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The Silken Web
By Sandra Brown
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Mean Streak
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The children began shouting and shrieking as one discordant voice when the kite dipped and spun crazily before it started to nose dive.
"No, Kathy, no!"
Kathleen, her eyes never leaving the erratic kite, clamped her teeth over her bottom lip and pulled the string taut. She took several running steps backward, raising the kite string high over her head and dodging the sneakered feet of a dozen excited children.
"Let out on it a little, sweetheart."
The voice was deep, masculine and totally unexpected. Kathleen didn't have time to fully register it before she barreled into the man who'd materialized behind her.
Startled, she dropped her arm, and the kite went into a steep nose dive.
It smashed into an oak tree and was hopelessly impaled on a limb, its tail enmeshed in the leafy branches. The children scrambled through the branches of the tree, issuing orders to each other and suggesting possible solutions that were met with guffaws and aspersions.
The man directed his gaze to the scene, then turned his head and fixed his blue eyes upon Kathleen. "I apologize," he said humbly, placing his hand over his heart. The gleam in his eyes made Kathleen doubt his sincerity. "I thought I was helping."
"I could have handled it."
"I'm sure you could have, but I mistook you for one of the kids and it looked to me as though you needed some help."
"You thought I was one of the children!" With her hair tied back into pigtails, her heart-shaped face bereft of makeup and her navy shorts and white T-shirt with the summer camp's logo on the front, she could see where he might make that mistake.
"I'm Kathleen Haley, one of the camp directors." He gave her a once-over that said she wasn't dressed for the part. "I double as a counselor," she added, extending her right hand.
The blond giant with the thick mustache shook hands with her.
"My name is Erik Gudjonsen, spelled G-u-d-j-o-n-s-e-n, but pronounced Good-johnson."
"Am I supposed to recognize your name, Mr. Gudjonsen?"
"I'm the videographer who'll be shooting the documentary for UBC. Didn't the Harrisons tell you that I'd be coming?"
If they had it had slipped her mind. "They didn't say it would be today."
The Mountain View Summer Encampment for Orphans was to be featured on the nationally televised magazine show People. In an attempt to generate public awareness of the camp, and thereby contributions, Kathleen had approached a network producer with her story idea. After several letters and lengthy telephone calls to New York, she had sold the producer on it. She'd been told that a photographer would be assigned to videotape the activities of the children sometime during one of the summer sessions.
She hadn't given any thought to the videographer, nor what he would be like. Weren't all photographers a bit myopic? Didn't most wear baggy trousers and have light meters like identification badges dangling from cords around their necks? Her ideas on the profession in general had certainly never conjured up a picture that in any way resembled Erik Gudjonsen.
His appearance was as Nordic as his name. He had inherited a body from his fiercest ancestors. Viking blood must surely course through that tall, muscular body that radiated strength and vitality. Even standing still in a deceptively casual pose, he seemed capable of great power.
Erik Gudjonsen's hair shone like a golden helmet in the sun. It was thick, luxurious, falling around his aristocratic head in casual disarray. His darker mustache added to the sensuality of his wide mouth. Strong white teeth glistened from beneath the brush of the thick mustache and contrasted handsomely with the tan, weather-roughened face.
His jeans were well worn and tight. They rode low on his slender hips and hugged the muscles of his thighs like a glove. The chambray shirt fit almost as snugly. The sleeves had been rolled back to reveal sinewy arms. The blue fabric was stretched tightly over a broad chest that was matted with tawny hair. It was difficult not to stare at the deep V that his unbuttoned shirt revealed. His hands were long, with tapering fingers that denoted strength and yet the sensitivity required to operate a complex videotape camera.
For some inexplicable reason, Kathleen felt a strange constriction in her chest when her eyes traced the corded column of his neck, the proud, somewhat stubborn chin, sensual mouth and slender nose, up to the blue eyes.
And when her green eyes clashed with the full impact of his, she had a sinking feeling in the lower part of her body that was both delightful and disturbing.
"You look better suited to hard news stories."
He shrugged noncommittally. "I go where I'm assigned."
"Well, I hope you're not looking for an angle on us because you'll be disappointed. We're strictly on the up and up."
"I never said otherwise. Why the third degree? Do you mistrust newsmen?" Leaning down, his mustache only partially concealing a smile, he whispered, "Or is it men in general?"
In a voice as cool as her expression, she said, "Go up the hill and take the left fork. Follow it until you drive through the main gate. The building immediately inside and to your right is the office. You'll find either Edna or B. J. there."
"Thank you." Still smirking, he sauntered in the direction of his parked Blazer.
* * *
Kathleen couldn't determine a logical reason for her irritability the rest of the afternoon, though she handled the energetic children with her usual aplomb. Of all the counselors, they adored Kathy, as they called her, the most. It was a reciprocal affection.
Today, for some reason, ever since meeting Erik Gudjonsen, she was irascible and anxious for the sun to move closer to the horizon. Then, at five o'clock, everyone would migrate toward cabins for a rest hour before dinner in the large, noisy dining hall.
Now, as the children cavorted in the roped-off section of the Kings River that threaded its way through the Ozark Mountains of northwestern Arkansas, Kathleen basked in the sunshine as she sat on the shore. She was ever watchful of the campers, but for a few moments she could revel in relative peace while they were occupied with their own antics in the clear water.
She sighed deeply and closed her eyes for a moment against the glare of the sunlight on the water. She loved this place. Each summer, it was as much a sabbatical for her as it was helpful to her friends, the Harrisons, for her to serve as a counselor at the camp.
For sixty days, Kathleen Haley, fashion buyer for Mason's Department Store in Atlanta, ceased to exist. She retreated from the frantic pace she lived the other ten months of the year and renewed herself with the mountain air, regular meals, early hours and exhausting exercise. Yet despite the rigorous schedule, the camp work was restful, for her mind as much as her body.
Few career girls would give up their valuable time to serve as a camp counselor, but to Kathleen it was a labor of love. She knew firsthand the desperation of these children as they sought love and attention. If she could give back only a particle of the affection she had found here years ago, her time and efforts were more than worth it.
"Hey, Kathy, Robby is going past the rope."
She opened her eyes to see a self-righteous tattler pointing an accusing finger at the boy breaking the stringent rule.
"Robby!" Kathleen called. When the offender's head broke the surface, she gave him a threatening stare. It was enough to make him dive back under the boundary and poke up to a standing position in the shoulder-high water. To show him she meant business, she warned, "Once more outside the rope and your swimming days are over. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Kathy," he mumbled, and hung his head.
She smiled secretly, knowing that her disapproval was usually enough punishment to keep even the most contrary of the children in line. "Why don't you practice that handstand you were trying to do the other day? See how long you can stay under."
His eyes brightened immediately, knowing he was back in favor. "Okay! Watch me!"
"I will." She waved at him from the bank and he set about to show her his trick.
"Jaimie, thank you for calling my attention to Robby, but it's really not polite to tattle. Okay?"
The thin boy with dark hair and eyes looked slightly crestfallen, but he smiled timidly and said, "Yes, ma'am."
Each summer, there was one child who touched her deeper than any other. This summer, it was Jaimie. He was smaller than the others, awkward, introverted. Sports didn't come easily to him and he was usually the last one chosen when they divided into teams. He was quiet, serious and shy. But he was the most avid reader and the most talented artist of the group. His dark liquid eyes had melted Kathleen's heart the first day of camp, and though she tried not to show partiality, she had an undeniable soft spot for Jaimie.
She stood up and walked to the water line. Sitting down on the damp sand, she pulled off her tennis shoes and socks and put her feet in the cool stream. Cupping a handful of water, she trickled it over her tired leg muscles. An unwelcoming image of Erik Gudjonsen came to mind.
At twenty-five years old, Kathleen had dated many men, had fancied herself in love with a few of them, but the last thing she wanted was close contact with a man. Wasn't that what she was running away from?
A shrieking laugh brought her back to the present and she hastily checked her wristwatch. Ten till five!
She blew the silver whistle that was suspended around her neck on a blue ribbon. With whining protests, the children trooped up the pebbly shoal and slipped on their tennis shoes. They'd wear their swimsuits back to the cabins, letting the sun dry them during the walk. After each picked up his or her own belongings, they were ready to leave. While they grumblingly obeyed her dictates, Kathleen put her own shoes back on and then formed the group into a reasonably straight line for the hike up the hill.
She started a song with an infinite number of verses as they tramped up the steep incline. Kathleen marveled again at how much she loved this countryside. The red gravel road that led up to Mountain View Encampment was hot and dusty, but no pavement would ever spoil its natural state. The camp administrators had wisely left the environs as wild as practicality would allow. For children who lived in orphanages in large cities, this was their only exposure to any landscape that wasn't crowded with buildings and spanned with concrete.
All seasons were spectacular in the Ozarks, but since the spring had been an unusually rainy one, this summer the mountains were green with oak, sycamore, elm and pine. Grapevines draped the trees, and the ground was carpeted with lush undergrowth.
The Kings River was running swift and full. In the shallows, the water was so clear and pure that one could count the rocks that lined the riverbed.
Kathleen loved it all. She loved the mountains, the trees and the people who lived in this rural setting, farming or ranching in pastoral simplicity.
How vastly different were their lives compared to hers in Atlanta, where she knew constant stress and unrelenting pressure. As fashion buyer for a major department store, she must continually be making decisions. She bought merchandise for several departments, including young adults, women's sportswear, better dresses, coats, and "after-fives" and formals.
But even with all the headaches that came with it, she loved her job. That was why her friends and associates were astounded when she had resigned her position at the beginning of the summer.
"Kathy, make Allison stop tripping me. She's doing it on purpose," said the bespeckled Gracie with a pout.
Kathleen came back to the present with a jolt and automatically said, "Allison, how would you like for me to trip you? Cut it out."
"She did it to me first," argued Allison.
"Then why don't you be my example-setter and show the others how to turn the other cheek?"
The sun beat down on Kathleen's back, and as the rough cedar gate of Mountain View came into sight, she used her T-shirt to blot a bead of sweat that rolled down between her breasts.
The campers were fractious and in need of the allotted rest time. They divided by sexes and trudged listlessly toward their dormitories.
"Everyone get showered before the supper bell. I'll see you then. Les, keep your hands to yourself and leave Todd alone." Kathleen saw them safely into the cabins and then turned toward the group of buildings assigned to counselors. Her position on the board earned her a private cabin. As she went through the screen door, she flipped on the switch of the overhead fan.
Drained of energy, she fell onto her back across the bunk and sprawled like a rag doll. Forcing herself to breathe slowly, she soon felt the heat and tension ebbing out of her body. Her eyes closed, and involuntarily, her thoughts returned to her hasty departure from Atlanta.
Mr. Mason, disconcerted and anxious over her sudden resignation, had asked for a reason. Her answer to his inquiry wasn't truthful. She didn't tell him that she could no longer work with David Ross.
David was the accountant for Mason's, and handled all the department store's bookkeeping, from the purchase of light bulbs to the enormous payroll. He was demanding of his subordinates, but affable and likeable when outside the office. Kathleen had enjoyed their shared coffee breaks and the few occasions when they had gone to lunch together, as often as not in a group of department executives.
Soon the lunches had become more private, the "chance meetings" more frequent and the casual touches more lingering. At first Kathleen thought his increasing interest was her imagination, but it became apparent that he was serious, and she couldn't mistake the hungry look in his eyes each time they fell on her.
Overnight, she cooled her attitude toward him and began to rebuff his covert passes. David Ross was very intelligent, very good looking and very married. He had three children and an English sheepdog who lived with him and his attractive wife in the suburbs of Atlanta.
Kathleen rolled over onto her stomach on the narrow bed and buried her face in the pillows as she recalled her last encounter with David.
It had been the end of a long, tiring day, and Kathleen was already exhausted. She had been opening boxes of merchandise that had just arrived, unloading it and checking it against her order form. The store had been closed for an hour and nearly all the employees had gone home.
David came into her office and shut the door behind him. He smiled engagingly and crossed to the desk, leaning on his widespread hands and lowering his head close to hers.
"How about dinner?" His voice was as efficient and precise as his account books.
She smiled. "Not tonight. It's been one of those days, and I'm tired. I'm going to go home, take a bath and go directly to bed."
"You have to eat sometime, somewhere," he reasoned.
"I think I have one slice of bologna in the fridge."
"That doesn't sound too appetizing." He grimaced comically.
She laughed brightly, almost too spontaneously. "Well, that's what I'm having for dinner tonight."
She took her purse out of her desk drawer, stood up and reached for her blazer hanging on a hall tree near the door. Before she could pull it down, David stilled her hand. He turned her around to face him, eased her purse out of her hand, placed it on the desk and put his hands on her shoulders.
"The fact that you're tired isn't the real reason you won't go out with me, is it?"
She met his eyes levelly. "No."
He drew a heavy sigh. "I thought as much." His fingers brushed her cheek caressingly, but she stood unaffected and stoic. "Kathleen, it's no secret that I'm attracted to you. More than attracted. Why won't you at least go to dinner with me?"
"You know why, David. That's no secret either. You're married."
"I'm sorry, but that's none of my concern."
"Kathleen," he groaned, and pulled her closer. She shrugged away from him, but couldn't escape his firm hands. Deciding to try another tack, he asked, "If I weren't married, would you be interested in seeing me?"
"The point is moot. You—"
"I know, I know. But if I weren't married, would you be interested?"
His eyes compelled her to answer, and as always, Kathleen was harmfully honest. "You're an attractive man, David. If, if you weren't married, yes, I would want to see you—"
Before she could finish, she was crushed to him in a desperate embrace. His arms wrapped around her like closing pincers and his head lowered to capture her mouth under the bruising pressure of his.
He knew how to kiss. For one brief moment, Kathleen thrilled to the sheer masculinity of him, to the fervent lips moving over hers, persuading them to open. She didn't consciously surrender, but suddenly his tongue was inside her mouth, greedy and intrusive. His hand slid down her spine onto her hips and he drew her tighter.
Frantically, she began pushing him away. Her fists made several futile attempts at pounding on his back. Then she flattened her palms against his shoulders and pushed with all her strength, kicking at his shins at the same time until he released her.
His eyes were wild with lust and his chest heaved with exertion. He took one step toward her, but the rigid lines on her resolute face and the green ice of her brilliant eyes halted him. He knew he had gone too far.
"Stay away from me," she gasped in a strangled voice. "If you ever touch me again, I'll file a formal complaint of sexual harassment."
"Crap. Even if you had the guts to carry it that far, who'd believe you? Dozens of people have seen us together. You've put out signals. I've acted on them. It's as simple as that."
"You're what's simple if you can't distinguish between friendship and a come-on!" she said angrily. "We're coworkers. That's all."
"For the time being."
"Forever, Mr. Ross."
He made a scoffing sound as he straightened his clothing. "We'll see."
He left, but Kathleen knew that she had merely stalled him. He was probably planning his next course of attack. She sat down at her desk and covered her face with her hands. Now what?
Damn him, he was right—she wouldn't file charges of sexual harassment. She could probably make them stick, but she didn't want to invest the time and energy it would require to see it through. Even if she won, she would still be working at Mason's, and recently she had come to feel that the formal department store wasn't providing her with enough challenge. It was staid. She wanted to work in an environment where the attitude toward fashion was progressive and innovative.
David Ross was the catalyst she had needed to make the difficult decision of leaving the safe and familiar for the unknown.
At least that's what she had told herself. What she refused to acknowledge was that rather than confronting a problem, she had run away from it. Retreat had been her strategy since the loss of her parents. Some things were so bad that one's only choice for coping was to flee.
Inexplicably, Erik Gudjonsen's face was suddenly emblazoned on the backs of her eyelids. His self-assured expression was all too reminiscent of David Ross's. What was it with men even remotely good looking? Was a handsome face supposed to allow them special privileges? Did they think all women were ready to fall into bed with them? To surrender to practiced hands and lips? To…
She ignored the sudden acceleration of her pulse and the tingling feeling that prickled the erogenous parts of her body. For a fleeting instant, she wondered what it felt like to be kissed by a man with a mustache.
To hell with that! Kathleen told herself emphatically, and swung her legs over the side of the bunk and stamped into the bathroom.
She showered in tepid water with her special moisturizing soap and, after toweling off, laved herself with an after-bath splash. Her heavy hair was released from the restrictive rubber bands and brushed vigorously. She thought of leaving it to hang free, but decided against it. Even after the sun dipped behind the mountains, the evenings could still be warm. She gathered her hair into a ponytail at the nape of her neck and tied a navy-blue ribbon around it. The wisps that framed her face were damp from her shower and curled beguilingly against her dewy skin.
She didn't wear much makeup while at the camp. A light sprinkling of freckles across her nose and high cheekbones only accented her apricot-tanned skin and called attention to the red highlights in her auburn hair. She smoothed a blushing gel onto the hollows under her cheekbones, gouged out a scoop of peach-flavored lip gloss with the tip of her little finger and applied it to her lips. After whisking her mascara wand along the tips of long black lashes, she was finished.
Kathleen slipped into lacy bikini panties, which was the one feminine luxury she allowed herself during the summer, and the uniform pair of navy shorts. However, for dinner she usually replaced the camp T-shirt with a blouse. What I'd give for an evening to really dress up, Kathleen thought wistfully as she slipped on clean white tennis socks and sneakers.
She crossed the compound in the direction of the mess hall just as the dinner bell sounded. Meals were the one thing the children were eager to line up for, and she joined them at the door.
"Hey, Kathy," called one of the other counselors. Mike Simpson was a brawny college boy majoring in physical education at the University of Arkansas. His size belied his easygoing manner and gentle patience with the kids. He coached them in the more vigorous sports, like soccer, softball and volleyball.
"Hi, Mike," Kathleen shouted over the loud racket the children made while they stood in squirming lines waiting to invade the cafeteria.
"The Harrisons asked that you join them in their office before dinner. They're waiting for you."
"Okay, thanks," Kathleen flung over her shoulder as she descended the steps.
Behind her, she heard Mike say, "Very funny. Which one of you wise guys pinched me? Huh?" His question was met with shrill laughter.
She was still smiling as she pushed open the door to the air-conditioned building that housed the administrative offices of Mountain View.
"Kathleen, is that you?" Edna Harrison called out to her as she shut the door behind her.
"Yes," Kathleen answered. She crossed the outer office toward the Harrisons' private living quarters.
"Come in, dear. We've been waiting for you."
By now, Kathleen was standing framed in the doorway and she came face-to-face with Erik Gudjonsen. He stood up from his seat on the early-American sofa. His back was to the Harrisons.
"Kathleen Haley, meet Erik Gudjonsen," Edna said. "He's the photographer from UBC. Erik, Kathleen is one of our board members. We simply couldn't run the camp without her."
"Oh, I've met Ms. Haley. We bumped into each other this afternoon."
Kathleen wished she didn't lack the nerve to slap his smug face. For the benefit of her friends, she said politely, "Hello again, Mr. Gudjonsen."
"Come in and sit down, Kathleen," B. J. said. "Mr. Gudjonsen was asking some questions about Mountain View, and I told him you were the one who could best explain the concept of the camp, since you had lived it. We'll go to dinner shortly."
Because Edna and B. J. Harrison were seated in the only two easy chairs in the room, Kathleen had no choice but to sit beside Erik on the sofa. Self-consciously, she tugged on the legs of her shorts as she sat down.
"How was your day, Edna, B. J.?" she asked.
The couple was as dear to her as parents. In their early sixties, they were still robust and healthy. The love and concern they showed the orphans who came to their camp each summer was inspiring.
Kathleen always thought of the Harrisons as a unit, and oddly enough, they resembled each other. Both were short and plump. While Edna's eyes were warm brown and her husband's gray, they both reflected open friendliness. They walked with the same purposeful stride. Their gestures when they talked were almost identical.
Kathleen doubted that either of them had ever had an uncharitable thought about even the most unscrupulous character. They found goodness in everyone and everything. As she thought on it now, Kathleen realized that the similarities that had developed between them weren't so surprising since they had been married for more than forty years.
"We had a leaky pipe in one of the cabins and I tinkered with that today," B. J. was saying. "I think I saved a plumber's fee. We'll know in a day or so." He chuckled.
"Thank you, dear." Edna patted his knee. "Tomorrow you can work on that ornery air conditioner."
"You see, Erik?" B. J. opened his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "They're never satisfied."
"Oh, you!" Edna exclaimed softly, shoving her husband's shoulder lovingly. She turned her attention back to the photographer, who was enjoying the older couple's display of affection. "Erik, Kathleen first came to our camp when she was fourteen. I don't want to embarrass you, Kathleen, but I'm sure Erik would like to hear your story." Her kind eyes were anxious, but the smile on the young woman's face reassured her.
"No. I'm never reluctant to talk about Mountain View." Kathleen forced herself to face Erik. Sitting so close beside him on the small sofa made her uncomfortably aware of him. His raw masculinity was a tangible quality that touched her and left behind prickly sensations.
"My parents were killed in a boating accident when I was thirteen. They had no living relatives, and I had no brothers or sisters. Friends in our church placed me in an orphanage in Atlanta. It was well run and reputed as one of the best in the country. But having lived in a family environment as an only child, I found it difficult to adjust. My grade average dropped significantly. I became belligerent. In short, I was a brat."
B. J. laughed, but Edna shot him a reproving look and it subsided.
"The next summer, the orphanage sent me here. I had a terrible attitude toward the idea, as I had about anything at that time. I thought I had been dealt with unjustly by everyone, by God. But that summer, the whole course of my life changed."
Her voice became charged with emotion and she smiled tremulously at the Harrisons. "B. J. and Edna refused to let me destroy my life with bitterness and hatred. They taught me how to love again by loving me when I was most unlovable. I started acting like a human being again and not a wounded animal. I owe them a debt of gratitude that I can never repay."
- On Sale
- May 5, 2015
- Page Count
- 291 pages
- Grand Central Publishing