Anastasiya Volochkova po.., p.1

The Gift of Happiness, страница 1


The Gift of Happiness

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The Gift of Happiness

  Chapter One

  Katherine made no attempt to walk quietly down the wide staircase, and her booted heels sounded quite audibly on the polished hard wood. The staircase wound around in a gentle, spacious curve. The hall below was large and elegant, and a few well-placed tables stood at certain strategic points throughout its length. Expensive and tasteful ornaments decorated these dainty pieces of furniture, and on the main table, just inside the double front doors, stood a huge bouquet of white orchids. Her eyes saw none of these things as she walked through it all with the easy acceptance of one who lived constantly in such surroundings.

  Katherine thought of her father’s loyal servant with a curl of her upper lip. Joss had seen her enter the house by the back way, and she was sure that he had already informed her father of this. James—she never thought of him any other way, certainly not as Daddy—would be in a rage, she knew, and this thought pleased her in an angry, despairing way. The sounds of a cheerful dinner party floated down the hall from the very large reception room. The party was formal. James had told her so, with steel in his voice which told her clearly that she could not afford to miss it if she had any inkling of what was good for her.

  She was used to his domineering ways. For all her life James Farlough had dictated to her how she should be or act, what she should wear, who she should befriend or snub. But those days were over. She had had enough.

  Katherine had gone to the best private schools that her father’s millions could buy, and had been kicked out of many for her wild and reckless behavior. It hadn’t mattered. The Farlough money merely bought her entry into others. It was all one and the same to her. Nobody had discerned in her a certain recklessness that went beyond mere youthful high spirits.

  Her long legs strode unhurriedly toward the sounds that were spilling out from the end of the hall, a flash of what might have been amusement appearing in her eyes and almost as quickly disappearing again. She had not bothered to change after her strenuous horse ride, and there was dust on her black, knee-high boots. She had on tight, faded jeans that were tucked into them, and she wore a black blouse that was open at a very tanned and slim throat. There was no visible sign of apprehension on her thin, well-proportioned face with its high, angled cheekbones and its strong forehead and chin. Her eyes were brilliant and hard, looking too large for her face and too intense, as if holding too much life in them. Her long and fashionably cut hair held fiery glints, as if a dancing flame hid in the depths of the gleaming chestnut.

  She paused just outside the threshold to tie about her throat a long, expensive black tie that she had taken the time to fetch from her father’s wardrobe. After setting the knot to one side of her throat in a rakish position, she moved with an athletic and arrogant-looking ease to stand poised and framed in the wide, ornate, open doorway. She waited.

  There was a general stir, and many of the formally dressed people turned to look at her, a slim and not very tall young woman whose stance compelled attention. She broke out of her stillness and slowly started forward, looking neither right nor left and receiving a hazy impression of glitter from various flashy and expensive designer dresses. Spaced among the different colors were areas of tall, square-seeming black—the evening suits of the men. More people turned to look, and some moved out of the way as she headed toward the opposite side of the room where a bar was situated with a young uniformed man in attendance behind it. She was terribly hungry, having stormed out with no supper after the terrible quarrel with her father, and her stomach twisted warningly but she paid it no heed. She had lived on her nerves too long to care much about the damage she was doing to her body by neglecting to eat properly. It was just another aspect of her life that didn’t really matter anymore. A growing silence was taking over the large room full of glittering guests, many of whom were influential and socially prominent. She reached the bar, placed a casual order and turned on one heel to lazily survey the crowded room.

  She was not surprised to see that she was indeed the centre of the room’s attention, and she soon located her father with some other man—presumably Lucas Dalton, the guest of honor—coming her way slowly. Reaching behind her, she took up her drink to toss it off in one swallow. It was whiskey, neat, and she deliberately held the abominable liquid in her mouth for a long moment, ignoring its burning as she stared into the dark and curiously blank eyes of the tall stranger beside her father. Then she swallowed and cocked an amused and malicious eyebrow at James, looking into his furious and glacial expression mockingly. Every movement was intended, every expression calculated on her part. She was playing a dangerous game with fire.

  James was looking particularly frightening, she noted, and was vaguely surprised to find that it scarcely mattered to her. He had always cowed her into submission before. The moment stretched out in the awful silence as father and daughter stared at each other. The one figure held a curiously menacing stance in his ageing and yet still powerfully built body while the other, young and a little fragile yet taut-looking and haughty held a restless energy in check, and possessed an unconscious power that was all her own. She was unaware of how her seemingly careless pose somehow conveyed an overpowering rage tightly suppressed. The dark stranger watched the two, his eyes penetrating and intelligent.

  Then the still scene shifted and James began to move across the floor again toward his daughter. Katherine turned her head away as if uninterested, while she gave the bartender another low-voiced order. Another whiskey was placed before her and she picked it up to cradle it in her long, slim fingers. She knew her father disliked her to drink spirits, and she knew that he was quite aware of how she disliked whiskey. It was a deliberate taunt on her part, a subtle flaunting of independence that was fuelling his anger at her impertinence. He didn’t care whether the liquor was bad for her or not, she realized cynically. He just didn’t want to see her drunk at one of his parties.

  “Darling,” said James indulgently. Only she knew how dangerous that endearment was, coming from him in that light tone of voice. “You’re quite late. We have all eaten supper already. I can’t think how you forgot.” Sarcasm dripped from his well-modulated tone, and there were a few snickers. The dark man looked from one to the other of the Farloughs frowningly but remained silent. “Yet surely Joss informed you that the party was formal?”

  “Oh, yes, James,” she purred sweetly, “I didn’t forget.” She flicked an indifferent hand at the tie at her throat. His eyes hardened as he recognized it and his lips thinned. “He did say that it was black tie.” There were more laughs at this as she affected a droll tone and expression. James assessed the situation quickly, taking an experienced and coldly comprehensive glance around him at his guests. The ages of the people present were varied, as were the different professions and interests. Most of the men and women were now eyeing Katherine with amusement and interest. His daughter was wildly popular, something he had encouraged, and she had a reputation for eccentricity and uniqueness that would be enhanced, not destroyed by tonight’s behavior. He had in the past helped her out of various scrapes and scenes with an indulgence and a complete awareness of how each one had built up her reputation. He’d hardly ever scolded her for any of her past misdemeanors, for the reputation that Katherine had built up was very advantageous to him. People flocked around the girl’s notoriety like flies to honey. After tonight, tales would be circulating throughout the district about the Farlough girl, a character and a positive must for a lively party. He saw, too, that she had judged the situation much as he had, and only they knew of the dark undercurrent involved in this public exhibition. She had never dared to rebel in the past. Now they were locked in a duel of personalities, the outcome of which was the control of her life.

ome now,” he said, sounding fond. Only they knew how false that was. “Enough about tonight, my dear.” For now, she read in his light eyes. Only for now. “I want you to meet my guest of honor.” He turned and clapped the man by his side on the back with a great show of joviality. “Luke, I’ve been very anxious for you to meet my naughty daughter, Katherine. Katherine, my good friend, Luke.”

  “Ah, yes,” she drawled, and her father stiffened into a terrible tension. She looked the man up and down, ignoring his outstretched hand. “So, you’re the wonder boy?” she asked, smiling to take some of the sting out of her words. It was an insincere smile, and she knew that she hovered dangerously on the borderline of rudeness. The whiskey had given her courage, bolstering her recklessness, however, and she didn’t regret her actions. She wouldn’t, she knew, until later. “Quite a…real estate expert, aren’t you? Or is it the stock exchange, dear?”

  They were still the focal point of curiosity and everyone was listening with an avid and sickening attention. She could feel her father’s rage pulsing underneath his bland and smiling exterior, murderous and directed toward her. She knew that she was losing everything important in life, and that her father’s ruthless domination would probably eventually destroy her completely. She had been abominably and unforgivably rude to a virtual stranger, and had probably just made an enemy of an important and powerful man. The knowledge was deep in her large, proud eyes as she looked up to meet the eyes of the stranger she had insulted.

  She got one of the biggest shocks of her life. Luke Dalton was fairly tall, taller than most men in the room at least, and well built, with the controlled stance of an athlete. His shoulders were widely proportioned; his slim hips were encased in expensive black material which hugged them closely. His legs were long and muscled, and his hands had a corded strength sewn into their large bones. But what she was noticing were his eyes.

  His face was harshly molded, two deep grooves cutting down the sides with dark, heavy brows, level and direct. She got a hazy impression of a lean attractiveness, but that didn’t matter. His eyes were what mattered. They were a deep, clear gray. They stared into her as if looking into her soul, searching her green orbs intently. There was a keen intelligence in that glance, and curiously no anger, and something else that she couldn’t have defined if her life had depended on it. It looked like sympathy, but it couldn’t be that, she surmised. The man doesn’t know me, she thought. As far as he’s concerned, I’m a spoiled brat. That’s good. I need to further that impression.

  Whatever else she saw in his eyes, she realized that this man was powerful in a way that was different from anything that she’d ever experienced before. He was to be reckoned with.

  “Hotels,” he said gently, and she shivered from that dark gentleness. It was like nothing her father could produce. “I own hotels. I’ve been fortunate, but a great deal of it has been hard work.”

  “Just so,” she murmured and suddenly, devilishly, quite for the sheer hell of it, she threw back her head and laughed. This, more than anything, shocked her father and the few who had been able to detect the anger waves between the two Farloughs. She stood there, amid the ruin of her young life and more than a hundred guests, and laughed with her head thrown back. Her rich hair rippled over her shoulder like a flame and her laughter rippled over the heads of the guests. “And what,” she asked mischievously, with an extravagant gesture of one slim, brown hand, “would I know about work, Mr. Dalton? Nothing, I quite assure you! It sounds so novel!” Moving forward, she tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, felt the immense strength of him, and began to turn him away from her father. She started to walk with him, pacing her steps to his longer ones and he moved with her, surprisingly compliant. “Why don’t you tell me a little about it, Mr. Dalton, while we circulate among the guests? Tracy, that is a charming little frock— Why, hello, Mrs. White, so nice to see you, too! …And Timmy, oh dear, Timothy now…heavens, it is quite a crush, isn’t it? …And will it rain, do you think…?”

  Two people, one with a fire in her hair and eyes, the other with a deep darkness, circulated, and dozens of eyes were drawn to them.

  God! To escape out through the large, open French windows was what she needed, she found as she slid stealthily out through a heavy curtain when a small orchestra started playing and dancing was about to resume. She had the shot of whiskey, as yet untouched, and she skirted a few bushes, heading through several trees to get beyond sight of the house, unaware that she was being followed. She found a spot in a small clearing and dropped under a tree that stood at the top of a gentle slope that led down to the Kentucky River. The water glinted gently under the glow of the new moon. It was quite easy to see in the soft light that suffused the summer land, and the shadows from the trees were a soothing gray. It was warm, and a slight breeze fanned her face, lifting up her hair and idly blowing it across her cheeks as if to play some light trick on her. She brushed it away absently and stared at the amber liquid in her hand. Suddenly she drank it, not bothering to hide her shudders in the cloaking darkness. It hit her tender throat and burned her stomach. She looked unseeingly in front of her.

  Her depression was deep and total. At the age of twenty-one, Katherine Marie Farlough had what most people would consider everything in the world. She was young, beautiful and the daughter of a very rich and distinguished man. What more could she possibly want or conceivably need?

  “God!” The word was almost wrenched from her, and she lifted her hand to throw the expensive glass far away, but her hand dropped instead to the ground and pounded it in one furious thump on a hard root that stuck up out of the grass. The word carried all the anguish and torment that she held in her bleeding heart. It held all her despair.

  She wouldn’t win, she knew. She was not a match for her father’s vindictiveness and thwarted spite. She was stronger than most people, yes, but she couldn’t stand up to him any more. After a lifetime, it would appear that James Farlough was about to break his daughter.

  All her life, James had overshadowed any decision that she had made. At one time, when she was very young, she had been coaxed into thinking that her father was the most romantic father in the world, in spite of the fact that he more often than not forgot her birthday, and his visits to see her at boarding school had been infrequent at best. Every time he had come to see her, though, he had showered her with lavish presents, charmed her with his white and easy smile and had taken every one of her childhood friends’ hearts away forever. All her teachers had thought that she had everything a little girl could dream of and were at a loss to explain the oddly adult look and pervasive sadness that sat deep in little Katherine’s eyes. She had quickly seen with the wisdom of the very young that her father’s carelessness showed indifference and his charm hid a calculated manipulation.

  As she had grown older, missing her mother in a vague and formless way, having never known her, James’s role had become more active until his desires and wishes had been forced to take precedence in her young life. She graduated from school and was presented to Kentucky’s finest immediately, taking that polite but snobbish horse society by storm. Of course she could ride like a devil bent on destruction. She played tennis with an awesomely competitive spirit—and as a result hardly ever lost a game. She was quite superb with the subtle verbal cut or witticism. She had attended the very best parties at her father’s insistence and had dated only the socially prominent young men of whom he approved. More often than not these men were in some way connected with her father’s business interests, again at his insistence.

  Gradually the awareness had come over her that she was little more than a pawn, a useful tool in her father’s life, that her own happiness meant little or nothing to the man who controlled it so ruthlessly. She was a very intelligent girl, too intelligent to be used and never suspect the truth, but just how little she meant to him she hadn’t realized until she’d been involved with a young boy some four years back. Her father had broken things off with a callousness th
at had been shocking. He had ignored her tears and pleading and had finally rounded on her with a coldness and a fury that had left her considerably shaken and in no doubt as to his own feelings. The boy was unsuitable and from a nondescript family background. He was not going to allow her to make a stupid fool of herself over a mere nobody. He had better things for her to do, and more important people to impress. He had said finally that if she didn’t like it, tough. His word was law in his own home. Her feelings didn’t enter into the picture.

  After he had left her room, two silent tears had crept down her still, white face as the last of any adolescent yearnings or hopes had died a final death. She had never gone through any adolescent defiance, although she had been provoked into somewhat wild behavior to see if James really cared or not. He hadn’t, she had seen, as he’d paid for her extravagances and pulled her out of escapades, all with a contemptuous little smile and a careless indulgence that had bewildered her completely. She had never been able to ruffle him, not even with the most outrageous actions, and had always submitted to his infrequent demands with a stunned and docile acceptance.

  That late-night scene had left her with a badly scarred heart and a determination never to be vulnerable again. And she had lived up to that determination, never letting any of the men she’d been told to go out with close enough for a deep relationship. She’d built up a wall of brittle gaiety and sarcastic remarks. As a result most people laughed at her jokes and at the same time kept enough distance to protect themselves from her caustic tongue and penetrating observances.

  It was not that James actually hated her. She was simply no better than the rest of the world around him. His easy charm was a tool that he used to manipulate everyone, and his vindictiveness when thwarted had been shown to her at various times during her life. She had seen him set out to accomplish the ruin of a businessman who had backed out of a promise he’d made to James. She had seen him completely demolish the composure of a waiter in an exclusive restaurant in Louisville. The waiter, she’d later learned, had been fired. And the servants at home would never think of disobeying an order from James, she knew. There were examples from the past that somehow reached the ears of every new employee of how it was quite impossible to get hired again when one had been dismissed by James Farlough.

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