By Sherryl Woods
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-373-24603-X
Mack Carlton, who'd had more quick moves on a football field than any player in Washington, D.C., history, had been dodging his Aunt Destiny for the better part of a month. Unfortunately, Destiny was faster and sneakier than most of the defensive linemen he'd ever faced. She was also more highly motivated. It was a toss-up as to how long it would be before she caught up with him.
Ever since she'd succeeded in getting his older brother, Richard, married a few weeks back, Destiny had set her sights on Mack. She wasn't even subtle about it. A steady parade of women had been popping up all over the place. Not that that was an unusual occurrence in Mack's life - he did have a well-deserved reputation as a playboy, after all - but these women were not his type. They had "serious" and "happily ever after" written all over them. Mack didn't do serious. He didn't do permanent. Destiny, of all people, should know that.
Not that he had the same issues with love and loss that had kept his big brother off the emotional roller coaster. Mack preferred to think that his hang-ups had more to do with a desire to know lots and lots of women than any fear of eventual abandonment. Why limit himself to one particular dish when there was an entire buffet to be sampled? Sure, he'd been affected by the deaths of his parents in a small plane crash in the Blue Ridge Mountains when he was barely ten, but the trauma hadn't followed him into adulthood as it had Richard.
Not that Destiny or Richard believed that. Hell, even his younger brother, Ben, was convinced they were all emotionally messed up because of the crash, but Mack knew otherwise, at least in his own case. He just flatout liked women. He appreciated their minds, their quick wits.
Okay, that was the politically correct thing to say, he conceded, even though there was nobody around who was privy to his private, all-too-male thoughts. Truthfully, what he really appreciated was the way they felt in his arms, their soft skin and passionate responses. While he enjoyed a lively conversation as much as the next man, he truly loved the intimacy of sex, however fleeting and illusional it might be.
Not that he was any kind of sex addict, but a little wholesome rustling of the sheets made a man feel alive. So maybe that was it, he thought with a sudden rush of insight. Maybe what he loved most about sex was that it made him feel alive after being reminded at a very young age that life was short and death was permanent. Maybe he had some emotional scars from that plane crash, after all.
He was still pondering the magnitude of that discovery when Destiny sashayed into his office at team headquarters, where he was now ensconced as part owner of the team for which he'd once played. He was so thoroughly startled by her unexpected appearance in this male bastion, he brought the legs of his chair crashing to the floor with such force it was a wonder the chair didn't shatter.
"You've been avoiding me," Destiny said pleasantly, sitting across from him in her pale-blue suit that mirrored the color of her eyes.
As always, Destiny looked as if she'd just walked out of a beauty salon, which was a far cry from some of the pictures around the house taken during her years as a painter in the south of France. In those she always appeared a bit rumpled and wildly exotic. Mack occasionally allowed himself to wonder if his aunt missed those days, if she missed the life she'd given up to come back to Virginia to care for him and his brothers after the plane crash.
As a child he'd never dared to ask because he'd feared that reminding Destiny of what she'd sacrificed might send her scurrying back to Europe to reclaim it. As he'd gotten older, he'd started taking her presence - and her contentment - for granted.
Now he gave his aunt a cool, unblinking look, determined not to let her see that her arrival had shaken him in any way. With Destiny it was best not to show any signs of weakness at all. "You're imagining things," he told her flatly.
Destiny chuckled. "I didn't imagine that it was your behind I saw scurrying out the back door at Richard and Melanie's the other night, did I? I saw that backside in too many football huddles to mistake it."
Damn. He thought he'd made a clean escape. Of course, it was possible that his brother had blabbed. Richard thought Mack had taken a little too much pleasure in Destiny's successful maneuvering of Richard straight into Melanie's arms. He was more than capable of going for a little payback to see that Mack met the same fate.
"Did you really spot me, or did Richard rat me out?" he asked suspiciously. "I know he wants me to fall into one of your snares the same way he did."
"Your brother is not a tattler," she assured him.
"And my eyesight's twenty-twenty." She gave him a measuring look. "What are you scared of, Mack?"
"I think we both know the answer to that one. I also suspect it's the same thing that brought you to my office. What sort of devious scheme do you have up your sleeve, Destiny? And before you answer, let's get one thing straight, my social life is off-limits. I'm handling it very well on my own."
Destiny rolled her eyes. "Yes, I've seen how well you're handling it in every gossip column in town. It's unseemly, Mack. You may not be directly affiliated with Carlton Industries, but the family does have a certain social standing in the community. You need to be mindful of that, especially with Richard entering politics any day now."
The family respectability card was a familiar one. He was surprised she'd tried the tactic again, since it had failed abysmally in the past. "Most people are capable of separating me from my brother. Besides that, I'm an adult," he recited as he had so often in the past. "So are the women I date. No harm, no foul."
"And you're content with that?" Destiny asked, her skepticism plain.
"Absolutely," he insisted. "Couldn't be happier."
She nodded slowly. "Well, that's that then. Your happiness is all that's ever mattered to me, you know. Yours and your brothers'."
Mack studied her with a narrowed gaze. Surely she wasn't giving up that easily. Destiny was constitutionally incapable of surrendering before she'd even had a first skirmish. If she were so easily put off, Richard wouldn't be married right now. Mack needed to remember that.
"We appreciate that you love us," he said carefully.
"And I'm glad you're willing to let me choose my own dates. It's a real relief, in fact."
She fought a smile. "Yes, I imagine it is, since the kind of woman I see you with is not the sort of mental and emotional lightweight you tend to choose."
He ignored the slap at his taste in women. He'd heard it before. "Anything else I can do for you while you're here?" he asked politely. "Do you need any team souvenirs for one of your charity auctions?"
Excerpted from Priceless by Sherryl Woods Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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