Courting Danger. Carol Stephenson

Courting Danger - Carol Stephenson

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on my to-do list.

      “All right, Kate. Give.” Carling plopped herself into a plush client chair. “Did Winewski and you go a round?”

      I wiggled out of my ruined panty hose, balled them up and tossed them into the wastebasket. “Hardly.”

      Anyone who saw this dark-haired babe and what they imagined to be a vapid gaze with her soft green eyes was in for a rude awakening. Carling was sharp as a tack and had the instincts for nailing a person to the wall.

      “Wasn’t he a friend of your grandfather’s?” she asked.

      “Former,” I corrected as I pulled out a package of panty hose from my bottom drawer.

      “Gave you a hard time?”

      “Started to.” I slid the nylons over my pedicured feet and stood to pull on the hose. “Then the defendant on the docket before me took exception to Winewski’s suspending his driver’s license. After decking his lawyer, he made the mistake of grabbing me. He figured because I was a ‘girlie’ he could use me as a shield.”

      “Next time he’ll be sure to ask about your sports trophies. Naturally, you were the victor.”

      I smoothed out my skirt but smothered an oath when I spotted the blood on my favorite royal-blue blouse. It would never come out. “You should have seen Leo Feinstein run for the high hills the moment trouble broke out.”

      “Leo had traffic detail?”

      Rummaging in the drawer, I found a patterned silk scarf that wasn’t too bad a match for the remnants of my outfit. “He’s down to six hairs.”

      My friend snickered. “Get this. I heard that he’s planning to do hair implants.”

      I suppressed a shudder. “I don’t even want to think about where the hair will come from. He’s too cheap to spring for anything on the high end.”

      As I wound the scarf around my neck, Carling sprang up and rushed around the desk. “My God, Kate. Your throat!”

      Granted, it hurt to swallow, but her look of horror sent me scrambling for a mirror. Gingerly I peeled away the collar. The vivid bruise ran from red to purple in a solid band across the base of my throat. Carling’s fingers were gentle as she touched the skin, but I still winced at the stab of pain.

      “That bastard had you by the throat, didn’t he!” she demanded.

      “Yes.” I buttoned the top of my blouse. The material was silk and wouldn’t scratch the abused skin too much. I then looped the scarf one more time around my neck for extra coverage.

      “You should see a doctor. What’s your schedule for the rest of the day? I’ll cover. You leave now and seek medical attention.” She snapped out the series of orders like a general going to battle.

      “You’ll even cover the summons from Aunt Hilary?”

      The look of abject horror on her face tickled me. I gave her a quick hug. “I didn’t think so.”

      She swallowed, hard. “I can call and tell her you’re indisposed.”

      I opened the door to the small closet, took out a black blazer and put it on, remembering to transfer the antacid roll into the pocket. Although it covered only part of the damage, this jacket would have to do. No time to go home and change. Aunt Hilary needed to make her club luncheon.

      I pivoted. “Well, how do I look?”

      Carling folded her arms and took her sweet time surveying me from head to toe. “Like someone who has been through the ringer and is trying to cover up.”

      My arms dropped. “Thanks a lot.”

      My friend’s lips curved in a big smile. “You’ll do, Katherine.” Her emphasis on my name didn’t go unnoticed. In the world I had once inhabited, my formal name was always used. Carling had been the first daring enough to shorten it. And it was into that former environment I was now heading.

      Carling gave me a thumbs-up. “Good luck.”

      “I’m going to need it,” I said under my breath as I crossed the room.

      “If you don’t return in an hour, we’ll send out a search party to the cemetery of dead debutantes.”

      “Ha-ha.” I opened the door and reached into my pocket.

      “Kate.” I looked back. Carling would make a great mother. “You’re stronger than you think.”

      I slid my hand clear and displayed my empty palm. “This advice from a woman who would rather cut a vein than confront my great-aunt.” I winked and left before she could recover. Getting the last dig in was always a challenge with her.

      Outside I blinked against the glare of the sunshine and crossed the postage-stamp parking lot in a few strides. As I drove out of the lot I thumbed another antacid tablet from the roll.

      For once traffic wasn’t snarled along Flagler Drive. While oil tycoon Henry Flagler may have started West Palm Beach as a bedroom community for the servants and workers of Palm Beach, to keep them out of sight from his rich cronies he brought in on his railroad, today West Palm Beach was its own city. Technology, banking, tourism, and even the entertainment industry had prospered here. True, it had a tawdry underbelly, but it had a personality of its own.

      I loved it.

      I drove across the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway and on the other side entered the preening world that was Palm Beach. Regal royal palm trees lining the pristine road swayed in the breeze. Chic shops and restaurants thrived with customers. Valets in jaunty white jackets or crisp white shirts ran back and forth, parking a succession of Mercedes, Rolls-Royces and Jaguars.

      I turned onto Ocean Boulevard and drove past one stunning mansion after another. Only light waves ruffled the Atlantic Ocean while the late March sky was crystal blue, not a cloud in sight. A picture-perfect tourist day in paradise. So why couldn’t I relax and enjoy it?

      Because I no longer belonged here.

      Turning onto a driveway of hexagonal pavestones, I punched in a security code and waited for the massive wrought-iron gates to open. I passed immaculately cultivated gardens, lush with fronds of palmetto, areca and foxtail palms and vivid blossoms of verbena, hibiscus and bougainvillea. I parked in the semicircle at the front of the palatial house, took a deep breath, and with the practiced grace of the debutante, swept from my car.

      I needed to be at the top of my game. This morning had been a cakewalk when compared to the judge, jury and executioner waiting inside.

      Chapter 2

      “Good morning, Edwin.”

      “Good morning, Miss Katherine.” Edwin greeted me from the Palladium-styled doorway. Although he had been my great-aunt and uncle’s butler for only a few months, he was cut from the same mode as the long line of Rochelle butlers before him. Always there before you knew you needed him.

      Of course the household staff was so large that there were many unseen eyes and ears to note the arrival of a car. Still, it was decidedly spooky how Edwin would appear at the door before the bell sounded.

      “Madam requests your presence on the rear loggia.” In keeping with his training, Edwin’s only reaction to my less than stellar appearance was a micro-fractional disdainful lift of his brow. Otherwise, his face remained expressionless as he stepped back to let me inside. “She’s finishing her laps.”

      But of course she was. If there was one constant in Hilary Rochelle Wilkes’s life, other than duty, it was her swimming.

      “Thank you, Edwin.”

      I moved across the spacious foyer, skirting the center dominated by the overhead Baccarat chandelier. Suspended from the thirty-two-foot domed ceiling, the dazzling gilt bronze fixture dripped with opulent crystals. Once as a kid, I had watched as a hurricane-force gust of wind caught

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