Marriage Terms

By: Barbara Dunlop

Chapter 1





If Amanda Elliott had her way, New York would have a law against ex-husbands.

She took a deep breath, curled her toes over the pool deck at Boca Royce Health Club and dived headfirst into the fast lane.

A law against ex-husbands who invaded a woman’s life. She stretched her arms out, surging her body forward until she sliced back up through the surface.

A law against ex-husbands who stayed fit and sexy for over fifteen years. Her right arm pulled into a freestyle arc as she kicked into her rhythm, letting the cool water block out the world.

And a law against ex-husbands who held a woman tight, whispered words of comfort and made her insane world tip right again.

She scrunched her eyes shut against the illicit memory, stroking hard until her fingertips brushed the smooth pool wall at the opposite end. Then she twisted her body to kick into the next lap.

While the politicians were at it, they should write a law against sons who were wounded in shoot-outs, sons who were secretly government agents and sons who went to spy school without their mother’s permission.

It wouldn’t take much. A simple amendment to the admissions disclaimer, and no woman would ever again have to wake up and discover she’d given birth to James Bond.

Amanda pulled past the blue halfway floats.

Her son Bryan was James Bond.

She laughed a little desperately at that one, nearly sucking in a lungful of water.

Try as she might, she couldn’t imagine Bryan with a forged passport, driving exotic cars through foreign countries and pressing little remote control devices to blow things up. Her Bryan loved puppies and finger painting, he lived for those sweet little cream-filled coconut puffs you could only get at Wong’s on the corner.

She was grateful he was getting out of the spy game. He’d vowed as much to his new bride. Amanda had heard it with her own ears. So had Daniel.

Her stroke faltered. This time her ex-husband’s image refused to disappear.

Daniel had comforted her through the long night of Bryan’s surgery. He’d been her pillar of strength, holding her up when she swore the sheer weight of terror would topple her. At times, he’d squeezed her so tight that over a decade and a half of anger and mistrust melted between them.

Détente?

She made another turn, pushing off the pool wall with her feet and knifing back to the surface. She swam harder, and her jaw tightened as she concentrated on her strokes.

Détente wasn’t even a possibility.

It would never be a possibility.

Because Daniel was a true-blue Elliott. And Amanda…wasn’t. East-West relations were a cakewalk compared to that.

The truce was over. Bryan was well on the road to recovery. Daniel was back on his own side of Manhattan. And Amanda had opening arguments in front of Judge Mercer tomorrow morning.

Her knuckles hit the wall at the end of another lap. Five, she counted off in her mind.

“Hello, Amanda.” Daniel’s familiar voice came out of nowhere.

She scrambled to bring her body to vertical, scrubbing the chlorinated water out of her eyes and blinking at her ex-husband’s fuzzy image. What was he doing here? “Is it Bryan?”

Daniel flinched, quickly shaking his head. “No. No. Sorry. Bryan’s fine.” He crouched on the concrete deck, putting them closer to eye level.

Amanda whooshed out a breath of relief, clinging to the trough at the edge of the pool. “Thank goodness.”

“Cullen told me I’d find you here,” he said.

Her anxiety rushed back at the mention of her second son. “Is it Misty?”

Another shake of Daniel’s head. “Misty’s good. The baby’s kicking up a storm.”

Amanda studied his expression. His face was calm and impassive. Whatever had dragged him out of the office in the middle of the day wasn’t life threatening.

He straightened back to full height, and her gaze strayed to his muscular chest, then to his navy trunks. His feet were bare, and he sported a six-pack of a stomach that would be the envy of a man half his age.

Her mouth went dry, and she suddenly realized she hadn’t seen Daniel in anything but a designer suit for sixteen years. The man who had hugged her goodbye had a body to die for.

She bicycled her legs, trying to restore her equilibrium in the deep water.

“Then what are you doing here?”

“I’m looking for you.”

She blinked again, trying to make sense out of his words. Unless she’d missed something, they’d said their goodbyes at Bryan’s wedding and had gone back to their respective lives.

Daniel should be perched behind his mahogany desk at Snap magazine right now, fighting tooth and nail with his siblings over profits and market share. As he was locked in a battle for the CEO position at Elliott Publication Holdings, it should have taken a catastrophe of biblical proportions to get him out of the office during work hours.

“I wanted to talk to you,” he said casually.

“Excuse me?” She shook the water out of her ears.

“Talk. You know, when people use words to exchange information and ideas.”

Clearing her ears hadn’t helped. Daniel had tracked her down to chat?

He smiled, bending at the waist to reach out his hand. “Why don’t we get a drink?”

She pushed away from the pool edge and began treading water. “I don’t think so.”

“Come out of the pool, Amanda.”

“Uh-uh.” She wasn’t chatting, and she sure wasn’t hopping out in front of him in a tight one-piece.

He might look like an advertisement for Muscle Mass Monthly, but the earth’s gravitational pull was winning the war with her body.

“I’ve got forty-five laps to go,” she said.

Fifty laps was a stretch, but she was upping her workout—starting here and now.

Whether Daniel ever saw her in a bathing suit or not, a woman had her pride.

Daniel crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Since when do you stick to a plan?”

He wanted to start in on their weaknesses?

“Since when do you finish work before eight at night?” she asked.

“I’m taking a coffee break.”

“Right,” she drawled, with a skeptical nod.

He frowned, looking imperious despite the swimming trunks. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you don’t take coffee breaks.”

“We’ve barely seen each other in over fifteen years. How would you know whether or not I take coffee breaks?”

“When was the last time you took one?”

His cobalt eyes darkened. “Today.”

“Before that?”

He was silent for a moment, until one corner of his mouth quirked in a grin.

She splashed at him. “Knew it.”

He ducked. “Do I have to come in there after you?”

“Go away.” She had a workout to finish and a head to get clear. It was all well and good to lean on Daniel when their son was in mortal danger. But the truce was over. It was time to return to their respective trenches.

“I want to talk to you,” he called.

She kicked farther into the lane. “We have nothing to say to each other.”

“Amanda.”

“If Bryan’s not back in the hospital, and if Misty’s not in labor, then you and I are leading separate lives.”

“Amanda,” he repeated a little bit louder.

“It says so on our divorce papers.” She swam away.

He paced along the edge of the pool, his voice muffled by the water covering her ears. “I thought…then you…making progress…”

She gave up and turned into a sidestroke, gazing at his long, lean body while a shriek sounded from the diving pool. It was followed by the thump, thump, thump of the board’s recoil.

“Progress toward what?”

His eyes narrowed. “I hate it when you play dumb.”

“And I hate it when you insult me.”

“How am I insulting you?”

“You called me dumb.”

He spread his hands in frustration. “I said you were playing dumb.”

“Then you called me scheming.”

“Do we have to do this?”

Apparently, they did. Every single time they got within fifty feet of each other.

“I was there for you, Amanda.”

She stilled, and the water lapped lightly against her neck. He was using it against her already?

He raised his palms in a gesture of surrender. “And you were there for me. I know. I know.”

“And it’s over,” she said. “Bryan’s alive…” Her voice cracked over her son’s name, and she drew a bracing breath. “And Cullen is happily married.”

Daniel crouched again, lowering his voice. “What about you, Amanda?” His blue irises flickered with the reflection of the water.

Nope. She wasn’t doing this to herself. She wasn’t getting into a conversation with Daniel about her emotional or mental state.

“I’m definitely alive,” she informed him tartly, then did a surface dive and resumed her swim.

He continued walking along the deck, keeping pace, watching her strokes.

Soon, all she could think about was how far her butt was sticking out of the water and whether or not her suit was riding up.

She paused at the opposite end, swiping her hair away from her eyes.

“Will you be leaving now?” she asked. She wasn’t about to attempt forty-four laps with him sizing up her thighs.

“I want to talk to you about a legal matter,” he said.

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