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"They're calling you a ruthless bastard," Diane said as she scanned the article in the business magazine. "You must be happy."
Matthew Fenner looked at his secretary, but didn't speak. Eventually she glanced up and smiled.
"You like being called a ruthless bastard," she reminded him.
"I like respect," he corrected.
He nodded. "Fear works."
Diana dropped the open magazine on his desk. "Don't you ever want someone to think you're nice?" she asked.
Being the nice guy meant getting screwed. He'd learned that a long time ago. He picked up one of the messages by his phone. Ironically, the woman who had taught him every aspect of that lesson had just called.
His secretary sighed. "I worry about you."
"You're wasting your time."
"Don't panic. I only do it on my off hours."
He scowled at his fifty-something assistant, but she ignored him. While he would never admit it, the fact that he didn't intimidate her was one of the reasons she'd lasted so long. Although he had a reputation for being the kind of businessman who left his competition bleeding on the side of the road, he didn't enjoy watching his staff cower. At least not all the time.
"Did you have anything else?" he asked, then looked pointedly at the door.
She rose. "Jesse called again. That makes three calls in three days. Are you calling her back?"
"Does it matter?"
"Yes. If you're going to continue to ignore her, I'd like to just tell her and put her out of her misery." Diane frowned. "You're usually more clear with your BGFs. They rarely phone after you dump them."
"I've asked you not to call them that."
Diane blinked innocently. "Have you? I'm sorry. I keep forgetting."
She was lying, but he didn't call her on it. Referring to the women he dated as BGFsshort for bimbo girlfriendswas her way of showing disapproval. She complained his women were interchangeablelike fashion dolls. All physically similar, unnaturally beautiful and lacking in heart and brains. She wasn't wrong.
What Diane couldn't bring herself to believe was that he dated them on purpose. He wasn't looking for more.
"She's someone I used to know," he said, then wished he hadn't. Diane didn't need the information. That part of his life had ended a long time ago.
"Really? Does she actually have a personality, or" she waved her hands in front of her face as if to keep from fainting "a brain? Now that you mention it, she sounded almost normal."
"I didn't mention it."
"Hmm. I'm sure you did. So tell me about your mysterious past with this woman."
"You can leave now."
"Why is she back in Seattle? Is she nice? Would I like her? Do you like her?"
He pointed at the door.
Diane walked across his office. "So you're saying the next time she calls to put her through, right?"
He ignored her and she left.
Matt rose, then crossed to the window. His office was at the top of an Eastside high-rise with an impressive view. His business life defined every aspect of success. He'd made it. He had everything he wanted and moremoney, power, respect and no one to answer to.
Slowly, deliberately, he crumpled the note with the message from Jesse and tossed it into the trash.
Despite the promises of several famous poets and a couple of tear-jerker country songs, Jesse Keyes discovered it was possible to go home again, which was just her bad luck. Not that she could blame anyone for her current circumstancesshe'd decided to return to Seattle all on her own. Well, okay, maybe she'd had a little help from the cute guy in her life.
She glanced in the rearview mirror and smiled at her four-year-old son.
"Guess what?" she asked.
His dark eyes brightened as he grinned at her. "Are we there yet?"
Gabe clapped his hands. "I like here."
They were in town for the summer or however long it took to get her past in order and her future set. Give or take a week.
Jesse put the car in Park, then got out and opened the rear passenger seat. She unbuckled Gabe from his car seat and helped him out of the car. He stood next to her and stared at the four-story building.
"We're staying here?" he asked, his voice low with awe. "Really?"
The extended-stay hotel was modest at besta local place. Jesse didn't have the money for one of those fancy national chains. But the room came with a kitchen and the online reviews had said it was clean, which is what mattered to her. Once she had an idea of how long they were staying, she would look into renting a furnished apartment in the University District. It was summer, which meant empty rooms while the students were away and cheap rent.
But to Gabe, who'd never been in a hotel in his life, their temporary shelter was exciting and new.
"Really," she said, taking his hand. "Want me to get a room on the top floor?"
His eyes widened. "Can we?" he breathed.
It would mean more stairs for her, but she would feel safer up top. "That's what I asked for."
His new favorite word. He'd picked it up at day care. It was about the four-hundredth time that day she'd heard it and it was starting to get on her nerves. Then she reminded herself that "cool" was a whole lot better than some other words he could have learned.
Thirty minutes later they were testing the bounce in the two double beds as Gabe tried to decide which one he wanted. She unpacked the single suitcase she'd carried up the three flights of stairs. She really had to think about starting to work out again. Her heart was still racing from the climb.
"We're going out for dinner," she said. "How about spaghetti?"
Gabe flung himself at her, wrapping both his arms around her thighs and squeezing as hard as he could. She stroked his soft brown hair.
"Thank you, Mommy," he whispered.
Because eating his favorite food in a restaurant was a rare treat.
Jesse wondered if she should feel guilty for not cooking her first night in Seattle, then decided she would beat herself up later. Right now she was tired. It had been a five-hour drive from Spokane, and she'd worked well past midnight the previous evening, wanting to earn every last tip she could. Money was going to be tight while she was in Seattle.
"You're welcome." She dropped to her knees so she was at eye level with him. "I think you'll really like this place. It's called the Old Spaghetti Factory." A perfect, kid-friendly restaurant. No one would care if Gabe made a mess and she could have a glass of wine and pretend that everything was all right.
"Do I meet my daddy tomorrow?"
Jesse's heart raced again and this time it had nothing to do with taking the stairs. "Probably not tomorrow, but soon."
Gabe bit his lower lip. "I love my daddy."
"I know you do."
Or at least the idea of having a father. Her son was the reason she'd decided to face all the ghosts in her past and come home. He'd started asking questions about his father a year ago. Why didn't he have a daddy? Where was his daddy? Why didn't his daddy want to be with him?
Jesse had debated lying, simply saying that Matt was dead. But five years ago, when she'd left Seattle, she'd vowed to live her life differently. No more lies. No more screwing up. She'd worked hard to grow up, to make a life she was proud of, to raise a son on her own, to be honest, no matter what.
Which meant telling Gabe the truth. That Matt didn't know about him, but maybe it was time to change that.
She didn't allow herself to think about meeting Matt. She couldn't. Not and keep breathing. So for now, there was only her son smiling at her and the love she felt for him. The rest would take care of itself. At least she hoped it would.
Because it wasn't just Matt she had to face. There was Claire, the older sister she'd never really known, and Nicole, the older sister who probably still hated her guts. Talk about a homecoming.
But she would deal with that tomorrow. Tonight there was the promise of spaghetti, then a rousing evening of cartoons and quality time with the best part of her life.
"Are you ready?" she asked as she grabbed her purse, then held out her arms to pick up Gabe.
He jumped into her embraceloving and trustingas if she would never hurt him, never let him down. Because she never wouldno matter what. At least she'd gotten that part right.
Jesse checked the address on the piece of paper, then glanced at the portable nav system Bill had let her borrow. They matched.
"Someone's been moving on up," she murmured, taking in the long driveway that led to a house on the lake in the very chichi part of Kirkland.
There was a security gate for the property, but it was open. She was grateful she didn't have to explain her presence to whatever staff might be at the house. Not that she could imagine Matt with staff. They would get on his nerves. At least they would have five years ago. No doubt he'd changed. The man she remembered would never have lived in a massive, sprawling estate with a bronze sculpture on the lawn.
She raised her eyebrows at the confounding piece of modern art, then drove past it. She parked near the wide double doors, behind a BMW convertible. As she climbed out, she tried not to think about how shabby her ten-year-old Subaru looked in comparison. Still, her car was dependable and the all-wheel drive meant safer driving in the Spokane snow.
She patted the dashboard in a silent apology for noticing how pretty the BMW looked gleaming in the sunlight, then grabbed her purse and climbed out. Before heading up the stairs to the front door of the huge house, she checked to make sure her most recent pictures of Gabe were in the front pocket of her purse. She had a feeling that seeing Matt was going to make her nervous. She didn't want to have to search for the photos.
The front door seemed to soar to the sky. She would guess it was maybe fifteen or twenty feet high and solid wood. Visigoths would have trouble breaking into this house. She swallowed against the sudden tightness in her body, reminded herself to keep breathing no matter what, then pressed the bell.
Somewhere deep in the house, a chime sounded. Jesse waited, knowing it could take a while for someone to walk the length of the house. She counted to ten, then twenty. Was she supposed to ring the bell again? It was nine-thirty on a Saturday morning. She'd hoped Matt would be home. Of course, there were a thousand places he could be. The gym, the office, maybe at a friend's house. Make that a girl friend. She doubted he was at the grocery store because he was
The front door opened. Jesse braced herself to see Matt again, only to find herself staring at a tall, slender redhead wearing a very short, sexy nightie and apparently nothing else.
The woman was in her early twenties and beyond beautiful. Her eyes were large, dark green and framed with incredible lashes. Her skin was the color of cream, her breasts pointed at the ceiling and her wide mouth formed a perfect pout.
"Maatt," she whined, drawing his name out to two syllables. "It's one thing for you to keep telling me we're not exclusive. I accept that. I don't like it, but I accept it. But to have one of them show up here on my date? That's just wrong."
Jesse hadn't thought the moment through. If she had, she would have realized that a woman answering the door was entirely possible. It had been five years of course Matt would have moved on. Probably several times.
"I'm not a date," she said quickly, wishing she'd taken more time with her appearance that morning. All she'd done was shower, slap on moisturizer and mascara, then let her long, straight hair air-dry. She'd been more focused on getting Gabe ready.