A Strong and Tender Thread

Written By: Jackie Weger - Jun• 22•13

Excerpt: A Strong and Tender Thread

Micah Davidson: He was unloved, passionate and arrogant in the way only self-made men can be.

Gabrielle Hensley: She was beautiful, but damaged and ached to be his.

 “WHAT’S WRONG with us, Gabby…?” Tim’s plaintive voice droned in Gabrielle’s ear as he plopped  in the vacant seat next to her. No Smoking/Fasten Seat Belts signs flashed on and he buckled up. Gabrielle ignored him. Damn! They had been over this before—too many times, and now he was making a pest of himself again, staring at her until she answered him. His scrutiny made her uncomfortable but she resisted the urge to shift away from him in her seat. Out of the corner of her eye she watched keen appreciation flicker across his features as he drank in the sculpted angles of her face: the wide forehead, naturally arched brows, her small nose centered exactly right between high curved cheekbones—a perfect foil for the long curling sweep of black lashes veiling sensitive brown eyes. Her skin was the color of dark wild honey. Tim’s eyes lingered on the fullness of her mouth. Gabrielle frowned when he began to draw a finger up the skin of her arm; she moved her elbow off the thin armrest between them



“Answer me, Gabby.”

Gabrielle sighed. “There’s nothing wrong with us, Tim. There just isn’t any ‘us,’ as you so inaptly put it.”

“You can’t mean that. I love you.” His boyish features had a look of petulance, wide mouth drooped into a pout, a characteristic Gabrielle had noticed on their very first date and one she didn’t like. Tim used it often, during rehearsals when the choreographer criticized his dancing, or when he didn’t get his own way. One reason why Tim would never progress beyond the chorus.

She forced herself to look Tim in the eye. “I’m not in love with you, I’m not in love with anyone. I like you as a friend—nothing more. I don’t understand how you got such a different idea into your head.”  She knew her  independence challenged Tim, but after the fiasco with Luke Bryant, she didn’t  want a man.  Men wanted to dominate, possess, and issues orders.

“You gave me the idea,” he accused. “The way you look at me, the way you dress, the way you walk, even—”

“Stop it I don’t look at you in any special way. I can’t help the way I walk. I’m a dancer. We both are. We’re trained to be graceful. You walk as fluidly as I do. Why can’t you just be a good friend? Instead of trying to—oh, never mind!” Disgusted, she turned to stare out the small square window.

A full white moon hung in the sky, as if reluctant to withdraw its magic. Grayness blanketed the land as the plane swerved for its approach to the runway, punching a hole in the muted silver of false dawn. The monolithic Goodyear sign glared neon-blue on the vast barnlike structure that housed the blimp—an aerial signpost and a familiar landmark to Houstonians.

Gabrielle felt a tingle of excitement sift through the jet lag and acrid aftertaste of a dozen cups of instant coffee. After the Civic Ballet’s exhausting tour in London, it was good to be getting home again. She smiled ruefully. What had really tired her were the past four days of sight-seeing and shopping. The troupe had elected to take their off-days in Europe instead of Houston. And who wouldn’t… Tomorrow was a workday—rehearsals at three. It would only be a short session to review the tour, what had worked and what hadn’t, for the benefit of those who had not been among those chosen to make the trip.

One thing had worked beautifully: She, Gabrielle Hensley, a black premiere danseuse in the role of Cinderella, had enchanted English audiences. Ballet was enormously popular in London and all performances in Sadler’s Wells Theatre had been sold out.

Gabrielle fell in love with the English people and they with her. She had been the darling of the theatergoers, feted with flowers and champagne after every performance, with dozens of invitations to supper parties and private clubs. She had enjoyed it all immensely. There was even a rumor that the Royal Ballet would invite her to dance Giselle next spring. Gabrielle thought the formal invitation might even now be in the director’s briefcase—he had been treating her like a prima ballerina for the past week, a behavior, for him that was quite out of the ordinary.

Gabrielle yawned and covered her mouth with a dainty hand, wondering how long it would take them to get through customs. Receipts for all her purchases were in her tote. Recalling exactly how much the designer outfits had cost made her shudder, and there was still the luxury tax to be paid to make them even more dear.

The thought reminded Gabrielle of the only flaw in her career—despite the glamour, the parties, and the heady applause, the salary was dreadful. To make ends meet she often had to take outside jobs and she realized with a sinking heart she had acted much too hastily when she told Mr. Garrett she wouldn’t return to her job as translator after the London tour. She made a mental note to call him first thing tomorrow and ask for her job back. With her finances in shambles she would have to find time, somehow, to work at least part-time.

If Mr. Garrett had already replaced her at his real estate office, perhaps he would recommend her to one of his colleagues. He had praised her often for her work, not only in translating Castilian Spanish formalized in contracts but for her ability to converse with his Chicano clients. Gabrielle had Val to thank for that. Having a Chicano roommate these past three years had helped her with all the nuances and dialect of the spoken language, nuances she could never have learned in the classroom.

The huge jet touched down and rolled along the concrete runway, guided by the pilot to the disembarkation tunnel. Engines screamed, ground down to a piercing whine, then stopped altogether. Silence hung in the air for several seconds before passengers began to stir, stretch, and push into the aisles.

Tim reached over to unbuckle her seat belt. Gabrielle pushed his hands away. “I can do it myself. ”

“You broke up with Luke,” Tim said without preamble, “because he said you couldn’t dance after you were married. Marry me, Gabby. You can dance as long as you want.”

She stared at Tim in astonishment. He was obsessed with the idea that she was still in love with Luke Bryant and thought sincerely that was why she refused to be aroused by him.

Gabrielle shook her head wearily. “Tim, I’m tired. You’ve been awake as long as I have, so I know you must be too. Please, just drop it, will you?”

His eyes were apologetic. “Don’t look so upset, Gabby. You’re right, we are tired, we can talk about it later.”

Gabrielle stood up and stretched her limber frame, searching among the jackets and soft luggage overhead for her tote.

“Do you need a ride home from the airport?” Tim asked as they pushed their way into the crowded aisle.

“No, my mother’s meeting me.”

Nearly asleep on her feet before she got through customs, Gabrielle threw an angry glance at Davila, who had been ahead of her in the long line. The scatterbrained girl had not kept a single receipt for her purchases, and the ensuing confusion as the customs agents unpacked Davila’s bags held up the line for more than twenty minutes.

Relief washed over Gabrielle when she spotted her mother’s features above the heads of her colleagues, then she smiled with ironic bemusement. Emily Hensley was elegantly dressed and coiffured even at this ungodly predawn hour. She called to her mother.

“Here I am, Mother!” Emily swiveled her head to locate her daughter, then pushed through the milling crowd to hug Gabrielle briefly.

“Welcome home,” she added, smiling her greeting and at the same time signaling for a redcap to carry the mound of luggage at Gabrielle’s feet.

“Gabby, wait!” Tim rushed to her side. “May I give you a lift to rehearsals tomorrow?”

Gabrielle watched her mother hurrying the redcap toward the exit. “Oh, all right, Tim, but only if you promise not to discuss anything heavier than the weather.”

“I promise,” he said with alacrity. “Two thirty?”

“That’s fine,” she called over her shoulder as she ran to catch up with Emily.

“I’m sorry to rush you, Gab, but if we don’t get going now, we’ll get caught in rush-hour traffic and be hours getting home.”

“That’s okay, Mother. I’m dead on my feet.” Gabrielle folded herself into the front seat of the small sedan and another wide yawn overtook her. She would forget everything, she told herself, forget Luke Bryant, Tim’s persistence, rehearsals tomorrow, the state of her finances, and just sleep. Her lashes drooped against the curve of her cheek and only the far recess of her mind registered the sound of the engine and the movement of the car as Emily drew it skillfully into the outgoing traffic.

“Gabby, are you awake?”

“Just barely, Mother.”

“Listen to me for a minute. When I said welcome home, I meant it.”

“I know you did.” Gabrielle was too tired to puzzle about her mother’s tone and tried vaguely to recall if they had had another argument before she had left for London.

“You’re missing the point. I mean our home, your father’s and mine.”

Gabrielle sat up straight, alert. “What are you talking about? Has something happened to my apartment?”

“Not exactly.” Emily hesitated. “You’ve been pushed out of it, I’m afraid.”

“Mother! Will you quit beating around the bush! Didn’t Val pay the rent? How have we been pushed out?”

“Not both of you,” Emily explained. “Just you. Val has a new roommate—her husband. She got married this week.”

“What!” Gabrielle exclaimed, astounded. She and Val had been roommates for more than three years. Val had missed the London tour because she had sprained an ankle badly only two days before they were due to leave. The director had been furious at the diminutive Chicano, not to mention the wardrobe mistress who had to sew steadily for the entire two days to refit costumes for a larger girl. Val hadn’t mentioned anyone special to Gabrielle at all. At least, Gabrielle didn’t think she had. Val had been falling in and out of love so often the past three years, Gabrielle seldom listened carefully anymore to her friend’s waxing eloquent about her newest beau. Damn! And damn again!

“I think Val said his name is Pietro, and he’s not a dancer,” Emily continued. “He works offshore. I assume he’s on one of the rigs out in the gulf. But you’ll have to call her yourself. You know how she is when she gets excited. She reverts to Spanish and I can’t understand a word she says. I did learn Pietro has already moved in with his things.”

Gabrielle groaned. “Mother, are you sure? Maybe they’re just spending their honeymoon there or Val just wants to stay in our apartment until they can find their own place.”

“Gabby, you will just have to call her yourself for the details.” Emily glanced at her daughter. “I know how much that apartment means to you, Gab, but your father and I are glad to have you home with us, even if it’s just for a few days. We seldom see you anymore.”

“Mother, that’s not true and you know it.”

“Once or twice a month for dinner is hardly what I’d call visiting, especially when you usually eat and run.” The freeway was becoming clogged with early-morning commuters anxious to get into Houston before the inevitable flat tire or fender-bender backed up cars for several miles. Emily shot off to an access road, taking a shortcut to the university campus where she lived. “Personally, I think you should think about doing what Val did,” she said, after negotiating around the line of cars at the exit ramp.

Gabrielle tensed, hating the familiar and unwanted subject that always came up between them. Tim’s pursuit of the same subject had already served to ruffle her usually calm nerves.

“What’s that, Mother? Sprain my ankle and miss a tour with the ballet or get married?”

Emily ignored the sarcasm. “Get married, Gabby.” She stared straight ahead and pretended intense concentration on her driving. “You’ll soon be twenty-five. It’s time you were married. You could have been already,” she voiced mild rebuke, “to Luke.”

Gabrielle clinched her hands in her lap, feeling an angry knot of tension forming in her stomach. “That’s over and done with and has been for some months. Luke is married now. I don’t know why you insist on bringing up his name every time we see one another. I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Well, all my friends’ daughters are married. And two have babies already.” Emily stated her most practical reasons for discussing the subject at all.

“Mother, do you mind if I fall in love first? Or should I just advertise for a husband, so you can tell your bridge circle that your daughter is married too? What should I say? ‘Tall, handsome black man desired for marriage to equally attractive black woman. Virility a must! In-laws anxious to become grandparents.”

“There’s no need to get nasty, Gab. I’m just trying to point out—Well, to tell you the truth, advertising is what you’ll have to do if you continue to let dancing be the consuming interest in your life. There are other things, you know.”

“Of course I know, and I do expect to marry someday, Mother. Someday. Right now all I want to do is dance. I’ve finally just won a permanent slot in the Civic Ballet and I don’t want to give it up. Besides,” she declared, “I like dancing, I’m good. I’ve had lead roles in both Giselle and Cinderella this year alone.” Gabrielle’s voice trembled with emotion. “If you didn’t want me to dance, you should have never let me have lessons and then sent me to the Fine Arts Academy.”

“You dance beautifully, Gabby. I enjoy watching you perform, but you’re obsessed with dancing and we—I didn’t expect you to make it a career.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes in exasperation. Those were the very same words Luke had used. Her mind raced unwillingly to the evening she had broken their engagement. She had been excited about winning the role of Snow Queen in the Nutcracker. Luke had been arrogantly amused, telling her to enjoy it while she could, because after they married in the spring, he expected her to stay home and raise their own little ballerinas. Gabrielle had been stunned by his attitude. He refused to listen to her when she said she wouldn’t give up dancing. She’d snatched his ring from her finger and left it lying on the coffee table as she walked—no, ran—from his apartment.

A few months later when she learned Luke had married, she discovered she had never really loved him. She had been in love with being in love—romantic fantasy, she realized now. She would never make that mistake a second time!

Luke had been tender, kind, and fun to be with, but there was never the electric, breathless feeling she had always imagined. Even his lovemaking had been tame, never once releasing the butterflies in her stomach from their silken cocoons.

“You are our only child, Gabby. I just want to enjoy my grandchildren—if I ever get any—before I’m too old.” Emily slid a glance at her daughter to see if her words were having an impact.

Gabrielle grimaced, having heard this argument a dozen or more times. “I promise you, Mother, I will get married—one of these days, and I will produce a couple of little darlings for you to oooh and aaah over. Now, can we just let it drop for a while?”

“Humph!” Emily snorted inelegantly. “You won’t want two, if the first is anything like mine.”

Gabrielle laughed, despite her anger. “You aren’t very subtle, Mother.”

“Subtlety is not one of my finer points,” Emily agreed.

“I could try artificial insemination,” Gabrielle suggested blandly, “then we wouldn’t have to worry about a husband.”

Emily’s regal head lifted on her slender neck. “I can wait for . . . for you to . . . I mean . . .”

“I’m so glad we finally agree, Mother.”

Emily tossed her daughter a caustic look. “I’d forgotten how troublesome and impertinent you are.”

“It’s not something I learned, Mother,” she answered with feigned insouciance. “I’m sure it must be hereditary—from whom, I wonder?”

“Now who lacks subtlety?” Emily issued the statement as she braked to a stop in the short paved drive of her home.

The cream-colored stucco two-level house perched companionably on the very edge of the prestigious Monroe University campus. Except for its pale beige color, it was exactly like the four others on the block.

“I’ll get Hattie to help me with your cases, Gabby,” Emily offered, seeing how truly weary her daughter was. “You go on upstairs.”

Gabrielle agreed. “I’ll just take this one, though.” She lifted the large ivory suitcase from the top of the heap.

Her mother hadn’t changed the decor of her room, Gabrielle noted with wry amusement. It was still the same—fitted for the teen-aged ballerina in soft pinks and off-whites. Flowered prints raced up one wall and met with glee the same print in a ruffled canopy over the twin bed. Now Gabrielle preferred muted shades of ice-green and antique browns. Touches of variegated yellows accented her apartment. Her apartment. Not anymore though, if all that her mother said was true. She would call Val first thing in the morning, Gabrielle thought. Today she just wanted to sleep.

But first there were her new clothes to unpack. Lifting the suitcase onto the quilted pink satin spread, Gabrielle smiled and stroked the jeweled, waist-length jacket before holding it up to the new sun filtering through the blinds. Stones colored emerald and garnet were delicately embroidered against heavy black satin; they caught the light and shimmered. A double layer of the same fabric lined the entire jacket, including the slightly belled three-quarter sleeves. “You cost me a month’s rent,” she said aloud as she draped it on a padded hanger.

With a quick flick of her wrist Gabrielle shook wrinkles from the Chinese silk shirtdress. She had especially liked the Mikado print against a green background. It set off to perfection the golden, raw-honey tone of her skin. Her wide brown eyes sparkled with approval again as she unpacked an off-the-shoulder tunic of black chiffon shot with tiny strands of copper. This alone, she decided, was worth the loss of her privacy; but only for a short time, she amended. The matching ankle-length pleated culottes were intriguing. Their inner seams were cleverly concealed in a gossamer swirl of slender silk-lined pleats. Gabrielle’s fourth purchase was a daring black chiffon blouse that could be worn with the culottes in case she tired of the tunic. She had hesitated to buy the blouse when she noticed the amount of cleavage it exposed, but the thin copper circlet that locked it around her neck convinced her. She could cover her bare shoulders with the jeweled jacket.

This small task completed, and too exhausted to bathe, Gabrielle swept the empty case to the floor and crawled wearily between cool sheets on the narrow bed.

 * * * *

 A FLOCK of wild, chattering parakeets invaded the jasmine, taunting Micah Davidson as he peered out wooden-shutter louvers. He watched raw steam percolate from the verdant jungle, forming a torpid mist on the peak of the equatorial mountain. His eyes flicked from the small clearing floored with peeled logs to the slender spur hacked through thick, tangled foliage. The dark green mass hovered tunnel like over the one-lane road. Here and there a shard of sunlight found an opening, piercing the shadowy dimness.

The early-morning sun shifted, slipping between the wooden shutters to trace a narrow, striped pattern across the polished wood floor. As the sun rose, the pattern waffled, leaping over natural burlap coverings on enormous ottomans between matching twin sofas, either of which could contain Micah’s more than six-foot length with a comfortable margin.

The bands of sunlight kept reaching toward the black man as he leaned into the cool interior of his house. They streaked across close-cropped hair framing his carved mahogany face, spotlighting a wide brow that narrowed to ash-black sideburns, cut precision straight across the top of his strong, square jaw. A straight nose separated stark brown eyes shuttered with a thick sweep of dark lashes. Parallel ridges under his nose were responsible for the sensual curve of his full lips; an ironic smile brought to the surface by an indestructible inner awareness heightened the sensuality.

Micah sat relaxed, displaying the arrogance of an immobile stalker with knowledge about the habits of his prey and determined against useless motion. A single splinter of sun snagged on an ancient gold medallion that lay against his solid muscular chest.

A white German shepherd lay on a priceless Savonnerie, his ears perked forward at the sound of a motor straining in low gear. The dog stretched and yawned, padded over to Micah, and stood under his hand, accepting as his due the stroking of lean brown fingers behind his ears.

A Jeep struggled over the sharp rise on the mountain and the driver carefully negotiated the small bridge spanning a deep chasm. Micah moved with lithe animal grace closer to the shuttered windows, startling the parakeets into flight. His gaze followed as they soared with loud squawking and beating of wings, sorting themselves into a neat formation to disappear over the red-tiled roof.

The Jeep came to an abrupt halt in front of the jasmine. Micah watched the thin, faded man as he climbed from the Jeep, and a trace of sadness flickered across his face, softening the harshness. He and Benton were the same age—thirty-eight—yet Benton looked far older; worn and bent from the ravages of injuries received while they were on a midnight patrol in the jungles of Vietnam. Life played strange games with humanity, Micah mused, and the thought brought a tight smile to his lips.

For months after Micah had joined the elite special services group in Asia, he and Benton, the only two blacks in the platoon, had fought one another viciously, very nearly killing each other on more than one occasion. But when Benton had been ambushed by the Vietcong, Micah couldn’t stand by and watch his adversary die; it was as though he resented the enemy stealing the pleasure he had relished for himself.

Their relationship had changed after that, as Benton slowly shriveled into a shell and began to cling to Micah. With a subtlety unknown to both of them, Micah became his brother’s keeper. Benton, though, refused to be pitied, much preferring Micah’s anger, enjoying it and, very often, deliberately provoking it—as though driven by some remnant of his former self. Micah wiped the sadness from his face, remembering only that he and Benton had been together for more than twelve years, with Benton acting as his secretary, and a damned good one at that.

Benton’s footsteps, slow and measured, sounded on the wide veranda. Micah’s movement was certain and fluid; supple muscles and tendons flexed in the silent forward thrust of his body. His long powerful fingers grasped the knob, jerking the door open.

“What took you so long?” he demanded, raking Benton’s sweat-drenched body with a careful appraising glance. Controlled anger waxed the low resonance of his voice.

Benton shoved his glasses high on his brow, sighed wearily, and pushed past Micah into the cool, shadowed interior.

“I thought you were at the river camp. I went there first. Then there was a problem with oil pressure in the helicopter. Max had to stay in Coco Solito.” Benton wheezed, sucking in air to expand the cavity of his single lung. “I had to borrow Jinks’ Jeep to drive up here.” Carl Benton smiled slightly at the angry glint in Micah’s eyes. “I also had a devil of a time doing these translations myself.”

“Is there some problem with the radio? You could’ve called me.” Micah took the sheaf of contracts from his secretary’s outstretched hand, quickly scanned the handwritten figures, then tossed the papers onto his desk.

“Yes, it’s working. I thought about calling you, but what the hell… I wouldn’t have been here any sooner.”

Micah glanced up and noted the battle-ready gleam in Benton’s eyes. He smiled, refusing to be baited.

“We need someone who can translate these contracts into English without so damn many mistakes. Leave off one zero”—his voice was low—“and it would take a year to make up the loss. How many contracts are there altogether?”

Benton wheezed and pulled an already damp handkerchief from his pocket to wipe away the beads of perspiration on his narrow upper lip. “About eighteen major ones, then there are subcontracts for loggers, engineers, and heavy equipment operators. The land lease and conservation agreement with the government of Panama are the two most critical. Registration for the cargo ship should be translated too. Captain Dressier called, by the way; the Upsure is safely berthed and dry-docked in Houston. Refurbishing and refitting should be completed no later than the first of the year.”

Micah lowered himself onto the thick cushion of the burlap-covered sofa. No skirting marred the pristine lines of the furniture, nor any piece in the house—a foil against any pests with the audacity to seek hiding in the cool, squared structure.

“What about the lumber mill on Chico Bayou in Pensacola?”

Benton wheezed and sucked in air. “They’ve agreed on forty to sixty-foot logs. And to take all the cedar, provided we give them an exclusive deal on mahogany. I said yes. We off-load in Pensacola Bay and tugs push the logs up the bayou. We’re responsible for forming up rafts and any debris left in the bay. They pay for the tugs.”

“Deadlines and schedules?” Micah scissored the words.

“None but our own. I explained that we’d have to float the logs down the Mamoni River during the rainy season.” Benton hesitated for a fraction of a second before continuing. “Micah, what we really need on these contracts is someone from the outside.

“If you use a translator from Panama, word will get around that we’ve got this logging project off the ground. That will bring in a crush of speculators more than anxious to cater to the needs of the loggers, not to mention an element or two that we definitely don’t want. Or do you…?”

Micah exploded. “Hell, no! We’ll have enough problems housing the married men without adding to the problem. The less women in the logging camps, the better for all of us.”

“Oh, well, I was just checking,” Benton said. “We’re not set up to handle it anyway. We couldn’t hire a security force big enough to keep people off the Cuna Indian reservation. That might create a problem for us. The government wants the Indians eased into civilization—such as it is—slowly. Any great influx right now and I think you’d get your land lease voided. There is one other thing: with General Torrijos dead, the National Guard is wary of a lot of strangers in the jungles. You get two men together and right away they think you’ve got a rebel force trying to overthrow the government.”

“All right,” Micah said, “I’m paying you for solutions. What is it?”

Benton’s glasses slid down to the tip of his nose; he used the moment to glance at Micah’s face. Seeing only a calm facade, he sighed. “Bring someone here until the contracts are translated, typed, and signed. Then if there are any problems, your attorneys won’t have any difficulty sifting through the legalese. The job requirements are really very simple—Spanish. English, and the ability to type. A temporary position, three months at the outside, even if any renegotiations are necessary. The important thing is to bring him here to Chepo on a tourist visa; we’d never get approval to bring in an American translator when the embassies here are full of them.”

Micah’s sweep of lashes concealed his eyes. “You could be right. Take care of it.”

Benton grunted, taking care to hide his disappointment that the suggestion did not provoke an argument. “You want me to go through a personnel agency or see if we’ve got somebody in our Atlanta office?”

“No, call Professor Nate Hensley at Monroe University in Houston. Tell him what we’re looking for. And mention my name. If he has any candidates for the job, you go to Houston and interview them.” Micah paused at his desk, stuffing the contracts into a thin leather briefcase. “Are you driving me to Coco Solito?”

Benton looked startled. “God, I hope not. I can hardly breathe in this heat as it is. Max said he’d have the oil leak fixed and be here no later than eleven. I’m going to ask Maria to fix me a light breakfast, then I’m resting until Amand gets here. He’s giving me a lift back to Panama City.”

“Amand…” Micah’s eyes alighted with interest. “Where did you see him?”

“He was in the Mamoni River camp. Helen and Jinks invited him to lunch.”

“What was that slick-talking priest doing in my logging camp?” Micah asked, suspicious of the Jesuit’s intentions.

“Just the usual.” Benton smiled, counting the items on his fingers for graphic display. “Raving about the effects of modern civilization on the Indians, swearing that the logging operation is going to destroy any clues that might lead to documenting the influence of Chinese culture on the Chibchan, and trying to coax Jinks into vaccinating some children on the Cuna reservation.” Benton folded his fingers down. “Let’s see—the last two things he was doing was begging the use of Jinks’ razor and waiting to dine on the wild pig Helen was cooking.” Benton shrugged, a sad, resigned gesture of one who loves to eat but can’t. “Sure smelled good too.”

Micah picked out the only item in Benton’s recital that interested him. “Just who’s supposed to pay for my medical team to vaccinate these Indians?”

“Oh.  You—who else?”

Micah grunted and snapped the briefcase shut. “I have a bit of baggage for you to drop off at Tocumen Airport on your way in.

“Okay. Amand is driving his Jeep. There’ll be plenty of room. What is it?”

“Vanessa,” Micah said dryly.

“Vanessa! I thought that was over—”

“It was. It is. She invited herself,” Micah said over his shoulder as he strode out the door to the inner courtyard. He kept to the shade of the roofed veranda, skirting the mosaic-tiled footpaths. Still he had to lower his lashes against the searing glare of the brilliant tropical sun; it beat down in waves on the spacious inner yard, planted with native trees and shrubs.

Maria came out of her kitchen and threw a handful of crumbs to the parakeets complaining among themselves in a roof-tall mango tree; its spreading limbs were laden with green fruit.

“Don’t do that, Maria!” he called to her. “We have enough pests around here without you encouraging more.” Maria nodded and smiled, standing at the banister until Micah entered his bedroom, then brushed the remaining crumbs from her plump brown hand. The parakeets fluttered down, salvaging every tidbit.

The bedroom was dim, still shuttered against the light. A ceiling fan rotated lazily, stirring the cooled air. The throbbing of its motor droned and lulled, unheard by the sleeping woman in Micah’s immense square bed. Her voluptuous form was vague through the white mist of mosquito netting draped from its foot-round pivot in the heavy cedar beam more than nine feet overhead.

Micah pulled the netting aside and gazed at the lovely bronze woman. The expensive, flowery scent she wore wafted over him, reminding him of the lusty response she had evoked in him last night. He felt the stirring in his loins, and for a long moment he thought of undressing, then he swore a muffled oath under his breath. A hard glint shrouded his eyes as his lean brown fingers shook her shoulder.

“Micah…” The voice was low and husky with sleep. She turned on her back, exposing a full tawny breast, provocative against the white muslin sheet.

“Who did you expect?” he asked.  “Or have you already forgotten whose bed you spent the night in?” There was no humor in the slant of his smile.

Vanessa smiled coyly. “Oh, I know, all right—you’re still the best, Micah.”

“I’m sure you say that to all your discards.” He let his eyes slide coldly to her exposed breasts, then lifted to meet her gaze. “Get up and get dressed—don’t bother to unpack. Benton and Father Chardin are giving you a lift to the airport.”

“Airport? What do you mean? I just got here!”

“And you are just leaving,” he said with amused sarcasm.

Vanessa sat up, wrapping the sheet around her nakedness. “What will I tell my father?”

“About what?”

“Why, about us.”

“Vanessa, there’s nothing about us and you know it.”

“There used to be, Micah. We can work it out. I made a mistake, I admit it.” Micah’s jaw went rigid.

“There’s nothing to work out and there’s no use trying to dredge up the past. You were the one who left, remember? You were the one who called the wedding off. I won’t be played for a fool twice.”

“You owe me, Micah!” The beauty of her features disintegrated in a snarl.

“I don’t owe you a thing. Get up and get dressed.” He allowed the flap of netting to fall into place.

“You wouldn’t be filthy rich today if I hadn’t talked Daddy into giving you a loan,” she spat at him through the white mist.

Micah’s head tilted back as his low, rich laughter sounded against the whitewashed ceiling. “Your daddy,” he mimed, “is as greedy as every banker in Atlanta. He never made a loan to me; that was a myth to cover our business arrangement and you know it.” Micah eased his supple frame into a carved teak chair, its soft cushions well used to his lean imprint. He lifted the lid of an elegant enameled box on the table at his elbow and chose a cigarette.

“I’ll take one of those,” Vanessa demanded, her voice seething with anger.

He lighted two. “Come out from under that net if you want to smoke.” Vanessa wrapped the sheet around her and tucked the thin gauze around the heavy, dark post on the bed. Micah smiled as she snatched the cigarette from his fingers. He rested his head on the high back of the chair and let his long curled lashes veil his eyes.


An old-fashioned Category Romance


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