Whispers in the Dark
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Dread sloshed through her body. She couldn’t stop the knee-jerk reaction to cover herself and cringed as a wave of water splashed over the side of the tub, soaking the deep green mat on the floor.
“Why are you calling?” She knew the urge to rush for her robe was idiotic, but that didn’t stop her from leaning against the cold acrylic to shield her naked body with the edge of the tub.
“Do you know who I am?”
A tingle rippled down her back, goose bumps following the path. She told herself the reaction was from the cool air across her wet skin.
Did she know who he was? Oh, she knew all right.
Pulling her legs up under her, she glanced across the room to her towel hanging on the rod by the door. Getting it would mean standing up. Standing up would mean a rush of water, something he would surely hear. For some reason she didn’t want him to know how naked—and vulnerable—she was.
“Great. I’m calling to ask you out to dinner.”
Whatever she’d expected, that had not been it.
“You what? Why?”
“I want to help. And while sex with you is out of the question, maybe a dinner date might move you in the right direction.”
The right direction? Karyn bit back a bitter laugh. At the moment she wasn’t even sure where that was.
Dinner. How in heaven’s name did he think that would help her sexual frustration and inability to trust anyone with her body?
“What’s in this for you?”
“I’d like to make an announcement on the show, nothing specific, just a quick mention that we’re getting you help.”
An attempt to control the unruly mess his show had turned into over the last few days. Maybe if she agreed to this, the fervor over Katy would die down and the entire city would stop talking about her life.
“Why don’t you just say that, anyway? We both know you don’t really want to do this.”
Silence echoed across the line. Karyn wondered where he was. At the station, in his home, naked in his own bed? Screwing her eyes tightly shut, she wiped that mental image right from her brain. At the station. Definitely. His show would start in an hour or so.
“Look, Katy, I have a reputation to uphold. I won’t go on air and lie to my listeners.”
“I won’t tell.”
“Yes, but I’ll know.”
Her mouth opened to tell him, not a snowball’s chance in hell, but she couldn’t force the words out. A few hours from her life. A chance to put the entire situation behind her and maybe get his listeners to do the same. One night had the potential to wipe the slate clean, almost turn back time.
“Fine. But no media. No publicity. I don’t want anyone to know who I am.”
Her heart sped up, not with concern, but excitement.
“I’ll meet you at Masquerade Saturday night at seven. Do you know where it is?”
“Sure.” She didn’t, but she’d figure it out.
“Well, then, I’ll see you in a couple days.”
Karyn shifted sideways, forgetting about the waist-high water she sat in.
He chuckled, the deep, light sound tickling her heightened senses.“Enjoy your bath.”
Unexpected heat melted through her. She cringed, but before she could make a snappy recovery, he hung up, leaving her dangling.
Flopping back into the water, Karyn closed her eyes and flung an arm across her flaming face. “I’m such an idiot.”
“EVERYTHING’S SET?” Michael met Chris at the door, pushing back a throng of women to let him into Oxygen, a downtown Birmingham hotspot. These personal appearances were part of the job, but he really wished the marketing department would find someplace other than local clubs and bars. The place reeked of smoke, and the pounding music and flashing lights made it difficult to carry on a conversation. Although, sometimes that worked in his favor.
“We’re meeting for dinner Saturday night. I reserved a private room at Masquerade.”
“Private, huh? Please tell me you aren’t considering making a move. I know you’ve been off your dating game lately, but that’s low.”
Chris frowned. He was not off his game; he was out of it entirely. But that was by choice. He was tired of pasting on a smile and playing someone else, someone he no longer wanted to be.
“Of course not. I’m trying to keep a low profile. Somewhere I can get in and out without anyone noticing me.”
“Dr. Desire! Dr. Desire!” Two women slipped past the bruiser holding back the crowd and raced toward him, yelling at the top of their lungs. Chris took a bracing step backward and held his breath. Before they could reach him, another security guard provided by the club intercepted them.
With a wry twist of lips Michael said, “I wouldn’t count on it.”
“Those women knew I’d be here.” Shaking his head, he moved across the room. “I promised Katy no publicity. No pictures, no interviews. And no using her real name on the air.”
His producer shrugged. “Fine. Legal wanted as much, anyway.”
“Great. Make sure everyone knows. The last thing I need is for this meeting to leak out. Then Katy really would have something to complain about.”
Chris settled into the uncomfortable chair set behind a table at one end of the dark room. Glancing down at the stack of glossy black-and-whites, he suppressed a cringe. He hated autographing these pictures, but they were part of the personal-appearance contract he’d signed.
The man staring back was familiar, but not someone he recognized as himself. The concealing layers were visible, at least to him. Slicked-back, styled hair. False, white smile. Tailored suit, a carbon copy of the straining shoulder seams he now shrugged uncomfortably against.
He’d worked hard to develop Dr. Desire’s public persona. The fact that it didn’t quite fit hadn’t always bothered him. But it was starting to more and more.
“Dr. Desire.” A middle-aged woman stepped up to the table and leaned across to squeeze his neck like they were old friends. It was time to go to work.
He spent the next hour talking and laughing with his fans. His cheek muscles hurt from the perpetual smiling, and his throat could have used about five gallons of water.
Of all the things that came along with being Dr. Desire, the public appearances had become his least favorite.
Finally, just at the point he was seriously beginning to think his wrist would fall off, Michael spoke to the crowd. “Sorry, folks. Dr. Desire has to get back to the station. But be sure to check out the Web site for his next local appearance.”
With a smile he could no longer feel, Chris waved as he slipped back out the door. Several feet down the block, his shoulders rose and fell on a sigh of relief.
“Remind me not to agree to another one of these for at least six months.”
“Sorry, you’re doing another in two weeks.”
Rolling his stiff neck, Chris let out a groan.
“Publicity means money, for you and the station. Wait here for me. I need to check on something inside, then you can give me a ride back to the station.”
When had he become a damn taxi? Whatever. It gave him a few minutes of solitude to unwind. These things always drained him. It was weird, the difference between speaking on air and speaking in person. The people were often the same; at least, they all wanted to talk about the same things. But at night, after the show ended and he left the studio behind, he was never as exhausted as he was after these in-your-face appearances.
Chris walked farther away, knowing that the bouncers who’d held the crowd back would soon let them go. Late-summer heat waved up from the pavement at his feet. Even an hour after sunset it still held every ounce of the August sun. But there was a nice, unusual breeze. It slipped past him, carrying the smells of the city.
Birmingham was nothing like the little Alabama town he’d come from. Back home the smell on the breeze would have been cow manure, freshly mown grass or a mixture of both. It would have held the mouthwatering scents of barbecuing meat and roasting corn, though neither of those would ever have been coming from his own trailer. Here he just smelled money, concrete and the Chinese place down the block. Not necessarily bad, just different.
He turned instinctively, realizing too late that the smooth voice was not Michael’s.
Every muscle in his body froze. His skin flushed hot before going clammy cold. He hadn’t seen his father for fourteen years. In fact, he’d only laid eyes on the man once in his life.
As far as he was concerned, that was once too many.
“How are you, son?” With a blinding smile that reminded Chris a little too much of the pictures he’d just signed, Darrell Odom cuffed him on the shoulder in greeting.
Shock quickly gave way to a bone-clenching anger. The one time he and his mother had needed the sorry son of a bitch, he had laughed in their faces and told his mother she was a stupid piece of ass for getting herself in trouble in the first place.
“What do you want?” He bit out each precise word. Every cell in his body screamed at him to take the shot he’d wanted to all his life, to pummel the perfect white teeth, golden tanned face and bright blue eyes until they were an unrecognizable mass. He wouldn’t, his mama had taught him better. And if he did he’d be no better than his father.
As far as Chris was concerned, he wanted nothing from the man, especially not the questionable moral compass he seemed to operate by.
“Can’t a father say hello to his son?”
“Not you. Let me guess, your latest mark wised up and threw you out on your ass.” Chris smiled. A small spot in the center of his chest warmed as his father’s jaw clenched, confirming his suspicions. “She catch you with another woman or just in your lies?”
Darrell’s smile vanished. The change was remarkable. The jovial, polished man he’d been two seconds ago was replaced by someone Chris never would have recognized in a crowd. For the first time he wondered just how old his father actually was. He’d never asked his mother.
Ripples of lines bracketed the man’s drawn lips. Deep furrows creased his forehead and the healthy glow he’d radiated vanished to a pale shadow of what it had been before.
“Fine. You’re an adult now—”
Like the man had ever known him as a child.
“The bitch I was with threw me out without a cent. No warning, no nothing, just changed the locks. I don’t even have a spare set of clothes. I just need enough to get back on my feet, to get a place to stay, some clothes to wear. Ten thousand should do it.”
Chris’s body flushed hot, and a shot of adrenaline coursed into his veins. He’d been waiting for this day all his life. He’d often railed at God and fate for what had happened to his mother. She’d worked so hard, spent every moment of her life paying for a mistake no one had loved her enough to forgive.
He’d carried the weight of knowing that mistake had been him. And that no matter how perfect a child he’d been, how excellent a student, he couldn’t save her. In the end he’d watched as cancer had eaten her from the inside out, knowing that if she’d had a better, easier life—some insurance—that life might have lasted longer.
Now the man who could have helped them and had refused was standing with his own hand out. Life was cruel. But fate had a sense of humor.
A harsh laugh that Chris didn’t recognize as his own echoed through the falling night. “Let me get this straight—I watched that night as you denied I was your son, as you told my mother she was an idiot for not aborting me and that any messes she’d made were hers to clean up. You refused to give us even $500 and here you are asking for twenty times that. You’re joking, right?”
Darrell’s face turned deep red beneath his too-perfect tan. “I know you have it. I didn’t have five hundred to spare.”
“You mean your sugar mama wouldn’t give money to the mother of your bastard son. You make me sick. You’re not getting a penny from me.”
Chris turned to leave, rubbing at his chest to ease the tight band there. Somehow that hadn’t felt as good as he’d always assumed it would.
Staccato steps on the empty sidewalk alerted Chris that the moment wasn’t over just yet.
“Don’t you walk away from me, boy.”
Darrell grabbed at his arm, but Chris was too quick. He spun around, stepping into the man to stop him short.
His father’s blue eyes glowed with an ominous heat. “Your mother should have taught you manners, son.”
“Don’t you mention her to me, you bastard. Ever. You don’t know anything about her, about what you sentenced her to that night you refused to help.”
The familiar anger and helpless fear rolled through Chris’s blood. His fists clenched against the hunger for retribution. It would be so easy to inflict a tiny slice of the pain his mother had experienced. The pull of vengeance was almost hypnotic. But the man before him wouldn’t pay the price; Chris would. Dr. Desire would. And it wouldn’t bring his mother back.
Taking a deliberate step back, Chris put enough space between them to make physical contact impossible.
“Let me give you some advice. Go back to whatever dimwitted divorc?e you were conning this time, get down on your hands and knees and beg her for forgiveness. You have a better chance with her than you do with me.” Chris smiled, his muscles no longer numb, each and every one aching in protest. He kept the facade anyway.
“Aren’t we all high-and-mighty, Dr. Desire. You’re no better than I am.”
“The hell I’m not.”
“We both make our living off seducing women. The only difference is they pay me direct. You have that nice corporation cutting you the check. The end result’s the same, boy.” He smiled a perfect smile that sent ripples of unease across Chris’s body. “Sex sells.”
Chris stared, speechless. His brain swirled on the words, but he couldn’t form a coherent response.
“I’ll let you think about that awhile. See you around.”
His father was halfway down the block before Chris had his mouth open and a logical argument ready. Too late. People streamed from the club he’d just left as his father passed by the front door. Yelling at the man now would draw attention he’d rather not have.
Out of the crowd Michael appeared, grabbed his elbow and steered him across the street to his waiting Porsche.
“Who was that you were talking to?”
“No one important.”
It wasn’t true. He was nothing like his father.
DARRELL SAT IN HIS CAR and fought down the rage. The candy-apple-red Jag was about the only thing of value he owned, and he only owned that because he’d sweet-talked Virginia into putting the title in his name. It was amazing what women would do if you gave them a mind-blowing orgasm.
Selling the car wasn’t an option, he wasn’t ready to part with it just yet. It was sleek and red and young, and it reminded him of the youth he’d squandered bowing and scraping to women in order to get by.
He’d deserved so much more.
There was another way back to the lifestyle he’d grown accustomed to, the lifestyle he deserved. But it required start-up capital, something he didn’t have. But his son did.
Taking a deep breath, he unclenched his hands and laid them over the leather-wrapped steering wheel. He stroked the soft curve up and down. The feel of it always reminded him of a woman’s skin, that smooth, silky place just on the underside of a ripe breast.
It wasn’t just the money he missed. His sexual appetites were huge, which was why having only one woman never satisfied him. Or rather had never satisfied him. Just one more item on the list of things old age had taken…right along with his looks, his boyish charm, his charisma—everything he needed to function in the high society world of wealthy divorc?es.
Damn it! He needed that money and he needed it fast.
Down the street he watched his son speed away in a sports car that strikingly resembled the one he sat in. A small smirk tugged at his lips. They were the same.
He wasn’t ready to give up just yet. He hadn’t spent almost forty years of his life manipulating people into giving him whatever he wanted for nothing. He’d find an in with his son.
Or a weakness he could exploit.
His parting shot had certainly hit home. Darrell hadn’t missed the disbelief and utter denial that had skated across Chris’s face. So the boy didn’t like the idea that he was the apple to his tree.
Well, it was certainly a start.
Maybe tomorrow he’d pay a visit to his famous son’s place of employment and see what he could shake out of those branches.
WHY HAD SHE AGREED to this?
Karyn’s foot tapped up and down against the polished hardwood floor beneath the table as she waited for Dr. Desire to show up. Her heel clicked in a rhythm that, coming from anyone else, would have annoyed the hell out of her.
She couldn’t stop.
At least there wasn’t anyone to bother. She sat alone in the quiet room he had reserved for them. Her eyes swept across the cozy space. The dim lighting, flickering candles and mood music all set her nerves on edge. Apparently Dr. Desire hadn’t told the restaurant this wasn’t a real date.
Karyn tried desperately not to fidget. Or admit that a part of her really wished it were a date. A mixture of anxiety and anticipation churned at the bottom of her stomach. She had no idea what to expect, from Dr. Desire or herself.
His voice reached her first as he entered the room, melting down her spine in that familiar trail, turning her bones to liquid mush.
He was tall and broad and his presence shrank the already-intimate space. The sheer force of him seemed to consume the excess oxygen in the room, to condense the surroundings to nothing more than a block of space too tiny for them both to occupy—without her brain going fuzzy and her skin flushing hot.
Those billboards did not do him justice.
Karyn knew she was staring, but couldn’t help it. Her first real life glimpse of Dr. Desire had her tongue seemingly glued to the roof of her mouth.
His lips curved into a crooked, charming grin, the same one she’d driven past almost every day for the past eighteen months. Candlelight reflected in his blue-gray eyes, catching the smallest glint of mischief lurking there. Maybe it was the flickering light, but she really thought they were more captivating in person.
He stopped by the table, towering over her.
She looked up and up into his sexy face and had to swallow hard to wet her suddenly dry mouth. Her foot kicked into double time beneath the tablecloth. Heat burst through her body and her nipples tingled in a primitive response she hadn’t experienced in longer than she could remember.
He packed one hell of a punch.
She shook off the daze, cringing at the impression she must be making. By nothing more than walking up beside her, Chris had started a chain reaction inside, awakening places on her body she’d thought long dead.
She stared up into his intense eyes and wanted to cry in frustration. Sure she’d made her share of stupid mistakes in life, but what had she done to deserve this cruel twist of fate? The one man who’d finally revved her engine and he’d already said no. Not just no, hell, no, wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot-pole no.
“You’re not Karyn? I’m sorry. They told me…”
She still had to get through dinner, preferably without embarrassing herself more than she already had. “Yes. I am…Chris.” Standing, she tried hard not to bite her lower lip, a bad habit that tended to surface when she was overwhelmed, and motioned to the chair opposite her. Hopefully the table hid the humming energy that made her knees tremble. At least her foot had stopped tapping.
“I’m sorry I’m late. Business.” With his head cocked to the side, he offered a lopsided grin equal parts charm and remorse.
His heat reached out and touched her, mixing with the visceral response still bursting inside. Her entire body warmed, and moisture gathered beneath the unruly mass of hair she’d pulled tight at the nape of her neck.
His eyes snagged her own across the intimate space of their little table, making her feel…caught. Not like a butterfly with its wings pinned down for display. No. The sensation was more like the pull of gravity right before a plane took off. Like some force of nature was holding her back, gathering strength before letting go so she could fly.
She blinked, thinking herself completely insane. She tried to look away but found her gaze drawn back to the magnetic energy he radiated with seemingly little effort.
A shiver of awareness slid down her spine at the intensity of his study. His eyes roamed every inch of her face. Usually that kind of masculine stare would have set her nerves on edge. She was on edge all right. But it had nothing to do with nerves.
Reaching for her water glass, Karyn gulped a swallow, needing busywork for her hands and mind.
He must have taken her silence and hasty chug of water as signs of fear.
Laying his palms flat on the table in front of him, he said, “I want you to know you have nothing to worry about. No expectations. No pressure. We’ll have a nice dinner. That’s all.”
She realized his words and the look of studied sincerity were meant to put her at ease. And if she’d had her normal reaction to a man sitting intimately across from her, they might have been necessary. But Chris Faulkner would not hurt her. She knew this to the soles of her feet.
Fear. Anxiety. Calculating the risks. She thought of none of these normal things. It was the image of those tanned, large, roughened hands on her instead of on the snowy tablecloth that had blood whooshing in her ears.
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