“What are you looking at?”
Conner Ashby glanced up from his computer. “Did you say something?” He made it sound so sincere. Gave her that distracted tone and that puzzled expression. He had the routine down to a science, and he enjoyed playing with her head. It was one of those things they had in common.
Liz Shaw stood in the doorway of his cramped bedroom, hands on hips. She wore just an oversized blue-and-orange New York Knicks T-shirt that fell to her knees. “You’re impossible,” she said. “Answer me.” From the doorway, she couldn’t see the screen.
Conner grinned, impressed by Liz’s ability to make casual cotton as sexy as black lace. She was gorgeous. Easily the most beautiful woman he’d ever been with. “I’m looking at my Schwab brokerage account.”
“You’re lying to me, Mr. Ashby.”
Conner winced. It wasn’t the accusation that bothered him. It was the fact that Liz never used his first name. Her means of maintaining a subtle yet effective distance. “What are you talking about?”
“You don’t have a Schwab account anymore.”
Conner fished an ice cube from a Bronx Zoo cup sitting beside his computer on the old desk, and ran it slowly across his bare chest. The air-conditioning had gone down a few hours ago, and he was wearing nothing but a pair of cargo shorts. “How do you know that?”
“I was on your computer last night before you got home. You closed your Schwab account. You, Mr. Ashby, are now an Ameritrade customer.”
“Hey, as modest as this hovel is, it’s my hovel,” he reminded her, trying to sound annoyed. “I pay the rent here and you had no right to go snooping around my computer.”
“Guilty as charged,” Liz agreed, moving to the foot of the bed. “But I did. So I know you’re lying.” She gestured at the monitor. “Come on. What are you looking at?”
He glanced out the open window beside his desk at the lights of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They were burning hazy holes in the humid August night. “Some surf shop Web site. I’m gonna buy another board so I can—”
“I bet you’re looking at smut.”
Conner’s eyes flashed to the screen. On it, a woman lay across a couch wearing a see-through teddy. She bore a strong resemblance to Liz—blond and slim with full, firm breasts straining at the frilly material.
“Turn the monitor this way,” Liz demanded, crawling onto the bed.
Conner clicked back to his screen saver, a panoramic shot of a surfer emerging from the pipeline of a huge wave. But he was a second late.
“I knew it,” she said triumphantly, kneeling upright as she reached the edge of the mattress. She’d caught a glimpse of the image on the screen. “Aren’t I enough?” she asked, slipping the T-shirt over her head and dropping it in his lap. “Or are you like most men? Obsessive about enjoying as many of us as possible.”
Conner let out a long, slow breath, admiring the work of art now on display. His eyes flickered down to the sapphire dangling from a gold ring in her navel. A body piercing seemed like the last thing a society girl would have, which was why he loved it. “I’m like most men,” he confessed.
“At least you can admit it,” she murmured, slipping her arms around his neck and kissing him.
Conner laughed softly as their lips parted.
“What’s so funny?”
“What your father would say if he knew you were here.”
“He’d be horrified.”
“So he still thinks you’re gonna marry Mr. Wonderful over at Morgan Sayers?”
“I still am.”
She was always so damn blunt about it. At least she usually remembered to remove the other man’s three carats when she was here.
“Morgan Sayers is one of the world’s top investment banks, and Todd is one of its top investment bankers.” She said the words as if they were a mantra. “Todd is what my father wants. He’s the perfect son-in-law.”
He hated it when Liz said the other man’s name. He’d never laid eyes on Todd, but he could still picture the bastard. A tight-jawed, suspender-wearing snob who’d never really had to work for anything. “Then why are you here?”
Liz’s expression turned distant. “Because of those beautiful blue eyes of yours, Mr. Ashby. Because you sing those Elvis songs to yourself all the time, even though you couldn’t carry a tune if your life depended on it.” She sighed. “Because you gave me flowers last month when I was sick, and Todd didn’t even notice I had a cough. Because every time Todd makes love to me, I want it to be you.” She hesitated. “Because you’re what I want.”
“Then why don’t you tell Todd to—?”
Liz cut him off with another kiss. “I can’t,” she murmured, running her fingers through his jet-black hair. “I’ve told you that so many times.”
“But you’ve never told me why.”
“I just can’t,” she whispered, pulling him down onto the bed with her. “I’m sorry.”
“The wedding’s still a year away,” she reminded him. “Besides, this won’t end after I’m married. I could never be without you.”
He’d known early on what the deal was. She hadn’t tried to hide her engagement. Their affair had begun as an instant physical attrac- tion across a crowded room. Something he had no commitment to, and, he assumed, would end quickly. But it had lasted now for three months, and he couldn’t figure out how. He didn’t usually waste time on dead ends.
“I’m going to order out for Chinese,” Liz announced, reaching for the cordless phone on the nightstand. “There’s a place over on Second that’s still open.”
He caught her hand. “I’m tired of eating in front of the TV. Let’s go out.” He could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times they’d been out in public together. “Come on.”
“Dammit!” He rolled onto his back, frustrated.
She curled up next to him. “I’m sorry. I really am.”
“If you were sorry, you’d do something about it.”
Her expression turned sad. “I wish I could spend every night with you.”
“You could. Just tell Daddy you’ve found somebody else. Tell him you don’t want to marry that hemorrhoid at Morgan Sayers. If he loves you, he’ll understand.”
“Maybe that’s the point. Maybe he doesn’t love me.”
“All the more reason to live life for yourself. Not for him.”
“There’s another thing,” she kept on, ignoring Conner’s irritation, “I’d be cut off from the money.”
“Would you love me if I didn’t have money?”
Conner rolled his eyes. “You must not think much of me if you have to ask.”
“I’m just being realistic. If there’s one thing I learned from Daddy, it’s that you have to look at everything that way. Even love.”
“Hey, I grew up in a run-down, three-bedroom ranch house a couple of blocks from a trashy beach. There was a 7-Eleven next door that got robbed once a week and a couple of sets of railroad tracks that ran right through my backyard. I mean, come on.”
“Which is exactly why you wouldn’t want a woman like me. I could never earn serious money. I don’t have any real skills.”
“Stop it,” he ordered, pressing a finger to her lips. He hated it when she did that. “I just want . . .” His voice trailed off.
“You just want what?”
There it was. His inability to acknowledge how badly he wanted something. In this case, her. But badly enough to have her end the engagement? “I just . . . I just want you to admit that I do have a nice voice.”
She laughed and kissed him on the cheek. “Oh, you do. As long as you don’t try to sing.”
“Hey, lots of people tell me I—”
The phone rang.
“Aren’t you going to answer it?” she asked when he didn’t pick up right away.
“Nah, it’s probably just some telemarketer. Or my boss.”
“You can’t let a phone ring like that, Mr. Ashby. It’s driving you crazy not to know who it is.”
He reached for the phone. She was getting to know him too well. “Hello.”
“Conner, it’s Jackie.”
“Hi there.” He raised up on one elbow, turning his back to Liz. It was always nice to hear Jackie Rivera’s voice. “How are you, Jo?”
Jackie had explained over a glass of wine one evening that she’d been named for Jacqueline Onassis because her mother had admired the former first lady very much. So he’d started calling her “Jo,” short for Jackie O.
“I’m doing all right. But we haven’t gotten together in a while. It’s been almost a month. I miss you.”
He’d been bad about keeping in touch with friends since meet- ing Liz.
“I left you a message at the office yesterday, Conner.”
“I know. Sorry about not getting back.”
“It’s okay,” she said cheerfully. “I’m sure you’ve been busy.”
“I have. So, what’s the thought for the day?” He asked her this question almost every time they spoke.
There was a short silence. “When the door doesn’t open right away, do you pull harder, or push?”
Conner chuckled, thinking about the times he’d pulled harder when all he had to do was push. Understanding the deeper meaning. “Good one.”
“Thanks. So, when are we getting together? I—”
“Let’s— Ouch! Dammit!” Conner spun around on the bed, wrenching himself away from a painful pinch.
“Get off the phone,” Liz hissed, staring at him with a steely expression.
Conner brought the receiver slowly back to his ear, still gazing into Liz’s angry eyes. “Jo, let me call you tomorrow.”
“Sounds like this might be a bad time.”
“Okay,” Jackie agreed with a sigh. “Talk to you then.”
“What was that all about?” he demanded.
“You’re with me right now, not her.”
“Christ! You’re the one who’s engaged.”
“I don’t care. I don’t like her.”
“She’s after you.”
“What! How can you say that?”
“Why would it matter to you if she was after me anyway?”
“Because I’m a jealous bitch.”
Conner shook his head. “You’re crazy.”
“Maybe,” Liz murmured, kissing him. Almost savagely this time. “I want you,” she whispered, sliding one hand to his shorts.
But the phone rang again.
“It’s Ginger. Is Lizzy there?”
Conner let out a frustrated breath. Ginger and Liz rarely had short conversations.
“It’s Ginger,” he said, holding the phone out.
“Oh.” Liz brightened. “Thanks.”
But he pulled the receiver away. “If you’re so worried about your father or Todd finding out about us, why give my phone number to anyone?”
“Ginger would never tell a soul,” she assured him, leaning across his chest and grabbing the receiver.
“Sure she wouldn’t.” But Liz hadn’t heard him. She’d already reclined onto the bed and started talking.
Liz and Ginger worked together at Merrill Lynch, entertaining the firm’s wealthy international clients when they visited New York City. At least, that was what Liz had told him. She never allowed him to come to the office.
Liz didn’t really have to work, but her father believed everyone ought to have a job—at least until they were married. Conner had heard that many times. He’d heard about her trust fund, too. Left to her by her grandfather and controlled by her father until her fortieth birthday.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Shadow Account by Stephen Frey. Copyright © 2004 by Stephen Frey. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.