by Gail Dayton
The sharks were circling.
Kurt Collier stood on the fringes of the hotel ballroom and watched them. Never mind that they didn’t look anything like aquatic predators with teeth, these glittering denizens of high society betrayed their true nature by their actions. At the first sign of weakness, they’d whip into a vicious feeding frenzy and tear their victim to shreds.
He sipped his drink–Perrier with lime–wanting his wits about him in these dangerous waters. Then he eased into the pattern of movement. He didn’t yet know many of the more important people here in Palm Beach but society was bound to work here the same way it worked back in Alexandria, Virginia where he’d grown up. Success depended on connections. Kurt had come here tonight to make them. He let the smile spread naturally across his face and slipped into the familiar role, preparing to charm the socks off these society matrons. God, he was tired of this.
For a second, Kurt’s smile slipped, but he levered it back into place before anyone noticed. He hoped. He couldn’t let them see behind his mask, not here. Not now. The sharks would be on him in seconds if they saw.
Kurt eased toward a cluster of men he’d met in the past few weeks. Tonight would go well. Failure was not an option. He’d come to Florida to open a new branch of the family law firm, but not to “prove himself” as his father believed. He’d been driven by sheer survival.
The chokehold of family expectations had pulled tighter with every year that passed, strangling every independent impulse, hollowing him out until nothing was left but the set of masks he wore, one for every occasion. He didn’t know who he was any more. He wasn’t sure whether he existed at all. If he succeeded here, he could escape. And to succeed, he had to have those connections.
She was supposed to be here tonight–the woman of his dreams. Kurt had done his research. He knew exactly who could deliver his desperate dreams on a silver platter. Juliana Nyland knew everybody who was anybody in Palm Beach.
She knew the nobodies too–those with wealth, but without the same social status as their old money peers. Astonishingly capable, given her youth–he didn’t know her age exactly, but she was young–she organized half the benefit parties that took place during the Season in Palm Beach, and kept the other half from deteriorating into a witchfest of competing egos. Kurt wanted to turn those qualities to his own benefit.
He couldn’t introduce himself to the local aristocracy of wealth without wholly defeating his purpose. Manners and proper form were important. He’d joined the Polo Club, and actually played the game. He’d met a number of men at various business functions. But in his business, the wives were often the key, and to meet them, he had to be introduced. Juliana Nyland could do that for him.
But first, he had to wangle an introduction to Miss Nyland, and he hadn’t a clue what she looked like. In all the photos of the endless parties printed in Palm Beach’s self-congratulatory newspaper, Miss Nyland was always behind something or someone. Or she was turned aside, or moving so that her face was blurred, or otherwise somehow obscured. It frustrated him beyond bearing. How could he meet her if he couldn’t identify her?
It was possible Miss Nyland might not want anything Kurt had to offer, but the way others spoke of her made him think he might be able to tempt her. She was a wallflower, good enough to plan the party but shunted aside when the time came to enjoy it. A little attention could go a long way with a woman like that. Women generally found him an acceptable escort. Most times he had far less trouble attracting women than he did peeling them off once they’d attached themselves.
Not that he was trying to take advantage of her. They could help each other. Whatever she wanted, he would offer. Probably he should just offer her a job. It would be far simpler, less likely to create false expectations. He could create a position, say, in public relations. That was the ticket. A job.
Then again, work seemed to be a four-letter word in Palm Beach. No one worked if they could help it. They lived off their trust funds–the same trust funds his firm wanted to administer. A job might not appeal to Miss Nyland, but something had to. He just had to figure out what it might be.
“Hello, Kurt.” A feminine hand slid up his arm and looped around it. The hand belonged to Felicia Gunning, one of the women proving difficult to detach.
“Felicia.” Kurt removed her hand, gave it a handshake-ish squeeze, and let go.
“You haven’t called. I’ve missed you.” She pressed up against him, offering a look down her generous cleavage.
He moved away, resisting the invitation. “I told you. I’ve been busy.”
“Not too busy for me.” Felicia followed. Couldn’t the woman take a hint?
Of course she couldn’t. It was why he’d broken off with her after only three dates. One of the reasons. Her predilection for creating scenes, the louder the better, was the primary reason, and he didn’t want one now.
“I’m sorry. I thought I’d made it clear.” He backed away again. He’d tried again and again to let her down gently, hoping she’d take a hint, but she was impervious to hints. Perhaps bluntness would work. “I told you, I wouldn’t be calling again.”
“But you didn’t really mean it.”
“Yes, Felicia. I did. If you’ll excuse me.” Kurt spun on his heel and walked away, out of the ballroom, heading straight for the men’s room. Surely Felicia wouldn’t follow him in there. And if she did, the scene she would inevitably create would take place in relative privacy.
Kurt hid out for several minutes, expecting the door to fly open at any second and Felicia to appear. Discretion, he reminded himself, was not the same as cowardice, though at the moment it felt exactly the same. Still, he didn’t know many men who wouldn’t run from that woman in full tirade. He hadn’t even taken her to bed, despite her blatant invitations.
Juliana Nyland appealed to him far more. Plain and mousy, his sources had called her. Kurt didn’t know the truth of that. But from what he had seen in the blurred, obscured photographs, she was no worse than average in her looks. Pleasant, if not spectacular. He’d had enough of spectacular-looking women and their insecurities, their need for constant praise.
Frankly, he was tired. Tired of playing one role after another depending on who he was with and what he was doing. Tired of always being “on.” Tired of doing what was expected of him rather than what he wanted. The problem there was that Kurt didn’t exactly know what it was that he wanted, but he intended to figure it out. Once he had the time to do it. Once he had the new office established. In a year or two, maybe.
He’d loitered long enough. If Felicia was lying in wait in the lobby, he’d just have to deal with it. With a last look in the mirror, Kurt settled into his game face. He squared his shoulders, brushed back his hair and ventured forth, ready for whatever awaited.
The ballroom lobby was empty save for a few smokers heading out the door opposite, and the couple standing near the ballroom entrance. Kurt couldn’t see much of the woman save for the straight black skirt exposing most of an incredibly shapely leg sheathed in sheer black nylon. A burly man tending to fat that his tuxedo didn’t quite hide blocked most of Kurt’s view of the woman with the legs. Nothing blocked his hearing.
“Get out there and mingle, damn it,” the man said. “Smile. Flutter your eyelashes. Fluff your boobs. Whatever it is that girls do for flirting these days.”
Kurt circled round trying to see the woman better, but the man was just too big and she was too small. Now he could see her back, but not much else. A tendril of fine brown hair slid out of its pin and fell to curve softly along the fair skin of her shoulders, somehow making her appear vulnerable.
That curl of hair called to him, begged him to kiss the soft white shoulders it caressed, made his body tighten with wanting things he didn’t have time to crave. He moved a step closer, but forced himself to stop long before he wanted to. He’d likely scare her to death if he let himself go.
She murmured something, her voice too quiet for Kurt to hear. Not that it mattered. The man was already talking again, stomping her words flat.
“How do you expect any man to pay attention to you when you spend all your time doing your damnedest to blend into the upholstery? Damn it, Juliana, this is important. Can’t you just once be someone a father can take pride in?”
Kurt winced. He’d heard the words before. Not addressed to himself, of course. He’d always been Father’s pride and joy–as long as he performed, and he always did. But Kurt’s younger, beautiful, painfully shy sister had heard them all too often. Kurt had done his best to protect Katherine, but it had never been enough.
Wait. Juliana, her father called her. Could this be Juliana Nyland? He took another step closer.
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” she was saying, “but you and I both know that flirting isn’t my strong suit. I’m barely competent at mingling. I can’t be anything other than what I am. I’m sorry.” She remained motionless, staring up at her father another moment as if she might say something more, but in the end, she turned away and slipped back into the ballroom.
Head held high, shoulders back, she walked like the queen of the world, as if her father’s words hadn’t touched her at all. Kurt watched her until she vanished into the glittering throng, fighting the urge to follow. Was he crazy to think he sensed that kind of bedrock serenity in her just from those few moments? He had to be even crazier to think he could steal that calm certainty for himself. Who was she?
Kurt swung around to look at the man again. He’d only met Tug Nyland a time or two and just now he’d been so focused on the woman, this Juliana, he hadn’t really noticed who she was talking with.
“Collier.” Tug Nyland crossed the distance between them in a few steps. “Been meaning to talk to you.”
“Oh?” Kurt put on his business face, hiding his reaction to this confirmation of the mystery woman’s identity. “What about?”
“You’re a single man, right? No wife, no fiancee or anything back in wherever?”
“That’s right.” Where was the man going with this?
“It’s about my daughter. Juliana. Maybe you know her?”
Kurt made a non-committal noise and lifted an eyebrow.
The other man took it as encouragement–which it was–and went on. “Thing is, we’re wanting to see her settled, her mother and I, but–well, it’s pretty obvious Juliana’s not going to be much good at taking care of things herself. She’s not much in the looks department. But she’s got something I figure a hot- shot tax attorney like you might be looking for. She’s got connections–good connections–to people with money, the kind who need help in handling it.”
“I see.” He didn’t exactly, but he wanted to know more. Especially about Juliana.
“We want to see her married. To a guy who’ll appreciate her,” Nyland said.
Kurt’s expression didn’t change, though behind his bland, mildly interested business face, his thoughts careened from one extreme to another. Marriage? He’d always known he’d take the plunge some day, but not now. He didn’t have time. And yet…
As Nyland said, she did have those connections with the Palm Beach community. Kurt had already intended to seek her out just for that reason. Added to the practicality of the thing, there was that strange attraction he’d felt just moments ago. Maybe marriage was the solution to his problem. The business problem. That came first, always.
“There’s a business of her mother’s that will come with her–Paxton Properties. Of course, things being what they are, we’ll have to ask the man who marries Juliana to pay us for the business.” Nyland watched Kurt as if trying to gauge his reactions. Kurt knew there was nothing to see.
“We don’t have an asking price,” the burly man went on. “Just whatever you think it’s worth.”
Nothing. Kurt knew Paxton Properties had been systematically stripped of all its value since Bebe Paxton Nyland had inherited it from her father a few years ago. He frowned without letting it show. Something wasn’t right here.
“We’re talking to several men,” Nyland said. “Men in the market for a wife and a nice little business.”
Good God. The man was auctioning off his daughter to the highest bidder. Hadn’t this gone out of fashion two centuries ago? Wasn’t it illegal? Nyland couldn’t actually force the girl to go through with it. Could he?
“What does your daughter think about all this?” Kurt managed to ask. Could he let Juliana slip through his fingers without even speaking to her? Without discovering whether that apparent serenity was real? Though that wasn’t important. Her social skills were.
“Nothing yet.” Nyland shrugged. “I’ll tell her what she needs to know when she needs to know it. Juliana’s a good girl. She won’t have any objections.”
Kurt wasn’t any too sure of that. The squared-off shoulders and rigid spine spoke of a woman with pride and a mind of her own, despite everything he’d heard. According to his sources, she was easily persuaded, readily giving way to others’ wishes. But if that were so, how did she accomplish all she did? Who was the real Juliana? He itched to know.
“You think about it,” Nyland said, moving away. “Get back to me by the end of the week.”
Tug Nyland disappeared through the ballroom doors and merged with the rest of the sharks. Kurt shook his head. Poor girl. Having Tug Nyland for a father was more than anyone should have to endure. So what was he going to do about it?
And what made him think it was his job to do something anyway? He didn’t have to do a thing. Juliana Nyland was not his responsibility. He’d never even seen her face-to-face, as far as he could recall. And yet…
He’d already been considering what kind of benefit he could offer in exchange for the introductions she could make. Marriage was a bit more than he’d had in mind. But was it absolutely out of the question?
Kurt went back into the shark tank–the ballroom–and headed toward the buffet table, talking to those people he knew, meeting a few new ones, operating on autopilot. All the while, he watched for her. Juliana.
The primary reason he hadn’t married yet was that he hadn’t had time for a courtship. Women expected that. A respectable wife was always good for business, but getting one required time. Too much time, more than he had. He’d thought once he got the new office soundly established in Palm Beach, he would have time to take care of the matter, but anticipated that time opening up no less than three to five years in the future. Yet here was a wife virtually dropped in his lap, all signed, sealed and delivered.
Granted, it was more than possible that Juliana wouldn’t want to marry him. She might not want to marry anyone, but Kurt didn’t think her father would give her that option. Kurt would.
Kurt didn’t know Juliana. Nonetheless, he wanted to protect her as he’d never been able to protect his sister. He wanted to give her a way out, a place to go where she wouldn’t have to listen to her father’s cutting words. He wanted to give her a choice.
Even if Juliana didn’t want to marry him–which was likely, since she didn’t know him from the man in the moon–she might be willing to be his fiancÃ©e for a while, just long enough to introduce him to everyone she knew. Value for value. Strictly business.
He’d made it all the way to the puffy shrimp things on the buffet table when he saw her. Juliana was waltzing with an older man, gray-haired, with a tanned face pulled so tight, Kurt could almost count the number of facelifts he’d had. Was this guy one of the others Nyland mentioned? She put space between them and the man closed in again. Kurt still couldn’t see her face, but he could see the leer on the old man’s, and he could see the tension in Juliana’s stiff dance steps. She didn’t like where she was.
Kurt scanned the crowd and spotted Nyland on the fringes, beaming merrily at the dancers. He seemed to sense Kurt watching and met his gaze, his grin changing to a sharklike smirk. Nyland lifted an eyebrow, tipped his head toward Juliana and Facelift, and touched the side of his nose with a forefinger. Nyland might be bluffing. Facelift might not be one of the other bidders. But did Kurt want to take that chance? He needed those introductions.
Before Kurt could make a move to cut in, the music ended and she walked away, leaving her partner on the dance floor and Kurt by the buffet. Facelift quickly found another partner. Kurt started calculating his bid. High enough to limit competition, but not so high it would cause cash flow problems. This was smart business. Rescuing Juliana was just a side benefit. If she wanted to be rescued.
He scanned the room again, looking for her, but like Cinderella at midnight, she’d vanished from view. She’d probably had enough for tonight and gone home. Kurt filled a plate and headed for a cluster composed of men he’d met and wives he hadn’t. Purposefully he wrapped up thoughts of Juliana Nyland and set them aside. Time to go to work. Time to mingle.
The area around the buffet tables had become crowded with the change in music. As Kurt worked his way toward his destination, someone bumped his elbow, forcing him to scramble to save his loaded plate.
A murmured apology, a flash of dark eyes, and she was gone, swallowed up again by the crowd, leaving Kurt breathing in her faint, quickly fading scent. The elusive Juliana?
He couldn’t be sure, she was gone so fast. The mystery of the woman would drive him mad.
Was she what he thought she was?
* * *
Oh, dear Lord, could she do anything else to embarrass herself tonight? Juliana ducked behind Mr. Petty to hide. Tall and broad, he could conceal virtually anything from view. Anything Juliana’s size, anyway. She peeked around her living barricade to see whose tuxedo she’d almost ruined.
Her victim stood near the buffet table looking around, undoubtedly searching for the clumsy buffoon who’d crashed into him. Fortunately, he was looking in the wrong direction. She’d changed course immediately after the bump.
He was tall, his golden brown hair streaked with brighter gold and he filled out his classic black tux in a way that made her sigh. He stopped searching finally and Juliana gave another sigh, this one of relief, but she didn’t straighten from her oh-so-slight cowardly hunch. Not until he gave up and moved on. Then she saw his face and groaned aloud.
Of all the people in Palm Beach for her to crash into, why-oh-why did it have to be Kurt Collier?
“Beg pardon?” Mr. Petty swung around, glaring until he recognized her and the glare shifted into a faint smile. “Oh, Juliana. I didn’t see you there. Are you all right?”
She forced herself to smile, hoping it looked better than the showing-her-teeth grimace it felt like. “Just fine, Mr. Petty. Sorry to bother you.”
But as she made her escape, she couldn’t hold back another groan. She’d humiliated herself in front of Kurt Collier. Maybe he hadn’t seen her, maybe he didn’t know who’d bumped him, and maybe the floor would open and swallow her up. Right.
She knew who he was of course. Anyone new in town would make a splash, but a young, single, good-looking man had the impact of a tidal wave on the female population of a town as insular as Palm Beach.
Not that Juliana would have a chance with him even if she had made good her after-crash getaway. He was so far out of her reach, he might as well be on the moon. No, beyond it. Mars. The next galaxy.
She sighed, tucking up yet another lock of hair slipping from its pins. She wasn’t much good at attracting men. Wasn’t much good at attracting notice of any kind, unless there was a fundraiser to organize or wounded feelings to smooth over. She was good at those things. The best.
Nobody else in Palm Beach society had her knack for organizing events and making them run smoothly, for knowing just who to ask for what donation, who to put in charge of which job. Too bad those weren’t things men looked for in a dance partner.
Men’s eyes always slid right past her to the women who were tall, sleek and blond, with legs that went clear up to their necks. Women who looked like her sister Sherry. Juliana was short, far too curvy to be sleek, and pale, with hair that wasn’t brown or blond but lost somewhere in mouse territory between the two. Not that Juliana felt envious of her gorgeous sister or any of the other beautiful people populating Palm Beach.
She was who she was. Why waste time on something as useless as envy? She’d learned long ago that beating her head against the brick wall of reality only gave her a headache and didn’t change a thing. Reality was that if any man ever got around to asking her to marry him, it would be for her money.
She peered back over her shoulder at the golden Mr. Collier, glimpsed through the crowd, and sighed. Okay, so reality stunk. That didn’t mean she couldn’t indulge in a few daydreams about a handsome man sweeping her off her feet before reality settled in. It could happen.
If Mr. Kurt Collier needed a sudden infusion of cash, it could happen. The idea wasn’t so far-fetched as all that. And if suddenly chickens started wearing lipstick and something so crazy did happen, what was the harm in enjoying it while it lasted?
Juliana choked off a giggle. She must have had way too much champagne punch to be building such wild fantasies on a near-disastrous bump at a mobbed buffet table. It would never happen. Not in a million years. Reality check concluded, she drifted through the glittering crowd, heading for her favorite palm tree hideout and let herself drift back into the daydream. Dreams did no harm as long as a girl kept her grip on reality, and Juliana’s grip was ironclad.