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As he watched his date leave the hotel bar wrapped around another man, Robert Caroselli wanted to feel angry or put out, or even mildly annoyed, but he couldn't work up the steam. He hadn't wanted to come to this party, but he'd let Olivia, a woman he'd been seeing casually, talk him into it last minute.
"I don't really feel like celebrating," he'd told her when she called him around nine. He had already turned off the television and was planning to crawl into bed and with any luck sleep away the next three months or so. It was that or face daily the fact that his family, the owners of Caroselli Chocolate, had lost complete faith in him as a marketing director.
Yes, sales for the last quarter were down, but they were in a recession for Christ's sake. Hiring Caroline Taylor, a so-called marketing genius from Los Angeles, was not only an insult, but also total overkill as far as he was concerned. But against the entire family, his objections carried little weight.
On top of that he had the added pressure of finding a wife. A woman to give him a male heir. By thirty-one most of his cousins, and the majority of his college buddies, were already married. It wasn't as if he'd made a conscious decision to stay single. His dedication to the family business had kept him too busy to settle down. He couldn't deny that ten-million dollars had been a tempting incentive, but fifteen million? That was difficult to pass up. Especially when it meant that if he didn't get his cut, his cousin Tony would walk away with the entire thirty million. He would never hear the end of it.
But if he was going to find a woman to be his wife and bear his children, it wouldn't be in a bar. And it definitely wouldn't be Olivia. Which was why he'd planned to stay home.
"You can't stay home alone on New Year's Eve!" Olivia had said. "Who will you kiss? You can't start the New Year without a kiss at midnight. It's un-American!"
She hadn't seemed too concerned with whom he would kiss when she walked out the door with someone else. Not that he blamed her for bailing on him. He hadn't exactly been the life of the party. When they arrived around ten, he scoped out a counter-height table with two vacant bar-stools near the back corner, claimed it and hadn't moved since. Now he was on hishe counted the empty glasses in front of himthird Scotch and feeling a hell of a lot more relaxed than when he got there.
Alcohol flowed freely at every Caroselli family functionhell, his family would use any excuse to get together, drink and gossipbut Rob rarely indulged. He never much cared for the out-of-control feeling that came with intoxication. Tonight was a rare exception.
From his table he had a decent view of the entire bar, which was crammed above capacity with people, who, from his vantage point, undulated like the waves off the shore of Lake Michigan. Or maybe that was the liquor playing tricks with his vision.
At the sudden shout, Rob jerked to attention. He blinked, then blinked again, positive he was imagining the angel who stood beside his table. A halo of pale blond hair hung in loose curls that nearly brushed her narrow waist, and framed a heart-shaped face that glowed with youth and good health. His gaze slipped lower and he realized that this particular angel had a body made for sin. She couldn't have been more than a few inches over five-feet tall, but she packed one hell of a figure into her skinny jeans and clingy blue sweater. A complete contrast to the wholesome beauty of her face.
"Is this seat taken?" she shouted over the music. "And just to be clear, I am not hitting on you. I've been on my feet all day and there isn't a single other free seat in this entire place."
He gestured to the chair across from his. "Help yourself."
"Thank you." She slid onto the stool, sighing with pleasure as her feet left the floor. "You're a lifesaver."
She offered him one fine-boned hand with short, neatly filed nails. "Carrie"
Her last name was drowned out by the blare of a noise-maker. She shook his hand, her grip surprisingly firm for someone so petite and delicate-looking.
"Hi, Carrie, I'm Rob."
"Nice to meet you, Ron," she said.
He opened his mouth to correct her, but she flashed him a smile so easy and sweet, so disarming, she could call him anything she wanted and it wouldn't have mattered to him. "Can I buy you a drink?"
She cocked her head to one side and smiled. "Are you hitting on me?"
He had never been the type to flirt, but he heard himself saying, "Would it be a problem if I was?"
She leaned forward to study him and his gaze was naturally drawn to the deep cleft at the front of her low-cut sweater. "I guess that just depends."
"Why a man like you would be sitting here alone at eleven-fifteen on New Year's Eve."
"A man like me?"
She rolled her eyes. "Don't even try to pretend that you don't know how hot you are. You should have women crawling all over you."
"I'm alone because my date left with someone else."
She blinked. "Was she blind or just stupid?"
He laughed. "Bored, I think. I'm not in a mood to celebrate."
Although the night was definitely looking up. "You must have a girlfriend," she said. He shook his head.
He held up his ringless left hand.
She paused, then asked, "Gay?"
He laughed again. "Straight as an arrow."
"Hmm," she said, looking puzzled. "Are you a jerk?"
She sure didn't pull any punches. He liked a woman who was direct and to the point. "I'd like to believe I'm not, but I suppose everyone has their moments."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Honesty I like that. My answer is yes. You can buy me a drink."
"What would you like?"
She nodded to his glass. "Whatever you're having."
He looked around, but the waitresses in the vicinity were overwhelmed with customers, so he figured it would be quicker to go right to the source. "Be right back," he said, heading for the bar.
It took several minutes to navigate through the crowd, and another five or ten before the bartender served him. As he walked back to the table, he half expected Carrie to be gone. He was pleasantly surprised to find her sitting there waiting for him, and suddenly grateful that he wouldn't have to watch the ball drop alone. He might even get a New Year's kiss out of it. Or maybe that would be pushing his luck. Maybe just a quick one, or if she wasn't into kissing a total stranger, a peck on the cheek even.
"Here you go." He set her drink in front of her and reclaimed his chair.
"That took so long, I started to think you left," she said.
"And I wasn't sure if you would still be here when I got back."
"I'm not blind or stupid," she said with a grin, and he felt a tug of attraction so intense, he nearly reached across the table for her hand.
"Do you live in the area?" she asked, sipping her drink.
"Is that far from here?"
"Not too far. I take it you're not from Chicago."
"West Coast born and bred. I'm here for work. I'm staying in the hotel. That's how I wound up in this particular bar."
"You must have someone back home."
"Not for a while."
"Are the men there blind or just stupid?"
She smiled, and he felt that tug again, only this time it was lower, and it wasn't her hand he wanted to touch. That New Year's kiss was sounding even more appealing. He would have to call Olivia tomorrow and thank her for dragging him out.
"A lot of men feel threatened by a strong, successful woman," she said.
Rob had quite a few strong, successful women in his family, and compared to them, Carrie looked anything but threatening. His first instinct, when she had approached his table, was to pick her up and hug her.
"I also have the tendency to gravitate toward men who are bad for me," she said.
"Bad for you how?"
"I like jerks. It's my way of sabotaging the relationship before it even begins." She sipped her drink. "I have intimacy issues."
"If you know that, then why don't you date someone different?"
"Knowing what the problem is doesn't necessarily make it any easier to fix."
Well, she had the honesty thing down to a science. The women he met typically played up their good qualities, not their faults. Which he couldn't deny was, in an odd way, a refreshing change of pace. A sort of "this is me, take it or leave it" philosophy.
"When was your last serious relationship?" he asked.
"I've never really had one."
"Really? What are you? Twenty-four? Twenty-five?"
Carrie laughed. "Aren't you good for my ego. I'm twenty-eight."
"I've never met a woman past the age of eighteen who hasn't been in at least one serious relationship."
"Which you clearly find fascinating," she said, looking amused.
"I do." In more ways than just that. She was like the perfect woman. Sexy, desirable, with a decent sense of humor and completely uninterested in a relationship. Had he hit the jackpot or what?
"How about you?" Carrie asked. "Ever been in a serious relationship?"
"Engaged, but that was a long time ago. Back in college."
"You could say that we wanted different things."
"What did you want?"
He shrugged. "Marriage, kids, the usual stuff."
"What did she want?"
"My roommate, Evan." She winced. "Ouch."
"Better I found out what she was like before we were married than after. At that point I decided to focus on my career."
"So you're married to your job?"
"More or less."
"It's not unusual for me to work fourteen-hour days, so I totally get that."
She would be the first woman who ever did. And he found himself wishing she were staying in Chicago longer than a few days. She was someone he wouldn't mind getting to know better.
After talking for a few minutes more, and some serious flirting, they had both drained their glasses, so he hailed a waitress for two more drinks. There was more talking, more flirtingbut mostly flirtingthen Carrie had a third drink, and by then it was nearly midnight. At one minute till, the music stopped, and everyone focused on the big-screen television over the bar to watch the ball drop.
"So," Carrie said, "because neither of us has anyone to kiss."
"I was told that it's un-American to start the New Year off without a kiss," he said.
"I guess that doesn't leave us much choice, then."
With a grin, he held out his hand and she took it. She slid down off the stool, and didn't show a bit of resistance as he tugged her closer. He should have been watching the ball drop, but he couldn't seem to peel his eyes away from her face. Standing this close he would have expected to see at least an imperfection or two, but her skin was flawless, her eyes such a clear gray they appeared bottomless. His eyes dropped to her mouth, to lips that looked full and soft and kissable.
Only an hour ago he had been dreading the arrival of the New Year, now he could hardly wait for those last thirty seconds to pass. Then it was twenty seconds, and when it reached ten, everyone in the bar started to count. Except for him and Carrie. Their eyes locked, and they stood so close now that her warm breath feathered against his lips. They waited in anticipation. Five four three two
Unable to wait another second, he slanted his mouth over hers and the cheers and hoots, the shrill of noisemakers and the chorus of "Auld Lang Syne" being sungit all faded into the background. Her lips parted under his. He heard her sigh as he sank his fingers through the silky ribbons of her hair, felt her melt against him when he pulled her closer. The softness of her lips, the sweet taste of her mouth, were more intoxicating than any drink. And he wanted her, knew he had to have her, even if it was for only one night.
He wasn't sure how long they stood there kissing, their arms wrapped around one another, but when he finally broke the kiss, they were both breathless and Carrie's cheeks were rosy and hot.
"At the risk of sounding too forward," she said, "would you like to come up to my room?"
Of course he wanted to. "Are you sure that's what you want?"
That must have been the right answer, because she smiled and took his hand. "I am now. I figure, why not start the year with a bang?"
He grinned, squeezed her hand and said, "Let's go."
Start the year off with a bang indeed, Carrie thought as the cab inched along in bumper-to-bumper traffic through the slushy streets of Chicago. Two days later and her neck still ached, there was a bruise on her shin where she had banged it on the headboard, and she had angry-looking rug burns on her knees, but it had been so worth it. She hadn't been banged so well, or so many times in a row, in years. The man was insatiable, and gave as good as he got. Better even. And as she had imagined, he looked just as good out of his clothes as he did in them. She would even go so far as to say that it was the single most satisfying, fun and adventurous sexual experience of her life. Then he had to go and ruin it by skulking off in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye.
He hadn't left his phone number, which she could have looked up if she had caught his last name. But all evidence pointed to his not wanting to be found. For all she knew, Ron wasn't even his real name, and he had been sitting there alone looking for someone just like her, someone to bang in the New Year with. Maybe all he'd really wanted was cheap sex.
Oh, well. At least it had been really good cheap sex. And in her own defense, she'd hit the minibar in her room before she had even ventured downstairs and had been more than a little drunk. It was possible that he wasn't even as good-looking as she thought. Or that great of a lover.
She wasn't sure if that should make her feel better or worse.
She had been in Chicago barely forty-eight hours, and already she'd invited a strange man up to her room, had sex and had gotten dumped. That had to be some kind of world record.
But Ronif that was really his namewasn't totally to blame. She did have the tendency to come on a little strong, and sometimes men took it the wrong way. Under normal circumstances she was outspoken. Get her a little tipsy and she had the tendency to say things she probably shouldn't. According to her stepfather, her sassy mouth had been her biggest problem. And his cure for that had always been a solid crack across said mouth with the back of his hand.
She didn't recall everything she and Ron had discussed that night, but she seemed to remember some of it being very personal in nature.
"This is it," the cab driver said as the car rolled to a stop outside Caroselli Chocolate headquarters. As soon as the contracts were signed, and a timetable set, she would look for an apartment or condo to lease. There was nothing she hated more than living out of suitcases for extended periods of time.