Just the sound of the word appealed to him. It hadn't always been so. Once Kyle Sterling had considered it a pointless waste of time and effort. But that seemed a lifetime ago, long before the accident, and now he savored the bittersweet flavor of revenge.
The antique clock on the hand-hewn mantel ticked off the endless seconds of the long afternoon. With each sweep of the second hand, Kyle vowed to get even with his ex-wife for the needless pain she had unwittingly inflicted upon his child. He sat at his desk and stared at the phone, as if by watching the black instrument he could make it ring. It didn't.
Impatiently he strode across the airy room. At the bar he paused and then poured himself a stiff shot of bourbon. One hand rubbed his neck to loosen the tension in his shoulder muscles as he paced restlessly before the wide bay window and the view of the serene Pacific Ocean. He frowned into his glass and absently swirled the amber liquid. Deep lines of worry surrounded his piercing gray eyes when he examined his life. He didn't like what he saw. For thirty-seven years he had been kidding himself, caught in the reckless struggle for success.
The last ten years had taught him much: the shallow value of wealth, the folly of quick friendships and the brutal reality that a man had to stand alone, trust his own instincts and survey the rest of the world as the enemy. Kyle's thin lips twisted into a grim line of self-contempt that hardened the rugged angles of his famous features. Some people might call his ideology paranoid, or at the very least jaded. Kyle Sterling saw it as the simple truth, taught him by the mistress of deceit, his ex-wife, Rose Sterling. Or Sterling Rose, as she preferred to be known. Because of Rose, Kyle had learned a seething passion for revenge.
He seriously doubted that he would be foolish enough to trust a woman again, and he found that he really didn't give a damn one way or the other. The less he had to do with the opposite sex, the better. This whole wretched week had only reinforced his opinions, and he realized that his daughter was the only thing that really mattered to him.
He drained his drink, set the empty glass on the window ledge and loosened his tie. Though he expected a visitor later in the day, he didn't care that he looked as dog-tired as he felt. Ryan Woods was coming over later in the day to talk about business. Kyle had long awaited Ryan's report. He should have been anticipating the afternoon with relish, but he wasn't. No matter how he tried, Kyle couldn't take his mind off his child and his fear for her.
After contemplating another drink, Kyle rejected the idea and drummed his fingers restlessly on the polished surface of the cool window frame. His stormy gray gaze moved over the craggy cliffs on which his Spanish-style manor stood. He had to squint against the ever lowering sun. In the distance, brightly colored sailboats skimmed elegantly on the horizon, breaking the expanse of aquamarine sky and sea.
"Ring, damn you!" he muttered through clenched teeth as he glanced malevolently at the phone. Beads of sweat collected on the back of his neck, and his nerves were stretched to the breaking point. Yesterday's visit to the hospital and the gut-wrenching scene with his daughter still haunted him.
He remembered Holly's strained face, flushed and wet with hot tears. Her dark eyes were filled with anger, and her voice echoed down the hospital hallways when she screamed at him. "Go away. I hate you, Daddy I don't want you here. I don't. Just go away and leave me alone, like you always have. I don't need you anymore!" The white bed sheet had been twisted in her fingers, and the nurses had had to subdue her. The last picture in his mind was of Holly holding her face in her hands and sobbing hysterically, her slim shoulders shaking from the ordeal. She looked young and pale in the sterile white room. At the doctor's request, Kyle had left the hospital, but Holly's words had continued to reverberate dully in his mind.
He raked his fingers through his coarse hair and glanced once again at the clock. How long could the operation take? Two hours? Four? It had been nearly five hours and still he had no idea as to her condition. All of his wealth couldn't buy him peace of mind or assure him that his daughter would ever be the same as she had been before the accident that had nearly taken her life six months ago. Holly had recovered, though slowly, and this last operation, a delicate one, was designed to repair her damaged uterus. Her life was no longer in jeopardy, but the center of her womanhood was.
Kyle considered calling the hospital again, but pushed the thought out of his mind. It had been less than an hour since his last call, when he had been politely but firmly told that Miss Sterling was still in surgery. Wasn't a father allowed any rights? Or had he given them up ten years ago when he and Rose were divorced?
The twinge of doubt he felt when he thought about Holly and the agony she had suffered at her mother's hand forced him to turn away from the window. He crossed the room, grabbed the opened bottle of bourbon and, despite his earlier abstention, splashed another drink into his glass. It was gone in one swallow.
Once again he tried to blame Rose for his daughter's hatred of him, but a nagging thought that he was partially at fault refused to leave. Even the pain that Holly was enduring, wasn't it in some indirect manner his fault? Though two parents were divorced, didn't a father have some responsibility to protect his child?
His thin patience snapped and he found that he couldn't wait another minute in the den. The appointment with Ryan Woods was still a couple of hours away and the damn phone refused to ring. Kyle felt as if the brushed plaster walls were closing in on him. He could feel a muscle working the corner of his jaw as he stalked down the tiled corridor toward the far end of the rambling hacienda.
His voice interrupted the stillness as he approached the kitchen. "Lydia?"
The elderly Mexican woman he employed was hard of hearing and didn't respond to his initial greeting. He entered the immense room filled with hanging brass pots and trailing vines. Lydia was working industriously on the countertop. The soft Mexican ballad she was humming was familiar to him; he remembered it from his childhood. She was kneading dough for home-baked bread. It was the same routine Kyle had witnessed for many of his thirty-seven years. "Lydia?"
The plump woman turned around to face him as she wiped the flour from her hands on her worn apron. A slow, warm smile spread over her round features. "I thought you were in the den."
He returned her grin with an uneasy imitation. "I was, but I couldn't stand it any longer." She nodded as if she understood him perfectly. "I'm going out for a while."
"But you haven't heard from the hospital?"
The corners of Kyle's mouth turned downward. "No."
"Are you going there?"
Kyle hesitated, but shook his head. "I don't think so. Ryan Woods will be here shortly."
The older woman didn't budge. "But certainly you can change your plans. Mr. Woods will understand; he has a family of his own. What is business when you have a daughter in the hospital?"
"Rose is there," Kyle responded, hoping to satisfy the kindly old woman.
Lydia's dark eyes snapped. "Humph!" She repinned her graying hair before making a quick sign of the cross over her ample bosom. "That woman is no mother," she muttered under her breath. "You should be with Miss Holly!"
"Apparently the divorce courts didn't think so, nor does Dr. Seivers."
Lydia turned her attention back to the dough and attacked it with a vengeance. "What does he know about families?" She continued to talk to herself in Spanish, and Kyle suspected that Rose was getting the verbal abuse she deserved.
"Holly doesn't want to see me."
"That woman, that Rose, she poisoned Miss Holly's mind against you!" Lydia waved her hands frantically in the air, dusting the room with white flour. "Miss Holly, she's too young to know what to think!" This time the stream of Spanish was too rapid for Kyle to understand at all.
The telephone shrilled and Lydia's voice quieted as Kyle reached for the receiver. Lydia watched his movements with worried brown eyes. She had cared for Holly as an infant and loved her still. Rose had never approved of Lydia, even though the Mexican woman had helped raise Kyle. Though Lydia had suffered the insult of being pushed aside once the divorce was final, she had never stopped caring for Kyle Sterling's only child.
Kyle's greeting was an impatient hello.
"Mr. Sterling? This is Dr. Seivers." The voice on the other end of the line sounded weary.
"How is my daughter?"
"She's fine. Came through the operation like a trouper. She's down in Recovery now."
Despite the optimistic words, Kyle detected a hint of hesitancy. "Then you were able to correct the problem?"
There was a slight pause. "That remains to be seen. I'll have to be honest with you, Mr. Sterling. Right now I'd give Holly a fifty-fifty chance of a full recovery. You have to understand that her uterus was badly scarred from the accident. Though her fallopian tubes weren't damaged, the uterine wall was ruptured. It will take time to determine the success of the surgery."
"What happens if the operation doesn't work?"
"There is no reason to borrow trouble, Mr. Sterling."
"It's a simple question, Doctor."
There was an audible sigh as Dr. Seivers decided how much he could tell Holly's father. "We'll have to see," he replied evasively. "But if she doesn't heal properly and continues to hemorrhage, I'll probably advise additional surgery."
Kyle's hand clenched around the receiver until his knuckles whitened. "What kind of surgery?"
Dr. Seiver's response was patient but grim. "I would most likely recommend a hysterectomy."
The weight of the doctor's words settled on Kyle's shoulders like lead. His tone was emotionless, but his face was stern. "Dr. Seivers, my daughter is only fifteen."
"And lucky to be alive. Six months ago, she was fighting for her life. Today she's nearly recovered."
"But she's a child "
"You asked me a hypothetical questionI answered. I'm only giving you my professional opinion. With any luck at all, we won't be faced with the possibility of another operation. Holly's very strong. A fighter. She's had to be for the last six months. There's a good chance that she'll be fine."
Kyle wasn't reassured. "I'd like to see her."
Once again there was a weighty pause in the conversation. "I think you might wait a few days, Mr. Sterling. It will be several hours before she's out of the recovery room and after that I'll keep her sedated. Any emotional outbursts or trauma at this time couldn't help her condition."
"She's my daughter, damn it!"
"And she's my patient. I saw her reaction to you yesterday. Are you willing to risk the chances of her recovery?"
"Of course not!"
"Then take my advice and give Holly some time to get well before she faces the emotional strain of seeing you again. Her mother is with her at the moment."
Kyle withheld the hot remark forming on his tongue. He had no choice but to listen to Dr. Seivers. He was the best gynecologist in California, perhaps the western United States. Ben Seivers was calling the shots. "All right, Doctor. I trust that you'll keep me informed of Holly's condition. If there's any change, you'll call?"
Kyle replaced the receiver slowly into the cradle. Lydia's warm brown eyes widened and her round face had paled. "Miss Holly?"
"She's going to be fine. The doctor assured me that she came through the operation with flying colors." Kyle was grateful that his voice sounded more convincing than he felt.
Lydia studied the strain on Kyle's face above his cheekbones. She knew him as well as anyone and couldn't be put off easily. "But you are still worried about her."
His face softened. "Yes." There was no reason to lie to Lydia. "The doctor thinks her chances for a full recovery are very good, but at this point, he can't be certain."
"Dios," Lydia whispered to herself.
"I'm going out for a whilejust to walk around and clear my head. If Ryan gets here, show him into the den and fix him a drink, okay?"
Lydia nodded quickly. She was fingering the cross suspended from her neck and quietly praying for Kyle's child. When Kyle closed the door behind him, she began working the bread dough feverishly. It wasn't fair. Miss Holly's pain and suffering, all because that woman got drunk and lost control of the wheel. "Dios."
The ocean always had a way of calming him. Whenever the problems in L.A. became too much for him, he would drive down the coast to the old Spanish house overlooking the sea. On the uncrowded beach, with the endless miles of the Pacific stretching before him, Kyle Sterling always found a way to work out his problems. Today was an exception. No amount of walking against the salty breeze could quiet the voice of anger within him whenever he thought about Holly and the fact that Rose had nearly killed her. He grabbed a fistful of sand and tried to hurl it out to sea. The dusty granules spread in the wind and filtered back onto the beach.
He climbed the wooden stairs along the cliff and tried to turn his mind away from his child and back to the record company. Over the last few months he had grown careless as his concern for his daughter had overridden his interest in his business. For the first time in his life, he found it difficult to concentrate on record sales. For once, something was much more important than any business problem, and yet, he couldn't ignore the fact that things weren't going well for him businesswise. For several years record sales had been slumping and Sterling Recording Company had posted losses rather than earnings until recently. Just when things had appeared bleakest, the introduction of videotapes on cable television had boosted sales. Now the problem was the cost of producing quality video images. For the past couple of years Sterling Recording Company had used freelance artists and production companies for the video recordings, but the trend was toward in-house work. There would be more control if the videotapes were produced by Sterling Records and thereby several problems would be controlled: cost, quality and pirating, a phenomenon that had only recently come to light.
Right now, Kyle had no interest in his business, but he realized that he couldn't let his company crumble along with his personal life.
When he reached the top of the sea-weathered stairs, Kyle took one last searching look at the sea. Not finding an answer to his worries, he retreated into the house and noticed through the foyer window that Ryan Woods's car was parked near the garage. Kyle hurried to the den and forced a severe smile as he opened the door. "Sorry I'm late," he apologized as he entered the room. Ryan was seated in a high-backed chair near the desk.
"No problem." Ryan was a man of about thirty; slim, with receding black hair and a keen mind. He stood and accepted Kyle's handshake, noticing Kyle's uneasy smile. It was the same restless smile that had accompanied large deep-set brooding gray eyes and graced the jackets of several country albums ten years earlier. Kyle Sterling's music hadn't been hurt by the fact that the man was ruggedly handsome. Ryan Woods doubted that the platinum albums adorning the walls of the den would be there today if Kyle Sterling hadn't been so damnably earthy and sensual. Sterling's voice had been classified as mediocre and his ballads were too complex for most of his audience, but Kyle Sterling was a shrewd man who had used his striking looks to his advantage. He had turned his songs into money that he had invested in an ailing recording company. Within five years, Sterling Records had become one of the most prominent recording companies in the country.
Kyle poured himself a drink, offered Ryan another and took a seat near his guest. His eyes seemed haunted. Something was eating at Kyle Sterling and Ryan suspected that it was more than the pressures of running the company. He kept his suspicions to himself. If Kyle wanted to talk about his personal problems, the man would have to initiate the conversation himself. If not, so be it. Ryan Woods hadn't earned his reputation as a crackerjack troubleshooter by sticking his nose where it didn't belong .unless he was paid for it.
Kyle took an experimental sip of his drink, rested his head on the back of the chair and came straight to the point. "I assume that you've come here with some sort of proposal."
Woods inclined his balding head and nodded. "Finally."
"Good! I owe you for this one, Ryan. I just haven't had the time to put all the information together. This is a major decision."
"That's what you pay me for."
Kyle mutely agreed. "Let me guess what you found out: You think I should handle all the videos at the studioproduce them at Sterling Records."
Ryan shifted uneasily in the chair. He was seated near a large bay window and noticed that dusk was beginning to paint the sky in uneven streaks of magenta and carmine. The warm Pacific sun had settled behind the calm sea and only a few dark sailboats were silhouetted against the horizon. Outside, the view was spectacular. Inside, the wealth of Kyle Sterling surrounded him. It was evident in the thick weave of the imported carpet, the immaculate shine on the tiled floor, the expensive grain of the modern furniture and the original surreal paintings on the thick plaster walls. But with all his fortune, still Kyle Sterling seemed disenchanted.
Ryan snapped open his briefcase after finishing his drink and declining another. He pulled out a sheaf of neatly typed papers and handed them to Sterling. "You're not going to like what I found," he warned.