Anson Edwards sat alone in his big plush office, his fingers steepled as he weighed the strengths of his two lieutenants, wondering which of the two would be best to send to Houston. His own strength was his ability to analyze quickly and accurately, yet in this instance he didn't want to make a snap decision. His opponentSam Bronsonwas an enigma, a man who played his cards close to his chest; it wouldn't do to underestimate him. Instinct told Anson that an overt takeover attempt on Bronson's metal alloy company would fail, that Bronson was wily enough to have hidden assets. Anson had to discover what those assets were, and their value, before he could realistically expect victory in his attempt to take Bronson Alloys under Spencer-Nyle's corporate umbrella. He knew that he could take control simply by offering much more than the company could possibly be worth, but that wasn't Anson's way. He had a responsibility to the stockholders of Spencer-Nyle, and he wasn't reckless. He would do what was necessary to take Bronson, but no more.
He could set a team of investigators on the job, but that would alert Bronson, and if Bronson were given any sort of warning he might be able to take evasive action that could drag into months. Anson didn't want this; he wanted things to be over quickly. The best bet would be one man, a man whom he could trust in any situation. He trusted both Rome Matthews and Max Conroy completely, but which man would be the best one for the job?
Rome Matthews was his handpicked, personally trained successor; Rome was tough, smart, fair, and he set out to win at everything he did. But Rome had a formidable reputation. He was far too well-known in business circles, and Houston was too close to Dallas for Anson to hope that no one would know him. Rome's very presence would trigger alarm in the business community.
Max Conroy, on the other hand, wasn't that well-known. People tended not to take him as seriously as they did Rome; it was those male-model looks of his, as well as the lazy, good-humored image he projected. People just didn't expect Max to work as hard at something as Rome would. But there was steel in Max Conroy, a ruthlessness that he kept skillfully disguised. That famous affability of his was only a pose; he kept the almost fearsome intensity of his character under strict control. Those who didn't know him were always completely fooled, expecting him to be more playboy than executive.
So it would have to be Max, who would have a better chance of quietly gathering information.
Anson picked up a file again, leafing through the pages of information about key personnel with Bronson Alloys. Nothing could be learned from Bronson himself; the man was wary, and a genius. But a chain was only as strong as its weakest link, and Anson was determined to find Bronson's weak link.
He came to the photograph of Bronson's assistant and paused. Bronson appeared to trust his assistant completely, though there was no hint of romance between them. Anson frowned as he studied the photograph; the woman was a pretty, dark-eyed blonde, but no great beauty. There was a reserved expression in her dark eyes. She had been married to Jeff Halsey, the heir of a wealthy Houston family, but they had divorced five years ago. She was thirty-one now and hadn't remarried. Anson checked her name: Claire Westbrook.
Thoughtfully he leaned back in his chair. Would she be vulnerable to Max's seductive charm? It remained to be seen. Then he tapped the photograph in sudden decision. Claire Westbrook just might be the weak link in Bronson's chain.
Claire slipped through the double doors onto the terrace and walked to the waist-high fieldstone wall that separated the terrace from the flower garden. Resting her hands on the cool stone, she stared blindly at the garden, not seeing the masses of blooms that were highlighted by strategically placed lights. How could
Virginia invite Jeff and Helene, knowing that Claire had accepted an invitation? She'd done it deliberately, of course; she'd been gloating at the shock that Claire hadn't been able to hide when her ex-husband arrived at the party with his beautiful, pregnant wife.
Tears burned at the back of Claire's eyes, and she blinked to control them. She thought she could have handled an accidental meeting with aplomb, but she was stunned by Virginia's deliberate cruelty. She and Virginia had never been close friends, but still, she'd never expected this. How ironic that Claire had accepted the invitation only at the urging of her sister, Martine, who thought it would do her good to get out of the apartment and socialize! So much for good intentions, Claire thought wryly, controlling the urge to cry. The episode wasn't worth crying over, and it had taught her a lesson: never trust any of your ex-husband's old girlfriends. Evidently Virginia had never forgiven Claire for being Mrs. Jeff Halsey.
"Did the smoke and noise become too much for you, too?"
Claire whirled around, startled by the words spoken so close to her ear. She'd been certain no one else was on the terrace. Determined not to let anyone know she'd been upset, she lifted one eyebrow in casual inquiry.
The man was silhouetted by the light coming through the double glass doors behind him, making it impossible to see his features, but she was certain she didn't know him. He was tall and lean, his shoulders broad beneath the impeccable cut of his white dinner jacket, and he was so close to her that she could smell the faint clean scent of his cologne.
"I apologize. I didn't intend to startle you," he said, moving to stand beside her. "I saw you come out here and thought I'd enjoy some fresh air, too. We haven't been introduced, have we? Maxwell Benedict."
"Claire Westbrook," she murmured in return. She recognized him now; they hadn't been introduced before, true, but she'd seen him when he had arrived at the party. It was impossible not to notice him. He looked like a model, with thick blond hair and vivid eyes; Claire remembered thinking that a man with a face like his should be short, just to keep the scales balanced. Instead he was tall and moved with a casual masculine grace that drew every feminine eye to him. Despite the chiseled perfection of his face, there was nothing effeminate about him; his looks were wholly masculine, and whenever he looked at a woman, his gaze was full of male appreciation. Pretty women weren't the only ones singled out for the megaton force of his charm; every woman, young or old, plain or pretty, was treated with a mixture of courtesy and appreciation that melted them, one and all, like a snowball in hot summer sunshine.
If he expected her to melt right along with the rest, she thought wryly, he was in for a disappointment. Jeff had taught her some hard lessons about handsome charming men, and she remembered every one of them. She was safe even from this man, whose charm was so potent that it was almost a visible force. He didn't even have to flirt! His spectacular looks and flashing smile stunned, his crisp-edged British accent intrigued, and the quiet baritone of his voice soothed. Claire wondered if his feelings would be hurt when she failed to be impressed.
"I thought you seemed upset when you came out here," he said suddenly, leaning against the wall with total disregard for the condition of his crisp white evening jacket. "Is anything wrong?"
My goodness, all that and he was perceptive, too! Claire shrugged, putting lightness in her tone when she answered, "Not really. I'm just not certain how to handle an awkward situation."
"If that's the case, may I be of any assistance?"
His offer was calm, polite and coolly controlled. Claire paused, vaguely intrigued despite herself. She had expected him to be smooth and sophisticated, but that element of control she sensed in him was out of the ordinary.
"Thank you, but it isn't a major problem." All she had to do was somehow make a graceful exit without anyone noticing that she was in full retreat. It wasn't Jeff; she was long over him. But the baby that Helene carried was a reminder of a pain that she'd never gotten over, of the baby she'd lost. She'd wanted her baby so badly
Behind them the double doors opened again, and Claire stiffened as Virginia rushed toward her, gushing false sympathy. "Claire, darling, I'm so
sorry! I really had no idea Jeff and Helene would be here. Lloyd invited them, and I was as horribly surprised as you. You poor dear, are you very upset? After all, we all know how crushed you were"
Maxwell Benedict straightened beside her, and Claire sensed his acute interest. Hot color burned in her cheeks as she broke in before Virginia could say anything more. "Really, Virginia, there's no need to apologize. I'm not upset at all." The casual coolness of her voice was utterly convincing, even though it was a complete lie. She had died a little inside when she'd heard that Helene was pregnant, and the sight of Jeff's wife, so glowingly lovely and so proudly pregnant, had twisted her heart. She was still haunted by a sense of loss; that was the one pain she couldn't seem to conquer.
Virginia hesitated, disconcerted by the total lack of concern Claire was showing. "Well, if you're certain you're all right
I had visions of you crying your heart out, all alone out here."
"But she isn't all alone," Maxwell Benedict said smoothly, and Claire started as his warm arm slid around her shoulders. Automatically she began to move away, but his fingers tightened warningly on her bare shoulder, and she forced herself to stand still. "Nor is she crying, though I'd be delighted to offer her my shoulder if she felt so inclined. Well, Claire? Do you think you want to cry?"
Part of her disliked the easy way he'd used her first name, when they had only just met, but another part of her was grateful to him for giving her this opportunity to keep her pride and not let Virginia guess that her ploy had been successful, after all, though not in the way she'd planned. Tilting her head up to him the way she'd often seen her sister Martine do when intent on charming someone, Claire gave him her most brilliant smile. "I think I'd rather dance."
"Then dance you shall, my dear. Excuse us, won't you?" he said politely to Virginia, ushering Claire past their disappointed hostess and back into the house. After the relative peace of the terrace, the party seemed that much more crowded and noisy. The alcohol fumes and the crush of bodies stifled her, but the music from the stereo rose above the clash of conversation and laughter, and they joined the group of people who were trying to dance in the middle of the room. Space was so limited that swaying in one spot was really all that could be done. Claire started to suggest that they forget about dancing, but he clasped her hand in his and drew her to him with his other arm, and she decided to dance this one dance. He wasn't holding her close despite the press of the crowd, and again she sensed the strict control that seemed to govern his actions. Perhaps she'd misjudged him, she mused. Just because his face was as precisely sculpted as that of a Greek idol, she'd automatically assumed that he was nothing but a shallow playboy, but a playboy wouldn't have that cool control. Perhaps it was his British reserve that she sensed.
"How long have you been in the States?" she asked, necessarily moving closer to him in order to be heard.
A rather whimsical smile curved his beautiful mouth. "How could you tell I'm not a native Texan?"
She chuckled. "A lucky guess."
"Actually, I have a hybrid accent. When I go home for holidays or vacations, my family constantly complains that I talk too slowly."
He hadn't answered her original question, but she let it go. It was too noisy for conversation, anyway. She let her mind drift back to her present situation, and she considered ways of handling it that would be the least awkward for all of them. She certainly didn't want to embarrass either Jeff or Helene; they had been as victimized by Virginia's petty vengeance as Claire.
Just as the dance ended, someone called his name. Claire took advantage of his distraction to say politely, "Thank you for the dance, Mr. Benedict," and walk away, while he was effectively trapped by the woman who had demanded his attention. Her mouth quirked in wry humor. It must be hell for him to have women constantly yapping at his heels; poor man, he probably suffered terribly
when he wasn't taking full advantage of it.
Out of the corner of her eye, Claire saw Virginia watching her closely, and conducting a sotto voce conversation with another woman, who was also eyeing her with intense curiosity. Gossips! She decided at that moment to defuse the situation by confronting it head-on. With her head high and a smile on her face, Claire walked up to Jeff and Helene.
Just before she reached them, she saw Jeff stiffen and an expression of alarm cross his face; he'd noticed the glitter of her eyes and probably wondered if she was going to cause a scandal with one of the passionate scenes that he remembered so well. With determined effort Claire kept the smile pasted to her lips. She had obviously made a mistake in avoiding anything except the most casual companionship with men in the five years since their divorceher mother and sister thought she still pined for Jeff, and evidently Jeff shared that opinion, along with Virginia and the rest of their social circle. She didn't know what to do about that now, except try to be casual and polite, to show that it really meant nothing to her at all.
"Hello," she said brightly, addressing herself mostly to Helene. "I think Virginia invited the three of us to provide the entertainment for the evening, but I'm not willing to play her game. Shall we spoil her fun?"
Helene was quick; she put a smile in place. "I'd like to spoil her face;
but by all means, let's be civilized."
As other people drifted close enough to hear what they were saying, Claire launched into a gay account of a recent shopping trip when everything had gone wrong. Helene countered with her own tale of hazardous encounters while shopping, and by that time Jeff had recovered enough to contribute by asking after Claire's parents and her sister's family. It was so civilized that she wanted to laugh aloud, but at the same time strain began to tighten her throat. How long would they have to keep this up? Pride was one thing, but standing here chatting with Helene, who was even more beautiful in her pregnancy, was almost more than she could bear.
Then a warm hand touched the small of her back, and she glanced up in surprise as Max Benedict appeared at her side. "I'm sorry I was detained," he apologized smoothly. "Are you ready to leave, Claire?"
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