“What you really need, Win, is a wife.”
Hearing her boss say these words stopped Roseanne halfway through the door into his downtown Seattle office. Her long-fingered hand halted on the polished brass knob of the door. Damn. George wasn’t alone. She’d counted on discussing her plan with him this afternoon, her strategy for finally making partner at the Covington March law firm this year.
Instead she was interrupting something clearly personal…if unquestionably intriguing. Win, Win…did she know that name? It sounded awfully familiar, but she couldn’t place it.
Reluctantly, she backed out the door. Politeness did not come naturally to her, but for George she tried.
“Surely you’re joking, George,” spoke a male voice in a deep Texas twang. “Members of the female sex are generally worse than a good dose of poison.”
Roseanne’s disappointed retreat halted. Cracking the door open wider, she gazed boldly into the room. A tall, lean man stood poised by her boss’s twelfth-floor window. He was several inches taller than herself, even in her high-heeled shoes. He was obviously Win, and the source of the statement she’d just heard.
Tilting her head, Roseanne wondered if she could manage to push the fellow through the window and, if so, would the act be considered a crime. Heck, what was a man like this doing with her boss?
“Roseanne?” George apparently caught sight of her.
So did the man by the window. He froze, and then had the decency to blush. “Beggin’ your pardon, ma’am.”
“Oh, Roseanne understands,” George claimed, with complete inaccuracy. Heavyset and balding, he sat genially behind his big office desk. “Come on in, Roz. I’d like you to meet my good friend, Winthrop Carruthers.”
Good friend? Oh, no. George couldn’t have called him that. Because now Roseanne had placed the name, together with the Texas accent. Winthrop Carruthers was infamous at Covington March. But she could hardly escape now. Raising her eyebrows, she strode through the door. “Roseanne Archer.” She paused and smiled dryly. “A pleasure.”
The tall man, dressed in off-white trousers and a white dress shirt, winced. “I do apologize,” he mumbled. “Probably not all women. But no wife,” he added, turning back to George. ‘Sakes. Gettin’ rid of the last one was no easy task.” Carruthers pointed to the top of George’s desk. “And it looks like I’m not done with her yet.”
So that was the problem. Winthrop Carruthers’ ex-wife was giving him grief. From what Roseanne knew about the situation, this sounded perfectly reasonable.
The only question was why George was giving the fellow the time of day. Four years ago Carruthers had abruptly fired Covington March. The loss of the corporate contract for his big aeronautical firm had been serious. George had been the one blamed.
But George didn’t look one speck pissed, irritated, or resentful. If Roseanne weren’t mistaken, her soft-hearted boss actually looked concerned‑‑on Carruthers’ behalf. From his desktop, he picked up a newspaper clipping. “I understand your annoyance with this article, Win. But unfortunately, it’s simply not actionable.”
Win glanced toward Roseanne, possibly implying she should leave them in privacy, but she wasn’t budging. It sounded like George was handing out legal advice, for free, to a person who should be his worst enemy. If she could put a monkey wrench in these proceedings, she was doing it.
Apparently giving up on privacy, Win turned back to George. “Are you saying I can’t sue?”
George spread his hands. “Well, there’s nothing defamatory in the piece. All it says is that you and your ex-wife, Sylvia, are considering a reconciliation.”
“It isn’t true.”
Roseanne, on her way to George’s desk to take a gander at the article, paused at the vehemence in Mr. Carruthers’ tone.
George seemed struck by it, too. “Of course not,” he said, and set the news clipping down with a thoughtful expression.
Roseanne didn’t like that expression. Bad enough Mr. Carruthers was horning in on the hour she’d counted on spending with George. She wasn’t letting him talk George into wasting his time on some thankless project.
“Defamation requires more than simply printing an untruth,” she interjected. Reaching George’s desk, she looked down at the article, though she obviously didn’t have time to read it. She didn’t need to. She knew the details. Carruthers hadn’t merely divorced his wife, but ditched her, callously, on the eve of his success. The minute he’d made a go of his aeronautics company, his wife had become history.
“To sue would require damages to have occurred,” Roseanne now informed him. “If all the article states is that you’re getting back together with your ex-wife, it would be hard to prove that’s caused you any monetary loss.”
Glancing helplessly at George, and then out the window, Carruthers ran a hand through his sandy hair. “Damn.”
There, Roseanne thought. Now the crumb would leave.
But George, unbelievably, continued handing out advice. “The best way to handle something like this is simply to call the newspaper.” He leaned back in his seat and reached for a reassuring manner. “Explain they made a mistake and ask them to print a retraction. I’d be surprised if they didn’t do it.”
“Yeah, sure, and they’ll print it in small type on page sixty-five,” Winthrop grumbled. He turned and pointed to the offending article. “That was printed on page two. With a photograph!”
A photo? Roseanne took a closer look at the newspaper clipping. She now saw it included a formal wedding portrait, dated ten years before. Carruthers’ bride had been a real stunner, blond, curvy and sensual‑‑the exact opposite of her own dark-haired, lanky self. The woman’s smile was slight and coy.
The groom, on the other hand, was grinning like an idiot. Roseanne had never seen a better portrait of sheer, unadulterated joy. The photograph gave him the appearance of an overeager greyhound, what with that smile and his rather long nose.
The man now standing by George’s office window was thinner, and his lean face harsher than the man in the photograph. Under his closely groomed hair, his expression was taciturn and far from joyful.
Now he left his perch by the window and approached the desk. Scooping up the newspaper article, he stuffed it into the front pocket of his trousers. “Doesn’t matter.” Looking defeated, he sighed. “By now the damage is done.”
He was giving up. Finally! Just a minute more, and he’d be out the door.
But George stopped any departure once again, giving Win a strange, deep look. “Like I said to begin with, Win, if you didn’t live like such a hermit these stories would die an early death. In fact, they’d have a hard time getting started in the first place.”
Win gave a noncommittal grunt, shoved his hands in the pockets of his pants, and turned away. Both men seemed to have forgotten Roseanne’s existence.
She, meanwhile, found herself frowning. Carruthers hadn’t made the classic move of the heartless wife-deserter and embarked on a life of decadent womanizing?
“It’s only natural for people to assume you’re still in love with Sylvia,” George went on. “You haven’t dated a single woman since the divorce, have you?”
Not one, Roseanne thought?
Carruthers’ shoulders stiffened. “But that doesn’t mean it follows I’m in love with Sylvia.” He hesitated before adding, “I couldn’t be. You know that.”
George opened his mouth, as if on the verge of adding his own two cents on the subject.
Fortunately, before George could upset Roseanne with some fantasy about Winthrop Carruthers’ sensitive nature, or she could upset the men with a rather unscrupulous idea that had just occurred to her, her boss remembered she was in the room. “Ah, Roseanne, I’m sorry. You came in‑‑ Did you need me for something?”
Roseanne lowered her lashes. Oh, no. Nothing urgent. Only a magic elixir for convincing the dirty dozen, the current partners at Covington March, to recognize her talents and make her a partner this year. If only she could get that partnership she’d feel like she’d finally made it, achieved the security and independence that was her life goal. Coincidentally, she craved that independence because of a man who’d behaved a lot like Winthrop Carruthers.
With a wry smile, Roseanne narrowed her eyes at her boss. “I was kinda thinking maybe you needed some help, George. You know, if you had something useful you wanted to accomplish this afternoon?”
Instead of getting her hint‑‑it was Carruthers who owed George, not the other way around‑‑George gave her a sweet smile. “No, I’m fine, just going to chat with Win for a while, before he flies back home to Houston.”
Roseanne drew in a long breath. Her boss was much too nice. Didn’t he care this was the very man who’d stopped his career midstream? After the loss of the Carruthers Engineering contract, George had never been treated with full respect by the other partners at the law firm.
Besides that, George had to be Carruthers’ complete opposite, a devoted husband of twenty-five years and the loving father of three. George had gone far to restoring Roseanne’s faith in the male of the species. Carruthers, on the other hand, confirmed everything she’d learned from her father.
With her too-thin lips pressed even thinner, Roseanne turned toward George’s ‘old friend,’ now standing next to her in front of George’s desk. “Pleasure to meet you,” she cooed in a tone clearly implying the opposite.
“Likewise,” Carruthers drawled, his eyes hooding.
Thinking about George, Roseanne held out her hand. Hell, if she couldn’t plot her own career advance this afternoon, she could possibly do something for her boss’s.
Carruthers, at least a gentleman in form, took her invitation, surrounding her long fingers with his much bigger hand.
Much bigger and…stronger.
But Roseanne was not to be distracted by irrelevant details. She took her shot. “And we all hope,” she told Carruthers, “that you’ll consider rejoining us here at Covington March.”
Carruthers’ eyes came up, surprised, an intense hit of blue.
“It sure would mean a lot to George,” Roseanne said, hammering it in.
Those eyes then flicked to the side, toward George, a quick glance, puzzling it out.
Was it possible, Roseanne wondered, the big gadoof didn’t even realize what he’d done to George four years ago?
“Much obliged for the sentiment,” he murmured, and released her hand. But his eyes remained intent upon her face.
She’d wanted to prick him, to rock his self-centered world a little bit, but instead she discovered it was a very odd sensation to be under the scrutiny of Carruthers’ penetrating blue eyes. He almost seemed to be…questioning her sincerity.
As if he had the right!
Frowning, Roseanne glanced away. “I’ll be in my office,” she told George.
George gave her a why-did-you-do-that smile and waved her toward the door.
Roseanne stepped out and into the hall, but she had to admit, she felt oddly off balance.
If she didn’t know better, she could have sworn there was a kind of…integrity behind that gaze of Carruthers.’ And even‑‑ But no. That couldn’t be. Shaking her head at herself, Roseanne stepped across the carpeted hall. A man who’d deserted his wife had no integrity; he had no feelings. Roseanne knew. At the age of eleven she’d found out.
She pushed open her office door, the one with “Associate” written on it. Deliberately, she dismissed the lingering image in her mind of Winthrop Carruther’s deep blue eyes. The momentary impression of…pain.
Roseanne shook her head. This was one man she was sure didn’t deserve a moment’s pity. In fact, for his sake, Roseanne hoped Mr. Texas Businessman-Slash-Engineer would be winging his way back down to Houston‑‑or was it Dallas?‑‑very soon. Because if he pestered George one more time she’d be tempted to do something drastic.
“There must be someone we can call.” Roseanne’s anxious law clerk made this protest the following afternoon. She tried to peer over Roseanne’s desk to see what her boss was doing.
“There’s no one to call.” Roseanne had wrestled her desk chair to the ground and was on the knees of her expensive pantyhose, trying to examine what had gone wrong with the wheels at the base of the thing. “In this case, as in most of life, we’re on our own, baby.”
“But surely building maintenance–”
“Couldn’t care less about private office chairs.”
Roseanne came to the conclusion that only by unfastening her smart wool jacket, swinging the buttons out of the way, and then lowering onto her belly could she really get a good look at what was going on with the wheel. The damn chair had nearly thrown her when she’d attempted sitting down a moment ago. It hadn’t been a very dignified moment, not to mention the danger she’d face the next time she tried to sit down to get some legal work done, instead of wasting her time in court.
Roseanne would have loved to stop wasting time in court, but that would necessitate the powers-that-be at Covington March finally seeing her true talent and making her a partner this year. The decisions on the three openings would be made in July‑‑less than two months away. It wasn’t much time in which to pull off the kind of miracle that would convince them she had the right stuff, but Roseanne was determined.
Somehow she’d show them she could do what was most important of all: bring in money.
“The office janitor, then,” her law clerk persisted, clearly dubious about Roseanne’s mechanical abilities. She made the mistake of adding, “At least let’s get a man to look at it.”
Roseanne’s head came up so quickly she nearly bumped it into one of the air-borne legs of the chair. “Oh, no!” She shook her silky black hair. “That isn’t the proper attitude. Not at all.”
On the other side of the desk, the law clerk groaned.
The poor girl had heard this lecture more than once, but that wasn’t about to stop Roseanne. She made her voice stern as she lowered back down to the floor. “The problem with asking men for help is that one starts to depend upon them. The only reliable person to depend upon is oneself.”
Roseanne turned her attention back to the wheel. On her stomach with her knees bent, her feet dangled over her back. It was possible that thingamabobber was the problem. It looked different on this wheel from the others. Roseanne shoved an experimental fingernail at the object, hoping she could avoid breaking it. The fingernail, that was.
“Fact is,” Roseanne went on, “we women really need men for very few things.” The heels of her black pumps popped off her feet. Considering how long she’d been on those feet this morning, the sensation was quite pleasant. She flapped the loose shoes happily against her bare heels.
“So you say,” her law clerk grumbled. “But I think you need help with that chair. I’m going to go get somebody.”
“Not so fast. I’m not done yet.” Roseanne didn’t mind the argument with her law clerk. She enjoyed a good debate. That’s why she’d chosen the law, after all, among the various professions. That some profession was her goal she’d known from a very early age. At eleven years old, Roseanne had resolved to be a career woman, a woman who could look out for herself in every possible way.
“Now, what do I need a man for?” Roseanne went on, warming nicely to her topic. “Sex, of course. I won’t argue with that. Or children, if you’re into that sort of thing.” She grinned at the chair wheel, thinking of the loathsome insect she’d found in her bathtub that morning. “All right, all right. I’ll admit, men come in handy for killing the occasional spider.”
Roseanne ceased her happy shoe-flapping activities. That deep voice was not her law clerk. She glanced under the table. Instead of the sensible pair of feminine loafers that should have been standing there, she saw a pair of very un-feminine, tan leather boots, western in style.
Darn it all! Wasn’t he supposed to be back in Texas by now?
But no. Twisting her neck, she found Winthrop Carruthers peering down at her over the desk.
“Why, you’re on the floor, Miz Archer,” he remarked, surprised. He had a funny way of slurring the distinction of her title, spanning the entire range from Mrs. through Ms. to Miss.
“So I am.” She did not even try to disguise her annoyance at his untimely appearance.
“You’d best get off the floor,” Winthrop advised. He started around the corner of her desk.
Roseanne pushed herself to a sitting position, her long legs curled to the side. The blasted bob of her dark hair fell into her eyes and she had to blow it out of the way to look up at him.
He obviously couldn’t see the glare in her eyes warning him not to do so, for he leaned forward, caught her arm around the elbow and gently raised her to her feet.
They stood there for a moment, looking at each other. It was a strange moment. Roseanne was fully conscious of the sure strength of his arms and the height of him rising above her. As she’d noted the day before, he was quite a bit taller than she was, even when she was standing in her high heels.
Yes, she noticed him, physically, but she still didn’t like him. “What are you doing here?” she wanted to know.
Frowning down at her with those terrible blue eyes of his, Carruthers seemed unaware he was having any kind of an effect on her. Yes, he gave the impression of a general remoteness‑‑of being unaware of, or even deliberately ignoring, the social world.
His frown deepened. “Did you mean what you said yesterday, in George’s office?”
She’d said quite a few things yesterday in George’s office. Roseanne cocked her head. “Wanna give me a hint? What did I say?”
He turned, averting his gaze. “About George, and me firing Covington March four years ago.”
“Ah.” So he’d put the pieces of the puzzle together. Roseanne was mildly impressed.
“He wasn’t even working on my file at the time,” Winthrop told her, rationalizing. “How could he get the blame when I canned the law firm?”
“Easily.” Roseanne gave him a pitying smile. “In a big law firm like this someone always has to take the blame. It’s political and it’s ugly, but it’s how the game is played. In your case, since George was the initial contact‑‑”
“He helped with a tax problem when Carruthers Engineering was just getting started down in Houston.”
“Anyway, as I was saying, he brought you in. You became his responsibility, even if he wasn’t working directly on your case.” George, transferred from Texas up to Covington March’s branch in Seattle, probably hadn’t even been aware that the Houston branch had made the classic error of trying to take care of a family law problem for a corporate customer. Carruthers’ divorce had been a doomed project from the beginning.
Carruthers took a step back, toward the window. “How do you know so much about this?”
“I read your file, of course.”
He froze in place, clearly alarmed. “The whole thing?”
Roseanne raised her eyebrows. “There were several volumes. No. I only read the highlights.”
The alarm simmered down to something approximating humor. His stance relaxed. “You saw the letter firing Covington March?”
Winthrop pointed a finger at her. “Now that’s what I call a highlight.”
“Which is exactly what we were discussing. But it’s all water under the bridge now.” Roseanne hesitated, considering. “Unless, of course, you’re thinking of retaining Covington March again.”
He didn’t appear to have heard her. “Not that it did any good to fire you s.o.b.’s. I ended up with the same exact divorce settlement from my next lawyer.” He gave Roseanne a man-to-man look. “Do you know that I am still paying that woman out of profits made by Carruthers Engineering?”
“Considering she didn’t make you sell the company to give her half the value, I’d say you got a very generous deal.”
“Hmph.” Winthrop grunted and shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. “That’s what you think. Believe me, Sylvia’s been finding plenty of ways to make me pay even more than that. Take this newspaper gossip article, for example.”
Roseanne was surprised. “You think Sylvia planted the article?”
His tone was grim. “I know it.”
“But why would she do that?”
One corner of his mouth lifted sardonically. “She wants to make it come true.”
“By spreading rumors?”
“By creating pressure.” He sighed and looked longingly out the window, as though the answers to his problems might lie outside, twelve stories above street level. “There are a lot of parties who’d like to see Sylvia and myself married again.”
“Including Sylvia, I would suppose.”
Winthrop shrugged. “She has her reasons, too.”
From the sound of it, those reasons didn’t include love and affection. Not that Roseanne blamed the woman. Why should Winthrop’s ex-wife love him now, after the way she’d been treated?
“So,” Roseanne asked, curious, “what are you going to do?”
“Do I have a choice? Ride it out somehow.” He grimaced. “Jesus. I’d do anything to nip this thing in the bud.”
Anything? The word echoed in the cluttered space between Roseanne’s ears. There it banged against the crazy idea she’d had the day before, in George’s office. “How much longer did you plan to stay in town?” she asked. Suddenly she was not so eager to see him gone.
He gave her an odd look. “Why?”
Roseanne searched quickly for an explanation. Best he not suspect what she was up to. It was crazy and rather wicked. But hadn’t George said that Win needed a wife‑‑? “There are…a few phone calls I need to make. Then I may have a proposition that will solve your little problem. Nip it in the bud, just the way you want.”
“You don’t say?” He was plainly dubious.
“Trust me,” Roseanne encouraged him, most falsely. The last person in the world Carruthers should trust was Roseanne. “When is your flight out?”
“Tonight.” He looked wary, but also curious. It was just the way she wanted him.
Yes. That miracle Roseanne had been looking for was standing right in front of her. He was a walking ticket to partner. Without realizing it, Roseanne’s boss had given her the answer after all. With George’s ‘good friend,’ Roseanne would prove she had what it took to reel in a difficult fish. Disgruntled former clients were the most difficult fish of all‑‑and Carruthers Engineering was a big one.
“Good, good, good,” Roseanne murmured in a calculatedly mysterious professional fashion. She looked around, intending to sit down and reach importantly for the telephone, signaling to the unfortunate Mr. Carruthers that he was dismissed. But there was, alas, nothing to sit in. Her chair was still lying in a terminal condition on the office carpet.
“What seems to be the trouble with that?” Carruthers asked, following her gaze.
She hesitated and then shrugged. Simply describing the problem didn’t mean she was giving up. “One of the wheels buckled. I suppose I’m missing a screw or something.”
“Or something,” he murmured, squatting down to give the wheel a superficial look. She panicked but couldn’t think of a single decent reason to stop him. Then he straightened and she relaxed. He was not going to attempt fixing it.
She was wrong. He put out his hand and took hold of the chair. He held it for a moment as though taking its temperature. Then, light as a feather, he raised the unwieldy creature, gave it a solid little shake and set it on its feet. It landed firmly. It did not fall over. It didn’t even list to the side.
“That should do it,” he said, but without a trace of triumph. In fact, he sounded rather sour.
“I don’t believe it.” Roseanne looked over at him and then reached for the chair. She rolled it backwards and forwards. The wheels cooperated smoothly, not even a squeak. Giving the man a deeply suspicious glare, she lowered herself gingerly into the seat. It held. It felt solid.
“You fixed it,” she accused him.
He shrugged, plainly unimpressed with his own power. “I guess there are a few things I can do.” He paused. “Other than kill spiders.”
Roseanne felt her face go uncharacteristically warm. She wondered how much of her little speech on the various uses of men Winthrop had overheard.
Judging by the light tinge of color now visible on his high cheekbones, he’d heard something more of it than the spider part. “Good day, ma’am. Thank you for your time.”
“It was nothing.” Roseanne felt chatty all of the sudden. “You gave me a great idea‑‑I mean, maybe you’ll be hearing from me.”
The flicker of alarm that crossed his laconic face right before he walked out the door gave her a moment’s pause. It was just possible that the man, abstracted as he was, did not in fact underestimate her. But Roseanne shrugged off this possibility. She meant Carruthers no harm. In fact, she thought there might be a way to solve everybody’s problems all at once: George’s disgrace, Carruthers’ ex-wife, and last, but certainly not least, Roseanne’s bid for partnership. She grinned and gave a push to her chair. It spun effortlessly around and around.
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