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Mistletoe, Colorado's The Inn at Snow Falls Presents CANDY CANE Appearing nightly in CLUB CRIMSON It wasn't in Caleb McGregor's bag of reporter's tricks to go after a story by drinking himself under anyone's table, but here he was, at the Inn at Snow Falls' Club Crimson, in the lovers' resort of Mistletoe, Colorado, looking for clarity in the bottom of a glass.
Several glasses actually.
He knew better. Of course he knew better. But knowing better hadn't kept him from recently making the biggest mistake of his life. Neither did it negate the fact that he'd found many an answer to an intriguing question when his noseor his blood alcohol levelwas where it didn't belong.
Even when he was sober, his intuition rivaled that of the female population of Baltimorethe city he called his base of operations rather than home, home being a word with too much emotional resonance and Caleb not being a feelings kind of guy.
And that sixth sense had shifted into high gear the minute the lounge singer had taken the stage.
Unfortunately, the Scotch he'd downed had left him with a slippery grip on the instincts insisting he was sitting on top of a big fat scoopone that might be as big and as fat as the exclusive he'd come here at Ravyn Black's invitation to get.
Whether or not that was the case, one thing was certain.
Club Crimson lived up to its vivid name.
The Inn at Snow Falls' nightclub was a kaleidoscope of reds, from the carpet splashed with sherry, claret and port-wine hues, to the padded bar and stools of scarlet, to the plush sofas and matching wing chairs in patterns of ruby and rose.
The decorative color scheme was notwhat Caleb found objectionable. After all, he'd yet to meet an Italian or Chinese restaurant he didn't like. Hell, his favorite baseball team had red in its name and wore the color proudly when taking the field at Fenway.
But when the design of a club was calculated to evoke a romantic, sexy mood, and that evocation lacked even a hint of the subtle finesse that made sexy sexy, and the entire setup was set up in a town called Mistletoe, well
Never let it be said that Caleb McGregor didn't embrace his cynicism wholeheartedly.
And then, as if the ornamental bloodbath wasn't enough, Club Crimson had gone so over the top in their efforts to promote romance as to hire a red-haired chanteuse and call her Candy Cane.
A textbook case of adding insult to injury. Or it would've been had she not manipulated the schmaltzy lyrics into telling a story with the skill of Scheherazade and done so with a husky R & B style, and in a voice he swore he'd heard before but couldn't for the drunken life of him place.
He was falling for it allthe words that seduced him, the costume that tempted him, the act as a whole that had him mentally panting like a randy teen. Or a full-grown man with more alcohol than reasoning skills at his disposal.
Considering the number of drinks he'd downed, the only part of this that came as a surprise was the fact that he was able to recognize the folly of his ways.
At least he'd had the good sense at the beginning of the evening to claim a back corner booth. He was out of the way, and in the perfect position to watch. And watch he did, closely, enjoying himself more than was wise.
She was a looker, Ms. Cane, though considering the pretense of the rest of this place, he doubted her assets were genuine. That didn't stop him from having a good time ogling the plunging front of her cherry-colored gown.
He wasn't sure how women did itkept their tits from falling out of flesh-baring tops cut from their throats to their navels. Some, he knew, had little to fear, but not in this case. Whether Mother Nature or manufactured, she had a lot.
She was curvy, too, her cinched-in waist flaring into real hips instead of not flaring at all. He liked hips. He liked a woman with an ass. If he ran the world, women would be required by law to be more than a pair of breasts on an androgynous body.
He'd amend the Constitution if he had to, put a picture of Candy Cane next to one of Ravyn Black, the practically hermaphroditic singer for the emo band Evermore he'd come to Mistletoe to see, to illustrate the difference between ass and no ass.
Yeah, that would be the perfect way to make his point. His point being did he have a point?
Had he ever had a point? Was that the point his crossed eyes were seeing at the end of his nose? Or had his point become all soft and squishy and not pointy at all when he'd upended his glass and swallowed the last of his drink?
It was quitting time, heading-to-bed time. Time to just say no.
Or it would be if he wasn't stuck.
The pianist was playing the introductory notes to the singer's final song, and the crowd that had quieted when she walked onstage, that had done no more than whisper as she sang Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Connick, Jr., had grown deathly still, pin-droppingly silent.
If Caleb got up now, he was likely to be shot.
Candy pulled the microphone from the stand she'd made love to during her previous song, and began to croon the opening lines of her last. Her hips swaying, she crossed the small corner stage and descended the steps into the mesmerized crowd drunk on whiskey, wine and love.
Her hair that he was sure was a wiglong, wavy, strawberry-blondpicked up and reflected the flashes of red thrown by the spinning disco ball, as did the sequins in the dress molded to her curves. So molded, in fact, that if it weren't for the peekaboo slit running up one thigh, he doubted she'd be able to walk.
He watched her wind her way through the gathered listeners, smiling, fingering one man's tie, brushing another's hair from his forehead, cupping a shoulder or stroking her finger along a forearm of their female companions. An equal-opportunity seductress, Caleb mused, finding his eyelids drifting lazily as he, too, fell prey to her spell.
A siren, she moved from table to table, the sultry sweep of her lashes, the alluring touch of her tongue to her lips, making men's knees weak, their palms sweaty, their blood run hot, the front of their pantsonce flat against their abdomensrise like pitched tents. He knew that's what was happening around the room because it was happening to him.
It didn't matter that he was the only person in the room sitting by himself. His reaction would've been the same had he been in the company of his mother, a date or a priest. He wasn't hard because he was alone, or because he was lonely. He was hard because Candy Cane had made him that way.
But the fact that this was a group erection cheapened what he feltor so he tried to convince himself, since he didn't want to feel anything.
And then something else happened. She turned just so, moved to the perfect spot, leaned against the back of a sofa at the ideal angle with the lights exactly right. The moment didn't last longer than a blink before it was gone, and she'd bowed her body toward another sap in the crowd.
But it stuck with him, wouldn't let him go, and he studied her instead of looking away, stared at her instead of chalking up what he thought he was seeing to too much Scotch on a stomach empty of anything else.
What he thought he was seeing was a familiar face. A familiar face to go with the voice he could've sworn he recognized at the beginning of her set. A recognition he'd then dismissed because of how many times the server had replaced the single malt in his snifter.
Now he really did need a drink, and he needed it to be hot, black and fully caffeinated so he could make sense of the psychedelic swirls and splatters of reds Club Crimson had painted in his mind.
His job depended on rumors. He listened, he verified, he discarded. He'd been doing it for ten years, writing a celebrity gossip column that had started out small and gone into national syndication twenty-four months after launch. It was so popular, it was featured during what one TV network called their "celebrity beat," and had its own Web site to boot.
Caleb McGregor was Max Savage, the notorious "Snoop with the Scoop," loved, lauded and feared far and wide by politicians, society players and celebrities alike for his sarcastic riffs on what his audience demanded and deemed newsworthy about those in the public eye.
Not that anyone at the inn knew who he was, or that he was here by invitation for an exclusivethe very private wedding of Ravyn Black and Teddy Eagleton. Over the next few days, he'd be covering the preparations leading up to the big event. But as always, he was posing as a member of Max Savage's street team. Not even Ravyn knew he was Max.
The only people who knew his identity, who would ever know or have need to, were his agent, his attorney and his editor. When he'd set off down tabloid road ten years ago, he'd made sure his only connection was to the Max Savage machine, not to the alter ego itself.
It was a decision that had turned out to be a sanity-saver, keeping his personal business out of the limelight. And it was going to make it a whole lot easier to transition to life after Maxa retirement that would have him hanging up his gear as soon as he finished this gig.
Yes, he found the energy of chasing down nonstop leads more intoxicating than the boredom of waiting for a big story to break. But he'd never thought he'd end up stooping to the level he had, reporting on celebutantes flashing their bare crotches or finding fame through night-vision sex tapes.
Neither had he thought himself capable of betraying a confidence, so wrapped up in the thrill that he hadn't realized he'd gone too far until it was too late. Until he'd ruined a career by telling the truth. Until he'd lost a lifelong friend because he'd been drunk on the rush of the scoop.
He'd give anything to take back the last month, to think before revealing what his best friend Del, a music star in his own right, had shared in confidence about his Christian pop star fiancée's drug problem but life didn't work that way.
Caleb couldn't change what he'd done, but he could damn well make sure it never happened again. Right now, however, it was vital that he get his act together. Candy had finished her tour of the rest of the club and was making her way toward him.
Drinking alone and slumped in his seat made him an easy target. Being male made him vulnerableeven knowing her act was a ruse. Last he'd checked, knowledge didn't necessarily work as an inoculant. Especially with his susceptibility to her charms camped out in his pants.
Except for her spotlight, the bar light and the patterns of color thrown off by the disco ball's spin, the club was dark. His corner was even darker, giving him the privacy he needed to adjust his crotch before she reached him.
And then she was there, singing to him, seducing him, the pull in her gaze mesmerizing as she perched her hip against the edge of his table and stretched, draping herself toward him strategically as if she'd done this hundreds of times for hundreds of other men.
Her neckline plunged to tease him. The slope of her shoulder as she leaned close, the movement of her neck, chin and mouth as she sang, teased him more. But what teased him most of all was knowing he should know her, being unable to place her, and sitting here too inebriated to do anything to find out.
He told himself to remember everything about her, to store the sound of her voice in the memory banks he could access most quickly when his wits returned. He didn't hold out much hope for success. She had him stupid, bewitched.
Fluidly, the redheaded chanteuse rolled herself up and off the table, pivoting with an elegance that left him breathless and therefore, thankfully, unable to groan and give himself awayas she slid to sit in his lap.
It wasn't his lap as much as one leg, but the move put the swell of her bottom against the swell of his fly, and he could only hope the part of him making intimate contact with her wasn't as apparent to her as he feared.
She seemed comfortable, in her element, looping her arm around his neck, looking into his eyes, drawing the song to a close with a breathy, bluesy, brush of words against his cheek as the pianist wrapped up his accompaniment, holding the final notes.
That was when the applause began.
And that was when she kissed him.
He hadn't seen it coming.
He knew the soft teasing press of her mouth to his was part of the act, but he hadn't expected it, and he wasn't thinking straight, and he was running way low on resistance, so he did what any healthy red-blooded male would do with a healthy red-blooded female wanting to lock lips.
He kissed her back.
He caught her off guard. She was bargaining on compliance, thinking he would accept her doing her thing without interfering, interrupting or doing his back. But Caleb wasn't cut from a compliant cloth. And kissing Candy Cane was fun. Or it was until he realized he was the one who was stirred.
Lips on lips was one thing, but this was more. Way more, and his blood heated and rushed. He opened his mouth to taste her. She gave in, letting his tongue inside to flirt and slick over hers.
He had a vague sense of people around them clapping and whistling, cheering them on, of the pianist's fingers lingering over his instrument's keys, drawing out the moment that had already gone on too long.
But mostly he was aware of Candy's scent like a field of sweet flowers around him, and the touch of her fingers against his nape, the tiny massaging circles she made there too personal for a public display.
He had to let her go before things got any further out of hand, he realized, realizing, too, that he had sobered. He pulled his mouth away and tilted his head back to get the best look that he could into her eyes.
He saw her surprise, then her fear. The first he'd anticipated; he'd felt it himself. The second emotion set the pump on his snoop-and-scoop machine to maximum. Fear? What the hell did she have to be afraid of?
"Who are you?" he asked as she got to her feet, the smile she gave him reaching no farther than her mouth and as much for the crowd as for him.
"I'm the woman you'll never forget," she told him, blowing him a parting kiss before returning to the stage.
Once there, she took her final bow with a flourish, gave props to the pianist then vanished behind the curtain that came down to swallow the stage.
She had it right. He wouldn't forget. But what she had no way of knowing was that, impending retirement or not, big-time screwup or not, he planned to dig up a whole lot more stuff to remember. Stuff he was pretty damn sure Ms. Candy Cane didn't want anyone to find out.
Well. That had been interesting, Miranda Kelly mused ruefully, standing in her dressing room, staring at her reflection and finding Candy Cane staring back.
She had yet to remove her costumea costume that was more than the dress or the shoes or the colored contacts or the wig. The whole persona of Candy was everything she wasn't.
As Miranda, she wore glasses, though she did accessorize with fashionable frames to emphasize the green of her eyes. Her own hair was auburn in contrast to Candy's strawberry-blond, and cropped close in a wispy elfin cut.
Her skin was nowhere as smooth as Candy's, plus it was ridiculously freckleda fact that she'd hidden from Baltimore society when she'd lived there behind a cool façade of flawlessly made-up skin, French twists and perfect posture, the veneer of a high-profile life.
She was nothing if not a chameleon.
But, wow. Kissing an audience member? Had she really been so stupidly careless? She'd told Corinne several months ago that her biggest fear about testifying at Marshall's retrial was suffering a repeat of the media madness and losing her sanctuary in Mistletoe as a result. It was imperative that she draw no attention to herself to keep that from happening.