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The minute Lucas Chandler stepped out of his limousine and onto the hard-packed earth of Rosarito, Mexico, he was swarmed.
Flashbulbs assaulted him, and so did the questions—most of them encouraged by an introduction to this press gathering from David, his half brother and the CEO of The Chandler Organization, otherwise known as TCO.
"How much money did you donate altogether to get Refugio Salvo running, Mr. Chandler?"
Flash. "Why the sudden interest in an orphanage, Mr. Chandler?"
Flash. "Can you comment on what happened in Rome with Cecilia DuPont and the police, Mr. Chandler?"
Yeah, there it was—the kind of query into Lucas's party-hearty lifestyle David had been attempting to circumvent.
Lucas forced a smile for the next photo, already sick of today's charade. What he wanted to do was get inside the orphanage and leave the cameras in the dust. And, no doubt about it, there was plenty of that covering the dilapidated buildings around them.
But one glance at stone-faced David told him that this was only the beginning of Lucas's new life: the turning over of a fresh public-relations leaf.
Why the hell had he agreed to this again?
Oh, yeah. To be a decent person. And then there was also the small matter of saving TCO.
Slipping into his most comfortable disguise—the charming act—Lucas shot his brother a brief glance, then dived in to answer questions. David, for his part, stood back, hands folded behind him, as cool and smooth as the Italian designer suit he was wearing.
Lucas ignored the confinement of his own suave wardrobe, all but boiling under the many layers of material. It was warm forDecember down here.
"Ladies and gentlemen…" Strategically he flashed his dimples, making the lone female reporter light up with a blush. "Thanks for being here. And, when I tell you that I won't be divulging dollar amounts, I'm sure you'll understand. Suffice it to say, that we gave a lot to the Angeles Foundation here in Mexico to buy the land, construct the orphanage and supply them with everything they'd need to keep the children in safe comfort.You can be assured that Refugio Salvo will be well taken care of in the future, too. There're also plans for more sites farther south, but that's still on the drawing board."
One of the male journalists raised his hand. "Rumor is that you'll be cliff diving in Acapulco after you visit the orphanage. You gonna take some orphans with you, or what?"
Ah, the Funny Guy. There was one in every crowd and one in every backside.
As Lucas reined in his temper, most of the other reporters lowered their cameras and notebooks, laughing. Even David, whom Lucas believed was made mostly of granite, smiled. But the gesture was more rueful than amused.
The female journalist answered for him. "That's great, Denham. Why don't you give Mr. Chandler a little credit, huh? He's got enough sense to keep the kids away from all that "daredevil playboy" stuff." She glanced at Lucas hopefully.
Did they think he was some out-of-control idiot? Obviously. Maybe it was good that he'd promised David that he would lay off all his notorious thrill seeking for a while.
Still, even the female reporter—Jo, that was her name—didn't look as though she truly believed he could behave himself.
"Thank you, Jo," he said, knowing he could use her as an ally. She was from one of TCO's media outlets, a newspaper that consistently tried to balance out the tabloids and the other entertainment sources that covered Lucas's colorful adventures.
At the reporter's modest shrug, Lucas turned to the others. "This is a time to find some serious answers for the troubles these orphaned boys are having. That's why I'm here—to check up on the progress and make plans for even more."
It wasn't the entire truth. He was also trying to show off the "new and improved" Lucas Chandler. TCO required it and so did—
Lucas tensed. Don't think about the old man, he told himself. You're doing this for business and business only.
Riding a crest of deep-seated frustration, he added, "I'm here to provide aid for these kids who might otherwise end up on the street without any education or vocational skills."
Censured, the reporters subjected Lucas to more pictures, and he tolerated it like the man his family had always expected him to be. The man he really wasn't.
Flash. Pop. Each burst of illumination needled into him.
Finally, a pleased David made his way over, putting a hand near his mouth so the reporters couldn't see what he was privately saying to his brother.
"Good start. Just so you know, they're running late in the orphanage because of a greeting the children have put together for you. They'll be ready in about twenty minutes."
Lucas presented the journalists with his back. "In twenty minutes, I'll need five shots of tequila."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw some nuns wearing wimples and stark long skirts with white blouses. They disappeared behind a stucco wall of the orphanage.
Disappear, Lucas thought. What he'd give to be able to take a breather behind that wall, too.
David cleared his throat to regain Lucas's attention. When he had it, he fixed his ice-blue eyes on him. Funny how a twenty-eight-year-old genius could put a man who was three years older in his place with just a condescending reminder.
"Don't tell me," Lucas said, "that I should be used to this kind of attention. I can handle the paparazzi, but this is different. This is business."
"Yes, I know it's not your thing, but we agreed."
"Yeah, yeah." Agreement, sha-mee-ment.
"Mr. Chandler?" called an impatient reporter. Something snapped in Lucas. No more questions, dammit. No more apologies for his recently abandoned lifestyle or justifications for "the playboy's trip to the orphanage."
"You take over," he muttered to David while walking away.
"Buddy, you're the brains of this outfit, so dazzle the crowd with "em." Lucas winked, just to convince David—and himself—that he had his position as the "face" of TCO under control, that he was still the pretty boy who fetched publicity while David actually ran the place.
But it was about good publicity this time, Lucas thought.
Too much of his PR had been negative. Especially lately, with all those nonfamily-friendly wild-romance in-the-streets-of-Rome scenarios he'd been enjoying with Cecilia DuPont, this month's starlet. Impulsive scenarios that shed a red light on TCO.
As he left the media circus and headed toward the spot where the nuns had disappeared, he heard David assuming control of the press. Good man. He knew how much of this crap Lucas could handle before blowing.
Shortly after arriving at the wall, he ducked behind it, finding a cast-iron gate. In back of that, there was a flagstone path strewn with vivid pink flowers. A fountain burbled in the near distance. Sure sounded peaceful to him.
Opening the gate, he slid behind it before he could be spotted by anyone, then walked over the path toward the running water.
The fountain was in a side courtyard where red bricks and iron benches hinted at a mellowness Lucas had been craving. Like a collapsing wall, he crumbled onto one of those benches, loosening his tie and rolling his head around to work the cricks out of his neck.
Now this was more like it. No damned cameras, no pressure. Just for a second—
A soft giggle hit the fragrant air.
He cocked an eyebrow and glanced around at the thick foliage surrounding the courtyard.
"Peekaboos," said a child's voice from one of the bushes.
An orphan? Lucas couldn't help grinning. Hell, as long as the kid didn't have a lens aimed at him, he could deal.
A devilish titter followed. It reminded Lucas of how he used to laugh when he was younger. Everything had been a joke to be told, a riddle to be solved, a game to be played. He still sort of subscribed to that theory, even if it got him into trouble more often than not.
Suddenly a woman's voice came from behind the bushes. "Gabriel? DÃ³nde estÃ¡?"
The foliage rattled as Lucas spotted a few strands of black hair spiking out from the leaves.
Two nuns scuttled into the courtyard. They chattered in Spanish, seemingly panicked.
They stopped as they saw Lucas rising to a stand, hands in his pants pockets. He merely grinned and shrugged, hating to give the kid's position away.
One exasperated nun addressed him in English. "A guest? You are to come in the front door, sir! Not the back."
Thrilled that she hadn't recognized him, Lucas eased her a grin. "Sorry."
The nun raised a finger to say more, then stopped, reconsidered and sent him her own sheepish smile. "It is okay, sir."
It worked every time, Lucas thought. The Dimples. Meanwhile, the other nun—a woman with chubby cheeks and a lively gaze—had caught sight of the little boy's hair. She parted the bushes, only to jump back when a golden-skinned child with wide brown eyes exploded out of the leaves, squealing. His hair splayed away from his head, wild and free, just as playfully ornery as Lucas suspected the rest of him was.
Much to the nuns" horror, Gabriel climbed into the fountain and proceeded to splash around, sending waves of water at them while they tried to approach. The boy's defense worked wonderfully, because it seemed that the nuns thought they would melt if they got water on their clothing.
Finally he took pity on the ladies. They were, after all, of good quality, even if they didn't appreciate the fine art of child's play.
Approaching Gabriel from the back, Lucas scooped him up, putting a stop to all the shenanigans. Water dripped from the child's clothes, but Lucas didn't mind. His suit would dry.
"Hey, little guy," he said, "time to stop being a squirrel."
The child looked up at him, and Lucas blinked back. In those dark eyes he saw the same trouble making, misunderstood expression that stared back at him from the mirror each morning, the glint of rebellion in a confused gaze.
Another female voice rang through the air. "Gabriel?" "Now she comes," the first nun said, checking her skirt for water damage.
The chubby-cheeked nun merely caught her breath and flapped a hand in front of her face.
Gabriel squirmed, but Lucas wasn't dumb. He kept a hold of him, spinning him around to stand on one of the benches.
The boy held up his hands and laughed. "Mucho gusto!" He had mile-long eyelashes, chubby, round, smudged cheeks and a secondhand shirt splashed with water and old dirt.
A tweak of sympathy—that's what it was—forced Lucas to reach out and ruffle the kid's hair. Cute bugger.
"Gabriel," said the more exasperated nun, "please speak your English. And you are soaking and dirty. How will you be ready for the show?"
The boy stubbornly shook his head, turning to Lucas. "No show," he said, repeating the nun's word.
English. Suddenly Lucas remembered David's preparatory briefing: part of the orphanage's educational program included ESOL—English for Speakers of Other Languages.
A sound investment of the company's money, David had said, because it would allow bilingual children more opportunity and make TCO heroic.
Lucas liked the sound of that. It was a solid deal, even if a boy as young as Gabriel might not have learned that much since Refugio Salvo had only been running for about nine months.
His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of that third woman. She was out of breath, her head bare, black hair curled in disarray down to her shoulders. Her light brown skin was flushed, her dark gold eyes wide.
She dressed like a nun but…no wimple. Maybe she was one of those novices or whatever they called them.
As they locked gazes, she held a hand to her chest, as if surprised by something.
Lucas's blood zinged and swerved through his veins. Instinctively, he took things up a notch and offered what the papers called "the smile to end all smiles," the ultimate way to charm any woman who caught his fancy.
Even a wannabe nun? he wondered. Say it ain't so.
Her stark clothing couldn't conceal the lush curves gleamed. Maybe this order wasn't traditional, choosing to forgo dressing in regular habits and accessories.
At any rate, Lucas thought, she's off-limits. David, Dad and the board of directors would go ballistic if you outdid yourself and big-bad-wolfed a future nun, of all people.
In welcome, she broke into her own smile, blushing while she allowed her hand to fall to her side as she gathered her composure. The color of her cheeks brought even more animation to her delicate, innocent features: a gently tipped nose, full pink lips and dark angel-wing lashes.
"I see you've met Gabe," she said breathlessly. Her English was very good, with barely the trace of an accent.
The cranky nun interjected. "Lord, help the man now."
"Sister Maria-Rosa…" said the chubby-cheeked one. Then she turned to the newcomer. "We were all playing "Splash the Authority Figure," and Gabriel was the winner."
The woman nodded. "It seems you put up a good contest, Sister Elisabeth."
"I always do." The nun looked like some kind of cherub as she rolled her eyes in resignation.