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Santa Fe, New Mexico
A late-model silver-gray Saab cruised silently along a remote road in a Santa Fe suburb, slowing and stopping at the gatehouse to a private community.
A uniformed guard slid back a window, leaned forward in the small booth and peered at the driver. "Happy holidays, Senator Delgado."
The driver smiled at the guard. "Thank you, Mr. Stewart. Happy holidays."
Jack Stewart pressed a button on the panel in front of him, then recorded the time of arrival next to the visitor's name. "Miss Kirkland is expecting you."
Waiting until the wooden arm lifted, New Mexico State Senator Christopher Blackwell Delgado drove slowly along the brightly lit path and maneuvered into the driveway leading to Emily Kirkland's two-story town house. Lights blazed brightly from the expansive windows, radiating warmth and welcome. He and Emily would share a pre-Christmas dinner, then exchange gifts. The ritual was one they'd established two years earlier.
He turned off the engine, opened the driver's side door, and stepped out of the convertible sports car. He lingered to slip on a suit jacket and retrieve a small decorative shopping bag from the rear seat, then made his way up three steps to the door and rang the bell.
Less than a minute later, the door opened to reveal a yawning space claiming a two-story foyer and a circular wrought-iron stairway leading to a dramatic loft. Gleaming wood floors, Palladian windows, skylights and a massive stone fireplace provided the backdrop for the tall, slender woman standing in the doorway.
Her luminous eyes crinkled in a friendly smile. "Hi."
Leaning down, Chris kissed her silken cheek, the seductive fragrance of her perfume lingering in his nostrils. "Hi, yourself."
Frigid air swept through the open door and Emily Kirkland shivered slightly. "It feels like snow."
Chris stepped into the foyer, returning his childhood friend's warm smile. "All of the meteorologists are predicting it."
Emily closed the door, her expression sobering. "I just hope it holds off until tomorrow afternoon."
"What time are you leaving for Florida?"
"We're scheduled for a ten-thirty departure."
She and her parents had made arrangements to spend Christmas in West Palm Beach with her father's relatives; however, Joshua and Vanessa Kirkland planned to remain in Florida for the winter season, while she would return to New Mexico on December 26. She was scheduled to attend a staff meeting the next day at KCNS-TV. She would've forgone the meeting, except that she was expecting a promotion to a position for which she had worked all her professional career.
Chris sniffed the air. "Something smells wonderful."
Emily looped her arm over the sleeve of his silk- and wool-blended charcoal-gray jacket, steering him into the living room. "It's glazed pork tenderloin."
He stopped, turning slightly to stare at her. Emily Kirkland had inherited her mother's raven-black hair and tall, slender body, and her father's coloring, eyes and features. She was one of the most beautiful women he had ever known. Her naturally curly hair was cut to frame her oval face. There was a time when she had worn the loose curls to her shoulders, but she now preferred shorter hair because she felt it made her appear more sophisticated for the television viewing audience. At thirty, the political analyst had garnered a legion of fans, and whenever she appeared in front of the camera the network's rating escalated appreciably.
It was Emily Kirkland's eyes that drew one's attention immediately. They were large, heavily lashed, a clear sage-green and a barometer of her moods. If she smiled they crinkled and her face lit up like a brilliant sunrise, but they could also become cold, forbidding and dispassionate.
Chris had known her for thirty of his thirty-five years, and he had always treated her like a sister. But lately it had become more difficult for him to think of her that way. Their parents were close friends, his sister Sara and Emily were best friends, and he and Emily were godparents to Sara and Salem Lassiter's young son, Isaiah.
He handed her the shopping bag. "Merry Christmas."
Emily extracted her arm and took the bag. "Thank you. Your gift is on the armchair."
While his gaze shifted to the large, gaily wrapped box on the chair, Emily studied her dinner guest. Christopher Delgado was a man who would only grow more attractive as he aged. He claimed a sensual, masculine beauty that usually elicited inaudible gasps whenever he trained his penetrating gaze on women who had managed to garner his rapt attention.
An even six feet in height, his weight fluctuated between 160 and 175 pounds, depending upon his work schedule. Those close to him were aware that once he involved himself in a project there were days when he subsisted almost entirely on strong black coffee.
She noticed his face was leaner, almost gaunt. The elegant ridge of cheekbones under his khaki coloring verifying his African and Mexican ancestry were more pronounced, confirming that he had not been eating or sleeping enough.
Her gaze shifted from his close-cropped graying black hair to his straight nose, a pair of firm, sculpted lips, and down to the attractive cleft in his strong chin. Emily had stopped asking herself why she had fallen in love with Chris. It was just that she could not remember when she had not been in love with him.
He raised his curving black eyebrows. "Do you want me to open it now?"
She glanced at her watch and gave him back the shopping bag. "We still have some time before we'll sit down to eat. Why don't you fix us a drink while I check on the roast? Then we'll open our gifts together."
Chris stared at her departing figure as she made her way in the direction of the kitchen. His velvet black eyes darkened with an unnamable emotion. Emily wore a white silk blouse with black piping around the collar and short sleeves with a pair of tailored wool crepe slacks that fit her slender body with impeccable precision. Like himself, Emily did not buy her clothes off the rack. At five foot nine, she was taller than the average woman, and there were times when some people mistook her for a fashion model.
He dropped the bag on the chair with his gift from her, then made his way over to a portable bar and opened a door concealing a small refrigerator. Crystal decanters held an array of premium liquors. Selecting two martini glasses, he quickly and expertly blended a gin martini for himself and a manhattan for Emily. He placed the glasses on the table next to a stack of linen napkins, small plates and several silver serving pieces.
Emily returned to the living room with a platter filled with an assortment of hot hors d'oeuvres. He took the platter from her and placed it on the coffee table. He waited for her to sit before sitting down beside her on a love seat covered in Haitian cotton.
She picked up a napkin, spread it over her knees and handed him a plate. He filled the plate with bite-size pieces of puffed pastries covering spicy shrimp, sweet and sour pork, chicken and peppery ground beef, handing it back to her before he repeated the process for himself.
They reached for their glasses. Tilting his head, Chris stared at her, absorbing everything that made Emily Kirkland who she was. He flashed a slow, sensual smile, displaying his straight white teeth, and raised his glass.
"Here's to a joyous Christmas, festive Kwanzaa and a new year filled with everything your heart desires."
Her lashes came down, concealing her innermost feelings from him. She concentrated on the chilled red-gold liquid and cherry in her glass. "To Christopher Delgado." Her beautifully modulated voice was a seductive contralto. "Our next governor of New Mexico."
He leaned closer and she glanced up at him. There was no movement except for the measured rhythm of breathing. Angling his head, he touched his mouth to hers, increasing the pressure until she responded. The mere brushing of their mouths lasted seconds.
Emily took a sip of the manhattan, welcoming the chill before a warmth spread throughout her chest. "If you ever decide to give up politics, you can go back to tending bar," she teased.
Tiny lines fanned out at the corners of his eyes when Chris laughed. He had worked as a bartender for private parties on weekends when he attended college. Even though he had not needed the money, the job provided him with the entree he needed to meet people whose influence he sought after he decided on a career in politics. He tasted his martini. It was perfect. He had not lost his touch.
His gaze was fixed on the shape of Emily's lush mouth, outlined in vermilion red, watching as she took small bites of fluffy pastries, while he ate several himself.
"If I decided to give up politics and you journalism, we could go into business together as restaurateurs. I'll work the bar and you can supervise the kitchen."
"Bite your tongue," she chided. "Work in a kitchen.'" She shook her head. "I don't think I'll ever be that domesticated."
His expression changed, becoming impassive. "Do you ever think of combining marriage with your career?"
Emily went completely still. She examined the man sitting inches awayhis stark white custom-made shirt, charcoal-gray suit, burgundy silk tie and imported black oxfords. He was asking her a question she was unable to answer because it was too general. If he had asked if she would marry him while continuing with her career as a television journalist, she would say yes without hesitation.
"It would depend on who I'd marry," she said instead.
"Does that who include Keith Norris?"
No, her heart whispered. "Keith and I see each other occasionally."
"You didn't answer my question, Emily."
Her spine stiffened. "And I don't have to answer your question. After all, I don't ask you who you sleep with."
Chris's eyes darkened dangerously as he struggled to control his temper. Emily Kirkland was the only woman who made him feel things he did not want to feel. She was the only woman who knew exactly what button to push to make him lose control. Unwittingly, she had scaled the wall he had erected to monitor every phase of his personality and existence.
Whenever she called, he came. He could not deny her anythingand that included himself. But he found himself competing with men she dated even though she refused to commit to a future with them. Only superstar baseball player Keith Norris was different. Norris and Emily had recently celebrated their first year together.
He forced a smile. "You're right, Emily. Forgive me for meddling."
Emily cursed herself for the sharp retort. Chris did not deserve to be the recipient of her frustration. It was he she wanted to date, he whom she wanted to kiss her with passion, and it was he she wanted to marry.
Smiling up at him through her lashes, she leaned closer and kissed his smooth-shaven brown cheek. His body's masculine scent was the perfect blend for the haunting citrus-based aftershave on his jaw.
"I'm not going to marry Keith," she said close to his ear.
He wanted to believe her, but a popular journalist whose tat-tletale columns were syndicated in Santa Fe and Denver dailies had reported sightings of the multimillion-dollar ballplayer at upscale jewelry stores, examining diamond engagement rings.
"Good for you. You could do a lot better than a pompous jock."
Pulling back, she stared numbly at him. "You sound like Michael."
Chris nodded. "Your brother is a very bright man."
"Whenever it concerns me, my brother is quite biased."
"So am I. I'd hate for you to marry the wrong man."
A slight frown creased her high, smooth forehead. "Not you, too. I'll be thirty-one in eight weeks, and my father still questions me about the men I date."
"That's because of his Latino machismo. He feels it's his duty to protect the women in his life."
She knew Chris was right. Her African-Cuban-American father was resolute when it came to protecting his wife and daughter. And Michael Kirkland had become as inflexible as his father. Her blood had run cold, shaking her to the core, after Michael confessed that if the police hadn't killed a man who had stalked her, he would have. The crazed man had begun following her because she had not responded to his online marriage proposals. He had come close to killing her when he fired a couple of rounds at her from a high-powered rifle. One bullet had shattered the windshield of the car she was driving. Even though the sliver of glass was removed along her hairline, a minute scar remained. It was a constant reminder of how close she had come to being murdered.
Chris saw Emily pull her lower lip between her teeth, and he knew her well enough to realize that she was uneasy about something. "Are you all right?"
Her expression brightened when she offered him a smile. "I'm okay."
Reaching for her fingers, he held them gently within his larger hand. He examined her long, slender hand and professionally manicured nails. His head came up slowly and he gave her a penetrating stare that made him appear to Emily more stranger than friend.
"You know I'll always look out for you, Emily." His voice was low, mysterious. Her eyes widened until he could see their jade depths.
"And you know I don't need another father or brother, Chris."
He held her gaze, and there was a tingling in the pit of her stomach. She tried curbing the dizzying currents of trepidation racing through her. There was something in his eyes that unnerved her. Something that told her that the man sitting next to her had become a complete stranger.
Glancing away, he stared over her head. "You're right about that." She eased her hand from his loose grip, and even though they sat only inches apart he felt her withdrawal. Pushing off the love seat, he walked several feet to the armchair and gathered up the gifts. He handed Emily the shopping bag, then retook his seat.
Emily withdrew a square package, removed a black velvet bow and ribbon, then methodically peeled off the silver foil paper, revealing a black velvet box. Without opening the box, she knew it contained a piece of jewelry.
"Open it," Chris urged, seeing her hesitation.
She smiled at him. "Open yours."
The sound of tearing paper competed with the soft gasp of surprise from Emily as she stared at a yellow bangle bracelet banded all around with a profusion of sparkling diamonds. She picked it up, reading the engraved inscription on the underside: Merry Christmas, Love always, Chris.
Chris opened an ebony lacquered box to reveal a set of exquisitely carved chess pieces in pale and dark green jade. He was an avid chess player and had also become a collector of chess sets. His collection included pieces made of pewter, brass and teak. However, none were as elegant as these smooth jade pieces. His stunned gaze shifted from the chess pieces to Emily's perfect profile. As if on cue, they turned and looked at each other, smiling.