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It was all Yvan's fault. Yvan the Terrible, Shani called him. The world's only half Irish, half Russian, all chauvinist soul food caterer. Yvan thought his waitresses looked better in low-cut French maid uniforms, except that instead of severe black fabric under their white lace aprons, they wore dresses made of kente cloth. He insisted it made them look "more ethnic." Which was bad enough, except that even if you let the hems down (which Shani had) the skirts were all of ten inches long.
Yvan said it would bring them more tips. He was probably right, and Lord knew Shani needed them. But the scant piece of fabric that barely covered her well-shaped butt also brought more male attentionand that was the very last thing she needed right now.
So if there was anyone to blame for her current situation, it was Yvan. Backed up against a kitchen counter, clutching a silver tray loaded with Louisiana crab cakes, trying to squeeze past the inebriated owner of the sumptuous house in which she was working tonight, all she could think was: there's really got to be a better way to make ends meet.
She'd been working for Yvan for almost a year, so she was used to handling octopus-armed partygoers, but putting an overfamiliar man back in his place with a swiftly delivered slap would be an express ticket to the breadline. Yvan was ruthless if he felt his staff weren't playing by his many rules. Matter of fact, if you survived more than eighteen months on his payroll, you deserved a medal.
So her best course of action was diplomacy. "I really ought to " she began.
"Don't worry, honey. There're four more lovely ladies working the party. My guests are being well fed and watered. Don't they sound happy?"
They did, indeed. It was a quarter of twelve, and the party had been going on since seven. It had started out as a sedate business affair, with some of the city's better-known corporate raiders, city officials and politicians politely nibbling at their butterflied shrimp in Creole sauce and cocktail-size yam balls on toothpicks. But after a few hours, with expensive liquor flowing, most of these upright citizens were well on their way to being plastered. Past the man's shoulder, the crowd swayed, hands in the air, booties swinging to the hip-hop beat.
But that was no excuse. She was paid to do a job. She filled her lungs with sweet, smoky air, calmed herself and insisted, "Mr. Bookman, I have to get back to work."
"Stack. My first name's Elliot, but you can call me Stack." His teeth were white against skin that was the color of warm sand, and his black eyes mirrored his seductive smile.
"I'd prefer not to"
"Relax," he cajoled. "Yvan works you girls too hard." He held up the wineglass that had been his opening gambit in the current conversational impasse. "Come on, try it. Italian wines are very goodsome of the best."
"You don't say." She tried to hide her irritation. Just who did he think she was? Some little dimwit who couldn't recognize a good wine? She'd have him know she was a grown woman, a married womantechnicallywho'd had her share of good red wines. But in the interest of keeping her job, she bit back the retort and instead trotted out the standard response. "Sorry, but we aren't allowed to drink on the job."
His response was loaded with suggestion: "I'm sure there're lots of things you aren't allowed to do on the job." He waved the glass of red liquid under her nose. The bouquet of the wine rivaled the scent of stronger alcohol on his breath. "But I'm not gonna tell anyone if you don't."
His mouth was intimately close to her ear. She could see his lips move as though he was speaking in slow motion. "I like 'em dark, you know," Stack confided. "Beautiful girls, dark as berries." He moistened his lips. "Black men in my position, they go for white women, you know? Or light-skinned girls. Because they can afford it, understand?"
Shani's jaw became unhinged, but Stack went on.
"But not me, I still love you dark-skinned sisters. Sweet and round in all the right places. Know what I'm saying?"
Did this man actually think that was a compliment? Enough was enough, Shani decided. She got a tighter grip on her plate of crab cakes and pushed aside the glass of wine, which he was still holding up before her like bait. "Mr. Bookman, if you'll excuse me "
Before she could make it past the kitchen door, he grasped her wrist and spun her around. "Wait just one damn second here!"
Pop, pop, pop. Something blew in her head. A fuse, a gasket, whatever was holding her back. Crack went the tray of crab cakes as they impacted with Bookman's face. Squish went the tamarind sauce as she dumped the silver bowl down the front of his shirt. And thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk went the cakes as they rained down on the slate tiles.
At least, she thought she heard those sounds, although it was possible they were only in her irate imagination, given the volume of the music and Bookman's bellow of fury. "What the hell's wrong with you?"
The white apron constricting her breasts heaved, half a beat ahead of the thudding bass of the music. "Don't you ever"
"You're finished, lady." Bookman reached past her and grabbed a dish towel off the marble-topped kitchen island and tried to sop up the sticky brown sauce trickling down his chest. "I'm going to tell Yvan just what I think of the way he manages his staff."
Shani was beyond caring. She could feel her hand coming up, rising on its own, drawing back and preparing to deliver the much-deserved slap that had been tingling in her palm since Bookman's first off-color remark.
His response was snake-swift. He caught her by the wrist, holding her fast in spite of the sticky sauce. Shani yelped as his short nails raked furrows into her skin. "Let me go!"
"You heard me. I said let me" "Couldn't hear you, girl. Too busy listening for an apology."
She was supposed to apologize to him? She twisted, spinning around so his arm was bent at an awkward angle, and leaned her weight into it. "Let go of my hand" Stack winced, but his nails cut deeper. "Don't think so."
They were entangled like a snake and a mongoose. Shani could feel the effort in her arms and back, but she wasn't letting up. If he wouldn't release her, she'd make sure he'd have a sprained wrist to remind him of his mistake. She put more pressure on, the effort showing in her gritted teeth.
Stack hissed a curse. The balance of power shifted. He was male and had all the advantages that came with it: greater height and strength, backed up by pure ill will. Instead of breaking their hold, he pushed back, and it was her turn to curse. Then she found something better to do with her mouth.
Her teeth closed over the base of his thumb, sank in and held fast. She tasted tamarind sauce and pure, blind rage. Stack bellowed, and the nails digging into her skin let up. He called her a name he shouldn't have.
She would have opened her mouth to answer if she wasn't enjoying her revenge, hanging on like a pit bull with PMS. Then something weird happened. There was another hand in her line of vision, and it wasn't her tormentor's. It closed around the expensive watch on Stack's wrist and wrenched the two of them apart.
Shani staggered back, confused. There'd been two of them in the kitchen, and now.
"What's the matter, Stack? Things so bad with you these days you have to wrassle your heifers to the ground before you can climb on?"
"What? " The crudeness of the comment was like a smack across the face. Shani reeled in disbelief toward the man who'd spat it out. He was an inch or two taller than Stack, but anger made it seem like more. His body was taut, as if poised for a brawl, unkempt hair bristling with electricity and outrage. He ignored her shocked explosion, fixing his black eyes on Stack, who was angrily rubbing the half-moon wounds on his hand and glaring from her to the interloper and back.
"Don't see how that's any of your business."
"I walk in the kitchen and see you near-raping the hired help, that becomes my business."
Hired help? Where'd he get off.? "Look," she began.
Both men ignored her. "Fine time for you to turn up, too. The invitation said seven."
The man shrugged. "I had a few things to do."
"I also recall the invitation said formal."
The man looked down at himself as if only now noticing what he was wearing: a casual, open-necked shirt and dark, relaxed-fit jeans. His smile was dry and mocking. "Hard to straddle a Triumph in a tux."
Stack snorted. "If you had a lick of respect, you'd have come in your car, rather than on that thing."
"Where's the fun in that?"
Realizing he was losing the battle, Stack turned sourly to Shani. He held up his bitten hand meaningfully. "I wonder what Yvan will say when I let him know his waitress has been chewing on something, and it ain't the hors d'oeuvres." His handsome face glittered with malice.
That was enough to sober Shani up immediately, her pleasure at her small victory evaporating like spilled booze. Getting back at this pig was one thing, but her job was another. It wasn't as though she had only herself to maintain. There was Bee to think of. She grimaced and swallowed her pride. "Mr. Bookman, please " But Stack was already turning away.
She was left with the handsome intruder, as alone as it was possible to be, given the proximity of the liquor-fueled crowd in the next room. His sharp black eyes were slowly going her over as if looking for injury. "You okay?"
"Great." As okay as it was possible to be with her job hanging in the balance. If Bookman ratted her out, there wasn't much she could do. It would be better if, at the very least, Yvan found her working. She smoothed her hair, dropped to her knees and began picking the ruined crab cakes up off the floor.
To her surprise, the tall, lithe man squatted next to her and began to help. "Pity," he murmured as he let a few tumble onto the tray. "These look delicious. You cook them?"
Too weary for conversation, she answered shortly, "I'm a waitress, not a cook." She couldn't help adding, "For now."
"Sorry about the job," he sympathized. "But I saw what went down. If Stack's vindictive enough to squeal on you, and I can assure you he is, I can vouch for you."
Tempting, but pride made her a fool. This member of the "hired help" didn't need a stranger's intervention. "I didn't need you rescuing me then, and I don't need it now."
His face was level with hers, and for the first time it truly registered how handsome he was, in a careless, I-get-up-looking-like-this-in-the-morning kind of way. Skin like sand, eyes dark as eternity. Long nose, full lips and pointed chin.
He was saying something. "Rescue you? What, when you had your teeth sunk into his hand like a squirrel with the mother of all walnuts?" He smiled, and in the darkness of his eyes the moon came out from behind the clouds. "I wasn't rescuing you, I was rescuing Stack!"
It figured. Men knew how to stick together. "He deserved it," she pointed out.
"I bet he did," he said, and then, as if explaining the hazards of crossing the road to a toddler, he added, "Maybe next time you'll be more careful about who you flirt with."
You could have tossed a beanbag into her gaping mouth from across the room, and won a teddy bear. "Who I flirt with?"
The man went purposefully on. "He's an eyeful, I'll give you that, and a charmer. But I think you just learned how fast he can turn on you."
She shot to her feet and dumped the crab cakes into the garbage, trying to bring her indignation under control. It didn't work. When she rounded on him, he was standing right behind her. "You think I was flirting with him?"
The heat of her outrage could have singed the unruly lock of hair that tumbled over his forehead. "I assumed."
"I don't want to know what you assumed " She stopped. She really needed to get back to work. She bit off her tirade and cut around him, heading for the doorway.
He kept pace, apologetic. "I'm sorry. It's just that Stack has a way with the ladies."
"What, manhandling them into submission?"
"He's very charming when he's sober. Give him five minutes, and he can turn any woman into Jell-O."
"Any woman but me," she snapped.
He gave her another long, slow look and said softly, "Looks like you're different."
"Different from what? The kind of woman who'd fall for a glass of wine and an invitation to slow dance in the kitchen? I should hope so." She squinted at him suspiciously. "You seem to know that pig well enough, by the way."
She couldn't tell whether the smile he gave her was rueful or mocking. "I should. That pig's my father."
Low blow, Elliot thought as the look of horror spread across the woman's dark, pretty face. She began to babble, "Oh, I I I had no idea." The irritation she'd shown since he'd put his foot in his mouth with that remark about flirting dissipated.
She didn't deserve such discomfort, so he hastened to reassure her. "Don't worry. I've called him worseand so have a few dozen women, I bet." To put an end to the issue, he held out his hand. "I'm Elliot Bookman Jr."
She looked at his hand as if she thought he'd palmed a joy buzzer, but she shook it anyway. Her hand was warm and smooth, the hand of a woman who took care of herself. He liked that. He had to remind himself to release it within the time limit set by good manners, rather than indulge for just a few more seconds in its warm softness.
"Shani Matthieu." She was frowning, half embarrassed, half anxious to get out of there. "Mr. Bookman"
"Elliot," he cut across with the standard joke. "My father's Mr."
"I need to get back to work." She brushed away a floppy lock of dark brown hair, pushing it up and over her ear in a gesture that made her seem girlish. Those hands again.
She rushed through the doorwayand careened into a shadow that had sidled in without either of them noticing.