vaulted tin ceilings, ornate hanging light fixtures, and recessed alcoves framed in dark, carved wood. Above the gleaming walnut wainscoting, framed portraits of generations of Winfields adorned the pale green, floral-patterned wallpaper. In the muted light, the eyes of the men and one woman followed her. With each step, she felt as if she moved back in time, although there was nothing outdated or antiquated about the woman she was about to see. Like Emily, Henrietta Winfield simply appreciated history.
Vonnie Hall, a trim, flawlessly presented woman in a red suit with thin ribbons of black along the collar and cuffs, guarded the door to Henrietta Winfield’s inner sanctum with the ferocity of a she-wolf and the smile of an angel. She greeted Emily with genuine pleasure. “She’ll just be a minute. She’s finishing a phone call.”
“Sure,” Emily said. “How are you? Is Tom on his way home yet?”
Vonnie’s smile blazed at the mention of her husband, still deployed with the National Guard. “He’s in Germany, thank the Lord. He ought to be home in about ten days.”
“I’m so glad.”
A light on Vonnie’s phone blinked and she gestured toward the closed door behind her. “Go on in.”
“Thanks.” Emily shifted her shoulder bag a little higher, skirted Vonnie’s desk, and stepped into Henrietta Winfield’s domain. The room was twice the size of the library she’d just left but resembled it with its filled-to-capacity bookshelves on two walls, the comfortable leather sofa and chair in the seating area, and the big wooden library table that served as a desk. The president of the Winfield Agency sat behind it now in a dark brown leather swivel chair.
At five-four and a hundred and ten pounds, Henrietta should have been dwarfed by the size of the table and the expansiveness of the room, but she filled the space—any space—with a palpable energy. When Emily had first met her seven years before, she’d been twenty-two and fresh out of school, and had felt as if she’d walked into the path of a hurricane. Despite being five inches taller and nearly forty years younger than Henrietta—HW, as everyone called her in casual conversation—she still sometimes had to run to keep up with her. Henrietta was energetic, trim, and formidable. She was also Emily’s mentor, role model, and closest friend.
Henrietta, her shining black hair cut casually short, without any gray and naturally so, nodded hello. As was always the case, she wore a business suit, this one a gray pinstripe with a white open-collared shirt and a plain gold necklace showing at the throat.
“Hi,” Emily said. “Sorry I couldn’t make it sooner, but I just finished a call with a client.”
“That was the fantasy you were telling me about the other night at dinner?”
Emily shook her head, although she shouldn’t be surprised. HW’s memory was prodigious and enviable. “That’s the one.”
“Is the author signing?”
“Excellent. I agree with you—we’re going to see a resurgence in high fantasy in the next year. Can you get this one positioned with one of the brand divisions?”
“I think so.” Emily doubted Henrietta had called her in to discuss a relatively straightforward contract, but she waited patiently.
“Sit down. This will take a minute.”
Emily’s heart jumped. Something about the way Henrietta was looking at her sent a chill down her spine. When she’d been a young intern working directly for HW, she’d been the recipient of a few hard stares, an occasional quiet but unforgettable admonishment, and a thousand more words of encouragement. Henrietta Winfield was the best at what she did, and she’d held the reins of her company in a firm grasp through economic and industry upheavals that had decimated other agencies. If she was unhappy, Emily couldn’t fathom what might be the cause. She sat, feeling the pulse beat in her throat.
“I’ve just been on the phone with our attorneys,” Henrietta said without preamble. “There’s a better than even chance we’re going to lose our H-1B approval at the end of the year.”
Emily caught her breath. If that happened, her application for permanent residence would be in limbo—or terminated. “Why?”
“Because the idiots who make the laws, or listen to the people who elect them, are hysterical about immigration issues right now and they’re cutting all the quotas. We are not tech, and that’s where most of the allocations go.”
Emily knew that, but she’d been in the United States since she’d enrolled at Harvard as an undergraduate. Singapore had a very good working relationship with educational institutions in the United States and obtaining a student visa had been easy. Then when she’d been accepted as an intern after a year of graduate school, she’d moved into H-1B status. Other than being a supreme hassle in terms of paperwork and documentation, her visa had never really been a problem.
“But if—” Emily swallowed. “Am I going to lose my job?”
“Not if I can help it,” Henrietta said, a fierce light in her eyes. “The entire thing is ridiculous, and we’re working on it, but I wanted you to know.”
“Of course, yes.” Emily’s mind reeled. She couldn’t lose this job—this was more than a job, it was her passion, her future, and if she had to return to Singapore…she couldn’t. She’d never find the kind of job there she had here, and even if she could, she’d never earn the same. The cost of living was even worse than New York City, and with Pam’s expenses…she’d never manage.
“I don’t want you to worry.” Henrietta laughed shortly, her voice catching as she coughed. She drank from a glass on her desk and grimaced impatiently. “I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say, but we’ve worked our way through miles of red tape more than once. Unfortunately, this time we have to deal with multiple agencies, federal at that, and it might take some time.”
“I—” Emily cleared her throat. “I’ll do anything necessary. I love this job, you know that.”
Henrietta’s expression softened. “Of course I do. You also happen to be very good at it. We’ve never really talked about it, but someday, I expect you’ll have a much larger role in the company.”
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else, doing anything else.”
“Well, I don’t plan on retiring anytime soon,” Henrietta said, “and there’s time for us to talk about that when this visa business is straightened out. We need to get you that green card and be done with it.”
Emily sighed. “Believe me, I know.”
“Well, I’ve set up a meeting with our attorneys for the end of the week. We’ll talk about all of it then.”
“Thank you.” Emily swallowed around the lump in her throat. She wouldn’t panic. They had time to straighten it all out. She’d keep her job, she’d be able to take care of Pam. Her plans would all be fine.
“Emily,” Henrietta said, rising from behind her desk and starting toward her. “You don’t need to worry. I’m not going to let—” She stopped abruptly, one hand reaching for the side of her desk. Her expression registered surprise and then she gasped, “Oh.”
“I’m sorry? What?” Emily said. “Henrietta? Henrietta!”
Emily jumped up as Henrietta Winfield slumped to the floor.
Derian tossed the keys to the Maserati to the uniformed attendant who raced from beneath the portico of the Hôtel de Paris to intercept her before she had even turned off the engine. With a wave of thanks she strode up the wide red-carpeted stairs and into the lobby of the grand hotel. Despite the enormity of the space with its polished marble floors, high decorative arched ceilings, plush carpets, and many seating areas carefully designed for privacy as well as comfort, the decibel level was higher than usual. Early crowds already filled the streets, cafés, and hotels for the upcoming race. She cut her way rapidly through the milling people to the single bank of elevators in the rear that led to the exclusive racecourse suites. She punched in the security code and within seconds was whisked to her level and the doors to the elevator slid silently open. The hallway was a stark contrast to the bustling lobby—quietly proclaiming confidentiality and discretion even though all of the suites along the wide hallway were undoubtedly in use. Grand Prix time was synonymous with party time in Monte Carlo, and the race was only three days away.
She inserted her entrance card at the Garnier suite and walked into a party well in progress. A wall of sound accosted her, dozens of voices laughing, calling to one another, conversing animatedly. The drapes had been pulled back from the floor-to-ceiling French doors opening onto one of the balconies overlooking Casino Square and the course, and the late-afternoon sun streamed into the room, bathing the faces of the partygoers in soft golden light. The beautiful people glowed with good health, good fortune, and bonhomie.
Derian wondered if their appearance of happiness was as false as what she sometimes felt, and just as quickly pushed the thought aside. Such slivers of dissatisfaction only plagued her when she was weary, and she’d had a long night at the gaming tables. She’d been winning, as she did more often than not, and the satisfaction of beating the odds had kept her mind and body energized. Now she would have been happy to take a long, hot shower and relax in the corner of the white leather sofa with a brandy and an audiobook, but the sun never set in Monte Carlo during Grand Prix season, the partying never stopped, and no one escaped. If she’d wanted to escape the never-ending bacchanal, she wouldn’t be here to begin with.
Shedding her black blazer, she tossed it over a hanger in the closet next to the door, rolled up the sleeves of her white silk shirt, and made her way around behind the wet bar set up at one end of a living room that was as large as some hotel lobbies. She sorted through the array of high-end liquors, two-hundred-dollar bottles of champagne, and vintage wines until she found the single malt. After pouring an inch of scotch into a short crystal glass, no ice, she sipped the smoky liquid and let the burn spread through her and blunt the edges of her simmering discontent. She wasn’t in the mood to look too closely at why she’d had an itch between her shoulder blades for weeks now, reminding her at the most inopportune times that she was bored or restless or simply tired of racing across the Continent following the circuit and chasing a high that never quite satisfied. Whatever it was would pass, and she could go back to living on the thrill of the next race, the next encounter, the next woman.
Speaking of women, she watched with appreciation as a buxom redhead in a very revealing form-hugging emerald green shirt, skintight black silk pants, and needle-thin heels stalked toward the bar. She didn’t know her, and she would’ve remembered a face like that—wide luscious mouth, high cheekbones accentuated with artful makeup, and a curly, flowing mane of hair glinting with gold and flaming reds that gave her a sultry, leonine appearance. She stopped opposite Derian on the other side of the wet bar and slowly appraised her.
“My, my,” the redhead said in a low voice that vibrated with a hint of French and teasing promise, “Michigan certainly is hiring attractive bartenders these days.”
“What would you like,” Derian said, not bothering to correct her.
“To drink? Or…”
“Or?” Derian smiled. Everything in life was a game, and none she liked better than the first few moments of establishing the playing field with a new woman. “Is there something else I might be able to do for you?”
The redhead chuckled and wet her lips with the tip of a pink tongue. “Darling, there are so many things you could do for me. What time do you finish here tonight?”
Instead of answering, Derian poured a glass of cabernet from a bottle of PlumpJack reserve someone had opened and left standing on the bar. Shame to waste a great wine on philistines, but she hadn’t invited most of the people crowding her rooms. The guest list had been Michigan Tire’s call. She handed the glass to the redhead. “You look like red wine—full flavored and unforgettable. This one is savory and mysterious, it lingers on your tongue as only the finest tastes can do. I think you’ll like it.”
Color flared in the redhead’s throat and she kept her eyes locked to Derian’s as she closed her fingers around the stem of the glass. Brushing her thumb across Derian’s knuckles, she lifted the wine slowly to her mouth. Her lips parted, caressed the rim of the glass, and she tilted the liquid into her mouth. She ever so slowly swallowed and made a low purring sound in her throat. “Very nice indeed.”
“I’m delighted you like it.”
The redhead cocked an eyebrow. “You’re not the bartender, are you?”
“I can be, if you’d enjoy that.”
“I already am. Who are you?”
“Ah,” the redhead said, not missing a beat. “Then I have you to thank for this wonderful soirée.”
“Me and Michigan Tire,” Derian said.
“Yes, you’re one of the sponsors of their team, aren’t you?”
Derian found her scotch, took another sip. “That’s right.”
“I’m surprised you’re not driving one of the cars.”
Derian grinned wryly. “I thought I would, once upon a time. But it’s very hard work and I have an aversion to that.”
Laughing, the redhead held out her hand. “I’m Françoise Delacorte. Delighted to meet you—Derian.”
Derian lifted her hand, kissed her fingers. “Françoise. My pleasure.”
“So is it Dare as in daring?” Françoise held on to Derian’s hand, her lips pursing as her gaze slid down Derian’s body. “It suits you very much.”
“No.” Derian extracted her fingers gently. “It’s pronounced the same, but it’s D-e-r-e.”
“Are you then, just the same? Daring?”
“Some people think so.”
“Do you only gamble on cars and cards?”
Derian glanced out over the room at the sea of faces, some of whom she recognized, most she didn’t. She always sponsored a big party for donors, sponsors, and VIP friends of the team at each stop on the circuit. MT handled the invites, and she paid. She didn’t see anyone she wanted to talk to. The malaise settled in her chest again, the weariness of repetition growing harder to ignore. She set down her glass. “I like a challenge—at the tables, on the course…in the bedroom.”
“Mmm. So do I.” Françoise took another swallow of wine and set the glass aside. “We are well-matched, you and I.”
“I think you’re right,” Derian said, sliding around the bar, “and I’d very much like showing you.”
“I think that’s a wonderful idea.”
“Will you be missed for a time?”
“Not right away.”
“Good.” Derian took Françoise’s elbow. “This way.”
She guided Françoise to the far side of the room and unlocked the door to her private rooms. The bedroom occupied a corner of the suite with the king-sized bed positioned to give its occupants a view into the square. When she closed the door, the sounds of the revelry faded. Turning Françoise to face her, she kissed her, sliding one arm around her waist, and took her time exploring the soft surface of her moist lips, tasting the earthy aftermath of the wine on her tongue. Françoise was an experienced kisser, and she melted into Derian’s body, one hand stroking up the back of Derian’s neck and into her hair. What Derian liked best about kissing a woman, about taking her to bed, was the way her mind shut off and her body took control. When she was focused on giving pleasure, she no longer recognized the distant pall of emptiness that lingered on the edges of her consciousness.
Françoise was a beautiful and seductive woman, but Derian was having a hard time losing herself in the taste of her mouth and the press of her breasts against her chest. She could see herself as if she stood a few paces away, watching the familiar scene play out, the familiar ending unreel. The challenge, the victory, the cries of passion, and, inevitably, the parting played through her mind as predictably as the endless cycle of parties, races, and risk that defined her life. The long, empty hours until the scene played out again stared back her, as accusing as her own eyes in the mirror. What was she doing, where was she going, and when would she stop running?
Questions she did not want to ask, or answer.
Derian kissed her way down Françoise’s throat, slowly cupping her breast and squeezing gently. Françoise arched against her, a small sob escaping as her fingers tightened in Derian’s hair.
“Yes,” Françoise murmured. “So very good.”
“Come, let me show you how much better,” Derian said, taking her hand and tugging her toward the bed. Once beside it, she unbuttoned Françoise’s shirt and slipped her hand inside to rub her thumb over the peak of the nipple pressing upward through the thin silk of Françoise’s bra.
“Your hands are wonderful.” Françoise tilted her head back, eyes closed, lips parted on a long shuddering sigh. Her fingers raked through Derian’s hair and tightened on her neck. “Please, I want them everywhere.”
Obediently, Derian opened the remaining buttons and gentled the silk off Françoise’s shoulders, pushed the sleeves down her arms, and let it fall away. This was a dance she knew, choreographed for pleasure and predictably assured. At last the heat of Françoise’s skin, the smooth satiny sensation of flesh yielding to her touch, consumed her. Immersed in the command of Françoise’s quivering body, still fully clothed, Derian eased Françoise down onto the creamy sheets, opened her silk pants, and bent over her to kiss the center of her abdomen. When she rubbed her cheek against the downy skin and licked lightly at the juncture of Françoise’s thighs, Francoise cried out and arched upward, presenting herself to be taken.
“Soon,” Derian whispered.
“I cannot wait.” Françoise’s voice broke on a husky sigh. “I am too ready.”
“You are too beautiful to hurry.” Derian kissed once between her thighs and Françoise sobbed. “And I want to savor you.”
Derian undressed her completely and, when she was naked, straddled her with her legs framing Françoise’s hips. She braced her body on an arm and stroked Françoise’s throat, trailing her fingers down to her breast. “Look at me.”
Françoise’s eyes were hazy with need, her breath short, body vibrating. “Yes, please. I want to watch you take me over.”
Derian took her time, relaxed and certain of her skill, her caresses practiced, her kisses perfected. She knew how to please a woman, enjoyed it immensely, almost as much as she enjoyed the respite from thought. When she stroked between Françoise’s thighs, when she played her fingers gently over the delicate valley, when she slid inside, every movement was timed, intentional, designed for the pinnacle of pleasure. When Françoise’s gaze clouded over and her lips parted on a silent scream, Derian registered a sense of satisfaction and success.
When Françoise’s choked sobs trailed off and her body slumped, Derian stretched out beside her, head propped on her hand. She traced Françoise’s nipple with a fingertip, fascinated as it pebbled in response. She didn’t expect Françoise to reciprocate, didn’t need her to. Her goal had been to pleasure Françoise, and she was confident she had been more than successful.
“You are a marvelous lover.” Françoise caressed Derian’s face, her voice husky and her eyes hazy with satisfaction.
“Thank you,” Derian said, meaning it. Françoise’s openness, her vulnerability, her trust were a precious gift.
“If you have a need—” Françoise began.
“I am more than satisfied,” Derian murmured, giving Françoise a slow, lingering kiss. She didn’t lie. She didn’t want anything else. “You are what I wanted. All I wanted.”
“Then I should go,” Françoise said with a sigh. She gave Derian a final caress and sat up. “My escort will be looking for me.”
“Of course.” Derian rolled over and leaned back against the pillows, watching Françoise dress, enjoying the way her body disappeared with each article she donned as much as she had enjoyed disrobing her. She knew the planes and contours of her flesh now. She was like a beautiful landscape Derian had touched, claimed, and would forever own in some small way. Aimlessly, she stroked her stomach through her silk shirt, felt the stirring between her thighs, anticipated satisfying it later. Her cell phone rang and she pulled it from her pants pocket. She checked the number and set the phone on the bedside table.
Françoise regarded her with a raised eyebrow. “No one important?”
“No. Not in the least.” She had no intention of taking a call from the family attorney. As much as she liked her childhood friend, Audrey Ames had taken sides when she’d gone into the Ames family business of representing Winfield Enterprises. And that side was not Derian’s.
Françoise sashayed closer, leaned down to give Derian a very impressive view down her shirt, and kissed her, her tongue dancing over Derian’s for an instant. “I hope I will see you again before the race moves on.”
“Yes,” Derian said, committing to nothing. Once was usually all she wanted with a woman. So much safer that way. Her cell rang again and she sighed. Audrey wasn’t usually so insistent and just left a message. “I’m sorry, I should take this.”
Françoise tapped her index finger against Derian’s mouth. “And I should go. Thank you again, Derian, my darling.”
Derian took the call, watching Françoise disappear. “Bad timing as usual, Aud.”
“Dere, you need to come home.”
“It’s three days before the race.” Derian sat on the side of the bed and slipped into her shoes. “You’ve already got my proxy vote, just send it in as usual—”
“Derian, it’s Henrietta.”
A fist slammed into Derian’s midsection and the room wavered before her eyes. “I’ll be on the next plane.”
Emily jerked awake to the swooshing sound of the ICU doors opening. She blinked the mist of sleep from her eyes and jumped to her feet. Her vision swam. She’d lost track of how long she’d been sitting in the too-bright alcove just up the hall from the intensive care unit, waiting for word of Henrietta’s condition. Too many cups of coffee, too many packets of crackers from the vending machine. Her stomach roiled, her throat ached from the tears she’d swallowed back, and her head pounded. Vonnie had kept vigil with her the first few frantic hours, sharing the burden of leaving discreet notifications regarding Henrietta’s sudden illness and organizing the staff who’d been left in the lurch when the EMTs had stormed in, rapidly assessed Henrietta’s terrifyingly motionless form, and bundled her up and out of the building in what felt like seconds. Odd, now that Emily thought back to those first hours, that Vonnie had no phone number for Henrietta’s family. Emily had only spoken to the Winfield attorney when she’d called the emergency contact number listed among the agency’s files. And then no one else had reached out to her for information, or even to Vonnie, Henrietta’s personal secretary. Perhaps the close family were out of town and had called the ICU directly to speak with Henrietta’s caregivers. Of course, that must be it.
Vonnie had finally gone home hours before to take care of her family. For a time, Emily had shared the stark waiting area, made no more welcoming by the presence of a coffeemaker in one corner and a television on the wall, with an elderly man whose dazed expression tore at her heart and a weeping husband and wife who had stumbled out into the hallway to talk to an exhausted-looking resident in wrinkled green scrubs before disappearing. Then she’d been alone, waiting for she knew not what because she could not bear to leave, clinging to the hope that soon someone would come who could tell her of Henrietta’s fate.
Now a handsome middle-aged, black-haired man with a commanding air strode brusquely past her little warren. His double-breasted charcoal suit was impeccably tailored, his black oxfords shined to a high gloss. A large gold watch glinted on his left wrist. Even if Emily hadn’t recognized him, she would have known him. Taller than Henrietta, his jaw heavier, his eyes far harder than Henrietta’s, he still bore an unmistakable resemblance to her.
Emily jumped up. “Excuse me.” When he didn’t respond, she rushed into the hall after him. “Excuse me! Mr. Winfield?”
The man halted, spun around, and glanced at her without the slightest expression in his icy blue eyes. “Yes?”
Throat dry, she stepped forward and held out her hand. “I’m sure you don’t remember me, I’m—”
“I’m sorry. I have nothing to say at this time—”
“I work for Henrietta,” Emily hurried on, wondering who he thought she might be. “I’m a senior agent at the agency. I was with her when—”
“I’m afraid my sister’s condition is private. I’m sure whatever needs to be done at the…business…can wait.”
With that, he spun around and left her standing in the middle of the hallway with her hand outstretched. In another few seconds he’d rounded the corner and she heard the ding of an elevator. What a cold, unfeeling man. How could he be Henrietta’s brother? As soon as she thought it, she reminded herself he was probably just stressed and preoccupied.
She knew all too well hospitals were horrible places. Impersonal, usually ugly, and filled with too many people who were too busy to stop and recognize the despair and anguish in the faces of so many. Lonely places where those left behind drowned in sorrow while others looked away. She shuddered and returned to the waiting area. She’d had years of practice waiting in places like this—waiting for word of her parents, waiting to hear from Pam’s doctors. Martin Winfield, she knew his name as she’d been introduced to him on several occasions when she’d accompanied Henrietta to the corporate board meetings, reminded her of some of those bureaucrats who ran the very places where empathy and support should come first, but had been forgotten in the race to survive in an ever more competitive world. Even some of the health-care staff had forgotten their mission—to heal and comfort. Henrietta’s brother reminded her of why it was so important that she keep Pam where she was now, in a warm, personal environment where she felt safe and everyone knew her name.
Emily sighed. She was tired and being unfair—she didn’t know Martin Winfield, and he had no reason to acknowledge her. How could he remember her as he’d barely glanced in her direction the few times they’d been in the same space. She certainly wasn’t being fair to the many dedicated doctors and nurses and other caring professionals who worked so hard to help.
Sitting out here for hours made her think too much of Pam, and she couldn’t think about her right now. She couldn’t think about her uncertain visa status or what might happen to her job if, heaven forbid, something serious kept Henrietta from returning to work. All she could do was send all her energy and thoughts to Henrietta and believe she would be fine. She leaned back and closed her eyes, willing the panic to recede. The nightmare gripped her, refusing to let her breathe. She couldn’t imagine a day without Henrietta, whose strength was the guiding force at the agency and whose friendship the foundation on which Emily had built her future. She’d lost so much already—she couldn’t bear to endure more.
“Here, take this,” a deep voice said, and Emily’s eyes snapped open.
A brunette about her age, her pale stark features undoubtedly beautiful when not smudged with fatigue, stood in front of her holding out a snowy white handkerchief. Startled, Emily jerked upright and only then recognized the tears wetting her face. Heat flooded her cheeks and she hastily brushed at the moisture on her skin. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Why?” The woman took her hand and gently folded the soft linen into it. “Here. Go ahead. Use this.”
Emily wiped her face, almost embarrassed to soil the pristine square. When her vision cleared, she focused on the stranger. Her breath caught. “Oh. It’s you.”
“We’ve met, haven’t we. I’m the one who’s sorry.” She squeezed the bridge of her nose for an instant. Shadows pocketed her midnight blue eyes. Her coal-black hair, the same color as Henrietta’s, was disheveled, her white shirt and dark suit hopelessly wrinkled. The topcoat she carried over one arm looked as sleek and soft as cashmere, which it probably was. “I’m Derian Winfield.”
“Yes, of course.” Emily stood up and swayed, tiny sparks of light dancing in the dark clouds dimming her vision.
Derian grasped her elbow. “Hey. Take it easy. Here.”
“I’m sorry,” Emily said again, weakly echoing herself and hating the way her voice quivered. Why wouldn’t her head stop spinning? She never fainted, never. She couldn’t now, not in front of her. “I’m sorr—”
“Stop saying that,” Derian murmured in an oddly tender tone and drew her down onto one of the molded plastic chairs. Derian slid an arm around her shoulders. “Lean against me for a second until you catch your breath.”
Emily had no intention of leaning against anyone, especially not Derian Winfield, Henrietta’s niece. With effort, she stiffened her spine and forced her head to clear. She turned sideways so Derian’s arm no longer encircled her. “I am so sorry, Ms. Winfield. I hope—”
Derian laughed, a deep full sound so rich Emily could almost taste the timbre. “Please. Anything but that. I’m Derian, or Dere, if you like.”
“I—I’m Emily May. I work for Henrietta—Ms. Winfield.”
“Of course. I remember now.” Derian shook her head. How could she have not noticed this woman…more was the only word she could come up with, the first time they’d met? If she were introduced to her now, she’d certainly not forget. Emily was stunning, the kind of pure unadorned beauty the masters tried to capture on canvas and only managed to hint at: perfectly proportioned features, delicate but sure, green eyes the color of the sea kissing the white sands of some Mediterranean shore, glossy chestnut hair threaded with gleaming copper strands. Oh yes, Derian remembered meeting her now, and how little she’d noticed, too absorbed in her own anger. She’d been introduced to Henrietta’s intern after an annual WE board meeting—the major one when all the Winfield Enterprise divisions came together to report. She’d probably only been thinking of how she could escape the formal after-affair she’d been roped into, and in her defense, Emily May had changed. Her heart-shaped face had lost some of the youthful softness but had gained the elegant contours of a woman, and she was all the more striking for the subtle maturity. She might have passed her over before, thinking her just a starry-eyed girl, but she wouldn’t make that mistake again. “It’s been a few years since we’ve met, but I have no excuse. Forgive my rudeness.”
Emily stared. “Ms. Win—Derian, please. You have nothing to apologize for, under any circumstances, and certainly not these.”
“I don’t agree, but I won’t argue with your absolution.” Derian sighed. “I just tried to see my aunt and the attendants tell me I have to wait half an hour until she can have more visitors. Apparently my father just left.”
“Yes. You must have missed him by only a minute or two.”
“Believe me, that’s not a hardship.” Emily looked shocked but Derian didn’t bother to explain the last person she wanted to see was Martin, and he probably reciprocated. She hadn’t told anyone she was coming other than Aud, who wouldn’t bring it up with Martin or his family unless she had to. “Do you have any word on Henrietta? How is she?”
Heat flared in Emily’s eyes and was quickly extinguished. “No, I asked your father, but…”
Derian clenched her jaw. “I don’t suppose he was very forthcoming.”
Emily managed to look sympathetic. “No, but I’m sure he is very worried and has a lot on his mind.”
“And you’re very kind and diplomatic.”
“I wish I knew more.” Emily glanced down the hall toward the ICU. “I’ve been trying to get word, but I’m not family and this is the first time I’ve seen your father. Or…anyone.”
“She’s been in here for ten hours and he hasn’t been by?” Fighting off a wave of fury, Derian closed her fist until her nails bit into her palm and washed away the red haze clouding her thoughts. “Still the same old bastard, I see.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean to imply—”
“Don’t worry. I know how things work. I got here soon as I could.” Derian rubbed the back of her neck and sighed. “I didn’t know she was sick. We haven’t talked in a while.”
“I’m not sure she was aware either. I think she might have told me, had she known.”
“You’re close, then—I mean, friends?” Derian tried to pinpoint the last time she and Henrietta had done more than exchange a quick email. Last year before the race in Sochi? Time blurred, a repetitive loop of hotels, soirées, and meaningless conversations. Henrietta was the only person she ever really opened up to, and she hadn’t done that in a very long time. If she had, she’d have to put words to things she didn’t want to own.
“I think we are,” Emily said softly. “She means the world to me—of course, we’re not fami—”
Derian scoffed. “Family is an overrated concept. I’m glad you were with her. And I’m glad she has you.”
“You must’ve broken some kind of record getting here—weren’t you somewhere in Europe?”
Emily gripped her forearm, an unexpectedly comforting sensation. Derian regarded her curiously. “How did you know?”
Emily wasn’t about to confess that she often followed celebrity news, mostly for entertainment and relaxation to break the rigors of the concentrated work of screening manuscripts and studying production layouts. Whenever Derian Winfield was mentioned, usually accompanied by a photo of her with a race car or some glamorous woman, she took note. She’d always thought Henrietta’s niece was attractive, but the glossy photos hadn’t captured the shadows that swirled in the depths of her eyes or the sadness that undercut the sharp edges of her words. “Perhaps Henrietta mentioned it. Somewhere in Europe, wasn’t it?”
“That’s right. Fortunately, I had access to a plane.” Derian winced and took stock of her appearance. “Although I look somewhat like a street person at the moment.”
“No,” Emily said with a faint laugh. “You most certainly do not. You do look tired, though.”
Derian touched a finger beneath Emily’s chin and tilted her head up. “And you look beyond tired. How long have you been here?”
Emily stilled, the unfamiliar touch of Derian’s hand streaking through her with the oddest blaze of heat and light. She’d never realized tactile sensations could be in Technicolor. “I’ve been here since Henrietta arrived. I rode in the ambulance. The EMTs were kind enough to let me.”
Derian frowned. Realizing after an instant she still cradled Emily’s face, she brushed her thumb gently over the tip of her chin before drawing away. “Then I’m in your debt. As soon as I’ve seen her, I’m taking you to get something to eat.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary. I’m sure you’ll want to get together with your family.”
“No, that would be the last thing I want to do.” Derian glanced toward the hall in the direction of the intensive care unit. “The only member of my family I care about is in there.” She glanced back at Emily. “You and I share that, I think.”
“Henrietta is easy to care about.”
“You see, I told you, you were diplomatic.” Derian smiled. “Henrietta is a hard-ass, but she knows people. And when she cares about you, she’s always on your side. If you’ve survived this long with her, you’re tougher than you look.”
Emily ought to have been insulted, but she laughed. She didn’t hear criticism in Derian’s voice and imagined there might actually have been a hint of respect there. “I’ll have you know, I’m plenty tough.”
“Then you’ll be tough enough to wait until I’ve seen her. Agreed?”
“Of course. I’m not going anywhere.”
“I’m glad Henrietta has you. She deserves someone like you at her side.”
Emily found the statement odd and Derian’s voice surprisingly wistful. All she knew of Henrietta’s niece was that she was often referred to with raised eyebrows among the agency’s staff and had never taken any interest in the business. The press made her out to be something of a reckless, privileged playgirl. But whatever the rumors and innuendo regarding Derian Winfield might be, she had dropped whatever she’d been doing and flown halfway around the world to be by Henrietta’s side. And for that, she’d earned Emily’s respect. Her curious urge to know what had put such pain in Derian’s faraway gaze and the unexpected heat Derian’s touch ignited were something altogether different.