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Angels live among us.
This one was balanced on a stepladder, decorating an arch strewn with sunflowers and sparkling cupids. Her chic upsweep of red-gold hair drew attention to the emeralds sparkling on each earlobe, jewels that paid homage to the color of her eyes. Together with a dark skirt and peach silk blouse, the package said refined as well as hold-me-back sexy.
A pair of black pumps were paired neatly at the ladder's feet, and as she stretched to hang the final garland, one black-stockinged leg stretched out, too. Crossing his arms, Daniel McNeal butted a shoulder against the doorjamb and came to a conclusion. He'd bet all he was worthand that was a lotthat one kiss from this angel could bring a mere mortal to his knees.
Spending time with a Washington wedding planner usually didn't feature on his to-do list. The only reason Daniel was here now was to tend to his best mate's upcoming nuptials.
But frankly, right this minute he couldn't think of a single place he'd rather be.
Although, at a distance, she faced him, she hadn't noticed him yet. As she finished hanging the final cupid and began her descent, he pushed off the doorjamb and, looking forward to the introduction, sauntered over. A heartbeat later, her footing somehow slipped. Gravity pulled her weight backward and, with a delicate yip, she lost her grip. As both arms swept over her head, Daniel sprinted. Lunged. Thankfully he caught her before she hit the ground.
Heart pumping, he straightened while his angel's wide green eyes stared up at the ceiling and her chest heaved with fright. She sucked back a fortifying breath. Eventually her startled gaze found his.
"I've been up that ladder dozens of times," she said. "I've never slipped." The bows of her lips trembled on a grateful smile. "I really need to thank you."
"I know the ideal way. Have dinner with me tonight."
She coughed out a laugh. Then she blinked, frowned and looked at him hard. "I don't even know your name."
Recognition lit her face. "Daniel McNeal of Waves fame. The social networking site. I recognize the face now. You're Australian, yes?"
He nodded. "And you must be Scarlet Anders."
She was a partner here at DC Affairs with Ariella Win-thropthe woman who'd recently been labeled as the incoming president's secret love child. The claim, made by an American News Service reporter in a toast at an inauguration gala, had set the nation back flat on its behind. The obvious question was: If Ariella was indeed President Morrow's daughter, who was responsible for the leak? And just how deep did that fissure go?
Scarlet Anders was still gazing up at him. "So you're here about a wedding, Mr. McNeal?"
"Yes." He lifted her a fraction higher. "But not my own."
As if she were pleased to hear it, her perfect smile spread. But then her eyes rounded again and she wriggled until he had no choice but to set her down on her two stockinged feet. After patting back an errant curl flopped over one eye, she straightened her skirt, slipped on her shoes.
"Much better." Exhaling, she squared her shoulders and folded her hands loosely before her. "Now we can talk business."
"I was fine talking the other way." While I held you in my arms.
Her cheeks flushed a flattering shade of pink before she schooled her features and got the conversation back on track. "So you're here regarding a wedding?"
"I'm Max Grayson's best man."
Like a kid who'd found her Christmas gifts early, she tipped up on her toes and pressed her hands against her drop pearl necklace in excitement. If not for etiquette, she might have thrown out her arms and hugged him.
"Max is engaged to one of my closest friends, Caroline Cranshaw," she said. "Every occasion DC Affairs takes on is special but we want Cara's day to be beyond brilliant."
"My goal exactly."
"In that case, I'm doubly pleased to meet you, Mr. McNeal."
When she extended her hand, he fought the urge to lift her fingers and brush his lips over the smooth underside of her wrist. Instead, he smiled, shook and ever so gently squeezed.
"Call me Daniel," he said. "We're all friends here, right?"
"Friends." She blinked. "Yes, of course."
When Scarlet tugged her hand away, her palm came to rest high on her stomach before she crossed to a display table set up in this room, one of three used to present wedding ceremony themes and displays.
"I was mulling over Cara's color scheme this morning." Her French-tipped nails traced over satin samples until she stopped at one. He couldn't help but notice. Third finger, left hand, no bling.
"Pastel pink is so pretty for a bride," she said, and he chuckled.
"Unfortunately, not so hot for us guys."
She flicked him a questioning glance before going on.
"Cara put a few suggestions forward. We'll work together over the coming weeks to make sure both she and Max are happy." She turned to him, holding the pink swatch she liked between them. "I appreciate you dropping in to introduce yourself. We'll speak again at the rehearsal dinner, I'm sure."
"It's meant to be fun. Relaxed."
A grin eased across his face. "Fun and relaxed work for me."
When he didn't move but rather continued smiling into those entrancing spring-green eyes, she held her stomach again and asked, "Did a specific query or concern bring you here today?"
Needing to concentrate on matters other than whether Scarlet Anders drank coffee or juice with breakfastwhether she wore lace or her birthday suit to bedhe drew back, tugged an ear.
"Max and I have been good friends for many years," he said. "We know everything there is to know about each other. Frankly, when I heard the news, I was surprised. It's not every day a guy's closest mate lets the world know he's found the girl of his dreams. Given what he'd told me in the past, I'd never imagined him married. Unless you count a man being married to his work."
She gave a faint shrug. "Priorities change."
"Seems so. After meeting Cara, seeing them together, I'm nothing but pleased for them bothfor the wedding as well as the baby on the way. He's a lucky man to have found that kind of happiness."
Her guarded expression softened as she lowered the swatch of material to her side. Then she caught herself and, a little embarrassed, smiled again.
"I didn't take you for a romantic."
He cocked a brow. A romantic? He was merely making a point.
"Thing is," he went on, "there's nothing I wouldn't do to support them on their day and beyond."
"That's exactly how I feel."
"I'd hoped you'd say that, because I need your help. I'd like to inject a little fun into the whole shebang."
"I'm thinking some good ol' Aussie humor." One eyebrow slowly arched. "Aussie humor?"
Her lips twitched. "No kangaroos in bow ties, then?"
"Actually, I'd thought of flying in a couple of crocs from Kakadu." Her face slipped before she realized he was kidding. Given that bland look, Scarlet Anders, however, was not amused.
"I've had the privilege of being best man for a few of my mates," he explained. "I like to do something special on the day. It's become a bit of a tradition."
"Put a list together." She laid the fabric sample down and gazed at it, straightening it twice. "I'll give you our contact details and I'll see what we can do. As long as what you have planned doesn't interrupt protocol or good taste, of course."
His jaw shifted. Apparently this angel also came with a good dollop of diva thrown in.
"I didn't want to interrupt anything so much as add to it," he pointed out.
"In the outback I'm sure things are far more impromptu."
"I don't live in the outback. Never have."
"Perhaps you should." Giving him a once-overjeans, loafers, casual button-down, cuffs folded backshe tempered her dry tone with a backhanded compliment. "I mean, you're obviously the rugged type."
"Now that depends on your definition of rugged."
When his gaze penetrated hers, challenging Scarlet to look more deeply, too, she emitted a barely audible noise; she was agitated but also intrigued. Then her shoulders squared again and she headed for the door with the kind of gliding air only the refined and privileged could pull off.
"I hate to be rude," she said, "but I'm on a tight schedule this afternoon."
"Which brings us back to my earlier suggestion. We can talk more about my ideas over dinner."
"Given the circumstances" her pert nose wrinkled "inappropriate, I'm afraid."
His grin was wry. "I'm the guy who saved your life, remember? The thought of sharing time with me over a three-course meal can't be that bad."
"On the contrary" She cut herself off. Then, cheeks pink again, she nodded cordially. Purposefully. "It was good to have met you."
Right then he should have walkedtipped his head, said goodbye and put this whole "helping with the wedding" business behind him. Except, from the moment he'd laid eyes on her, he'd been fascinated. Inexplicably, totally charmed. No getting away from the fact. His mind was made up.
His pursuit of Scarlet Anders had only begun.
When Daniel McNeal closed the distance separating themthat confident, lazy gaze fused with hersevery one of Scarlet's senses flared up to a brilliant blue heat and the joints in her knees seemed to melt. Then her stomach muscles knotted twice over and her heartbeat throbbed through her blood so deeply she became dizzy.
This can't be. We've only just metand he's going to kiss me?
With everything happening in agonizing slow motion, she had more than enough time to stop himstop herself from leaning in, letting her eyes drift shut and, for some wild half-witted reason, make the biggest mistake of her life. She needed to remember that other man, the history they'd built and the stable future they seemed destined to share.
In her mind's eye, snapshots of her parents' faces blinked upsmiling, approving, toasting her future happiness. If they could read her mind nowcould know how her body was respondingher mother and father would probably disown her. Not that Scarlet wasn't shocked enough for all three of them. She hadn't been brought up to behave like this.
Clenching her hands, Scarlet broke her gaze from his, took a shaky step back and noticed another person in the room. With her mouth agape, the florist from next door was staring at Scarlet as if the usually restrained party planner had transformed into a tassel-twirling tramp.
"Katie." Willing away the heat lighting her cheeks, Scarlet wound an ornery curl back off her burning face. "What are you doing here?"
While Daniel McNeal straightened and slotted his hands in the back pockets of his jeans, five-foot-two Katie, in her trademark orange bib-apron, edged forward.
"No one's on reception," Katie replied. "I came right through. Sorry. Didn't realize you had company."
As usual, manners kicked in. Scarlet rolled an introductory hand toward her bold but sexy guest.
"Katie Parker, meet Daniel McNeal."
Katie said, "Pleased to meet you," while her curious gaze raked his frame. "You look incredibly familiar," she said. "And that name."
Scarlet groaned to herself. No need to get into a big conversation about this man's celebrity status, Waves or how every person in the galaxy was a member of that social media site, including herself. She only wanted her unsettling visitor gone. Needed to get her buzzing head back in the game.
With a disciplined gesture, she indicated the door. "Mr. McNeal was just leaving."
"That I was. We'll talk soon," he advised Scarlet before turning to Katie and saying, "Try to convince her to have dinner with me, will you?"
With a wink, he strolled out the door. Scarlet thought she heard him whistling while Katie shook her blond mane and rubbed her brow.
"I'm confused," Katie said. "He asked you on a date?"
"He was joking."
"He was dead serious. Which is fantastic because, let's face it, that guy is grade-A gorgeous. And charming. And melt-your-bones sexy"
Rolling her eyes, Scarlet moved off. "Katie, please."
"Believe me, that guy is into you. And, if you don't mind me saying, it looks like the feeling is mutual. If I hadn't walked in, I bet you'd be kissing him now."
"No, I would not." Rearranging flowers near the base of the arch, she mumbled an admission. "I'd already decided against it."
"I knew it!"
Restless, Scarlet moved to the stepladder. "You also know I'm in a relationship with a man any woman would be proud to call her own."
"Truthfully, Scarlet? From what I've seen, Everett Mathe-son III doesn't light any of my fires."
"Everett and I are well suited. He's predictable. Upstanding. Well-educated"
"You forgot boring," Katie muttered.
"He has a strong work ethic. He'll make a responsible husband and father."
"But are you in love? Do you shiver with longing every time you think of him?"
Scarlet's stomach muscles kicked. She didn't float around on a cushion of clouds for any reason, including a man. Filling her lungs, she lifted the stepladder and let the legs snap shut.
"I was brought up to respect myself, which means not falling head over silly heels with the first charmer who throws a line my way." Scarlet took her ladder and headed for the storage closet to put it away. "I'm not that kind and you know it."
Sticking both hands in her apron's front pocket, Katie sighed like it was the end of the world. "After Cara and Max's big announcement, bet Everett will ask you soon, too."
"He already has. Last night." She set the ladder down in the storage closet and shut the door. "He hired a horse-drawn carriage. French champagne and crystal flutes were waiting in an ice bucket on the seat. After he proposed, he went through all the reasons we made such a good match. The ring's a family heirloom. It did hang on my finger a little. We need to have it resized."
The eight-carat hand-cut ruby set in a circle of diamonds made an exquisite engagement ring. She hated to think of the insurance he'd need to even take it out of the safety deposit box. When he'd mentioned having a replica made for everyday use, she'd laughed. Everett had a sharp wit sometimes.
Katie mumbled, "I should say congratulations"
"but I'll also say you don't have to go through with it. No invitations have been sent. No venues booked."
"You're a good friend" Scarlet walked past the florist and her pleading gaze "but I really don't need this."
At the samples table, Scarlet got busy laying violet, cream and royal-blue swatches in an arc while Katie made half an effort to change the subject.
"Who was that Adonis, anyway?" she asked. "I know the face. Is he some new whiz kid on the political scene?"
"He owns Waves."
Katie held her cheeks. "Of course! While I was getting my hair done at Silvo's last week, I skimmed an article about that site's meteoric rise. Interesting stuff. The color shots of the CEO were even better. The article ended by saying he might pose nude for a calendar to support a charity he's behind."
Arranging a choice of table gifts for her soon-to-arrive client, Scarlet refused to acknowledge the heat flaring in her chest at the tips of her breasts. But she couldn't shake the image of Daniel McNeal sans clothes. Below his folded cuffs, his forearms were strong and brushed with a healthy tan. The exposed vee below the solid column of his neck had revealed a tantalizing hint of the hair and hot flesh that lay beneath. Jeans suited his rebel-with-a-cause air. She wouldn'tshouldn'timagine how delicious he'd look out of them.
"What was he doing here?" Katie was asking.
Dismissing the tug low at her core, Scarlet positioned a floral arrangement on the table. "Wouldn't you assume he was here about a wedding?"
"Sure, but not his."
"Because there's been no public announcement?"
"Because if he was going to take the plunge, make the big merger, he wouldn't have looked at you the way he did."