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Cara stepped out of the taxi on West 135th Street in Harlem clutching her briefcase like a life preserver, her eyes fixed on the building before her. The growling sounds of a saxophone poured out through an open window belonging to Alex Dovington, a man she'd wanted to meet for nearly thirteen years.
And the same man she had to teach how to read in three days.
A cramp gripped her stomach like a vise and she bit her lower lip against the hard ridge of pain. For the millionth time, she questioned herself. Could she do this? If Alex found out who she really was, there was no telling how he would react.
The truth was she had no choice.
Her heels crunched through rust-colored leaves as she walked up the stairs of his home, an ornate renovated brownstone. Inhaling the earthy fragrance of the air calmed her nerves.
How she loved autumn! The season was especially beautiful in New York City. But lately, she'd been so busy trying to raise funds for Beacon House, the adult literacy center she'd founded and struggled to keep open, she barely noticed the warm days blending into cool nights.
She'd simply existed.
She desperately needed the substantial donation she would receive if she succeeded in teaching Alex to read in three days. Failure was unthinkable, and she would do whatever it took to avoid it.
She reached the landing, sucked in another deep breath, pressed the doorbell. Chimes amplified the fresh wave of panic that rippled through her. She spotted a jack-o'-lantern perched on the stoop next door. The ghoulish sentry seemed to mock her with its crooked smile, and she stuck her tongue out at it in defiance.
Just then, the door swung open. Startled, she jerked backward and grabbed hold of the railing to avoid falling off the edge of the stair.
Her heart scampered into her throat and her eyes widened at the man towering before her.
Album covers and magazine pictures did not do the brother justice. Nearly six feet tall with dark honey-caramel skin and a body that looked like it was made for a woman's most scandalous dreams, Alex was more than fine. He was "now-that-I've-seen-U-I-can-die-now" gorgeous.
A tenor saxophone dangled like an upside-down question mark from a navy blue lariat around his neck.
The large instrument looked like a child's toy nestled against his bare chest and flat, ripped abdomen.
Stop staring! She knew it was rude, yet she found she couldn't help herself.
Although Cara sensed Alex speaking, her attention focused on a serpent tattoo curled like a vise around the taut muscles of his upper right biceps. The head and forked tongue licked his bent elbow, igniting her curiosity, and she wondered if he had more tattoos and if so, where they were located on his body.
Face flushed, she lifted her eyes to discover he was staring right back. A frown tugged at the corners of his full lips and his fingers gripped the edge of the door, as if to warn her he could slam it shut at any moment.
His voice, a rich baritone that could melt ice, finally reached into her ears, pulled her back to reality. But when she opened her mouth to answer him, nothing came out.
Before she could try again, he shook his head and with an agitated sigh, began to close the door.
Cara leaped forward. "W-wait!" Her voice so loud it echoed in her ears.
He paused, one hand braced against the jamb, the other on the doorknob, brows lifted, waiting. Her heart stopped for a moment and she gulped back her surprise. Met his eyes and forced what she hoped was a confident smile.
"Yes. I'm Cara Williams."
She put her briefcase down, wiped her palm on the side of her skirt and decided against shaking his hand. She didn't want to risk getting the door slammed in her face.
"Sorry if I'm early. I guess I'm eager to get started, given our overall time constraints."
He was silent, choosing instead to let his eyes speak for him. They trailed down and over her body, as if exploring the twists and turns of a melody on his horn, and she fought the urge to look away under his gaze.
Alex reached for her briefcase, his fingers grazing hers, and she tried to ignore the sensations prickling a path from her knuckles to shoulder.
"Come on in," he said, but there was no welcome in his voice.
She thanked him, stepped inside, and her ears twitched as multiple locks clicked into place behind her. He strode past without a glance, leaving her confused and disappointed as he led them down a short hallway to the living room.
Cara's eyes were drawn to a magnificent grand piano that held court in one corner. It seemed to lord over the sheets of manuscript paper scattered on the polished wood floor around it.
But that was nothing compared to the Grammy Award enclosed in glass and the cluster of gold records hanging in an alcove to the right of the piano.
The visual impact of who he was and what he'd accomplished in his career made her knees wobble. She was relieved when Alex placed her briefcase next to a black leather couch and motioned her to sit down.
A bead of sweat trickled down her spine as she watched him unhook the sax from the lariat around his neck, slide the reed off the mouthpiece, wipe the instrument with a cloth and place it in the case.
His gentleness made her feel like she was observing something more intimate than mere ritual, like a father who suddenly reaches out to ruffle his child's hair as he tucks him into bed.
Without a word, he got up and walked over to the piano. Shifting in her seat, she clasped her hands together in her lap for courage she did not feel.
"You don't seem too thrilled that I'm here."
Alex's hand wavered just before he pulled the cord on the music lamp, extinguishing the glow over the black and white keys.
He turned and looked at her. She held her breath, wishing she had insisted the sessions take place at Beacon House. She felt out of her realm here, away from the familiar surroundings of her storefront office.
"You're right." His voice held a hard edge. "I'm not."
He knows. Panic sliced through her and she exhaled in dismay. The knowledge that there were thousands of people with the last name "Williams" in New York City did little to console her.
When she didn't answer, he reached for a stack of papers and started to crumple them with one hand, the sound like kindling popping in a fire. He tossed them into a metal trash can already overflowing with their discarded brethren. There was no anger in the motions, only a touch of resentment.
She found her voice, forced it steady. "I don't understand. I was hired to give you private reading lessons."
"My manager hired you." He stuffed a few survivors into a briefcase she hadn't noticed before and thumbed down the latches. "Not me."
Her secret was still safe.
Relief flooded Cara's body, but she was more confused than ever.
She swallowed the lump in her throat, removed the contract from her purse. "There must be some mistake." She held it out. "Your signature is right here."
Alex waved away the document. "You don't need to prove it to me, Miss Williams. The fact is Tommy signed the contract in my name. That's what he does when I'm out of town or unavailable."
She peered at the signature. It was barely legible, and since it had arrived via fax, she'd just assumed it belonged to Alex. The mistake could cost her.
"Usually he lets me know the nature of the contract before he signs." He lowered the cover on the grand piano with ease. "This time, he did not."
She clutched the contract like a lifeline and watched him walk to the window. He stared outside and Cara could hear the sounds of children playing outside.
"I got back into town late last night. Tommy called me this morning. Dropped the bomb that you'd be coming here. Then he told me why. I called your office right away but there was no answer."
She was afraid to ask the question, but asked anyway. "Why were you trying to reach me?"
He turned, folded his arms and leveled his eyes at hers. "To tell you I have no intention of learning how to read. Not now, not ever."
Her stomach plummeted, and for a moment she couldn't breathe, couldn't think. His tone was indignant, the words decisive and not to be challenged. But he didn't know she never gave up on her students and she wasn't going to start now. Especially when she had so much at stake.
Still, contract aside, he had to want to learn how to read or else there would be little chance for success. She had to convince him to continue with the lessons, to believe he could do this.
A sudden burst of energy rocked her body. She set aside the contract and smoothed her skirt.
"I'm sorry Tommy didn't communicate with you." She kept her voice calm, chose her words more carefully. "You have every right to be upset."
Alex flopped down on the far end of the couch, leaned back and slung his arm over his eyes.
She swiveled her legs to face him. He turned his head and gave her a pointed stare.
"I can tell you this. I don't need a tutor," he retorted, his voice razor-sharp as he jabbed his thumb into his chest. "Even if I did, I should be the one doing the hiring."
Her face burned with anger. Although she knew he was simply blowing off steam, completely understandable in this unusual situation, she had to look away to maintain her composure.
Alex tapped her arm and it pulsated with heat, sending her heart rate to the moon. She turned, hoping her reaction to his touch didn't show in her eyes.
"Look, Miss Williams," he said, his voice several notches softer. Her last name got lost in a yawn. "As you can see, I'm exhausted from my trip. I'm sorry about the inconvenience, but there's no deal. I can't do this."
She unfolded her arms at her sides. "If it's my qualifications you're worried about, I can assure you th"
"You don't get it, do you?" He leaped from the couch, his voice thundering off the walls. "I should fire Tommy for pulling this stunt, but I can't blame him. He was just trying to protect me."
Her eyes paced with him as he walked in front of the huge marble fireplace until he stopped and leaned his elbow on the mantle.
She got up and took a few tentative steps toward him. "Protect you? From what?"
"My record company! While I was in Europe, they set up a book tour of elementary schools in Harlem. But they.. " His voice trailed off and something seemed to deflate within him.
"Don't know you can't read," she finished.
Their eyes locked, and now that Cara was standing closer to him, she saw his were hazel, the irises speckled with bits of green. She was momentarily mesmerized by their unusual hue and the intense shame color couldn't hide.
So that's why he's so angry. Although he would probably never admit it, she could see in his eyes he was afraid. She had to tread lightly, or she'd lose him to that fear.
Alex parted his lips like he was going to say something else, but instead he stalked away.
She trailed after him. "Well, it is kind of a cool way to introduce your music to a younger audience," she offered. "I know if I was a kid, I'd be excited to see you in person."
A few feet away, he swung around and stared at her like she had two heads. "It's a waste of time! Kids are listening to hip-hop and rap, not jazz. Armstrong, Coltrane, Miles and Ellingtonthey've never heard of them. If it ain't sampled or doesn't have enough bass to blow their eardrums out, they're not into it."
His eyes shifted to the overflowing wastebasket, then back to her.
"When does the tour start?"
"Week from today," Alex grumbled. "Tommy's trying to get it pushed back."
Cara ran her hand through her curls before walking over to where he stood at the window. "Learning to read is very difficult for anyone, especially for adults. It's not something you want to attempt on your own."
He whirled around and pointed at her. "I told you I'm not interested. I've gotten along fine my whole life and nobody's gonna change that. I'll handle this book tour fiasco in my own way, in my own time, not anyone else's."
He turned and jabbed the windowsill with his knuckles, as if to emphasize that the matter was closed. Still, even his taut arms and the harsh finality of his words rang hollow.
Both of them knew there was no escape from what lay ahead.
He put his forehead against the windowpane. "Tommy is the only one besides my mom who knows about that I can't " His voice ebbed away and he shook his head. "He's been with me for years, through everything, almost since the beginning of my career."
She gazed at the muscular expanse of his bare back and a sense of protectiveness winnowed through her. She wanted to wrap her arms around his trim waist and pull him away from his fears. She had to make him believe in himself, and in her.
She approached him, placed her hand on his arm, hating herself for what she was about to say. His skin felt warm and the muscle underneath tensed as he turned to look at her. "It sounds like he really cares about you, and helps you out a lot. But what if, God forbid, something happens to Tommy. What then?"
His shoulders slumped in reply and she knew she'd hit a nerve. Then his eyes, those beautiful hazel eyes filled with pain, bore into hers.
When he finally spoke, his voice was hoarse and splintered her heart. "This can't get out. If it does, it'll destroy my career."
As a high-profile musician and one of the hottest bachelors in Harlem, she knew the media would have a field day if they learned he was illiterate.
"No one will know. I promise," she assured him, keeping her voice light in spite of the emotions churning within her. "I live a very quiet, boring life and I'd like it to stay that way."
"I don't think anything about you would qualify as boring."
She bit her lower lip with pleasure, although she was unsure whether he meant it as a compliment.
"Tommy told me about the big money I'm going to give to you."
She shook her head. "You mean donate. None of it is going to me personally. It's going to fund Beacon House."
He gave her a curious stare, then shrugged. "It doesn't matter because you're both nuts. There's no way I can learn how to read in one weekend," he insisted.
She nodded. "You're right. You won't be able to read War and Peace, but I promise you'll be able to read a simple children's book by Monday."
Alex shoved his hands into his jeans, revealing a thin line of hair at the base of his abdomen that Cara longed to trace to its final destination.
He sounded doubtful. "I guess I don't have a choice."