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"Well, I'll be damned," Case Fortune murmured in disbelief. He would've thought librarian-attire would be a pre-requisite for writing kids' books. Horn-rim glasses, sensible shoes, a dress that covered chin to ankle. That kind of thing.
He glanced up at the banner that stretched from one end of the bookstore's children's corner to the other to make sure he was at the right place: Signing Today! Gina Reynolds, Award-Winning Author of TALES FROM TOADSVILLE.
Toadsville, he thought, swallowing a laugh. What kind of woman wrote stories about toads? A nerd, he decided, and shifted his gaze back to the woman in question.
But Gina Reynolds didn't look like any nerd he'd ever seen before. At the moment she was perched on a child-size chair holding a book open, so the children scattered on the floor around her could see the illustrations as she read the story to them. Seated as she was, her legs appeared incredibly long, their length enhanced by the short black skirt that hit her above her knees and the black leather boots that came just short of reaching them.
Her style of dress wasn't the only contradiction to Case's preconceived image of Gina Reynolds. Long strawberry-blond hair framed her face and tumbled in soft waves over slender shoulders. A faint sprinkling of freckles speckled her nose. Her eyes, a stunning leaf-green, sparkled with animation as she read to the children in a voice that changed tone and depth to match the personality of the characters in the story.
Case hadn't come to the signing expecting to find a raving beauty—and he hadn't—yet there was something about her that encouraged a man to take a second look. Whether it was her physical attributes or her voice that demanded that second look, he wasn't sure, but the sound of her voice had him moving to brace a shoulder against the end of a bookshelf to listen, as enthralled as the children with her storytelling skills.
When she read the last page and closed the book, the children let out a collective sigh of disappointment, then immediately began clamoring for her to read another. A woman—probably the manager of the bookstore—quickly stepped into the circle of children to intervene.
"I'm sorry, children" she said, with regret, "but that's all the time Ms. Reynolds has to read to you today. If you'd like her to sign copies of your books, please form a line against the far wall." She turned to smile at Gina. "I know that Ms. Reynolds will be happy to personalize each one."
With surprising gracefulness, Gina rose and moved to sit behind the table set up for her, where stacks of her books were displayed. Children scrambled to form the requested line, which quickly stretched from one end of the store to the other.
Though irritated that he would have to wait a little longer to introduce himself, Case wasn't giving up. He needed Gina's assistance in bringing a merger to fruition, and wasn't leaving until he'd at least had the opportunity to discuss it with her. Seeking an inconspicuous spot, he slipped between the aisles of books and pretended to study the titles, while waiting for the kids to clear out.
When the last kid in line turned away, Case made his move. Quickly crossing to the table, he picked up a book from the display. "Would you mind autographing one for me?" he asked.
Bent over to gather her purse from beneath the table, she glanced up, a friendly smile ready. Though her smile remained in place, it lost some of its warmth when her gaze met his—and that surprised him. He didn't know her and was sure that she didn't know him, yet it was definitely dislike—or, at the very least, disapproval—that darkened her eyes.
Straightening, she accepted the book and laid it on the table in front of her. "And who would you like it inscribed to?" she asked as she flipped open the front cover.
She glanced up in surprise. "You?"
"Is that a problem?"
Blushing, she quickly shook her head. "Of course not. It's just that...well, you're the first adult male who's ever requested an autographed book."
He shot her a wink. "I've always prided myself on being ahead of the curve."
Instead of the smile he'd thought his teasing comment would draw, he received a frown.
Bending her head over the open book, she scrawled an inscription, then closed the cover and handed it to him. "You pay the clerk at the register," she informed him curtly and reached for her purse again.
He nodded. "Thanks."
Before he could get to the real reason for his visit, the manager called from behind the checkout counter, "Ms. Reynolds? I'd like to speak with you before you leave."
"I'll be right there," she replied, then rose and said to Case, "If you'll excuse me."
Irritated by the obvious brush-off, Case pulled his wallet from his hip pocket and followed her to the front of the store. He tossed a credit card on the counter, but kept an ear cocked to the conversation transpiring between Gina and the manager, and overheard the woman congratulate Gina on receiving the Newbury Award. While he continued to listen, he noticed a photo on the wall behind the register of the woman with Gina. The plaque beneath it read "Susan Meyer, Manager."
After signing the credit slip and accepting his autographed book, he approached the two women.
"Ms. Meyer?" he asked hesitantly.
She glanced his way. "Yes. May I help you?" He extended his hand. "Case Fortune." Her eyes shot wide at the Fortune name. "Oh, Mr. Fortune," she gushed and pumped the offered hand enthusiastically. "It's an honor to have you in our store."
"The honor's mine," he said humbly. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I couldn't help overhearing you say that Ms. Reynolds won the Newbury Medal. I'm not familiar with that award. Is it a prestigious one?"
She pressed a hand over her heart. "Oh my, yes! The American Library Association presents it to the author they feel has made the greatest contribution to American literature for children." She angled her head to smile fondly at Gina. "And this year they've chosen our Gina. We're all so proud of her accomplishment."
"I should think so," he agreed, then turned his attention fully on Gina. "I suppose you've been swamped with parties celebrating your success."
Color seeped into her cheeks. "Well, no. Not exactly."
"An oversight I hope you will allow me to rectify by permitting me to take you out for cocktails."
Her face went slack. "Cocktails?" "It seems appropriate."
"Oh, no," she said, shaking her head. "I couldn't. I appreciate the invitation, I do, but I need to stay and help Susan clean up from the booksigning."
"You'll do no such thing," Susan fussed. "You're our guest. My staff and I will put everything away." She pushed out her hands, shooing the two toward the store's entrance. "Go and celebrate," she ordered Gina. "It's not everyday you have the opportunity to toast your success with such a handsome man."
Henri's, the restaurant Case had chosen for Gina's celebration, was not only located near the bookstore, it was reputed to be one of the finest in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. During the weekday, businessmen crowded the interior, networking while partaking in the infamous two-martini-lunch. In the evenings, it was no less busy, as many of those same businessmen returned to entertain their clients, plying them with pepper-crusted tenderloin or smoked salmon—Henri's signature entrees—accompanied with select wines from Henri's wine cellar. Friday and Saturday nights a different atmosphere prevailed, one created for couples seeking a quiet, romantic dinner. Gina knew this because her father had often brought her mother to Henri's on Saturday nights, a ploy he'd used to charm his way back into her good graces, after having ignored her all week. Many of his cronies did the same.
She stole a glance at Case, wondering if he used Henri's for that purpose. He wasn't married, thus had no wife to placate, but he had plenty of lady friends who might feel similarly slighted. She was aware of his bachelor status, as a week rarely passed that his picture didn't appear in the newspaper's society section, with a different woman on his arm each time. Trophy dates, eye candy. Whatever a person termed his choice in women, the man obviously didn't lack for female companionship.
So why had he insisted upon taking her out for cocktails? she asked herself, studying him beneath her lashes. She didn't believe for a minute that it was because he wanted to toast her success. Men like Case Fortune did nothing that didn't benefit themselves in some way and he had nothing to gain from her winning an award.
Frowning, she continued to scrutinize him as he and the waiter went through the opening-the-champagne-bottle ritual. She hated to admit it, but he was better looking in person than in the photos she'd seen of him in the papers. Razor-cut, dark-brown hair; finely chiseled features. The leather jacket he'd draped over the back of his chair looked Italian, as did his tailored dress shirt. Probably were, she thought with more than a little resentment. He had the money, the style to wear whatever he wanted. Why settle for anything less than the best? Her father certainly never had.
The reminder of her father was enough to have her glancing at her wristwatch, wondering how long she'd have to stay before she could make a graceful exit. Five minutes? Ten?
"Your champagne, madam."
Startled, she glanced up to find the waiter offering her a flute of champagne. She forced a smile for his benefit and accepted the glass—all the while silently cursing the bookstore manager. With Susan all but pushing her out the door, there was no way she could've refused Case's invitation without appearing rude and ungrateful.