Eleven

They were back in the U.S. by midmorning on the fourteenth, and Sinclair couldn’t resist checking in at Lush Beauty in one of her new outfits.

Her hair and makeup perfect, she strolled into the office in a slim peacock-blue coat dress, with three-quarter sleeves, leather details on the collar, appliqu? pockets, large contrasting silver buttons and high-heeled leather ankle boots. She carried a tiny purse, holding nothing but her cell phone, keys and a credit card.

Amber’s jaw literally dropped open as Sinclair crossed through the outer office.

“I was going to check messages,” Sinclair called over her shoulder. “You coming to the ball tonight?”

She pushed open her office door and stopped dead.

Chantal sat at her desk, computer open to e-mail, file folders scattered in front of her, and Sinclair’s phone to her ear.

Neither woman spoke for a moment.

“Can I call you back?” Chantal said into the phone.

“You’re at my desk,” said Sinclair.

“You’re back early,” said Chantal.

Amber apparently recovered her wits and rushed into the office. “Roger asked-”

“I’ll be needing it now,” Sinclair informed Chantal. “Right now.”

Chantal hit a few keys on the computer. “If you’ll just give me a few minutes.”

“I don’t think so,” Sinclair stated, walking around the desk. “Those the Valentine’s ball files?”

“The Castlebay files,” Chantal admitted.

“Oh, good. Just what I wanted.” Sinclair dropped her small purse on the desk. She was vindictive enough to put it label up so that Chantal could see it was a Vermachinni.

She inched in closer, crowding the woman until Chantal finally stood up and clicked the close button on her e-mail program. Chantal started to pick up the files.

“You can leave them here,” Sinclair told her. “I’ll call you if I need anything.”

Chantal glared at her.

“Did Roger mention the private party at the Castlebay Spa Manhattan tonight?”

Chantal didn’t answer.

Sinclair pursed her lips, knowing full well Roger himself didn’t even know about the after party yet.

The woman’s eyes glittered black. “Amber said she e-mailed you the catering contracts yesterday?”

“She did. And we’ve substituted duck for the pheasant. We got rid of the peanut oil because of possible allergies. And the gift bags are now recycled paper, which will stave off any media grab by Earthlife.”

Chantal scooped up her briefcase and stomped out of the office.

“Uh,” Amber stammered in the wake of Chantal’s departure. “Is there anything…you, uh, need?”

Sinclair turned. “Hi,” she said to her assistant.

“Coffee?” asked Amber, quickly straightening a pile of magazines on the credenza. “Tea?”

“It’s me,” Sinclair pointed out.

Amber nodded. “Mineral water, maybe?”

“Amber.”

“You look…”

Sinclair waved a dismissive hand. “I know. Did you see the ads for the Chastlebay locations? They’re having special midnight openings tonight to coincide with the ball over here.”

“Sinclair?” came Ethan’s voice.

Amber quickly ducked out of the office.

“Good for you,” Ethan said to Sinclair.

She assumed he was talking about her appearance and smiled.

“Somebody needs to stand up to Roger.”

She realized Ethan was referring to her absence. “All I did was take a vacation.”

“On the eve of the product launch.”

“True.”

“It took a lot of guts.”

“I wasn’t trying to make a statement.” She was merely trying to keep her career path alive.

“I thought you were trying to prove we couldn’t live without you.”

Sinclair paused. “Can you?”

“It’s tough. Not that Roger would ever admit it. Amber really stepped up to the plate.”

“Good for her. What about Chantal?”

Ethan cocked his head. “I think she has a future as eye candy.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Sinclair nodded, glad of Ethan’s assessment.

“I really just wanted to give you a high five on the spa deal,” said Ethan.

Sinclair grinned and held up her hand.

Ethan smacked his palm against hers. “Hunter’s a smart man,” he said.

Sinclair nodded her agreement.

“He told me the idea originated with you. So, you know, you probably have a supporter in that corner.”

“That’s good to know,” said Sinclair, trying to keep the secretive glow out of her eyes. Earlier this morning, as the jet taxied to the terminal building at JFK, Hunter had kissed her goodbye and pledged admiration for her business savvy and his support for tonight.

Ethan made for the door. “See you tonight?”

“You will.”

As Ethan left, Amber peeked through the doorway. “I hope you don’t mind.” She took in Sinclair’s outfit one more time. “I gave your name and cell phone as an after-hours contact for the caterer tonight.”

“Of course I don’t mind.” That was standard operating procedure.

“Oh, good.” Amber disappeared.

Sinclair straightened the Castlebay files, hoping her makeover went a whole lot better tonight than it went today.

Ethan hadn’t noticed, Amber was afraid of her, and who knows what Roger had thought? She’d hardly wowed them here on the home front.

Freshly shaved, in his dress shirt and tuxedo slacks, Hunter looped a silk bow tie around his neck. Sinclair would be wearing her most elegant dress tonight, and he wanted them to go well together. Although they were trying to keep their relationship under wraps-okay, their former relationship under wraps-he seriously wanted her to shine. And he was planning on at least a couple of dances.

He stepped in front of the hallway mirror in the Oslands’ New York apartment and leveled the two ends of the tie.

Then his cell phone rang.

He retrieved it from the entry-room table and flipped it open. “This is Hunter.”

“Two things,” said Jack.

“Go,” Hunter replied, squinting at a strand of lint on the crisp white shirt. He brushed it off.

“The incumbent president of Paraguay just dropped dead from a heart attack.”

“No kidding?”

“No kidding.”

Hunter sat down on the entryway bench. “Did you use the mine as collateral?”

“I did.”

“Damn.” That was a setback.

“And two,” Jack continued. “Frontier Cruise Lines is filing for Chapter Eleven tomorrow morning. There are three ships up for sale in the next twelve hours.”

“And our cash position sucks.”

“It sucks.”

Hunter paused. “You really want to get into the cruiseship business?”

“Kristy loved it.”

Hunter could relate. Sinclair loved the spa business.

Wait.

He shook the comparison out of his mind. He had to get used to thinking of himself and Sinclair as separate entities, not as the same thing.

“Where are you?” he asked Jack.

“Sydney.”

Hunter glanced at his watch. “Banks open in London in four hours. You serious about this?”

“What does your gut say?” asked Jack. “You’re the quick thinker.”

“There’s no denying the quality of Frontier ships. And it’s an expanding market. We could dovetail Castlebay marketing with a new cruise-line marketing strategy, maybe even put Castlebays on each of the ships.” Hunter clicked through a dozen other details in his mind. “You have a sense of the Frontier prices versus market?”

“Fire sale.”

“We might be able to do something with the Lithuania electronics plant. Restructure the debt…”

“Gramps will kill us.”

“Welcome to my world.”

There was silence on the line.

“You know,” said Jack. “I think I’m understanding the appeal of this. It’s like Vegas.”

“Higher stakes,” Hunter quipped.

“No kidding,” said Jack.

Hunter glanced at his watch. “I’d have to go to London.” The Lithuania banking was done through Barclays, and they needed the time-zone jump start to pull it together.

“That a problem?” asked Jack.

Hunter’s mind flashed to Sinclair. She’d be all right at the ball. Truth was, he was merely window dressing tonight. She was so ready for this. And, anyway, he could make it up to her later.

“I need to make a couple calls,” he said.

“You get the financing in place, and I’ll nail down the contracts with Richard.”

“Where is he?” asked Hunter.

“L.A.”

“Too bad.”

“Should I send him to New York?”

“It’d be better if you could get him to London.” Hunter paused. “No. Wait. New York will work. Tell him I’ll call him around 4:00 a.m.”

“Perfect.” It was Jack’s turn to pause. “And, Hunter?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

“All part of the game, cousin.” Hunter disconnected.

He dragged off the bow tie and released the buttons to his shirt.

On the way to the bedroom, he dialed Simon and asked him to have the jet ready. Then he changed into a business suit, put another one into a garment bag and called down to his driver to let him know they’d be heading for the airport.

Sinclair stood in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel. She hadn’t expected Hunter to pick her up and escort her every movement. It wasn’t as if they were on a date. Still, she would have felt a little less self-conscious with somebody at her side.

Tuxedoed men accompanied glittering women dressed in traditional black or brilliant-red evening gowns. The couples were smiling and laughing as they made their way past the sweeping staircase and a central glass sculpture. Plush armchairs dotted the multi-story rotunda, while marble pillars supported sconce lights and settees along a lattice-decorated walkway to the main ballroom.

Flashbulbs popped and cameras rolled as the media vied for footage of the A-list event. The PR person in Sinclair was thrilled with the hoopla, the woman in her was disappointed to be there alone. She squelched the silly, emotional reaction and answered a few questions from a reporter for a popular magazine. But then the reporter spotted someone more exciting and quickly wrapped it up.

“Sinclair,” came Sammy Simon’s voice.

She turned to see one of the Lush Beauty Lavender suppliers decked out in a black tux and tie.

He took both of her hands in his. “Lovely,” he drawled appreciatively, taking in her strapless white satin dress. It had a sweetheart neckline and tiny red hearts scattered over the bodice. The hearts gathered into a vertical, then cascaded down one side of the full skirt.

Sammy kissed her on the cheek. “I had no idea you were a fan of haute couture.”

She gave him a laugh. “A little something I picked up in Paris.”

He squeezed her hands. “Find me later for a dance.” And he joined the throng headed for the party.

“Sinclair,” came another voice, and an arm went around her shoulders.

“Mr. Davidson.” She greeted the owner of a chain of specialty shops that had featured Lush Beauty Products for years.

“This is my wife, Cynthia.”

Sinclair smiled and leaned forward to shake the woman’s hand. As she did, Wes Davidson’s hand dropped to an uncomfortable level near her hip.

“And one of my store managers, Reginald Pie.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Pie.” Sinclair shook the man’s hand.

Wes Davidson spoke up. “It’s such a pleasure to see you, Sinclair. I’ve been meaning to arrange a meeting to talk about the new product lines.”

“Absolutely,” she agreed.

“I’ll call you,” he said. “Great to see you looking…so…great.”

Mrs. Davidson reddened.

Sinclair gently pulled away. “Oh, look. There’s Ethan. I need to say hello. So good to see you Mr. Davidson. Mrs. Davidson.”

Sinclair slipped away.

She made a beeline for Ethan. He was talking to two of their distributors.

“But if the price breaks don’t work for the small retailers,” one of the men was saying, “you’re going to compromise your core business.”

“Hello, Ethan,” Sinclair broke in, grateful to find a safe conversation.

The men stopped talking and turned to stare at her.

“You remember Sinclair,” said Ethan.

What a strange thing to say. Of course they remembered her.

“Sinclair,” said Ron. “You look incredible.”

“Fabulous to see you again,” said David.

Then the conversation stopped dead.

Sinclair glanced from one man to the other. “You were talking about price breaks?” she prompted.

David chuckled. “Oh, not tonight,” he said. “You look incredible,” he repeated Ron’s sentiment.

“Thank you.” But that didn’t mean her brain had stopped working.

There was another strained silence.

“I’ll see you all inside?” Sinclair offered.

The men seemed to relax.

“Yes,” said David.

“Looking forward to it,” said Ron.

Ethan winked.

Sinclair walked away and immediately spotted Chantal.

She was surrounded by admirers, and she didn’t seem to mind they were focused on her looks and not on her business savvy. She was a glittering jewel in low-cut bright red, and she seemed to revel in the role.

Sinclair, on the other hand, was having serious reservations about her makeover. Men used to take her seriously. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt so awkward in a business conversation.

Her cell phone rang in her evening purse, and she welcomed the distraction. She picked up the call.

“Can you hang on?” she asked, not expecting to be able to hear the answer.

She sought out an alcove behind the concierge desk, next to a bank of phone booths.

“Hello?”

“It’s Hunter,” came a welcome and familiar voice.

“Hey, you,” she responded, her voice softening, and the tension inside her dissipating to nothing. “Are you out front?” She glanced at the foyer, straining to see him coming through the main doors.

“I’ve had a complication.”

“Oh?”

He was going to be late. Sinclair tried to take the news in stride. She really had no expectations of him. At least, she had no right to have any expectations of him. But in that split second, she realized she’d been counting the minutes until he’d arrive.

“I’m on my way to London.”

“Now?” she couldn’t help but ask.

“There’s a couple of cruise ships, and a bankruptcy, and a complication in the Paraguay election.”

“I understand,” she quickly put in.

“I’m sorry-”

“No need. It’s business.” She’d been warned he’d hurt her. Hadn’t she been warned?

She heard him draw a breath. Traffic sounds came through his end of the phone.

“We only have twelve hours,” he told her.

She forced a laugh. “Another quick deal?”

“Jack’s on board this time.”

“That’s good.”

“We can get a really great price.”

“Of course.” She tried to ignore the crushing disappointment pressing down on her chest. She had no right to feel this way. He’d done so much for her already.

“You’re great,” he told her. “You’ll do fine on your own.”

“I know,” she nodded, realizing how very much she’d been counting on their last dance tonight. There was something about their relationship that cried out for closure-a closure she hadn’t yet experienced.

“I wouldn’t do it, except-”

“Hunter, stop.”

“What?”

“I knew this going in,” she pointed out, proud of her even tone.

“Knew what?”

“You. You’re reckless and impulsive. You have to fly to London. You have to buy ships. And you have to do it in less than twelve hours. That’s you. That what I lo…like about you. Have a great time.”

He was silent on the other end.

“You sure?” he finally asked.

“Do I sound sure?”

“Well, yeah.”

Her lying skills had obviously improved. “There you go. I’ll see you at the office. I gotta go now.”

“But-”

“See you.” Sinclair clicked off the phone.

She rounded the corner, taking in what now looked like a daunting mix of finely dressed people. And at the same time, she was beginning to fear her colleagues wouldn’t take her seriously. While Chantal seemed to be managing the glam persona with aplomb. And now Hunter wasn’t even going to show up.

Damn.

She had to stop caring about that.

Had she expected to be Cinderella tonight?

Had she expected he’d sweep the new her onto the dance floor, realize he’d fallen madly in love, and carry her off to happily ever after?

It was a ridiculous fantasy, and Sinclair was horrified to realize it was hers.

Her fingers went to the ruby-and-diamond goldfish bracelet-the one she hadn’t taken off in a week.

She’d thought about him every moment while she’d primped tonight. She’d worn a white, whale-boned bustier. It gave body to the dress, but it was also shamelessly sexy. She told herself no one would see it. But, secretly, deep down inside her soul, she’d hoped he would. She’d hoped they’d find an excuse to make love one more time, or maybe a hundred more times.

Truth was, Kristy’s fear had proven true. Sinclair had fallen hopelessly in love with Hunter. Hunter, on the other hand, skipped the ball to make a new business deal.

Her eyes burned while a knot of shame formed in her belly. Suddenly the designer clothes felt like zero protection for her broken heart.

She should have stuck with her regular wardrobe. Beneath her skirts and blazers and sensible blouses, she was in control of her world. People saw what she wanted them to see, and they respected what she represented. She was a fool to think she could beat Chantal at her own game. And she was a fool to think she could hold on to Hunter.

Reckless and impulsive. She’d heard those words so many times. There was nothing Sinclair could offer him that would compare to a high-risk, hundred-million-dollar deal in London at midnight.

She stepped away from the alcove, determined to get this horrible evening over with as soon as possible.

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