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Up Close and Dangerous
Author: Linda Howard



She hated when she did that, because she couldn’t see any reason for being such a wuss. If she were desperately unhappy, if she were lonely or grieving, crying in her sleep would make sense, but she wasn’t any of those things. At worst, she was pissed.

Even being pissed wasn’t a full-time attitude; that came only when she had to deal with her stepchildren, Seth and Tamzin, which, thank God, usually happened only once a month when she signed off on the allotted funds they received from their inheritance from her late husband. They almost always contacted her then, either before to make their pitches for more money, which she had yet to approve, or afterward to let her know, in their individual ways, what a scummy bitch they thought she was.

Seth was by far the most vicious, and more times than she cared to count he’d left her emotionally bruised, but at least he was forthright with his hostility. As tough as he was to take, Bailey preferred dealing with him to having to wade her way through Tamzin’s passive-aggressive crap.

Today was the day their monthly funds were released to their bank accounts, which meant she could look forward to either their phone calls or actual visits. Oh, joy. One of Tamzin’s favorite punishments was to visit, and bring her two young children. Tamzin alone was tough enough to take, but when her two whiny, spoiled, demanding children were added to the mix, Bailey felt like running for the hills.

“I should have asked for combat pay,” she grumbled aloud as she threw back the covers and got out of bed.

Then she mentally snorted at herself. She had nothing to complain about, much less cry in her sleep over. She’d agreed to marry James Wingate knowing what his children were like, and how they would react to their father’s financial arrangements for them. He had, in fact, banked on those reactions and planned accordingly. She had gone into the situation with her eyes open, so she had no grounds for complaining now. Even from the grave, Jim was paying her well to do her job.

Going into the plush bathroom, she glanced at her reflection—something that was difficult not to do when the first thing she faced was a floor-to-ceiling mirror. Sometimes, when she saw herself, she had a moment of almost complete disconnect between the person reflected and what she felt like inside.

Money had changed her—not inside so much as outside. She was slimmer, more toned, because now she had both the time and the money for a personal trainer who came to the house and put her through hell in the private exercise room. Her hair, before always a sort of dirty blond, was now so artfully streaked with different hues of blond that it looked completely natural. An expensive cut flattered her face, and fell into such graceful lines that even now, fresh out of bed, her hair looked pretty damn good.

She had always been neat, and she had dressed as well as she could on her salary, but there was a world of difference between “neat” and “polished.” She had never been beautiful, and certainly wouldn’t qualify for that level of good looks even now, but she did sometimes reach “pretty,” or even “striking.” Skillful application of the best cosmetics available made the green of her eyes more intense, more vibrant. Her clothes were tailored to fit her and only her, instead of millions of other women who were the same general size.

As Jim’s widow, she had the full and unquestioned use of this house in Seattle, one in Palm Beach, and another in Maine. She never had to fly on a commercial airline unless she wished to; the Wingate corporation leased private jets for its use, and a plane was always available to her. She paid only for her personal possessions, which meant she didn’t have to worry about bills. That was undeniably the biggest bright spot of the deal she’d made with the man who had married her and, in less than a year, made her a widow.

Bailey had been poor, and though amassing wealth had never been her life’s focus or ambition, she had to admit that having money made life much easier. She still had problems, the main ones being Seth and Tamzin, but problems felt different when they didn’t involve paying bills on time: the sense of urgency was gone.

All she had to do was oversee their trust funds—a duty she took very seriously even though they would never believe that—and otherwise fill her days.

God, she was bored.

Jim had thought of everything regarding his children, she thought as she stepped into the round, frosted-glass shower. He had safeguarded their inheritances; insofar as he was able he’d also ensured that they would always be financially secure, and very skillfully read their personalities while doing so. His plans, however, hadn’t included how her life would play out after he was gone.

He likely hadn’t cared, she thought ruefully. She’d been the means to an end, and even though he’d been fond of her and she of him, he’d never made any pretense of feeling anything more than that for her. Theirs had been a business arrangement, one he’d initiated and controlled. Even if he’d known beforehand, he wouldn’t have cared that his friends, who had dutifully invited her to their social events while Jim was still alive, had dropped her from their guest lists like a hot potato as soon as he was in the ground. Jim’s friends had mostly been in his age group, and a lot of them had known and been friends with Jim’s first wife, Lena. Some of them had also known Bailey from before, in her capacity as Jim’s personal assistant. They were uncomfortable with her in the role of his wife. Hell, she had been uncomfortable, so how could she blame them for feeling the same way?

This wasn’t the life she’d wanted for herself. Yes, the money was nice—very nice—but she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life doing nothing but growing money for two people who despised her. Jim had been certain that Seth’s humiliation at having his inheritance controlled by a stepmother who was three years his junior would shock him into stepping up to the plate and behaving like a responsible adult, instead of an older male version of Paris Hilton, but so far that hadn’t happened and Bailey no longer had any faith it ever would. Seth had had plenty of chances to apply himself, to take an interest in the corporations that funded his lavish and lazy lifestyle, but he hadn’t seized any of them. Seth had been Jim’s hope, because Tamzin was completely disinterested in and unsuited for the type of financial decisions huge amounts of money demanded. All Tamzin was interested in was the end result, which was cash at her disposal—and she wanted all of her inheritance now, so she could spend it as she wished.

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