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Katie Winfield plotted the seduction with military precision.
Exactitude wasn't her typical modus operandi. On the contrary, she was usually quite spontaneous and, in fact, had a reputation as something of a free spirit. But she and Richard had been flirting for weeks with no forward motion in their relationship. Tonight would thrust them toward a whole new level of intimacy.
Embracing the advance planning she normally eschewed, Katie picked up a pencil and ticked off the items on her To Do list.
Facial and pedicure. Check.
Sexy French-maid costume. Check.
Tantalizing new perfume. Check.
Catch-me, do-me stilettos. Check.
Auburn wig. Check.
Black silk stockings. Check.
Push-up bra. Check.
Erotic face mask. Check.
Lots and lots of condoms. Check.
Just reading over the list made her feel all warm and tingly and soft inside. This eveningduring the ultraposh Boston Ladies League charity costume ball thrown annually on the Friday before Labor Day weekendshe intended on bedazzling the pants off Richard Montgomery Hancock the III.
Katie had spent her lunch hour shopping. She'd just returned to work fifteen minutes late and out of breath. Furtively, she kicked the loot farther underneath her desk, and then darted a glance over her shoulder to see if her boss had noticed her tardiness.
"What didja buy?" asked her office mate, Tanisha Taylor, as she sauntered through the door, grande soy latte in hand.
Katie shrugged. "Nothing much."
At five-nine, Tanisha towered over Katie's own five feet three inches. They were both twenty-four and they'd started working as graphic artists at Sharper Designs on the very same day tenmonths earlier. It was the longest Katie had ever worked anywhere and she was starting to feel the strain of being in one place too long.
With her radiant, caramel complexion and deep chocolate-brown eyes, Tanisha was drop-dead beautiful. She wore her hair in a tightly braided shoulder-length style that made her narrow face look even thinner. She possessed the lean muscular build of a dancer, quite the opposite of Katie's well-rounded, non-athletic figure. They made for an unusual looking pair.
Today her coworker was dressed in a lavender blouse made of pure silk that she wore tucked into a pair of straight-legged, black slacks and sensible black flats. But Katie knew from the wild nights they'd recently spent closing down bars that beneath the buttoned-down attire lurked the adventuresome soul of a Nubian goddess.
Tanisha spied the red-and-black striped bag from Fetching Fantasies and dove for it before Katie could block her. Tanisha set down her latte, perched on the edge of Katie's desk and peeked inside the bag.
"Oo-la-la, what have we here? Parlez-vous franÃ§ais?" she teased.
Katie snatched the bag away and clutched it to her chest. "Just a costume for the Ladies League masquerade party. No biggie."
Tanisha grinned. "You are going to be the hussy of the ball in that getup."
"That's the general idea."
"Spill it. Who've you got lined up in your crosshairs?" Returning Tanisha's sly grin, Katie slowly shook her head.
"Don't give me that. I know you've got something up your sleeve."
Katie tilted her head, lowered her eyelashes and slanted Tanisha a sideways glance. "Do you know Richard Hancock?"
"Everyone in town knows Richard. What are you trying to do? Ruffle all the blue-blood feathers in Boston?"
That comment pulled her up short. Why did she suddenly feel as if her conscience were the target and Tanisha's accusation a straight flying arrow?
Bull's-eye. "What makes you say that?" "Why else would you want to hook up with Richard 'The Dick'Hancock? He's sooo not your type." Tanisha hopped off Katie's desk and plopped down in front of her drafting board.
"What do you mean? Richard is a very handsome guy."
"I'm not talking about his looks."
"What's wrong with Richard?"
"Nothing is wrong with Richard. What's wrong is that you're plotting to seduce him at the Ladies League ball." Tanisha clicked her tongue.
"What's so bad about that?"
"Face it, Katie.You've got a knack for causing a stir."
"Who got caught kissing the CEO's son under the mistletoe at the office Christmas party, hmm?"
"Hey," Katie said defensively. "How was I supposed to know he'd just gotten engaged?"
"That's my point, K.You don't always take the time to ask the right questions and it often lands you in hot water. Subconsciously, I think you enjoy causing a scandal."
"I do not." Did she?
"Either that or you're into self-sabotage. Which is it?"
"If you say so." Tanisha sounded skeptical.
"I say so."
"And the Nile is just a river in Egypt." Tanisha snorted. Was she sabotaging herself? As the youngest of three sisters growing up in a household run by their loving mother and strict naval-officer father, Katie had done a little acting out for attention, but so what?
She'd played hooky a few times in high school. Once or twice, she'd gotten caught sneaking out her bedroom window to meet a boyfriend. She enjoyed making Great-Aunt Josephine's upper-crust nose wrinkle in disapproval by listening to hip-hop, using street slang and wearing jeans to family gatherings. Honestly, she'd never done anything too radical. Katie just liked having fun. Her motives were no more complicated than a Cyndi Lauper song.
Well, okay, maybe sometimes it got stifling with her two older, oh-so-perfect sisters. Brooke was the beautiful caregiver, Joey the smart go-getter and they were both as good as gold. By default, that left Katie with the title of wild child. But everyone had a family label, right? And she chose to wear hers proudly.
To be honest, even after their father had passed away five years ago, she and her sisters had still lived a fairytale life. They'd been lucky, blessed, until this past year when their world had totally collapsed.
Katie didn't want to think about it, but the rush of memories overwhelmed her and she felt herself caught in a tornado of emotion that squeezed the breath from her lungs. She forced a smile, determined not to let Tanisha know about the sorrow knotting up inside her.
But a smile couldn't stop the sad feelings. In January, Katie and her sisters had received the horrible news that their beloved mother, Daisy, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Katie denied it for as long as she could. She'd pretended it was all a big mistake, that their mother was fine. But each day Daisy Winfield grew weaker and sicker until Katie could deny it no longer.
After that, she'd gotten angry. When Brooke had told her that she was stuck in the second stage of grief, the comment had pissed her off. Sainted Brooke, who never did anything wrong apparently leapfrogged right over the five stages of grief. She'd quickly skimmed from denial to anger to depression and bargaining straight on through to acceptance.
Katie, according to Brooke, had never gotten past anger. Maybe she hadn't. But how was she supposed to get past it? Her mother had only been fifty-three when she passed away in July, only four months after she'd been diagnosed. There hadn't been nearly enough time to say goodbye.
It wasn't fair.
Katie closed her eyes and inhaled sharply at the pain of remembering that awful night when their mother had died.
She'd been restless, feverish and babbling about a lost baby. Daisy had clutched her daughters' hands and begged them to find the baby girl. They had no idea what baby she was talking about. The hospice nurse had assured them it was just the effects of the heavy pain medication she was on, but it had been upsetting to see her mother so distressed during her last minutes on Earth.
Involuntarily, Katie laid a hand across her heart and felt a solid ache for the loss of her mother.
"Katie?" Tanisha's voice snapped her out of the past and back into the present.
She opened her eyes.
Tanisha had an odd expression on her face. She canted her head and a dark braid fell against her chiseled cheekbone. "Are you all right?" "Uh-huh."
"You don't look all right."
Tanisha nodded at the shopping bags crammed underneath Katie's desk. "Does this shopping spree and Ladies League seduction, and other crazy behavior have anything to do with losing your mother?"
Her coworker was more perceptive than she imagined. Tanisha's party-girl personality gave the impression that she wasn't the type to pry into people's deep, dark secrets, which was probably one of the reasons Katie had been drawn to her. Katie herself was not a fan of digging into her own psyche.
"Why would you think that?" Katie forced a laugh, but it came out sounding strangled and strange.
"I was thinking that maybe you're looking to seduce Richard as a way of drowning your sorrow. You know, choking out the pain with pleasure."
"No, no. Of course not. That's ludicrous. I can't believe you thought that."
"This coming weekend is the two-month anniversary of your mother's death."
"So maybe instead of facing what's upsetting you, you're seducing Richard Hancock."
"Well, I'm not," Katie snapped.
Tanisha held up her palms. "Oookay, I was merely checking. No need to get testy."
"I don't understand. What do you have against me hooking up with Richard?"
"He's just not what you need right now." "Why not?" she asked. "He's fun and flirts and likes to have a good time."
"You're two of a kind."
"Again, why is that a problem?"
"Come on, be straight with me, do you even like Richard?"
Katie shrugged. "Sure." "What do you like about him?" Tanisha lifted a finger. "And you can't say anything physical."
"He's he's "
Why couldn't she think of what she liked about Richard beside his thick blond hair and his radiant whitetoothed smile and his big, broad tanned hands? He wasn't terribly bright, nor was he horribly reliable. But come on, she wasn't talking about marrying the guy. She just needed to get laid.
"Can't do it, can you?"
"No, you're the funny one. He laughs at your jokes."
Oops! Tanisha was right, but Katie didn't want to admit it. "Okay, then that's what I like about him. He makes me feel funny."
"Funny ha-ha or funny weird?"
"Now you're just giving me a hard time. What's the deal?"
Tanisha took a deep breath. "Let's drop the conversation. We've both got work to wrap up before the holiday weekend."
"No, seriously, I want to know."
"You sure?" Tanisha arched an eyebrow. "You promise not to get mad at me?"
"What do you mean? I'm not an angry person."
"You didn't used to be," Tanisha said.
"But I am now?"
"Well, sometimes, kind of, ever since your mother passed away."
That stunned her. To hear it from Brooke was one thing. As the oldest, Brooke had often seen it as her job to monitor Katie and correct her behavior, but to hear it from her friend was another story.
"It's okay," Tanisha offered. "Everyone understands. You've been through a lot. But instead of hooking up with good-time guys like Richard, you might be at a point in your life where it's time you checked out the other side of the fence. Maybe you should try being with someone more substantial."
"I don't get it. Where is this coming from? You party and flirt as much as I do."
"Yeah, but since I've started dating Dwayne I'm looking at things a bit differently."
"Don't tell me that you and Dwayne are getting serious! You've only known him what? A month? And he lives in Denver. It's easy to have a great relationship when you rarely see each other."
"We're not talking about me and Dwayne. We're talking about you, and I think you're doing this as some kind of rebellion you never outgrew. Deep down inside, you're a lot more traditional than you want people to believe."
"If you want to party and flirt and have lots of casual sex then great, do it. Don't apologize for it. But if you're doing it simply to prove to yourself that you're not like the rest of your family, maybe you should take a second look at what kind of lifestyle will really make you happy."
"This is ridiculous."
"Winfield," boomed a gruff voice from the across the room.
Katie swiveled in her chair to see her boss, Max Kruger, standing in the doorway. A persistent frown rode his bushy eyebrows. Max was fiftyish, sported an out-of-style crew cut and had a penchant for wearing chinos with crisply starched white shirts. He looked like a basketball coach and managed his employees with the same sort of affable crustiness.
"Yes, Mr. Kruger?"
File in hand, Max strode into their office.
"You're going to have to stay late tonight."