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Operation Prince Charming
By Phyllis Bourne
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Phyllis Bourne Williams
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHunter Coleman leaned back on his elbows and watched her scramble around the opulent bedroom, gathering up the clothes she'd eagerly stripped off for him just hours ago.
"I told you this would have to be a quickie." She balanced her lithe body on a stiletto heel as she hurriedly slipped on the other. "Now I'm running late, and it's all your fault."
"My fault?" Hunter pushed himself upright on the bed and grinned at his girlfriend of the past two years. "I'm not the one who wanted to break out the handcuffs."
Ignoring him, Erica surveyed her appearance in the gilt-edge mirror and frowned. "I spent hours getting this hair sewn in yesterday. Now look at it." She threw her expertly manicured hands in the air. "What's Vivian Cox going to think if I show up at her luncheon looking like this?"
Hunter took in the disheveled mane, whisker-scorched cheeks, and lipstick smudged by his kisses. Despite the scowl marring her beautiful, walnut-hued face, she looked like a woman who'd spent a long, satisfying morning in bed.
"She'll wonder why you stopped what you were doing to waste the afternoon kissing her a-"
"Hunter!" She cut him off. "Must you be so crude?"
She grabbed a silver brush from her vanity and began attacking the mass of tangles. "Can't you even make an attempt to like my new friends?"
"Friends?" Hunter couldn't hold back the sarcasm tainting his query.
"Well ..." she stammered, brushing her faux tresses harder. "I might be closer to being accepted by them if you didn't act so uncouth."
Uncouth? He watched her pull bobby pins from between her lips and strategically jab them into hanks of hair. What was he supposed to do, nod politely as those snobs pelted her with their thinly veiled insults?
"What's wrong with your old friends?" The ones who actually give a damn about you, he wanted to add, but thought better of it.
Erica smoothed her hair, which she'd finally managed to wrestle into a prim bun. "They can't get me into the Ladies' Lunch League or the Highland Oaks Country Club."
"Then maybe you don't belong there either."
Her jaw tightened, making Hunter wish he'd kept his trap shut. "I belong there now," she said, pausing to put on a pair of golf-ball-sized diamond studs. "Vivian is a fixture on the Nashville social circuit. One word from her and I'm in. So I'll do whatever it takes to get on her good side."
Hunter groaned and collapsed back onto the feather pillows. After pissing the night away on a stakeout that hadn't gotten him any closer to finding the people responsible for burglarizing over thirty homes in his precinct, spending the morning with a naked Erica beneath him had been a pleasant diversion. He didn't want it to deteriorate into a now familiar argument.
"Look, Erica, I know this socialite thing is a big deal to you, but is it worth alienating the people who were there for you before the money?"
She turned away from the mirror and fastened him with a contact-enhanced, hazel-eyed stare. "I've outgrown them."
Hunter shook his head, feeling the intimacy of their morning tryst as well as their once solid relationship slipping away. He stared at the woman preening in the mirror as she brushed another layer of powder across her cheekbones.
Six months ago, he'd been on the verge of proposing to the private-duty nurse. Then her longtime employer died and left her that damned money. Since then she'd dedicated herself to reaching the top of the city's social ladder, and she apparently didn't care who she had to step on to move up a rung.
"Have you outgrown me too?" he asked carefully. "Is that why I haven't heard from you in two weeks?"
Tossing back the covers, he swung his legs over the side of her canopied bed and grabbed his pants from the floor. He was beat. She was annoyed. It was best he got dressed and headed home.
"Of course not." Erica abandoned the mirror, and Hunter felt her arms slip around his waist. She pressed a kiss to his back. "You know better."
"Do I?" He spun around and stared into her eyes, wishing he could remove the tinted lenses and once again see the warm brown gaze of the woman beneath the layers of makeup and diamonds. The woman he hoped would soon return to her senses once the excitement of her newfound wealth wore off.
"So what if I dumped some deadweight?"
Hunter winced at her characterization of the longtime relationships that once sustained her.
"It doesn't change how I feel about you. I love you." Erica's gaze drifted to the rumpled bed. "Didn't I show you just how much all morning?"
He heaved a sigh, releasing the tension trapped between his shoulder blades. Maybe he was being too hard on her. They'd both been busy lately. A spike in burglary cases had him putting in long hours on the job, and Erica had been equally occupied trying to break into the tight-knit country club set.
They just needed to spend more time together, he thought. And for Erica to work this nonsense out of her system.
Hunter hauled her against him. Her sharp hipbones dug into his skin, and again, he noted how thin she'd grown. The first few pounds she'd dieted off her nearly six-foot frame had given her the ultralean look of a fashion model.
Now she just looked and felt painfully skinny.
"Well?" Erica asked.
"How about you show me again tonight after we play poker with Pete and Sandy?"
"Poker? That was tonight?"
"Yeah, Pete says Sandy's been out for revenge ever since she lost her pedicure money to him last time," Hunter chuckled. "He claims he's going to let her win tonight because her feet are like sandpaper, but don't tell her he said that."
Erica averted her eyes. "Um ... uh ... Hunter. Honey, I already have plans for this evening."
His arms dropped to his sides as he looked at her, not believing she was pulling this on him again. "We can't bail on them again. We canceled last week because of some party. Besides, they've already booked a babysitter."
"It wasn't a party, it was a wine tasting," she clarified, as if it would make a difference.
"So what's tonight's excuse?"
"An exhibit for an emerging artist. He's all the rage with the elite ..."
Hunter frowned, and she stopped midsentence. She reached out to him, but he stepped away and shrugged into his shirt.
"Cut the bullshit, Erica. This is me. Since when do you care about art?" he said. "Up until a few months ago, your only piece of art was an oil painting of Prince wearing purple butt-out pants."
Hunter glanced around the lavishly decorated bedroom. Like with her astronomically priced penthouse, designer wardrobe, and personal sushi chef, Erica's interest in art was simply something else she hoped would impress the town's socialites enough to gain entry into their rich bitch clique.
"I forgot about poker night. I'm sorry," she said hurriedly. "But I'm one of the exhibit's sponsors. I have to be there."
"Whatever," Hunter managed to get out through his clenched teeth. Talking to her lately had been like talking to a brick wall, one he was tired of beating his head against.
"Come on, don't be mad. How about I take everyone out to dinner next week? I'll hire a nanny for Pete and Sandy's boys and have Tanaka do the cooking? Just pick a night."
"No, thanks." Hunter stuffed his wallet into his back pocket and grabbed his keys. He could just imagine what Pete, his best friend and fellow detective, would think of sitting down to a plate of Erica's sushi chef's rice and raw fish. "If you change your mind, I'll be with our friends."
"You could always come to the exhibit with me," she said hesitantly.
He raised an eyebrow. The last time he'd accompanied Erica to one of those highbrow functions, it had been a complete disaster. He'd sat in silence while their dinner companions tried to top each other with endless boasts about their latest high-priced acquisition, dozing off somewhere between the DuBois' beauty of a sailboat docked in Palm Beach and the Cortlands' new twin-engine Cessna.
A furious Erica had awakened him with an elbow to his rib cage.
"You're joking about my coming along with you, right?" he asked.
Erica's lips firmed into a line.
"That's what I thought," Hunter said.
He turned to leave, but she clamped a hand on his arm. "Don't you dare try to make me the bad guy here," she said.
"What?" Hunter spun around, wondering how she could utter those words with a straight face.
"How many times have you bailed on me at the last minute because of some robbery across town or those stupid burglaries?"
She wouldn't think they were so stupid if she were the victim, he thought, but he refused to get into a side disagreement with her on top of the one they were already having.
"Oh, come on, you can hardly compare the situations. I've only broken a date when something-"
"Important came up," she finished.
"Exactly," Hunter said.
"I never nagged you about work because I've always understood how important your job is to you," Erica said, anchoring a fist on her bony hip. "How come I don't get the same consideration about something significant to me?"
This time it was Hunter who fell silent. Not once could he remember her complaining when he ran out in the middle of one of their dates.
"I deserve better from you," she said softly.
Hunter opened his mouth to argue, but guilt slammed it shut. She was right. He wasn't being fair, and she had a right to expect more from him.
He blew out a weary sigh. "What do you want me to do?"
Erica flashed a victorious smile as she retrieved a cream-colored envelope from the nightstand and handed it to him. "After our last outing, my new publicist suggested this and I think it's a fabulous idea."
He broke the gold seal on the back of the envelope and pulled out an embossed card.
"A Manners Makeover at the Spencer School of Etiquette?" he read aloud. His gut clenched as if he were bracing for a punch. The urge to tell her exactly what he thought of the idea, her publicist, and the Spencer School of Etiquette bubbled up, but he managed to squelch it.
He glared at the paper in his hand for a long time, before releasing a long sigh. "Okay, when do we start?"
"Don't be silly. The lessons aren't for us." Erica spoke slowly as if he were new to the English language. "They're for you."
Ali Spencer donned the Polite Princess hand puppet for a quick review of the manners lesson she'd given the four-year-olds in her Perfectly Polite Tea Party class.
"So again, fellow princesses, what do we do if we're having dinner at a restaurant and accidently drop our fork on the floor?" Ali asked, using her hand to move the puppet's mouth.
"I know! I know!" Samantha, the only girl in the class not dressed in a ruffled or embroidered dress, stuck her hand in the air.
Ali smiled at the jeans-clad tomboy and nodded encouragingly.
"Pick it up and lick it clean!" Samantha shouted, her cheeks bulging with the sugar cookies she'd grabbed off her pink place setting and jammed into her mouth.
"Nooooo." The little girl seated next to Samantha rolled her eyes skyward. "You leave it and ask for a new one."
"That's right, Tiffany," Ali said, through the princess hand puppet.
Having already issued several gentle reminders to Samantha about talking with her mouth full, Ali moved on. The child stood out enough from the other girls, and she didn't want to keep singling her out.
"Now, what do you do if there's something on your plate you don't like?"
A beaming Tiffany raised her hand, and Ali bobbed the plush puppet's head. "Go ahead, Tiffany."
"Is he Prince Charming?" the preschooler asked, pointing toward the door.
Ali's gaze followed the little finger to the doorway, and she blinked in surprise.
If Prince Charming existed outside the pages of a storybook, surely the man at the door was the genuine article. His broad shoulders filled the door frame, and for a moment the sight of him made her forget to breathe.
No, she silently corrected.
On closer look, he bore only a passing resemblance to a hero in a children's tale. His dark good looks held a provocative edge that brought to mind a black knight of an erotic, bedtime story only a grown woman could appreciate.
"Sorry to interrupt, but there wasn't anyone at the receptionist's desk." His velvet-smooth voice sent a tingle through her.
"Miss Ali, is he my Prince Charming?" Tiffany asked again, more insistently.
No, he's all mine.
The words leapt into Ali's head out of nowhere, and she suddenly realized she was experiencing something she hadn't felt since before her divorce.
Pure. Sexual. Attraction.
He was tall, the top of his head nearly touching the top of the door frame, with skin the color of iced mocha. Her eyes skimmed over his blue polo shirt, taking in the way it molded against his muscular chest and flat abs.
A tug at the hem of her dress roused Ali from her lust-induced stupor and reminded her she was supposed to be teaching manners to a roomful of girls riding a sugar cookie buzz.
She cleared her throat as if the gesture would simultaneously clear her head and looked down at Tiffany's hopeful face.
"He's not a prince, honey," she said.
There was no such thing as Prince Charming, Ali thought. She'd learned that bitter lesson the hard way.
Tiffany's pigtails bounced as she looked from her prince to Ali and back again. She gave Ali one last skeptical glance before rejoining the other girls.
This man was like a hot fudge sundae, Ali thought, preparing to address him. Sure, it looked delicious, but indulging meant moments of euphoria followed by regret.
She pulled the princess puppet off her hand and walked to the door. "How can I help you?"
"I have an appointment with Miss Spencer."
Realization dawned on her. "Oh, you must be Detective Coleman. I'm sorry. I meant to call you this morning and reschedule," she said. "My aunt was supposed to meet with you, but she had an emergency."
A look of pure relief fell over his face, and his big body visibly relaxed. "Well, that's that." He shrugged. "Thanks anyway."
Ali didn't have to be a rocket scientist to deduce the hunk was making a break for it. Odds were if she let him leave now, he wouldn't return. While there was nothing she'd like more than putting some distance between herself and the man who'd just reawakened her sex drive, the floundering school needed the generous check the Chanel-clad woman had given Aunt Rachel for his classes.
"Hold on a moment." Ali glanced at the clock on the wall. "The children's parents will be here to pick them up in a few minutes. Would you mind waiting in my office?"
Girlish shrieks erupted, and he ran past her. His big, surprisingly agile, body crossed the room in three long strides. Ali spun around to discover, in the few minutes she'd turned away, Samantha had used a chair to help scale an eight-foot bookcase and was now dangling from the top by one arm.
"I'm a mountain climber," Samantha squealed.
Ali watched in horror as the little girl lost her grip and fell backward. "Oh my God!" she gasped, charging toward her.
In what seemed like slow motion, the man extended his arms and a laughing Samantha fell into them, seconds before she would have slammed onto the hardwood floor.
"You okay, kiddo?" He set the child back on her feet.
"Yeah!" Samantha said. "Wanna catch me again?"
"I think you'd better save your climbing for the monkey bars. You don't want to give me or your teacher here a heart attack."
Still shaking, Ali recovered enough to snatch Samantha into a hug. "You scared me." Ali gave the little girl a tight squeeze.
"Hey! Those are my cookies," Samantha yelled over Ali's shoulder at another child, oblivious of the near miss. She squirmed and Ali reluctantly released her.
"I told you he was Prince Charming," Tiffany said. Hero worship shone in her eyes as she looked up at the detective.
Ali followed her gaze and for a split second wished she could indulge the same childlike belief, but her ex had forever tainted any romantic fantasies of handsome princes or happily-ever-after.
"Seems you have your hands full," Detective Coleman said, moving in the direction of the door. "I'll just let you get back to work."
Excerpted from Operation Prince Charming by Phyllis Bourne Copyright © 2010 by Phyllis Bourne Williams. Excerpted by permission.
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