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Sis: It's crazy here. Hot, ugly, intense. My kinda place. Still, I miss home. The pictures you sent of the seal pups in Yerba Buena made me smile. But who was that chick with the pink hair? Did her T-shirt really say Blow Me? What kind of people are you running with? You'd better be careful. You know there are jerks out there who'd take advantage of your money, right? Don't trust people unless one of mis hermanos checks them out first, okay? Speaking of, I've got a buddy stopping by. He's a good guy and helped me out of a tight spot. He promised to check up on you. Treat him nice. He's the kind of guy you should be thinking about, okay? A stand-up guy with full pockets and real integrity. Think about it. Love ya, Rico.
Holy cow, Rico was matchmaking from a battle zone. Her brother was certifiable. Sophia Castillo didn't know whether to laugh or cry. A typical reaction when dealing with her family.
She wasn't sure which was worse, though. That he thought he could check up on her? Or the idea that he'd found some guy who had
How'd he put it? Full pockets? As if she'd have the slightest interest in dating at this point in her life, let alone care what was in some guy's pants. So typical, given that none of the men in her family thought she was capable of taking care of herself.
Sophia smiled anyway, though. Even if he was an over-protective, meddling busybody, she was proud of her brother. Bad boy Rico Santiago had finally found his path in life. A member of EOD, the U.S. Army's bomb disposal unit, he was halfway through his 365-day tour in Afghanistan. Risking his life, defending his country. And still bossing his little sister around.
Trying to boss her around, Sophia corrected as the phone rang.
"Esprit de l'Art," she answered, as always loving the sound of the art gallery's name rolling off her tongue. "Sophia?"
Recognizing her lawyer's voice, Sophia closed her eyes and said a little prayer, then replied, "Olivia, hello. I hope you have some good news for me?"
"Is no news good news?" the other woman asked.
Sophia winced. If Olivia was trying to make jokes, the morning's settlement negotiation hadn't gone well.
"She wouldn't budge?" Even though she'd known it was a long shot, Sophia's stomach still sank into the toes of her sassy red heels. She'd have dropped her head on her desk and let it bounce a few times, but she figured with her luck she'd damage the desk. And she couldn't afford to replace it.
"I'm sorry. Ms. Castillo's lawyer stood firm on their demands. They want you to release all claims to your late husband's estate. They're not willing to negotiate."
It'd been eight months since Sophia's husband of four years had died of a heart attack. The abrupt loss had been a shock. But the reality was, she'd spent the year before he'd died mourning the loss of the man she'd loved after she'd finally realized the charming hero she'd idealistically married only existed in her imagination.
Nineteen years her senior, Joseph Castillo had swept her off her feet. He'd been wealthy, intellectual and polished. Everything Sophia had dreamed about as a poor little girl growing up in a huge family of bossy brothers and a father too busy supporting all of them to pay much notice to his youngest child.
The first year of her marriage had been a fairy tale. Joseph had been wonderful. He'd even bought the gallery she'd loved since childhood for her as a wedding gift. Indulgent and sweet, he'd treated her like a princess. And she'd done everything she could to be worthy of her charming prince. It'd been in their second year of marriage that things had gotten rocky.
To this day, she didn't know if it was because she'd started feeling comfortable enough to start asserting her normal independence, something she'd sidelined in the uniqueness of being taken care of, or if it was Joseph's waning attention as the novelty of his new bride faded. Probably a combination of the two. But things subtly changed. So subtly it'd taken Sophia three years to see the deliberate erosion of her confidence. A master of passive-aggressive power plays, Joseph had wanted her to remain the naively devoted worshiper he'd married and he'd done everything he could to keep her there.
In the end, Sophia had barely recognized herself under the layers of silk, diamonds and obedience.
And she definitely hadn't recognized the man she'd married.
"So what next?" she asked her lawyer, dreading the answer but needing to know. Never again was she going to hide away and hope things would just get better. She'd learned the hard way that sitting with her eyes scrunched closed and her fingers crossed was only good for wrinkles and hand cramps.
"You want it all, she wants it all. So next, we go to trial," Olivia said briskly, as if Sophia having the intimate details of her life publically smeared in court wasn't anything to stress about. "We have an excellent chance of walking away with everything. Joseph's will clearly stated that eighty percent of his estate was to go to you. Despite your stepdaughter's claim that you were going to file for divorce and in so filing, would void the prenup, you didn't actually take any legal steps. Intention isn't fact."
As usual, the thought of divorce sent a feeling of failure washing over Sophia. She'd been brought up to believe that marriage was forever. Despite her family's oh-so-vocal doubtsor maybe because of themshe'd been determined, even when things started to fall apart, to have that idyllic forever.
Part of her had even hoped that the shock of suggesting they end their marriage would somehow push them into fixing things.
Apparently, she'd still been a little naive. But not any longer. Now she had priorities. And priority number one was her gallery.
"What about the money? Can't I access any of my bank accounts? I've been living on what Esprit brings in for the past six months. And given the mess Joseph created last year, it's not bringing in much."
"The joint accounts are all frozen. I've requested an audience with Judge Langley to negotiate. Ms. Castillo refused arbitration, so I might be able to use that as a leverage to get at least a portion of the money released."
Sophia wasn't surprised that her stepdaughter had refused arbitration. Lynn was bitter. Younger than Sophia by only a couple of years, she'd been raised by her mother and taught young to hate everything her father stood for. Except, apparently, his money.
"I need access to my funds if I'm going to keep this business going, Olivia. We have to figure something out. The gallery has a show scheduled next week. It has to be a success."
For so many reasons. Her ego, for one. Years of subtle put-downs and the slow shredding of her confidence, for another. The process had been methodical and clever. Before she'd realized it, she was distanced from her family, cut off from her friends. Her entire world revolved around Joseph.
His opinions. His approval. His guidance.
Her dress was too short. Her lipstick too bright. Her opinions too loud.
And the gallery he'd given her as a wedding gift? She looked around her office, letting the warmth of the space ward away the chills this conversation and her memories were bringing. He'd never let her actually run the gallery. Yes, it was in her name. But he'd thought she should take management classes. Then he'd figured she needed to travel more, see other galleries. He'd explained that she'd learn through watching. So even though she'd technically owned the gallery for four years, until last summer the sum total of her contribution had been choosing hors d'oeuvres for shows and looking pretty.
And she'd sat quietly by while he slowly and surely undermined the gallery, too. She had to turn the business back around. She and the gallerythey were both going to regain their former glory.
She glanced at the pile of bills mocking her from her inbox and sighed. Somehow.
"Olivia, this show's success is vital," Sophia insisted. Actually, she insisted pretty loudly. Not quite at the top of her lungs, but you couldn't say she wasn't passionate about how much she needed this show to work out. Sophia clenched the phone in her fist and took a deep breath, then modulated her tone. "You have to push harder. I don't understand how she can control everything like this. The will clearly stated what was mine and what was Lynn's. How come the judge is giving her this much power?"
Olivia's sigh was so loud, Sophia was surprised it didn't ruffle her hair through the phone.
"Sophia, I'm sorry. Between Ms. Castillo's witness list and documentation, she was able to present a strong enough case that the judge has to consider it."
"In other words, Judge Langley is listening to gossip and rumors."
The rumors that Sophia was a promiscuous money-hungry tramp had started four months ago. If they were to be believed, it was her fault, for everything from the gallery's shift in focus from classy photography to erotic art, to the resulting financial challenges, to Joseph's receding hairline.
"You realize Lynn's probably the one who started those stupid rumors, right?" Sophia pointed out, her fingers tapping in irritation on her spotless desk blotter. "Who else would care what the gallery is showing or how I run it?"
"Regardless of who started the rumors, you need to be aware of the talk and make sure you rise above it. Prove it false. Continue with your plan to restore the gallery to its former focus on photography instead of the erotic art your husband preferred to show. Behave, keep your nose clean, all that stuff. If you do, we'll be fine. Just stay focused and keep a positive attitude."
At this point, Sophia did let her head drop to her desk as she continued to listen to Olivia reiterate again all the ways she should behave before saying goodbye.
It was all she could do not to slam the phone down. God, she was sick of people telling her how to behave. What to do and how to do it. And always, every freaking time, it was supposedly for her own good.
Because, what? She only did things for her own bad?
When did she get to lead her own life? Call her own shots?
"Now, dammit," she said aloud. "It's my life and I have a plan. I'm the one in charge now."
Maybe talking to herself wasn't a part of that plan, but she was considering it a work in progress.
She clicked her mouse, opening a brightly colored goal board on her computer screen. She'd spent the past year reading every self-help book she could find. She searched her soul, delved into her psyche, tiptoed around her inner shadow. And she'd decided that the true path to happiness was through control. Her taking control of her own life, that is.
And now her brother was trying to get her to go out with one of his buddies? Sophia pursed her lips, and even though she knew she was only torturing herself, she clicked open her picture file.
Her mouse went unerringly to the photo Rico had sent her about six months ago. She'd looked at it so often, it was a good thing it was on the computer screen instead of paper, or she'd have worn out the edges. With a click, a group of men filled her screen. Rico's bomb disposal squad. There was her brother in the center, his arms draped over two other guys while another stood just off to the side.
He was dressed the same as the others, a tan T-shirt and fatigues. But he stood out as if he were wearing a tux. Maybe it was his position, a part of the group yet distanced. Or a sign of authority, since he seemed to be in command.
Some men were pure fantasy material. And this guy, Sophia decided with a deep sigh, was a prime example of a U.S. Armed Forces soldier at its finest. A testosterone-loaded weapon in human form. This guy exuded an air of confident sexuality that was so strong in a photograph, Sophia was pretty sure it'd melt her into a puddle of lust if she ever saw him in the flesh. From the curling tips of his damp, dark hair, over the sculpted muscles lovingly covered in the soft tan T-shirt to the hard thighs in khaki fatigues, he was all male.
All sexy, intense, controlled male.
He looked like the kind of guy who knew how to make sex amazing. The kind who not only put a woman's needs first, but realized them before she did. A man who'd make her feel incredibly wanted.
Desirable, powerful and feminine. Sophia's breath quickened as she imagined his hands. They'd be strong. Hard, yet gentle as he caressed her. He'd explore her body, sending her into a mind-numbing spiral of sexual delight she'd only dreamt of.
Just like she was dreaming now. Sophia's breath shortened, her body tight and taut at the images dancing through her mind.
Realizing she'd done it again, brought herself to the edge of an orgasm fantasizing about a guy she'd probably never meet, who for all she knew was happily married with five kids, she gave a breathless laugh.
He was definitely not the kind of guy Rico would send with instructions to check up on his little sister.
"Yo, Soph," called a voice from down the hall.
Sophia's fingers fumbled, sending the mouse sliding across her desk before she caught it. A quick click closed the file, and its hunky contents.
Her cheeks burning, Sophia lifted her chin and quickly pushed away from the desk and hurried from her office so Gina wouldn't come in. Her little fantasy had been so hot, she was sure there was a cloud of sexual energy floating above her computer.
"Yo, Gina," she answered, smoothing her skirt as she headed toward the back of the storage room. "Did that shipment of frames come in?"
"Yep. That and a few other things."
That tone, with its underlayer of naughty glee, made Sophia frown. "What things?"
"Oh, some this, some that and a really huge
When Sophia reached the far side of the storeroom where they kept shipping supplies and the deliveries were made, her jaw dropped.
"You've got to be kidding."
"The shippers thought they were doing us a favor by uncrating it since it's so heavy. I was watching the floor, so I didn't have a chance to stop them before they took off." Delighted horror filled Gina Mayes's voice. "Isn't it great?"
Sophia couldn't tear her eyes off the mind-bogglingly huge spectacle to spare her assistant a look.