Tonight’s the night.
Full of hope and anticipation, she told herself that tonight would be filled with lazy, sensual pleasure that would sate her body and soul. A night that would provide release from the frustration that had built to unbearable levels during the last two weeks.
Restless hunger burned inside her, building with each passing moment. Her need had risen to fever pitch and it pounded inside her like a primitive drumbeat. She slid her hand over her body with a comforting stroke. Soon, she told herself. She wore cotton, the fabric of babies, but this lover wouldn’t mind the absence of silk and satin. She would seduce this lover in other ways. In fact, she had already begun with a champagne cocktail, a long, warm scented bath surrounded by candles, and now with secret, expectant darkness.
What she wanted was a satisfaction as old as time.
What she wanted was a freakin’ full night of sleep.
More than anything, all Delilah Montague craved was a peaceful, uninterrupted night of sleep. She needed it to forget just a little while that her best friend in the world had died one month ago. She needed sleep to ease the ache in her heart and head. She needed to pretend that eventually everything would work out and she wouldn’t always be the object of disdain and distasted. She needed it so she could keep a razor-sharp clear head in the morning, especially since she’d inherited a large interest in the spa.
She’d been told she had a smile that opened doors and a body that made men want to empty their pockets and lower their zippers. With a father who was a fire-and-brimstone preacher and a mother who had won more wet T-shirt contests than all the Baywatch babes combined, Delilah had a lot to live up to…or live down, depending on one’s perspective. She knew she wasn’t a good candidate for marriage or motherhood, so it was easy to focus on her career. She hadn’t, however, grown accustomed to the new responsibility Howard “Cash” Bradford had bequeathed her yet.
Delilah would trade her most treasured possessions for one night’s sleep; designer shoes, a perfectly mixed champagne cocktail, perhaps even her secret stash of M&Ms. She would even trade her body except her body was too tired for anything more than intimately melding itself with her mattress.
“It’s not too much to ask, is it?” she muttered to the sleep gods as she flipped her pillow over to press her cheek against cool Egyptian cotton. Her mattress was the perfect degree of firmness, a far cry from the cot in the homeless shelter where she’d slept a few years ago. Her duvet provided the exact weight and warmth to ease her trip into Lala-land.
A professional interior decorator had furnished her boudoir as a sanctuary of peace from the harsh outside world. She kept waiting for the day when she felt comfortable in her own condo. Until now, she’d felt as if she were walking on eggshells, afraid of messing up the white carpet and ivory leather furniture, afraid of messing up everything and ending back on the streets.
Her heart raced at her thoughts and she tried to take a calming breath. As director of Spa DeMay, the most elite spa in Texas, se worked in an environment where she pulled knives out of her back on a daily basis. No one believed she truly had a lick of business sense. No one thought she would last more than a month after her mentor Howard Bradford died. Everyone believed she had achieved her present position by lying on her back for Howard Bradford. Only she knew the real truth, and it was her job to keep the truth a secret.
Delilah pushed the hated plugs into her ears as protection from her neighbor, whom she was convinced had been hatched from alien species which didn’t require sleep. That was the only explanation she could think of for doing renovation in the week hours in the morning.
Sighing, she closed her eyes and began to count backwards from two thousand. One thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine. One thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight…
Howard lay in his large bed, a cigar in one hand, a glass of scotch in the other; his heard medication on his bedside table.
Tsking in disapproval, Delilah took the cigar and scotch away.
“Hey! Give that back!” he protested.” “I’m a dying man. You shouldn’t deny me my meager pleasures.”
“You wouldn’t be dying if you didn’t indulge your pleasures so much. You just had your third heart catheterization and I know the doctor didn’t recommend scotch and a Cuban as part of your recovery.”
Howard sighed, but smiled his wily winning grin. “You know I’m in love with you, Delilah.”
"Me and fifty others,” she said. Delilah couldn’t resist smiling in return at the ornery multi-millionaire, but she tried not to show that he scared her to death. His complexion was gray and she didn’t want him to die. She wanted Howard Bradford to live forever. He had transformed her life when he’d taken her on as arm candy. She’d expected to become his lover, and for a time, she had wanted that, but then she’d learned the truth Howard was determined to hide. Howard might be one of the most wealthy and powerful men in Houston, but he couldn’t quite, shall we say, lift his crane. His sexual difficulties were such an embarrassment to him that made it a practice to keep a young woman on his arm at every public opportunity.
He’d showered Delilah with gifts, clothing, an informal education and the opportunity to prove herself. She’d gone from shampoo girl to executive director of Spa DeMay, and she had “Cash” to thank for it. He’d introduced her to the arts and she’d introduced him to the World Wrestling Federation.
For all their playful arguments, both he and Delilah knew there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for him.
He coughed and his grin fell. His eyes turned serious. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
She offered him a sip of water and sat on the edge of the bed. “You should rest instead of talk.”
“You’re a bossy woman.”
She cracked a sassy grin. “You helped make me that way.”
He laughed and absently rubbed his chest. “So I did.” He sighed. “I need you to do something for me.”
“Anything except the cigar, scotch and Viagra,” she said, knowing none of the three mixed well with his heart condition.
“The evil trinity,” he said wryly, then turned serious again. “If something happens to me-“
Delilah’s heart contracted. “It won’t.”
“Don’t be a sissy about this,” he said with an edge to his voice. “I’m surrounded by enough hysterical idiots. I’m counting on you to be sensible.”
Delilah stiffened her lip. “Okay, what can I do?”
“If I die, I’d rather you not tell anyone the truth about my, uh-“ He cleared his throat. “My condition.”
Realization hit her. Male pride, one of the strongest forces in the universe. Even in the face of death, Cash was concerned about his image. “If anyone asks me, my response will be that you were so virile I couldn’t keep up with you.”
Cash chuckled. “Whatever happens, Lilly needs to be protected. I want you to keep an eye on her.”
“She may not like that.”
“I’ll talk to her,” he said.
“I’m not sure that will help,” she said, suspecting that Howard’s daughter, Lilly, wasn’t overly fond of her.
“Let me handle it. There’s something else, though, that’s very important to me. It’s not a small request and it won’t be easy for you.”
Delilah wrinkled her brow in confusion. “What-“
A knock sounded on the door, interrupting them. Miguel, Howard’s longtime housekeeper, stepped into the room. “Sorry to interrupt, Senor Bradford, but Senorita Lilly is on the phone.”
Howard’s eyes lit up. “I’ll take it, Miguel. I must have forgotten to turn the ringer back on,” he said, picking up the receiver. He covered the mouthpiece. “We’ll talk tomorrow. Okay, darlin’?”
Still worried, Delilah forced a smile and kissed his forehead. “Sure thing,” she whispered, wondering what he had intended to tell her. “Get some rest after you talk to Lilly.”
Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow…
A buzzing sound permeated her brain. Delilah frowned. She covered her ears, but it felt like a bee was buzzing inside her head. She desperately tried to go back to sleep. If she stayed asleep, maybe Howard would tell her what he wanted her to do.
Tomorrow had never come for him. He had passed away in his sleep.
Refusing to open her eyes, afraid of looking at the clock, she buried under her pillow.
The buzzing continued.
Her heart sank. Not again! She peeked out form under the pillow at her alarm clock and scowled. The luminescent numbers mocked her. 2:37 A.M.
Frustration and impotent fury raced through her. She threw the pillow against the wall. “Stop!”
The buzzing continued.
Not certain whether to cry on scream, Delilah pulled the remaining earplug out of her ear. Who knew where the other plug had gone? The buzzing sound reminded her of a trip to the dentist. Pushing back the covers on her bed, she stomped to the wall she shared with her neighbor. “I’m in hell,” she muttered to herself. “That guy Cash told me about, what’s his name? Danny, Dan, Dante? He left out a level of hell and I am in it.”
She’d tried to keep her exchanges with her mystery neighbor civil up until now. She’d left polite little notes at his door, but she couldn’t handle another night of sleep deprivation. She pounded on the wall. “Stop it! For God’s sake, stop it, stop it, stop it!”
The buzzing miraculously ceased. Delilah slumped in relief.
“Did I wake you?” called a muffled male voice from the other side of the wall.
Delilah rolled her eyes. Only every night for the last eighteen days. “Yes. Please stop,” she called back.
“Sorry. I didn’t know you could hear me,” he yelled.
“Yeah, right,” she murmured darkly.
“Are you sure I was my drill that woke you? It’s a silent drill.”
“It’s not silent. It’s a giant man-eating termite.”
“Are you sure you don’t have a problem with insomnia?” he said, as if the buzzing sound was all her imagination.
Surely he wasn’t patronizing her, she thought, her temperature rising even more, which meant it would be impossible for her to go to sleep. “I definitely have a problem with insomnia and you are it,” she yelled.
"Me?” he yelled in astonishment.
“Your nighttime renovations.”
“I do quiet renovations at night.”
“Not quiet enough, Mr. Tooltime. Put your weapons of destruction away,” Delilah yelled in return. “My best friend in the world died a month ago and I really need my sleep.”
Silence followed, then a mumbling sound.
“What?” Delilah asked, pressing her hands against the wall as she craned to hear.
“I said I’m sorry. I quit my job and fiancée. I’ve been trying to keep busy.”
Even through the wall, she could feel his regret in admitting he couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t escape a stab of sympathy for the guy. She understood far too much about losing. Sighing, she felt an odd sort of connection with her insomniac neighbor.
She thought again and shook her head. “That’s wack,” she muttered to herself. “I’m sorry about your problems, but you need to find something quieter to do at night.”
She rolled her eyes. Why was she supposed to solve his problems? “Bowling. The bowling alley is open all night,” she said and headed for the bathroom.
With his ear pressed against the wall he shared with his neighbor, Benjamin Huntington III would have replied if he hadn’t heard a shriek of frustration followed by the sound of her his neighbor’s shower.
Pulling back, he glanced down at his high-tech silent drill, then eyed the wall again with skepticism. The woman’s shriek still rang in his ears. Great, he was living next door to the Wicked Witch of the West.
His fingers itched to continue drilling. After all, Broom Hilda was still in the shower. She wouldn’t hear him. Muttering, he unplugged the drill. The renovations were supposed to be therapeutic. So far, they’d been working. Even though he’d made a few mistakes and sections of his condo resembled the apocalypse, he liked the feeling of progress. He liked working with the tools and his hands.
The renovations helped him deal with his own insomnia and disillusionment. In one week, he’d lost both his dream job and the fiancée he’d thought was his dream woman. As if it had just happened an hour ago, Benjamin remembered his confrontation with the managing partner of the most prestigious law firm, Fitzgerald and Lewis, in Connecticut.
Benjamin had been sickened to learn that one of the other attorneys and bribed a judge on behalf on one of his clients. Fitzgerald’s words still rang in his ears. “Keep it quiet. This is the son of one of our most prominent clients.”
Benjamin had quit on the spot and he’d thought his fiancée Erin, an attorney at the same firm, would join him in Houston without batting an eye. But Erin hadn’t. She’d told him the bribery was all part of the game. He was over reacting.
So no he was back in Houston, teaching law instead of practicing it. His blood pressure rose at the thought. That would change in due time, he told himself, brushing off his hands and heading for the den.
His father was urging him to join the family firm here in Houston, but Benjamin had never been comfortable being his parents “chosen one.” That had been part of the reason he’d stayed back East after he’d graduated from law school.
His brother Robert was finally coming into his own, preparing to run for public office, and Benjamin refused to steal any of Robert’s thunder.
He sank down onto his overstuffed couch and drummed his fingers over his plaster-dusted jeans leg. He closed his eyes and the familiar edgy restlessness tripped through him, making it impossible for him to sit still. He needed to hammer a couple of boxes of nails into the wall or drill all the way to Dallas. Anything to escape the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t feeling in his chest. If he had been able to play the game as his fiancée had suggested, he would still be in Connecticut now with his rising position at the firm and his marriage plans intact.
He wouldn’ have been able to look at himself in the mirror. Benjamin had been told by more than one person that his deep-seated sense of integrity would cause him unending heartburn if he practiced law. He just hadn’t known it would cost him his dream job and future wife. Since he’d followed his convictions and made the right decision, the least he had expected was the ability to sleep at night, but he had too many unanswered questions about himself, about his future.
He glanced in the direction of his neighbor’s condo. And now he’d learned he was living next door to a woman with a shriek that could make his skin crawl. Where were a good hammer and board when you needed them?