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What a Monday. The clock said it was only 9:45 a.m., and Pete Dale, senior account manager for Miami's Playa Bella Hotel, had already put out three customer-relations fires by the time his office phone rang ominously for the fourth time.
He squinted at the phone suspiciously, rubbed his temples and sighed. Who was calling now? The cantankerous, octogenarian charity-ball chairwoman? The pain-in-the-butt, preppy pro-golfer's rep? Or the charming, chin-wagging Chilean who loved to chat for hours about every detail of his upcoming fiftieth anniversary dinner for two hundred?
Pete had jumped at the job with Playa Bella two years ago because it enabled him to return to the sun, sand and sea of Miami. But paradise had its price.
He picked up the receiver and held it to his still-burning earPlaya Bella's spa had managed to offend a Latin American dictator's wife, and her secretary had just given him what-for. "Pete Dale. May I help you?"
"Pete!" A voice boomed like a cannon into his brain. But he didn't mind, because it was the voice of a friend. His oldest friend, to be exact. He'd known Mark since junior high.
"Mark, my man," Pete said with relief. "How are you?" He grinned and leaned back in his leather chair, letting his head loll to the side. "You ready for this weekend?"
Mark was getting married in five days, and Pete and the rest of the groomsmen had wild plans for him first. There was no bachelor party like a Miami-based bachelor partythey planned to put The Hangover to shame, though without actually losing their groom in the process.
"I'm readythe question is, is Kendra?" Mark laughed.
"nobody could be prepared to take you on for life," Pete ribbed him.
"True. Very true. Listen, I called for a couple of reasons. One, to say hi. Two, er you remember my sister Melinda, right?"
"Of course I remember Melinda." Pete shifted in his chair.
He'd gotten a real shock when he'd run into her at a Dolphins game a couple of years back. Hadn't recognized her. Though she'd looked familiar, he couldn't place her. A tumble of dark hair, a sunburned nose, big blue eyes, and a curvaceous body made for a man's pleasure.
She'd glanced at him, then turned to walk away with her friends. He'd been openly admiring her rounded ass and wondering what it would feel like in his hands, when she'd turned back toward him and stared, hard.
Busted, Pete pretended that he'd been searching for something.
Then she'd put a hand on his arm and said, in tones of disbelief, "Pete? Pete Dale, is that really you?"
He'd raised his ogling eyes and looked at her face again, puzzled. Where had he seen her before?
"Pete, I'm Melinda. Melinda Edgeworth. Mark's sister."
Shame flared in his gut as heat climbed his neck. "Mel? No way oh, my God, it is you."
He registered with surprise that she was blushing, too. Of course she was! He'd been fixated on her ass, pervert that he was, and she knew it. Oh, hell. "You're all grown up," he added, instantly wishing that he could take back the lame words.
She shrugged. "How are you?"
"Uh, great. You?"
And then her friends had hustled her away, before he could think to get her number. Not that he should have. Mel was Mark's little sister, which put her strictly off-limits.
Mark's next words brought Pete back to the present with a jolt.
"Melinda doesn't have a date for the wedding, and I wanted to ask you if you'd, well, make sure she has a good time."
"Sure, no problem," Pete said easily.
"You're the only nice guy of my acquaintance, and you know how it is with Mel," Mark said.
No, How was it?
"If she'd just lose that baby fat of hers, her life would be different."
Baby fat? Pete frowned, sat up straight in his chair and settled his elbows on his desk. "Oh, come on. Mel's a very pretty girl."
"Uh, huh," Mark said, in dismissive tones. "You know, Kendra tried to give her some advice on how to eat, but it didn't go over too well."
Pete felt a quick wave of sympathy for Mel. Kendra was so thin that he wasn't sure she even qualified for a size at all. He was pretty sure he'd heard of women who were actually size zero. Kendra's legs looked like chopsticks, if you asked him, and her arms were toothpicks. She looked downright brittle; as if she'd break in half if she so much as stubbed a toe. Mark was lucky that she hadn't punctured his kidneys in the night, with one of her elbows.
Put them side by side, Kendra and Melinda, and Pete'd take Mel any day of the week. She had beautiful skin, bright eyes, shiny dark hair that was always escaping the clip she wore to hold it back. And oh yeah, there were those abundant curves of hers.
Pete personally had never been a fan of the South Beach Swizzle Sticks that Mark had collected in college. And they tended to be lowenergy and moody, since they were malnourished.
"Well, anyway. The family's been a little worried about Mel lately. Something happened with a big account at the bakery last weekshe won't talk about itand she's been holed up in her shell, doing nothing but work. So if you'd justI don't knowget her out on the dance floor for a few numbers well, I'd really appreciate it."
"No problem," Pete said again. "Mel is a very cool girl and I'd be delighted."
"You don't have a date to the wedding either, right, bud?"
Pete gritted his teeth. "No, Mark, I don't."
"That's what Mom and Kendra saidthat you were coming stag."
Thanks, Mom and Kendra. Appreciate it. No need to rehash why he was coming alonethat he'd been unceremoniously dumped by his wine-distributor girlfriend a month before. For the hotel manager of an entire cruise line.
Yes, Maribel mixed business and pleasure very well indeed, and he'd just been too stupid to realize that she'd move on when she found a guy a few pay grades and career notches above him.
"So that's perfect, then," continued Mark.
"Yep. Perfect." Pete was nothing if not agreeable. It was part of his job, part of his personality. It sucked sometimes, being a Certified People Pleaser, but placating various warring family members had set him on that course long ago.
So when Pete felt like telling people to take a flying leap, he generally stuffed his emotions and smiled instead. He offered to give them a courtesy discount, no matter how discourteous they'd been to him. He jollied them into a better mood. He sent them complimentary champagne and fruit baskets.
Pete hotly denied, though, that he was a member of the subspecies Doormaticus. Nor was he a butt-kisser or a toady. He was simply a customer-relations expert. He kept the peace, and there was nothing wrong with that, was there?
Pete handled situations with his trademark easy smile, a professional grade eye-twinkle and a voice carefully modulated to Soothe/Empathize on his Internal Customer Service Dial.
Everybody loved Pete with the evident exception of his ex, Maribel.
Mark had called her a witch. Their fraternity brother Adam, a medical student, had said Pete was well-rid of her. And Dev, another fraternity brother, had offered to love-her-and-leave-her in a one-night-stand of revenge on his friend's behalf.
Pete had politely declined this generous offer of male solidarity and explained to Dev that even he, as a former rock 'n' roll stud who still owned leather pants, couldn't compete with the hotel manager of a cruise lineat least not in terms of business opportunities for Maribel.
"I don't hold anything against her," Pete told him. "It's just her nature."
Dev had coughed. "I don't hold anything against scorpions, either, dudebut I still step on 'em."
Pete couldn't help a snort of amusement at that, but he quickly banished it in favor of feeling magnanimous towards Maribel, and therefore superior. That really helped with the whole lovelorn depression thing.
"So," Mark boomed, "I'll see you guys Thursday night, then!"
"Yes, you will though you probably won't see us in focus for very long, my man. After a few shots, you'll be seeing two of everyone."
"I'm not sure I can handle seeing two of Dev," Mark said, sounding a little alarmed.
"And don't hurt me too bad, or Kendra will be pissed."
"Why don't we manage that possibility from the get-go," Pete suggested. "Do not make any lunch plans with your bride for the next day."
The morning was not receding, no matter how much Melinda Edgeworth wished it to. In fact, the Miami sun was rising into the sky as cheerfully as it always did; defying her and shining down upon her lazy, moping self.
She wanted it to immolate her like a vampire so that she wouldn't have to face her bakery and work. Tomorrow she had to deliver three hundred fresh chocolate croissants and three hundred vanilla raspberry scones to a medical convention, which meant that she and Scottie, her assistant, had to make them today.
That, in addition to a groom's cake, an elaborate baby-shower cake, and a large order of petits fours for high tea at a ladies' club.
Noooooo! Melinda closed her eyes again and groaned. She felt the small, warm body against hers stir. Mami, her little Schipperke mix, got to her tiny, fuzzy feet and yawned, sending a wave of hot dog-breath up Mel's protesting nostrils.
Melinda opened one eye. "You have the breath of a camel, sweetheart."
Mami yipped, climbed onto Mel's chest and licked her face with gusto.
"That wasn't an invitation to make me smell like a camel, too." But Mami was irresistible, and knew it. Mel scooped her up, kissed her head, and tucked her under her chin.
Mami tolerated this treatment for a couple of minutes, but then wriggled free, yipping for her breakfast.
"Not open for business yet," Mel grumbled. She rolled onto her stomach and stuffed her head under her pillow. At least she had her brother's four-tiered wedding cake done. But there was so much else to tackle.
Get out of bed this instant and don't be a whiner, said her Inner Drill Sergeant. You 're lucky you get to play with ganache and fondant and don't have to work in a coal mine.
God, she hated her Inner Drill Sergeant. Why couldn't he strangle to death in a loop of her small intestine? Or fall into a pit of digestive acid?
Twenty minutes later, Mami had her heart's desire out of a can, while Melinda sat at her breakfast table, deeply committed to smothering her Inner Drill Sergeant in pancakes, butter, syrup and bacon. Lots of bacon, crispy, the way she liked it.
She pictured the Sergeant being pelted by the mouthfuls of food as she swallowed them. "That'll teach you to nag me about work ethic and calories and exercise," she muttered.
But it didn't shut him up, of course.
No, he just asked her nastily whether she was finished yet, or whether she wanted to add another thousand calories to her breakfasta third of a pound. He told her she was a disgrace. He told her that she was fat
Just like Franco Gutierrez had, last week, when she'd smacked him for snaking a hand down her pants and fondling her bare butt. She'd chased him out of her shop with a rolling pin, instead of compromising her ethics in order to keep his very large Java Joe's account.
Gorda! He'd spat at her. Cow! This was followed by something filthy in Spanish. The implication was that she'd be lucky if he deigned to 'do' her. Who was she to turn him down?
But she had, and it was going to seriously hurt her in financial terms. Java Joe's, a big cafe chain, supplied almost twenty-five percent of her income. How was she going to replace it? She couldn't go to her aunt Kylie at Sol Trust again. Kylie had made her the initial bank loan for the startup after Mel had graduated from culinary school and hung out her shingle as a pastry chef, but her condo was at stake as collateral. And she had to generate enough income to pay all expenses, plus her mortgage, her bills and installments on the debt.
Mel stopped eating and dropped her fork. Then she pushed her plate away, leaned her head on her arms and wondered miserably why she could run a busy highend bakery, but lacked the competence to run her own body in the way she knew she should.
She picked up Mark and Kendra's engagement photo and found her eyes watering at Mark's expression of pure love for his bride.
Amazing. He hadn't looked like that when he'd painted Mel's Barbie with Barbiecue sauceha, haand broiled her in Mom's oven in her pageant gown and tiny rubber shoes; or when he and Pete Dale had buried Mel up to her neck in sand and kept her there on the beach for hours, only letting her drink from a plastic water-gun aimed at her mouth.
She shook her head as she thought about the teenaged Pete, about the huge crush she'd had on him back then. She'd turned bright red every time he came near her, and either stuttered oron one horrifying occasionburped convulsively when she tried to speak to him.