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"Can I buy you a drink?"
Dr. Lucas Montgomery turned with a frown, annoyed at having his few minutes of hard-won solitude disturbed. The annoyance turned to something else entirely, however, at his first glimpse of the leggy redhead with the killer curves and impish smile. She was holding out a glass of champagne, her green eyes twinkling in the dim courtyard lights of the hotel terrace.
"The champagne's free," he told her.
"And yet you're not drinking any." She gestured slightly with the glass. "Come on. Live a little."
Raising an eyebrow at her teasing, he reached for the champagne flute and kept his gaze locked with hers as he downed the effervescent liquid in one swig.
"Shall I get you another?" she asked dryly as he set the glass on top of a stone ledge.
"Shouldn't that be my line?"
"Perhaps, but I haven't finished my drink yet." She held up the nearly full glass for his inspection.
"I won't hold that against you," he answered with a smile. He couldn't help ithe really liked looking at her. Clasping her free hand in his, he murmured, "Dance with me."
Her lips twisted in contemplation and when she didn't immediately answer, he slipped the glass of champagne from her hand and set it next to his empty one.
"Come on," he urged. Wrapping his right arm around her waist, he pulled her against him and started to glide over the redbrick patio.
"You want to dance here?" She paused for a moment, refusing to budge as she considered.
"What's wrong with here? Live a little," he mimicked, certain the dare would get to her.
She laughed then, a husky, full-bodied sound that made him laugh along with her. "Nothing's wrong with here. I just didn't realize terrace dancing was one of your specialties."
It wasn't, but he had a feeling it was right up her alley. And when she stopped resisting and allowed him to propel her out of the shadows and into the small pool of light cast by the old-fashioned globe lantern, he knew he was right.
They were close enough to the ballroom to hear the music, and for long seconds neither of them talked as they moved together under the heavy branches of a centuries-old magnolia tree. With her heels on, she was only a couple inches shorter than his own height of six foot four.
He liked the way she fit against him. When the song ended, she tried to step away, but he held on. She indulged him for a moment, eyes closed and head resting against his shoulder. Then, with a sigh, she stepped away. He let her go, but when she tugged a little in an effort to free her hand, he refused to relinquish it. "How was Africa?" he asked softly.
"Same as always." While the reply was flippant, the sadness that moved behind her eyes was anything but. "Beautiful, but nightmarish."
"Did you get everything taken care of?"
"As much as we could. Cholera isn't something to play around with. We managed to vaccinate nine refugee camps as well as educate them on prevention measures and the handling of blood and tissue samples. It's not enough, but at least this outbreak is under control. But I'm sure it will pop up again soon and then we'll be right back where we were two months ago."
His stomach clenched a little at the thought of Kara going up against such a miserable illness, but he made himself ignore it. After all, it wasn't the first time she'd taken on a deadly disease and it sure as hell wasn't going to be the last. She was an epidemiologist for the Center for Disease Control. Traveling to hot spots around the world and figuring out where and how the outbreak happened was her joband her calling.
Concern about his best friend's safety might keep him up some nights, but he was the only one. An adventurer through and through, Kara rarely worried about herself. She relished the thrill of running a virus to ground, as well as helping the people who so much of the world preferred to forget.
He understood her drive, her need to make the world a better place. He'd done his stint in For the Children, one of the leading organizations that brought doctors into developing nations, and in doing so had seen just how desperately people needed help.
But, unlike Kara, he hadn't been able to hack it long-term. He'd gotten out early, had chosen to start a low-income clinic in the poorest area of Atlanta instead. Not because he didn't believe in helping those who couldn't help themselves, but because he knew that staying in Africa, witnessing the soul-deep suffering, would eventually kill himas it nearly had his clinic partners, Amanda Hart and Jack Alexander.
Together the three of them dealt with everything at their clinic, from gunshot wounds to diagnosing cancer. And while there never seemed to be enough time, enough money, enough anything, at least here he could see that he was making a difference. When he'd been in Ethiopia it had felt like everything he'd done had been barely a drop in a leaky bucket.
Though he knew Kara didn't feel the same way about her time in Africa, he couldn't help asking, "You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. A little tired is all," she admitted with a grimace. "I got in late last night and my body's clock is all messed up."
"So what are you doing here? You should be home sleeping."
"Well, that was the plan. But earlier, I called the clinic to see if you could do lunch today but you had scheduled appointments right through your lunch hour, as usual. Your receptionist told me about this benefit event. And since I know how much you love these things, I figured it was my duty as your oldest and dearest friend to dust off my dancing shoes and suffer right along with you."
"Have I mentioned lately that you are a terrific best friend?"
"A time or two." She pretended to buff her nails on her dress. "But it's a sentiment that bears repeating."
"No doubt." He draped an arm around her shoulders, gave her a quick squeeze. "And I very much appreciate your sacrifice."
"And well you should. I've been in Somalia for the last seven weeks, running around in hiking boots and tennis shoes. Squeezing my feet into these heels" she held up one slender foot encased in a pair of red-sequined stilettos "has been absolute torture."
"I don't deserve you," he said with a grin.
"Well, that's obvious. But since you've got me, at least until the next crisis rears its ugly head, what do you say we blow this pop stand and go find something more interesting to doafter I sit down for five minutes."
"I can't leave. I'm one of the hosts," he said as he cupped a hand around her elbow and escorted her to the closest stone bench.
She sat, gratefully, and kicked off her right shoe so she could rub her toes. "Which is why you're hiding out on the patio? Because you're so concerned about your hosting duties?"
"I'm taking a break. I wanted a breather before I had to start making the rounds to say good-night to everyone."
"So take a longer break. I was just in the ballroom. It's well after midnight and the party has already started to break up. Amanda, Jack and your mother have everything under control."
"No doubt. But Amanda threatened me with many, many painful things if I stepped out of line tonight. Not to mention what my mother said she would do if I embarrassed her. Somehow I think ducking out right before I'm supposed to position myself near the door and thank everyone for the copious amounts of money they've spent here tonight definitely falls into both categories."
"Okay, I can understand your fear of your mother's wrath. She can be scary when she gets going. But don't tell me you're afraid of a pregnant woman?"
"Damn right I am. Amanda's mean," he said with affection, so Kara would know he was teasing.
"I have to admit, I wondered how she got you here. Normally it's impossible to get you to attend a big charity event, even if it is for your own clinic."
Lucas shook his head. "I'm not even sure how we ended up having a big charity event, to be honest with you. One second I'm complaining about how hard it's been to pry funding out of the government and our regular donorsat a time when we need it most. The next thing I know Amanda's dialing her husband to see if his cable news network might like to sponsor a ball to raise money. She got Jack's girlfriend, Sophie, involved along with my mom and sisters, and here we are."
"Nobody throws a party like your mom and sisters."
"Isn't that the truth?" He heard the harsh edge of sarcasm in his voice, and tried to smooth it out. "They throw magnificent parties."
The knowing look Kara sent him told him he hadn't quite managed it. That was the problem with best friendsthey'd been around long enough to know your dirty family laundry whether you liked it or not.
"I think they've done a wonderful job," she told him. "The ballroom looks gorgeous and the turnout is huge. You guys are going to make a bundle for the clinic."
"I hope so. Amanda's worked so hard on it that I'd hate to see it fail." Especially since she'd spent all her free time organizing the benefit when she should have been concentrating on her new marriage to Simon and impending motherhood.
"It won't fail," Kara reassured him. "You guys are amazing, and everyone hereespecially the ones with deep pocketshas figured that out."
She reached for her champagne and quickly downed it. Then shot him the mischievous look that had first gotten his attention all those years ago. "Last chance to duck out before we head back into the ballroom and get swallowed by the legion of Dr. Montgomery fans. And, as extra incentive, if you leave with me now, I promise to buy you the biggest and best piece of apple pie in Atlanta. There's this great diner right down the street, but they close at one, so if we're going to go, we need to hustle."
Thinking she was joking, he started to refuse a second time. But when he looked at her, really looked at her, he saw. There was something wrong, something in her eyes that said she needed a shoulder to cry on. His had been her shoulder of choice since they'd met in the freshman dorms seventeen years beforeand vice versa. It wasn't like he could turn her away and he didn't want to. Kara so rarely needed comforting, or anything else, from him. The fact that she needed it nowthat she had so obviously sought him outworried him enough to have him shifting his priorities.
"So, if we were to attempt an escape," he said, kneeling down to slide her shoe back onto her foot, "what do you think our best way out of here is?"
Her eyes lit up. "Really? You want to leave?"
"Darlin', I've wanted to break out of here since two seconds after I arrived. You're just the impetus I've been waiting for."
Obviously afraid he'd change his mind if she let him think about it too long, Kara jumped to her feet. "Let's go, then. I've got the escape route all planned out. Simon has Amanda resting at a table near the ballroom entrance where they can bid everyone goodnight. They're dealing with a steady stream of doctors, socialites and news people alike and they're fielding questions about the baby, so they should be occupied for quite some time.
"Jack and Sophie are dancinghe can't keep his eyesor his handsoff her. And your mom and sisters, along with their dates, are still holding court in the center of the room." She grabbed his hand, tugging him toward the edge of the terrace. "And can I just say, go Mom! She's with Nicholas Vega, newsman extraordinaire. He's hanging on her every word."
"Of course he is. She's laying on the famous Montgomery charm. Her latest lover got wise and dropped her a couple of weeks ago so she's on the prowl for a new bank account. This benefit is a perfect opportunity for her to close the deal."
Kara laid a hand on his shoulder, and for a second he tensed, expecting her to say the same things his sisters did. That he was being too tough on Candy. That he needed to try to be more understanding. That he should cut her a break once in a while.
But this was Kara, who knew him better than anybody, and all she said was, "Rough couple of months with your mom, huh?"
He snorted. "More like a rough couple of decades, don't you think?"
He knew he sounded cynical, but it was hard to be anything else when it came to his mother. In the years since his dad had died, she'd run through the very significant portfolio he'd left for her and now counted on Lucas or whatever man she was currently dating to take care of her.
After ten years and twice as many rich lovers, he'd given up expecting her to change. Of course, he'd also given up "cutting her a break." If that made him a bastard, then he was willing to live with iteven if his sisters couldn't.
Turning to Kara, he switched the focus back where it belonged. "So, how exactly does this escape plan of yours begin?"
Kara watched as Lucas's eyes went cold and hard at the mention of his mother. Not that she blamed him. Most of the time, she wanted to shake some sense into Candy Montgomery herself and she wasn't even related to the woman. She could only imagine how bad it was for Lucas, control freak extraordinaire and the most dependable man she'd ever met, to be saddled with a mother who not only wouldn't be controlled, but who was completely independable.
As they scooted around the terrace, she glanced through the ballroom windows and saw his mother doing what she did besttelling an animated story to a gaggle of admirers. She was beautiful and glittery and obviously in her element as the center of attention at a benefit that should be all about her son. Not that anyone who knew her would be surprised.
What was surprising, at least to Kara, was how two people who looked so alike could be such different people. Both Lucas and his mother were absolutely stunning, with classically beautiful faces, piercing blue eyes and dark ebony hair. Lucas wore it too long and his mom wore it in a short, gamine cut that showed off her gorgeous bone structure and ageless skin. And though Lucas, at six foot four, stood about eight inches taller than his mother, they both had long, lean bodies and an innate sense of grace that drew gazes to them wherever they went.
Yet that was where the resemblance ended. Candy Montgomery was simpering, flighty and completely irresponsible. Oh, she was sweetand as charming as the rest of Lucas's familybut she lived in a dream world. Which would be fine, except for the fact that Lucas's father had taught his son at an early age that he was the responsible one, the one whose job it was to take care of his mom and sisters if anything happened to Lucas, Sr. It was a responsibility he'd taken seriously for the ten years since his father had died, one that required he bail his mom and sisters out of whatever trouble they got themselves into. Which was a significant amount of trouble.