Belinda found him on the library floor next to the window, his body curled into a comma. “Alexi?” She knelt beside him, speaking his name softly because his henchmen weren’t far away, and she wasn’t supposed to be in here.

“B-Belinda?” His voice was thick and slurred. She picked up his head to cradle it in the lap of her saffron robe and gave a startled cry as she saw that the side of his face was grotesquely twisted.

“Oh, Alexi…” She pulled him to her. “My poor, poor Alexi. What’s happened to you?”

“Help me. Help-” His agonized whisper horrified her. She wanted to tell him to stop talking like that this very minute. She felt a damp spot on her thigh and saw that saliva had leaked from the side of his mouth through her robe. It was too much. She wanted to run away. Instead she thought of Fleur.

His mouth worked to form the words. “G-get help. I-I need help.”

“Hush…Save your strength. Don’t try to talk.”


“Rest, my darling.” His suit coat gaped and one of the lapels was turned under. They’d been married for twenty-seven years, and she’d never seen his suit coat untidy. She straightened the lapel.

“H-help me.”

She gazed down at him. “Don’t try to talk, my darling. Just rest. I won’t leave you. I’ll hold you until you don’t need me any longer.”

She could see the fear in his eyes then, at first the merest spark. Gradually it grew more intense until she knew he finally understood. She stroked his thin hair with the tips of her trembling fingers. “My poor darling,” she said. “My poor, poor darling. I loved you, you know. You’re the only one who ever really understood me. If only you hadn’t taken my baby away.”

“Do not-do this. I beg you-” The muscles in his right side tensed, but he was too weak to lift his arm. His lips had a blue tinge, and his breathing grew more labored. She didn’t want him to suffer, and she tried to think how to comfort him. Finally she opened her robe and cradled him to her bare breast.

Eventually he grew still. As she gazed down at the face of the man who had shaped her life, a pair of tears perfectly balanced themselves on the bottom lashes of her incomparable hyacinth-blue eyes. “Good-bye, my darling.”

Jake felt as if all the air had been knocked out of him. A basketball whizzed past his arm and bounced into the empty bleachers, but he couldn’t move. Even the noises of the game going on behind him faded away. Cold seeped through the sweat-drenched jersey into his bones, and he struggled for breath.

“Jake, I’m sorry.” His secretary stood with him at the side of the court, her face pale, her forehead knitted with concern. “I-I knew you’d want to see it right away. The phones are ringing off the wall. We’ll have to issue a statement-”

He crushed the newspaper in his fist and pushed past her. He headed for the scarred wooden door. The sound of his breathing echoed off the chipped plaster walls of the L.A. gym as he fled down the steps to the empty locker room. He shoved his legs into his jeans over his shorts, grabbed a shirt, and raced from the old brick building where he’d played basketball on and off for ten years. As the door slammed behind him, he knew he’d never be back.

The Jag’s tires squealed as he peeled out of the parking lot into the street. He’d buy up all the newspapers. Every copy. He’d send planes all over the country to every store, every newsstand in the universe. He’d buy them and burn them and-

A fire engine shrieked in the distance. He remembered the day he’d come home and found Liz. Then he’d been able to fight. He’d smashed his fist into that bastard’s face until his knuckles bled. He remembered the way Liz’s arms had felt as she fell to her knees and clutched his legs, wrapping her arms around them like a movie poster from A Hatful of Rain. She’d cried and begged him to forgive her while that poor bastard lay on the linoleum floor with his pants around his ankles and his nose pushed to the side of his face. When Liz had betrayed him, he’d had a target for his rage.

Sweat dripped into his eyes. He blinked it away. He’d written the book for Fleur, spilled out his guts…

He clutched the steering wheel and tasted gunmetal in the back of his mouth. The taste of fear. Cold metal fear.

Chapter 29

Belinda gazed at the suitcase that lay open on Fleur’s bed as if she’d never before seen one. “You can’t leave me now, baby. I need you.”

Fleur struggled to hold herself together. Only a few more hours, and she’d be away from this house forever. Only a few more hours, and she could lick her wounds in private. “The funeral was a week ago,” she said, “and you’re doing just fine.”

Belinda lit another cigarette.

The burden of dealing with Alexi’s death had fallen entirely on Fleur’s shoulders. A massive stroke, the doctor had said. One of Alexi’s assistants had found him lying on the library floor next to the front window. He’d apparently collapsed not long after she’d left him, and Fleur couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been standing there watching her when it happened. His death left her feeling neither triumph nor grief, only the knowledge that a powerful force had disappeared from her life.

Michel wouldn’t fly over for the funeral. “I can’t do it,” he’d told her during one of their daily phone calls. “I know it’s not fair to you, but I can’t pretend to mourn him, and I can’t handle Belinda looking at me with those calf eyes now that people know my name.”

Fleur decided it was for the best. She needed all her energy to deal with the arrangements, and the added tension of Michel and Belinda’s strained relationship would only make things more difficult.

Belinda blew a thin ribbon of smoke. “You know all this legal nonsense makes my head spin. I can’t cope.”

“You won’t have to. I told you that. David Bennis is going to work with Alexi’s staff. He’ll be able to handle everything from New York.”

Making Alexi’s assistants understand they were now taking orders from her had been one more challenge she’d faced and won. But she still had to deal with Belinda’s neediness and the way her own stomach lurched every time she received a phone call.

“I want you to handle my business affairs, not some stranger.” Fleur didn’t respond, and Belinda’s mouth formed the same pout she’d launched in her daughter’s direction a dozen times over the past week when she didn’t get her way. “I hate this house. I can’t spend the night here.”

“Then move to a hotel.”

“You’re cold, Fleur. You’ve gotten very cold with me. And I don’t like the way you’ve shut me out. All these stories about Jake in Vietnam…I had to read about it in the newspaper. I’m sure you’ve talked to him, but you won’t tell me a thing.”

Fleur hadn’t talked to him. Jake refused to take her calls. A fresh stab of pain pierced her heart as she remembered the efficient voice of his secretary on the other end of the line. “I’m sorry, Miss Savagar, but I don’t know where he is…No, he hasn’t left any messages for you.”

Fleur had tried both his house in California and his place in New York to no avail. She’d contacted his secretary again, and this time she’d met open hostility. “Haven’t you done enough harm? He’s being hounded by reporters. Why don’t you get the message? He doesn’t want to talk to you.”

That had been five days ago, and Fleur hadn’t tried to call him since.

She latched her suitcase. “If you don’t want to live here, Belinda, you should move. You’re a rich woman, and you can live wherever you want. I offered to go apartment shopping with you, but you put me off.”

“I’ve changed my mind. Let’s go tomorrow.”

“Too late. My plane takes off at three o’clock.” But not for New York, as Belinda thought.

“Baby!” Belinda said with a wail, “I’m not used to being alone.”

Knowing her mother, Fleur doubted she’d be on her own for very long. “You’re stronger than you think.” Both of us are, she thought.

Tears filled Belinda’s eyes. “I can’t believe you’re deserting me. After everything I’ve done for you.”

Fleur planted a swift kiss on her mother’s cheek. “You’ll be fine.”

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