Holding the Dream
Author:Nora Roberts



Chapter Six

Byron didn't like to interfere with his department heads, but he knew - and wanted them to know - that at Templeton problems rose to the top. His interest in hotels and all their crosshatched inner workings had begun during a summer stint at Atlanta's Doubletree. Three months as a bellman had taught him more than the proper way to handle a guest's luggage and had earned him more than enough cash to buy his first vintage car.

He'd learned there were dramas and tragedies playing out daily, not just behind the closed doors of rooms and suites, but behind the front desk, in sales and marketing, in housekeeping and engineering. In fact, everywhere within the buzzing hive of a busy hotel.

It had fascinated him, had pushed him toward sampling other aspects, from desk clerk to concierge. His curiosity about people, who they were, what they expected, what they dreamed of, had given him a career.

He wasn't the doctor his parents had not so secretly hoped he would be. Nor had he been the travel-weary trust-fund kid his circumstances could have made him. He had a career he enjoyed, and the constant variety of life in a big hotel continually intrigued him.

He was a problem solver, one who considered the individual as well as the big picture. His choice of moving into the Templeton organization had been a simple one. He'd spent a great deal of time studying hotels - the luxurious, the opulent, the small and tidy, the chains with their brisk pace, the old Europeans with their quiet charm, the Las Vegas ones with their flash and gaudiness.

Templeton had appealed to him because it was family-run, traditional without being stodgy, efficient without sacrificing charm, and above all, personable.

He didn't have to make it his business to know the names of the people who worked with and under him. It was simply a part of his makeup to take an interest, to retain information. So when he smiled at the woman currently checking in a guest, called out a casual, "Good morning, Linda," he wasn't aware that her pulse picked up several beats or that her fingers fumbled on the keyboard as she watched him pass through on his way to the offices.

Another section of the beehive was here. Ringing phones, clicking faxes, humming copiers, the clack of keyboards. He passed stacks of boxes, crowded desks. He exchanged a few greetings as he went, causing several pairs of shoulders to straighten and more than a few female employees to wish they'd checked their lipstick.

The door to his destination was open, and he found Laura Templeton with a phone to her ear. She offered him a harried smile and gestured to a chair.

"I'm sure we can arrange that. Mr. Hubble in Catering... Yes, yes, I understand how important it is. Mr. Hubble - " She broke off, rolled her eyes at Byron. "How many extra chairs would you like, Ms. Bingham?" She listened patiently, a small smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "No, of course not. And I'm sure you'll have plenty of room if you make use of the terrace. No, I don't believe it's calling for rain. It should be a lovely evening, and I'm sure your reception will be elegant. Mr. Hubble - " Now she gritted her teeth. "Why don't I talk to Mr. Hubble for you and get back to you? Yes, by noon. I will. Absolutely. You're welcome, Ms. Bingham." She hung up. "Ms. Bingham is insane."

"Is she the orthodontist convention or the interior decorating?"

"Decorating. She has decided, at the last minute, that she simply must give a reception tonight for sixty of her closest friends and associates. For reasons I can't explain, she doesn't trust Bob Hubble to pull it off."

"Templeton," Byron said and smiled at her. "The trouble is, your name is Templeton. Which puts you in a lofty position."

You wouldn't know it from her office, he thought. It was tiny, cramped and windowless. He knew she'd chosen the position and the work space herself when she had decided to squeeze out time for a part-time job at the hotel.

Byron didn't know how she managed - her family and home, the shop, the hotel. But she seemed to him to be the soul of serenity and quiet efficiency. Until you looked close enough, at the eyes. There, shadowed in their lake-gray depths, were doubt and worry and grief. Remnants, he thought, of a shattered marriage.

"You didn't have to come down here, Byron." She finished scribbling notes to herself as she spoke. "I would have made it up to your office this morning."

"It's all right. Problem with the tooth soldiers?"

"You'd think orthodontists would have a little decorum, wouldn't you?" With a sigh, she pulled papers out of a file. "We've had complaints from both bars, but that's nothing I can't handle."

"I've yet to come across anything you can't handle."

"I appreciate that. But there's a delicate situation. One of the doctors apparently was having a, let's say, intimate moment with one of the other doctors when her husband decided to pay an unannounced surprise visit."

"God, I love this job." Byron settled back. "It's like a long-running soap opera."

"Easy for you to say. I spent an hour this morning dealing with the penitent woman. She sat where you are, spilling out tears and the whole sordid story of her marriage, her affairs, her therapy."

Weary with the memory, Laura pressed her fingers to the inside corner of her eye, almost relieving the tension that was living there. "This is her third husband, and she claims to be addicted to adultery."

"She should go on Oprah. Women who are addicted to adultery, and the men who love them. Do you want me to talk to her?"

"No, I think I sent her off steady enough. Our problem is, the husband wasn't too thrilled to find his wife and his" - she winced - "his brother-in-law wrapped in matching Templeton robes."

"It just gets better. Don't stop now."

"The husband popped his brother-in-law - who, I should add for clarification, is married to our heroine's sister - in the mouth. Knocked out several thousand dollars' worth of caps and so forth. There was some damage to the room, nothing major. A couple of lamps and crockery." She waved that away. "But our problem is that the guy with the broken mouth is threatening to sue the hotel."

"Another victim." If he hadn't been so amused with the scenario, he would have sighed. "What's his rationale?"

"That the hotel is responsible for letting the husband in. He - the husband - called room service from a house phone, ordered champagne and strawberries for his wife's room. He had a dozen roses with him," she added. "Then he waited until the wine arrived, slipped into the room behind the waiter, and - well, the rest is history."

"I don't think we've got any real problem here, but I'll take the file."

"I appreciate it." Relieved, Laura passed the torch. "I'd talk to the man myself, but I get the impression he's not. too keen on women in authority. And, to be honest, I'm swamped. The orthodontists have their banquet tonight, and the cosmetic people are coming in tomorrow."

"And, of course, Ms. Bingham."

"Right." She checked her watch and rose. "I'd better get down to Catering. There was one other little thing."

Standing up himself, he raised an eyebrow. "The decorators are wrestling in the atrium?"

"Not yet." Because she appreciated him, she smiled. It was second nature to Laura to hide nerves. "It was an idea I had for the shop, but since it involves the hotel, I wanted to run it by you."

"Laura, it's your hotel."

"No, at the moment I work here, and you're the boss." She picked up her clipboard and passed it from one of her hands to the other. "Last fall we put on a reception and charity auction at the shop. We intend to do it every year. But I was thinking we could plan another event. Straight advertising, really. A fashion show, using clothes and accessories from the shop, during the holiday season. The White Ballroom would be ideal, and it's not booked for the first Saturday in December. I thought we could feature gala attire, formals, ballgowns, in addition to accessories, all from the shop. We'd advertise it in both the hotel and the resort, with percentage-off certificates issued to Templeton employees and guests."

"You've got marketing in the blood. Listen, Laura, you work conventions and special events." He put an arm around her shoulders as they left the office. "You don't need my goahead."

"I like to dot my i's, so to speak. After I've talked it over with Margo and Kate, I'll work up a proposal."

"Fine." She'd given him the opening he'd been hoping for. "So how is Kate?"

"She's holding up. Of course, she occasionally drives Margo and me crazy. A born salesman Kate isn't," Laura said with feeling. "But she's competitive enough to make it work." Her smile softened, spread. "And if Margo or I so much as breathes on the books, she hisses. So that's a blessing. Still..."

"Still?"

"They damaged something inside her. I don't know how seriously yet, but she's too together, too controlled. She won't talk about it, won't even discuss what should be done. Just closes up when any of us try to draw her out. Kate used to be a champion tantrum thrower."

Now her fingers fidgeted restlessly, tapping a pencil, plucking at papers on her clipboard. "She's taking this without a fight. When Margo's career blew up and she lost her spot as the spokeswoman for Bella Donna, Kate wanted to organize a protest. She actually talked about going down to L.A. and picketing on Rodeo Drive."

Remembering put a smile back on Laura's face. "I never told Margo, because I managed to talk Kate out of it, but that's the way she is. She spits and claws and slaps when she's up against a personal problem. But not this time. This time she's pulled in, and I don't understand it."

"You're really worried about her," Byron realized.

"Yes, I am. So's Margo, or she would have strangled Kate half a dozen times by now. She wants us to fill out a sheet in something called a columnar pad every day."

"Once an accountant," he said.

"She carries one of those electronic memo pads in her pocket all the time. She's starting to talk about co-linking and getting on-line. It's terrifying." When he laughed, Laura caught herself and shook her head. "Ask a simple question..." she began. "Does everybody dump on you this way?"

"You didn't dump. I asked."

"Josh said you were the only man he wanted in this job. It's easy to see why. You're so different from Peter - " This time she didn't just catch herself, she clenched her teeth. "No, I'm not getting started on that. I'm already behind schedule and Ms. Bingham's waiting. Thanks for taking the orthodontists off my hands."

"My pleasure. You might not hear it very often, but you're an asset to Templeton."

"I'm trying to be."

As she walked away, Byron turned in the opposite direction, studying her careful and precise report as he went.

At the end of the day he met with Josh at Templeton Resort. The office there was a sprawling room on the executive level, with windows offering a view of one of the resort's two lagoonlike pools, surrounded by hibiscus in riotous bloom and a patio with redwood tables under candy-pink umbrellas.

Inside, it was built for comfort as well as business with deeply cushioned leather chairs, Deco lamps, and a stylish watercolor street scene of Milan.

"Want a beer?"

At the offer Byron merely sighed low and deep. He accepted the bottle from Josh, tipped it back. "Sorry to hit you at the end of the day. It's the first I could get away."

"There is no end of the day in the hotel business," Josh said.

"Your mother said that." Byron grinned. Susan Templeton was one of his favorite people. "You know if your father would just step aside like a gentleman, I'd beg her to marry me." He drank again, then nodded at the file he'd put on Josh's desk. "I started to fax this business over, then thought I'd just swing by personally."

Instead of going behind the desk, Josh picked up the file and stretched out in the chair opposite Byron. He skimmed the reports with varying reactions. A chuckle, a groan, a sigh, an oath.

"That sums up my feelings," Byron concurred. "I had a talk with Dr. Holdermen myself a few hours ago. He's still a guest. He's got temporary caps on and a real beaut of a black eye. My take is he doesn't have a case, but he's pissed off enough, and embarrassed enough, to pursue it."

Josh nodded, came to his own conclusions. "And your recommendation?"

"Let him."

"Agreed." Josh tossed the file onto his desk. "I'll pass it along to Legal with that recommendation. Now..." Josh settled back, the beer bottle cupped loosely in his hand, his eyes curious. "Why don't you tell me why you're really here? You can handle this kind of nuisance in your sleep."

Byron rubbed his chin. "We know each other too well."

"Ten years on and off should be enough. What's on your mind, By?"

"Kate Powell."

Josh's brows shot up. "Really?"

"Not in that context," Byron said, a bit too quickly. "It was something Laura said today that got me thinking about the whole situation. Bittle made some serious allegations against her, yet they haven't pursued it. And neither has she. It's going on three weeks now."

"I'm going to get pissed off again." Feeling his temper bubbling, Josh rose and paced it off. "My father used to play golf with Larry Bittle. I don't know how many times he's been over to the house. He's known Kate since she was a kid."

"Have you talked to him?"

"Kate almost took my head off when I threatened to." Scowling, Josh gulped down his beer. "That was okay, but then she just shut down. She seemed so shaky over the whole thing, I didn't push. Hell, I've been so wrapped up in Margo and the baby, I let it slide. We did this heartbeat thing at the doctor's today. It was so cool. You could just hear it, beating away, this quick little bopping." He stopped when he caught Byron's grin. "Kate," he began again.

"That's okay, you can indulge in obsessive expectant fatherhood for a minute."

"There's more. It's not an excuse for letting my sister dangle." He sat again, with a muscle in his cheek twitching. "We've decided to settle with Ridgeway. Goddamn bastard cheats on Laura, scalps her, ignores his children, alienates half the staff at the hotel, and we end up cutting him a check for a quarter million just to avoid a premature termination suit."

"It's rough," Byron agreed. "But he'll be gone."

"He better stay gone."

"You could always break his nose again," Byron suggested.

"There is that." Willing himself to relax, Josh rolled his shoulders. "You could say I've been a little distracted the last few weeks. And Kate, she's always been so self-reliant. You begin to take it for granted."

"Laura's worried about her."

"Laura worries about everyone but Laura." Josh brooded for a minute. "I haven't been able to get through to Kate. She won't talk about it, at least not to me. I hadn't considered going over her head to Bittle. Is that what you're getting at?"

"It's none of my business. The thing is..." Byron studied his beer for a moment, then lifted those calm, clear eyes to Josh. He'd thought it through, as he did any problem, and had come to one conclusion. "If Bittle does decide to pursue a case against her, wouldn't she be better off to take the offensive now?"

"The threat of a nice fat libel suit, an unjustified suspension, loss of income, emotional distress."

Byron smiled and finished off his beer. "Well, you're the lawyer."

It took him the best part of a week, but Josh was hotly pleased when he strolled into Pretenses. He'd just come from a meeting with the partners of Bittle and Associates.

He caught his wife around the waist and kissed her thrillingly, to the delight of the customers milling about the shop.

"Hi."

"Hi, yourself. And what are you doing in my parlor in the middle of the day?"

"I didn't come for you." He kissed her again and barely restrained himself from laying a hand on her stubbornly flat stomach. He couldn't wait for it to grow. "I need to talk to Kate."

"Captain Queeg is in the office, rolling marbles and talking about strawberries."

Josh winced. "I thought you were calling her Captain Bligh these days."

"He wasn't insane enough. She's redoing the filing system. Color-coded."

"Good God. What's next?"

Margo narrowed her eyes. "She put up a bulletin board."

"She must be stopped. I'll go in." He drew a deep breath. "If I'm not out in twenty minutes, remember, I've always loved you."

"Very funny," she muttered, and managed to hold the smile back until he'd slipped into the rear office.

Josh found Kate mumbling over files. Her hair stood up in spikes, and the first two fingers of her right hand were covered with rubber tips.

"Less than a year," she said without turning around, "and you and Laura have managed to misfile half of everything. Why the hell is a fire insurance invoice in the umbrella file?"

"Someone should be flogged."

Unamused, she turned, eyed him. "I don't have time for you, Josh. Your wife's making my life a living hell."

"Funny, she says the same thing about you." Despite her ferocious glare, he walked over and kissed the tip of her nose. "I hear you're color-coding the files."

"Somebody has to. The software I installed keeps clean records, but you're better off backing up with hard copy in retail. I told Margo to do this months ago, but she's more interested in selling trinkets."

"God knows how you can expect to keep a retail business running by selling things!"

She drew in a breath, refusing to hear how foolish she sounded. "My point is you can hardly keep any business successful if you don't concern yourself with the details. She's been logging shoes under wardrobe instead of accessories."

"She needs to be punished." He grabbed Kate's shoulders. "Let me do it."

Chuckling, she shoved him back. "Go away. I don't have time to laugh right now."

"I didn't come by for laughs. I need to talk to you." He pointed to a chair. "So sit."

"Can't this wait? I have to be back in the showroom in an hour. I want to get the files in shape first."

"Sit," he repeated and gave her a brotherly nudge. "I just had a meeting at Bittle."

The impatience drained out of her eyes, leaving them cold and blank. "Excuse me?"

"Don't take that tone with me, Kate. It's past time this was dealt with."

She continued to take that tone, quiet and icy, as fear clawed at her insides. "And you decided you were the one to deal with it?"

"That's right. As your attorney - "

"You're not my attorney," she shot back.

"Who went to court to get you out of that speeding ticket three years ago?"

"You, but - "

"And who looked over your lease for your apartment before you signed it?"

"Yes, but - "

"Who wrote your will?"

Her face turned mutinous. "I don't see that that has anything to do with it."

"I see." Idly, he studied his manicure. "Just because I've handled all the pesky little legal details of your life doesn't make me your lawyer."

"It doesn't give you the right to go behind my back and talk to Bittle. Particularly since I asked you to leave it alone."

"Fine, it doesn't. Being your brother does."

Bringing up family loyalty was, in Kate's opinion, hitting below the belt. She sprang to her feet. "I'm not the inadequate, incapable little sister, and I won't be treated like one. I'm handling this."

"How?" Primed to fight, he got to his feet as well. "By color-coding the files in here?"

"Yes." Since he was shouting now, Kate matched her voice to his. "By making the best of the situation. By getting on with my life. By not whining and crying."

"By backing down and doing nothing." He poked his finger against her shoulder. "By going into denial. Well, it's gone on long enough. Bittle and company know that they're facing legal action."

"Legal action?" The blood drained out of her face. She could feel every drop flow. "You told them I was going to sue? Oh, my God." Dizzy, she leaned on the desk.

"Hey!" He grabbed her in alarm. "Sit down. Catch your breath."

"Leave me alone. Leave me the hell alone. What have you done?"

"What needed to be done. Now come on, honey, sit down."

"Jesus Christ." She exploded, and rather than a poke on his shoulder, she landed a punch on it. "How dare you?" Her color was back, flaming. "How dare you threaten legal action?"

"I didn't tell them you were going to sue. I merely left them chewing over that impression."

"I told you to leave it. This is my business. Mine." She threw up her arms, spun around. "What gave you this brainstorm, Joshua? I'm going to kill Margo."

"Margo didn't have anything to do with it, though if you would open your beady eyes for five minutes, you'd see how worried she is about you. How worried everyone is."

Because he might poke her again, he decided his hands were safer in his pockets. "I shouldn't have let it go this long, but I've had things on my mind. If By hadn't dropped by and given me a push, it would have taken me longer, but I'd have gotten to it."

"Stop." Breathing hard, she held up a hand. "Playback. Byron De Witt talked to you about me?"

Realizing his misstep, Josh tried a quick retreat. "Your name came up in conversation, that's all. And it started me - "

"My name came up." Now she was breathing between clenched teeth - teeth that matched the fists ready at her sides. Anger was better, she realized, than panic. "Oh, I just bet it did. That son of a bitch. I should have known he couldn't keep his mouth shut."

"About what?"

"Don't try to cover up. And get out of my way." Her shove was fierce enough and unexpected enough to knock him back. Before he could make the grab, she was sailing past him.

"Just a damn minute. I haven't finished."

"You go to hell," she shot back over her shoulder, causing several customers to glance around nervously as she stormed out of the office. She sent Margo one seething glare before slamming the front door behind her.

"Well." Struggling with a smile, Margo handed a bagged purchase to a wide-eyed customer. "That's thirty-eight fifty-three out of forty." Still smiling, she handed over the change. "And the show was free. Please come again."

With the wariness of a man who understood trouble when it stared at him from sultry blue eyes, Josh approached the counter. "Sorry about that."

"We'll deal with sorry later," she said under her breath. "What did you do to upset her?"

Just like a woman, he thought, to take the woman's side. "I tried to help her."

"You know how she hates that. Why, instead of taking your head off, did she storm out of here looking like she was going to take someone else's head off?"

He sighed, scratched his chin, shuffled his feet. "She'd finished taking my head off. Now she's going for Byron's. He sort of suggested that I help her."

Margo tapped coral-tipped nails on the glass counter. "I see."

"I really ought to call him, give him some advance warning." But when Josh reached for the phone on the counter, Margo laid a firm hand over his.

"Oh, no. I don't think so. We wouldn't want to spoil Kate's advantage."

"Margo, it's only fair."

"Fair has nothing to do with it. And you're going to be too busy waiting on customers to make personal calls."

Now he stuck his hands in his pockets. "Duchess, I've got a meeting in a couple of hours. I don't have time to help you out around here."

"Thanks to you, I'm shorthanded." Knowing that that wouldn't get her very far, she let her shoulders slump. "And I'm feeling a little tired."

"Tired?" Panic came on wings, "You should get off your feet."

"You're probably right." Though she felt strong as a horse, she scooted a stool over to the cash register and perched on it. "I'll just sit here and ring up sales for the next hour. Oh, Josh, darling, be sure to offer the customers champagne."

Enjoying herself, she slipped off her shoes and prepared to watch her adorable husband handle a storeful of customers.

The only show she would have preferred to witness was the one that would be starting shortly in the penthouse office of Templeton Monterey.

* * * * *

The first analogy that came to Byron's mind was that of a wild, possibly rabid, deer charging.

Kate cut through his shocked, protesting assistant like a sharp knife through quivery jelly, snarled like a feral she-wolf, and might very well have delivered the knockout punch of a flyweight champ if Byron hadn't signaled his assistant to retreat.

"Well, Katherine." He barely missed a beat when she slammed the door with a resounding crack. "What an unexpected pleasure."

"I'm going to kill you. I'm going to rip off your meddling nose and stuff it in your flapping mouth."

"As much fun as I'm sure that'll be, would you like a drink first? Some water? You're a bit flushed."

"Who the hell do you think you are?" She sprang toward the desk, smashed her palms down on its polished, and just now crowded, surface. "What possible right do you have to mix in my business? Do I strike you as some weak-willed, empty-headed woman who needs a man to defend her?"

"Which one of those questions would you like me to answer first? Why don't I take them in order?" he said before she could shout again. "You know exactly who I am. I didn't mix in your business any more than any tentative and concerned friend would, and no, no indeed, I don't see you as weak-willed or empty-headed. I see you as stubborn, rude, and potentially dangerous."

"You haven't got a clue how dangerous, pal."

"That threat might have more weight if you'd take off those filing tips. They spoil the image."

A strangled sound erupted from her throat as she looked down and discovered the brown rubber tips still on her fingers. Smooth and quick, she ripped them off and threw them at him. Just as smooth, just as quick, he caught them both before they hit his face.

"Good arm," he commented. "I bet you played ball in school."

"I thought I could trust you." For reasons she didn't want to analyze, thinking of that made her eyes sting. "I even, for one brief, foolish moment, thought I could learn to like you. Now I see that my first impression of you as an arrogant, self-important, sexist jerk was totally on the mark." Her sense of betrayal was every bit as keen as her fury. "I was reeling when you found me on the cliffs, I was vulnerable. Everything I said there I said to you in confidence. You had no right to run to Josh with it."

He set the rubber tips on his desk. "I didn't say anything to Josh about that day on the cliffs."

"I don't believe you. You went to him - "

"I don't lie," he said sharply. She glimpsed the steel beneath the polish. "Yes, I went to him. Sometimes it takes someone outside the family to put things on the table. And your family is torn up about what happened to you, Kate. More worried about the way you're behaving."

"My behavior isn't - "

"Any of my business," he finished for her. "Odd that something as harmless as my speaking with Josh sends you into a tailspin of revenge and retribution, but being questioned about embezzlement makes you curl up in the fetal position and suck your thumb."

"You don't know what I'm doing, what I'm feeling. And you have no right to pass judgment."

"No, that's all quite true. If you weren't so self-involved, you'd see that no one's passing judgment. But as an outsider I can tell you that your family is hurting for you."

Her flush died until her cheeks were bone-white. "Don't lecture me about my family. Don't you dare. They're the most important people in the world to me. I'm handling this my way because of my family."

He cocked his head. "Which means?"

"Which means that, too, is none of your business." She pressed her fingers to her eyes, fighting for control. "Nothing and no one is more on my mind than my family."

He believed that without hesitation, and only felt more sorry for her. "Your way of handling this situation isn't working."

"How the hell do you know?"

"Because people talk to me." His voice was gentle now, and the edge of temper had smoothed out of it. "Margo, Laura, Josh. Because I know how worried and angry I'd be if it was my sister."

"Well, it isn't your sister." The anger snapped back into her voice, but her cheeks stayed white. "I'm capable of dealing with this. Josh has enough on his plate without being guilted into taking this on."

"Do you really think guilt has anything to do with it?"

She fumbled, recovered. "Don't twist my words around, De Witt."

"Those were your words, Powell. Now, if you've finished with your tantrum, we can discuss this."

"Tantrum - "

"I'd heard you were good at them, but now that I've had a firsthand demonstration, I see the reports were understated."

He'd never thought that dark, glossy brown could turn to fire until he watched it happen in her eyes. "I'll show you a tantrum." With one swipe she sent most of the papers on his desk flying, then raised her fist. "Come out from behind that desk."

"Oh, you tempt me." His voice was ominously quiet, his eyes dangerously cool. "I've never hit a woman in my life. And never have I found it necessary to make that statement before. But you tempt me, Katherine, to break all kinds of records. Now either sit down or get out."

"I'm not sitting down, and I'm not getting out until we - " She broke off, strangling a cry as she pressed a hand under her breasts.

Now he did come around the desk, cursing all the way. "Damn it. Damn it! What are you doing to yourself?"

"Don't touch me." The burning pressure made her eyes water, but she struggled when he led her to a chair.

"You're going to sit down. You're going to try to relax. And if you don't have your color back in thirty seconds, I'm hauling your skinny butt to the hospital."

"Just leave me alone." She fumbled out her antacids, knowing it was like trying to put out a forest fire with a water pistol. "I'll be fine in a minute."

"How often does this happen?"

"None of your business." She yelped in pain and shock when he pressed two fingers to her abdomen.

"Do you have your appendix?"

"Keep your hands off me, Dr. Feelgood."

He only continued to frown and moved his fingertips to the inside of her wrist. "Been skipping meals again?" Before she could evade, he caught her face in his hands and took a long, objective look. Her color was seeping back, slowly, and her eyes were filled with temper again rather than pain. But he saw other things. "You're not sleeping. You're tired, overstressed and undernourished. Is that how you're handling this?"

Her stomach quivered, an echo of pain and nerves. "I want you to leave me alone."

"You don't always get what you want. You're exhausted, Kate, and until you start taking better care of yourself, someone else will have to do it for you. Be still,'' he ordered in an absent murmur, holding a hand on her shoulder as he checked his watch. "I'm tied up here until after six. I'll pick you up at seven. Will you be at the shop or at home?"

"What the hell are you talking about? I'm not going anywhere with you."

"I realize I'm annoyed with myself for handling this matter badly. You do seem to bring out the worst in me," he added, mostly to himself. "So, you're going to get a decent meal and the opportunity to discuss these gripes of yours in a civilized manner."

It was frightening her, the casual manner he assumed, the glint of heat in his eye that warned he could shift out of casual mode at any moment.

"I don't want to have dinner with you, and I'm not feeling civilized."

Considering, he rocked back on his heels, so that their eyes were level. "Let's try it this way. You go along with this or I pick up the phone and call Laura. It should take her about two minutes to get up here, and when she does, I'll tell her that twice now I've seen you go white and double over."

"You have no right."

"No, Kate, what I have here is the hammer. That beats the hell out of rights." He checked his watch again. "I have a conference call coming through in about five minutes, or we'd finish more of this now. Since the reasonable thing for you to do is go home and get some rest, I assume you'll go back to the shop. I'll pick you up at seven."

Trapped, she nudged him aside and got to her feet. "We close at six."

"Then you'll have to wait, won't you? And don't slam the door on your way out."

Of course she did, and he found he had to smile. But the smile faded when he picked up the phone and hurriedly punched in a number. "Dr. Margaret De Witt, please. It's her son." Another look at his watch brought out a mild oath. "No, I can't wait. Would you ask her to call me when she's free? The office before six, at home after seven. Thanks."

He hung up, then began to put in order the papers Kate had scattered. Almost amused, he pocketed the filing tips she'd left behind. He doubted that Kate would appreciate him calling his mother the internist for an over-the-phone diagnosis of her symptoms.

But somebody had to look out for her. Whether she wanted it or not.