The airplane trip to Arkansas seemed like an opportunity to catch up on reading, but his mind kept drifting away from the book. Ahead of him lay four weeks of uncharted business. He’d never done anything like this and felt uncomfortable about it. He felt most comfortable in the outdoors, but who could earn a living tromping through the mountains? He had invested so much already. It was probably safe to say the rest of his life depended heavily on how he handled things from this point on. Everything he did and said during this endeavor would be under scrutiny.
He felt inside his jacket again. The information on the cabin was in his inside pocket. Ordinarily he’d feel guilty about deception, but in this case the ends did justify the means. She’d eventually find out but right now she needed the help...even if she didn’t see it that way. Those who loved her did. Regardless, he had given his word and no matter how it came out, there was no turning back at this point.
He glanced up and met the verde gaze of the redhead again. Something about the way she impulsively returned his smile and then diffidently looked away tugged at his heart. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was very attractive. The freckles sprinkled over that upturned nose gave her a youthful look, though he guessed her to be nearer his age.
He tried to focus on the book again, but after a few minutes something compelled him to look at her. She was watching him again. The intensity in her gaze faltered and she looked away again. One word crossed his mind – lonely. Was she, and would she be willing to spend a little time with a stranger? He would have more spare time in the next few weeks than he had ever had on a job.
What was he thinking? To her, he was a complete stranger.
He closed the book and gazed out the window. There was nothing to see at this altitude, but he wasn’t seeing anything in the book anyway. Maybe the loneliness he saw in her eyes was merely a reflection. He hadn’t realized how important a mother could be in a grown man’s life until she died last year. It seemed that recently all his father talked about was his days in the service. Maybe that was his way of coping with the loss of his wife. He hated to leave his father, but it was time to move on. It was time for him to make his own mark on the world...settle down with some nice girl and raise a family like his father had. That was a tall order for a man who didn’t even have a steady girlfriend. The truth was; he hadn’t been all that interested in any he’d met so far. His father was right. He was too selective. What he wanted was a woman with yesterday’s morals and today’s savvy; someone both passionate and honorable.
Unable to resist one last look, he found the girl talking to the lady in the seat beside her. Did they know each other? Not that it mattered.
The girl glanced up and found him watching her again. His interest was obvious, so he merely smiled. Her smile was sweet and a little shy. The idea that a woman as poised as she was could be shy was amusing.
He sighed and leaned his head back, closing his eyes. Maybe someone would come along and make him forget about the things he thought a woman should be. Right now he’d best focus on the job ahead and forget about things like that.
Megan tossed the ashes, tray and all, into the trash can beside her desk. The copper tray hit the bottom of the can with a loud clatter, spewing ashes into the stale office air. The acrid smell of cigarette ashes burned her nose and brought tears to her eyes. She stifled a sneeze with an index finger under her nose and gave Mr. O’Hara a disgusted look.
“I can hardly wait until they ban those filthy things,” she snapped. “Why anyone would cultivate that nasty habit is a mystery to me. It yellows their teeth, makes their breath smell like an ash tray, and ruins their health. Can you believe he drug out that box of cancer sticks while we were discussing the sale of natural foods? I...”
The burning returned with a vengeance, expelling her breath in an uncontrollable sneeze. She snatched a tissue from the jeweled box on her desk and buried her nose into its softness.
Mr. O’Hara seized the opportunity to speak. “He asked if he could smoke. Why didn’t you say no?”
She blew her nose and threw the tissue in the trash. “He was already lighting up when he asked. What could I do without making a scene in front of our customers?”
Allergy was a small part of her frustration, and the cigarette issue was nothing more than a smoke screen. Mr. O'Hara would have to be a fool not to know that something had been eating at her for the last few months - and Mr. O’Hara didn’t become a tycoon by being a fool. If she had an ounce of courage, she’d tell him now and get it over with. But fear of seeing disappointment in the eyes of her mentor kept her silent.
Mr. O’Hara was pacing like a caged lion. He ran a powerful hand through thick hair that still held a touch of red. Did he suspect her problem? Maybe now was the time to discuss it with him. She sank into the softness of her leather chair. Where to begin? It was bound to break his heart.
His commanding voice broke through her thoughts. “Why did you have that fancy ash tray on your desk if you didn’t want anyone to smoke?”
She glanced up sharply, but his terse tone and sober expression were belied by the twinkle in those gray-green eyes.
“Maybe you should put it on my desk,” he concluded, folding muscular arms across his chest and gazing down at her fondly.
She lifted a stack of papers and straightened them with a sharp rap on her mahogany desktop, deliberately ignoring his empty invitation.
“I don’t care if people smoke, but I wish they’d respect the fact that I don’t want to smoke. If they can figure a way to smoke without getting it in my eyes and lungs, they can smoke themselves to death for all I care.”
“Maybe you should have told him that. I’m sure he would have found it more amusing than the look on your face.”
She stared at him. “Was it that obvious?”
“It was to me, but...” He shrugged and turned his palms up. “Who cares? It certainly didn’t stop him from puffing away.”
She made a face. “I know. I think the smoke bothered Mr. Louden too. It seems counterproductive to have people like that representing us. How can he establish authenticity selling health products while he’s smoking those things?” She fanned the air with her hand. “Look at this room.”
Mr. O’Hara glanced around the hazy room and quirked a silver brow. “Looks like you’ve got an open window somewhere.”
Today she was in no mood to enjoy his offbeat brand of humor. When she shot him a warning glance he chuckled.
“Henry is a good salesman and you know it. I’ve never seen you carry on so much about someone smoking. Has he done something else to upset you?”
“Of course not.” Her answer came swift and positive. The last thing she wanted to do was get Henry into trouble with his boss. She might derive some pleasure out of seeing him squirm under the thumb of one of his victims, but he was a good salesman and he deserved credit for that much. In any case, even if Henry had offended her personally, she wouldn’t have run to Daddy about it.
She sighed. “You’re right. I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately.”
Mr. O’Hara stooped and removed the copper ashtray from the trashcan. “I’ll put this on the table outside your door. Maybe he’ll take the hint next time.” He winked. “In the meantime, you’d better calm down. If you let such minor things upset you, you’ll have a stroke before you reach twenty-five.”
He was joking, of course. Tonight her parents were throwing her a twenty-fifth birthday party. She let out a long breath and slumped in her chair. Tonight she would tell him. She couldn’t hide it much longer anyway. Even now he probably suspected.
Mr. O’Hara slid a leg over the corner of her desk and folded his arms across his chest. “Now, tell me what’s really bothering you. Are you getting cold feet?”
She straightened in her chair, her face growing warm. “No...well, yes...in a way.”
Now was the perfect opportunity to get it off her chest, and yet, all she could do was stutter.
He leaned forward and patted her shoulder. “Don’t worry. Everybody gets a little nervous as the wedding date approaches. Marriage is a big step. Which reminds me; have you set a date yet?”
She absently plucked at a thread on the hem of her skirt, avoiding his eager gaze.
“What’s he waiting for?”
She glanced up and tried to look determined. “What’s the rush?”
For a moment he held her gaze, his expression unreadable. Finally he slid his leg off the desk and resumed the pacing; his hands shoved deep into his pockets. After a few moments of silence, he stopped and stared at her again.
“You seem...restless lately.”
Restless was exactly the way she felt. Again he had the door open, waiting for her to confess. Again she sidestepped that issue and lunged into another.
“I’m twenty-five years old and you’re still fussing over me. I feel like I’ve been on my first solo flight for the last three years, but I can’t seem to get my wheels off the runway.”
He grimaced. “That again? You earned this job. I didn’t hand it to you because you’re my daughter. You’re the best advertising executive this company has ever had. Have a little faith in yourself.”
The diversion was successful, but the new subject was almost as sensitive. Lately she had been wondering if she could have landed such a job without his help. His secretary had certainly been acting like she hadn't thought so. She shook her head.
“Tell Clarissa that.”
His expression became stern. “I’ve told Clarissa. She doesn’t seem to be as concerned about the idea as you are. I think you’re imagining things.”
It was pointless to argue the matter. Maybe it was merely a personality conflict with his secretary. Regardless, Clarissa’s sugar coated barbs hit their mark all too often. Of course, Clarissa was careful about what she said in front of the boss. Mr. O’Hara wouldn’t tolerate discord in the office.
She shrugged. “Maybe you’re right. I shouldn’t blame my rebellious moods on other people. I need to get my act together and take charge of my life.”
Mr. O’Hara sighed and nodded. “What you need is a husband. Once you’re married...”
His remark punctured a hole in her thin armor and she exploded, slamming the papers onto her desktop so hard that one of the pages floated to the floor.
“Why?” she snarled. “To provide you with an heir...or to keep me in line?”
His expression never changed. He stooped and retrieved the page, carefully placing it on top of the stack before he met her gaze. Probably counting to ten...something she should have tried. When he finally spoke, his voice was controlled.
“You could do a lot worse than Denton. He’s already an important figure in the state of California.” His gaze probed at the remote areas of her mind. “Some say he’s bound for governor, maybe even the presidency.”
She nibbled on her lower lip. She could hardly point a finger at him for being an opportunist. All those things had impressed her as well - at first. At first she had been infatuated with Denton, but in the last year she had learned a lot about him. Enough to know his proposal of marriage was purely business. Enough to know their marriage would be a mistake. But how could she tell her father? He would be crushed. And so she sidestepped the issue again.
“You’re beginning to sound like Denton. Do you think money and title are the only reasons to marry?”
He frowned. “Of course not. You two have a lot in common.”
“A lot in common?” She gasped. “Dad, the only thing Denton and I have in common is that we’re both Homo sapiens.”
He shook his head, his gaze taking on a wizened look. “I can see what you’re leading up to. Before you do something you’ll regret, why don’t you take some time off and relax? Get away from all of this. Go out to the beach and soak up some sun. You’ve been pushing yourself too hard and it’s all catching up with you.”
She made a face again. “All I get out of a day at the beach any more is more freckles.”
He grinned. “They look cute sprinkled over that little turned up nose. People with green eyes and red hair are supposed to have freckles.”
“Oh Dad, I’m not a little girl any more. I can’t run to the beach every time something isn’t going my way.”
He heaved a sigh and threw his hands into the air in defeat. At the door he paused with his hand on the knob, his tone once again authoritative. “Take some time off. That’s an order.”
Time off work wasn’t going to solve her problem. “What about the Louden account?” She shot back at him before he could get out the door.
He paused, giving her an exasperated look. “Clarissa can handle that. She was handling things before you came along. That’s the trouble with you young people. You glorify your education. There’s a lot to be said for experience.” Again he started through the door and spoke over his shoulder. “Don’t forget - seven, sharp.”
She stared at the closed door. What had happened between them? There used to be nothing they couldn’t discuss. In fact, her trust in him had been so complete that she had allowed him to make nearly every important decision in her life - until now. If Denton hadn’t come along, would she still be blissfully letting her father run her life?
The room was stuffy and the smell of cigarette smoke still lingered. She switched off her computer and tucked some papers into a desk drawer. Even the smoggy Los Angeles air outside had to be better than the stale air in the office. She opened the mini blinds and looked down at the busy city six stories below. Something lonely plucked at her consciousness. Could a man fill that void? Certainly not Denton. Denton might have a lot of girls fooled, but she knew him too well. The woman he married would have to pattern her life to the fickle fate of politics. The last thing Denton needed was a fiery redhead with a tendency to speak her mind. The only thing she had to offer him was an influential father-in-law. Even Denton didn’t know she wouldn’t inherit her part of the O’Hara fortune until she was married and produced an heir. Maybe it was deceptive to keep it a secret, but if he was marrying her for love, it wouldn’t make any difference. The stipulation on the passage of the money was fine with her. It wasn’t her money and she hadn’t played any part in building the fortune. Mr. O’Hara could push all he wanted, but marriage and a baby would come at her pace, not his.
The last part she had decided only in the last few weeks, but so far she hadn’t found the opportune time to tell either her father or Denton. She sighed as she closed the blinds and drew the drapes. It was time to break the engagement. There was no purpose in delaying the unpleasant chore. It wouldn’t be easy to tell Denton the marriage was off. He was tenacious. What Denton wanted, he got - one way or another, and lately he seemed driven by some inner demon.
She squared her shoulders. The time to take control of her life was long overdue. Tonight she would break the engagement with Denton...then she would face her father.
The decision made, she marched from the room and locked her office door. The lobby was a mess, with magazines and newspaper pages scattered over several chairs. Clarissa must have left early. She gathered the magazines, stacking them on a table, and disposed of the newspaper. As she tossed the paper into the trash, a phrase caught her eye and she retrieved that page.
“Solitude in the Natural State. Vintage cabin on 40 acres of secluded land near Huntsville, Arkansas. Spring fed well. $30,000.00”
She laughed without humor and crammed the paper into the trash can. Probably some run down shack without electricity or running water - and how much of the 40 acres was vertical? She flipped the light switch off and locked the door.
She glanced at her watch as the elevator doors opened...five-thirty. Thirty minutes to get to her apartment; an hour to get ready - no, better make it thirty minutes, and then another half-hour to get to her parent’s house. That was cutting it close.
Megan pulled into the large circular drive at exactly seven. Several cars were already parked beside the walkway, though the party didn’t officially start until seven thirty. She parked her gray Thunderbird behind Denton’s bright red sports car and climbed the steps to the porch.
Denton met her at the door, smiling as though she were the only person on his mind. He was going to make a good politician.
“Beautiful,” he announced as he twirled her around. The mint colored sundress flared out from its slim waistband as she moved. His eyes reflected disappointment, but the smile plastered on his dark handsome face never faltered. Obviously he thought her manner of dress was too casual. Some of the guests might be important to his future in politics and he was dressed to impress. His dark suit was inappropriate for the casual atmosphere, but she had to admit that he looked dashing. Denton was fastidious about his appearance and he expected the woman at his side to mirror that image.
A familiar voice boomed from the kitchen doorway. “There’s the birthday girl.” A tall balding figure moved into the room.
Megan grasped the opportunity to move away from Denton.
“Uncle Guthrie. When did you get in? I thought you were in Europe.”
“You don’t think I’d miss my favorite niece’s birthday party do you?”
His one blue eye twinkled and the patch over the other served as a perpetual wink - which was fitting.
“I’m your only niece,” she corrected.
“Then you’d have to be my favorite.”
“And that would make you my favorite uncle.”
He gave her a bear hug and turned his attention to Denton.
“Haven’t you two set a date, yet?”
Her cheeks felt warm. “Why is everybody in such a rush to get me married off?”
He threw his head back and laughed. “Maybe you look entirely too happy.”
She tipped her head to the side and regarded him with reproach. “You were happy with Aunt Ida.”
His expression became wistful. “Yes. God rest her soul, she was a wonderful wife. She would have been a terrific mother too, but I guess it wasn’t in the plans.”
The twinkle came back in his eye. “Must be something about us O’Hara’s. All we’ve been able to produce since we came to America is one scrawny little girl. When are you going to make me a great uncle?”
She opened her mouth to give him a smart reply, but Denton gripped her elbow.
“I’m afraid children aren’t in our plans for a while,” he said.
He ushered Megan away from a startled Uncle Guthrie to greet some newly arrived guests. He probably thought he was rescuing her. Denton could lay on the charm when he wanted to, but his sense of humor needed improvement. She scowled up at his handsome profile and squirmed from his grip.
“What plans? We haven’t made any plans.”
He spoke in a low voice. “Let’s not argue right now.” He reclaimed her elbow, his expression stern. “We’ll talk about it later.” He greeted Judge Riley and his wife with a gracious smile.
Once again someone was making decisions that shaped her life...without consideration for her plans. Yes, they would talk later, but this time he would have to listen. She forced the anger to the back of her mind and greeted the couple with genuine warmth.
Denton kept her busy welcoming guests until Clarissa arrived. The blond man at Clarissa’s side looked familiar, but the name gave no clue to where she might have seen him. Not that Denton would have remembered right now, anyway. He was seeing no one but Clarissa at the moment. Now would be a good time to escape.
She excused herself, claiming she was needed in the kitchen. It was a well-known fact that Mrs. O’Hara would never surrender her kitchen to a maid, so the alibi passed as genuine.
Mrs. O’Hara glanced up when Megan entered.
“The cake is ready and the candles are on the counter over there.”
Megan picked up the candles and began methodically poking them in the cake.
“I must be getting too old for this. I don’t think there’s enough room on the cake for twenty-five candles.”
Mrs. O’Hara laughed. “You’ve been doing it every year since you were two years old. I suppose it’s getting a little embarrassing now. That cake is going to look like a porcupine.”
Megan stepped back and studied the cake. “Why don’t we use one candle for every five years?”
“Go ahead. I’m sure you’re in a hurry to get back out to Denton.”
Megan rolled her eyes. “I’m sure Denton won’t miss me now. Clarissa is here.”
“Megan!” Mrs. O’Hara gasped. “What a thing to say!”
Megan shrugged. “It’s true. Dad’s so set on having him for a son-in-law that he doesn’t even notice. Haven’t you noticed?”
Mrs. O’Hara avoided Megan’s gaze. “Now, Megan. Jealousy doesn’t become you, honey.”
Megan groaned. “I’m not jealous. She can have him. In fact, I think they’d make a perfect couple.” She put the last candle in the cake and glanced up at her mother’s startled face.
Mrs. O’Hara absently centered the cake on the table. “I think you’re imagining things. Denton is crazy about you.” She frowned. “In any case, don’t let your father hear you talking like that. He’d be terribly upset.”
“Father isn’t marrying Denton...” she paused. “And neither am I.”
Mrs. O’Hara regarded her daughter with a troubled expression. Somehow she didn’t seem surprised. “Does Denton know that?”
“He will,” she answered trying to sound confident. “I’m going to tell him tonight.”
Mrs. O’Hara let out a long sigh. “You’re much too independent. You’re never going to find a man.”
Megan shrugged. “Then I’ll stay single. What’s so terrible about that? I’ve gone from Dad to Denton. It would be nice if I could make the decisions that affect my future, for once.”
Mrs. O’Hara eyed her thoughtfully. “Don’t burn your bridges behind you. Denton is going places. When you’re my age you’ll wish you had taken his proposal of marriage more seriously.”
Megan bit her tongue. Obviously Mom had joined the ranks of those who thought marrying Denton was the only way she could live up to the O’Hara name. Why the competition? Would it be so terrible if she never acquired a fortune? Money couldn’t buy happiness. Of course, it didn’t prohibit it either. Hadn’t she been happy...until now?
On the verandah, soft music was playing and several couples were dancing. One of the couples was Denton and Clarissa. They moved as one with the music and it struck her again that they were made for each other. She glanced around and saw Clarissa’s date sitting alone near the entrance to the garden. Megan shook her head. It was no consolation that she wasn’t the only one being used.
The man stood and smiled as she approached. “Happy Birthday.”
“Thank you.” She leaned her back against a pillar and looked up at him. “You look familiar. Have I met you before?”
“Possibly. The name is Scott Muldrow.” He offered a hand. “I work at the real estate office downstairs from your suite. I’ve seen you in the elevator a few times.”
She shook his hand “Oh, yes. I remember. As a matter of fact, I think I saw one of your listings in the newspaper tonight.”
“Are you and Denton looking for a house?”
Why didn’t anyone notice the coolness between them? Everyone assumed their wedding date would be announced any time now. She tucked the minor annoyance to the back of her mind.
“I was picking up papers in the lobby and happened to notice the article. It was something about some land in Arkansas.”
“Oh yes - a new listing. A couple moved out here and listed it for sale. I told them they would be better off listing it in an Arkansas paper. To tell you the truth, I think they’re a little reluctant to sell it.”
“No, it’s not a bad deal. “I understand it’s been in the family for a long time. I advised them to lease it for a while before they made up their mind.” He cocked his head to the side and winked. “It would make a great honeymoon cabin.”
“Isolated?” She was half listening to him while she watched Denton reluctantly leave Clarissa and glance around the crowd.
Megan stepped off the veranda onto a walkway that led through the garden. Let him look.
The agent followed her. “I even considered buying it and renting it out. It would be perfect hideaway - old log cabin in excellent condition...breathtaking scenery.”
“You’ve been there?”
“No, I just saw the pictures. The owners said there were wild plum and cherry trees, all kinds of nuts and berries - a regular gold mine of natural food. They call it the Natural State, you know. Clean air, clear water.”
“Sounds like a great retreat.”
Denton had spotted them. Megan stepped forward and the heel of her sandal sank into a seam in the walkway. Pain shot through her ankle and her knee buckled. She had a brief view of Denton’s face before her own plunged into the agent’s chest. His strong arms caught her. She clung to him as she scrambled to regain her footing. Shifting her weight off the injured ankle, she pushed away from him.
Denton scowled at her as he stopped beside them. It must have looked anything but innocent.
“Mr. Muldrow. I’d appreciate it if you’d take your hands off my fiancé.
Muldrow’s neck turned red and his eyes bugged. “I wasn’t...she fell and I...”
Denton turned the scowl on him. “Never mind. Just leave us alone.”
The agent scurried away and Denton immediately turned on her.
“Really, Megan. Out here in the bushes with a man you just met. What’s wrong with you? Have you forgotten you’re engaged to me?”
All this fuss from the man who had spent the last fifteen minutes in the arms of another woman? She frowned up at him. “I twisted my ankle and fell. He caught me. That’s all there was to it.”
He took her elbow and led her back toward the verandah.
“What were you doing out here in the dark with him anyway? What would people think?”
He didn’t even care about her ankle. She jerked her arm away. “Frankly, I don’t care what people think.”
His jaw tightened and his voice was low and threatening. “You’re going to have to learn to care if you want to be my wife.”
“I don’t want to be your wife.” As soon as the words left her mouth she wished she had been more artful. It wasn’t how she had planned to tell him.
He stopped abruptly and turned to face her. He clutched her shoulders and shook her. “What did you say?”
His fingers dug into her arms and she cried out involuntarily. Immediately he released her. She turned away from his glowering face. It wasn’t the time or place, but the subject was opened and the confrontation could no longer be delayed.
“We’re not right for each other.” Did he notice the tremor in her voice? She would have to be more firm. She glanced up at him and tried to make her voice more forceful. “You must realize we can never be happy with each other.”
Cold gray eyes stared at her from a stern face. He wasn’t like this before – so cold and calculating. “I know nothing of the kind." He said. "This courtship has been going on too long and you’re getting bored. It’s time we set a date.”
She gave him a sour look. “How about the third week from never?”
“Don’t be disrespectful.” His tone was crisp but his gaze softened a little. “This marriage is the best thing that could happen to either of us.”
She caught her breath. “Even though we’re not in love?”
He scowled at her. “Love is a romantic notion.”
“Then why get married? Instead of a marriage ceremony, we could take merger vows.”
He stiffened a moment, eyeing her critically. Finally his expression softened and he reached for her. “Now don’t get your back up. I didn’t say I didn’t care for you. I’m just saying that love grows with time. You have to work at it.”
She dodged his hands. If they had to work at love during courtship, what would marriage be like - when he no longer needed to pretend affection? That’s all it was - a facade. She glared at him.
“Give me a break,” she said in a cold voice that didn’t sound like her own. “The only feelings you have for me have roots in my financial status - and the influence my father would have on your career.”
His face turned scarlet and he balled his hands into fists.
“You ungrateful little bi...” He bit the words off and his voice became controlled, his eyes like cubes of ice. “Don't get high and mighty with me. If it weren’t for your money and position, no man would take a second look at you.”
She caught her breath and stared at him. Of course she wasn’t beautiful, but did he find her that unattractive? Was that the only reason men had dated her?
She forced a wry smile and each word of her response dripped with sarcasm. “So you admit I'm right. That's your only interest. You're a gold digger. What gives you the right to call me names?"
Until that point she didn’t think his eyes could get any colder.
“You’re a naive little child. We all have to make our sacrifices. Your parents have spoiled you rotten with fine clothes and a cushion job. Marrying me will do wonders for your social life - once you learn to dress properly. I don’t intend to let life pass me by. I know what I want and I’m going after it.”
She took a step backward and stared up at his face in mute silence. Her eyes stung with unshed tears. If he couldn’t win an argument any other way, he could always resort to demeaning dialog. That’s the way he had been lately. On the other hand, she hadn’t been exactly kind either. They had to break this stifling relationship off before it smothered all reason from them.
She swallowed hard and stared at him. He wasn’t going to do this to her. She wouldn’t let him.
But Denton was relentless. “Wouldn’t you like to be the first lady? Wouldn’t that be more rewarding than your childish romantic fantasies?”
She met his stern regard with a cold stare. “Do you think it would be any brighter standing in your shadow than my father’s?”
He stared at her and for a second she thought there was a glimmer of the old compassion - but then it was gone.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’ve got it made. You’re set up for the rest of your life. You don’t have to wonder if you’ll have a job in the next ten years.”
She blinked back tears and lashed back at him. “If you were anywhere near the lover that you are a politician we wouldn’t be having this argument.”
His jaw dropped. “Me? Look who’s talking. The little ice maiden herself.” He shook his head, regarding her distastefully. “And I didn’t think you were the kind to jump into bed with...”
“I wasn’t talking about sex. I was talking about romance. There’s a difference, you know - or do you?”
It was a mean thing to say. She was lowering herself to his methods - and scoring big time.
He winced visibly and crammed his hands into his pockets in a way that made her wonder if he thought she would be safer that way. Standing in the dark, wielding bitter words at each other wouldn’t solve anything. She brushed an auburn curl from her face and sighed.
“Let’s not end it this way - with hard feelings. I thought I loved you once, but we’re too different. We’d never be happy with each other.”
"I'm sorry," he said as he pulled her into his arms. "I was angry and I said things I shouldn't have." His kiss was gentle and tender, but his affection lacked sincerity. He wasn’t going to give up that easily. When Denton sunk his teeth into something, he held on. Gently he brushed the curl from her face again and looked into her eyes. He was fighting for his career now.
“If you loved me once, it’s still there. As I said, we’ve drug this engagement out too long. We’ll talk tonight and set a date.”
If she loved him - but he never loved her. He didn't want to talk about that. It didn't fit into the speech he was compiling. If she had ever harbored any actual love for him, it was dead now, and couldn’t be resurrected. He was right about one thing, though. The engagement had gone on too long. She should have broken it off months ago. Her secret now in the open, she met his gaze with confidence.
“Nothing has changed. I’m not going to marry you.”
His jaw tightened. “We’ll see.”
He dropped his hands and turned away, striding off to join the party.
She stared at his retreating back, relief mingling with a new ache. Was he right? Was her position at the office merely the creation of a doting father? How many times had she made the statement that the job was made for her? Was it - literally? And what about independence? Sure, she had her own apartment, but where was the money coming from, ultimately? Daddy. She released a heavy sigh. Even if she had decided to work somewhere else after graduating, getting her parents to let her sink or swim would have been impossible. Of course, she could have taken that job offer in New York. She sighed again. It was pretty bad when the only way to prevent her father from interfering in her life was leaving the state.
Memory of the land in Arkansas streaked across her mind like a comet, leaving a trail of questions in its wake. Was she so pampered that she couldn’t make it on her own - far away from the guidance of her father? Could she get a job in a state where the name O’Hara blended in with all the others? Did she have the courage to leave a cushion job and plush apartment? Of course, she had the thirty-some thousand in her savings account - most of which had been allotted her when she turned twenty-one. No, that would be cheating. She had four thousand dollars in her checking account, all of which she had saved. She could use that to lease the place and live while she looked for a job.
She shook her head. She was letting Denton get to her again. Hadn’t Dad told her today that she was a valuable employee? So, she worked at her father’s company. He had to hire someone for the job. If she was qualified, why should he discriminate against his daughter?
It sounded reasonable, but was she merely rationalizing? She could tuck it back in her mind and chew on it later or she could do something about it now. Break all ties. She moved slowly toward the verandah. Of course, she couldn’t simply quit and disappear from their lives. No, that would invite an immediate search. Like the time an accountant had embezzled some money from O’Hara Enterprises. Mr. O’Hara had solved the problem without going to the police. He had hired a young law student to track the woman down. Given free rein to improvise as he saw fit, the law student had found the employee and created his own sting. The law student now had a secure job with the firm and any future episodes of embezzlement had been discouraged. No doubt, Mr. O’Hara would be as successful searching for his daughter. He would have to be told where she was going - unless he thought she was on vacation. Hadn’t he ordered her to take a vacation?
She kicked at a piece of gravel. But she couldn’t leave the company without notice. Of course, it wasn’t as though they would be left in the lurch. Clarissa could fill in until someone could be hired. She smiled. Why not take an extended vacation? Four weeks should convince everyone, including herself, that she could run her own life. After twenty-five years in the concrete jungle, what could be so difficult about living in the rustic hills of Arkansas? Drawing water from a well and cooking on a wood stove would be inconvenient, but how complicated could it be? The climate in the south at this time of the year was probably hot, but surely it couldn’t hold a candle to the week she had spent in the desert. It would be nice getting away from the smog and traffic for a while. Maybe she was getting a little tense.
She wandered toward the veranda, considering everything necessary to prepare for the trip. Of course, the first thing would be to talk to Scott Muldrow about renting the cabin. Then she would have to buy some clothes suitable for climbing in the hills. Camping equipment would be fine for her meager cooking needs. And what about a car? She could drive her car out and back, but by that time she would have used precious vacation time. No, it would be best to fly out and then lease a car for a month.
She rejoined the party and even danced a few times with Denton, who was perplexed by her sudden change in mood. As they gathered around the cake she smiled up at her father.
“I decided to follow your advice and take a vacation.”
He grinned, certain he had prevailed again. “Good.”
Denton nodded. “I think some time off work would do you a world of good. A few weeks on the beach should take the pallor from your skin as well.”
Let him think she was going to be on the beach. It wouldn’t be as complicated that way. Once she was in Arkansas he wouldn’t be able to locate her. Only then would she tell him...and why did he need to know anyway?
Clarissa wandered up. “What’s this I hear about you taking a vacation? When are you starting?”
“Next Monday,” she decided. “That will give me two days to get my office organized. I’ll be gone four weeks.”
Denton paused with his fork half way to his mouth, the saucer of cake perched delicately on his other hand.
“Four? Don’t you think that’s a little extravagant? You’ve only been working for three years.”
Mr. O’Hara quickly recovered from his astonishment and came to her aid. “She’s worked for three years without taking any time off. I call that dedication. She’s earned four weeks off.”
Denton shrugged. “When she gets back, we’ll set a date.”
Mrs. O’Hara glanced quickly at Denton and then Megan, but she said nothing.
Megan smiled to herself. Denton wasn’t nearly as unhappy as he was going to be when he found out she was skipping the state. It was tempting to denounce him in front of everyone, but that would be childish. Besides, her parents would be hurt as well. Nothing she could say to him would make any difference anyway. The time for words was past. Now it was time for action. Tonight she would return his ring. He would have to admit defeat then.