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Shayna Miller gritted her teeth as she grabbed a handful of threadbare red wool and yanked at the hem of her borrowed Ms. Noel costume.
Good news—she managed to cover a bit more leg.
Bad news—her boobs nearly popped out.
Fearful any more tugging would shred the ancient fabric, she let the dress be and faced the mirror, frowning at the pregnant blonde reflected behind her. "This is going to be the first X-rated parade in the history of the Noel Festival."
"The dress isn't that tight." Lindy Monroe insisted. "Now, quit trying to change the subject. Tell me about Los Angeles."
Shayna had avoided her best friend—and this very conversation—since she returned to Land's Cross two days ago. Judging by the stubborn tilt of Lindy's chin, she wasn't going to let the matter drop until Shayna spilled the beans about the reunion with her birth mother, Patty Hoyt.
"It was horrible," she admitted sadly. "A huge waste of time and money."
"Her letter said she wanted to make amends." Lindy patted the bedspread near her hip. "So what went wrong?"
A resigned sigh shuddered through Shayna as she sat. The frightened little girl still huddled in her heart had naively hoped for a loving reunion, for answers to years' worth of unanswered questions. So much for childish wishes.
"Patty's still hustling the next big score. She only invited me to L.A. to talk me into helping with her current scheme."
"Which is…?" Lindy prompted.
"Seems my biological father is a big-shot psychologist who's been offered a ton of money to star in his own talk show."
"Wow. What's hisname?"
"Steven Walker." Just saying his name made Shayna feel sick to her stomach.
"Ohhh. I've heard of him. He's done guest spots on nearly every daytime talk show."
"Yep. Turns out they had an affair while he was married, but he dropped her when she got pregnant with me. She said he paid her a bundle to keep quiet, but now she plans on scoring big."
"She figures he'll pay anything to avoid tarnishing his reputation before the TV deal is officially signed."
"What a witch."
"That's not the worst of it." As it had when Patty first outlined her ridiculous plan, Shayna's anger began to spike. Her fingers trembled slightly as she unwound the band from her waist-length braid and began unknotting her hair.
"She wants me to go to some Who's Your Daddy clinic and have a DNA test so she'll have hard evidence and can get even more money out of him."
Lindy laid a gentle hand on Shayna's knee. "Don't take this the wrong way, sweetie, but will people really care that he fathered a child out of wedlock twenty-five years ago?"
"I asked the same thing. Apparently, Dr. Walker's claim to fame, and the premise of his show, is family therapy, with an emphasis on old-fashioned, wholesome values. Ironic, huh?"
"Ouch." Lindy winced sympathetically.
Rehashing the encounter was making Shayna as antsy as a turkey in November. Her attempt to reconnect with her past had failed. All she wanted now was to keep moving forward.
Restless, she surged to her feet, but the costume's skirt remained bunched around her hips. Good Lord—the wavy mass of brown hair spilling over her shoulders covered more skin than this miserable dress! She skimmed her hands over her hips, but the snug material didn't budge.
"We've got to do something about this outfit before the festival starts."
Lindy, bless her understanding heart, ran with the defensive subject change this time. "Definitely. I can't believe old Mrs. Brinker ran it through the dryer. As petite as you are, I had hoped it might still fit."
"Petite?" Relieved to be discussing anything other than the soap opera Patty had wanted to make of her life, Shayna snickered. "That's just a fancy word for short as a stump." In her bare feet, she topped out at a whopping five-two. A very full-figured five-two.
"Imagine how that dress would fit if you were any taller."
"If I were any taller, it'd be little more than a belt, and the vice squad would raid the parade for sure."
"Nothing illegal about showing a little skin."
"A little skin? I look like a stripper from the North Pole."
"Yeah, but think about the fundraising possibilities. Thousands of dollars—singles, fives and twenties—tucked into your skimpy costume, one bill at a time. It would be the festival's most profitable year ever."
Lindy's ridiculous suggestion cracked Shayna up. Within seconds, they were both giggling like schoolgirls. The happy sound helped to chase away the cloud that had hung over her since her return from California.
For the first time since telling Patty to take a hike, Shayna began to relax. She'd always cherished her calm, uncomplicated life. For the past week, she'd worried her mother's vile drama would destroy her hard-won happiness, but that wasn't going to happen. She wouldn't allow it.
In the bedroom's far corner, the phone rang. Shayna skipped over to answer it, but one look at the caller ID brought her laughter to an abrupt halt. Over the past few days, the Southern California area code had become an-noyingly familiar.
Lindy stopped giggling and sat forward quizzically. "Are you going to answer it?"
"No." Shayna's voice, and her answer, sounded weak.
Her recorded greeting filled the room, followed by a beep, then, "Ms. Miller. It's Kyle Anderson. Again."
"Who?" Lindy mouthed, but Shayna waved her off as her one and only meeting with the man played in slo-mo across her memory's high-def, digitally clear screen.
She'd been standing in her hotel lobby, waiting on a cab to carry her to the airport, away from L.A. and her mother's world of make-believe. When he'd first stepped through the glass doors, his movie star good looks had her thinking she was on the cusp of a celebrity encounter.
Behind him, an elderly couple struggled to open the door against the powerful Santa Ana winds. Before Shayna could react, Mr. Delicious hustled up, opened the door and ushered the thankful couple inside. His kind gesture and warm smile caused an unexpected stir of warm fuzzies in her belly. She'd always been a sucker for good manners.
Once the grateful couple moved off, he removed his sunglasses. As his gaze collided with hers, the warm fuzzies exploded into sizzling sparks. She stared openly, helpless to pull back from the most piercing blue eyes she'd ever seen. It was as though he looked straight into her soul. She'd felt simultaneously intrigued and challenged. Her pulse had skittered into high gear.
In a blink, his intense stare had been camouflaged behind a polished charm. A single dimple winked from his left cheek. He'd extended his hand and introduced himself in the same deep, powerful voice now pouring through her phone. Long distance didn't diminish the voice's effect one darn bit.
"It is urgent that I speak with you. A few minutes of your time, and we can put the whole matter to rest. Please contact me immediately."
He paused, then quickly rattled off his office and cell numbers. Shayna expected him to hang up. He always hung up after repeating his numbers. But the voice continued, his baritone plunging lower. "Ms. Miller, you can't keep running from me."
"Wow." Lindy enthused when the room was silent again. "Does he look as good as he sounds?"
"'Fraid so. Nearly six feet, broad shoulders, stunning blue eyes, sun-kissed blond hair. Your basic California pretty boy." Okay, that wasn't quite true. There was nothing basic about his looks.
"Sounds yummy. Who is he?"
"An attorney from Beverly Hills."
"Ooh la la. What's he want with you?"
"I'm not exactly sure. He said Dr. Walker hired him to 'contain the Patty Hoyt issue.'" Her fingers wiggled air quotes. "Then he started spouting some legalese about contracts and compensation, but I told him I had no part in Patty's plans, and I certainly wanted nothing to do with a hypocritical scumbag like his client."
"I did, but luckily my cab pulled up before I could say anything really nasty. I just told him to consider the issue contained and hightailed it out of there."
"Are you going to call him back?"
The answering machine's message-waiting light flashed red, like a danger signal. "No." She pressed the erase key. "I'm not interested in anything Dr. Walker or Kyle Anderson have to say. Too little, too late."
Despite the frustration boiling through his bloodstream, Kyle Anderson carefully returned the phone to its base. He had a hard-earned reputation as a cool cat here at Thomas, Peake and Moore, and he wouldn't dare let his guard down.
"Foolish girl." He chuckled for effect, knowing his boss, Roscoe Thomas, expected it. "She's playing hard to get."
"If she's avoiding your calls, why not pay her a visit like you did the mother? No one's better in person than you, Anderson. Especially with the ladies."
Kyle rolled his eyes. "The mother was easy."
"We already knew that. If she weren't, our client wouldn't be in this predicament."
He smiled again because it was expected. He sure as hell didn't see any humor in the situation. Years of hard work
and sacrifice, and now his goal of becoming the firm's youngest partner hinged on the whims of a stubborn hick from Nowheresville, Tennessee? Not funny at all.
"I meant, Patty Hoyt was only after money. Her kind's easily dispensed with. Besides, the daughter has already left town, which makes me think she's got something bigger in mind."
"This girl grew up dirt-poor while Walker's legitimate kids had every advantage money can buy. Judging by her bank records, she's still barely scraping by. Sounds like a recipe for revenge to me."
The glint of humor in Roscoe's eyes turned to steel. "Then stop her. Immediately." Still intimidating at sixty, Roscoe stood. "This is your chance, Anderson. Steven Walker pays a lot of salaries around here. He wants this matter resolved quickly, and the partners want him happy."
Kyle stood and crossed his arms. At a sniff under six feet, he had to cock his chin to meet Thomas's icy stare, but he dialed back the aggression with a cocky wink. "Leave Shayna Miller to me. Like you said, I'm good with the ladies."
"We can't afford to lose Walker." Thomas's voice turned as cold as prison bars. "You want a lucrative future with this firm, then do whatever it takes to get this girl on board before the press gets wind of any potential scandal."
Kyle kept his lips from snarling until after Thomas swaggered out of his office. He resented the ultimatum, but he didn't blame the old guy. Dangling the partnership as bait was a strong, strategic move, but damn, he hated occupying the weaker position.
He settled back into his high-backed leather chair and glared at the phone. After learning that Walker didn't intend to deliver the quick score she'd hoped for, Patty Hoyt had gladly provided Kyle with her daughter's number. He'd left Shayna Miller six messages since letting her slip away from the hotel. The annoying woman hadn't returned a single one.
The tiny doe-eyed girl he'd encountered in that hotel lobby couldn't have been further from what he'd been expecting. Unlike her overprocessed, overpainted mother, Shayna's skin had been naked and clear, a glossy peach lipstick her only ornamentation. She'd smelled like sunshine. After years of being assaulted by manufactured fragrances on women, the purity of her aroma had been intensely sensual. Most arresting, though, had been her wide, amber eyes. Clear, unguarded, welcoming.
All that had changed the instant he'd introduced himself and explained his connection to Steven Walker. She'd closed up. Her smile, her eyes, her attitude. Everything went blank, as if she'd flipped a switch and turned off her inner light.
He'd gone to that hotel for the very reason Thomas had just suggested. He'd intended to force the issue, do whatever it took to obtain her cooperation. But he'd failed. Not only had she fled before he could outline the lucrative details of Walker's offer but watching the wary distrust that replaced her initial shy smile had thrown him off his game.
Now, as he drummed a pen against his desk's blotter and plotted his battle plan, he once again cursed himself for squandering his opportunity to get a handle on Shayna Miller.
The longer he thought about that encounter, the more convinced he became that she'd been playing him. Complete lack of emotion was a learned skill, the kind of thing a calculating daughter would learn—or possibly inherit—from a calculating mother. The nut didn't often fall far from the tree.
So why the hell did his gut keep insisting he was misjudging her?
"It's just the voice," he assured himself as he flung the pen down and spread the Walker file out on his desk. That sexy southern accent had been playing on a continuous loop through his brain for nearly a week now.
Damned if he'd be swayed by slow vowels and exaggerated syllables. His future hinged on getting Shayna Miller to consent to the agreement Steven Walker was paying the firm megabucks to secure. And he didn't intend to fail.
He might not like his reputation as the office lady-killer, but he hadbeen the one to negotiate Patty Hoyt's lump-sum payment—contingent upon her daughter's cooperation— in exchange for never bothering their client again. Ever.
So what if he despised this whole case? So what if he felt Walker's requests—both of the firm and the child he'd walked away from over two decades ago—skated ethical and moral lines. Personal feelings aside, his job was to satisfy the firm's most influential client, and until he made partner, that was all that mattered.
After he had his name on the letterhead, then he'd have the luxury of turning down clients who made his skin crawl, who reminded him of the human trash he'd grown up with. For now, he was one assignment away from achieving his professional goals and moving on to the next stage of his life plan: attractive trophy wife, two kids, a beach house in Malibu. By then, he hoped to hell his success would obliterate the image of the scrawny, unwanted street punk who still stared back at him in the mirror every morning.
An unusually frigid breeze swooped beneath the hem of Shayna's skirt as she scanned the crowd who'd turned out for today's ground breaking ceremony. Her teeth chattered as she snuggled deeper into her green-and-gold Fighting Lions letterman sweater. Had she known winter planned to make a surprise appearance today, she'd have skipped the sweater's sentimentality and gone with her more practical—and much warmer—parka.
Numb fingers fluffed her hair out around her ears as she fought back sentimental tears. She loved this little tight-knit community. It was the day before Thanksgiving, with temperatures suspended in the mid-thirties, and still nearly a hundred folks were gathered in the town square to celebrate the official start of the James Miller Youth Center.
For nearly three years, she'd dedicated herself to making the youth center a reality, helping with everything from fundraising to building plans to investigating the best playground surface material. It was scheduled to open next spring, and she—and her newly completed social services degree—had already accepted the director's position. But to have the place named after her daddy? She couldn't imagine a greater honor.