FIRST THINGS FIRST
From America's beloved storyteller, Barbara Delinsky, comes a classic novel of a woman on the hunt, a man on the run, and one thrillingly romantic hideaway...
Chelsea Ross is renowned for her success at locating missing children. But when a wealthy Boston socialite asks her to track down her 40-year-old son, Chelsea is thrown for a loop. The runaway "child" in question, Samuel Prescott London, is a powerful executive who's apparently gone AWOL south of the border. Posing as a tourist, Chelsea manages to find Sam in the outskirts of Cancun--hot, handsome, and happy to be far from the corporate rat race. Chelsea promised Sam's mother she'd bring him back home. But after a few days of playing tourist by his side--and spending nights in his arms--she's not so sure she's ready to give him up...
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St. Martin's Paperbacks
May 28, 2012
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Excerpt from First Things First by Barbara Delinsky
"I'D LIKE YOU to find my son," Beatrice London announced, eyes level and cool.
Chelsea Ross sat across from her in the sitting room of the elegant Wellesley Hills estate to which she'd been summoned. It wasn't the question that surprised her, for she received similar ones on a regular basis. Rather, it was the age of the woman, who had to be nearing sixty, and the setting itself, reeking of seasoned wealth, that took her aback. More often Chelsea found herself in a shabby three-family house or a crowded apartment. More often she faced a young mother whose child had been abducted or whose teenager had run off.
And more often there was a note of frantic pleading accompanying the request. Not so now.
"Your son?" Chelsea asked quietly.
Beatrice London didn't blink. Her perfectly coiffed silver hair didn't bob. Her fingers, with their perfectly painted nails, didn't flutter. She sat in her Queen Anne chair with proper regality. "My son ... Samuel Prescott London."
It was certainly a name befitting the offspring of as stately a woman as Beatrice London, but if Chelsea was supposed to recognize it, she failed.
"I'm afraid I'm unfamiliar with the name," she said as kindly as she could. "Most of my work involves a different class of people."
"I'm well aware of that, Miss Ross. I'm also well aware of your success rate in this line of work, which is one of the reasons I'm hiring you."
Chelsea might have thanked her for the compliment had it been offered with a semblance of warmth. But there was an arrogance about the older woman that suggested thanks were neither expected nor called for. So Chelsea simply pretended that this case was like any other, and set out to learn what she could. Unfortunately the answer to her first question was further evidence of how different this situation was from the norm.
"How old is your son?"
"He'll turn forty next month."
Chelsea ingested the information with as much aplomb as she could muster. Different from the others? This was a first for her. "How long has he been missing?" she asked rather doubtfully.
"Six months. And it's not a matter of being 'missing.' I have a rough idea where he is, and I know that he's well."
"Mrs. London, I'm not sure I understand--"
"Samuel left his office last December for a week's vacation in Mexico. He's still there. He's abandoned a successful business, of which he is the president, an expensive condominium on the harbor front, a membership in the country club and a charming young woman who won't wait forever. He should have long since come to his senses and returned. Since he hasn't, I'm hiring you to bring him back."
Her words, though evenly intoned, suggested an underlying anger. It was this that Chelsea homed in on. "Forty years old. He's not exactly a child. I can understand your wanting to locate him if you haven't heardfrom him and are worried, but to bring him back? Isn't that decision his to make?"
"You obviously haven't had children of your own, Miss Ross, or you wouldn't say that. A mother feels responsible regardless of the age of her child. Right now, Samuel is shirking his obligations. It's up to me to remind him of that."
At that moment Chelsea felt distinct sympathy for the poor, irresponsible Samuel. If she'd had a mother as imperious, as overbearing as Beatrice London, she'd probably have run away from home, too. But then, her own mother had been just the reverse and her younger sister had still disappeared. That thought brought Chelsea back on track.
"Tell me more about him, Mrs. London. Do you have any idea why he left?"
"He wanted a vacation, so he said. He hadn't been away in over a year and a half, and he wanted to rest. Surely he's had enough rest by now," she stated firmly.
"If you know 'roughly' where he is, I take it you've heard from him."
"Not directly. He's spoken on the phone from time to time with his office, so I know that he's still in the Yucat?n."
"He passes messages on to you through the office?"
"No. I call the office to wheedle what little I can from his associates."
Chelsea duly noted the disdain in the woman's voice. "He has partners?"
Mrs. London raised her eyes to the ceiling in a brief show of impatience. "London and McGee is one of the largest real-estate developers in New England. Surely you've heard of them?"
"I'm afraid I haven't," Chelsea responded ever so calmly. "As I told you before, I'm used to dealing with a different type of clientele. Is London and McGree headquartered in Boston?"
"Yes. Its offices are at One Beacon Street."
Chelsea did know the address and recognized the prestige it carried. "If your son is president, who is McGee?"
"Is he the one you've been dealing with?"
"He won't answer my calls. I've been talking with one of the lesser vice-presidents, a man named Norman Schialli."
"What does he tell you?"
"Just that Samuel is alive and well and not ready to return to Boston."
"I take it McGee's running things in his absence?"
"It appears that way, and if Samuel doesn't get back here, he may find his business stolen right out from under his nose."
"You don't trust McGee?"
"Not particularly. The man may be a hard worker, but he doesn't have a bit of class. Why Samuel ever went into business with him is beyond me. Why Samuel didn't go into the family business is beyond me."
"What is the family business, Mrs. London?" Chelsea asked. Having already professed her ignorance, she had nothing to lose by being so blunt.
This time Beatrice London didn't need to look at the ceiling to express impatience. It was written all over her face, generously mingling with the arrogance that Chelsea had had a taste of before. "The London Corporation. We own three large theater complexes and the Winslow Arena here in Boston, plus numerous otherentertainment centers along the Eastern Seaboard. My husband's father started the business. My husband carried it on. I've been at the helm since my husband died four years ago."
Beatrice London was at the helm--that Chelsea found easy to believe. The woman was a born executive, judging from the businesslike air she exuded. A born ruler. Once again Chelsea found herself siding with the hapless Samuel.
"I see," she said, her thoughts moving on. "And your son chose not to go into the family business. I assume that was against your wishes?"
"Miss Ross, I'm not sure this is relevant to the problem at hand. I'm hiring you to find my son and bring him back, not to delve into the family history."
"Everything is relevant, Mrs. London. Anything I can learn about your son will be of help." Chelsea tipped her head to the side in a gesture of skepticism, perhaps wariness. "But, to tell you the truth, I'm not at all sure why you've come to me. I'd have thought that a woman of your standing would more naturally seek out a private investigator."
Beatrice London was undaunted by the question. She had her answer fully prepared. "A private investigator might be able to locate my son, but I doubt he'd be able to bring him back."
"And you think I would?"
"Yes." Her gaze narrowed speculatively. "I do think so."
"Because you're a woman, for one thing. An attractive woman. For another, you're a blonde. For a third, you appear to be a good actress."
It was all Chelsea could do not to self-consciously run her fingers through her hair. Yes, she was blond, though her short, bluntly cut cap was probably rather windblown at the moment. Attractive? She supposed, in a way. But ... "An actress? Excuse me, but I'm not sure I know what you mean."
"I saw you on television last week, Miss Ross. You handled yourself with dignity and the kind of style that can't have come naturally to a woman born and bred in a depressed New Hampshire mill town."
Chelsea would have angrily spit out a response, but that would only have given credence to Beatrice London's words. "We can't all be born wealthy, Mrs. London, but dignity and style aren't things you buy."
"Maybe not dignity. Style certainly is." Her eyes dropped in a blunt appraisal of Chelsea's silk blouse and coordinating skirt. "You're a good shopper. Filene's Basement on the day of the Neiman Marcus sale?" Chelsea didn't have to say a word in answer. "I don't have the patience for it myself, though I do have my share of Neiman Marcus clothes. You look very nice, Miss Ross. But then, you intended to, coming to a home in this area, didn't you?"
"There are appropriate ways to dress for every occasion," Chelsea reasoned, sounding more composed than she felt. She was usually the one to ask the questions, yet somehow she felt she was on the firing line. "How did you know where I come from?"
For the first time in the interview, Beatrice London smiled. It wasn't a smile Chelsea particularly cared for. "I hired a private investigator, of course."
That, too, was a first, from Chelsea standpoint, and she cared for it even less than the smile, which had already vanished. "Was that necessary?"
"I felt it was. I'm entrusting you with a very serious job. I wanted to be sure I was hiring the right person. I saw you for the first time on that show last week. I'd have been a fool not to have checked you out. I know that you've been locating missing children for the past six years, that you're successful in roughly three out of four cases you take on, that you have a tenacity that can only come from having been on the other end of the stick." She barely paused for a breath, as though sufficient air was a given like everything else she owned. "I know about your sister, Miss Ross, and the fact that her disappearance was what started you in this line of work."
Chelsea didn't flinch, partly because she knew that Beatrice London would have expected her to, partly because she'd long since come to accept that certain cases, even some of those hitting closer to the heart than others, couldn't be won. It wasn't that she didn't still ache for her sister, for her parents, for herself, because she did. But she knew enough to face the facts and go on with life. Dedicating herself to helping families in situations such as hers helped.
"You must know that I don't have formal training or a license to do what I do."
"You don't need either. You're dedicated and law-abiding. You've built up a nationwide network of contacts-groups formed to locate children, law-enforcement personnel who are more than happy to have help, public welfare officials and sympathetic bystanders. You work primarily by phone, traveling when your contacts aren't enough. You very definitely undercharge your clients, and you pay taxes on every cent you make, including your salary from Icabod's."
Chelsea took a quick breath. "Your investigator earned his fee," she commented dryly. "I hope he doesn't undercharge you."
"He doesn't charge me; I pay him, and generously. Money, and the prospect of receiving it, does wonders for incentive. You'll find that out yourself when we get around to talking business."
"I thought that was what we were doing, but we seem to keep veering off the subject. I'll need to know much more about the situation with your son before I decide whether or not to take on the case."
Beatrice London studied Chelsea's face for a minute. It was obvious the woman didn't care for her independence, equally obvious that she didn't care to air any dirty laundry until she had a commitment. Still, Chelsea felt her argument made sense. Indeed, she was doing nothing more than Mrs. London had done when she'd contemplated hiring her.
Apparently Beatrice reached the same conclusion. "All right. I'll tell you what you need to know. Samuel grew up in this house, graduated from Harvard and the Harvard Business School as his father had, and then joined the family firm. He stayed with us for two years before he went out on his own."
"Why did he leave?"
"He and his father had a disagreement. I never knew what it was about. My husband refused to tell me."
"Had Samuel been living with you up until then?"
"Yes. After he left, I tried to get him to come back, both here and to the office, but he was adamant. I've kept trying, but he's remained firm."
Almost against her wishes, Chelsea found her interest piqued. Human motivations fascinated her, particularlywhen they involved family relationships. "Even after his father died?"
"Most vociferously then. He argued that he had his hands full with his own business and that I was more than capable of handling the corporation, but we both knew that it would have been simple to bring London and McGee in as a division of LC. Samuel wouldn't hear of it."
Chelsea was rooting for Samuel. "Have the two of you stayed close in spite of it?"
"Not as close as I'd like. Oh, we see each other often. He takes me to parties from time to time. But he won't t have anything to do with the corporation, even though he stands to inherit it one day."
"There aren't any other children?"
"No. Just Samuel. That's why I want you to bring him back."
Given the drift of the conversation, Chelsea looked again for signs of softness, of maternal need, of worry, but all she saw was the aura of command the woman wore like a royal cape.
"Tell me about Samuel--his likes, dislikes, hobbies, anything that might give me a lead."
Beatrice's right shoulder lifted in what could have been a shrug. "Samuel is straight as an arrow. He likes fine restaurants and good theater. He plays golf at the club, but he was never a dedicated athlete. He works hard at his job. I guess you might call him intense."
"What about the woman he was seeing? Was it a long-standing affair?"
"'Affair' isn't a term I care to use," Mrs. London instructed disdainfully. "Samuel and Linda have known each other for years. She's the daughter of one of our oldest friends."
"Was a marriage in the offing?"
"I had certainly hoped so. Samuel wasn't considering anyone else."
"Did he want to marry?"
"Of course he did. He wanted a home and a wife. He wanted children to inherit from him."
"But he's nearly forty. Why hasn't he moved sooner?"
"He claims he's been too busy."
"So you have discussed it with him?"
"Of course. It's my responsibility."
Chelsea bit off a retort. There was still more she wanted to know. Struggling to put the pieces of the puzzle together, she frowned at the Oriental carpet underfoot and spoke her subsequent thoughts aloud. "Okay, let's see what we've got. He had a good job, a condo, a lady friend. He left the business in the hands of his partner, and the condo and lady friend in limbo, and took off for a vacation in Mexico. Six months later he still there." Slowly she raised contemplative eyes. "What do you think he's doing there?"
"That's one of the things you'll have to find out."
"Is it possible that he's ducking some kind of legal hassle?"
"Absolutely not! Samuel is straight as an arrow. I told you that."
"Maybe there was something he didn't tell you."
"No! Samuel wouldn't do anything illegal. It isn't in his nature. He never rebelled, even when he was younger. He's as moral and upstanding as his father and I raised him to be."
Chelsea had finally gotten a rise out of the unflappable Beatrice London. She was indignant, perhaps, but sincere. Whatever the facts proved to be, Mrs.London truly believed her son to be moral and upstanding.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean any offense. It's just that I have to consider every possibility ... . You said that Samuel was in the Yucatan?"
"That's right. He started out in Cancun. From there he moved inland."
"Is he still moving?"
"But you don't know exactly where he is?"
"I know that he's living in a small Mayan village somewhere."
"A Mayan village?" Chelsea echoed, wanting to laugh but squelching the urge. She saw definite signs of a time warp. Had it been twenty years before, she might have believed Beatrice London's rich and proper boy had escaped the confines of his rich and proper life to reside with a guru in India. But that particular mania had passed, and Samuel Prescott London was nearly forty years old. "What's he doing in a Mayan village?" she asked meekly.
"If I knew that, I wouldn't have hired you," Mrs. London snapped.
"But I haven't said I'd accept the job!" Chelsea retorted, helpless to stop herself. Even she wasn't immune to such snobbery after a time. But the satisfaction she felt at momentarily having the upper hand was erased with her adversary's next smug statement.
"You will. You need the money."
For an instant, silence permeated a room that suddenly seemed closed in to Chelsea. "Another tip from your investigator?" she asked quietly.
At that moment, Beatrice London appeared to be in her element. Power was obviously something she savored,which perhaps explained why her son's refusal to return to Boston rankled her. It was also a possible reason, in Chelsea's mind at least, why the elusive Samuel refused to return.
"My investigator was thorough. I know precisely how much money you earn from your searches, and how much you earn at Icabod's. Of course, a woman like you must do very well in tips, particularly working as a bartender in a place that caters to wealthy businessmen after hours."
Chelsea found the elegantly scrolled armrests of her chair to be wonderful braces. She promptly used them to lever herself to her feet. "I think you should find someone else to do your bidding, Mrs. London. If your son is anywhere near as presumptuous as you, I'm not sure I care to go looking for him." Purse in hand, she was turning to show herself out when Beatrice London spoke again.
"I also know precisely how much it will cost you to go back to school to get that degree you've got your heart set on."
Chelsea stopped under the archway to the hall. She didn't turn, simply dug her neatly trimmed fingernails into the crisp canvas of her purse.
"You see, I really know quite a bit, Miss Ross. I have to say that I admire you for what you want to do. You already have a bachelor's degree, but you want a Ph.D. in psychology. Hoping to treat some of those confused young runaways?"
"Actually--" Chelsea gritted her teeth"--I was hoping to counsel their families. A runaway always has reasons, and nine times out of ten they relate to the home."
The implication she was trying to make was promptly ignored by the indomitable Beatrice London, who remained sitting in her chair with her hands crossed in her lap. "I'll pay you what you need, Miss Ross. I'll give you half now and the other half when you retrieve my son. I'll cover your tuition for the three-year doctoral program, plus add a generous amount to cover your living expenses during that time. I'll even secure your acceptance in the program at Harvard."
Chelsea whirled on her heels. "I don't need your help with that, Mrs. London. I can get in on my own!"
"I know," the other said with an icy smile. "You graduated third in your class from Mount Holyoke, on scholarship all the way, which would have made my job that much easier. But if you won't let me pull strings in the admissions office, the least I can do is to give you a glowing reference."
"If I retrieve your son."
"If you retrieve my son."
Chelsea hadn't reentered the room; rather, she held her ground as she considered the bait Beatrice London dangled before her.
For six years she'd scraped by, working daily out of her tiny apartment and nightly at the bar, saving her pennies so that she might return full-time to school. She'd assumed it would take at least another three years to save what she needed. But if the fee on this job would cover it all, plus expenses-she made rapid mental calculations--she' d be able to use what she'd saved for investing in an office when she finally got her degree.
Chelsea had no doubts about being able to locate Samuel London. What troubled her was whether or not she'd be able to convince him to come home.
"Your offer is generous, Mrs. London," she said, "and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't want the money. But your son is a grown man. Aside from my being female and blond, what makes you think that I can get him back here?"
"You left out the attractive part. My son is a good-looking man himself. And he's not blind. You also left out the actress part. Well, perhaps actress is too strong a word. Let's just say that, between your looks and your intelligence, I think you'd be able to trap him."
Germs of suggestion were flitting through Chelsea's mind and she had the sudden feeling they might be injurious to her health. "I'm not sure I follow you, Mrs. London," she said stiffly.
"You do, Miss Ross, but if you want me to spell it out, I will. I want you to use your bloodhound instinct to locate my son. Then I want you to use your feminine wiles, and any other wiles you may have up your sleeve, to lure him back to Boston."
"You want me to seduce him!"
"I never used the word 'seduce.' I'm not suggesting anything tawdry, and even if I were, Samuel's not the type. He's far from inexperienced, but I assure you he's not a playboy. No, what I'm suggesting is something more subtle, which is where your innate intelligence comes to play. I want you to enchant him, to wrap him around your little finger, so to speak. I want you to give him good reason to follow you when you finally fly home--"
"Finally? How long do you expect me to stay in Mexico?"
"Only as long as it takes."
"But I've got a business here, and a job--"
"Neither of which you'll need, given the fee you'll be receiving from me. Of course," she went on in a patronizing tone, "it's for you to decide where your priorities lie. You're not getting any younger, Miss Ross. The way I see it, if you spend another three or four years saving up money for ever-rising tuition fees, then four or five years working for the degree--naturally, it will take longer if you have to earn your living expenses as you go--you'll be nearing forty before you'll be able to start work as a therapist. My way, you'll be barely thirty-three."
"The timing is actually perfect for you," she went on, ignoring Chelsea's cheerless expression. "This is June. You'll have the entire summer to get Samuel out of Mexico. You can be back well before classes start in the fall."
Chelsea didn't know what to say. She'd never had a proposition quite like the one she was now being offered. But then, she'd never been manipulated by the likes of Beatrice London. "You've got everything worked out, haven't you?"
"Not everything. You're the one who'll have to deal with Samuel, and I'm afraid I can't be much help on that score. If anything you do smacks of me, he's sure to become suspicious. He's not to know I've hired you."