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Tangled Web

Tangled Web

"Chase, can you hear me?" Rosemary Barrister shouted.

"Barely," Chase shouted back, holding the field telephone up to his face. A caterpillar dropped from a nearby tree and crawled up his arm. He swatted at it irritably, then wiped at the sweat dripping down the back of his neck. He hated having his work interrupted, and knowing his mother, despite the trouble she'd had to go through to track him down, this was something trivial.

"What's up?" he asked, trying his best to keep the terseness out of his tone.

"That trollop is ruining your father's store, that's what!" His mother shouted back hysterically, the static on the long-distance line covering none of her intense dislike for his father's second wife. "I want you to come back to the States immediately!"

Chase emitted a heavy sigh and swore silently. Rosemary's timing was the pits, as always. He was right in the middle of important medical research and getting out of the Costa Rican rain forest was no easy trick. And if this call went as usual, he'd make no headway with her at all. "Mom, I can't do that right now--"

"Fine!" Rosemary countered, her faint voice rising stridently.

"But don't come crying to me when Barrister's goes bankrupt next month and we both lose our sole source of support."

"Mom, it can't be that bad--" Chase said in the most soothing tone he could manage. Mesmerized by the sheer beauty of it, he watched a sunbird fly from branch to branch in the canopy of trees above him where raindrops glinted like shiny pearls at the ends of pointed leaves. Damn, but he loved it here, where there were no phones, no family hassles, nothing but the work he loved.... "The hell it can't! Barrister's lost money last month, Chase, and the month before that! Haven't you been reading your statements?"

Chase tore his eyes from the hanging orchids above him and concentrated on what his mother was saying. "Well, no." He had no interest in the family department store; she knew that.

"The rent on my villa is due, Chase. I'll be evicted if I don't come up with some cash soon."

Now that was a problem. "Where are you?" Chase asked, frowning. The way Rosemary flitted around, there was no telling.

"Monte Carlo. Chase, are you coming home or not?" Chase groped for the canteen fastened to his waist, put it to his lips and drank deeply of the cool water. He didn't want to go home. He never was in Houston for more than a day or so if he could help it, and usually he could. But this time it looked as if he had no choice. If he didn't get things straightened out at the store, then he'd have no income and his mother would have no income. Which meant Rosemary would be on his back constantly, and he'd have to stop his research.

"Yes, I'll go home." He heaved a reluctant sigh, promising silently that he would only stay as long as it took to get the trouble settled.

There's no reason this should be so hard, Chase told himself several days later as he parked his Jeep in front of the River Oaks mansion where he'd grown up. But it was hard, now that his father was gone. He hadn't been back to Houston since the funeral over a year ago, and even then he'd avoided coming to the house, staying in town only long enough to attend the memorial service and say a last private goodbye to a man he'd never really known.

It shouldn't have ended that way, with the two of them being more or less estranged, but there'd been no choice. They couldn't lie to each other, and even if they had, they still would've both known the truth, that Chase felt disloyal being anywhere near the woman who had broken up his parents' twenty-six-year marriage. Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad had Hope not been so damn young--nineteen when she first married his father, and twenty when her son, Joey, was born. Or if she hadn't been such a striking, sensual beauty, with her wide blue eyes, generous mouth and full lips, silky dark hair and fair skin.

She was so damn gorgeous and ripe-looking she could have married anyone she wanted. So much so that from the very beginning Chase had been unable to help but be aware of her, and he still felt guilty as hell about that. Now that she was single again she would be open to involvement and sending out signals, unconscious or otherwise, to that effect. He wondered how he would respond. It wouldn't be easy seeing her look at another man or even him as a potential suitor. There was no way he would ever have wanted to desire his father's young wife, but he had. Not that she had tried to make him notice her. If anything, Hope downplayed her physicality, retaining that mysterious air of innocence she had in her most unguarded moments.

Chase shook his head in confusion. He still wondered how his father could have robbed the cradle that way. If it had been him-- hell, he would've felt like a lecherous old man going after someone half his age, especially someone as sensual and hauntingly beautiful as Hope. Whether she realized it or not, she needed a real partner in her life, someone who could take her to the limits of her physicality and back, not a father-figure who'd treat her like a china doll on a shelf, one who was pretty to look at but too fragile to touch. But apparently the difference in their ages hadn't bothered Edmond or Hope because they'd seemed happy enough together, even a decade after their marriage. Never passionate exactly in the healthy, unconsciously sexy way he would have expected Hope to be, but happy in a gentle, familial way.

Well, none of that mattered now, Chase thought wearily, pushing from his Jeep. He was here because the family-owned department store was in trouble. And like it or not, he would have to stay until matters were resolved. He owed his father at least that much.

"Mom, you'll never guess what happened today! The neatest thing!" Joey said, the moment Hope picked him up from school.

"I got asked to go hiking and camping with a bunch of guys from school. In New Mexico, even! Isn't that neat?"

No, Hope thought, troubled, for more reasons than she could count. Deciding not to jump to conclusions, she put her white Mercedes SL coupe into drive and eased carefully back into the congested late-afternoon traffic. "When is this trip?" she asked, working hard to keep her tone conversational and light.

"Spring break."

Frowning, Hope braked as they approached a crosswalk.

"Honey, that's mid-March. It's still cold in the mountains."

"I know, but we're gonna go to a low elevation, where there's no snow. I can go," Joey pleaded passionately. "Can't I? Mom?"

As much as she wanted to say yes, she knew she couldn't. Working hard to keep the worry from her voice, Hope pointed out what he already knew. "Joey, your asthma would be aggravated." Worse, he would probably get sick, and he'd been sick so much already this past winter. He'd lost weight he couldn't afford to lose and sometimes missed school more than he was there.

"I'll take my medicine or get a shot or whatever the doctor says I need to do," Joey promised earnestly. "And I won't complain, either."

Hope wished that was all it would take to make her son be able to lead a normal life, but she knew it wasn't so. "Honey, that won't work," she reminded him with gentle reluctance. "I'm sorry. But the answer has to be no. Maybe we could work out something else you could do instead."

Realizing by the firm yet pleasant tone of her voice there was no arguing with her, Joey hung his head. He was silent and visibly depressed the rest of the trip home. Guilt assailed her. "Do you have a lot of homework?" Hope asked as she turned the car onto their street.

"The usual," Joey muttered.

Which meant a lot, Hope thought. She couldn't believe how much homework they were giving these days.

"Dude. Whose Jeep it that?" Joey said. He pointed to the dull blue Jeep parked in the circular driveway in front of their home. Dented and splattered with red-brown mud, the vehicle looked incongruous next to the elegant white brick early Georgian mansion with the dark green shutters.

As always, Hope felt a sense of pride and accomplishment when she looked at her home. Three stories high, it was surrounded by beautifully landscaped flowers, evergreen shrubs, and towering live oak trees with Spanish moss. At either end of the three-story structure, was an octagonal-shaped wing with floor-to-ceiling casement windows on all sides. Four columns supported the two-story-high front porch. And there were shady terraces, rimmed with waist-high white balustrade, leading off the second floor of both octagonal wings.

She might have grown up poor, but there was no trace here of her impoverished, difficult beginnings or the heartbreak she had suffered years ago.

Realizing her son was still waiting for an answer, Hope said, "I don't know whose Jeep that is." Service people were required to park in the back, as did her help. Nor was there any identifying insignia on the Jeep. Still puzzling over who it might be, she added in a bemused voice, "I'm not expecting company." Indeed, after a long day at the store, that was the last thing she needed or wanted. She spent most evenings with Joey, helping him with his homework, watching television or playing board games. And that was the way she liked her evenings; quiet, with a solid sense of family.

Nevertheless, she touched a hand to her dark upswept hair, making sure the thick waves were still securely pinned into the loose French twist she favored for work. A cautious glance in her rear-view mirror revealed her makeup to still be intact, except for a smudge of mascara beneath one lash, which she promptly took care of with one quick brush of her little finger. Her blue eyes showed no sign of the normal end-of-day fatigue she felt inside. Satisfied that she was outwardly prepared to greet a visitor with the Texas charm and graciousness expected of all the Barristers, she gathered her things from inside the car.

As she did so, she saw him, sitting on one of the cushioned wicker sofas that sat on either end of the front porch. Chase Barrister. Her husband's son. He was her stepson, though she had never been able to think of him as such. Just four years older than she, he was sexy and rugged and possessed the blatant sexuality and intense interest in all things physical his father had always lacked. Making love with Chase, she sensed, would be like being caught up in the center of a hurricane. There'd be calm, but it would be deceptive. One step too far in any direction and a woman would be in for the ride of her life--only to get drawn back into the tranquil center, then seduced to the dangerous edge again. With Chase, she sensed, there would never be an end. He'd enjoy a love affair to the hilt, with the same limitless verve he did everything else, and he'd make sure his woman enjoyed it, too.

It was her woman's intuition about him, that had always kept her as far away from him as possible. Had she met Chase before she'd married her husband, she doubted she would have married Edmond. It would have been too hard. Chase was too attractive in an intensely primal way. Never mind trying to think of Chase as her stepson, for she knew no matter what she could never think of him as that. And Chase, for all his icy distrust of her, knew it, too.

Fortunately, in the ten years she had been married to Edmond, Chase had astutely kept his distance, using the demands of his work as excuse, and had remained as much a self-contained enigma to her now as the day they had first met. She blessed him for that. If he had been around constantly and tried to get close to her, she didn't know what would have happened. And that fear of involvement with him had weighed on her heart and soul for years. She owed Edmond a lot. She had loved and respected him. As long as she'd been his wife, she'd done nothing to dishonor him, except one thing. She had desired his son, Chase, in a way she had never been able to desire his father. And for that she felt deeply guilty.

Chase stood and viewed her with the usual remote disregard as she and Joey got out of the Mercedes. She knew Chase thought she had married his father for his money, and although she knew it wasn't true--she had married Edmond for his heart--it still hurt.

But she wouldn't dwell on that, or let Chase put her on edge. At lease she'd try not to, she promised herself silently, as she took in everything about him. In soft denim jeans and a rumpled khaki shirt, he looked as ruggedly casual and defiantly at ease as ever. Remembering how unimpressed he was with ceremony, Hope felt a little swell of apprehension in her chest as he strode laconically toward her.

She didn't know how this meeting was going to go. Even though she was still some ways away from her wide front porch, she did know he hadn't shaved in at least twenty-four hours and there were telltale signs of travel fatigue both on his angular face and in the slow, weary movements of his lean, well-toned body. That probably meant he was just back in-country. He hadn't cut his dark ash-blond hair in heaven knows when, and though the fine but abundant strands were combed neatly in a side part and pushed behind his ears, the unshorn style gave him a sexy, un-tamed look. He was so close to her own age, so different from Edmond, and so exciting.

In his professional and private life, Chase seemed to dare anything and for all his innate kindness and generosity, he seemed intent on pleasing only himself. And yet, she sensed, there was a part of him that seemed restless and unfulfilled and she wondered absently what it would take to make him feel replete. Not that he was inclined to give her any clue, of course. She had never had even the most cursory conversation with him one-on-one, never seen him look rattled. Never angry. Always cool and collected and somehow untouchable, emotionally as well as physically. And his enforced distance from her hurt as well as entranced. She knew he resented her for marrying his father, and also that he had no reason to resent her. But she could never tell him that, not without betraying Edmond. She had promised her husband that she would carry his secret with her to the grave. It was a promise she meant to keep.

"Mom, who is that?" Joey repeated, nudging her slightly. Hope glanced back at her young son. He was still wearing his private-school uniform of gray slacks, navy blazer, white shirt. Puny in stature and bespectacled, he looked the antithesis of the healthy, robust, very laid-back and casual Chase. Chase had attended private school, too, albeit reluctantly. And maybe those years of forced formality were why he always refused to dress up now, unless it was absolutely unavoidable.

Putting her leather briefcase in one hand, her bag in the other, Hope said, "It's your half brother, Chase, honey. You remember him, don't you?"

"Oh," Joey said in a voice that indicated he clearly did not remember Chase. "Yeah, sure."

Of course, Hope thought, sighing inwardly, there was no reason why Joey should have remembered Chase. The funeral had been overflowing with people, she and Chase had made an art out of tactfully avoiding each other for years, and when he was in town, he'd managed to see his father only briefly before swiftly moving on.

So why was he here now? she wondered. What could he possibly want? And he did want something from her; she could tell by the look on his ruggedly handsome, sun-weathered face.

"Hope." He nodded at her formally, making no effort to extend his hand.

Feeling ill at ease but determined not to show it, Hope nodded back stiffly. "Chase." The moment drew out awkwardly, stretching her nerves unbearably thin as she realized close up, he was still as breathtakingly attractive as ever, still as able to wreak havoc on her senses. "I wasn't aware you were in town." Or that he still wore the deliciously rich, woodsy after-shave he had always favored.

He shoved a hand into his back pocket, the motion drawing his jeans tighter against the flatness of his abdomen, and fastened his hazel eyes on her face. "Just got in this afternoon," he said laconically. His voice was a gravelly drawl and his eyes probed hers for a reaction.

He'd headed right over to see her, Hope realized with amazement, trying hard not to notice how soft and worn and snug those jeans were or how nicely they clung to the muscled contours of his trim waist, lean hips and long legs. Aware he was looking her over with the same in-depth appraisal, boldly examining every inch of her, it was all Hope could do to hold her ground.

Having apparently picked up her unaccustomed nervousness, Joey cast her a curious glance. "Is he gonna be staying with us, Mom?"

Chase can't want to, Hope thought nervously, unable to tell from his defiantly impassive expression whether he found her changed or not. Because of Edmond, she had to offer her reluctant hospitality, "This is your home, too, Chase, and you're welcome here anytime." No matter how uncomfortably lonely you make me feel. Judging from the state of his clothes and his Jeep, he was as perennially short of cash as ever. He spent the yearly income from his lifetime trust almost as soon as it came. Usually, of course, he had quarterly profits from Barrister's to tide him over as well, but Hope knew there had been no profits this quarter--or last. Which meant he was probably down to his last nickel.

"Thanks for the offer," Chase said with a politeness as forced as her own, "but I wouldn't want to impose."

"You wouldn't be imposing," Hope countered cordially, again for her husband's sake. She never wanted it said she hadn't at least tried to make Chase welcome. While her husband had been alive, Chase had sometimes quartered in the guest house, however briefly. He'd maintained minimal contact with his father, none whatsoever with her and Joey. As far as she was concerned, he could continue to do the same. The guest house had a private entrance and driveway. As for her attraction to him, well, it was just something she would have to fight. She had conquered it before. She could conquer it again.

"Well," Chase said awkwardly, confirming by his actions that he was indeed as short of cash as she suspected, "if you're sure it's no trouble and the guest house is available--"

"It is," Joey cut in gregariously before Hope could verify the same.

"Well, fine, then. I'll only be here a day or so, anyway," Chase continued.

Hope tried very hard not to show her relief at that bit of news. One day of having him around she could handle, but not any more than that.

Aware her thoughts were straying into forbidden territory, she forced her mind back to the reason for his quick departure. "Still doing research in Brazil?" she asked, hoping fervently he hadn't been able to read her thoughts.

"Costa Rica now. I'm not sure where I'll be next." Joey touched Hope's sleeve, subtly commanding her attention.

"Mom, is it okay if I go in now? I'm hungry."

"Sure, honey. Just have Carmelita give you a snack. But don't eat too much. Dinner's going to be soon." She looked at Chase, forcing herself to offer, even as she hoped he would refuse, "Will you be dining with us or do you have other plans?"

"No plans," Chase said candidly, watching as Joey disappeared into the house. He turned back to Hope, his gaze intent and all encompassing, his purpose for being there as much a mystery as ever. He frowned and released a long, uneven breath, then seemed to have forced himself to speak. "Actually, Hope, a family dinner would be just the thing."

For what? Hope wondered in complete unmitigated shock.