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Rowena Tate clung to what shred of patience she still possessed as her father's personal assistant, Margaret Wellington, warned her, "He said to tell you that he's on his way over now."
"And ?" Rowena said, knowing there was more.
"That's it," Margaret said, but Rowena could tell by her voice, the slight rise in pitch, that she was leaving something out.
"You're a worse liar than I am."
Margaret sighed, and in that sympathetic tone said, "He wanted me to remind you to be on your best behavior."
Rowena took a deep, calming breath. Her father had informed her by email this morning that he would be bringing a guest to see the day-care center. He'd demandednot asked, because the great Senator Tate never asked for anythingthat she have things in order. He'd suggested, not for the first time since she'd taken over the management of his pet project, that she was still impulsive, irresponsible and ineptlabels that he apparently would never let her live down.
She looked out her office window at the children on the playground. Five straight days of rain had finally turned to sunny skies, and the temperature was a pleasant sixty-five degreesabout the norm for Southern California in February. Dressed in spring jackets, the day-care kids darted around, shaking off a severe case of cabin fever.
She could be in the world's worst mood, and watching the kids play always made her smile. Until she had her son, Dylan, she'd had little interest in children. Now she couldn't imagine a more satisfying career choice.
And she knew, if she wasn't careful, he would take that away from her, too.
"He's never going to trust me, is he?"
"He put you in charge."
"Yeah, but after three months he still watches me like a hawk. Sometimes I think he wants me to screw up, so he can say I told you so."
"He does not. He loves you, Row. He just doesn't know how to show it."
Having been her father's assistant for fifteen years, Margaret was like part of the family, and one of the few people who understood the complicated relationship between Rowena and her father. Margaret had been with them since before Rowena's mother, Amelia, caused an incredible scandal by taking off with the senator's protege.
And people wondered why Rowena was so screwed up.
Was, she reminded herself. "Who is it this time?" she asked Margaret.
"A British diplomat. I don't know much about him, other than that he's lobbying your father to support a tech treaty with the U.K. And I think he has some sort of royal title."
The senator probably loved that. "Well, thanks for the heads-up."
"Good luck, honey."
The buzzer sounded, announcing her father's arrival. With a heavy sigh she pushed herself out of her chair, took off the paint-smudged vinyl smock she'd worn for the morning art project and hung it on a hook in the closet, then headed through the activity room and out to the playground to open the gate, which was kept locked at all times. To keep not only the children in, but strangers out. With a man as powerful and influential as the senator, and the day-care center on the grounds of his estate, one could never be too careful.
Her father stood on the other side, dressed for golf and wearing his plastic politician's smile. Then her eyes settled on the man standing beside him.
When Margaret said British diplomat, Rowena had pictured a stuffy, balding, forty-something elitist with an ego to match his bulging Swiss bank accounts. This man was her age or close to it, and there was nothing stuffy about him. His hair was the color of dried wheat, closely cropped and stylishly spiky. His eyes were a piercing, almost eerie shade of blue that had to be tinted contacts, and were curtained with thick dark lashes that any woman would sell her soul for. And though he might have been a royal in title, the shadow of neatly trimmed blond stubble and a small scar bisecting his left brow gave him an edgy look. He was several inches taller than the senator, which put him somewhere around six-three. As lean as he was, he should have looked lanky; instead, he was perfectly proportioned.
The rebel in her said, Come to mama. But the logical Rowena, the mature adult, knew from experience that powerful, sinfully attractive men were the worst kind of trouble. And unfortunately, the best kind of fun. Until they took what they wanted and moved on to greener pastures. Or, as had happened with her son, Dylan's, father, knocked her up and abandoned her. She punched in her code, opened the gate and let them in.
"Sweetheart, I'd like you to meet Colin Middlebury," the senator saidsweetheart being a term he only used when he was milking his family-man image. "Colin, this is my daughter, Rowena."
The man leveled those remarkable eyes on her and flashed her a grin that was as much smirk as smile, and her heart went pitter-patter.
"Miss Tate," he said in a silky smooth voice punctuated by a crisp accent that, if she were still the type to swoon, would have had her fanning her face. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Oh, the pleasure is all mine, believe me. She glanced over at her father, who was wearing his behave or else look.
"Mr. Middlebury, welcome to L.A.," she said.
"Please, call me Colin." His grin, the slight lift of his left brow, made it feel more like a dare. And when he shook her hand, she felt a delightful little tingle.
Wow, it had been a really long time since a man had made her tingle. Most of the men her father brought around were stodgy old politicians with clammy hands, roaming eyes and greedy smiles. The kind whose power in politics made them believe they were irresistible to anything with two legs and a pair of breasts.
"Colin will be staying here at the mansion while we iron out the details of a treaty I'm sponsoring," her father said. "Two or three weeks."
This was usually the worst part of being a politician's daughterhaving to play the role of the polite hostess, when on the inside she was grinding her teeth. But when the guest looked like Colin Middlebury? Well, he could be the world's biggest jerk, but at least the view was nice.
Looking in the direction of the playground, her father asked, "Where is my grandson?"
"He's upstairs with his speech therapist," she said. The main floor of the building served as the day-care center, while the upper floor was set up to accommodate a variety of physical, speech and occupational therapy equipment. That way her son, Dylan, could receive all the therapy he needed and she could run the day care without interruption. Her father's idea, of course. Only the best for his grandson.
"When will he be finished? I'd like Colin to meet him."
She glanced at her watch. "Not for another thirty minutes. And he shouldn't be disturbed."
"Another time," Colin said, and asked Rowena, "Will you be joining us at Estavez for dinner tonight?"
Heck yes. She would love to. But a stern look from her father made the correct answer to that question more than obvious.
"Maybe some other time," she told Colin.
"Colin," her father said, "why don't you and I take a quick tour inside."
"Fantastic," Colin said, and maybe it was just the accent, but he sounded genuinely excited.
"I started this project two years ago," the senator told him proudly as they walked to the building, not mentioninghe never didthat the initial idea had been hers.
Rowena looked across the playground to where Patricia Adams, the assistant managerand also her best friendstood watching the kids on the monkey bars. She fanned her face and mouthed the word wow.
Only a few minutes passed before her father and Colin reemerged from the building, and she could see instantly that the senator was in a huff about something.
"It would seem that someone left paint on the edge of one of the tables and it's gotten onto Colin's pants," he told her, and while his tone was reasonable, his jaw was clenched and his eyes had that if-I-get-any-angrier-I'm-going-to-pop look about them.
Colin, in contrast, seemed unfazed, despite a rather large magenta smudge on his left pant leg. "It's really no problem," he said.
"It's a water-based, washable paint," Rowena told him. "A little soap and water should take that right out. I'm sure Betty, our housekeeper, can take care of it for you. But if for whatever reason they're ruined, I'll replace them."
"That certainly won't be necessary," Colin said.
"Well, we should let you get back to work," her father said, flashing his plastic smile. "Colin, would you excuse me and my daughter for a moment? I just need a quick word with her."
Oh boy, here we go.
"Of course. I'll start back up to the house."
She followed her father into the building, then, he turned to her and said, "Rowena, all I ask when I bring a guest in is that you have the center clean and presentable. Was it too much trouble to wipe up a paint spill? Colin is royalty, for God's sake, an earl, not to mention a war hero. What possible reason could you have to be so rude?"
If he was a war hero, he'd probably had a lot worse than paint spill on his pants, she thought, but she didn't dare say it.
Like so many times before, she swallowed her prideand even managed not to gag at the bitter aftertastesaying, "I'm sorry, we must have missed some when we cleaned up. I'll be more careful next time."
"If there is a next time. If you can't manage something as simple as wiping up paint, how can you be expected to adequately care for children?"
"I'm sorry," she said. She didn't know what else to say.
"After all I've done for you and Dylan " He shook his head, as if he had no words to describe her audacity and selfishness. Then for dramatic effect, he stormed out in a huff.
She slumped against the wall, angry and frustrated and yes, hurt. But not defeated. He could keep knocking her down, but she would always get back up again.
Tricia stood in the doorway, looking concerned. "You okay?"
She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and forced what probably looked more like a grimace than a smile. "No big deal."
"I heard what he said about the paint. That was my fault. I asked April to wipe the tables down and I guess I forget to check if she'd missed anything. I know how picky he is when he brings people in. I should have been more careful. I'm so sorry."
"Tricia, if it hadn't been the paint, it would have been something else. You know that he always finds something."
"It's not right the way he treats you."
"I put him through a lot."
"You've changed, Row. You've pulled your life together."
"But I wouldn't have been able to do it without his help. You can't deny that he's done a lot for me and Dylan."
"That's what he wants you to think. But that doesn't make it okay for him to treat you like an indentured servant. You would manage just fine on your own."
She wanted to believe that, but the last time she'd been on her own she had made a total mess of her life.
"You know the offer still stands. If you and Dylan want to come stay with me for a while."
And the instant she left, he would cut off not just her but Dylan, as well. And without the money to pay for his medical care, her father would have all the ammunition he needed to take Dylan away from her. She'd been hearing that threat since the day Dylan was born. It was the ultimate punishment, and she didn't doubt for a second that he would do it.
"I can't, Tricia, but I love you for offering."
Her own irresponsibility and carelessness were what had gotten her into this mess, and she was the only one who could get herself out.
Colin had never put much stock in rumors. In a royal family, even on the outermost fringes, gossip spread like a disease. Which was why, when he heard the speculation about the senator's daughter, out of fairness and respect, he reserved judgment. And maybe he was missing something, but she'd seemed all right to him. Of course, she could have had two heads and hooves for feet and he would have been perfectly gracious.
This assignment was Colin's first go as a diplomat, and certainly not somewhere he had intended to be at this point in his lifeor ever, for that matterbut he was making the best of an unfortunate situation. He had been warned that when dealing with American politicians, especially one as powerful and influential as Senator Tate, he would be wise to watch his back. The senator was a man who got things done. When he put the weight of his office behind legislation, his colleagues naturally fell in line. The royal family was counting on Colin to ensure that the tech treaty, a crucial piece of legislation for both the U.K. and the U.S., became law.
Too many high-profile instances of phone and internet hacking had been occurring in both the U.K. and the U.S. A tech treaty would give international law enforcement the tools to see that the guilty parties were brought to justice.
Due to illegal hacking, President Morrow had been outed as having an illegitimate daughter by the press at his own inaugural ball in front of family, friends and celebrities. Even worse, his supposed illegitimate daughter, Ariella Winthrop, had been standing a few feet away from him when the news broke and was taken by complete surprise herself.
The U.S. was finally willing to negotiate. It was up to Colin to see it through.
He'd made it nearly halfway up the bricked trail to the mansion when Senator Tate caught up to him, saying, "Again, my apologies."
"As I said, it's not a problem."
"It's no secret that Rowena had problems in the past," the senator said. "She has worked hard to overcome them."
Still, the senator seemed to keep her on a very short leash. It was silly to get so upset over something as simple as spilled paint.
"I think we've all done things we're not proud of."
The senator was quiet for several seconds, then, looking troubled, said, "Can I be direct with you, Colin?"
"I understand that you have something of a reputation as a womanizer."
"I don't mean to imply that I would hold that against you," the senator said. "How you lead your life is your business."
Colin wouldn't deny that he had dated his share of women, but he was no cad. He never dated a woman without first making it absolutely clear that he was in no hurry to settle down, and he never promised exclusivity.
"Sir, this so-called reputation of mine sounds a bit hyperbolic."
"You're young, in your prime, and I don't fault you for playing the field."
Colin sensed an unspoken "however" at the end of that sentence.
"Under normal circumstances I wouldn't even bring it up, but I've welcomed you into my home for an extended stay, and I should make it clear that there are certain ground rules I expect you to follow."
"My daughter can be very impulsive and in the past has been a target for unscrupulous men who think they can use her to get to me. Or simply just use her."
"Sir, let me assure you"
He held up a hand to stop him. "It's not an accusation." It certainly felt like one.
"That said, I must insist that as long as you're staying in my home, you are to consider my daughter off-limits."
Well, it didn't get much more direct than that.
"Can I count on you to do the right thing, son?"
"Of course," Colin said, unsure if he should feel slighted or amused or if he should pity the senator. "I'm here to work on the treaty."
"Well, then," the senator said, "Let's get to work."