You're a woman, Miss Wainwright. Give me your honest opinion." Sam Stark paused briefly to drink from the glass of brandy in his hand. "Do you think it was the prenuptial agreement that spooked her?"
Desdemona Wainwright followed Stark's gaze. His attention was fixed on an object two floors below his study window. She had an uneasy feeling that he was brooding on the three large ice swans that were presently melting on the lawn of his austere garden.
By now her staff had probably finished clearing away most of the evidence of the abruptly cancelled wedding reception. Fifteen pounds of cold tortellini salad, two hundred miniature asparagus tarts, three platters of herbed goat cheese, and a hundred and fifty spring rolls had no doubt been loaded back into the Right Touch Catering van.
The cake, an elaborate five-tiered affair decorated with palest mauve and creamy white roses, would have been safely stowed in its special carrying crate.
But the ice swans were a problem. Not only were they extremely heavy, by now they would be getting quite slippery
The swans would definitely be a write-off. Desdemona had taken an assessing glance at them as she had hurried to follow Stark into the concrete, steel, and glass fortress he called home. The swans' beaks had already begun to droop, and their tail feathers were blurred. Even if rushed immediately back to the Right Touch freezer, they couldn't be salvaged. Desdemona knew there was no way she could save them to use at the charity event her small business was scheduled to cater on Tuesday.
A dead loss, just like the Stark-Bedford wedding.
The easiest thing to do with the massive ice sculptures was to let them remain where they were until the late spring sun dissolved them. It wouldn't take long, a couple of days, perhaps. Seattle was enjoying a rare streak of sunny weather.
But Desdemona felt a pang of guilt at the thought of leaving the swans behind in Stark's coldly elegant garden. It seemed a bit callous to stick the abandoned groom with three such vivid reminders of the humiliating experience he had endured this afternoon. Especially since she was in the process of trying to stick him with the tab for the expensive debacle as well.
Desdemona set her jaw determinedly. She must not allow her natural empathy to weaken her resolve. She could not afford to be swayed by sympathy. There was too much cash at stake. She had gone way out on a financial limb to handle the Stark-Bedford reception.
She struggled to find a diplomatic response to Stark's question.
"I couldn't say whether or not Miss Bedford was concerned about a prenuptial agreement," Desdemona said gently. She leaned forward until she was sitting on the very edge of her chair.
She kept an eye on Stark's incredibly broad shoulders, making certain that he did not turn around as she reached across his glass and steel desk.
Quickly she edged Pamela Bedford's apologetic note aside. Then she carefully positioned the catering invoice so that Stark would be sure to see it when he came back to his chair.
"I just wondered," Stark said, his attention still on the swans. "I've always made it a practice to conduct a detailed failure analysis when things have gone wrong."
"It's standard procedure after a disaster."
"Oh. I see." Desdemona cleared her throat. "Well, it's not really any of my business, Mr. Stark. I'm just the caterer. Now, then, I believe my invoice is completely self-explanatory. If you'd care to look it over?"
"I made it clear right from the start that there would be one." Stark braced one big hand on the windowsill and continued to study the swans down below.
"A failure analysis?"
"A prenuptial agreement. Do you think she thought I'd change my mind at the last minute?"
"I have no idea, Mr. Stark." After a couple of seconds of further consideration, Desdemona reached across the desk again and flipped Pamela's short note facedown. "Unfortunately, I'm not going to be able to freeze the tortellini salad. And I don't have another menu featuring asparagus tarts scheduled for this week. I'm afraid I'm going to have to charge you for everything that Miss Bedford ordered."
"Damn it, what the hell was so unreasonable about asking her to sign a prenuptial agreement? What did she expect me to do? Did she actually think I'd trust her to stick around for the next fifty years?"
The bleak outrage in Stark's voice made Desdemona turn to stare, astonished, at his broad back. She realized he was genuinely baffled by his ex-fiancée's behavior. Amazing. The man was reputed to be brilliant. She had overheard one of the wedding guests refer to him as a human computer. But apparently he was quite dense when it came to the important things in life.
Even Desdemona, whose only association with Pamela Bedford had been the series of consultations regarding the reception arrangements, knew very well how Stark's fiancée had reacted to the notion of a prenuptial agreement. Last month Pamela had broken down and sobbed in Desdemona's office. They had been in the middle of choosing between the asparagus tarts and miniature mushroom quiches.
"A prenuptial agreement," Pamela had wailed into a tissue. "Can you believe it? He doesn't love me, I know he doesn't. Isn't that an awful thing for a bride to discover four weeks before the wedding? What on earth am I going to do?"
"Uh, the asparagus tarts are very popular -- "
"No, don't answer that. It's not your. problem, is it? I'm sorry to burden you with this, Desdemona. It's just that I've got to talk to someone, and I don't want to worry my parents. They're so happy about this wedding."
"Are you thinking of calling it off?" Desdemona had asked anxiously. "If so, please let me know now. I'll be ordering ingredients and supplies and hiring extra help soon."
"Of course I'm not going to call it off." Pamela had blown her nose one last time and then wadded up the tissue. She had straightened her shoulders and given Desdemona a brave look. Joan of Arc on her way to the stake. "I'll have to go through with the thing, of course. One doesn't cancel an affair of this magnitude at the last minute, does one? It isn't done. The family would be horrified."
"Perhaps you should go home and think about this," Desdemona had said. "Marriage is an awfully big step." And it's impossible for me to return fresh asparagus and basil to my supplier.
Pamela had heaved a small, tragic sigh. "He's a nerd, you know. Or maybe an android would be a more accurate description. He's got the brain of a computer and the body of a hunk. What a waste."
"Miss Bedford, I don't think we should be discussing this. Your fiancé's body doesn't have a whole lot to do with our menu decisions."
"He spent several years with a think tank in Colorado called the Rosetta Institute, you know. He specialized in applications of chaos theory. Some of his work was very hush-hush.
"I see." Desdemona did not know what she was supposed to say in response. Her definition of chaos was what happened at Right Touch when a member of her staff, many of whom were involved in the theater world, was unexpectedly called to an audition just before an important catering event.
"He has absolutely no sense of style. He wears running shoes, jeans, and an old corduroy jacket to work every day." Pamela blotted her eyes. "And little round nerdy glasses and, oh, God, a plastic pocket protector full of pens and pencils. It's so embarrassing."
"I guess it works for him."
"I've been doing my best to upgrade him, but it's very difficult. You have no idea of how hard it was for me to get him to buy a tux for the wedding. He wanted to rent one, can you believe it?"
"The mushroom quiches are nice, too, of course, but -- "
"He's utterly bored by social events." Pamela gave Desdemona a mournful look. "He detests cocktail parties and charity affairs. He never goes to the opera or the theater. He even tries to avoid routine business entertaining."
"But I think the asparagus tarts would be more visually interesting," Desdemona said quickly.
"It's not as if I haven't tried. God knows, I've tried. After all, I'm the one who has to be seen in public with him." Pamela had sniffed back more wan. "But I'm not sure it's possible to change him. He simply isn't interested, you see, and you have to get Stark's full attention before you can do anything with him."
"On the other hand, we could go for an entirely different effect, here," Desdemona said. "Shrimp toasts, for example."
"I'm sorry, this isn't your problem, is it?" Pamela had said again, smiling bravely. "I have to remember that this marriage is not a life sentence. I can always get a divorce if things don't work out. Life goes on, doesn't it?"
"Right. Tomorrow is another day," Desdemona muttered.
"Let me see that menu again. Do you think we should go with the asparagus tarts or mushroom quiches?"
"The asparagus tarts," Desdemona said swiftly. "They're quite distinctive. A little more expensive, however."
"Cost is not a problem. As I told you, Stark will be picking up the tab for the reception. He insisted." Pamela's mouth had twisted bitterly for an instant. "I'd say that he offered to cover the costs of the wedding because he felt guilty about that damned prenuptial agreement, but the truth is, I don't think he felt at all guilty. A computer doesn't have emotions, does it?"
Looking back at that awkward scene in her office, Desdemona realized she should have heeded her intuition and declined to handle the reception. Stark was not an android, and he definitely possessed emotions. She could feel them swirling about somewhere deep inside him in the same way one could feel an approaching storm long before one got drenched.
In spite of her doubts, she had gone forward with the wedding plans. She was businesswoman enough to put intuition aside in favor of the practical benefits to be had from catering a major social event. The bride's impeccable family connections and the groom's swiftly evolving financial profile made the Stark-Bedford wedding the wedding of the season. As the caterer for the gala event Desdemona stood to reap a gold mine of publicity and contacts.
Business was business, after all.
But, Desdemona reminded herself, it was folly to ignore the Wainwright intuition. It was never wrong.
Stark took off his round, gold-framed glasses and polished them absently on the sleeve of his pleated shirt. "I'm trying to approach this problem in a logical, analytical manner, Miss Wainwright. I would appreciate your input."
Desdemona stifled a groan. "Perhaps the prenuptial agreement struck Miss Bedford as a little, shall we say, unromantic?"
That was putting it mildly. It didn't take a clairvoyant to realize that Pamela, blond, beautiful, and the apple of her parents' eyes, had grown up in a privileged world. It was a world that had always given her everything she desired. She had been crushed to learn that the man she was to marry had no intention of giving her his unqualified love and trust.
As the date of the wedding had neared, Pamela had grown increasingly tense. Desdemona had seen the mounting anxiety in her client each time they had met to go over the reception arrangements, but she had optimistically chosen to ignore it. The future happiness of the bride and groom was not her problem.
Desdemona had told herself that all she had to do was pull off a wildly successful reception, and that would be the end of her concern with the Stark-Bedford marriage.
Unfortunately, she had miscalculated. Pamela had panicked at the last minute, leaving not only Stark, but Right Touch, in the lurch.
"Unromantic? Unromantic?" Stark put on his glasses and swung around to confront Desdemona. His riveting green eyes glittered with an unsettling intensity. "What the hell kind of answer is that?"
"Well, I'm not sure," Desdemona admitted weakly.
"Probably because it's a useless, meaningless, illogical answer." Stark shrugged out of the black tux jacket and tossed it aside with a gesture of chilling disgust.
The movement made Desdemona grip the arms of her chair very tightly. The fact that Stark appeared to have his emotions under an ironclad self-control only served to make them seem all the more dangerous.
She was rapidly learning that Stark did not show his feelings the way the men in her family did. Wainwright men were volatile, exuberant, and flamboyant. So were the women, for that matter. Wainwrights were theater people, after all. They relished emotion.
But Stark was a different breed. His emotional depths were dark and murky. He was difficult to read.
For some inexplicable reason, she found him fascinating. She sensed that he was her exact opposite in many ways, and yet there was something oddly compelling about him. Part of her was drawn to him. She wondered rather wistfully what might have happened had they met in another place and another time.
She had become aware of him as a person only an hour ago when it had finally dawned on everyone that he had been abandoned at the altar. Until that point she had been too frenetically busy behind the scenes to pay any attention to the groom. She had not even caught sight of him until his best man, Dane McCallum, had made the dreadful announcement that had sent the guests home.
She could say one thing for certain about Stark, Desdemona decided. The man did look good in a tux.
He had the body of a medieval knight. Not overly tall, a shade under six feet, perhaps, but very hard and very solid. He was sleekly muscled, with no sign of flab anywhere.
He moved the way that a well-trained actor did, with grace and an instinctive sense of presence. When Stark entered a room, you would know he was there. Desdemona sensed that it was all unconscious on his part, however, not a carefully honed tactic to gain attention. He seemed completely unaware of the intensity that he projected. He simply was what he was, a self-contained force of nature.
The tails of his black bow tie hung down the front of his crisply pleated shirt. He had undone the tie a few minutes ago when he had stalked into his study. Now, as Desdemona watched apprehensively, he yanked open the collar of his shirt, exposing the strong column of his throat.
She stared in mute amazement as he impatiently ripped off his gold cuff links and tossed them onto the glass-topped desk. The twin spheres danced and skittered on the slick surface. Stark rolled up his sleeves, revealing sinewy forearms and a large, stainless steel digital watch that was adorned with a lot of miniature keys. It was the sort of watch that looked as though it could provide weather information, stock market reports, and breaking headlines in addition to the time of day. It was a high-tech gadget-lover's watch.
From what Desdemona had seen, everything in the fortress was a high-tech-lover's dream. Lights came on automatically when you walked into a room. The kitchen was state-of-the-art. A household computer regulated everything, from the inside air temperature and the blinds that opened and closed according to the angle of the sun, to the extremely sophisticated security system.
Even the art on the walls looked as though it had been generated by a computer. The pictures were brilliant explosions of light and color formed into complex, surreal designs.
Desdemona struggled to change the subject. "A prenuptial agreement does seem to make a business deal out of a marriage, doesn't it? But that's neither here nor there. You'll be glad to know that the champagne can be returned to the supplier. I've deducted the amount from the total, as you can see."
"What's wrong with treating marriage as a business deal? We're talking about a major financial commitment here, not some short-term affair. It's an investment, and it should be handled like one.
Desdemona wished she had kept her mouth shut. It was obvious that Stark had been looking for a target, and she had made the mistake of providing him with one. She hastily tried to backpedal.
"Right. A serious business," Desdemona said.
"Damn right. I thought Pamela understood that." Stark paced back to his desk and threw himself down into his chair. Amazingly enough, the chair did not so much as squeak beneath his not inconsiderable weight. Stark did not glance at the invoice. "I thought I'd made a good choice this time. She seemed so stable. So sensible. Not one of those temperamental, emotional types who drive a man crazy with one scene of psychodrama after another."
Desdemona arched a brow. "I don't know about that. I'd say Miss Bedford has a nice touch when it comes to dramatic scenes. Abandoning a man at the altar is definitely a colorful way to stage an exit."
Stark ignored the comment. "Her father and I got along well. Stark Security Systems did a job for his company last fall. That was how I met Pamela."
"I see." Desdemona knew that Stark's extremely successful computer security consulting firm was rapidly becoming the premier company of its type in the region.
Stark Security Systems advised many of the largest Northwest businesses on matters ranging from computer security issues to corporate espionage. Word had it that Stark, who had started with nothing three years ago, was now, at the age of thirty-four, as wealthy as many of his clients.
"I had every reason to assume that Pamela wasn't a silly, starry-eyed romantic. She was well educated. She came across as calm and rational." Stark drained the last of the brandy in a single swallow. His green eyes narrowed dangerously. "I'm beginning to believe that I was deliberately misled."
"I'm sure it was all a terrible misunderstanding."
"No, she misled me, all right. Made me think she was a reasonable, levelheaded female. She never said a word when we discussed the prenuptial agreement in my lawyer's office."
"Maybe it took her a while to get over the shock."
"What shock?" Stark glowered. "She knew all along that I planned to have a contract. Only reasonable thing to do under the circumstances."
"Sure. Right, Only reasonable thing." Desdemona eyed the empty glass that was positioned near Stark's big hand. Perhaps a little more brandy would get him past the surly stage.
"You're a businesswoman, Miss Wainwright. You understand why I wanted a prenuptial agreement, don't you?"
"To be perfectly honest, I haven't given the subject of prenuptial agreements a lot of thought."
"Never been married?"
"No. Now, I'll be able to donate some of the food to a homeless shelter, and my staff will eat some of the rest, but -- "
"Neither have I. I didn't think I was asking for too much."
Desdemona got to her feet, seized the brandy bottle sitting on the corner of the desk, and leaned over to refill Stark's glass.
"Thanks," he muttered.
"You're welcome." Desdemona moved a pen a smidgen closer to his hand before she sat down. "I suppose prenuptial agreements do make sense. Sort of like having a catering contract for a wedding reception."
"Exactly." He looked morosely pleased by her perceptive response. "A business contract."
"Speaking of business contracts, Mr. Stark -- "
"Logical, reasonable things, contracts. Lord knows, wedding vows don't amount to much these days. But a business agreement, now, that's something you can hold in your hand." Stark made a broad fist. "Something you can see. A business agreement has substance. It has teeth. A business agreement is binding."
"It certainly is. You'll notice that the business agreement in front of you was signed and dated by Miss Bedford, who made it very clear that you were going to cover the expenses for the reception.
Stark looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"The expenses for the reception, Mr. Stark. The total is there at the bottom of the invoice. If you would just take a moment to make out the check, I'll be on my way. I'm sure you'd rather be alone at this unhappy time."
Stark scowled at the invoice. "What is this? Six thousand dollars? For a wedding reception that got canceled?"
"You only owe six thousand because I've already deducted the deposit that was paid at the time the contract was signed and the second payment which was made last month when the supplies were ordered."
"I don't remember giving you two previous payments."
"Miss Bedford said you gave instructions for her to collect whatever she needed from your accounting department. Someone at Stark Security Systems cut the first two checks. I've already cashed them."
"Damn. Things are out of control here. Give me one good reason why I should pay you another six grand."
It was clear to Desdemona that she finally had his full attention. The light of battle glinted in his eyes. It did not bode well.
"Because I've got a business contract that says you owe me another six thousand dollars," she said bluntly. "Look, Mr. Stark, I'm sincerely sorry about what happened this afternoon. I know what a traumatic event this must have been for you."
"I can certainly imagine how upsetting it would be to be left at the altar."
"You get used to it."
She stared at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"I said you get used to it." Stark pulled the invoice closer and studied it with a gimlet gaze. "Second time it's happened to me. I'm a pro at being left at the altar."
Desdemona was horrified. "You've been through this before?"
"Two years ago. Her name was Lindsay Mills. Married a doctor instead."
"Good grief," Desdemona said faintly. "I hadn't realized."
"It's not something I bring up a lot in the course of casual conversation."
"I can understand that."
"She left a note, too. It said that I was emotionally frozen and obsessively fixated on the subject of trust and loyalty."
Stark's teeth appeared briefly in a humorless smile. "She had a degree in psychology."
Desdemona shivered. Stark's eyes were colder than the walk-in freezer in the Right Touch kitchen. "You asked her to sign a prenuptial agreement, too?"
"Of course. She agreed to sign it on our wedding day. But she failed to show up at the altar. Sent a damned note instead. Said she had to marry for love."
"A mutual acquaintance told me that she filed for divorce from the doctor six months ago."
"Apparently she fell for a tennis pro."
"So much for a marriage based on love," Stark said with grim satisfaction.
"I don't think one should generalize," Desdemona said cautiously.
"The way I figure it, I got lucky," Stark said.
"At least I didn't get stuck with the tab for the reception that time." Stark picked up a pen and started going item by item down the invoice.
Desdemona breathed a small sigh of relief. He was at last examining the bill. That was at least one step closer to getting a check out of him.
Privately she thought she understood exactly why Pamela Bedford and Lindsay Mills had lost their nerve on the eve of marriage. It would take courage to marry Sam Stark.
His name suited him all too well. There was a hard, elemental quality about him that would give any intelligent woman pause.
The medieval knight image applied to his features as well as his build. His hair was nearly black, overlong, and brushed straight back from his high forehead. The broad, flat planes of his face and jaw looked as though they had been fashioned to wear a steel helm. His brilliant green eyes glowed with the power of very old gemstones. A prowling, predatory intelligence burned in those eyes.
All in all, there was a stem, unyielding, utterly relentless quality about Sam Stark. It was the sort of quality one might have valued in a knight a few hundred years earlier but that was unexpected and deeply disturbing in a modern-day male.
Desdemona told herself that she was profoundly grateful to know that as soon as she got her check from him, Stark would cease to be her problem.
On the other hand, she had never met anyone who had been abandoned at the altar, let alone abandoned twice.
"Two pounds of tapenade?" Stark glared at Desdemona. "What the hell is tapenade?"
"Basically it's an olive paste. You, spread it on crackers."
"It costs a fortune. Wouldn't it have been cheaper to just serve a couple of bowls of olives?"
"Probably, but Miss Bedford wanted tapenade."
"And what about these cheese breadsticks? Who needs four hundred breadsticks?"
"Two hundred people were invited to the reception, Mr. Stark. Miss Bedford wanted to be able to serve two breadsticks apiece."
Stark continued down the list. "Stuffed mushroom caps? I don't even like stuffed mushroom caps."
"Apparently Miss Bedford was fond of them."
"More fond of them than she was of me, obviously. What are these swans at fifty bucks each? Nobody eats swans these days."
"They aren't real swans. They're ice sculptures. Rafael, one of my employees, did a beautiful job on them."
Stark glanced toward the window. "I'm paying fifty bucks apiece for those blocks of ice that are melting away in my garden?"
"Think of them as works of art, Mr. Stark. Rafael definitely considers himself an artist."
"They're made out of ice. I'm paying a total of one hundred and fifty dollars to water my garden with fancy ice sculptures?"
"I realize this is very difficult for you, Mr. Stark. I'll be glad to go over each item on the bill, but I can assure you that all the charges are quite reasonable."
"Your idea of reasonable and mine are two different things, Miss Wainwright." Stark went back to the invoice. "About this herbed goat cheese."
"Very popular these days."
"I don't see how it could be, at this price."
"It's very special goat cheese. Made by a local firm."
"What do they do? Raise the goats in their own private, waterfront condominiums?"
Desdemona opened her mouth to respond with a crack about the goats being worth it, but at the last instant she changed her mind. It dawned on her that Stark was using the line-by-line argument over the invoice as a means of venting some of the rage and pain he must surely be feeling.
She glanced at his very large fist, which was fiercely clamped around a slender gold pen. The muscles in his forearm were bunched and taut.
"I know the goat cheese is a little steep," she said gently. "But it's excellent, and it keeps well. Shall I leave it behind for you to eat?"
"Do that. I'll have it for dinner tonight. Leave some crackers and a couple of bottles of the champagne, too."
Desdemona frowned. "Look, I know this is none of my business, but are you going to be all right here on your own this evening?"
He glanced up swiftly, his gaze shuttered. "Don't worry, I'm not going to do something stupid like overdose on goat cheese and champagne."
"You've been through an emotionally exhausting experience. It's not always a good idea to be alone after that kind of thing. Do you have someone who can stay with you? A family member, perhaps?"
"I don't have any family here in Seattle."
Desdemona was startled. "None of them came out for the wedding?"
"I'm not close to my family, Miss Wainwright."
"Oh." She was unsure how to respond to that. The concept of being bereft of family sent a chill through her. Since she had become a member of the extended Wainwright clan at the age of five, family had been everything to Desdemona. The time before her mother had married Benedick Wainwright was a shadowed realm that Desdemona preferred not to revisit. "Well, is there a friend you could call?"
"I suppose I could send out for one of those inflatable, life-sized, anatomically correct dolls that are sold in adult entertainment stores," Stark said. "But with my luck, she'd probably deflate before I figured out the operating instructions."
Desdemona. smiled faintly. "I'm glad your sense of humor is still intact. It's a good sign."
"Do you think so?"
"Definitely." Desdemona leaned forward and folded her arms on the desk. "Look, I'm serious here. I really don't think you ought to be alone tonight."
He gazed at her with unreadable eyes. "What would you suggest I do? I'm not exactly in the mood to throw a party."
Desdemona gave into impulse. "Tell you what. Let's finish going over this invoice. Then you can come back to the Right Touch kitchen with me and have dinner with my staff. Afterward you can go to the theater with us."
"The Limelight down in Pioneer Square. It's a little fringe playhouse located underneath the viaduct. Know it?"
"No. I rarely go to the theater."
Desdemona had learned early in life that the world was divided into two groups, those who loved the theater and barbarians. She seldom socialized with the latter, but today for some reason she was inspired to make an exception.
"The Limelight is very small," Desdemona said. "It does a lot of experimental contemporary stuff. My cousin Juliet has a part in the current production."
Stark looked dubious. "Is it going to be one of those weird plays where there's no plot or scenery and the actors come on stage naked and throw things at the audience?"
Desdemona smiled blandly. "I see you're familiar with experimental theater."
"I've heard about stuff like that. I don't think it's the kind of thing I'd enjoy."
"Look at the positive side. To a man who is going to spend his wedding night alone, I would think that a live actress running around in the buff on stage would be a lot more interesting than an inflatable, anatomically correct doll."
Stark gave her a thoughtful look. "Point taken."
Copyright ©1995 by Jayne Ann Krentz