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Ignoring the annoying catcalls from one of the hard hats inspecting a pothole on Fifth Avenue, Dana McGuire stopped at the intersection and stretched out her calf muscles while she waited for the light to change. In true Manhattan tradition, the other pedestrians, dressed mostly in business suits, swirled around her, crossing against the light and prompting some angry horn-honking in spite of the police cruiser that swung onto Fifty-seventh Street.
Five years now she'd lived in the city, and it hadn't changed one tiny bit. She had. No choice there. Survival of the fittest. She straightened. Hmm. Not a bad name for her new fitness club. Go figure. She'd spent weeks trying to come up with a name before she applied for a license, and there it was. Not that she had all of the start-up money yet. But she was almost there. Six months and she'd be ordering equipment and signing the lease.
The walk signal flashed and she jogged across the street to the mailbox in front of the St. Martine Hotel, where she had a client this morning, and deposited her bimonthly letter to her parents. E-mail would be so much easier, but they didn't own a computer and she doubted they ever would. Third-generation farmers, who'd only recently splurged on a satellite dish for their ten-year-old television, neither of her parents had ridden on an airplane or seen the ocean. In fact, they hadn't stepped foot out of Indiana.
Lucky for her, since she didn't have to worry about any surprise visits from them. Not that she didn't love them both to pieces, but they thought she was someone she wasn't and she didn't have the heart to set them straight.
"Morning, Dana." St. Martine's veteran doorman with hiswatery blue eyes and pleasant round face held open the lobby door for her.
"Thanks, George. Looks like it's gonna be another scorcher," she said, pulling her ponytail tighter so that the hair stayed off the back of her neck. Her hair was too long and totally impractical, especially for running every day. If she had an ounce of sense she'd whack it all off. But vanity won out every time she tried to talk herself into it, which really ticked her off.
She wasn't Borden County's reigning Miss Teen Dairy anymore, nor had she participated in a beauty pageant for the past six years. Or ever would again. But the long blond mane had earned her at least one commercial hawking shampoo, and even then, she'd shared the spotlight with a brunette and a redhead. A far cry from taking Broadway by storm.
"You think it's hot out here," George whispered, and nodded his head toward the lobby. "Heard there was another one last night."
"Oh, no. What did they get?"
"No one's saying. We've all been warned to keep mum. Junior's threatening to write up any employee caught discussing the theft." George's ruddy face lit with a grin. "You didn't hear a peep from me," he said, winking and stepping back to let her into the lobby.
"Not a word," Dana agreed, smiling.
Everyone knew George referred to the new assistant manager as Junior. A recent Cornell graduate, Kyle Williams would rid the hotel of any employee over forty if he had his way, but the unions were too strong and George wasn't about to give up his six-figure job opening doors for the hotel's wealthy guests.
Heck, Dana wouldn't mind getting in on that kind of action herself, but there were literally waiting lists for those types of jobs all over the city. Although, as it was, she did like her job. She was her own boss and got paid to exercise, which she did every day anyway. Amazing what an out-of-towner was willing to pay to be escorted on a run through Central Park or along the Hudson River.
The lobby was more subdued than usual. One of the housekeeping staff, who had to be new because Dana didn't recognize her, dusted around the large vase of fresh-cut flowers sitting on the Asian-inspired table that served as the lobby's centerpiece. A couple in business suits stood talking near the elevators and another guest leaning on the black-lacquered front desk appeared to be checking in, or, given the early hour, perhaps checking out.
Dana's friend Amy was one of the clerks working behind the desk, but she wasn't the one helping the man and, after meeting Dana's eyes, she walked purposely to the far end of the counter. Dana got the message and met her near the concierge's unmanned smoky-glass cubicle. Odd. Kelly was always there. The three of them usually grabbed a ten-minute cup of coffee before Dana met up with her first client.
"Where is she?" she asked, getting a bad vibe from the way Amy's anxious gaze scanned the lobby.
"Security." Amy's voice was low. "We had another theft last night. Fourth one this month."
"So why are they talking to Kelly?"
"They're talking to everybody. I wouldn't be surprised if they asked to see you."
Amy nodded, her large dark eyes coming back to Dana. "Nothing personal. It's just that you've practically been a fixture here the past couple of months."
"Thanks to all the business you guys throw me." She glanced over her shoulder, unnerved that she'd be of any interest to security. "I still don't understand why they'd want to talk to me though."
"You were on the property yesterday. That makes you a candidate for questioning." Amy gave her a wicked smile. "But then again, Kyle probably would protect you."
Dana rolled her eyes. The assistant manager had been a pain in the ass from the first day she'd met him. He'd asked her out three times in three weeks. She'd been polite in her first two refusals, not so subtle the last time. If he tried one more time, she wouldn't be responsible for her actions.
"Hey, guys." Kelly joined them, already slipping off her navy blue blazer as she rounded her desk. "I'm afraid I won't have time for coffee."
"How was it?" Amy asked. "You weren't gone long."
"Pretty straightforward." Kelly pushed long slender fingers through her strawberry-blond hair and then lowered herself onto her chair, her gaze going to her calendar.
Like Dana and Amy and countless others, she'd come to New York from a small midwestern town hoping to make it big. Like them, she'd failed miserably, although landing the assistant concierge job had been quite a coup. Good money. A certain amount of prestige. And it beat waiting tables like some of the less-fortunate hopefuls they'd met in the early days at casting calls and standing in line at the unemployment office.
Amy glanced over her shoulder and then leaned closer. "What kind of questions did they ask?"
"They just want to confirm shift times, if and when you left your station, that sort of thing."
Dana checked her watch. Five minutes until her appointment with Chase Culver. After that she had to hurry across town to meet her regular Tuesday-morning client. She wouldn't have time to talk to anyone today. Not that she had anything to say. "What was taken?"
Behind her someone noisily cleared their throat. Without looking she knew who it was by the way dread crawled over her skin.
"Talking about the theft, are we, ladies?"
She turned to Kyle with wide-eyed innocence, and in a loud voice said, "There was another theft? Here? When?"
He gave her a wry look before adjusting his left cuff link and sliding an exasperated look toward the front desk. The guest checking out turned toward them with interest.
Good thing Dana couldn't see Kelly and Amy's facesit would've been hard to keep a straight one herself. Singing had once been her claim to fame, not acting. Although she'd taken enough classes when she'd first arrived in the city.
"I'd appreciate you keeping your voice down, Dana," Kyle said in that proper-Bostonian tone that was as phony as his knockoff Rolex. "We don't need our guests alarmed."
She smiled. "No, that wouldn't be good for business." She backed away, throwing a look at Kelly and Amy. "See you guys later."
"I didn't mean to chase you off," Kyle said with that creepy smile of his, while putting his hand on her arm.
She did all she could not to jerk away. Instead she kept backing up until contact was naturally broken. "I have to meet a client."
He let his smarmy gaze wander down the front of her tank top, down her Spandex running shorts to her bare legs. "Of course."
She couldn't stand to look at him another second and abruptly turned toward the house phone by the elevator. The doors opened and a tall, wiry man in his early thirties walked out. He had dark longish hair, piercing blue eyes, and he wore shorts and a T-shirt hugging really broad shoulders. Holy cow, it wasn't Christmas and she hadn't been particularly good all year, but please, please be Chase Culver.
Chase knew it was her. Not because he'd done his homework on her last night. Nothing on a piece of paper could prepare him for Dana McGuire in the flesh. Tall, slim and blond, her sapphire-blue eyes were enough to take the wind out of him. Centerfold material. This was the kind of woman men made fools of themselves over. Lost marriages and fortunes and reputations. Good to remember that.
She smiled. "How did you know?"
"We're the only two people underdressed."
"Oh, right." She gave a small sheepish shrug as she glanced down at her shorts.
He jumped on the opportunity to take another look himself. Long perfect legs that stopped just this side of heaven. Keeping his mind on business wasn't going to be easy. In fact, he needed to revamp his bio quickly. The phony businessman-from-Houston spiel he'd prepared was okay, but to get the most bang for his buck, he had to bump it up. Become the kind of man she needed most. Because basically there were two reasons why a woman who looked like her came to New York, and he'd bet his '67 Mustang convertible he knew what had lured her to the bright lights.
"Have you already done some stretching?" she asked, leading him toward the lobby doors.
They passed near the front desk where two women in hotel uniforms openly stared. The guy in the suit was one of those prissy twerps that grated on Chase. "Some."
"Do you jog regularly?" Her gaze briefly caught on his ringless left hand, and then ran down his body.
His gut tightened when he saw more than professional curiosity darken her eyes. This assignment was gonna be a bitch. "Maybe three times a week. I'm usually too busy for anything more."
"How many miles were you thinking we should go today?"
Her eyebrows went up.
She stopped short of the doors, a hint of a smile on her lips. "How many do you usually run?"
"Well, darlin', that depends on who's chasing me."
She gave a small shake of her head. "I'll take that as seven."
He exhaled slowly. His friggin' ego had gotten him into enough trouble. "Five is good."
"Central Park okay with you?"
There had to be a better way than running in this heat to get to know her, ask her a few questions without sounding suspicious. Too bad he hadn't come up with one. "Fine."
"Okay." She pushed through the doors and they'd barely hit the sidewalk when she started them on a brisk walk.
Pedestrian traffic wasn't too bad and in a matter of minutes they could see the park. "How long have you been doing this?" he asked as they waited at the light across from the park entrance where a line of horses and carriages waited for the tourists.
"About three years." She hadn't stopped moving, but continued to walk in place and shake out her arms. She got more than a few second looks and not because of anything she did. No makeup and her hair plastered back, she was still stunning.
He wondered if Roscoe had told him everything. If that ol' boy had slept with her and left that part out, Chase was gonna wring his neck. He eyed her again, trying not to be too obvious. Nah, she wouldn't hook up with an old windbag like Roscoe. Even if the guy was rich. But then what the hell did Chase really know about her? "Are you from New York?"
"What brought you here to the big city?" he asked causally.
Her smile was brief and sad, but wasn't going to stop him from lying through his teeth.
The light turned green, and she entered the crosswalk without answering him. She checked her watch. "You set the pace, but I'll make sure we're back in time for you to get to your eleven-thirty meeting. Ready?"
For the first mile she was quiet except to warn him when a turn was coming up. They ran at a faster clip than he'd anticipated and he needed to get a conversation going while he could still run, breathe and talk at the same time. A year back he'd been in great shape and this would've been no sweat, but now not so much. The last twelve months had been the year from hell. Too much shit had gone down, none of it that he could control.
"You have a lot of clients?" He slowed down, pretending to watch a kid throw breadcrumbs to the ducks clustered at the edge of a small man-made lake.
She immediately downshifted. "Enough."
"A woman of few words. Or can't you keep up the pace and talk?"
She slid him an amused look. "I'm a personal trainer when I'm not doing this."
"You work in a club?"
"No, I go to people's homes."
Interesting. He made a mental note to check into it. That kind of history could work in her favor. Or put a nail in her coffin. "Must pay pretty well. This city ain't cheap."
She laughed softly. "Think about how much you're paying me to babysit you for an hour."
"How are you doing?"
"We've gone almost three miles. After this next curve we'll head back to the hotel via the east side of the park." She wasn't breathing hard, and unlike him, hadn't even broken a sweat.
"I'm glad you know where you're going. I'm totally lost."
"That's what keeps me in business."
Chase grunted. That was about all he could manage at the moment. The three miles weren't as much the problem as the pace he'd initially set. He should've taken it easier. Hell, his wound was still tender because he hadn't allowed it to heal properly. If only he had a brain the size of his ego.