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23.12.2018

She was going to be calm. Kate promised herself that. She'd made a fool of herself, barging into Byron's office, shouting and raging. She wouldn't have minded that so much – if it had worked. There was nothing worse than having a good temper fit snuffed out by reason, patience, and control.

It was more than humiliating.

She didn't much care for taking orders either. Frowning, she looked around the shop she'd just closed. She could simply walk out, she considered, drumming her fingers on the counter. She could just stroll right out, go anywhere she wanted. Home, for a drive, to Templeton House for dinner. That might be the best option, she thought, rubbing a hand absently over the grinding ache in her stomach. She was hungry, that was all. A good meal at Templeton House, an evening with Laura and the girls would soothe all the pangs and nerves.

It would serve Byron right if she wasn't there when he came gunning for her. For that, she was sure, was his intention.

Soothe the victim with reason, with promises of calm discussions, then, pow, shoot her between the eyes.

And that, she knew, was the reason she was staying put. Kate Powell never walked away from a challenge.

Let him come, she told herself grimly as she began to wander about the shop. She could handle Byron De Witt in her sleep. Men like him were so used to getting their own way with a quick smile, a murmured word, they didn't know how to act with a woman who stood firmly on her own feet.

Besides, now that her finances were a little strained, she acknowledged the advantage of a free meal.

The grinding came back, like a sneering echo. Nerves, she thought again. Of course she was nervous. She knew better than anyone that Pretenses could barely support three incomes and stay afloat. They were lucky to have made it through the first year. But the odds were still against them.

She frowned down at a stylish glass rhinoceros in pale gold. How long, she wondered, were they going to be able to sell things quite that foolish? The price tag made her laugh. Nine hundred dollars? Who in their right mind would plunk down nearly a thousand dollars for something so ridiculous?

Margo, she decided, and her lips curved up again. Margo had a keen eye for the expensive, the ridiculous, and the salable.

If Pretenses went down the toilet, Margo would be fine. She had Josh now, a baby on the way, a beautiful home. A far cry from her circumstances a year ago, Kate mused, and was glad for her.

But there was Laura to worry about, and the girls. They wouldn't starve, Kate knew. The Templetons wouldn't allow it. They would live in Templeton House, which would give them far more than a roof over their heads. It would give them a home. Since Laura was too proud to touch the income from her Templeton stocks, she could work at the hotel and earn a living, a good one. But how badly would her ego be bruised if the business she started herself failed?

Kate had discovered a great deal about the difficulties of functioning with a scraped ego.

They had to make the shop work. It was Margo's dream, and it had become Laura's. It was all Kate had to hold on to. All her neat little plans were ruined. There would be no partnership at Bittle, no possibility of striking out with her own firm at some future date. No pretty brass plaque on her office door. No office, she thought, and sat down on a painted wooden bench.

Right now she had sleepless nights, headaches that never quite faded, a stomach that refused to behave, and Pretenses.

Pretenses, she thought with a thin smile. Margo had named it well. The three owners were just full of them.

The knock on the door made her jolt, then swear, then straighten her shoulders as she rose and went to unlock it. She nudged Byron aside, stepped out onto the little flower-decked veranda, and locked up again.

Pedestrian and street traffic churned past with all the noise and bustle that usually accompanied it. Tourists, she thought absently, searching for just the right spot to enjoy a vacation dinner. Members of the workforce heading home after a long day. Couples out on dates.

Just where did Kate Powell fit in?

"I'm not going because you told me I was going," she said without preliminary. "I'm going because I want the opportunity to speak calmly and clearly about the situation, and because I'm hungry."

"Fine." He cupped a hand under her elbow. "We'll take my car. I managed to find a space in the lot across the street. It's a busy area."

"It's a good location," she began as he led her to the curb. "A stone's throw from Fisherman's Wharf and the water. Tourists are a big part of our business, but a lot of the locals come here to shop too."

Two young boys on a rented tandem bike whizzed by behind her, laughing like hyenas. It was a beautiful evening, full of soft light and soft scents. A night for beach walking, she mused, or for tossing hunks of bread to the gulls as the couple by the water was doing just now. A night, she thought, for couples. Kate nibbled her lip as Byron guided her across the street.

"I can follow you. There are a dozen restaurants within walking distance, for that matter."

"We'll take my car," he repeated, gently and firmly maneuvering through the crowded parking lot. "And I'll bring you back to yours when we're finished."

"It would save time and be more efficient if – "

"Kate." He turned and looked at her, really looked, and scotched the annoyed remark hovering on his tongue. The woman was exhausted. "Why don't you try something new? Go with the flow."

He opened the passenger door of his vintage Mustang and waited with some amusement for her bad-tempered shrug. He wasn't disappointed.

She watched him round the hood. He'd ditched his tie and jacket, she noted, opened his collar. The casual, easy look suited those lineman's shoulders, she supposed, the beachcomber hair. She decided to realign her strategy and wait until they were at dinner before beginning the lecture she'd been planning.

She could, when necessary, manage small talk with the best of them.

"So, you're into classic cars."

He settled behind the wheel. The minute he turned the key the radio exploded with Marvin Gaye. Byron turned it down to a murmur before cruising through the lot.

"Sixty-five Mustang with a 289 V-8. A car like this isn't just a mode of transportation. It's a commitment."

"Really?" She liked the creamy white bucket seats, the trained-panther ride, but couldn't think of anything more impractical than owning a car older than she was. "Don't you have to spend a lot of time babying it, finding parts?''

"That's the commitment. Runs like a dream," he added with an affectionate stroke to the dash as he merged into traffic. "She was my first."

"First what? First car?"

"That's right." He grinned at her baffled stare. "Bought her when I was seventeen. She's got over two hundred thousand miles on her and still purrs like a kitten."

Kate would have said it was more "roars like a lion," but that wasn't her problem. "Nobody keeps their first car. It's like your first lover."

"Exactly." He downshifted, eased around a turn. "As it happens, I had my first lover in the backseat, one sweet summer night. Pretty Lisa Montgomery." He sighed reminiscently. "She opened a window to paradise for me, God bless her."

"A window to paradise." Unable to resist, Kate craned her neck and studied the pristine backseat. It wasn't very difficult to imagine two young bodies groping. "All that in the back of an old Mustang."

"Classic Mustang," he corrected. "Just like Lisa Montgomery."

"But you didn't keep her."

"You can't keep everything, except memories. Remember your first time?"

"In my college dorm room. I was a slow starter." Marvin Gaye had given way to Wilson Pickett. Kate's foot began to keep time. "He was captain of the debate team and seduced me with his argument that sex, next to birth and death, was the ultimate human experience."

"Good one. I'll have to try it sometime."

She slanted a look at his profile. Hero perfect, she judged, with just a hint of rugged. "I don't imagine you need lines."

"It never hurts to keep a few in reserve. So what happened to the captain of the debate team?"

"He was used to getting his point across inside of three minutes. That ability bled over into the ultimate human experience."

"Oh." Byron fought back a grin. "Too bad."

"Not really. It taught me not to build up unrealistic expectations and not to depend on someone else to fulfill basic needs." Kate scanned the scenery. Her foot stopped tapping as she tensed up again. "Why are we on Seventeen Mile?"

"It's a pretty drive. I enjoy taking it every day. Did I mention that I was able to arrange renting the house I'm buying until we settle?"

"No, you didn't." But she was getting the drift. "You said we were going to have dinner and a civilized discussion."

"And we are. You can take a look at the favor you did for me at the same time."

Even as she formulated several arguments against, Byron turned into a driveway and pulled up behind a dramatically glossy black Corvette.

"It's a '63, first year the Stingray rolled out of Detroit," he said with a nod toward the car. "Three hundred sixty horsepower, fuel-injected. An absolute beauty. Not that the original 'Vette wasn't a honey before the redesign. They don't make bodies like that anymore."

"Why do you need two cars?"

"Need isn't the issue. Anyway, I have four cars. The other two are back in Atlanta."

"Four," she murmured, and found this little quirk of his amusing.

"Fifty-seven Chevy, 283-cubic-inch V-8. Baby blue, white sidewalls, all original equipment." There was affection in his voice. Kate thought the southern heat of it flowed over the words like a man describing a lover. "Every bit as classy as the songs they wrote about her."

"Billie Jo Spears." Kate knew her music trivia. "Fifty-seven Chevrolet.'"

"That's the best." Surprised and impressed, he grinned at her. "Keeping her company is a '67 GTO."

"'Three deuces and a four speed'?"

"Right." His grin widened. "And a 389."

She grinned back. "Just what the hell are three deuces, automotively speaking?"

"If you don't know already, it would take a little time to explain. Just let me know if you ever want a serious lesson."

Then he put a hand over Kate's and shifted his gaze to the house. She was relaxed enough not to pull away. "It's great, isn't it?"

"It's nice." All wood and glass, she mused, bilevel decks, flowers already blooming riotously, that wonderful cypress bent and magical. "I've seen it before."

"From the outside." Knowing she'd never wait for him to come around to her door, he leaned across her to open it. And inhaled the simple scent of soap. Enjoying it, he let his gaze wander lazily from her mouth to her eyes. "You'll be another first."

"Excuse me?"

God, was he losing his mind or was he actually starting to look forward to that edgy tone? "My first guest." He got out of the car, retrieved his briefcase and jacket. As they started up the walk, he took her hand in a friendly gesture. "You can hear the sea," he pointed out. "It's just close enough. I've caught a couple of glimpses of seals, too."

It was charming – almost too charming, she thought. The setting, the sounds, the scent of roses and night-blooming jasmine. What was left of the setting sun spread vivid, heartbreaking color across the western sky. The twisted shadows from the trees were long and deep.

"A lot of tourists drive along here," she said, fighting the spell. "Isn't that going to bother you?"

"No. The house is set back from the road, and the bedrooms face the water." He turned the key in the lock. "There's just one problem."

She was glad to hear it. Perfection made her nervous. "What?"

"I don't have much in the way of furniture." He opened the door and proved his point.

It shouldn't have delighted her. Bare floors, bare walls, bare space. Yet she found it delightful, the way the entranceway flowed into a room. The simplest of welcomes. The wide glass doors on the facing wall exploded with that stunning sunset, almost demanded to be opened wide to it.

The yellow pine floors gleamed under her feet as she stepped inside, crossed over them. There was no rug, as yet, to tame that ocean flood of shine.

He would get one, she imagined. It was practical, sensible. But, she thought, it would also be a shame.

From her outside survey of the house, she hadn't guessed that the ceilings were so high or that the stairs leading to the next level were open, as open as the carved pickets in the ornate railing that skirted the second story.

She could see how cleverly, how simply one room became another, so that the house appeared to be one large living space. White walls, golden floors, and the beautiful bleeding light from the west.

"Great view," she managed and wondered why her palms were damp. Casually she wandered to a crate on which stood an elaborate stereo system. The only piece of furniture was a ratty recliner with duct tape holding the arms together. "You've got the essentials, I see."

"No point in living without music. I picked up the chair at a yard sale. It's so awful it's wonderful. Want a drink?"

"Just some club soda, or water." Alcohol was off the list for a couple of reasons, and he was one of them.

"I've got some Templeton mineral water."

She smiled. "Then you've got the best."

"I'll take you on a tour after I've gotten dinner started. Come in the kitchen and keep me company."

"You know how to cook?" It was the shock of it that made her follow him.

"Actually, I do. You like grits and chitlins, right?" He waited a beat, turned, and wasn't disappointed with the look of sheer horror on her face. "Just kidding. How about seafood?"

"Not those crawfish things."

"I make a hell of a crawfish etouffee, but we'll save that for when we're better acquainted. If the rest of the house hadn't already sold me, this would have done it."

The kitchen was done in dramatic maroon and white tiles, with a center island that gleamed like an iceberg. A built-in banquette curved in front of a wide window that looked out on blooming flowers and the deep-green lawn.

"Subzero," Byron commented, running a loving hand over the stainless-steel front of a wide refrigerator. "Convection oven, Jenn-Air range, teak cabinets."

There was a big blue bowl of fresh, glossy fruit on the counter. The grinding in Kate's stomach told her if she didn't eat soon, she'd die. "You like to cook?"

"It relaxes me."

"Okay, why don't you relax? I'll watch."

She had to admit it was an impressive show. She sipped chilled water while he sliced an array of colorful vegetables. His movements were brisk and, as far as she could tell, professional. Intrigued, she moved closer, watched his hands.

Very nice hands, now that she took a good look. Long fingers, wide palms, with a neat manicure that didn't take away from the basic masculinity.

"Did you, like, take a course or something?"

"Or something. We had this cook. Maurice." Byron turned a red bell pepper into long, neat strips. "He told me he'd teach me how to box. I was tall and skinny, regularly got the shit beat out of me at school."

Kate stepped back, did a slow survey. Broad shoulders, trim waist, narrow hips. Long limbs, certainly. And with his sleeves rolled up for cooking, she could see forearms that looked just a bit dangerous. "What happened? Steroids?"

He chuckled and went briskly to work on an onion. "I grew into my arms and legs after a while, started working out, but I was about twelve and pathetically awkward."

"Yeah." Kate sipped, remembering her own adolescence. The trouble was, she'd never grown into anything. Still the runt of the litter, she mused. "It's a rough age."

"So Maurice said he'd teach me to defend myself, but I had to learn to cook. It was, according to him, just one more way to become self-sufficient." Byron drizzled oil into a large cast-iron pan already heating on the stove. "In about six months I whipped Curt Bodine's bad ass – he was the bane of my existence at the time."

"I had Candy Dorall, now Litchfield," Kate put in conversationally. "She was always my bane."

"The terminally pert Candace Litchfield? Redhead, smug, foxy face, annoying little giggle?"

Anyone who described Candy so accurately deserved a smile. "I think I might like you after all."

"Did you ever punch Candy in her sassy nose?"

"It's not her nose. She had rhinoplasty." Kate snacked on a strip of pepper. "And no, but we did stuff her naked into a locker. Twice."

"Not bad, but that's girl stuff. Me, I just beat the hell out of Curt, salvaged masculine pride while earning the appropriate macho rep. And I could produce a chocolate souffle to die for."

When she laughed, he paused and turned to face her. "Do that again." When she didn't respond, he shook his head. "You really ought to laugh more, Katherine. It's a fascinating sound. Surprisingly full and rich. Like something you'd expect to hear floating out of the window of a New Orleans brothel."

"I'm sure that's a compliment." She lifted her water glass again, made herself keep her eyes level with his. "But I rarely laugh on an empty stomach."

"We'll fix that." He tossed minced garlic into the hot oil. The scent was immediate and wonderful. The onion went in next, and she began to salivate.

He pried the lid off a covered bowl, slid shelled shrimp and scallops into the pan. She thought it was a bit like watching a mad scientist at work. A glug of white wine, a pinch of salt, a slight grating of what he told her was ginger. Quick stirs and shakes to mix all those pretty strips of vegetables.

In less time than it might have taken her to peruse a menu, she was sitting down to a full plate.

"It's good," she said after her first bite. "It's really good. Why aren't you in food services?"

"Cooking's a hobby."

"Like conversation and old cars."

"Vintage cars." It pleased him to see her eat. He'd decided on the menu because he'd wanted to get something healthy into her. He imagined her snatching junk food when she remembered to eat at all, snacking on antacids. No wonder she was too thin. "I could teach you."

"Teach me what?"

"To cook."

She speared a shrimp. "I didn't say I couldn't cook."

"Can you?"

"No, but I didn't say I couldn't. And I don't need to as long as there's takeout and microwave ovens."

Because she'd refused his offer of wine, he stuck with water himself. "I bet there's a place reserved for you at McDonald's drive-through window."

"So? It's quick, it's easy, and it's filling."

"Nothing wrong with the occasional french fry, but when it's a dietary staple – "

"Don't start with me, Byron. This is why I'm here in the first place." Remembering her plan, she got down to business. "I don't like people, particularly people I barely know, interfering in my life."

"We have to get to know each other better."

"No, we don't." It was weird, she realized, how easily she'd become distracted, and interested, and at ease. Time had slipped by when all she'd meant to do was give him the sharpest edge of one piece of her mind. "Your intentions might have been good, but you had no business going to Josh."

"Your eyes are fabulous," he said and watched them narrow with suspicion. "I don't know if it's because they're so big, so dark, or because your face is narrow, but they really pack a punch."

"Is that one of your reserved lines?"

"No, it's an observation. I happen to be looking at your face, and it occurs to me that it has all these contrasts. The snooty New England cheekbones, the wide, sexy mouth, angular nose, the big, doe eyes. It shouldn't work, but it does. It works better when you're not pale and tired, but that adds a rather disconcerting fragile quality."

She shifted. "I'm not fragile. I'm not tired. And my face has nothing to do with the subject under discussion."

"But I like it. I liked it right away, even when I didn't like you. Now I wonder, Kate," he continued, laying a hand over hers, twining fingers. "Why did you put so much effort into making sure I didn't look twice in your direction?"

"I didn't have to put any effort into that. I'm not your type any more than you're mine."

"No, you're not," he agreed. "Still, I occasionally enjoy sampling something… different."

"I'm not a new recipe." She pulled her hand free, pushed her plate aside. "And I came here to have, as you termed it, a civilized discussion."

"This seems civilized to me."

"Don't pull out that reasonable tone." She had to squeeze her eyes shut and count to ten. She made it to five. "I hate that reasonable tone. I agreed to go to dinner with you so that I could make myself clear, so that I could do so without losing my temper the way I did earlier today."

For emphasis, she leaned forward a little, was distracted by discovering that there was a thin gold halo around his pupils. "I don't want you meddling in my life. I don't know how to make it any more plain than that."

"That's plain." Since they seemed to have finished the meal, he picked up the plates and carried them to the counter. Sitting again, he took a cigar from his pocket, lit it. "But there's a problem. I've developed an interest in you."

"Yeah, right."

"You find that difficult to believe?" He puffed out smoke, considered. "So did I initially. Then I realized what kicked it off. I'm driven to solve problems and puzzles. Answers and solutions are essential to me. Do you want coffee?"

"No, I don't want coffee." Didn't he know it drove her crazy the way he could slide from one topic to the next in that slow, southern drawl of his. Of course he did. "And I'm not a problem or a puzzle."

"But you are. Look at you, Kate. You white-knuckle your way through life." He reached out, deliberately uncurled her fist. "I can almost see whatever fuel you bother to put inside you being sucked away by nerves. You have a loving family, a solid base, an excellent mind, but you pick at details as if they were knotted threads. You never consider just snipping one off. Yet when you're faced with the injustice, the insult of being fired from a job that was a huge part of your life, you sit back and do nothing."

It grated and hurt and shamed. And because she couldn't explain to him, or to those who cared for her, it festered. "I'm doing what works for me. And I didn't come here for an analysis."

"I haven't finished," he said mildly. "You're afraid to be vulnerable, even ashamed of it. You're a practical woman, yet you're aware you're physically run-down and you're doing nothing about that either. You're an honest woman, but you're putting all of your energy into denying there might be even a mild hint of attraction between us. So you interest me." He took a last drag on his cigar, tamped it out. "The puzzle of you interests me."

She got to her feet slowly to prove to both of them she was still in control. "I realize it might be difficult – no, next to impossible – for you to realize that I'm not interested in you. I'm not vulnerable, I'm not ill, and I'm not even mildly attracted."

"Well." He unfolded himself and rose. "We can put at least one of those statements to the test." His eyes stayed watchful on hers as he cupped a hand behind her neck. "Unless you're afraid you're wrong."

"I'm not wrong. And I don't want – "

He decided it was simpler not to let her finish. The woman could argue with the dead. He covered her mouth with his quietly, with barely a whisper of pressure and promise. When her hands jerked up to his chest, he scooped an arm around her waist and brought her gently closer.

For his own pleasure, he skimmed his tongue over her lips, then dipped inside when they parted. He thought, foolishly, that he could hear a new window to a new paradise begin to creak open.

Then she trembled, and he forgot to be amused at both of them. When he eased back he saw that she was still pale, her eyes dark and clouded. Testing, he pressed light kisses on either side of her mouth and watched her lashes flutter.

"I don't – I can't – God." The hand pressed against his chest balled into a fist. "I don't have the time or the inclination for this."

"Why?"

Because her head was spinning, her pulse was pounding, and her juices were running in a way they hadn't in – ever. "You're not my type."

That clever mouth curved. "You're not mine either. Go figure."

"Men who look like you are always scum." She knew better, absolutely knew better, but she couldn't stop her hands from streaking up his chest and grabbing all that wonderful gold-tipped hair. "It's like the law."

His lips curved. "Whose law?"

She could have had a snappy comeback for that, if she'd just been able to concentrate. "Oh, the hell with it," she muttered and dragged his mouth back to hers.

Nerves and needs seemed to pulse from her in fast, greedy waves. He couldn't stand against them, could barely stand at all once her mouth started its assault. He should have known she wouldn't believe in the slow and the gradual, or the easy sweetness of a lazy seduction. But he hadn't considered that the fire-drenched demands of that mobile mouth would undermine his innate sense of reason.

In the space of a heartbeat he went from enjoying her to devouring her.

His arms banded around her, forgot about her long, fragile bones and soft, spare flesh. He used his teeth because that mouth, that wide, sultry mouth seemed to have been made for him to ravish. The scent of soap was absurdly sexy. He could almost taste it as he ran hot, wild kisses down her throat.

"It's only because I haven't had sex in so long." She gasped out the rationale even as her eyes crossed.

"Okay. Whatever." He curled his hands around her tiny, tight butt and muffled a moan against her throat.

"A year," she managed. "Okay, it's been nearly two, but after the first few months you hardly… Jesus, touch me. I'm going to scream if you don't touch me."

Where? He nearly panicked. He was unable to tell one part of her from another. He was steeped in all of her. Instinct had him tugging her crisp white shirt out of the waistband of her skirt, fumbling with buttons.

"Upstairs." He swore ripely as the buttons refused to yield. He didn't have enough sanity left to be appalled at how his fingers shook. "We should go upstairs. I've got a bed."

Desperate, she grabbed his hand and pressed it to her breast herself. "You've got a floor right here."

He managed a laugh. "I'm beginning to love practical women."

"You haven't seen anything – " Then it hit her. The first wave of pain was followed so swiftly by a second she barely managed a choked gasp.

"What? What is it? Did I hurt you?"

"No, it's nothing." He was trying to straighten her up as she doubled over. "It's just a twinge. It's – " But the burning was spreading like wildfire, and the fear burst through with it as she felt her skin break out in a cold, clammy sweat. "Just give me a minute." Blindly she reached out for something to balance her and would have fallen if he hadn't scooped her up.

"The hell with this." The words exploded between gritted teeth. "The hell with it. I'm taking you to the hospital."

"No. Stop it." Desperate for relief, she hooked an arm under her breasts and pressed. "Just take me home."

"In a pig's eye." Like a warrior hoisting his conquest, he carried her out of the house. "Save your breath and yell at me later. Right now you're doing what you're told."

"I said take me home." She didn't bother to fight him when he strapped her into the car. All of her energy had to focus on dealing with the pain.

He backed out of the drive, saying nothing as she tore Tums out of the roll habitually in her pocket. Instead, he snatched up the car phone and punched in a number. "Mom." He drove fast, whipping the car around curves, and interrupted his mother's apology for not returning his call. "It's okay. Listen, I've got a friend, a woman, five sevenish, maybe a hundred and five pounds, mid-twenties." He swore lightly, cradling the phone on his shoulder as he shifted gears. "It's not that," he said at the inevitable chuckle. "I'm taking her to the hospital right now. She's got abdominal pain. It seems to be habitual."

"It's just stress," Kate managed between shallow breaths. "And your lousy cooking."

"Yes, that's her. She can talk, and she's lucid. I don't know." He glanced briefly at Kate. "Any abdominal surgery, Kate?"

"No. Don't talk to me."

"Yeah, I'd say she lives with a lot of stress, brings most of it on herself. We'd eaten about forty-five, fifty minutes before," he said in response to his mother's brisk questions. "No, no alcohol, no caffeine. But she lives on goddamn coffee and eats Tums like chocolate drops. Yeah? Is there a burning sensation?" he demanded of Kate.

"It's just indigestion," she muttered. The pain was backing off. Wasn't it? Please, wasn't it?

"Yes." He listened again, nodded. He was grimly aware of where his mother's questions were heading. "How often do you get that gnawing ache, under the breastbone?''

"None of your business."

"You don't want to piss me off right now, Kate. You really don't. How often?"

"A lot. So what? You're not taking me to any hospital."

"And the grinding in the stomach?"

Because he was describing her symptoms with pinpoint accuracy, she closed her eyes and ignored him.

He spoke to his mother another moment, punched up the gas. "Thanks, that's what I figured. I'm going to take care of it. Yeah, I'll let you know. I will. 'Bye." He hung up, kept his eyes firmly on the road. "Congratulations, you idiot. You've got yourself a nice little ulcer."