If only she could remember.
If only she knew the truth.
If only she were certain she wasn’t on a fool’s mission. She glanced up at the dark October sky and felt the gentle wash of Oregon mist against her face. Had she ever tilted her head back and let the moistness linger on her lips and cheeks? Had she stood on this very corner, across the street from the old Hotel Danvers, holding onto her mother’s hand, waiting for the light to change?
Traffic rushed by, cars and buses spraying water as tires splashed through puddles. Deep in the folds of her cape, she shivered, but not from the cool autumn air, or the breath of a breeze rolling off the dank Willamette River only a few blocks to the east. No, she shivered at the thought of what she was planning to do, her destiny, or so she’d been told. She knew she was in for the battle of her life.
But she was committed. She couldn’t give up now. She’d traveled hundreds of miles, been through emotional hell and back, and spent days searching her soul during painstaking, laborious hours in libraries and newspaper offices throughout the Northwest, reading every chronicle, article, or editorial she could find on the Danvers family.
Now her plans were about to come to fruition. Or ruin. She stared up at the hotel, seven stories of Victorian architecture, which had once been one of the tallest buildings in the city and now was dwarfed by its concrete and steel counterparts, great skyscrapers that knifed upward, looming over the narrow city streets. “God help me,” she whispered.
Without waiting for the light to change, she dashed across the street, the hood of her cape blowing off with a strong gust of wind. Daylight began to fade as the cloud-shrouded sun settled behind the westerly hills, hills that were still rich with green forests and dotted by expensive mansions.
Though the Hotel Danvers was closed to the public, as it had been for the past few months while it was being renovated and brought back to its turn-of-the-century grandeur, she walked through the lobby door that had been propped open for the workmen. The renovation was nearly complete. For the past two days she’d watched as delivery vans had brought tables, chairs, and other furniture to the service entrance of the grand old building. Today, linens, glassware, even some food had been delivered in anticipation of the grand opening, which was slated for the weekend.
The entire Danvers clan, Witt Danvers’s first wife and his four surviving children, were rumored to be in town. Good.
A cold fist of apprehension tightened in her stomach. Ever since learning of the hotel’s closure and reopening, she’d planned her introduction to the family, but first, to test the waters, she needed to speak with the man in charge of the hotel’s face-lift: Zachary Danvers was the rebel of the family and second son to Witt. According to every article she’d read about the family, Zachary had never quite fit in. The Danvers family resemblance, so evident in his brothers and sisters, had skipped over him and during his youth he’d had more than one brush with the law. Only the old man’s money had kept Zachary out of serious trouble and gossip had it that not only was he the least favorite of Witt’s children but was also nearly cut out of the old man’s will.
Yes, Zachary was the man she needed to see first. She’d studied his photographs so often, she knew she would recognize him. A little over six feet, with coal-black hair, olive skin, and deep-set gray eyes guarded by heavy brows, he was the one son of Witt Danvers who didn’t resemble his father. Leaner than his brothers or the bear of a man who had sired him, his features were as chiseled as the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He was a rugged man, rawhide-tough with a cruel mouth that was rarely photographed in a smile. He bore a scar over his right ear that interrupted his hairline and his broken nose was testament to his violent temper.
Telling herself it was now or never, she walked into the lobby. Two men were staggering under the weight of a long couch wrapped in plastic. She heard other workers talking in the background, saw hotel employees and workmen scurrying to and from the dining room and kitchen located opposite the front doors. The smells of cleaning solvent, turpentine, and varnish greeted her and the whine of a skill saw screaming through the vestibule was muted by the rumble of industrial vacuums.
As the workmen shoved the couch near a huge fireplace, she paused in the lobby and eyed the hotel that had once been the most opulent in Portland, a place for dignitaries and town fathers to gather, where decisions were made and the shape of the future had been planned. Biting her lip she gazed upward to the intricate stained-glass windows that rose over the outer doors where they caught the last rays of daylight and cast a pool of amber, rose and blue on the tile floor in front of the desk.
She swallowed against a lump that closed her throat; this hotel was her legacy. Her birthright. Her future.
Or was it?
There was only one way to find out. She headed for the wide, curved staircase that swept upward to the balcony.
“Hey, you! Lady, we’re closed!” The voice, deep and male, was coming from a big, burly man poised on the top of a high scaffold positioned under the second-floor landing. He was fiddling with the chandelier situated over the lobby desk.
Ignoring him, she started up the carpeted steps.
“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you!”
She hesitated, her gloved hand trailing on the banister. This wasn’t going to be easy, but the electrician was only a small stumbling block. The first of many. With a determined smile meant to disarm him, she turned and squared her shoulders. “Are you Zachary Danvers?” she asked, knowing full well he wasn’t.
“No, but —”
“Are you related to the Danvers family?”
“What the hell?” Beneath the brim of his hard hat he scowled at her. “No, of course not, but you can’t go up there!”
“I have a meeting with Zachary Danvers,” she insisted, her voice filled with chilly authority.
“A meeting?” the electrician repeated, obviously not believing her bluff.
Tossing her hair away from her face, she stared at him without giving an inch. “A meeting.”
“That’s news to me. I’m his foreman and he didn’t mention no meeting.” His scowl grew dark. Suspicious.
“Maybe he forgot,” she said, her stomach grinding as she forced a cold smile. “But I need to talk to him or a member of the Danvers family.”
“He’ll be back in a half hour or so,” the man said reluctantly.
“I’ll wait for him. In the ballroom.”
“Hey, I don’t think —”
Without another glance in his direction, she hurried up the remaining stairs. Her boots were muffled on the thick carpet and her breath was shallow, a sign of her case of nerves.
“Shit,” the man muttered under his breath, but stayed atop his perch and turned back to his work. “Goddamned women . . .”
Her heart was beating so fast she could hardly breathe, but at the top of the landing, she turned unerringly to the left and gulping in a huge, calming, breath of air, she shouldered open the double doors. The room was dark. Her throat closed in on itself and with her gloved fingers she fumbled for the light switch.
In a glorious blaze, the ballroom was suddenly lit by hundreds of miniature candles suspended in teardrop-shaped chandeliers. Her heart nearly stopped at the sight of the polished oak floor, the bank of tall, arched windows, the dizzying light from a million little bulbs that reflected in the cut crystal.
Her throat clogged and she blinked back tears. This was where it had happened? Where the course of her young life had been thrown away from its predestined path and into uncharted territory?
Why? She chewed on her lower lip. Oh, God, why couldn’t she remember?
October rain slid down his hair and under the collar of his suede jacket. Dead leaves, already sodden, clung to the sidewalk and were beaten with the thick Oregon mist that seemed to rise from the wet streets and gather at the corners of the buildings. Cars, delivery vans, and trucks roared by, their headlights feeble against the watery illumination from the street lamps.
Zachary Danvers was pissed. This job had lasted too long, and wasted too much of his time. Working here made him feel like a damned hypocrite and he was thankful the job was just about over. Muttering oaths at himself, his brother, and especially at his dead father, he pushed open the glass doors of the old hotel. The smells of lacquer and cleaning solvent wafted through the lobby as his boots rang against the Italian tile of the foyer. He’d wasted a year of his life here. A year. All because of a promise he’d made at his father’s deathbed a couple of years ago. Because he’d been greedy. And because he’d loved to see Witt Danvers beg.
His stomach soured at the thought. Maybe he was more like the old man than he wanted to admit.
The hotel manager, a newly-hired nervous type with thinning hair and an Adam’s apple that worked double time, was laying down the law with a new clerk behind a long mahogany desk, the pride of the lobby. Zachary had discovered the battered piece of dark wood in a century-old tavern located off Burnside in a decrepit building. The tavern had been scheduled to be razed, but Zach had decided to take the time to have the bar restored. Now the once-scarred mahogany gleamed under the lights.
All the fixtures in the hotel had been replaced with antiques or damned-close replicas and now the hotel could boast an authentic 1890s charm with 1990s conveniences.
The advertising people had loved that turn of phrase.
Why he’d agreed to renovate the old hotel still eluded him, though he was beginning to suspect he had developed a latent sense of family pride. “Son of a bitch,” he grumbled under his breath. He was tired of the city, the noise, the bad air, the goddamned lights and most of all, his family, or what was left of it. Zachary Danvers itched to leave.
“Hey, Danvers!” his foreman Frank Gillette yelled from his position on the scaffold twenty feet avove the lobby floor. He was tinkering with the wiring of a particularly bad-tempered chandelier. “Been lookin’ for you. There’s a woman here, in the ballroom. She’s been waitin’ here over an hour.”
Zach’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “What woman?”
“Didn’t give her name. Claimed she had a meetin’ with you.”
“That’s what she said.” Frank started down the ladder. “All she’d tell me was that she had a meetin’ with you and she couldn’t talk to me as I wasn’t a — and I’m quotin’ here — ‘member of the Danvers family.’”
Frank hopped to the floor and dusted his hands. He drew a wrinkled handkerchief from his back pocket and rubbed it under the brim of his plastic hard hat.
From somewhere near the kitchen there was crash and rattle of silverware that echoed through the hotel.
“Christ!” Frank’s head snapped up and he narrowed his eyes at the kitchen. “Damn that Casey.”
“Is she a reporter?”
“The woman?” Frank fumbled in his pocket for his cigarettes. “Hell if I know. As I said, I’m not a Danvers, so she wouldn’t talk to me. Not that I wouldn’t mind spending a little time with her.”
Frank said, “Beyond a ten.”
“Look, all I know is that short of bodily hauling her pretty ass out of here, we got a problem. No one’s supposed to be on the premises. If she slips and falls and breaks her neck and OSHA finds out —”
“You worry too much.”
“You pay me to worry.” Frank found his crumpled pack of Camels and shook out a cigarette.
“Just finish the job. I’ll deal with the insurance people and the woman.”
“Good.” Smiling as he clicked his lighter to his cigarette, Frank inhaled deeply. “Now, let’s see if this bitch works. Hey, Roy, turn on the damned juice.” Reaching around the desk, he flipped a switch and stared at the chandelier. Lights shaped like candles blazed for a second before flickering and dying. “Fuckin’ wiring,” Frank growled, his face turning red, his cigarette bobbing between his lips. “Goddamned fuckin’ wiring. I told that half-wit Jerry to use . . . oh, hell!” Exasperated, he shot out a stream of smoke. “Roy, turn it off again!” he roared.
“I’ll go talk to the mystery lady.”
“Do that,” Frank growled as he started back up the scaffolding. Zach didn’t doubt that by the grand opening, everything would work perfectly. Frank would see to it, if he had to hold two wires together himself.
From the stairs, Zach glanced around the lobby and thought of his father. Witt Danvers. A royal pain in the ass. The only surviving son of Julius, one of the great timber barons of all time, a poor man who had amassed a fortune with the saws, augers, axes and the sweat of other men. Wit had kept up the tradition, using chain saws and trucks and winches and the sweat of other men to line his pockets.
Right now, Witt would have been proud of the son he’d disowned half a dozen times. Not that it mattered. Witt Danvers was dead and cremated, his ashes spread across the rolling forests of the Oregon hills two years ago. A just end to a timber baron who had spent all his years raping the land. Witt had been a man who had seen what he wanted and taken it. Anyone who’d gotten in his way had regretted opposing the wealthiest man in Portland. Including his second son.
Through the rough suede of his jacket, Zach rubbed the scar in his shoulder, the result of being the son of Witt Danvers. His jaw tightened. It had taken him years to come to terms with the old man and now it was too late to make amends.
“Rest in peace you miserable bastard,” Zachary said, his lips flattening as he opened the ballroom doors. His father had always treated Zach differently from the rest of his children. Not that he gave a damn now. Zach had his own business, his own identity. The noose of being the son of one of Portland’s wealthiest men didn’t seem quite so tight.
He took two long strides into the ballroom, then stopped dead in his tracks. The woman was there, dressed in a flowing black cape and matching knee-length boots. She turned at the sound of his entrance and before she could say a word he knew why she was waiting for him.
Glossy black curls swirled away from a flawless face. Round blue eyes fringed by lacy black lashes stared straight at him. Thin black brows arched inquisitively. He felt as if his heart had stopped for a second as she smiled, showing off finely carved cheekbones and a strong, slightly stubborn chin.
His breath seemed to stop somewhere in his lungs.
“You’re Zachary,” she said, as if she had every right to stand in the middle of the ballroom — as if she belonged.
Zach’s throat was suddenly dry and hot and forbidden memories struggled to the surface of his mind. “Right.”
“Danvers,” she supplied, her voice low, her lips tightening just a fraction. Tossing her hair away from that gorgeous face, she smiled slightly and with her hand extended walked slowly toward him. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for a long time,” she said, forcing a smile. “My name is —”
“London,” he supplied as every muscle in his body grew taut with the pain of the past.
“You recognize me?” Hope lighted those blue eyes.
“There’s a resemblance. I guessed.”
“Oh.” She hesitated, with wind suddenly out of her sails.
“But that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“You think you’re my long-lost sister.” He couldn’t hide the cynicism in his words.
Those clear blue orbs clouded and her hand, the one she’d offered and he’d ignored, dropped to her side. “I think so. To tell you the truth, I’m not a hundred percent sure. That’s why I’m here.” She seemed to find her confidence again. “For a long time my name’s been Adria.”
“You’re not sure?” he threw back at her. For a minute he could only stare into those wide blue eyes — eyes like another treacherous pair that had seemed to see right through him, but quickly his senses came back to him in a rush. Why did he think for even a second that this woman could be London? Hadn’t he been close to enough elaborate frauds to smell one a mile away? So she looked like his stepmother. Big deal. “My sister’s been dead for almost twenty years,” he said in the flat tone he reserved for liars and cheats.
She sighed and wrapped her arms around her middle. “I just wanted to see if I remembered this place —”
“London was only three.”
“Four. Almost five. And even four-year-olds have memories . . . maybe just impressions, but memories nonetheless . . .” She glanced toward one corner. “The band was over there in that alcove, and there were plants . . . trees, I think, near the windows . . .” Her eyebrows bunched together as if she were trying to catch hold of a fleeting memory. “And there was a huge fountain and an ice sculpture — a . . . horse, no, not just a horse, a running horse, I think and —”
“You’ve done your research.”
Her lips tightened. “You don’t believe me.”
“I think you’d better leave.” Zachary cocked his head toward the door. “London’s dead. She has been for nearly twenty years, so take whatever it is you’re peddling and go back home, before I haul you out of here and drop you on the front steps with the rest of the drifters and panhandlers and garbage.”
“How do you know London’s dead?”
His throat closed and he remembered with gut-wrenching clarity, the accusations, the fingers thrust in his direction, the suspicious looks cast his way. “I’m serious. You’d better leave.”
“I’m serious, too, Zach.” Ramming her hands in the voluminous folds of her cape, she took one last look around the huge room, then faced him again. “You may as well know, I don’t give up easily.”
“You don’t have a prayer.”
“Who’s in charge?”
“Doesn’t matter.” His voice was hard, his features drawn with brutal resolution. “You can talk to my brothers and sister, my mother or the attorneys who are acting as the gods of finance in my father’s estate, but no one’s going to give you the time of day. You may as well save your breath and my time. Take my advice and go home.”
“This could be my home.”
“It’s too bad Katherine isn’t alive.”
Zachary’s blood ran cold at the mention of his beautiful and much too young stepmother. There was an unmistakable resemblance between the young woman standing so arrogantly before him and his father’s second wife, Katherine — the Kat — the woman who’d made his life a living hell for years. “Is it really too bad, or is it damned convenient?” he asked, keeping his expression bland.
She blanched a bit.
“You’re afraid of me.”
“As I said, ‘Get out.’”
She held his gaze for a heart-stopping second, then strode through the ballroom doors and down the stairs. Zachary moved to the windows and watched as she walked onto the street, her strides long and full of purpose, her head ducked against the thickening rain.
She’d be back. They always came back. Until the power and money of the Danvers family drove them away and they gave up their farfetched dreams of stealing a little bit of the old man’s treasure.
Good riddance, he thought, but, as she disappeared around the corner, he felt a premonition, like footsteps of the devil crawling up his spine, and he knew with absolute and bone-chilling certainty, that this one — this imposter posing as London Danvers — was somehow different from all the others.
“Happy birthday, darling,” Katherine Danvers whispered into her husband’s ear as they danced across the polished floor of the ballroom. From the alcove near the corner, a small dance band played “As Time Goes By” and the melody whispered through the crowd. “Surprised?” she asked, nuzzling him, her satin heels moving in perfect time to the music.
“Nothing you do surprises me.” He chuckled low in his throat. Of course he’d known that she’d reserved the ballroom of his hotel under the fictitious name of some sorority. He hadn’t spent fifty years learning to be the shrewdest businessman in Portland without picking up a few tricks along the way. He gave his wife a playful squeeze and felt her breasts, beneath her black satin dress, press closer to him. A few years before he would have become aroused just by the scent of her perfume and the knowledge that beneath the gown she wore absolutely nothing — just the dress and a pair of stiletto heels.
She pouted prettily as the pianist played a solo. Her black hair gleamed under the muted lights from chandeliers suspended from the cove-shaped ceiling and her eyes, a deep blue, glanced coyly at him through the sweep of thick dark lashes.
There had been a time when he would have given away his fortune just for one night in her bed. She was sensual and smart and knew exactly how to please a man. He’d never asked her how she knew so much about the pleasures of love when he’d met her. He’d just been grateful that she’d taken him as her lover, bringing back the lust that he’d thought he’d lost somewhere near middle-age.
A kitten who liked to be cuddled, Kat metamorphosed into a wildcat in bed and for a few years her raw sexual energy had been enough to satisfy him. He’d married her and remained faithful and managed to bed her every other day in the early years. But his desire had been short-lived, as it always was and now he couldn’t remember when he’d last made love to her. A hot fire crept up the back of his neck at the thought of his impotence. Even now, when her thighs were pressed intimately to his and her tongue touched a sensitive spot near the back of his ear, he felt nothing, no hint of wildfire in his blood, no welcome stiffness between his legs. Even a little harsh foreplay didn’t bring him to an erection anymore. It was a miracle that they’d managed to conceive a child.
Suddenly angry, he swirled her roughly away from him, then jerked her back into his arms. She laughed, that throaty little laugh that bordered on nasty. He liked her laugh. He liked everything about her. He only wished that he could throw her on the dance floor and take her the way she wanted to be taken — like an animal, with four hundred horrified eyes watching as he proved that he was still a man and could satisfy his wife.
She’d tried all her tricks. Flimsy negligees. Peek-a-boo bras that outlined her nipples and long black garters that flicked at her shapely thighs. She’d coaxed him with her tongue and dirty words, slapped playfully at his butt and balls, but nothing she did aroused him anymore and the thought that he couldn’t manage an erection, might never have sex for the rest of his life, cut a hole in him that burned like dry ice and scared the living hell out of him.
The song ended and he pressed forward, bending her spine in a low dip, so that she had to cling to him, her eyes staring up into his, her black hair sweeping the floor that had been littered with pink rose petals. Her breasts, heaving with exertion, threatened to spill out of the deep cleavage of her dress.
In full view of the audience, he pressed a kiss to that glorious hollow between her breasts, as if he were so randy he couldn’t stand it, then yanked her to her feet. Laughter and applause erupted around them.
“You old dog, you!” one man shouted and Kat blushed as if she were an innocent virgin.
“Take her upstairs. What’re you waiting for?” another middle-aged boy yelled. “Isn’t it about time you two had a son?”
“Later.” Witt winked at the crowd, content that they didn’t know his secret and secure that Kat would never breathe a word of his shame. A son. If this crowd of friends, relatives, and business acquaintances only knew.
There would be no more children, damn it. He’d sired three sons and a headstrong daughter from his first marriage to Eunice, that wop-loving bitch. With Katherine there would only be London, his four-year-old daughter and favorite child. He made no apologies for caring more about his little girl than he did all of his other children put together. The other kids — some of them adults now — had caused him so much heartache and their mother . . . Christ, what had he ever seen in Eunice Prescott — a skinny woman with a sharp tongue who’d thought sex with him had been her duty — nothing more than a chore? He’d decided she was frigid, until . . . Hell, he didn’t want to think about Eunice and that damned dago cheating on him behind his back — laughing at him.
Angered at the turn of his thoughts, Witt escorted his wife to the center of the room where, beneath the glimmering lights of the chandelier, an ice-sculpture in the shape of a running horse was beginning to melt. Nearby a tiered fountain of champagne gurgled and splashed.
The band started playing “In The Mood” and a few brave couples strayed onto the dance floor. Witt snagged a fluted glass from a silver tray and drained the champagne in one long swallow.
“Daddy!” He glanced up and found London, her black curls dancing around her face, her chubby arms outstretched. Dressed in a navy-blue dress with white lace collar and cuffs, she ran up to him and threw herself into his waiting arms.
He hugged her tightly, the velvet of her dress crushed against him, her legs, encased in white tights, clamped around his waist. “How do you like the party, princess?”
Her crystal-blue eyes were round and wide, her cheeks flushed with the excitement of the festivities. “It’s loud.”
He laughed. “That it is.”
“And there’s too much smoke!”
“Don’t tell your mother. She planned this as a special surprise and we wouldn’t want her to feel bad,” Witt said, grinning as he winked at his daughter.
She winked back, then snuggled her pert little nose into his neck and he got a whiff of baby shampoo. She tugged at his bow tie and he laughed again. Nothing could make him as happy as this dynamic whirl of precociousness.
“Hey, that’s my job,” Kat said as she smiled and gently nudged London’s fingers from Witt’s neck. Kissing her daughter’s crown, she said, “Leave Daddy’s tie alone.”
“How about a dance?” Witt asked his young daughter and those little lines between Kat’s eyebrows, the ones that suggested silently that she disapproved, appeared. Witt didn’t care. He drained another glass of champagne and twirled a laughing London onto the dance floor. The child, his princess, squealed in delight.