Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel


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This Very Moment

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2001 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

He stared at the letter in his hand, his mind numbed with disbelief. It was addressed to Nicole Debré. How could that be? The old familiar pain, the brutal desolation, flared to life at the sight of her name. Oh, Nicole!

His name was Guillaume Debré, or had been once. Now he was William Dubrey, or Bill to his friends. He much preferred Bill because William was too much like that other name and identity he had left behind in France. Bill, however, seemed far removed from Guillaume Debré—and his wife Nicole, now five years dead.

Nicole. When the memories came, as it seemed they must when he was alone, they always began at that last train ride. With her fiery death, not the life they had shared. Mostly he tried not to think about it. Young love gone awry; he should have gotten over her by now. But sometimes in the night, he would remember just a flash of the lovely girl next door, of the person she had been before he had married her and taken her to Paris for their honeymoon. On the train.

Guillaume had loved Nicole his entire life. He would always love her. And the profound pit of emptiness her death had left was the reason he couldn't continue any semblance of a life in France. So he had finished his education, immigrated to the States, and had become Bill, an entirely new person, with no past to haunt his future. France was now only a bitter memory buried deeply in his new persona. His colleagues and friends knew him as a talented plastic surgeon, an ambitious, thirty-something man on the rise. A voice tutor had eliminated all but the mere vestiges of an accent. No one suspected he had ever been anything other than the American Bill Dubrey, except his older brother Jourdain, who lived in France and exchanged cards with Bill at Christmas time.

That was why the letter in the mailbox came as such a shock. Bill had nothing now to do with Nicole, but there the letter was, addressed to her. The name stabbed into his chest, choked the air from his lungs.

Nicole! Nicole! a silent voice cried. Clutching the mail to his heart, he went inside, slamming the door behind him.

Who had written to Nicole? And why here? Why now? What did it mean? The questions flooded his brain so quickly he couldn't process them. Methodically, he set his briefcase down in the entryway and studied the envelope as he walked into the kitchen. It was a simple white mailing label. Nicole Debré, it read, complete with the French spelling and accent. Anyone who would have known enough to connect his name with hers, and send it to America, should have also known that Nicole was dead. He threw the letter onto the kitchen table with the rest of the mail, then picked it up again. He stared at it for another full minute before tossing it into the trash, unopened.

Hot, blind anger filled every portion of his body. How dare they! How dare they intrude upon my life! He snatched the letter out of the garbage and ripped it open viciously, stoking his anger and resentment. He had come too far to return to the pitiful wreck he had been after the accident. He would fight this intrusion on his calm and orderly existence. I am no longer Guillaume, but Bill, who never knew or loved a beautiful woman named Nicole.

Inside the envelope was a gold embossed invitation to attend a benefit dinner—a very expensive dinner to be held in L.A. in two weeks. He barely glanced at the name of the charity as he absorbed the meaning of the yellow note inside: I met Jourdain in France last month. He gave me your address. I didn't know you had moved to California! Keep in touch. Hope to see you at the benefit. Kylee.

For long seconds his fury was all-encompassing. He instantly recalled Nicole's friend Kylee. She had always been involved in raising money for one charity or another, in America or in other countries over the world. The women had first met in France while Bill had been in America studying, two years before he and Nicole had married. Kylee had been Nicole's best friend and confidante while he had been away chasing his dreams.

Agony burned in his soul. Why had he waited so long to marry Nicole? If he had only known that she was going to die! Perhaps marrying her earlier would have prevented her death, or at the least given them more time as husband and wife. Tears streamed down his face. "Cursed woman," he growled, crumpling the invitation and throwing it again into the trash. "Did she think that sending it to my dead wife would capture my attention? What a cruel joke." If Kylee Stuart had been in the room at that moment, he would have strangled her—and thoroughly enjoyed the revenge.

Later that night he couldn't sleep. Thoughts of his childhood with Nicole, and playing together at the park, filled his mind. Then of her as a young woman when he stole his first tentative kiss. He tossed, he turned, and he cursed until he could stand it no more. No matter how wonderful her cause, Kylee would never again use Nicole's name to elicit money. And he knew just how to stop her.

* * * * *

Kylee Stuart looked around with satisfaction. The banquet hall was decorated with stylish paintings, sculptures, and expensive knickknacks, all of which were part of the silent auction that would be carried on throughout the evening. The two singers, a local football star, and the comedian were present and ready to display talents or give speeches. Even the children were in a back room waiting to do their part, their misshapen faces bright with excitement.

Sixteen by twenty inch pictures of those children decorated one entire wall of the banquet hall. Taken close-up against a black background, these pictures made every small feature stand out and epitomized the need that had created the Children's Hope Fund five years earlier. Only the hard-hearted could look upon their innocent faces without feeling a deep compassion and desire to help.

The delicious aromas in the air reminded Kylee to do a last minute check on the meal preparations. "Everything okay?" she asked Julius Taylor, owner of the catering business as well as head chef.

Julius nodded. "Two hundred and forty meals nearly ready to go. Don't worry, everything's taken care of."

For the hundred bucks a head I'm paying you, it ought to be, Kylee thought. At the dinner cost of five hundred dollars, that meant a profit of ninety-six thousand dollars for the Children's Hope Fund, less expenses and her meager salary. Not a bad start. And she determined the meal was to be just that—a start. The silent auction would raise a great deal of money, but she was hoping for more straight monetary donations than for anything else. As part of her plans, a video of the unfortunate children she was trying to help would be projected onto the wall-sized screen. Only the most tough-hearted would be unmoved by the deep needs of these little ones. She cried herself each time she saw the video or talked with the children, and had channelled her own slim savings into the program. Kylee was very good at what she did, but she was even better at practicing what she preached.

Shaking out her hands to relieve the tension, Kylee walked to the door to greet the guests. They came in twos and threes, and sometimes in larger groups, but never alone. They came wearing glittering clothes and cultured smiles. They came with confidence and a benign generosity. There would be two hundred and forty guests, each holding pre-paid tickets bought from the charity. Kylee was grateful to them for their attendance and for their willingness to help the children receive new faces. Of course, a few of the charity's guests could give so much more than they would offer, but she refused to think of that. She focused instead on the tears of the children and their small misshapen faces that held so much pain. Tonight she would help at least a few more of the children applying to Children's Hope for funds that would provide desperately needed surgeries.

"Welcome. Thank you for coming," she said, nodding her head graciously and occasionally taking guests' hands in hers. She knew most of them by sight, if not by name. They had come from her mailing lists, carefully compiled and maintained over the ten years she had been raising funds for charities. There was trust involved in her relationship with these donors; she had promised them that the charities she represented were of unquestionable caliber with the lowest overhead. They could rest assured knowing that their dollars went for the intended cause, not to overpaid administrators.

"Feel free to browse through the auction items," she invited the guests, motioning them toward the items she had worked so hard in the past month to gather from local businesses and artists. She gave each guest a program which announced not only the performers and speakers, but also listed the silent auction items and minimum bids. On the last two pages were touching stories of children the organization had helped in previous years, and of those who still waited for funding.

Standing next to her, the charity administrators, Elaina Rinehart and Troy Stutts, also greeted guests, elaborating on their aspirations to help the children. Elaina leaned toward Kylee during a brief lull, her short dark hair shining in the bright lights. "These people are perfect," she said. "They really seem to care. Troy was right when he said you were the one we should contact to raise the money. You're a wonder. I bet they love you at church fund-raisers."

Kylee grinned and whispered back, Actually, my church doesn't really have a lot of those—except for the scouts. But you ain't seen nothin' yet. Wait 'till I show them the video. And then bring out the children."

"I can't wait!" Elaina giggled like a school girl.

Kylee forgave Elaina's enthusiasm; she had received similar gratitude from many of the charities she had worked with over the years. Children's Hope would finally be in a position to help children who had been waiting years for a new face and outlook on life. Neither woman had any qualms about accepting donations. The wealthy had a certain amount of money they needed to donate to charities for tax purposes, and it might as well go to theirs.

Then she saw him.

The first thing she noticed about the man was that he was alone. He had wavy black hair, cut short against his scalp, and inscrutable deep brown eyes. The tuxedo he wore was of the latest style and he carried himself with sureness and purpose. His expression was pleasant enough, but she noticed that the muscles in his jaw were tight, and twitched every so often as though his outward mask flickered, threatening to reveal an inner truth he would rather hide. But how could she possibly guess all this from a stranger's face?

Pulling her thoughts back to her duty, she smiled at him as she had the others. He took her proffered hand in his cool grip and suddenly she knew him. "Guillaume! How wonderful to see you! How long has it been?"

"Kylee." His voice was far from cordial. "How dare you use Nicole to get me here. How dare you!" As he spoke, she saw the rage and contempt emerge from behind the mask.

"What are you—" Kylee glanced down the line at the oncoming guests. The people greeting Elaina were looking her way, interested in what might come next. "Come over here and we'll talk about it." She tried to pull her hand from his tightened grasp.

He shook his head and stayed where he was. "Why? Aren't you proud of your tactics? I wouldn't be either. Using a dead woman to sell one more ticket for your charity. But that's okay, isn't it? Because it's for the children. The rest of us can go to the devil—as long as you get your money first."

Kylee watched him helplessly. "I don't understand what you mean. Please, Guillaume." She took a step backward, but he refused to release his grip.

"Kylee, what's going on?" Elaina asked with a false smile that showed all her teeth. "Do you need me to call security?"

They didn't have any security, but Guillaume couldn't know that. "No," Kylee answered. "I know him." At least she had once. But why was he acting so odd, and where was Nicole?

Nicole!

Kylee's heart seemed to skip a beat. He had mentioned a dead woman.

"Nicole," she said, unready to believe. "Where is she?" She looked past Guillaume, searching, hoping to see Nicole's attractive, eager face. Perhaps this confrontation had been a joke and Nicole was watching her even now, ready to laugh the moment away. Kylee could forgive the unseemly jest—how she had longed to be with her friend again! But only the faces of the interested guests met her gaze. Kylee turned to Guillaume, her eyes filling with tears. "Dear Lord," she muttered with a heartfelt prayer. "Is it Nicole?"

His face lost much of the fury as he stared at her. "She's dead."

"I—I didn't know." Kylee blinked hard and backed away again. This time he let her go.

Without a word to Elaina, Kylee fled the room as fast as her fitted silver gown would allow. She heard someone come after her. Unlocking the door of her temporary office, she whirled on him. "Why?" She threw the word at him like a knife.

"I thought you knew."

"You should know me better than that. I was her friend!"

His shoulders slumped and he answered jaggedly, "I was just so angry. I thought I had put it all behind me. I came to America with a new name and started a new life, and then to see her name on the envelope—"

"And someone had to pay. Is that why you attacked me?" Her voice shook with her anger and hurt, but he looked dejected, and Kylee wanted to forgive him. "How long ago was it?" she asked more gently.

"Five years. Two days after we were married. We were on the train at Port Royal when it was bombed. She burned to death. There was nothing I could do." His face was immobile, but the tears in his eyes moved Kylee more than she would have expected. She took a tentative step toward him, touched the sleeve of his suit.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

He nodded. "I shouldn't have reacted like I did tonight. I wasn't planning on staying, but I'd like to now—to make it up to you."

"You don't have to. I understand." She wiped at the tears on her cheeks.

His lips twisted into an odd sort of smile, as though the motion pained him. "I want to. Besides, I bought a ticket. Can't let a five hundred-dollar meal go to waste."

Kylee felt touched at his willingness to make things right. "Okay, Guillaume. Would you like to sit at my table?"

"I'd like that. But call me Bill, okay? Bill Dubrey."

"Oh, right. You said you had a new name."

"What about you, Kylee? Have you changed your name? Your last, I mean. Are you married?"

"No, I'm not." No use in telling him about her brief relationship with Raymond.

He said nothing further, but offered her his arm. Kylee was amazed that she could see no trace of the violent emotions she had glimpsed before. Neither the grief nor the anger was apparent in his demeanor. How could he obliterate them so quickly?

"Wait." She swiftly checked her makeup in her compact mirror and rubbed off a bit of smudged mascara. After reapplying her powder and patting her short blonde hair into place, she hooked her hand through his arm and they walked back into the banquet hall together.

Elaina and Troy were still greeting people at the door. It took Kylee only a few moments with the waiter to rearrange the seating at her table, where a few guests were already seated. "I need to welcome the rest of the people," she told Bill, after she had introduced him to the others at the table. "I'll be back soon."

He gave her a wry smile. "Take your time."

"We'll keep Dr. Dubrey company," said Mrs. Boswell. "I have a little surgery I've been meaning to discuss with him."

"Oh, you know Bill?" Kylee asked.

"Not really, my dear, though I feel as if I do. My friend Audrey has simply gushed about what he did for her." Mrs. Boswell gave Kylee a conspiratorial smile, but her voice carried to everyone at the table. "A facelift, you know. She positively looks ten years younger." She focused on Bill while her husband and the other guests continued to nibble on their appetizers. "I've asked around and you have quite a reputation, Dr. Dubrey. They say you are simply the best."

Bill smiled. "I'm glad to hear it."

Kylee excused herself and hurried to the entrance, wondering at what she had learned. She had understood that Guillaume was studying to be a doctor when she had known Nicole, though she didn't remember anything about plastic surgery. Nicole had told her that after their initial bout at separate colleges, she and Bill had rediscovered their childhood love and had become engaged. While he was off in America, specializing in one thing or another, Nicole had stayed in France delivering babies—and waiting. It had been to the hospital where Nicole worked that Kylee sent several of the pregnant charity recipients she was working with at the time. She met Nicole, and they soon became close friends. Kylee remembered Nicole's sadness at Guillaume's absence, and how she had attempted to stave off her loneliness by throwing herself into fund-raising with the organization Kylee was working for. But Guillaume had returned to France often. During his visits Nicole tended to be scarce, though on more than a few weekends the three of them had gone hiking or camping together. Kylee had liked what she had seen. He was a nice guy, and perfect for Nicole.

When Kylee had moved on to England for another fund-raiser, she was pleased to receive the announcement of their long-awaited wedding. Nicole's accompanying letter had exuded complete happiness. It was the last communication Kylee ever received from Nicole, despite four subsequent letters Kylee had sent to her in France. Kylee imagined her friend was so content with her fiancé's return and their subsequent marriage that she hadn't even thought of writing. Now Kylee knew the truth, and it hurt to think that the lively Nicole was dead. No wonder Guillaume had been so angry!

Kylee glanced at Guillaume—no, it was Bill now—and saw him conversing with the group at her table. He was obviously successful, and incredibly handsome. If not for her glimpse of the emotions he had shown earlier, she would have never guessed at his former life and the tragedy behind the mask.

When she finally greeted the last of the guests, Kylee headed for her table, leaving Elaina to officially welcome the crowd and introduce the speakers and singers who would entertain them as they ate. After the dessert had been served Kylee would make her presentation of the video and the children.

"So why haven't you married, Doctor?" Mrs. Boswell was saying as Kylee arrived at the table. "Audrey has quite the eye for you, you know. And her two kids are practically in high school, so they wouldn't be much of a bother. The fact that she's moved to the same condominium complex as you is really quite convenient. I keep telling her to chase you a bit, you know. Men liked to be chased." Mrs. Boswell batted her mascara-laden eyes and Kylee felt her heart go out to the unfortunate Audrey, who had trusted Mrs. Boswell with her heart.

"Well, I'm afraid I'm a born bachelor," Bill said as he applied crab paste onto a wheat cracker. He met Mrs. Boswell's gaze with a direct stare. "My focus is on my work. I'm much too busy for a relationship." He took a bite of the cracker and swallowed before adding, "And I especially like to work on subjects with your potential, Mrs. Boswell. You're a perfect candidate for my latest sculpting methods."

Mrs. Boswell flushed and brought a hand to her well-endowed bosom. "Oh, I may come to see you very soon, Doctor." She elbowed her husband, who nodded with a distracted smile. Kylee had the feeling that the heavyset Mrs. Boswell did whatever she pleased, with or without her husband's approval.

Kylee slipped into the chair next to Bill just as the waiters began to serve the main course. Usually she would have mingled with the guests instead of eating, in order to personally iron out any problems that might arise. But tonight Elaina and Troy would have to handle that. She owed Bill this much. She had brought him here using Nicole's name and then, worse, she had inadvertently set him among sharks—or at least one shark. Kylee felt she should give him as much support as she could muster.

"So how long have you been in California?" Kylee asked.

He set down his fork and looked at her steadily. "Four years."

"He studied in France, you know," Mrs. Boswell said. "And the French are simply the best at maintaining beauty, aren't they?" The other women at the table nodded. "But it's certainly good to be able to go to an American," Mrs. Boswell added with a sniff. "I don't trust foreigners."

Kylee caught an amused glint in Bill's eyes, and she almost laughed aloud. What would Mrs. Boswell say if she knew Bill had been born in France as Guillaume Debré? Well, Kylee wasn't about to tell her.

Everyone was blessedly silent after the waiters delivered the food, but only for a few moments. When the talk began again, it turned to politics and the economy. Kylee only listened halfway, as she studied Bill from the corner of her eye. She had known him fairly well during the two years she and Nicole had been friends, and his appearance seemed the same. There were few wrinkles around his eyes, and his hair didn't have even a trace of grey. There was something still boyish and open about him. Was that what had made Nicole love him so deeply?

Kylee sighed inwardly and forced herself to think about the speech she would make. The sooner it was over, the sooner she could help the children—and the sooner she could get away from Bill Dubrey. Her memories of Nicole were too overwhelming.

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