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The living room of Harry Hunt's lakeside mansion in Seattle glowed with warm light. Two matching Tiffany chandeliers were suspended from the high ceiling at each end of the spacious room, their stained-glass flowers vibrant with color. Outside, the rain and wind of a Pacific Northwest storm picked up speed as it raced across Lake Washington to hammer against the window glass. Inside, the people gathered in the big room were warm and comfortable, thanks to the fire crackling in the hearth beneath the hand-carved cedar mantel.
Frankie Fairchild rose from an overstuffed armchair and crossed the room to the bar, leaving her mother, Cornelia, chatting animatedly with Lily Hunt. Several bottles were clustered on the gleaming mahogany surface, and Frankie chose one with a distinctive label. The tart white wine from the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery just north of Seattle was a personal favorite. She tilted the bottle to refill her glass.
As she sipped from the stemmed crystal, her gaze drifted idly over the room, pausing at the sight of her cousin Justin's little daughter, Ava, hopping along the edge of the oriental wool carpet.
Harry's neighbor, local actress Madge Edgley, bent to speak to Ava as the child reached the quartet of people chatting together on the bright red and blue carpet.
Harry always invites the nicest mix of friends and interesting people to his get-togethers, Frankie thought with appreciation. She moved on, noting familiar faces in the groups of people scattered around the long room, until she reached the group of men standing in front of the fireplace. Her uncle Harry and his son Justin were deep in conversation with two other men. Frankie knew one of themNicholas Deanonly slightly. The fourth man she knew very well. Eli Wolf was tall and broad-shouldered, with black hair and a rugged handsomeness that could make a woman's heart stutter if he smiled directly at her.
Eli looked up, snaring her with an intent look from smoky blue eyes. Frankie froze, unable to look away.
It wasn't until he turned to answer a question from Harry that Frankie realized she'd been holding her breath, caught by that enigmatic, very male stare.
She spun around to face the bar, topping off her wine with faintly trembling fingers.
What on earth is wrong with me?
Ever since Eli had given her a kiss at her last birthday party, she'd been thinking about him much too often. The kiss had sizzled, smoked, even though it was too short. In fact, the memory of his mouth on hers hadn't faded in the four months since; if she closed her eyes, she could still feel the heat. She'd actually conducted an experiment over the last couple of months, purposefully kissing three other very attractive men. Though all three were adept, practiced and assured at kissing, none of them had stirred one iota of serious interest, let alone lust. She'd felt nothing remotely resembling what she'd felt with Eli. Zero. Zip. Nada.
It was very annoying.
She couldn't decide what to do about it, if anything. And inaction was so unlike her that her inability to decisively resolve the issue and put it behind her was worrisome.
"Frankie." A friendly pat on her shoulder accompanied the greeting. "How are you, honey?"
She turned around, glad of the distraction from her thoughts, smiling with affection at the tall, lanky man who was her host. "I'm good, Uncle Harry." She glanced over his shoulder. "I thought you were busy talking business with Nicholas."
"I was." Harry's shrewd gaze went from Frankie's face and down the length of the room to the fireplace, where the owner of Dean Construction stood with Justin and Eli. "I must say I'm impressed with Nicholas. He's built his daddy's construction company into a solid corporation, despite strong competition. I'd bet money he'll triple his net worth in the next five years."
"You're rarely wrong about these things, so he must be an excellent businessman." Frankie sipped her white wine, her gaze following Harry's. There was no question Nicholas Dean's appearance backed up Harry's assessment of his potential for success; he fairly oozed self-confidence. He was tall, well built and had an air of easy, affable friendliness that was belied by his sharply intelligent eyes. His presence here tonight, at a gathering of Harry's family and personal friends, was significant. Frankie met Harry's eyes once again. "You're thinking of giving him the contract for building the new HuntCom campus in south Seattle, aren't you?" she guessed.
"I'm considering it." Harry nodded. "I've narrowed the list down to twoit's between him and Eli."
"Hmm." Frankie wasn't surprised. Elijah Wolf was the head of Wolf Construction and fiercely competitive. He and Justin were in their thirties now and remained close, although Justin was married, with a little girl, and Eli was still a bachelor.
"If Nicholas gets the contract, we'll be seeing a lot more of him," Harry told her.
"Mmm-hmm," Frankie murmured.
"Whoever gets the job will be working closely with my boys, of course," he went on, "but Eli's practically a member of the family already, while Nicholas isn't as well known to us."
"Wouldn't it be easier, then, if you awarded the contract to Eli and his brothers at Wolf Construction?"
Harry shrugged. "Maybe. But if I don't give Dean Construction fair consideration for the job, it smacks of nepotism."
Frankie choked on a sip of wine. Harry immediately clapped a big hand against her back, thumping her between her shoulder blades.
"Are you all right?" he asked with concern.
"I'm fine, Uncle Harry," she got out. She coughed to clear her throat and took another sip of wine. "It was the shock of hearing you mention nepotism as if it were a bad thing," she said, tongue in cheek.
"I don't practice nepotism," he growled defensively.
Frankie laughed, her amusement drawing a reluctant grin from Harry.
"All right," he said with a shrug. "Maybe I tend to take care of my family first, but is that a crime?"
Frankie gave him an impulsive hug, the familiar scent of his aftershave warming her with affectionate memories. "No, Uncle Harry, it's not."
"Well, then " He wrapped an arm around her and gave her a quick hard hug in return. "Besides, you'll notice I'm not automatically giving Eli the contract. I'm seriously considering Dean Construction. That's why Nicholas is here tonightto see how he fits in with our family and friends."
"He seems to be doing just fine," Frankie told him, knowing Harry considered business a family matter.
"Yes, he does." Harry's gaze rested on Nicholas for a moment. "He'd make a good husband for some lucky woman," he commented guilelessly.
"Hmm," Frankie responded, distracted as Ava, Justin and Lily's daughter, ran across the room and threw herself at Eli. Eli laughed, swinging the little girl high in the air before settling her on his hip. Ava cupped his face in her little hands and gave him an enthusiastic kiss. Eli's eyes sparkled with amusement and his mouth curved in a grin, white teeth flashing in his tanned face. Distracted and charmed by the unabashed affection between the big, undeniably handsome man and the dainty, feminine little girl, it was a moment before Frankie registered Harry's last words. Her gaze snapped to his face. He was eyeing her with an all-too-familiar expression. She nearly groaned aloud. Oh, no. Surely he's not matchmaking againand with me and Nicholas Dean?
She lowered her lashes and hoped her expression didn't give away her suspicions as her mind raced, considering the possibility that Harry had turned his penchant for meddling on her.
"Nicholas has what a woman should be looking for in a husband," Harry continued. "He's proven he's dedicated to business, so he'll be a good provider. Plus, he's young enough to have children but old enough to be a settled father."
Frankie blinked, staring at Harry. "You think that's all a woman wants in a husband? How did you arrive at this abbreviated list?"
Harry waved a hand dismissively. "I covered the essentials. If a woman wants romance, then I suppose Nicholas qualifies in that departmenthe's not a bad-looking guy."
"Harry, you're astounding." Frankie leaned closer, gripping his lapel and staring into his eyes. "You left out something extremely important."
"What's that?" Harry's deep voice rumbled, his voice suspicious, as if he was bracing for a blistering lecture.
"You left out the all important x-factor."
His eyebrows lifted. "The x-factor? I've never heard of it."
"Some people call it chemistry. Some call it sexual attraction. I call it the x-factor." And Eli has it in spades. The thought flashed through her mind, startling her.
"And you think Nicholas doesn't have it?" Harry sounded skeptical.
"I don't know," Frankie admitted. "I've never been out with him. I was speaking in general terms about women and men."
"Then you're conceding you might be attracted to Nicholas Dean," Harry said shrewdly.
"No." Frankie let go of Harry's lapel and shook her head, exasperated. Over the last few months, she'd successfully ducked Harry's attempts to meddle in her love life, but her sisters Tommi and Bobbie hadn't been as lucky. Fortunately, they'd managed to meet and fall in love with wonderful men on their own, despite Harry's interference. There was no guarantee Frankie would be as lucky, however. She did not want Harry focused on finding a husband for her. The very thought was enough to make her shudder and break out in hives. "And we're not talking about Nicholas and methere is no Nicholas and me," she stressed.
"But there could be," Harry insisted. "As soon as his company was shortlisted for HuntCom's south Seattle construction, I had the usual background check run. Which is why I know Dean Construction badly wants to win the contract. I'm dead sure Nicholas will cooperate in getting to know youand you can find out if the two of you are attracted to each other."
"Harry," Frankie said with forced calm. "I am not going to date Nicholas Dean. I don't need my uncle's help in finding men."
"It's not as if I'm out there tracking down men for you, Frankie," Harry protested. "But"
"Good," Frankie interrupted. "Because if I thought you were trolling Seattle looking for men you can coerce into dating me, I'd go hire a hit man and give him your address."
"Frankie!" Harry looked shocked, but his eyes twinkled. "That's a terrible thing to say. What would your mother think of her favorite daughter threatening my life?"
"She's used to you, Uncle Harry," Frankie said dryly. "She'd probably just ask me what you'd done this time to deserve it."
Harry threw back his head and roared with laughter.
Harry's booming laugh drew everyone's attention. Eli Wolf looked up, over the top of Ava's dark curls and across the room at Frankie Fairchild. She sipped white wine from a stemmed glass, her thick-lashed brown eyes fixed on Harry, an amused smile curving her lips. She was tall at five-eight, with long legs and curves that made a man's hands itch to stroke her. Caramel-blond hair fell to her shoulders in a sleek curtain, framing her beautiful face. The simple, clean-cut lines of a black cocktail dress clung to her body, the long sleeves ending at her wrists. The dress hem was just above her knees, drawing the eye to sleek calves and the delicate bones of her ankles above black pumps with impossibly high heels.
Eli wondered how women walked in those things.
He'd known Francesca Fairchild since she was a little girl. Also, her cousin Justin was his best friend. Unfortunately, those two facts meant Frankie was strictly off-limits for all the things he'd like to do with hersomething he'd regretted more often than he cared to think about. Especially over the past four monthsever since that unforgettable kiss at her birthday party.
"Unca Eli?" Ava's small hand tugged his face around until she could meet his gaze. "Mommy says I can have a pet bunny, but first we have to get a cage for him. Will you make one for me? And can I come visit and help you hammer the nails and boards when you make it?"
Eli grinned, glad to be distracted from thoughts of Frankie and charmed as always by the little girl's green eyes and hopeful smile. "Sure, honey. Let's go ask your mom and dad when we can do that."
With Ava perched on his hip, Eli strode across the room to join her parents and settle into a leather armchair. The seat gave him an unobstructed view of Frankie and was placed at right angles to the sofa where Justin and Lily chatted with Cornelia Fairchild, Frankie's mother.
"Mommy." Ava's clear voice piped up. "Unca Eli's going to help me build a bunny house."
"That's wonderful, honey." Lily's rueful gaze met Eli's. "And how does Uncle Eli feel about this?"
"We have a plan," Eli told her with a grin. "And it includes Justin's barbecuing steaks for my granddad to pay my carpenter fee."
"What? How did I get caught up in this?" Justin demanded, his eyes amused.
"Hey, you're the dad," Eli told him with a shrug. "I'm just the uncle."
"I love you, Unca Eli." Ava wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek.
"I love you, too." Eli barely had time to register the swell of affection that filled him before the little girl jumped off his lap and climbed onto her father's. Both Justin and Lily received hugs and kisses, the adults exchanging amused looks.
Ava launched into an excited description of plans for the rabbit hutch.
Only half-listening, Eli leaned back in the comfortable chair, his gaze going past the trio and across the room, drawn inexorably to Frankie once again.