ExcerptDEFENDING THE HEIRESS
"Heroes Inc., Book 2"
Harlequin Intrigue® #709
Mass Market Paperback
Publisher: Harlequin Books
Pub. Date: May 2003
"We need to slow down, delay the expansion," Daria Harrington told her sister Fallon with a touch of impatience.
Neither the full blush of white Amaryllis in a striking cachepot on Daria's desk, nor the blooms' soothing fragrance, calmed her. The peaceful Warden serigraph depicting a cottage with warm lighted windows that her sister had recently purchased for her didn't ease Daria's agitation either.
"The meeting in Tokyo is set for next week," Fallon argued.
Daria forced her gaze from her slice of the New York skyline outside her office window to her sister. "Growing our business with skyrocketing speed hasn't allowed enough time to build a proper foundation."
While Daria enjoyed staying the city and putting down roots and tending the business, her more reckless vagabond sister preferred new adventures while traipsing around the world. Together they'd made a great team, opening their signature floral boutiques and expanding at a record pace. The partnership they'd started just out of college had succeeded beyond either of their most imaginative dreams.
But this time Daria would insist on delaying the new expansion into the Asian markets until they dealt with some pressing business issues here at home. She thrummed her fingers on the blanket she'd crocheted during college. Even back then she'd known she wanted a home with beautiful objects, and she'd started collecting on a meager budget. Now, she no longer had to let price determine whether or not she could acquire Tarkay's newest painting or an antique emerald ring, but she no longer had the time to shopfor groceries, much less estate sales.
"Must I remind you that you wanted to delay opening Harrington Bouquet's London branch?" Fallon challenged her. "And London is now one of our best success stories."
Fallon swiped a lock of hair behind her ear, exchanged glances with her silent husband, Harry Levine, who simply shrugged. Daria thought Harry the perfect brother-in-law. Fully supportive of her sister and confident in his own abilities, he never interfered in the business. So far as she knew, he hadn't even muttered one protest after the wedding when Fallon had insisted on keeping and using her maiden name, Harrington. Intelligent and always alert, Harry spoke at least a dozen languages and enjoyed accompanying her sister in her gypsy lifestyle.
The problem wasn't Harry, but Fallon. Her sister wouldn't sit still and listen. Fallon never stayed in one place long enough to comprehend the problem, nevermind help solve the underlying difficulties.
Fallon smiled at Daria. "We must grow with the market or risk becoming stagnant. With low interest rates and the world-wide economy strong, the time is ripe for expansion."
Fallon could talk the talk, but Daria didn't buy into the innocent smile or her sister's theory, no matter what spin she wove. Daria simply had to find the words to convince her stubborn sister who, already restless, stood and paced, making an elegant picture from the top of her neatly coiffed off-the-shoulder chestnut hair and perfectly groomed eyebrows to the meticulous application of her Elizabeth Arden makeup to her Dolce and Gabana dress and custom-made Italian pumps.
Daria tried again. "We have a lot to lose, Fallon. We aren't kids anymore, surviving on Grandma Harrington's trustfund and praying to meet the monthly overhead. We're successful."
"Thanks to our recent expansions in London, Paris, Milan and Sydney. What's wrong with opening more stores?"
"Because while you're off gallivanting around the world, I'm stuck in the New York office dealing with suppliers, shipping and legalese."
"Stuck?" Fallon spun and placed her hands on her hips. "You're stuck because you refuse to leave. How many times have I invited you overseas, but you always make up excuses to stay in that stifling penthouse you call home."
Daria wouldn't let her sister sidetrack her by commenting on her critique of the fashionable penthouse she'd turned into her personal haven. Despite Fallon's propensity for fine clothing and makeup, she didn't care if she lived out of the back of a bus. Daria appreciated her creature comforts which included clean sheets, a hot soak in her tub and her cat.
"My running the corporation wasn't our deal, remember? You were going to share the paperwork"
"But you're so good at it." Fallon tried flattery, but Daria simply raised an eyebrow that needed shaping since she'd had to cancel her last three waxing appointments in order to deal with pressing business.
"I'm good at the paperwork because I do it."
"And I'm good at opening stores. Let me do my job."
"That's what I'm telling you." Daria released an exasperated sigh. "Right now your job needs to be here in New York. With me. The paperwork is too much for one person."
"You need a man in your life to distract you."
"That might be nice," Daria replied without holding back her sarcasm. "I don't have time to go out on dates. I don't leave here until after eleven and fall asleep exhausted, then get up at five and start all over again. And why am I working so hard? Because you keep opening new stores and creating more paperwork. It's time to assess our company, enjoy life a little."
"I'm enjoying life," Fallon answered.
"But I'm working too hard. I can barely find time for the Big Sister program. I want a change."
Fallon stared at her, no doubt assessing Daria's determination. Unlike her sister, Daria didn't enjoy conflict, but she wasn't giving innot this time.
Daria appreciated when life ran smoothly, so usually she let Fallon have her way. But not this time. No matter how much her stomach clenched into a hard knot from having to deal with the conflict, she would win.
As children the sisters had reacted differently to their wealthy but cold and demanding parents. Shuffled from nanny to boarding school to summer camps, the only consistency in their lives was one another. While the two sisters couldn't have been closer, they were very different people. Fallon avoided facing the lack of parental love and support in their lives by constantly changing her locales and friends. Daria reacted differently, building a comfy spot for herself wherever she happened to be.
And Daria depended on her sister's honest opinions, her friendship and her love. Since they were kids, they'd always backed one another, stood up for one another. Daria could count the arguments they'd had on one hand.
"You want to sell the business? Retire?" Fallon asked in astonishment.
"I was thinking about a vacation and afterwards, I want to work only three or four days a week." Then she could spend a full day with Tanya, a kid in the Big Sister program where she volunteered her free timeproblem was she had no free time. "But I can't leave the office when my partner isn't here to take over when I'm gone."
"Look. I know you won't be happy until you've built a Harrington Boutique in every major city of the world. But we need to hire more people, delegate."
Daria was sure her sister understood the points she was making, but Fallon often refused to use her inborn intelligence out of sheer stubbornness. The boring business details didn't excite her sister as much as traveling to a foreign city, finding the perfect location and then transforming that shop into a duplicate of their original New York office.
If Fallon had had her way, she would have made each shop different and unique, but Daria had insisted they look exactly the same for cohesiveness. That was one battle she'd won. Each Harrington Bouquet possessed the same unique layout, the same Berber carpeting and mahogany showcases, the same exquisite quality of customer service. Each sold exotic floral arrangements shipped from greenhouses in North and South America, East Africa and the Far East. The stores' clients came from the powerful and wealthy, the world's elite. Rock stars, actresses, opera divas, royalty, owners of Fortune 500 companiesall of these clients relied on Harrington Bouquets to liven up holidays including anniversaries, promotions, birthdays and special celebrations like opening nights, weddings and funerals.
Stalling for time, Daria rose to her feet. "How about fresh coffee?"
She didn't wait for her sister's answer, simply ambled to the antique sideboard, protected by delicate Irish lace doilies. While Daria never drank coffee, much preferring green tea, she always kept her sister's favorite Jamaican Blue Mountain roast perking for their infrequent meetings. Daria opened a tin of lemon-raspberry shortbread, chocolate buttons and pecan chews. After placed steaming mugs on a silver tray beside the cookies, she poured herself a cup of tea. "Here you go."
"Thank you." Fallon's eyes lit up at the sight of the Pecan Chews. "If you're thinking to bribe me"
Daria rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Nothing is farther from my mind."
Harry chuckled, helped himself to a Chocolate Button which he happily dipped into his coffee and then popped into his mouth. He crunched away, dipping one cookie after another, not the least bit concerned by the calories.
Fallon lifted her coffee cup into the air and saluted Daria as if to take the sting from her words. "I've already committed to looking at a site in Tokyo." She downed a quarter cup of coffee in one giant gulp.
"Cancel anyway." Daria resisted the cookies and sipped her tea. Unlike her svelte sister and Harry, she needed to watch her weight. Fallon was tall and slender while Daria was short and curvy. They shared two features in common, their light chestnut hair and their hazel eyes but other than that, Daria favored the peach-shaped and petite side of her mother's family while Fallon had the long lanky genes of the Harrington's, who stayed thin, no doubt due to their restless metabolisms. Unfortunately whatever Daria put in her mouth seemed to descend and stick directly to her thighs.
So while Fallon sipped and ate, Daria spoke. "At least stay long enough to help me hire an in-house accountant and another purchasing agent and floral designer to take off some of the load."
"I suppose I could do that." Fallon yawned and covered her mouth. "Sorry. I'm more tired than I'd realized. I'm needing this caffeine buzz just to keep my eyes open." She guzzled more coffee.
Daria realized that as usual the two sisters had found a way to compromise, but while she had Fallon in the office, she intended to bounce her other ideas off her sister. "We also might want to think about purchasing another greenhouse. An accountant could run the numbers and help make an informed decision. Isabell could use help in the purchasing department, and Cindy is overwhelmed doubling up as a designer and consumer specialist. Our volume is almost . . ."
Daria glanced at Harry. The shock had her stopping in mid-sentence. Harry had fallen asleep!
Quiet, but oh-so-alert Harry who never missed a detail and could party all night and never so-much-as yawned the following day had closed his eyes right in the middle of the morning. His chin plummeted onto his chest with a thud.
Fallon must have been just as surprised as Daria because she suddenly dropped her cup. But made no move to avoid the hot coffee spilling on her designer dress.
Daria's horrified gaze shot from Harry to her sister. Fallon's yawn had disappeared and was replaced by an unnatural paralysis.
"Fallon? What's wrong?"
Fallon didn't answer. Within seconds, her sister's eyes dilated, her pupils enlarging so much that Daria could barely see the whites of Fallon's eyes. Her face masklike, her expression fixed straight ahead as if she'd been drugged, Fallon didn't move. Didn't scream.
Harry's face had the same deathlike mask as her sister's.
Daria didn't waste one second checking for a pulse. Scrambling to the phone, tripping once, she dialed 9-1-1. "I need an ambulance."
The operator, her voice calm in contrast to Daria's spiking fear, confirmed her address and asked the nature of the emergency.
"They aren't moving. Or breathing. Hurry."
"My sister and her husband." Harry's chest wasn't going up and down. Her sister stared sightless at the ceiling. "Oh, God. I think they're dead."
"Is there a pulse?"
On knees weak with terror, Daria knelt and felt her sister's neck, then Harry's. She might have missed the pulse, but she knew with an icy dread and horror that even if the paramedics materialized inside her office right now, they wouldn't be able to revive them.