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And if the early morning traffic jam and the ten voice-mail messages waiting for her attention weren't enough proof it was Monday, Caitlin McBride knew she could add the three grueling hours she'd just spent shopping with the daughter of one of her clients. What should have been a fairly easy search for the perfect "little black dress" had quickly turned into a battle of wills when the teenager revealed that she did like the color blackbut only as the background for hundreds of tiny skulls.
Caitlin had won in the endshe always didbut at the moment she needed to rebound with a cup of strong coffee and the piece of dark chocolate tucked away in her desk drawer.
She didn't break stride as she swept past her assistant's desk. "Sabrina, I have an appointment with Dawn Gallagher at Twin City Trends this afternoon. Don't forget to leave the entries for the makeover contest on my desk before you take your lunch break."
"Um, Ms. McBride?"
Judging from the undercurrent of misery in Sabrina Buckley's voice, the chocolate was going to have to wait.
Caitlin paused and pivoted slowly on one stiletto heel. "Yes?"
"I'm, ah, having a little trouble with the elimination round."
Caitlin sighed. Why leadership seminars continued to claim that "delegating responsibility" was a positive thing, she didn't know.
"What kind of trouble?"
"Well, you told me to divide the entries into two piles." Sabrina gestured to the overflowing bins on her desk. "One for women who already look like models and just want to be featured in a magazine. And one for average, everyday-looking women who could potentially bring new clients to IMAGEine aftertheir makeover."
"That's right. Two piles." The toe of Caitlin's shoe tapped against the plush carpeting. "So what seems to be the problem?"
"This one." Sabrina held out a photograph. "It doesn't exactly fall into either category."
"Of course it does," Caitlin said firmly, retracing her steps back to the reception desk. "Let me see. "
The sentence ended in something that sounded suspiciously like a gurgle.
"It's a man."
Her assistant grinned. "It certainly is."
Caitlin ignored the sudden, irreverent sparkle in Sabrina's eyes as she studied the photo and made a swift assessment of the subject's rugged masculine features. Fathomless dark eyes. Arrogant jaw. A shaggy mane of hair the color of espresso.
"He sent in an essay?"
"Not exactly him. No." Sabrina squirmed briefly in her chair.
Caitlin exhaled and counted to five. Out loud. And then she tried again. "But he entered the contest?"
"Not exactly him. No."
"Sabrina" Caitlin's eyes narrowed.
"I'll show you." Sabrina's hand disappeared into the pile of papers and she unearthed an entry form, waving it in front of Caitlin like a white flag. "You have to read this. Then it will make sense." The young woman nibbled on the tip of her ragged fingernail. "Maybe."
"Fine." Caitlin felt a tension headache sink its hooks into the base of her neck as she plucked the paperwork and the photo out of Sabrina's hands. "Let me know when my next appointment arrives."
"Yes, Ms. McBride."
Caitlin retreated to her office, sat down at her desk and slipped off her shoes, careful to line them up just so, before glancing at the entry that had her assistant in a tailspin.
Not that she blamed her. In the five years since IMAGEine, Caitlin's Minneapolis-based image consulting business, had teamed up with Twin City Trends for their annual makeover contest, this was the first time they'd received an entry from a man.
She deliberately turned the photograph over to escape the intensity of those deep-set, charcoal-gray eyes.
"Now, Mr. " Caitlin glanced at the name at the top of the entry form. "Walsh. What's your story?"
She turned the application over to skim the "in one hundred words or less tell us why you need a makeover" portion of the entry form and was surprised to find it handwritten rather than typed. And even more surprised to see the neat penmanship dominated by carefully rounded letters; the lower case ones graced with decorative, curly tails.
Caitlin lightly cleared her throat.
As she skimmed the essay, unexpected emotion grabbed hold of her heart. And squeezed. No wonder Sabrina hadn't known what to do with this particular entry.
She didn't know what to do with it, either.
And Caitlin always knew what to do about everything.
"Are you kidding me, Caitlin? You can't disqualify this entry. It's our winner!" Dawn Gallagher picked up the entry form and read the opening lines of the essay out loud.
"'Dear Twin City Trends Makeover Team, My name is Jennifer Walsh. I'm twelve years old, and I'm writing to you because my dad needs a makeover '"
"This is pure gold. Gold that happens to have a high rate of exchange at the newsstand."
"A person has to be eighteen or older to enter," Caitlin reminded her, wishing she'd followed her first instinct and quietly discarded Jennifer Walsh's entry form instead of showing it to Dawn. Blame it on the fact that she'd been charmed by the sweet formality of the girl's essay and thought Dawn might be, too. She'd had no idea the style editor would insist they'd found their winning entry.
"He is over eighteen," Dawn argued.
"But he didn't enter the contest."
"An insignificant detail."
"There is no such thing as an insignificant detail," Caitlin felt the need to point out.
Dawn stared at her for a moment and then dropped into the leather chair opposite Caitlin's desk. Caitlin waited, knowing from past experience that Dawn wasn't admitting defeat. She was plotting her next move.
"My senior editor posted the stats on the last issue, and I have to admit they're pretty dismal." Dawn's smile was strained. "Subscription sales have declined ever since our competition decided to publish a cheaper version of the magazine. Jillian is hoping the annual makeover edition will turn things around. In fact, she's hinted if that happens, she'll think about making the contest a monthly feature."
"With you in charge."
"Possibly." Dawn shrugged but couldn't hide the ambitious gleam in her eyes. "But might I remind you, if there's no increase in sales, there's no makeover feature. And if there's no makeover feature, there's no need for a style editor."
"I see your dilemma," Caitlin said dryly.
"You can't deny how much buzz this could create," Dawn continued. "A man featured in our contest. The entry sent in by his twelve-year-old daughter. It's fresh. It's intriguing."
"It has potential."
Dawn's eyes sparkled. "And you have to admit, this guy Devon Walsh is mega-handsome. A diamond in the rough."
Caitlin frowned. A diamond in the rough? Had she missed something?
"You see it, don't you?" Dawn held up the photo.
"He looks like an aging rock star. Silky dark hair. Mysterious eyes. Bad-boy stubble "
Bad-boy stubble? Oh, please.
She'd definitely missed something.
" unless you aren't sure you could improve on this." Dawn shrugged.
"Believe me, a shave would be an improvement," Caitlin shot back, aware of her friend's tactics but still a little offended that Dawn would question her ability.
"You've been hoping to increase your male clientele for the past few years. Who knows? If you can transform this particular frog into a prince, execs will be lining up around the block to schedule an appointment at IMAGEine."
Caitlin thought the frog/prince analogy wasn't exactly a fair one. Devon Walsh might be on the scruffy side but he did have great cheekbones. And she couldn't deny that one of her goals included expanding her client base to include more men. Still, she couldn't help but wonder if the whole thing wasn't a setup.
"Are you sure about this? For all we know, Devon Walsh is a wannabe actor or model who put his daughter up to this, knowing we'd take the bait."
Hook, line and show-me-the-rise-in-subscrip-tions sinker.
"Your cynicism is showing, my friend, but if it makes you feel better, pay Jennifer Walsh and her dad a visit to make sure this is legit before we sign on the dotted line. If it isn't, we'll go with your top pick. Plain and simple."
Plain and simple.
It sounded good in theory. So why did Caitlin have the uneasy feeling that her life was about to get complicated?
Just before lunch, Devon Walsh noticed that an eerie silence had descended over the house.
An eerie silence could only mean one thing. His children were studying instead of playing.
He pushed his chair away from the desk and stalked toward the door as he formulated a slight variation of the lecture he'd been serving up like spaghetti over the past few months. A lecture he'd guarantee couldn't be found in one of the numerous parenting books he'd been reading. The ones that gave advice on how to give children roots, wings and make them mind without losing his.
Devon was beginning to think the reason he hadn't discovered a fool-proof parenting technique was because his children didn't exactly fit the typical "kid" mold.
Sure, blame them. It's not like you're the poster child for Father of the Year.
Not that he wasn't trying.
It's just that three out of the four Walshes in the house weren't cooperating.
He decided to track down Josh and Brady, his nine-year-old twins, first. Just the fact there were two of them doubled the volume and usually made them easier to locate. Jenny was the tough one. Shy and introspective, she could make herself practically invisible when she wanted to be. And she wanted to be. A lot.
Coaxing Jenny out of her shell was a challenge Devon didn't feel prepared for.
Who was he kidding? Parenting was a challenge he didn't feel prepared for.
Strength for the moment, right, Lord?
It had become his mantra over the past six months.
"Brady? Josh?" Devon veered to the right when he reached the foot of the stairs, assuming he'd find the boys in the parlora quaint, old-fashioned term for a drafty room with scuffed hardwood floors, uncomfortable furniture covered in itchy, burgundy velvet and heavy drapes that blocked out the light with the efficiency of an eclipse. For reasons Devon couldn't begin to explain, it had become his children's favorite room in the house.
He'd only taken a few steps in that direction when the twins materialized in front of him.
"Hi, Dad," Josh said cheerfully.
Too cheerfully, in Devon's opinion. And even if the chapter on "pushing boundaries" he'd read the night before wasn't still fresh in his mind, he would have been suspicious.
Brady pulled his ever-present stopwatch out of his pants pocket and flipped open the cover. "You've got thirty-five minutes left to write, Dad. What's up?"
"I was just about to ask you the same thing."
"Ah nothing much. Just hanging around." Josh casually tossed a miniature football into the air and scrambled to catch it again. He missed and it bounced off his shoe and hit the wall. "Playing football. You know."
Devon's eyes narrowed. The boys had never shown an interest in any of the sports equipment he'd purchased. A decoy toy, no doubt about it.
"Where is Jenny?" Devon took a step toward the parlor and found his path blocked by identical brown-eyed obstacles.
"She's somewhere." Brady shrugged.
"Not here, though." Josh's ears turned red.
Devon suppressed a smile. Those ears gave him away every time. More reliable than a lie-detector test.
"Is she in the parlor?"
"No!" The twins' voices blended together in an ear-splitting, off-key soprano.
Devon winced. He wasn't in any hurry for the boys to grow up but he did look forward to the day their voices changed.
"Will you help us put together the train track, Dad?" Brady asked.
"You want to put together the train track?" Devon repeated. "Now?"