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GRACE WELLINGTON slid into a chair at her favorite Santa Monica café, arranged her shopping bags beside her and glanced at her watch. Sadie Post and Claudia Dostis, her two best friends, were meeting her for lunch but neither of them had arrived yet.
Might as well use the time to gloat over her latest find. Sliding a hand into the brown-paper shopping bag propped against her chair leg, her fingers encountered the sensuous softness of angora. Unable to resist a full gloat, Grace tugged the sweater out and spread it across her lap. A soft cream color, the sweater had embroidered flowers garnished with sequins above one breast and three-quarter sleeves. Best of all, it bore the label of a prestigious 1950s knitware manufacturer. Genuine vintage, and she'd picked it up for a song.
Resisting the urge to purr like a contented cat, she folded the sweater and put it back in its bag. Feeling every inch the satisfied, smug shopper, she glanced at her watch once again and picked up the menu. Would it be terribly wrong to have a cocktail in the middle of a Sunday afternoon? Some people would think so, but Grace had never been too worried about what other people thought.
She ran her finger down the list until she found something fresh and bright to suit her mood. The sun was shining, she'd just cruised all her favorite vintage-clothing boutiques, and she was about to have lunch with her two best friends. Did life get any better?
The sound of a motorcycle engine roaring to a stop drew her attention to the street outside and she smiled, bracing herself for her daily exposure to love's young dream. Crossing one leg over the other, she sat back and crossed her arms, prepared toindulge her cynical side.
There were two riders on the bikea male driver and a woman clinging to his back. Only the woman dismounted, unfolding legs that seemed to go on forever as she pulled off her helmet and shook out a mane of honey-blond hair. Having slid his own helmet off, the man watched her appreciatively. He said something, then pulled the woman close and kissed her so thoroughly that Grace actually felt a blush stealing into her cheeks. Feeling distinctly like a voyeur, she glanced away.
Sadie and Dylan were so happy, so in love. So perfect together. If they weren't her friends, she'd be making gagging noises right now and telling them to get a room. But even though she didn't believe in monogamy and marriage and all that other hoopla for herself anymore, she absolutely respected Sadie's joy. Each to her own, right?
She risked another look and saw the coast was clearthey were just talking now, smiling goofily at each other, their fingers intertwined.
Watching their interplay, noting the teasing glint in Dylan's eyes, the gentleness in their hands as they caressed each other almost unconsciously, an odd yearning sensation spread out from the region of Grace's heart, sneaking up the back of her throat and triggering the hot sting of tears behind her eyes.
Whoa! What the hell was that about?
Blinking furiously, Grace reached for her sunglasses and sniffed surreptitiously. Trying to shake off the moment, she shifted in her chair and frowned at the tabletop. Maybe she was allergic or something. Maybe the angora sweater would have to go back.
She snorted at her lack of belief in her own excuses and forced herself to look at her friends again. What she saw made her swallow, hard. Dylan had cupped Sadie's face, and he was talking intently as he stared into her eyes. Grace didn't need to hear him to know what he was sayinghe was telling Sadie he loved her, how important she was to him, how he was going to miss her even though she would only be lunching with her friends for a few measly hours. It was written all over his face and, as his thumb caressed Sadie's cheekbone, Grace felt such a stab of longing in her belly that she actually pressed her hands to her stomach.
Tearing her eyes away from the scene outside, she stared unseeingly in front of her.
She wasn't jealous of Sadie and Dylan.
It was a ridiculous idea. Absurd. It had been four years since she'd let a man into her bedroom and her life, and they had been the happiest, most productive and content years of her life.
Even discounting her ex-boyfriend, Owen, and his spectacular contribution to her lack of faith in human nature, life had taught Grace plenty of salutary lessons about what to expect from the male of the speciesnot much, was what it boiled down to. Once she'd accepted that concept, her life had become so much easier. She'd become mistress of her own domain, so to speak.
So what was the whole yearning-pain-in-chest thing about?
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that Sadie and Dylan were kissing again. She was just marveling at their endurance and the fact that they hadn't been arrested for indecent happiness or something similar when the penny dropped it was the sex.
It had been a long time since she'd felt the warmth of another body against her own, a long time since she'd found release in a man's arms. That was all. Who wouldn't look at Sadie and Dylan's obvious passion and feel a littleempty?
She shifted uncomfortably as she registered her own choice of words. Empty. Did she really feel empty? Her lips firmed. No, she did not. Definitely, she did not.
"Gracie, sorry I'm late." It was Claudia, dressed in her signature black, her small frame vibrating with energy as always. Her Greek-American heritage was evident in the sparkle of her near-black eyes, the olive tone of her skin and the take-no-shit attitude in her straight shoulders.
"you're not late, I was early," Grace said.
As one, their gazes drifted to the front window where Sadie and Dylan were still kissing each other goodbye.
"How long has that been going on?, Claudia asked. Grace sighed. "About five minutes. I figure one of them will need oxygen any second now."
"We could turn a hose on them," Claudia mused.
"Shame to ruin those nice leather jackets."
Claudia met Grace's gaze across the table and laughed.
"Listen to usenvy dripping from every word."
Grace shook her head, her claret-colored hair swishing around her shoulders.
"Not guilty, sorry."
"Really?, Claudia sighed, eyes on Sadie and Dylan again.
"Not even a little bit? Even though I'm way too busy to think about men at the moment, I still can't help looking at them and feeling a little I-want-what-she's-having."
"Nope," Grace said, ignoring the odd feeling she'd experienced mere minutes earlier. "Unless I can stuff a man and turn him into an umbrella stand, there's no place for one in my home."
Claudia choked out a laugh. "Sorry, guys. Dylan and I just had some last-minute things to sort out." Sadie was pink-faced and faintly breathless as she slid into the last chair at their table.
"Like whose tongue belongs to who, that kind of thing?, Claudia asked wryly.
"Yeah," Sadie said, grinning unrepentantly.
All three of them smiled at each other and Grace registered how great it was to have some quality time with her friends. It was one thing to see each other every day in the production offices of Ocean Boulevard, the daytime soap where they all workedClaudia as producer, Sadie as script producer and Grace as script editorbut it wasn't quite the same as having time to laugh and talk without the pressures of work interfering.
"Cocktail time, ladies," Grace said, passing around the menu.
"Excellent. I could slaughter something sweet and creamy," Sadie said, smacking her lips together.
"Martini for me. Dirty," Claudia said, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.
"Now there's a surprise," Grace said.
Twisting in her seat, Grace made eye contact with the waiter. He shot to their table as though he'd been pulled on a string, his eyes lighting up as his gaze slid from Sadie to Claudia and back again.
That Sadie was many men's idea of the perfect woman hadn't escaped Grace's notice over the years. And if men didn't go for Sadie's tall, blond, leggy good looks, they were usually pretty damn partial to Claudia's petite perfection. Mentally resigning herself to being ignored, Grace adopted her best Bette Davis demeanor. Bette was a take-no-prisoners kind of woman, the type who didn't give a snap of her fingers if men were attracted to her or not. It helped that Grace was wearing one of her favorite Bette Davis-era dresses, a 1940s dark-green crepe sundress with cap sleeves, a sailor collar and a short white tie.
Arching one eyebrow, she tapped a varnished nail on the menu to get the waiter's attention. He managed to drag his gaze from Sadie and Claudia's cleavage, only for his eyes to widen as he took in Grace's substantial twin endowments. Grace growled low in the back of her throat. Just her luck, their waiter was a breast man. If there was one thing she hated more than being ignored, it was being ogled. Inevitably, his gaze would make it up to her face and she'd see the same old disappointment there as always. She was used to being the odd one out, the ugly duckling among the swansbut for four years now she'd opted to skip the part where men tried to weigh up the relative merits of her stupendous bosom versus her plain-Jane faceshe much preferred to cut straight to the bit where she froze them in their tracks. It had become something of a hobby, in fact.
"Hey, up here," she said, waving her fingers in his sight-line and directing his attention to her face.
He blushed and she tapped the menu again. "One dirty martini, a Fluffy Duckthat's right, isn't it, Sadie?, she asked, checking with her friend even though she knew it was Sadie's favorite cocktail. Sadie nodded and Grace eyed their waiter steadily as she delivered her own order, daring him to maintain eye contact with her and not check out her breasts again. "And I'll have a Mojito."
"Sure. Any meals?"
"We're not ready yet. We'll let you know when we are," she said, waggling her fingers dismissively.
He nodded obediently and shot toward the bar to put their order in.
Claudia was shaking her head when Grace turned her attention back to the table.
"The way you treat men is almost a form of cruelty," Claudia said. "Almost."
"I know. I can never decide whether to be appalled or amused," Sadie agreed.
"He deserved it." Grace shrugged. "Imagine if women went around staring at men's packages the way they stare at our boobs."
"You do have a great rack, Gracie," Claudia said, eyeing Grace's chest impartially.
"Then he needs to learn to be more subtle and I've just taught him a powerful lesson," Grace said.
"Sometimes I think you really hate men," Sadie said sadly.
"Oh, I don't care enough to hate them," Grace drawled. Sadie leaned forward, her expression earnest.
"Not everyone is a rat like Owen."
"I know that."
"I wonder if you do," Sadie mused. "When was the last time you went on a date?"
"I honestly can't remember. But do I look like a woman who's pining for a man?, Grace asked, gesturing toward herself.
Sadie's gaze traveled over Grace, obviously assessing her dead-straight burgundy-colored hairstyle, her severely straight bangs, her lush, full mouth outlined in deep-red lipstick, her ever-present chunky black-framed glasses and the smooth creaminess of her skinher one acknowledged vanity.
"No. As always, you look fabulous. Except for the glasses."
"There we go, then. And I love these glasses," Grace said.
"Those glasses are ugly. And I'm not pining for a man, but I miss the sex. Don't you miss sex? I miss sex a lot," Claudia said. "I so need to call Harry or Simon and set up a date."
Claudia had been so busy working her butt off as the newly installed producer on Ocean Boulevard that she hadn't had a man in her life for months and monthsbut Harry and Simon were ex-boyfriends who were happy to provide essential services on demand.
"I have sex." Grace shrugged.
"I meant with a man," Claudia said dryly.
"Now why would I ruin something so good by inviting a man along?, Grace asked.
Sadie looked so outraged that Grace ruined the whole Bette Davis thing by laughing. Sadie threw a napkin at her.
"So, what date is the wedding?, Claudia asked, masterfully changing subjects.
Sadie sat up a little straighter. "How did you know we'd set a date?"
Grace snorted with laughter. "Hello! We thought we were going to have to pry you guys apart with a crowbar out there."
Sadie blushed, then shrugged a shoulder. "End of August. Is two months enough time to get our shit together?, Sadie asked worriedly.
"Hell yeah," Grace said.
"The dress won't be a big deal, since I'm going off-the-rack this time. And it's all going to be very low-key But I still want you guys to be my bridesmaids. What do you say are you up for a second shot?, Sadie asked, referring to her first, failed wedding to her former fiancé, Greg.
"Try and keep us away," Grace said. etables and garlic mash, and she slathered her bread roll with proper butter, damning her curvy hips and thighs to hell.
Consigning the washing up to tomorrowone of the joys of living aloneshe slipped into a satin gown she wore to bed and flopped onto the couch. When a quick flick through the offerings on TV drew no interest, she resorted to her movie collection. She was about to dust off an old Indiana Jones DVD when her eye fell on the DVD she'd brought home from work. She hesitated a moment, then gave in to temptation.
Sliding the disc into her player, she made a fortress of cushions for herself on the couch and settled in for the evening. The Ocean Boulevard theme song came on and the credits flickered across the screen. Her heartbeat picked up and her body tensed a little in anticipation. And then Mac Harrison's tall body filled the screen and every nerve ending in her body went on hyper-alert.
It was part of her job to keep up-to-date with how the scripts she edited translated on-screenbut she'd be kidding herself if she pretended watching the show was anything other than a chance to spend some time with the only man she'd allowed into her life in the past four years.
He was so hot. Six-foot-three-inches of sexy, hard male. Gorgeous. Dynamic. Charismatic. And all hers for the next few hours.
She narrowed her eyes, trying to define exactly what it was about Mac that had captured her imagination and led her to cast him as the star of her most intimate fantasies. It wasn't as though she'd been looking for a man to play the role. She'd always spread her favors, so to speak, across a broad spectrum of hunksGeorge Clooney, Jude Law and Johnny Depp. And even if she had been looking for inspiration closer to