Theo Buchanan couldn't seem to shake the virus. He knew he was running a fever because every bone in his body ached and he had chills. He refused to acknowledge that he was ill, though; he was just a little off-kilter, that was all. He could tough it out. Besides, he was sure he was over the worst of it. The god-awful stitch in his side had subsided into a dull throbbing, and he was positive that it meant he was on the mend. If it was the same bug that had infected most of the staff back in his Boston office, then it was one of those twenty-four-hour things, and he should be feeling as good as new by tomorrow morning. Except, the throbbing in his side had been going on for a couple of days now.
He decided to blame his brother, Dylan, for that ache. He'd really nailed Theo during a family football game on their parents' lawn at Nathan's Bay. Yeah, the pulled muscle was Dylan's fault, but Theo figured that if he continued to ignore it, the pain would eventually go away.
Damn, he was feeling like an old man these days, and he wasn't even thirty-three yet.
He didn't think he was contagious, and he had too much to do to go to bed and sweat the fever out of his body. He'd flown from Boston to New Orleans to speak at a law symposium on organized crime and to receive recognition he didn't believe he deserved for simply doing his job.
Tonight was the first of three black-tie affairs. He'd promised to attend a fund-raiser, and he couldn't back out. Dinner was going to be prepared by five of the top chefs in the city, but the gourmet food was going to be wasted on him. The thought of swallowing anything, even water, made his stomach lurch. He hadn't eaten anything since yesterday afternoon.
He sure as certain wasn't up to pointless chitchat tonight. He tucked the room key into his pocket and was reaching for the doorknob, when the phone rang.
It was his brother Nick calling to check in.
"What's going on?"
"I'm walking out the door," Theo answered. "Where are you calling from? Boston or Holy Oaks?"
"Boston," Nick answered. "I helped Laurant close the lake house and then we drove back home together."
"Is she staying with you until the wedding?"
"Are you kidding? Tommy would send me straight to hell."
Theo laughed. "I guess having a priest for a future brother-in-law does put a crimp in your sex life."
"Five more weeks and I'm gonna be a married man. Hard to believe, isn't it?"
"It's hard to believe any woman would have you."
"Laurant's nearsighted. I told her I was good-looking and she believed me. She's staying with Mom and Dad until we all head back to Iowa for the wedding. What are you doing tonight?"
"I've got a fund-raiser I have to go to," he answered. "So what do you want?"
"I just thought I'd call and say hello."
"No, you didn't. You want something. What is it? Come on, Nick. I'm gonna be late."
"Theo, you've got to learn to slow down. You can't keep running for the rest of your life. I know what you're doing. You think that if you bury yourself in work, you won't think about Rebecca. It's been four years since she died, but you -- "
Theo cut him off. "I like my life, and I'm not in the mood to talk about Rebecca."
"You're a workaholic."
"Did you call to lecture me?"
"No, Laurant's been bugging me to call you."
"Is she there? Let me talk to her," he said. He sat down on the side of the bed and realized he was feeling better. Nick's fiancée had that effect on all the Buchanan brothers. She made everyone feel good.
"She isn't here. She went out with Jordan, and you know our sister. God only knows what time they'll get home. Anyway, I promised Laurant that I'd track you down and ask..."
"She wanted me to ask you but I figure I didn't need to," he said. "It's understood."
Theo held his patience. "What's understood?"
"You're gonna be my best man in the wedding."
"What about Noah?"
"He's in the wedding, of course, but I'm expecting you to be best man. I figured you already knew that, but Laurant thought I should ask you anyway."
Theo smiled. "Yeah, okay."
His brother was a man of few words. "Okay, good. Have you given your speech yet?"
"No, that's not until tomorrow night."
"When do you get your trophy?"
"It's a plaque, and I get it right before I give my speech."
"So if you blow it and put all those armed officers to sleep, they can't take the trophy back, can they?"
"I'm hanging up."
"Hey, Theo? For once, stop thinking about work. See the sights. Get laid. You know, have a good time. Hey, I know...why don't you give Noah a call. He's in Biloxi for a couple of months for a training conference. He could drive over to New Orleans, and the two of you could have some fun."
If anyone knew how to have fun, it was Noah Clayborne. The FBI agent had become a close friend of the family after working on several assignments with Nick and then later assisting Theo with his investigations as a federal attorney for the Justice Department. He was a good man, but he had a wicked sense of fun, and Theo wasn't sure he could survive a night out with Noah just now.
"Okay, maybe," he answered.
Theo hung up the phone, stood, and quickly doubled over from the pain that radiated through his right side. It had started in his belly, but it had moved down, and, damn, but it stung. The muscle he'd pulled felt like it was on fire.
A stupid football injury wasn't going to keep him down. Muttering to himself, he grabbed his cell phone from the charger, put it into his breast pocket with his reading glasses, slipped his gun into his belt holster, and left the room. By the time he reached the lobby, the pain had receded and he was feeling almost human again. That, of course, only reinforced his own personal golden rule. Ignore the pain and it would go away. Besides, a Buchanan could tough anything out.
It was a night to remember.
Michelle had never attended such an extravagant affair before, and as she stood on the steps overlooking the hotel ballroom, she felt like Alice about to fall through the looking glass into Wonderland.
There were flowers everywhere, beautiful spring flowers in sculptured urns on the marble floors and in crystal vases on all the white linen tablecloths. In the very center of the ballroom, beneath a magnificent crystal chandelier, was a cluster of giant hothouse-nurtured magnolia trees in full bloom. Their heavenly fragrance filled the air.
Waiters moved smoothly through the crowd carrying silver trays with fluted champagne glasses while others rushed from table to table lighting long, white tapered candles.
Mary Ann Winters, a friend since childhood days, stood by Michelle's side taking it all in.
"I'm out of my element here," Michelle whispered. "I feel like an awkward teenager."
"You don't look like one," Mary Ann said. "I might as well be invisible. I swear every man is staring at you."
"No, they're staring at my obscenely tight dress. How could anything look so plain and ordinary on a hanger and so -- "
"So devastatingly sexy on you? It clings in all the right places. Face it, you've got a killer figure."
"I should never have spent so much money on a dress."
"For heaven's sake, Michelle, it's an Armani...and you got it for a song, I might add."
Michelle self-consciously brushed her hand down the side of the soft fabric. She thought about how much she'd paid for the dress and decided she would have to wear it at least twenty times to make it cost-effective. She wondered if other women did that -- rationalized a frivolous expense to appease the guilt. There were so many more important things she could have used the money for, and when, in heaven's name, was she ever going to have another opportunity to wear this beautiful dress again? Not in Bowen, she thought. Not in a million years.
"What was I thinking? I never should have let you talk me into buying this dress."
Mary Ann impatiently brushed a strand of white blond hair back over her shoulder. "Don't you dare start in complaining about the cost again. You never spend any money on yourself. I'll bet it's the first really gorgeous dress you've ever owned, isn't it? You're absolutely beautiful tonight. Promise me you'll stop worrying and enjoy yourself."
Michelle nodded. "You're right. I'll stop worrying."
"Good. Now let's go mingle. There's hors d'oeuvres and champagne out in the courtyard, and we've got to eat at least a thousand dollars' worth each. That's what the tickets cost. I'll meet you there."
Her friend had just gone down the stairs, when Dr. Cooper spotted Michelle and motioned for her to join him. He was the chief of surgery at Brethren Hospital, where she had been moonlighting the past month. Cooper was usually reserved, but the champagne had rid him of his inhibitions, and he was quite affectionate. And effervescent. He kept telling her how happy he was that she was using the tickets he'd given her and how pretty she looked all dressed up. Michelle thought that if Dr. Cooper got any happier, he was going to pass out in the soup.
A few minutes later, Cooper's wife joined them with another older couple in tow. Michelle used the opportunity to sneak away. She walked around into the adjacent hallway with the bank of elevators.
And that's when she noticed him. He was leaning against a pillar, hunched over, tilted protectively to one side. The man was tall, broad-shouldered, well built, like an athlete, she thought. But there was a sickly gray pallor to his complexion, and as she walked toward him, she saw him grimace and grab his stomach.
He was definitely in trouble. She touched his arm to get his attention just as the elevator doors opened. He staggered upright and looked down at her. His gray eyes were glazed with pain.