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Max Angeli shoved the single red rose he was carrying into his pocket as he flipped open his mobile and barked a greeting, resigned to the certainty that whatever he was about to be told was going to create a new level of chaos in his life. First problemthe dance club he'd just walked into was too noisy. Lights swirled and the heavy drumbeat of sensual rhythms pounded. The brittle clink of crystal liquor glasses vied with high-pitched feminine laughter to fill the air with a sort of desperate frivolity. He already despised the place.
"Hold on, Tito," he said into the phone. "Let me get to a spot where I can hear you."
He could tell it was his assistant on the other end of the call, but he couldn't understand a word he was saying. A quick scan of the crowded lounge located the powder room and he headed for it. The sound level improved only marginally, but enough to let him hear what Tito was saying.
"We found her."
Max felt as though he'd touched a live electric wire. Everything in him was shocked. Closing his eyes, he tried to take it in. They'd been searching for weeks, with no apparent leads, until this last tip that his brother's ex-girlfriend, Sheila Bern, might have traveled by bus to Dallas.
His brother, Gino, had died just months before. Sheila hadn't surfaced at the time, but she'd contacted Max months later to say she'd had Gino's baby. When he'd asked for proof that the baby was indeed his brother's, she'd vanished again. He'd almost given up hope. And now, to hear that she'd been found
"You found her?" he repeated hoarsely. "Are you sure?"
"Well, yes and no."
His grip hardened on the mobile. "Damn it, Tito
"Just get overhere, Max. You'll see what I mean." He rattled off an address.
Max closed his eyes again and memorized the information. "Okay," he said. "Sit tight. I've got to get out of this blind date thing I got myself involved in. I'll be right there."
"Okay. Hey, boss? Hurry."
Max nodded. "You got it." He snapped the phone shut and turned back to the noisy room, tempted to head straight for his car and forget the woman who was waiting for him somewhere in all this annoying crush of revelers. But even he couldn't be quite that rude. Besides, his mother would make him pay. She might be sitting in a terraced penthouse in Venice at the moment, but she had ways of reaching across the ocean to Dallas and turning on the guilt machine. Even though she was American, he was the Italian son, and he'd been raised to value keeping his mother happy.
Hesitating on the threshold, he scanned the room and searched for a woman holding a red rosethe match to the poor, straggly item he'd belatedly retrieved from his suit pocket. All he needed to do was find her and let her know something had come up. Simple. It should only take a minute.
Cari Christensen bit her lip and wished she could drown her red rose in the glass of wine that sat untouched in front of her.
"Five more minutes," she promised herself. "And then, if he's not here, I'm going to drop that rose into a trash basket and melt into the crowd. Without that, he'll never know who I am."
He was almost half an hour late. One half hour. That ought to be good enough. She'd promised her best friend, Mara, that she would go through with this, but she hadn't promised to spend all night at it. She sighed, carefully avoiding eye contact with any of the interested males shouldering their way past the bar, wishing with all her heart that she was home snuggled up with a good book. Mara meant well, but couldn't understand that Cari wasn't looking for Mr. Right. She wasn't looking for mister anyone at all. She didn't want a man. She didn't want a relationship. She didn't even want a husband. She'd done that once already and it had turned her life into a living hell.
"Once bitten, twice shy," was her motto. She had no intention of going through that sort of heartbreak again.
But how could Mara understand that? She'd married her childhood sweetheart, settled down in a cute little ranch house and had two adorable kids. Her life was full of piano recitals and pictures on the refrigerator and picnics and kittens. Cari's marriage hadn't turned out that way. They were two very different people, despite the fact that they had been best friends forever.
"Some people find the golden ring swimming in their cereal in the morning, slip it on their finger, and go skipping through life," was how Cari tried to explain it to Mara. "And others drop it in the sand at the beach and spend the rest of their life digging to get it back."
"That's just silly," Mara had retorted. "Do you think my life is perfect or something?"
"Yes, Mara, I do. Compared to mine, it is."
"Oh, Cari." Mara had taken her hand and held it tightly. "What happened with Brian and
and the baby
well, it was just horrible. It shouldn't have happened to anyone, much less someone like you who deserves so much better." She blinked rapidly as tears filled her dark eyes. "But you've got to try again. There's someone out there for you. I just know it. And once you find the right man
The right man. Was there such a creature? Even Mara didn't know the details of what her marriage had really been like. If she did, she might not be so quick to try to throw her back into the deep end of the pool.
"Mara, will you please give it up? I'm perfectly satisfied with my life the way it is now."
"Oh, Cari!" She sighed tragically. "I can't bear the thought of you sitting at home sniffing over old movies on one more Valentine's Day."
Was that what this was all about?
"Wait! Hold it. I don't give a darn about Valentine's Day. It's a made-up holiday. Who cares?"
"Don't try to fool me, Cari Christensen. I know you better than that."
"You need a man."
Mara looked so fierce, Cari had to laugh. "I don't know why I let you be my friend."
"Because you know I'm looking out for what's best for you."
Cari sighed. She knew she was beat. But she had to pretend to fight on. "I don't need anyone looking out for me."
"You do, too. I'm your assigned fairy godmother. Get used to it."
Mara, of course, wouldn't give up at all, and that was why Cari was sitting here in the Longhorn Lounge, holding a sad little red rose and waiting for a man named Randy who Mara had assured her was the exact match for her.
"Just wait. He's special. You'll be surprised."
So she was doing this for her friend. She planned to smile a lot and act interested in Randy's tales of male world conquests, eat a nice dinner in the dining room here at the lounge, get a headache about time for ordering dessert, make a nice apology and head for home. From then on, her answering machine could take care of things for her. And maybe Mara would give up. After all, she'd tried.
The door opened and a man entered, opening his cell phone as he came. Tall and dark and dressed in a beautifully cut suit instead of the jeans and casual shirts most of the men here wore, he grabbed the attention of a lot of onlookers. Something about the way he held himself drew the eye. Or it might just have been the fact that he was the most ruggedly handsome man she'd ever seen this side of the cinema. His thick, dark hair was exquisitely cut and yet managed to give the impression of being a bit long and a bit carelessas though it had just been ruffled by a renegade breeze or a lover's fingers. His broad shoulders strained the silk suit as he turned, and the knife-sharp crease in his slacks only served to emphasize the muscularity of his thighs. A Greek statue brought to life and disguised in a modern business suit.
She shivered, and then had to smile to herself. One thing was certain, this couldn't possibly be her man Randy. And she was glad of that. In her experience, high-powered, incredibly handsome men were the worst kind. But she had to admit he had his attractions.
Eye candy, they called it. Lucky she was on a diet.
She pulled her attention away and looked at her gold watch. One more minute and she would be free.
"Sorry, Mara," she would say on the phone to her friend tomorrow. "He didn't show. Consider it a sign. And don't think you're going to get me to do this again."
A shadow fell over her and she looked up to find a rather beefy-looking man in a Stetson and tight jeans grinning down at her.
"Hey, little lady, why don't you let me buy you one of them fancy drinks with the umbrellas and fruit and such?" he suggested, all swagger and no appeal.
Inwardly she groaned, but she had enough control not to let it show. "No, thank you, cowboy," she said, trying to remain pleasant as she slid down off the bar stool and turned toward the door. "I was just leaving."
"No need to rush off," he said, effectively blocking her exit route. "Why, you're as pretty as a cactus flower, ain't ya'?"
She flashed him a tight smile and lifted her chin, letting him know she was no pushover. "And just as prickly, honey. Better stand back. You don't want to get stuck."
His face darkened. "Now you listen here
But just as suddenly as the cowboy had appeared in her line of sight, he now faded away, because someone bigger and more impressive had come into the picture, and everything else seemed to melt around them. She felt his presence before she saw him and she pulled in a quick breath, almost a gasp. Slowly, she raised her eyes.
Sure enough, it was the man she'd seen coming in the doorway a few minutes beforethe man she'd been so sure could not have anything to do with her or her life. He was standing before her, holding out a bedraggled red rose, and asking her a question. Her mind seemed to go blank. She swayed. And she couldn't hear a word he was saying.
"What?" she asked numbly, looking up at him as though she were blinking into the sun.
Max was caught between interest and annoyance. He wanted to get this over with and get out of here, but he'd already bungled things. He'd managed fairly easily to find this pretty lady with the head full of blond curls and a frilly little black dress. Her attire revealed a figure that was full and rounded in all the right places and legs that made looking worthwhile.
But the problem was, he couldn't remember her name. His mother had said it often enough, over and over, whenever she told the old story of how the Triple M Ranch had been swindled from her family. This was the daughter of the woman who had done his mother dirtybut what was her name again? Something-something Kerry, wasn't it?
"Miss Kerry?" he repeated when she didn't hear him the first time.
"Oh!" she said, looking shell-shocked. "You can't be I mean Are
"Exactly." He waved the rose at her and nodded toward the one she held. "I was hoping we would have some time to get to know each other tonight," he said smoothly. "However, sadly, it is not to be. Sorry to do this to you, but something has just come up and I'm going to have to take a rain check."
He stopped, nonplussed. She seemed rather sweet and she was definitely embarrassed. Not what he was expecting. Was she taking this as a sort of rejection? Well, he supposed that made sense from her point of view. But instead of the arrogant siren he'd imagined from the tales his mother told, a woman whose ego probably had too hard a shell to be bruised in any way, she took this personally. Did she think he'd taken one look and decided she wasn't worth wasting time on? Despite everything, he didn't want to hurt the woman.
"My mother sends her best wishes," he said, his gaze flickering appreciatively over her pretty face. Interestingly, she wasn't his usual type. He tended to favor fashion modelslong, cool ladies who were decorative and yet mature enough to know the score. Young innocents wanted to fall in love all the time. That sort of clingy attachment was neither in his nature nor in the cards. He'd spent a lifetime observing the human condition. In his opinion, falling in love was for suckers who were in denial and hoping for a fairy tale. He considered himself too hard-nosed to fall for such nonsense.
But there was something appealing about this young woman just the same. She looked intelligent and quick, even though she was gaping a bit. Her eyes were a brilliant shade of blue, framed by thick, dark lashes and accented by a pert nose that seemed to have a dusting of freckles just for spice. Her hair, the color of spring sunshine, was a stylishly tangled mass that kept falling over her eyes, making her reach up to push a way through in order to see him clearly.
Hardly what he'd expected. From what his mother had told him, he'd been sure he was going to dislike her intensely. Now he wasn't so certain.
"I'm hoping we'll be able to do this another time," he said, actually meaning it. "May I call you tomorrow?"
"Oh," she said again, her lovely crystal eyes enormous as she stared at him. "I
I guess so."
Her vocabulary wasn't extensive. Or maybe he'd been a bit too brusque. His friends and employees had accused him of that more than once, and he regretted it. He didn't mean to be rude.
But he had no time for this. Shrugging, he gave her a cool smile and turned for the exit. He was almost out the door when he remembered the stupid rose in his hand. She might as well have it. After all, what was he going to do with it?
Turning back, he found her still watching him, wide-eyed. Something about the look in those huge blue eyes
"Oh, what the hell," he said impetuously. Leaving her behind would be like telling a puppy you didn't want him to follow you home. "Why don't you come along? We'll stop and grab something to eat somewhere else."