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The last time Zach Rainer felt this level of anxiety, he was walking out of a Texas group home on his eighteenth birthday. Twelve years later, there was more than just his future at stake.
He'd been navigating the Interstate since dawn in his three-year-old Jaguar convertible with nothing but a stale truck stop sandwich and six cardboard cups of coffee to keep him going. His business partner, Alex Cable, had insisted the road trip from Texas to Colorado would clear his head. Zach should have known better. Thinking didn't solve problems, action did.
Now he checked himself into the Caspian Hotel in downtown Lyndon, Colorado, and accepted his key to an eighth-floor room. While he pocketed his credit card, his attention was drawn to the mezzanine level that overlooked the atrium lobby. Sharply dressed men and glittering ladies circulated at the top of a grand, curving staircase, while chamber music sounded around them.
He put the room key in his pocket and left his bags with the porter. Tugging the sleeves of his travel-worn blazer, he took the friendly clerk's advice and started for a sports-bar down the hall. The woman had assured him it would be a lot less crowded there. Though, given his wrinkled shirt and day's growth of beard, he was guessing she thought he'd fit in better with the sports bar crowd. Not that he cared about making any kind of impression. He was too tired and too hungry to worry about anything more than a hot meal and a long night's sleep.
Tomorrow morning, he'd drive up into the hills behind Lyndon to the Craig Mountain Brewery and take stock of the place. Craig Mountain was the weak link in DFB Incorporated, the microbrewery conglomerate that he and Alex had grown over the past twelve years. At the same time, Craig Mountain had suddenly become the potential salvation of the entire corporation and the hundreds of jobs that went with it.
At the end of the hall, he entered the dimly lit bar through a lighted archway. He blinked to adjust his eyes, then he zeroed in on an empty table across from the wide-screen television. A basketball game was playing, the announcer's words scrolling in closed caption across the bottom of the screen, while an eighties rock tune came through speakers high in the corners of the room.
It was Lakers versus Celtics. Neither were teams he followed, but watching the action would help his mind rest up for tomorrow. Production at Craig Mountain was currently ten thousand barrels per year. In order to save DFB, he needed to triple that in the next six months.
As he rounded the polished bar, his attention was snagged by a startlingly beautiful, auburn-haired woman. Perched on a leather chair, she was alone at a table and looked seriously out of place in the casual atmosphere. She wore a low-cut, black cocktail dress with spaghetti straps over her smooth shoulders. It clung to her body in a drop waist, then layered out into a full skirt, ending at midthigh.
Her graceful, lavender-tipped fingers were wrapped around the martini glass in front of her. She was obviously deep in thought, her attention fixed on a spot on the far wall. The flickering light from the television highlighted her compelling hazel eyes. They were streaked with gold, mesmerizing and undeniably sexy. Her hair was pulled back in a wavy updo, a few loose strands artfully arranged at her temples, brushing against dangling crystal earrings.
Zach's feet came to an automatic halt, and he couldn't seem to stop himself from gaping at her beauty. She glanced up and caught him, drawing back in surprise. He knew what she must be thinking, and immediately opened his mouth to apologize.
But to his surprise, she smiled and nodded a greeting.
Zach might be exhausted and starving, but he still had a pulse. He wasn't about to walk away from a reception like that.
"Hello," he offered, seizing the opportunity to ease closer to her table.
"Getting away from the crowd?" she asked, her deep red lips curving into a friendly, open smile.
He nodded. "They told me it would be quieter back here."
"Well, a different kind of noise anyway," she acknowledged with a wry glance at the speakers.
Zach had to grin at that. "Not my favorite, either."
"At least the crowd is thinner."
"Agreed," he replied.
"My face was about to crack from all that smiling."
"You're smiling now," he pointed out, taking the final couple of steps that brought him to the chair opposite her. He rested his hand on its back.
"I guess I am." She tipped her head quizzically, and her beautiful, golden eyes narrowed. "I don't remember meeting you at the reception."
Zach knew he was about to be outed as a stranger. He also knew he had about two seconds to figure out a way to prolong the conversation. He boldly pulled out the chair and slid into it.
"That's because you didn't meet me." He took a stab in the dark. "Are you a friend of the bride?"
Damn. Okay, that was a huge miss. And he couldn't think of anywhere else to go but the truth. "I confess. I wasn't at the reception."
"You mean you're not here to celebrate Mayor Seth Jacobs' election victory?"
"I am not," he admitted, holding her gaze.
She squinted with suspicion. "You have anything against Mayor Jacobs?"
"I do not. I've never met the man."
Her face relaxed at that. Her shoulders drooped a little, and she leaned back into the big, brown leather chair.
Zach knew he was about to get his marching orders. Too bad. He'd have loved to sit here and get to know this woman, even if it did mean forgoing the burger and fries he'd promised his empty stomach.
"So you don't know who I am?" she asked.
"I'd like to," Zach immediately put in.
She chuckled. "While I'd prefer it if you had no earthly idea."
He didn't miss a beat. His tone went low and intimate as he propped his elbows on the lacquered tabletop and leaned toward her. "I can live with that, too."
She rested her own elbows on the table, leaning forward, a playful glint now lurking in her expression. "I wasn't offering to date you."
"I didn't think you were." He quickly backed off. Okay, he'd hoped she was. But a guy could hope without penalty. "Are you lying?" she asked him. "I am not."
She contemplated him a moment longer. "I take it you're not from Lyndon."
"Essentially." He hoped he wouldn't have to stay long. He hoped tripling production at Craig Mountain proved to be a straightforward proposition, that he could leave the brewery manager with instructions for expansion then get himself back to his corporate headquarters in Houston. He'd left Alex to hold down the fort during a very critical time.
Her sexy fingertips drummed lightly against the table. "So, we could do this?"
"Do what?" He found himself hoping all over again, but he sure wasn't going to presume a second time.
"Have a casual conversation about nothing that matters. You don't know me. I don't know you."
"Absolutely," he agreed without hesitation. He could talk with her, or do absolutely anything else that she wanted.
Someone entered the bar through the archway, drawing her attention. She tracked the progress of a fiftysomething man as he headed for the bar. After a few seconds, she seemed to relax. She turned back to Zach.
"Waiting for someone?" he couldn't help asking.
She emphatically shook her head.
His second guess would be that she was avoiding someone. He took a chance on his instincts. "You want to get out of here?"
She seemed to contemplate his words for a long, slow moment. "Yes," she finally answered. "I believe I do."
He gestured with a tilt of his head. "I saw an exit door at the far end of that hall. We can probably make a clean getaway."
"What makes you think I need a getaway?"
He leaned across the table again, dramatically lowering his voice. "You're acting like someone who needs to lie low for a while."
She matched his posture once more. "You make me sound like a felon."
"Are you a felon?"
She fought a grin. "Would it matter?"
"No," he answered honestly. With her looks and sense of humor, it truly would not.
She chuckled low, drew back and rose from her chair, retrieving a small, black clutch. "Then let's do it."
He stood with her. She moved past him, and the exotic scent of jasmine teased his senses.
He inhaled appreciatively then affected a Chicago-gangster drawl. "Act natural, Doll-Face, and stick close to me."
She matched his tone. "Right beside you Lucky."
He couldn't help grinning to himself as they crossed the bar. He lowered his voice. "You want I should score us a getaway car?"
"We're only half a block from Main Street," she stage-whispered in return. "Plenty of hideouts there."
They ducked into the hallway then hurried for the back exit. Zach pushed the heavy, steel door open, and they crossed the threshold into the late-summer night. The door clanged shut behind them.
"A clean break," she breathed, pressing her back dramatically against the brick wall.
"Stick with me, Doll-Face," he rumbled in return, making a show of checking both directions on the quiet street. "I don't see any gumshoes hanging around."
"Good to know. But I'm more worried about constituents."
"Constituents?" He played dumb. "You mean the feds?"
She shifted away from the wall and started down the short block toward Main Street, her high heels echoing on the pavement. "I mean the good people of Lyndon. I don't want anyone to recognize me."
"So I'm hiding you from the entire town?" he asked with mock incredulity.
"Only from the people I know."
"How many people do know you?"
He fought what seemed like a natural urge to fold her hand into his. "You don't make things easy on a guy," he grumbled instead.
"You seem pretty good at this," she responded, glancing up. "You sure you're not a real criminal?"
"I'm a businessman." As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he realized they made him sound like a character from The Godfather. "A legitimate one," he added. But that wasn't much better. "I don't have so much as a parking ticket," he finished, hoping he hadn't scared her off.
"What kind of" But then she determinedly shook her head. "Nope. I don't want to know what you do."
The wind had picked up, lifting the loose strands of her hair. He resisted an urge to reach out and smooth them back. "Can we at least trade first names?"
She hesitated, a look of consternation crossing her face. Then, just as quickly, she grinned. "Call me Doll-Face."
He paused as they reached the curb, half turning to offer a handshake. "Call me Lucky."
She glanced at his hand briefly, then reached out to wrap her delicate fingers over his rough skin. "Hello, Lucky." Her sweet voice seemed to touch a place deep inside him and settled there.
He let their handshake lengthen, having absolutely no desire to let her go.