Mitch Prescott was Shay Kendall’s savior. He’d bought her mother’s mansion on the Washington coast, a financial albatross that Shay couldn’t handle. And now he offered her true financial independence—a dream as seductive as Mitch himself. All she had to do was help him write an exposé on her mother, a former Hollywood star.
It felt disloyal, even though her mother would never know the difference. Once a legend, Rosamond now wasted away in a long-term care facility, clutching a doll she thought was her baby. It would be painful, recalling her mother’s fickle love and the worst moments of Shay’s life. But it could be the one thing that finally allowed Shay to move forward. And find her own love.
Marvin’s toupe’ was slightly off-center and he was wearing his standard smile, one that promised low mileage to the public in general and headaches to Shay Kendall in particular. She sat up a little straighter in her chair and looked across the wide polished plains of her employer’s desk to the view out¬side the window behind him. Thousands of red, yellow and blue triangular flags were snapping in the wind, a merry contrast to the cloudy coastal sky.
“I’m an office manager, Marvin,” Shay said with a sigh, bringing wide hazel eyes back to his friendly face, “not an actress. While I enjoy helping plan commercials, I don’t see myself in front of the camera.”
“I’ve been promising Jeannie this trip to Europe for years,” Marvin said pointedly.
Richard Barrett, a representative of an advertising agency in nearby Seattle, was leaning back against a burgeoning bookshelf, his arms folded across his chest. He was tall, with nicely cut brown hair, and would have been handsome if not for the old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses he wore. “You’re Rosamond Dallas’s daughter,” he put in. “Besides, I know a hundred women who would give anything for a chance like this.”
Shay pushed back a lock of long, layer-cut brown hair to rub one temple with her fingers, then lifted her head, giving Mr. Barrett an ironic look. “A chance at what, Richard? You make this sound as though it’s a remake of The Ten Commandments instead of a thirty second TV spot where I get a dump truck load of sugar poured over me and say, ‘We’ve got a sweet deal for you at Reese Motors in Skyler Beach!’ Furthermore, I fail to see what my being Rosamond’s daughter has to do with anything.”
Marvin was sitting back in his leather chair and smiling, probably at the image of Shay being buried under a half ton of white sugar. “There would be a sizable bonus involved, of course,” he reflected aloud.
He hadn’t mentioned a bonus on Friday afternoon, when he’d first presented Shay with a storyboard for a commercial starring herself rather than the infamous “Low-Margin Marvin.”
Shay sighed, thinking of all the new clothes her six-year-old son, Hank, would need before school started and of the IRA account she wanted to open but couldn’t afford. “How much of a bonus?” she asked, disliking Richard Barrett for the smug look that flickered briefly in his blue eyes.
Marvin named a figure that would cover the IRA payment and any amount of jeans, sneakers, jackets and T-shirts for Hank, with money left over.
“Just for one commercial? That’s all I’d have to do?” Shay hated herself for wavering, but she was in no position to turn her back on so much money. While she earned a good salary working as Reese Motor’s office manager and general all-around troubleshooter, it took all she could scrape together to support herself and her small son and meet the property taxes on her mother’s enormous, empty house. Lord in heaven, she thought, if only someone would come along and buy that house . . .
Marvin and Richard exchanged indulgent looks. “If you hadn’t stomped out of here on Friday,” Richard said smoothly, “I would have gone on to explain that we’re discussing a series of four spots, thirty seconds each. That’s a lot of money for two minutes’ work, Shay.”
Two minutes’ work. Shay was annoyed and insulted. Nobody knew better than she did that a thirty second commercial could take days to perfect; she’d fetched enough antacid tablets for Marvin and made enough conciliatory telephone calls to his wife to know. “I’m an office manager,” she repeated, somewhat piteously this time.
“And a damned good one!” Marvin thundered. “I don’t know what we’d have done without you all this time!”
Shay looked back over the half dozen years since she’d come to work for Marvin Reese. She had started as a receptionist and the job had been so important to her that she’d made any number of mistakes in her attempts to do it well. Marvin had been kind and his wife, Jeannie, had been a real friend, taking Shay out to lunch on occasion, helping her to find a trustworthy baby-sitter for Hank, reassuring her.
In many ways, Jeannie Reese had been a mother to Shay during those harried, scary days of new independence. Rosamond—nobody had suspected that her sudden tendency toward forgetfulness and fits of temper were the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease—had been living on a rancho in Mexico then, with her sixth and final husband, blissfully unconcerned with her daughter’s problems.
Now, sitting there in Marvin’s spacious, well-appointed office, Shay felt a sting at the memory. She had telephoned her mother right after Eliott, then principal of a high school in a small town in Oregon, had absconded with the school’s sizable athletic fund and left his young and decidedly pregnant wife to deal with the consequences. Rosamond had said that she’d warned Shay not to marry an older man, hadn’t she, and that she would love to send money to help out but that was impossible, since Eduardo had just bought a thoroughbred racehorse and transporting the beast all the way from Kentucky to the Yucatan peninsula had cost so much.
Shay wrenched herself back to the present moment and met Marvin’s fatherly gaze. She knew then that, even without the bonus check, she would have agreed to be in his commercials. He had believed in her when she had jumbled important files and spilled coffee all over his desk and made all the salesmen on the floor screaming mad by botching up their telephone messages. He had paid for the business courses she’d taken at the junior college and given her regular raises and promotions.
He was her friend.
“It’s an offer I can’t refuse,” she said softly. It was no use asking for approval of the storyboards; Marvin’s style, which had made him a virtual legend among car dealers, left no room for temperament. Three years before, at Thanksgiving, he’d dressed up as a turkey and announced to the viewing public that Reese Motors was gobbling up good trade-ins.
Marvin unearthed his telephone from piles of factory invoices and lease agreements and dialed a number. “Jeannie? Shay’s going to take over the commercials for me. Dust off your passport, honey—we’re going on the trip!”
Shay rose from her chair and left Marvin’s office for the sanctity of her own smaller one, only to be followed by a quietly delighted Richard.
“I have three of the four storyboards ready, if you’d like to look them over,” he offered.
“Why does Marvin want me to do this?” Shay complained belatedly. “Why not one of the salesmen or some actor? Your agency has access to dozens of people . . .”
Richard grinned. “You know that Marvin believes in the personal touch, Shay. That’s what’s made him so successful. You should be proud; he must regard you as practically a member of his family.”
There was some truth in Richard’s words—Jeannie and Marvin had no children of their own, and they had included her and Hank in many of their holiday celebrations and summer camping trips over the past six years. What would she have done without the Reeses?
She eyed the stacks of paperwork teetering in her in-basket and drew a deep breath. “I have a lot to do, Richard. If you’ll excuse me—”
The intercom buzzed and Shay picked up her telephone receiver. “Yes, Ivy? What is it?”
Ivy Prescott’s voice came over the line. “Shay, that new salesman Mike hired last Tuesday is . . . well, he’s doing something very weird.”
Shay closed her eyes tightly, opened them again. With one hand, she opened the top drawer of her desk and rummaged for a bottle of aspirin, and failed to find it. “What, exactly, is he doing?”
“He’s standing in the front seat of that ’65 Corvette we got in last month, making a speech.”
“It’s a convertible,” Ivy broke in helpfully.
Shay made note of the fact that Richard was still loitering inside her office door and her irritation re-doubled. “Good Lord. Where is Mike? He’s the floor manager and this is his problem!”
“He’s out sick today,” Ivy answered, and there was a note of panic in her normally bright voice. “Shay, what do I do? I don’t think we should bother Mr. Reese with this, his heart, you know. Oh, I wish Todd were here!”
“I’ll handle it,” Shay said shortly, hanging up the receiver and striding out of the office, with Richard right behind her. As she passed Ivy’s desk, she gave the young receptionist a look that, judging by the heightened color in her face, conveyed what Shay thought of the idea of hiding behind Todd Simmons, Ivy’s fiancé, just because he was a man.
Shay was wearing jeans and a blue cotton blouse that day, and her sneakers made a squeaky sound on the metal steps leading down into the showroom. She smiled faintly at the customers browsing among glistening new cars as she crossed the display floor and stepped out onto the lot. Sure enough, there was a crowd gathered around the recently acquired Corvette.
She pushed her way between two of the newer salesmen, drew a deep breath and addressed the wild-eyed young man standing in the driver’s seat of the sports car. “Get down from there immediately,” she said in a clear voice, having no idea in the world what she would do if he refused.
Remarkably, the orator ceased his discourse and got out of the car to stand facing Shay. He was red with conviction and at least one coffee break cocktail, there was a blue stain on the pocket of his short sleeved white shirt where his pen had leaked. “I was only—” he began.
Shay cut him off swiftly. “My office. Now.”
The errant salesman followed along behind Shay as she walked back into the building, through the showroom and up the stairs. Once they were inside her office, he became petulant and not a little rebellious.
“No woman orders me around,” he muttered. Shay sat down in her chair, folded her hands in her lap so that—she glanced subtly at his name tag—Ray Metcalf wouldn’t see that they were trembling just a little. “This woman, Mr. Metcalf, is ordering you out, not around. If you have any commissions coming, they will be mailed to you.”
“You’re firing me?” Metcalf looked stunned. He was young and uncertain of himself and it was obvious, of course, that he had a problem. Did he have family to support?
“Yes,” Shay answered firmly.
“You can’t do that!”
“I can and I have. Good day, Mr. Metcalf, and good luck.”
Metcalf flushed and, for a moment, the look in his eyes was ominous. Shay was a little scared, but she refused to be intimidated, meeting the man’s contemptuous glare with a level gaze of her own. He turned and left the office, slamming the door behind him, and Shay let out a long breath in relief. When Ivy bounced in, moments later, she was going over a printout listing sales figures for the month before.
Despite the difference in their ages—Ivy was only twenty while Shay was nine years older—the women were good friends. Ivy was going to marry Todd Simmons, an up-and-coming young real-estate broker, at Christmas, and Shay would be her matron of honor.
“Todd’s taking me out to lunch,” Ivy said, and her chin-length blond hair glistened even in the fluorescent lighting of the office. “You’re welcome to come along if you’d like.”
“How romantic,” Shay replied, with a wry twist of her lips, and went on working. “Just the three of us.”
Ivy persisted. “Actually, there wouldn’t be three us. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Shay laid down her pen and gave her friend a look. “Are you matchmaking again? Ivy, I’ve told you time and time again—”
“But this man is different.”
Shay pretended to assess Ivy’s dress size, which, because she was so tiny, would be petite. “I wonder if Marvin still has that turkey suit at home. With a few alterations, my dear, it might fit you. Why didn’t I think of this before?” She paused for effect. “I could pull rank on you. How would you like to appear in four television commercials?”
Ivy rolled her blue-green eyes and backed out of the office, closing the door on a number of very interesting possibilities. Shay smiled to herself and went back to work.
The house was a sprawling Tudor mansion perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, and it was too damned big for one single, solitary man.
The dining room was formal, lit by two shimmering crystal chandeliers, and there were French doors opening onto a garden filled with pink, white, scarlet and lavender rhododendrons. The walls of the massive library were lined with handcrafted shelves and the fireplaces on the first floor were all large enough for a man to stand upright inside. The master bedroom boasted a checkerboard of tinted and clear skylights, its own hot tub lined with exquisitely painted tiles, and a broad terrace.
Yes, the place was definitely too big and too fancy.
“I’II take it,” Mitch Prescott said, leaning against the redwood railing of the upstairs terrace. The salt breeze rippled gently through his dark blond hair and the sound of the incoming tide, far below, was a soothing song.
Todd Simmons, soon to be Mitch’s brother-in-law, looked pleased, as well he might, considering the commission his fledgling real-estate firm would collect on the sale. Mitch noticed that Todd’s hand trembled a little as he extended it to seal the agreement.
Inwardly, Mitch was wondering what had possessed him to meet the outrageous asking price on this monster of a house within fifteen minutes of walking through the front door. He decided that he’d done it for Ivy, his half-sister. Since she was going to marry Simmons, the sale would benefit her, too.
“When can I move in?” Mitch asked, resting against the railing again and gazing far out to sea. His hotel room was comfortable, but he had spent too much of his life in places like it; he wanted to live in a real house.
“Now, if you’d like,” Simmons answered promptly. He seemed to vibrate with suppressed excitement, as though he’d like to jump up in the air and kick his heels together. “In this case, the closing will be little more than a formality. I don’t mind telling you that Rosamond Dallas’s daughter is anxious to unload the place.”
The famous name dropped on Mitch’s weary mind with all the grace of a boxcar tumbling into a ravine. “I thought Miss Dallas was dead,” he ventured.
A sad expression moved in Todd’s eyes as shook his head and drew a package of gum from the pocket of his blue sports jacket. He was good-looking, with dark hair and a solid build; he and Ivy would have beautiful children.
“Rosamond has Alzheimer’s disease,” he said, and he gave a long sigh before going on. “It’s a shame, isn’t it? She made all those great movies, married all those men, bought this house and half a dozen others just as impressive all over the United States, and she winds up staring at the walls over at Seaview Convalescent, with the whole world thinking she’s dead. The hell of it is, she’s only forty-seven.”
“My God,” Mitch whispered. He was thirty-seven himself; it was sobering to imagine having just ten good years left. Rosamond, at his age, had been at the height of her powers.
Todd ran a hand through his dark hair and worked up a grin. “Things change,” he said philosophically. “Time moves on. Rosamond doesn’t have any use for a house like this now, and the taxes have been a nightmare for her daughter.”
Mitch was already thinking like a journalist, though he’d sworn that he wouldn’t write again for at least a year. He was in the beginning stages of burnout, he had told his agent just that morning. He’d asked Ivan to get him an extension on his current contract, in fact. Now, six hours later, here he was thinking in terms of outlines and research material.
“Rosamond Dallas must have earned millions, Todd. She was a star in every sense of the word. Why would the taxes on this place put a strain on anybody in her family?”
Todd unwrapped the stick of gum, folded it, accordion-fashion, into his mouth and tucked the papers into his pocket “Rosamond had six husbands,” he answered after a moment or two of sad reflection. “Except for Riley Thompson—he’s a country and western singer and pays for her care over at Seaview—they were all jerks with a talent for picking the worst investments and the slowest horses.”
“But the profit from selling this house—”
“That will go to clear up the last of Rosamond’s personal debts. Shay won’t see a dime of it.”
“Shay. The daughter?”
Todd nodded. “You’ll meet her tonight. She’s Ivy’s best friend, works for Marvin Reese.”
Mitch couldn’t help smiling at the mention of Reese, even though he was depressed that someone could make a mark in the world the way Rosamond Dallas had and have nothing more to pass on to her daughter than a pile of debts. Ivy had written him about her employer, who was something of a local celebrity and the owner of one of the largest new-and-used car operations in the state of Washington. Television commercials were Reese’s claim to fame; he had a real gift for the ridiculous.
Mitch’s smile faded away. “Did Shay grow up in this house, by any chance?” he asked. He couldn’t think why the answer should interest him, but it did.
“Like a lot of show people, Rosamond was something of a vagabond. Shay lived here when she a little girl, on and off. Later, she spent a lot of time in Swiss boarding schools. Went to college for a couple of years, somewhere in Oregon, and that’s when she met—” Todd paused and looked “Damn, I’ve said too much and probably bored you to death in the process. I should be talking about the house. I can have the papers ready by tonight, and I’ll leave my keys with you.”
He removed several labeled keys from a ring choked with similar ones and they clinked as they fell into Mitch’s palm. “Ivy mentioned dinner, didn’t she? You’ll be our guest, of course.”
Mitch nodded. Todd thanked him, shook his hand again and left.
When he was alone, Mitch went outside to explore the grounds, wondering at himself. He hadn’t intended to settle down. Certainly he hadn’t intended to buy a house. He had come to town to see Ivy and meet her future husband, to relax and maybe fish and sail a little, and he’d agreed to look at this house only because he’d been intrigued by his sister’s descriptions of it.
Out back he discovered an old-fashioned gazebo almost hidden in tangles of climbing rosebushes. Pungently fragrant pink and yellow blossoms nodded in the dull, late morning sunshine, serenaded by bees. The realization that he would have to hire a gardener as well as a housekeeper made Mitch shake his head.
He rounded the gazebo and found another surprise, a little girl’s playhouse, painted white. The miniature structure was perfectly proportioned, with real cedar shingles on the roof and green shutters at the windows. Mitch Prescott, hunter of Nazi war criminals, infiltrator of half a dozen chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, trusted confidant of Colombian cocaine dealers, was enchanted.
He stepped nearer the playhouse. The paint was peeling and the shingles were loose and there were, he could see through the lilliputian front window, repairs to be made on the inside as well. Still, he smiled to imagine how Kelly, his seven-year-old daughter, would love to play here, in this strangely magical place, spinning the dreams and fantasies that came so easily to children.
Shay stormed out of Marvin’s office muttering, barely noticing Ivy, who sat at her computer terminal in the center of the reception room. “Bees . . . a half-ton of sugar . . . that could kill me . . .”
“Todd sold the house!” Ivy blurted as Shay fumbled for the knob on her office door.
She stopped cold, the storyboards for the outrageous commercials under one arm, and stared at Ivy, at once alarmed and hopeful. “Which house?” she asked in a voice just above a whisper.
Ivy’s aquamarine eyes were shining and her elegant cheekbones were tinted pink. “Yours—I mean, your mother’s. Oh, Shay, isn’t it wonderful? You’ll be able clear up all those bills and Todd will make the biggest commission ever!”
Shay forgot her intention to lock herself up in her office and wallow in remorse for the rest of the afternoon. She set the storyboards aside and groped with a tremulous hand for a chair to draw up to Ivy’s desk. Of course she had been anxious to see that wonderful, magnificent burden of a house sold, but the reality filled her with a curious sense of sadness and loss. “Who bought it? Who could have come up with that kind of money?” she asked, speaking more to the cosmos than to Ivy.
Her friend sat up very straight in her chair and beamed proudly. “My brother, Mitch.”
Shay had a headache. She pulled in a steadying breath and tried to remember all that Ivy had told her over the years, about her brother. He and Ivy did not share the same mother; in fact, Mitch and his stepmother had avoided each other as much as possible. Shay had had the impression that Mitch Prescott was very successful, in some nebulous and unconventional way, and had a child, a little girl if she remembered correctly. Probably because of the rift between himself and Ivy’s mother, he had rarely been to Skyler Beach.
Ivy looked as though she would burst. “I knew Mitch would want that house, if I could just get him to look at it,” she confided happily. But then she peered at Shay, her eyes wide and a bit worried. “Shay, are you all right? You look awful!”
Shay stood up and moved like a sleepwalker toward the privacy of her office.
“Shay?” Ivy called after her. “I thought you’d be pleased. I thought—”
Shay turned in the doorway, the storyboards leaving stains of colored chalk on her jeans and her pale blue blouse. She smiled shakily and ran the fingers of her left hand through her hair, hoping the lie didn’t show in her eyes.
“I am happy,” she said. And then she went into the office, closed the door and hurled the storyboards across the room.
Ivy was clearly going to stand fast. “Don’t you dare say no, Shay Kendall. You wanted to be free of that house and Todd sold it for you and the least you can do is let us treat you to dinner to celebrate.”
Shay gathered up the last of the invoices she had been checking and put them into the basket on her desk. It had been a difficult day, what with the planning of the commercials and that salesman making his speech on the front lot. Of course, it was a blessing that the house had been sold and she was relieved to be free of the financial burden it had represented, but parting with the place was something of an emotional shock all the same. She would have preferred to spend the evening at home, lounging about with a good book and maybe feeling a little sorry for herself. “Your brother will be there, I suppose.”
“Of course,” Ivy replied with a shrug. “After all, he’s the buyer.”
Shay felt a nip of envy. What would it be like to be able to buy a house like that? For a very long time, she had nursed a secret dream of starting her own catering business and being such a smashing success that she could afford to keep the place for herself and Hank. “I have to stop by Seaview to see Rosamond on my way home,” she said, hoping to avoid having dinner out. “And then, of course, there’s Hank . . .”
She sighed and pushed back her desk chair to stand up. “All right, all right. I’ll spend a few minutes at Seaview and get a sitter for the evening.”
Ivy’s lovely face was alight again. “Great!” she chimed, turning to leave Shay’s office.
“Wait,” Shay said firmly, stopping her friend in the doorway.
Ivy looked back over one shoulder, her pretty hair following the turn of her head in a rhythmic flow of fine gold. “What?”
“Don’t get any ideas about fixing me up with your brother, Ivy, because I’m not interested. Is that clear?”
Ivy rolled her eyes. “Oh, for pity’s sake!” she cried dramatically.
“I mean it, Ivy.”
“Meet us at the Wharf at eight,” Ivy said, and she then waltzed out, closing Shay’s door behind her.
Shay locked her desk, picked up her purse and cast one last disdainful look at the storyboards along the back of her bookshelf before leaving. She tried to be happy about the assignment and the money it would bring in, tried to be glad that the elegant house high above the beach was no longer her responsibility, tried to look forward to a marvelous dinner at Skyler Beach’s finest restaurant. But, as she drove toward Seaview Convalescent Home, it was all Shay could do to keep from pulling over to the side of road, dropping her forehead to the steering wheel and crying.