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When her cell phone began to ring, Katherine Colleen Manetti, K. Manetti according to the silver scripted initials on her office door, had debated letting the call go to voice mail. She was almost too busy to breathe.
When she saw that the call was from Nikki Connors, one of her two oldest, dearest friends, she'd decided to give herself a quick, unscheduled break before she headed off to court. Talking to Nikki—or to Jewel Parnell, her other best friend—reminded her that there was a life outside of the prestigious family law firm where she seemed to spend most of her waking hours.
"Talk quick." Kate popped out a small mirror from the middle drawer of her desk to make sure that every silken, shoulder-length, midnight black hair was in place. It saved her a trip to the ladies' room. "I've got to fly out of the office in less than five minutes."
"Kate, I don't have a date yet, but I need you to be my maid of honor. You and Jewel. You don't mind splitting the position with Jewel, do you? Because I really can't choose between you."
"Hold it. Why do you need a maid of honor?"
Kate knew the logical answer, but it just didn't fit. All three of them were too busy forging their careers to date, much less date long enough to create the need to utter vows before a saintly looking priest.
"Because I'm getting married."
Kate couldn't remember Nikki ever sounding this happy, not even when she graduated medical school near the top of her class. "Married?" she echoed in complete stunned disbelief. Light blue eyes narrowed as the twenty-nine-year-old attorney tried to wrap her head around the concept. "As in ''til death do us part'?"
It took Nikki a second to answer. Kate had strong suspicions that her friend was almost too happy to talk. What was that like? she wondered. She'd been engaged once a couple of years ago, but that had blown up in her face when Matthew McBain, the tall, dark and gorgeous criminal lawyer who'd taken custody of her heart turned out to be more interested in carving notches into his headboard then being faithful to her.
That was when she'd admitted that she had been living the reverse of that old adage about kissing a lot of frogs to find a prince. In her case, she kissed a lot of princes only to discover that they were really frogs. And none had been a bigger frog than Matthew. That was when she'd decided to give her career center stage in her life. Careers, at least, gave back what you put into them. They didn't sleep around.
"Yes," Nikki assured her. "That kind of married."
"To a man?"
"Yes," Nikki said, laughing.
And then Kate remembered. At their last quickie get-together, Nikki had mentioned that she was seeing someone. To be honest, she hadn't paid all that much attention. But she was paying attention now.
"The guy with the kid?" Kate recalled.
"Yes, the guy with the kid." She could hear the smile in Nikki's voice. "I'm getting two for the price of one."
That was when Kate had blurted out, "You're kidding." The next moment, she remembered the way Nikki had met this supposed Prince Charming and his offspring. "The one your mother set you up with?" There was barely veiled horror in Kate's voice, not to mention apprehension.
"Technically, my mother didn't actually set me up with him, Kate. She sold Lucas a house and, because he was new to the area, he asked if she knew the name of a good pediatrician. She gave him my name only because he asked."
That wasn't the way Kate saw it.
"Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. It was a setup, Nik. You know it was a setup. I know it was a setup. And you know what else?"
"What else, Kate?"
"Now that your mother's had this success, that just empowers the rest of them to go crazy and really meddle in our lives—mine and Jewel's," she clarified. "Oh God, Nik, can't you just live with him in sin? Do it for Jewel and me. Otherwise, we're doomed."
"Kate, it's not that bad," Nikki assured her, amused.
"Did all that happiness I hear in your voice give you amnesia? Don't you remember what it was like when we were in college, constantly dodging all those men our mothers kept throwing in our path?" Kate shivered, remembering. "You know what they're like. A tiny taste of success keeps them going for months. I'd be surprised if there isn't some guy on my doorstep all wrapped up in a red ribbon by the time I get home tonight."
"Are you through?"
Kate sighed. "For now."
"Okay. Back to the reason I called. Can I count on you to stand up for me?"
Resigned, Kate said, "Yes, you can count on me to stand up for you. But make the wedding soon, okay? I'm going to have to get out of town, at least until this blows over. There'll be no living with my mother after this."
"You don't live with your mother," Nikki pointed out. "You hardly see your mother."
"There's a reason for that." It wasn't that she didn't love her mother, she did. A great deal. And in order for that love to continue, there needed to be space between them. At times lots of space. "Mom's old-fashioned. She doesn't think a woman's complete without a man." There was a knock on her door and then it opened. Her brother, Kullen, stuck his head in. "Or that a man's complete without a woman, for that matter," she added.
Coming in, Kullen took hold of her wrist and turned it so that he could see who she was on the phone with. He recognized Nikki's number. "Very true," he agreed. "And the more women he has, the more complete that man is." He grinned broadly. Unlike his sister, he had a very full social life. Their mother would have argued that it was too full. Kullen never allowed himself to linger with anyone long enough to even remotely become serious. "C'mon, Kate, it's getting late. We've gotta go," he urged.
On the other end of the call, Nikki said, "Me, too. Say hi to Kullen for me," she requested cheerfully.
"Right. I'll talk to you later, Nik." After terminating the call, Kate tucked the cell phone into her pocket. As she rose to her feet, she saw the unspoken question in her older brother's eyes. "Nikki's getting married."
Kullen's mouth dropped open. "You're kidding."
"That was my reaction, too," Kate told him, "and no, I'm not."
Kullen held the door open for her. He and his sister were both heading for the courthouse on Jamboree. His sports car was in the shop—again—and he was getting a ride from Kate who admittedly drove a far more reliable car than his. But his was by far the more attractive one.
Reaching the elevator first, Kullen pressed the down button. "So who's the lucky guy?"
God, this was going to be awful, Kate thought. She could feel it in her bones. She'd just begun enjoying the fact that her mother had stopped trying to work her dating life—or lack thereof—into every conversation they had.
"Some guy that her mother set her up with."
Kullen looked surprised. "I thought Nikki was against that kind of thing."
"She is. Her mother was underhanded about it." Kate frowned. "You know what this means, don't you?"
Amusement highlighted Kullen's face. "We start screening our calls?"
"Not funny, Kullen. In the past year Mom's finally slacked off. What this means is that she's going to go back to her old ways."
The elevator arrived. Getting on, they had the elevator to themselves for once. Kullen laughed. "You make it sound like a war."
Kate tossed her head. Jet-black hair strained against an army of pins. She always wore it up when she went to court. "That's because that's exactly what it is."
And they both knew it.
"I have to hand it to you, Maizie." Admiration fairly vibrated in Theresa Manetti's voice. "When you first started pushing this idea of using our businesses as a starting point for finding husbands for our girls, I really had my doubts."
Theresa looked at the woman she had known since the third grade. There were cards in her hand, but the weekly poker game she, Maizie and Cecilia were supposedly engaged in wasn't remotely holding her attention. Maizie had just announced that her daughter, Nikki, was engaged. Maizie had done it. She'd found a suitable man for her daughter just as she'd set out to do. It was a goal they all aspired to.
"But you did it," Theresa declared with unabashed admiration. "You found a man for Nikki and the two of you are still on speaking terms. That's quite a feat in my book. Can you find one of those for me?" When she saw Cecilia looking at her with a puzzled expression, Theresa realized she hadn't made herself clear. "I mean find a man for Kate." With a sigh, she said for the umpteenth time what they all knew was true. "Ever since that horrid Matthew made mincemeat out of her heart, she keeps saying she has no intentions of getting married. That her career is enough for her."
Maizie listened with a sympathetic ear. "What she needs is a good man to make her reassess her stand." There was unwavering confidence in her eyes as she assured her friend, "Between the three of us, we'll find someone."
"The three of us?" Cecilia repeated. There was a skeptical note in her voice.
This was never meant to be a solo operation. Maizie firmly believed that there was strength in numbers.
"Sure. I sell houses, you have a cleaning service that goes into some of the best residential homes in Orange County and you—" Maizie shifted her sharp blue eyes in Theresa's direction "—cater affairs. We come in close contact with a lot more people than the average person. I know we can find two decent men in that pool."
It wasn't that Theresa didn't want to help, it was just that she knew her weaknesses as well as her strengths. Her strengths were love and cooking. Under weaknesses she could list social relationships. "You're so much better than I am at this sort of thing," Theresa told her friends.
"Don't sell yourself short, Theresa. You are probably the sweetest person I know." She glanced at Cecilia. "No offense, Cecilia."
Cecilia looked completely unfazed. "None taken," she assured Maizie. "Everyone knows what a sweetheart Theresa is."
"Don't worry, Theresa. We have three times the playing field, three times the possibilities. Just stay alert and who knows?" She winked. "This time next year, we might all be shopping for baby clothes."
"From your mouth to God's ear," Theresa murmured.
"Exactly," Maizie agreed with a huge, amused grin.
Maizie's words were still ringing in her ears the next day when Theresa made her way into Republic National Bank's corporate office to meet with Jackson Wain-wright, a prospective client. When a very efficient assistant brought her in to meet with the man who required her services, those words were replaced by two: breath-takingly gorgeous.
If Theresa could have drawn a picture of the man she knew would make her daughter sit up and take notice, this was the man she would have drawn.
Tall, almost incredibly handsome, Jackson Wain-wright brought the word dashing to mind. Granted it was an old-fashioned description, but looking at the raven-haired man with his chiseled profile, his magnetic blue eyes and his broad shoulders brought the heroes she'd grown up watching and worshipping on the silver screen to mind.
At the moment, the man was on the phone—and not happily so. Nodding a silent greeting, he tried to wrap up the call as he gestured for her to sit down in the chair before his desk.
It was obvious that the person on the other end of the line was a source of irritation to him, even though he kept his voice low.
"I don't have time to argue with you, Jonah. The answer is no, I'm not going to lend you any more money. You need money, come in and we'll see about getting you a job."
Theresa watched as he pressed his lips together and replaced the receiver without another word. The man on the other end of the line had obviously hung up.
The apologetic smile her client-to-be flashed her instantly lit up the room. "I'm sorry."
"There's no reason to apologize, Mr. Wainwright.
I'm the one who walked in on you." She knew she should just let the matter drop, but she wouldn't have been Theresa if she hadn't asked, "Family trouble?"
The fact that the woman asked—and guessed correctly—took him aback. Strained, his guard momentarily down, he heard himself asking, "How can you tell?"
Theresa nodded at his right hand. "Your knuckles turned white on the receiver." And then she smiled understandingly. "I've found that family can get to us the way no one else can. I love my two children more than life itself, but there are times I could strangle them."
Jackson wasn't secretive by nature, but neither did he bare his soul to the first stranger he encountered. Yet there was something warm and understanding about this woman—and he was on overload. A great deal of that was because of Jonah.
He'd expressly taken this transfer from San Francisco back to his old hometown because it was impossible to keep tabs on Jonah from over four hundred miles away. Lately, Jonah seemed even keener than usual to head down a path of self-destruction. He'd been in town less than a week and he was already at odds with his older brother. It had gotten to the point where it was a case of either talking about it, or exploding.
"I can certainly relate to that," he told the woman with the sweet, heart-shaped face. "My brother Jonah is a big, overgrown kid who just never grew up."
"Younger brother?" she guessed.