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"Be nice to the man." Laurel Tolson repeated the words of her red-haired hotel manager, Brice Neilsen. She gritted her teeth. "Be nice, be nice, be nice." She recited the litany to herself, glancing at her bare ring finger but seeing the 14-carat diamond that Edward Varnum had given her. She pictured Edward's flashing blue eyes, remembered being in his arms and then she clamped her jaw shut.
Today, the first week in August, another wealthy playboy, the oil magnate Chase Bennett, was coming to her hometown of Athens, Montana. She wanted no part of him, but over the next few weeks she was going to have to feed and entertain him and his executives, and she would have to be as friendly as Brice had cautioned.
Glancing at her watch, she planned to return to the hotel in less than two hours, since Chase Bennett should arrive later and she wanted to be present to greet him. She imagined he would travel in the same manner that her ex-fiancé had, in a limo with a staff at his beck and call.
As she drove along a wide street of Athens, she reflected on how she had grown up in a friendly place. The small town had none of the bustle and traffic of Dallas, her current residence. Tall black walnut trees and pines shaded the street, and wide lawns surrounded the two-story frame houses that always meant home to her.
She inhaled the crisp, fresh air and turned into the hospital parking lot, saying another prayer that this day her father would come out of the coma. Each time she thought about him, her insides clenched. How it hurt to see him lying immobile in the hospital, because her dad had always been strong and filled with vitality.
Taking another deep breath, she squared her shoulders. She loved her fatheras did everyone who knew him. He was an elegant charmer, full of fun before his stroke last month.
When she turned into an empty parking place at the hospital, the roar of a motorcycle interrupted her thoughts. Glancing over her shoulder, she watched a deeply tanned man race past her, his dark brown hair ruffled by the wind. He wore a red bandana around his forehead, a tight T-shirt and jeans. She frowned slightly at the noise he created in a hospital lot, but then she forgot him as she climbed out of her car.
Inside the hospital she greeted front desk attendants and hurried through an empty corridor to enter an elevator. She pressed the button for the fifth floor, but before the doors closed, a booted foot stopped them.
The doors opened automatically, and she recognized the biker when he stepped into the elevator. She couldn't stop staring. He was strikingly handsome. Tall and broad-shouldered, he dominated the small space with a commanding air as if he were in charge of the entire hospital. The thought crossed her mind that few women could keep from noticing that his snug T-shirt revealed muscles and the tight jeans hugged narrow hips. Adding to his rugged appeal was his dark brown hair, a tangle from the wind with locks falling over the red bandana. His sunglasses were pushed up on his head. His thickly lashed, startling green eyes were his most breathtaking feature, and she could imagine how easily women succumbed to them.
As he turned to make eye contact with her, she was held immobile in his riveting gaze. Electricity crackled between them, and she wondered if he was aware of the aura that surrounded him. She suspected he was fully cognizant of his effect on women.
He smiled, revealing creases that bracketed his mouth and softened his features. It was an enticing, coaxing smile and had probably melted feminine hearts as easily as his bedroom eyes.
"Hi," he said in a deep voice.
"Good morning," she replied. She couldn't recall ever seeing him before, and no female could possibly forget him or avoid noticing him.
"Can you tell me where the Tolson Hotel is located?"
Startled by his question because she had come from the hotel, she nodded. "Yes, you're almost there now. Two more blocks to the west and one block to the east. You're not from here, but you're visiting someone?" she asked, wondering aloud why he was in the hospital.
"I have a friend who flew in last night and had emergency gallbladder surgery. I'm here for a visit. You can come with me and meet my friend if you want to verify my story," he said with a twinkle in his eyes, and she could feel heat flush her cheeks.
"Sorry. It's not often you find solitary strangers in this hospital, because people know each other throughout the areawhether they live on a ranch or in town." As soon as the elevator stopped at the second floor and the doors opened, the stranger didn't move. When she glanced at him, he merely smiled.
"You're going to miss your floor," she remarked.
"I've decided to ride up and back down again so I can talk to you. I didn't expect to meet a beautiful woman, and I have a few minutes. I don't see a ring on your finger."
"No. You're observant," she said, not caring to discuss herself with a stranger.
"After you finish your visit, it would be nice if you'd show me the downtown area because I've never been here before. I don't know anyone, and my friend won't be getting out and around. I'd like to take you to dinner afterwards."
She smiled back at him. "Two blocks beyond the hotel is the Athens Chamber of Commerce and the tourist bureau. If you'll go in there, you can arrange for a walking tour and they will answer your questions about our town."
"That is definitely not what I had in mind," he said, looking more amused. "If you're worried because we're strangers, I can give you some of my background and you can meet my friend. If you show me around, we won't be alone. We'll be on foot in public. Where's the danger in that? Unless you have a better place to suggest, I'll take you to dinner in the hotel laterstill very public."
"Thank you, but I have commitments. Try the Tourist Bureau."
"So, when this elevator stops on the fifth floor, you're going to walk out of my life forever?"
"I'm afraid so," she said, smiling at him while she stepped closer to the door. "You'll get over it," she added lightly. He moved closer to her and she inhaled, catching the scent of an enticing aftershave.
"You're breaking my heart," he said in a lower tone. "And your name is?"
"I think we'll remain anonymous strangers. And I'm sure you won't have any difficulty finding someone to show you the town."
"What makes you think that?" he asked with great innocence.
She laughed. "We're a friendly place, and you're not bashful," she replied instead of answering truthfully that she was certain he could find several women who would be more than glad to escort him around Athens.
He smiled in return. "If you live here, I suspect I'll see you again."
She nodded. "Perhaps you will," she answered, half tempted to toss aside caution and show him the downtown. She gazed up into his eyes and knew she was making the right choice, but she had regrets. This stranger might be an antidote for Edward and their breakup.
The elevator stopped and she stepped out.
"Goodbye, until we meet again," he said.
She waved and went on her way, her thoughts on her father, and the stranger ceased to exist.
Feeling helpless and hurting, for the next hour she sat at her father's bedside, relieving the private-duty nurse the family had hired. As machines regularly pumped and an IV dripped, she watched the monitors steadily charting his condition, which wasn't changing.
"Dad," she whispered once, touching his hand. "I'm here. We want you to come home," she said, tears filling her eyes. "I'm selling the hotel and a potential buyer is arriving in town soon," she said quietly.
Knowing her dad couldn't hear her, she stopped talking. A charmer, her dad had a huge weakness that she had learned about in college, two years after her mother had diedhe loved to gamble. But she hadn't known the full extent of it, that it was a compulsion and that he owed large sums of money.
She mulled over the shocks and changes that had occurred in the past month. First the devastating stroke, and then before he had lapsed into the coma, he had held her hand and, with tears in his eyes, confessed to her that he'd had huge gambling debts he had covered by mortgaging the hotel and getting a smaller loan from the bank with their family ranch as collateral. Sounding anguished and so unlike himself, he had told her that he didn't know what they would do if something happened to him.
Laurel had promised him she would take care of the others and told him to not worry, that they would be all right. Then he'd lapsed into a coma and the future had changed.
Except for family, very few people in the area knew about their finances. Their banker, a lifelong friend, and his staff had been privy to the confidential information about her dad's loans. Yet no one but the bank president knew the loans were for paying off gambling debts.
The hotel had been mortgaged to the hilt, and if she sold the Tolson, she would use the money to pay off the mortgage. When she sold the Tall T Ranch, she could pay the smaller loan against the ranch and hopefully, have enough left to buy a home in Dallas for her family and help her sisters go to college. She intended to make as much profit as possible on both the hotel and the ranch.
Her father's secret about the gambling debts was safe with her, and she prayed that the bank would keep their business confidential.
Glancing at her watch, she picked up her purse and stood. "I'm going back to the hotel. I love you." She bent to brush his cheek with a kiss.
Wiping her eyes, she went out the door, talked briefly with the nurse and hurried to her car. She ran a couple of errands, then called the ranch to talk to her grandmother and younger sisters. Next she spoke to their ranch foreman and finally headed back to the Tolson Hotel, which had been built more than a hundred years earlier by her great-great-grandfather. The six-story honey-colored Montana limestone structure was ornate, clearly belonging to another era. As she walked through the lobby, she noticed with satisfaction the oriental rugs on a highly polished chestnut plank floor, potted palms and deep red leather furniture. Hurricane glass fixtures added to the turn-of-the-century ambience. In the hall to her office, she spotted the tall, blue-eyed Brice and motioned to him to join her in her office.
She put away her purse in the antique, hand-carved mahogany desk as the manager knocked and entered her office, crossing the room to take a chair facing her. Brice was nattily dressed in a charcoal suit for the arrival of the VIPs later in the day.
"I take it His Highness hasn't arrived," she said.
"I know you're stressed, Laurel, but remember, be nice to the man." Smoothing red hair that already was parted with every hair in place, Brice shook his head. "They say trouble comes in threes, and you've had your three, so maybe the arrival of Chase Bennett will turn out to be a blessing and solve some of your problems if he buys the hotel."
"I know," she said, sitting behind her desk and tapping her finger. "I expect another Edward and I didn't see any limos out front when I arrived."
"He may be another Edward. Don't hold that against him. Chase Bennett is worth a billion and he's intent on buying property here because of his new oil field, so smile at the man. He's a handsome bachelor and you're single and pretty."
"Thank you, Brice, but believe me, the last thing on this earth I'm interested in is another playboy." She shuddered.
Brice made a steeple of his hands. "You're sincere about that, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am. What's so difficult to understand?"
"Don't bite my head off. If you're so worried about the girls and your grandmother and your dad's health and medical bills, a rich friend or husband would solve your financial problems."
She shook her head. "Sorry if I snapped at you, but another Edward wouldn't be worth the money. I'll take my responsibilities as they come."
"How's your dad?"
"He's the same. Thanks for asking."
"Your dad is a strong man. I think he'll come through this."
"Thanks for the encouragement," she said, knowing Brice was always the optimist. "Do you think everything in the hotel is ready?"
"As we'll ever be. The hotel looks marvelousand it's summer, so we have it almost totally booked through August, although that part may not interest him. I'm sure he'll have no problem filling rooms. A lot of his people are here because they've already started working on the new oil field." With a glance at his watch, Brice stood. "I'll be in the kitchen, making certain all our supplies have arrived."
"Thanks for all you're doing." She nodded and stood.
"You're welcome. It's my job. Please remember"
"Be nice to the man," she finished for him. "I'll try my best. After all, I need to sell this place desperately. If I do, I want to tell Dad even if he won't know it."
"I understand," Brice replied, smiling and giving her a look filled with sympathy.
When they parted, she rode the elevator to the suite she occupied on the top floor. Chase Bennett had reserved the other two suites, which included the largest suite that ran along the entire south side, plus half of both the east and west sides of the hotel. She guessed he would take the larger suite of the two he'd booked and assumed his closest associate would take the other.
She stepped out of the elevator and was surprised to see the biker from the hospital emerge from the second elevator. Dark locks of his wind-blown hair still fell over the red bandana wrapped around his forehead, and his aviator shades hid his eyes. He had no luggage with him.
"I see you found the hotel," she said, wondering what he was doing and if he had followed her.
Removing his sunglasses, he turned to her. The moment their gazes met, the chemistry that had sparked earlier between them ignited again, even hotter this time.
"Yes, thanks," he answered easily, walking toward her to stop only yards away.
"I'm sorry, but this floor is occupied," she said. "These are suites and they're all booked."
One corner of his mouth lifted in a grin. "The desk clerk said I'd be on the sixth floor."
She smiled. "What's your room number? You're probably on the fifth floor," she said, realizing he might work for Chase Bennett.
He fished in a pocket. "Believe it or not, I have a suite on six."
"I believe you," she said, reassessing him and guessing he was in Bennett's company. Red flags of warning went up in her mind. This handsome, sexy stranger was too appealing. He was probably almost as wealthy as his boss and someone she should guard against getting to know well, even though she suspected few women wanted to shield their hearts or anything else from him.
"Do you work for Chase Bennett?" she asked.
"Indeed, I do. I think it's time we introduce ourselves," he said, holding out his hand, his green eyes dancing with wicked mischief. She wondered if she had offended him earlier by turning down his invitation to show him the downtowna legitimate request if he was one of Bennett's employees.
"I'm Chase Bennett," he said as she extended her hand and his closed around it.
Shocked, she stared at him while his warm hand enveloped hers, sending tingles spiraling through her.
"Oh, my! You don't look like your pictures. I think I made a dreadful mistake this morning," she blurted, feeling her cheeks flush.
"You can make up for it," he replied in a deeper voice that filled his words with innuendo and stirred another sizzle.
"And how can I do that?" She couldn't resist flirting in return, speaking in a sultry tone that made one of his dark eyebrows arch. Desire was obvious in his expression.
"Have dinner with me tonight," he said.
"I'd be delighted and I'll show you our town," she replied, aware of her hand still held in his while his thumb ran lightly back and forth across her knuckles. Her emotions churned because he was another moneyed womanizer, and distaste curled in her with a sour urge to keep as much distance as possible between them. On the other hand, she wanted to win him over in hopes he would like the hotel and buy it.