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Authors: Janet Dailey

Rivals

Rivals

Janet Dailey

1

S
omeone
was watching her. She could feel the weight of a pair of eyes on her. It was hardly surprising in a room full of people—yet she had the strongest sensation.

Twenty minutes earlier, Flame Bennett had arrived at the DeBorgs' twelve-room aerie atop one of the gleaming towers on San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. Pausing in the marble foyer with her friend and associate Ellery Dorn, she'd hastily begun tugging off her black Fendi gloves, one finger at a time, as she turned to the waiting maid in her starched uniform. “Has Miss Colton arrived?”

“About fifteen minutes ago, Ms. Bennett.”

The reply confirmed Flame's suspicion. They were late, later than even fashion allowed. Tonight's party was more than just an exclusive gathering of the San Francisco opera committee; it was a formal reception for the internationally acclaimed coloratura soprano Lucianna Colton, the guest diva in the fall season's opening production of
Il Trovatore
. Not being on hand to welcome her was the equivalent of being late for an audience with the Queen. It simply wasn't done.

“What a pity we missed her entrance,” Ellery murmured dryly as he handed his topcoat and white silk scarf to the maid, then brushed absently at an invisible speck of lint on the sleeve of his black jacket.

Flame shot him a quick glance. His faint smile held a hint of mockery. That was Ellery—cynical and urbane and elegant, with a wry mocking wit that could be quite cutting. And, as always, he was impeccably groomed with not a single strand of his light brown hair out of place.

“How typical of you, Ellery,” she laughed as he stepped up behind her and slipped the black fox jacket from her shoulders. “Your tears match your crocodile shoes.”

“But of course.” He gave the jacket to the maid, then tucked a guiding hand under her elbow. “Shall we make our entrance?”

“We don't have any choice,” Flame murmured with a trace of ruefulness he didn't share.

Leaving the foyer, they passed through the reception hall and entered the small sitting area beyond it. Her glance touched briefly on the sunny yellow traditional sofa and black Regency chairs juxtaposed with a pair of eighteenth-century oriental cabinets, the room's decor indicative of the genteel blend to be found throughout the spacious penthouse. But her attention was drawn to the bright chatter of voices interspersed with soft laughter coming from the main sitting room on the right.

Unconsciously she squared her shoulders as she paused in the arch to the claret-glazed room. Flame was accustomed to heads turning. Long ago, she had come to terms with the fact that her looks attracted stares, both the admiring and the envious kinds. It was more than being model tall and shapely or possessing a strongly beautiful face. No, what set her apart was that rare and striking combination of ivory fair skin, jade green eyes, and copper hair with just enough gold in it to tone down the red.

But the looks directed her way now held a hint of disapproval at her tardiness. She knew all the guests. Most were old family friends who had literally watched her grow up. Flame was one of the few at the gathering who had the distinction of being a direct descendant of one of San Francisco's founding families. And that very connection gave her entrée to the elite circles, an entrée that new money couldn't necessarily buy. As Ellery had once caustically observed, the color of a person's money wasn't nearly as important in San Francisco as the color of his or her blood. With the latter, one didn't automatically need the former.

Their hostess, Pamela DeBorg, a bright bird of a woman with feathery ash blonde curls, spotted them and swooped over, the shawl scarf to her panne velvet Blass gown billowing out behind. “Flame, we had given up on you.”

“It was unavoidable, I promise,” Flame apologized. “The agency was filming a commercial at the Palace of Fine Arts. Unfortunately, we had some problems.”

“Indeed,” Ellery chimed in. “Our prima donna was a leopard—or should I say leopardess. I hope yours doesn't turn out to be as temperamental and uncooperative as ours.”

“Lucianna is an absolute dear,” Pamela declared, clasping her hands together in delight, the spectacular diamond ring on her finger flashing in the light. “You will love her, Flame. She is so warm, so affable…what can I say? You must meet her yourself. Come. She's in the Garden Room with Peter.” She caught at Flame's hand, drawing her from the arch, then paused long enough to include Ellery. “You, too, of course.” Then she was off, somehow managing to stay a half step ahead of Flame while turning to her, talking all the way. “Did I tell you she changed the entire travel schedule and flew here on a private jet instead? It was absolute insanity this afternoon trying to get everything rearranged.” Flame smiled sympathetically, aware no other response was required. “And wait until you see her gown. It's gorgeous. But the necklace she's wearing—a fabulous diamond and ruby
bijoux
that will make you die with envy. Jacqui hinted that she thought it was paste,” she added, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial level when she mentioned the chronicler of San Francisco's society doings, Jacqui Van Cleeve, a former socialite herself before her divorce. “But those rocks are definitely real, Flame. That necklace reeks of Bulgari's touch. Believe me, I know.”

Flame didn't doubt that. It had been said that Pamela DeBorg's collection of jewelry could rival the Duchess of Windsor's, both in quantity and quality.

Just ahead, a set of French doors stood open, leading into the Garden Room. Pamela swept through them, then paused a fraction of a second. The lengthy expanse of glass provided the grandly spacious penthouse with its de rigueur view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the bay. Intimate groupings of plushly cushioned rattan furniture were scattered among a profusion of potted plants and Chinese urns.

In the middle of it all, holding audience, stood the dark-haired diva herself, stunning in a back-plunging gown of scarlet that hugged her generous curves. She turned, giving Flame a glimpse of the ruby and diamond necklace and her much-photographed face, too prominently boned to be considered beautiful, although it undeniably commanded attention.

She certainly was the center of it now, Flame thought, glancing at the committee members clustered around her, including their host, the sandy-haired financier, Peter DeBorg.

“There she is,” Pamela said needlessly and pushed forward. “Forgive me for interrupting Lucianna, but I have someone from the committee I want you to meet—Flame Bennett.”

“How nice.” Her glance swung to Flame, her dark eyes showing a perfunctory interest that matched her smile as she said, “It's my pleasure.”

“I assure you it's all mine, Miss Colton. And I hope you'll accept my apologies for not being here to welcome you when you arrived tonight.”

“Yes,” Pamela rushed to explain. “Flame was filming a commerical and they had some sort of problem with a lion or leopard or something.”

“You're an actress then.”

“No,” Peter DeBorg spoke up. “Flame works for Boland and Hayes, a national advertising agency with offices here in San Francisco.”

“I'm not sure I understand.” Her questioning look ran from one to the other. “Are you a model?”

Flame smiled faintly. “No. I'm a vice-president with the company.”

“A vice-president.” Her full interest was now focused on Flame, sharply reassessing. “How wonderful to meet a woman with power.”

Flame acknowledged the compliment with a gracious nod, then half-turned, directing the attention to Ellery. “I'd like to introduce you to another officer of the company and my closest friend, Ellery Dorn.”

“Miss Colton.” Ellery stepped smoothly forward and took her scarlet-nailed fingers, raising them to his lips. “We are looking forward to your Leonora. Although, if I may be so bold to suggest, instead of having San Francisco at your feet as you do here—” With a sweep of his hand, he indicated the glitter of the city lights beyond the glass panes of the penthouse windows. “—you will have them
on
their feet.”

“Ellery, how very clever of you!” Pamela exclaimed, clapping her hands together.

“And flattering,” Lucianna Colton added with a regal incline of her head.

“I prefer to think of it as a portent of things to come,” Ellery insisted as more guests strolled into the Garden Room, not to admire the view of the storied city but to have a closer look at the famous lady in scarlet. Catching sight of them, Ellery lightly took Flame's arm. “As much as we would like to monopolize your time, Miss Colton, I'm afraid we must deny ourselves. There are too many others eager to shower you with the same accolades.”

After exchanging the usual pleasantries, Flame and Ellery withdrew. Almost immediately their place was taken and Flame heard Andrea Crane gush, “I was at La Scala last year when you performed so divinely in
Tosca
.”

As they crossed the threshold into the main sitting room, Ellery glanced back and smiled wryly. “Amazing.”

“What is?” Flame eyed him curiously.

Drawing her to one side, he nodded at the collection of guests, some seated, some standing. “Tonight's guest list reads like the Who's Who of San Francisco society. Yet…there they are fawning over a woman from some little midwestern town just because she can hit a high F without screeching.”

“It's a bit more than that,” she replied, momentarily distracted by the odd feeling she was being watched. “She is an extremely talented artist.”

“Artistic talent is the elevating factor, isn't it?”

That sensation of a pair of eyes on her persisted, stronger than before. “Is this going to turn into a philosophical discussion, Ellery? Because if it is, I don't think I'm up to it.” She half-turned, trying to discern the source of the eerie feeling, and came face-to-face with a waiter, a hawk-faced man in his midforties. For an instant she was unnerved by the piercing study of his deep-set hazel eyes, hooded by a heavy brow. Then his glance fell as he stepped forward and extended the salver of wineglasses balanced on the palm of his right hand.

“Would madame care for a glass of chardonnay?” Not even the smooth, respectful wording could eliminate the rough edge to his voice.

“Thank you.” She took one of the stemmed wine goblets from the tray, her glance running over him again. Had he been the one staring at her? Although she couldn't be sure, she suspected he was. Why had it bothered her? Why had she felt so uneasy? Men customarily stared at her—for all the usual reasons. Why should a waiter be different? He offered wine to Ellery, then moved on to another group of guests.

“Brown shoes and black pants.” Ellery raised an eyebrow in disapproval. “The caterer should pay more attention to the dress of his help.”

Flame glanced again at the retreating waiter, this time noting the brown of his shoes. Unexpectedly, he turned his head and glanced back at Flame. The instant he realized she was watching him, he looked away.

A hand touched her arm, then traveled familiarly down to cup an elbow. “I see you finally made it.”

Recognizing the voice, Flame tensed briefly, then flashed a quick and warm smile at the man who was easily her most important and influential client. At fifty-six, Malcom Powell looked it, too—an imposing figure of only average stature but very powerfully built. His dark hair was leonine thick and shot with silver, but that touch of gray only added to the image of an iron man. Some said that was exactly the way he ruled his huge chain of department stores across the country, a family business that he'd inherited and on which he'd built his reputation, although they currently represented only a small portion of his vast holdings.

“Malcom, I didn't know you were back in town.”

“I flew in last night.” His gray eyes bored into her, seeking a reaction, then flickered with irritation when he found only calm. “I left a message with your secretary this afternoon, but you never returned my call.”

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