I would never joke about this subject, and certainly not with you.
Francesca could not recall the rest of their conversation, if indeed, it had continued at all. He had left shortly afterward, telling her that he would call on her the next day or the day after that-as casually as if he had not just said he wanted to make her his wife. Had he dropped a cannonball in the center of the room, one that had exploded, she could not be more shocked.
Calder Hart intended to marry her. Had he lost his mind?
And what about Bragg? She loved him. She always would. She loved his brother.
I intend to marry you.
I am sick of it, him, the two of you?
Afraid of the real woman inside of yourself? .. . It is not me you are afraid of.
Francesca clapped her hand over her ears, but that would not stop his soft, s.e.xual voice from invading her thoughts, her mind. How could this be happening? How?
And she recalled the steely look in his eyes, and fear and panic overcame her. She had never seen such determination, and recalling it, she felt powerless, as if she were in the path of a cyclone, and incapable of moving even a single step out of the way.
Marry Calder Hart? It was absurd!
An image flashed in her mind, of her in a wedding dress, in Hart's arms, on his big four-poster bed.
She shuddered and suddenly felt as if she had been propelled, against her will, to the edge of a terrible precipice. Because marrying Calder Hart was no different from crawling to the very edge of a tree's limb as someone began to saw through it. It was only a matter of time before that limb went crashing to the earth, with her on it in all of her bridal finery.
She closed her eyes tightly and faced a terrible truth. He could undo her body with a single word, a single look, but that was not love. When he walked into a room she became breathless and frightened all at once, but that was not love.
The man she loved was married, a man she could never have.
The arithmetic was extraordinarily simple-why hadn't she done the math sooner? She could not marry without love, Bragg was already married; therefore, she was not marrying anyone, not ever, and that included Calder Hart. Because she was the kind of woman to only give her heart away once and forever.
It struck her then that her worries were groundless. Hart was not going to drag her screaming and kicking in protest down the aisle. All she had to do was go to him and explain herself. She would tell him that although Leigh Anne had returned to Bragg, that could not, and would not, change her heart. Her heart would always belong to Bragg, and because of that, she was not ever going to marry anyone. And she would also remind him of the fact that he was dead set against marriage, period. She would remind him of his innate inclination to remain a single and notorious bachelor, in the strongest manner possible. She might even briefly point out that he had had a temporary lapse in sanity. After all, they hardly were suitable as a couple; they had very little in common! In fact, undoubtedly by the time she got to this last point they would be sipping his finest Scotch whiskey and laughing over the absurdity of it all. They would discuss his true nature and her resolve and then they would realize that their friendship was perfect as it was. They would laugh about his sudden peculiar urge to wed her-of all women! And everything would go back to the way it had been until a few hours ago. Thank G.o.d. She laughed in utter relief. Tomorrow morning, first thing, she would go to his house and resolve the entire affair! Francesca started from the salon and b.u.mped into her father in the hall. "Papa?" She sensed he was looking for her. He did not look pleased. "You have a telephone call, Francesca. It is Rick." She stiffened, all of her relief vanishing, although she could not think why. Hadn't he said he would telephone her later? But just then, she had been ready to slip up to her room with some hot tea and perhaps a piece of terribly decadent chocolate cake. Crawling into bed seemed the perfect anecdote to the extremely frightful day. She thanked her father, changed direction, and hurried into the library. The receiver was off the hook, on his desk. She lifted it to her ear. "Bragg?" "There has been another act of vandalism, Francesca," he said without preamble. She clutched the receiver. "Another art studio?" she gasped, instantly thinking of the shambles Sarah's studio had been in when she had first seen it. And she kept thinking about all that dark red paint that had looked exactly like blood. "Yes, and it has been thoroughly destroyed, in a similar manner to Sarah's studio, but in a more extreme way. It gets worse," he added. "How can it be worse?" she whispered, already sensing what was to come. "The artist was a young woman, just a few years older than Sarah." Her heart lurched. "Was?" There was a pause. "She has been murdered," he said. Francesca forgot to breathe. "Where are you?" "At headquarters. Francesca, I need you." "I'll be right there," she said, and she hung up the telephone. A killer was on the loose, and if her instincts were serving her correctly, Sarah's life might very well be in danger. There was no time now to dwell upon Hart's odd proposal, even if she could not quite get over it. Suddenly Francesca shuddered. If Bragg ever found out that Hart had proposed, all h.e.l.l would break loose. And then her determination and good sense returned. Bragg must never find out, and tomorrow she would set the record straight with Calder Hart. Oh yes, she would. But right now, she had a murder to solve.