It was a dark and stormy night.
Only Jayne Jordan had a flair for the dramatic so strong that she could somehow manage to get Mother Nature to cooperate with her party plans, Alaina thought. She stared through the windshield of her BMW at the clouds scudding across the face of the full moon. It seemed a perfect night for a science fiction theme party.
Not that Alaina knew the first thing about science fiction. She couldn’t think of the last time she’d read something that wasn’t written in legalese. Of course, she wouldn’t have read science fiction if she’d been stranded on a desert island with nothing but a carton of those novels. She was far too sensible for that sort of thing.
She piloted her car down the road that snaked along the coastal cliffs north of Anastasia, California. If it weren’t for the fact that she was absolutely practical and levelheaded, she might have been feeling a little nervous. She was alone on a dark stretch of road, dressed up in a ridiculous costume on her way to a theme party. If this were a movie, she thought, now would be the time for the car to break down.
“Don’t be silly, Alaina,” she muttered as her elegant, meticulously manicured hands unconsciously clenched the leather-padded steering wheel.
She was never silly. Maybe once—okay, twice—in her entire life had she been silly. The first time had involved earthworms and she had been only five years old. The second time had been recently, and as the handsome face of A. Clayton Collier flashed through her memory, Alaina gritted her even white teeth and resolutely shoved the incident from her mind.
She wasn’t going to be silly now. She was going to go to Jayne’s party and put in her required appearance because Jayne was a dear friend despite the fact that she had sent Alaina this absurd costume and insisted she wear it. Occasionally one had to humor Jayne Jordan’s sense of whimsy or be nagged about it for the rest of one’s life. Since they were now living in the same area, it seemed only prudent to indulge her. But if any potential clients saw her in this getup . . .
Not much chance of that, she decided. The majority of Jayne’s friends were not likely to seek legal counsel. They were more apt to consult psychics and palmists.
She would put in her appearance, stay the minimum time that could be considered socially acceptable, and drive back into Anastasia to her new home—a renovated Victorian duplex that sat on a hill with a lovely view of the marina. She would put a Mozart disc in the CD player, pour herself a glass of Chivas Regal, and maybe work a little on the painting she had begun that morning. It would be a very relaxing evening.
That had been the whole idea behind her move from Chicago to California five months before. To get away from the whirlwind pace she had maintained at the prestigious law offices of Abercrombie, Turtletaub, and Flinch, to regain some perspective on what she really wanted in life, to forget—
The thought slammed into the granite wall of her will before it could completely form. A. Clayton Collier had done a really crummy thing, stringing her along, letting her believe his divorce was all but finalized when he hadn’t so much as broached the topic with his wife. But that didn’t mean she had to think about it. No. The incident meant less than nothing to her. Clayton had been a dalliance, a fling. What he’d done hadn’t broken her heart. Absolutely not, Alaina vowed, ignoring the wrenching ache in her chest.
She was a sophisticated woman, a career woman, a woman of the nineties. She cherished her freedom. She didn’t have a care in the world.
The words had no sooner crossed her mind than her car abruptly died. Alaina pumped the accelerator furiously, but the BMW only slowed until she was forced to steer it off the road onto a graveled scenic-overlook area. The car rolled to a halt, and Alaina sat in the gloom, staring in stunned disbelief at the lighted instrument panel, feeling utterly betrayed.
This was one of the finest cars money could buy. It had every option, every luxury, everything including the love and adoration of its owner. And it had just stranded her in the middle of bloody nowhere.
“Lovely,” Alaina grumbled. “Just lovely.”
Sitting back against the plush leather seat, she took a deep breath and released it slowly, schooling her temper. This sort of thing required a cool head. She would simply have to walk back to Anastasia and call a tow truck.
She slung her purse over her shoulder and climbed out of the car, but when she turned to start her hike, the resolve washed out of her on a sigh of defeat. The lights of the little town winked a good two miles in the distance—a marathon-length walk in three-inch glittering silver spike heels.
Leaning against the roof of the car, she ran a hand back through her dark hair. As promised, the fifty-dollar, precision-cut, chin-length style fell back into place with artless simplicity. She stared out at the ocean that rippled like liquid ebony beneath the night sky. The wind howled. Below the cliff the surf pounded against the shore.
Brother, this is eerie, she thought, her skin crawling beneath the thin fabric of her dress. Her imagination turned again to movies. She was no expert on B-grade horror flicks—Jayne was the critic—but wasn’t this the part where the escaped lunatic came wandering out of the fog?
He could think of any number of things he would rather be doing. Spending the evening with his children, going over the monthly report for his business, having gum surgery.
“Snap out of it,” Dylan Harrison ordered himself as he slowed the Bronco, shifting down for a hairpin curve.
Ordinarily he would have been the life of the party. Especially when the party had a science fiction theme. He was, after all, something of an expert on the genre. But tonight was different. Tonight he turned forty.
He’d never been one to worry about age. Depression over this particular birthday had sort of snuck up on him. It wasn’t so much that he minded being forty years old. It was that his friends minded his being forty years old—and unmarried.
He cringed at the thought of what lay ahead for him at the party. Who would Jayne try to fix him up with this time? The platinum blonde who designed dangerous-looking sheet-metal jewelry and secretly admitted to being a druid priestess? Or would it be the man-crazy Babbette, proprietor of the local hypnosis and suntanning parlor?
It really was good to have such caring friends, Dylan thought sincerely. Jayne’s matchmaking efforts stemmed from a genuine concern. He only wished his caring friends would realize that he was perfectly happy. He liked his life the way it was—uncomplicated—and he liked himself the way he was—unambitious, unmarried.
In fact, it was because he wanted his life uncomplicated that he was unambitious and unmarried. He’d taken his taste of the yuppie lifestyle. He’d given his all to his job as an investment counselor, devoted himself to acquiring the material trappings of the upwardly mobile. He and Veronica had had it all—a Volvo, a PC, a CD, a Cuisinart, a coffee bean grinder, Southwestern decor. Now Veronica had all those things, and Dylan had what mattered to him—his children and his sanity.
In Anastasia he was free to be himself. No matter how offbeat he chose to be, his friends here liked him just fine. And he treasured them. If only they’d stop trying to marry him off.
He steered the Bronco around another curve in the road, and suddenly there she was. She was a vision. She was perfection. Holy Hannah, it was Andora in the flesh! Princess Andora of the Zanatares, Star Commander of the Seventh Galaxy Fleet, dream lover of every male this side of the Milky Way.
Dylan’s heart thumped in his chest as he guided his Bronco off the highway and onto the shoulder. Gravel crunched beneath the tires as he pulled in behind the BMW. Apparently the princess had expensive taste even when visiting Earth, he thought with a wry smile. That was the one thing that had always bothered him about Andora—she was a materialist.
The headlights illuminated her in an aura of amber light. She was lovely—no, breathtaking, he amended, his gaze lingering on the long, long legs encased in dark fishnet stockings. Her uniform was impeccable—short enough to make a man hyperventilate, but impeccable nevertheless. And it appeared to be absolutely authentic. He wondered where she had come by it. He was always on the lookout for genuine finds to add to his extensive collection of science fiction memorabilia, and he had never run across a Princess Andora costume that even came close to this one. Of course, having that world-class body in the uniform probably added considerably to its authenticity.
The dress was made of a metallic-silver fabric—especially handwoven for the princess by the albino Nymphads of Lydon’s moon desert, according to Andora’s creator, H.M.W. Wilmott. It bared the woman’s regal shoulders, displayed to perfection her high, full breasts, hugged her slender waist and womanly hips, and ended in a flounced skirt at the very top of her—Dylan sighed again—long, long legs.
The princess smiled at him as he climbed down out of the truck. Her lush mouth lifted wryly, kicking up a little higher on the right. Her features were elegant, almost patrician. The comic-book character of Andora had been Dylan’s image of an ideal woman since he’d read his first issue during puberty. This real-life woman was the personification of that image. A man couldn’t ask for a better fortieth-birthday present, he decided. She was a dream come true—a science fiction aficionado with the gams of a goddess.
Dylan raised his left arm in a proper Zanatarian salute. “Greetings, Princess Andora!” he said, assuming she would be suitably impressed by his vast knowledge of the character she had chosen to portray. “All hail supreme ruler of the Zanatares!”
Alaina’s face froze, and her smile died a pitiful death. “Oh, my Lord,” she mumbled, pressing an icy-cold hand to her racing heart. “He is a lunatic.”
It was a shame, really, she thought as she stared at the man walking toward her. He was handsome, very handsome, though she admitted the light was bad. It hardly seemed right for such good looks to be wasted on a maniac. Tall and rangy, he had a long, lean face with a bold nose and a square chin. The wind raked through his wavy, dark hair, then he clamped a wide-brimmed hat on his head, tilting it to a jaunty angle over his right eye.
He was dressed very strangely. But then Alaina supposed lunatics weren’t given accounts at the better men’s stores even in California. He wore knee-high boots and baggy pants, and what could only be described as a frock coat with a waistcoat beneath it, and a white shirt with question marks embroidered on the points of the collar. His neck was wrapped with an amazingly long, knitted scarf, the ends of which hung well past his knees.
“Has Volton accompanied you, my lady, or are you without escort on this planet?” he asked in a smooth, resonant baritone voice.
“I’m going to die a cheap, horror-movie death,” Alaina mumbled, stunned by the prospect and more than a little miffed. It wasn’t at all the end she would have pictured for herself.
Well, she decided, squaring her shoulders, she would go with dignity, and she would damn well know who her killer was—provided he would tell her. It wasn’t as if she could demand the information at gunpoint. The most dangerous weapon she had with her was her tongue. It had cut opposing attorneys to ribbons in the courtroom, but she doubted it would have much of an impact on a lunatic.
“Who are you?” she demanded in her coolest, haughtiest tone.
“Precisely.” Dylan grinned and nodded. She’d recognized him right off. The woman knew her stuff.
Alaina’s elegant eyebrows pulled together in annoyed confusion. “Precisely what?”
“Yes.” He dug a hand into the pocket of his coat and produced a small white bag, which he offered to Alaina. “Jelly Baby?”
Excerpted from Keeping Company by Tami Hoag. Copyright © 2010 by Tami Hoag. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.