“She’s not. Well, okay, she is. The thing is, she’s more than a mistress.”
“Then tell her so,” Slade said, trying to curb his impatience. His brother was tied up in knots because he had a woman living with him but dammit, she wasn’t his wife. She hadn’t walked out the door because he was too dumb or maybe too proud to tell her how he really felt, that he—that he—
“Yeah,” Travis said, “maybe you’re right. ‘Princess,’ I could say, ‘Alex, I just want you to know that you’re more than a mistress to me…’”
The line went dead. Slade looked at the phone, thought about calling Travis back, then thought better of it. His brother, asking him for advice about a woman? Hell, that was a good one. He didn’t know a thing about the species. Just look at what he’d been thinking, a minute ago, that maybe he’d—he’d felt something for Lara.
Okay, so making love with her was fantastic. And he liked being with her. Talking to her about stuff, nothing special, just things he’d never discussed with another woman. He’d told her about the redtail hawks that nested in the old oak near the cabin. About how he’d built that cabin himself, log by log. He’d even told her about that first week tending bar years ago, when he’d put himself through school, and how he’d managed to spill a Scotch and soda in the lap of the head of his department.
And Lara had listened as if every word was wonderful and exciting, and he’d listened to her the same way, smiling when she told him how much in common they had, how she’d worked her way through school as a waitress and dumped tomato soup all over her first customer.
Slade groaned and ran his hands through his hair.
Who was he trying to kid? Yes, he missed Michael but losing his wife was like losing his soul. He’d see his son again, smile with him, hug him, kiss him, share his life, but Lara was lost to him forever. Her smile. Her sweet laughter. The way she looked, first thing in the morning, her face shining with joy as he gathered her into his arms and kissed her…
The telephone rang again. Slade grabbed it, his heart racing. Maybe it was Lara…
But it wasn’t. It was Travis, calling back.
“Listen, kid,” he said abruptly, “Gage just phoned. He’s having a bad time.”
“Yeah,” Slade said. “There’s a lot of that going around lately.”
“Just call him, okay? I’ll give you his number.”
“I know his number.”
“He isn’t home. I got this from my caller ID box. Take it down.”
Slade scribbled the numerals on a pad, then rubbed his forehead. “Listen, man, actually—actually, this isn’t the best—”
“Tell him not to be an idiot,” Travis said, gruffly. “No man should ever let a woman he loves get away from him.”
“Love,” Slade said, and laughed again. “Who even knows what the word means?”
“You’ll know, kid. Believe me, when it happens, you’ll know.”
Travis hung up. Slade sighed and dialed the number his brother had given him. It wasn’t a good night for the Baron brothers.
Gage answered immediately. “Slade? How’d you—”
“Travis called me.”
“How? I didn’t give him this number.”
“Welcome to the age of the chip,” Slade said dryly. “His caller ID box gave it to him. Where are you, anyway?”
“Palm Beach, and don’t ask, okay? It’s a long story.”
“Listen, man, I just called to tell you Travis is right. Whatever you do, don’t let Natalie get away from you.”
Gage sighed. “You know, for a couple of freewheeling bachelors, you guys sure are full of advice for the lovelorn.”
“You love a woman,” Slade said roughly, “you’re a fool if you ever let her walk out of your life. Understand?”
“Aren’t you the guy who’s watched legions of broads march into the sunset?”
“Legions don’t count for a damn,” Slade said. “It’s just one woman, the woman, who matters. A man finds her, he should have his head examined, if he lets her get away. You got that?”
“I’ve got it. But you’re the last one I’d expect—”
“Tell me about it,” Slade said, and hung up the phone. Slowly he walked to the window and looked out at the dark street. Lara would be at the airport by now, waiting for the plane that would take her back to Baltimore.
The plane that would take her out of his life, forever.
“Hell,” he whispered.
Gage was right. Who was he, to give anybody advice about love? He didn’t know a damned thing about it…except, he did. Maybe the Lara he’d loved was nothing but illusion but he had loved her. He’d go on loving her for the rest of his life. The memories of her—of how she’d slept wrapped in his arms each night, of the smile that lit her face each evening as he came through the door—those would fill his lonely nights but they weren’t enough. He wanted her. Lara. Warm, and real, and in his arms…
Slade looked up. Helga was standing in the doorway. Her tone was polite but the look on her face said he was the last person on earth she wanted to deal with. Welcome to the club, he thought, and gave her a tight smile.
“What is it, Helga?”
“I wondered if you’d want dinner, sir. It’s getting late, and—”
“No.” He turned his back to her and stuffed his hands into his pockets. “No dinner, thank you.”
“I’m sorry about…” She cleared her throat. “Mrs. Baron said she wouldn’t be back.”
“Well, then…would you want me to call Mr. Elliott for her, sir?”
Slade shut his eyes. He could hear Lara’s voice, the sexy laugh, the way she’d purred, “He doesn’t suspect a thing…”
“No,” he said, very calmly, “that’s all right, Helga. Why don’t you just give me his address and I’ll—I’ll deal with Elliott.”
Helga nodded. She dug a business card from her apron pocket, and gave it to Slade. He read it and frowned.
“Elliott and Stefan?” He looked at his housekeeper. “Catering à La Carte?”
“Yes, sir.” Helga licked her lips. “Stefan is my nephew. That was why I recommended them to Mrs. Baron.”
“I don’t—I’m not following this, Helga. You introduced my wife to—to—”
“I suppose it can’t do any harm to let you know about it now, sir. The party she was planning, I mean.” Helga knotted her hands together. “Well, I don’t think you’d call dinner for two a party, but Stefan said he and Elliott would be happy to handle it. Elliott—such a nice man, sir—Elliott knows the manager of the hotel, you see, and he said he could—”
“The hotel,” Slade said, trying not to grab Helga and shake the story out of her more quickly.
“The one where your wi—where Mrs. Baron booked the suite. For tomorrow night. For your birthday? Oh, she took such care, sir. She asked me the name of your favorite champagne and was there any special dish you…Mr. Baron? Are you all right?”
“No,” Slade said in an unsteady voice, “no, I’m not all right. I’ve got a block of wood where I’m supposed to have a brain, and…”
Why was he wasting time, talking? Slade hurried across the room, paused just long enough to give a shocked Helga a hug and a kiss and raced down the stairs.
He called every airline he could think of on his car phone, on the way to the airport. None would tell him if a Lara Stevens or a Lara Baron had purchased a ticket for a fli
ght to Baltimore.
“Security restrictions,” one clerk finally said, when Slade roared out his frustration.
But he learned that only one line had a flight to Baltimore leaving within the next hour. He had no choice but to hope Lara was booked on it.
He didn’t even bother trying to find a parking space. Instead he pulled to the curb in front of the departure terminal for East Coast Air.
“Hey,” a voice shouted, “you can’t leave your car there…”
Slade didn’t look back. He ran. He felt as if he were running not just to catch the plane before it left but for his life. Time was slipping through his fingers. What a fool he’d been, not to have told his wife what he should have told her days ago, what he’d tell her now…
If she’d listen.
God, she had to listen.
He raced through the terminal, checking gate numbers as he went, slowing only when he reached the security checkpoint because he knew damned well he’d never get past it if he shouldered the woman ahead of him out of the way. A lunatic was on the loose, the guards would figure, and they’d be right. Only a crazy man would have shut Lara out of his life…and only a crazy man wouldn’t have realized she loved him as much as he loved her, and that he could trust her, forever, with his heart.
The way she’d slept in his arms, ever since that night at the lake. The way she’d given herself to him each time they made love. Why had he been so blind? He knew women and yes, he knew sex. And what they’d done together hadn’t been sex, it had been something more: it had been a way of saying “I love you” without words.
Where was she? This was the right gate, the right waiting area. So many people. He couldn’t see her. Couldn’t find her. Couldn’t…