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She woke from restless slumber, warm with awareness, sensing that she was not alone, sensing that he was there, that he had once again come to her. Anticipation thrummed through her limbs, and she pushed herself to a sitting position, leaning against the padded headboard behind her, eyes drawn to the balcony, to the billowing curtains dancing in the midnight air. Hungrily, her gaze lingered there, riveted to the shadows beyond the white lace fabric, her thighs pressed together against the heated desire burning a path up their length.
Movement scattered the shadows, sent her heart racing. Her breath lodged in her throat as he stepped forward, his fair hair lifting with the wind and falling around broad, leather-clad shoulders. Crystal blue eyes touched hers, eyes so deeply colored, they reached across the small space and swept her into their scorching depths. In the distance, a drum played.
No. She frowned. Not a drum. A knock. A knock on the door.
Oh! Caron Avery snapped back to the present, her gaze shifting from the romance novel in her hand to her office door inside the Book Nook, her San Francisco bookstore. She'd used her savings and a loan from her grandmother to purchase the bookstore two years before. A daring move she still couldn't believe she'd made.
Another knock sounded at the door. "Just a minute!" she called, opening a desk drawer and shoving the book inside, next to the tropical cruise brochure she'd been fantasizing over for her upcoming thirtieth birthday. She slammed the drawer shut, telling herself she had nothing to hide. She was just doing research, learning about the product offerings of her store.
After all, her recent decisionto take her eccentric little store in a more distinctive direction and begin catering to women's fiction, had paid off big-time. Sales had ramped up in a major way. She'd even managed to hire some staff. Well, one person. But that was better than being on her own. Soon, the whole upstairs of the store would be converted entirely to women's interests, filled with books, candles and gifts—a special place for women to privately explore their hearts' desires, from inspirational reads to sizzling red-hot page-turners. A successful decision, indeed.
So much so, that she had almost paid her grandmother back every dime she'd borrowed. Even sooner as Christmas was only a few weeks away, and sales were booming. An amazingly wonderful feeling considering a plane crash had stolen her parents from her at age five. But her grandmother had always been there for her, no questions asked—quickly offering her the cash to chase her dream.
Caron tucked a wisp of unruly brunette hair back into the confines of her neatly groomed bun and squeezed her thighs together, feeling the lingering fire of her fantasy taunting her. No doubt, her lack of a social life was catching up to her.
"Come in!" she called, lacing her fingers together on the desk and returning to her prim and proper librarian persona. The one that was real, not fantasy. The one she wished she had the courage to discard, but feared she never would.
The door swung open and her assistant manager, Kasey Washington, darted into the office, excitement lighting her youthful features, her cute little blond bob bouncing as she rushed toward the desk.
"Oh, my gosh!" Kasey exclaimed. "I have big, big news." She plopped down in the worn, cloth-covered chair Caron had bought at a secondhand store. "Big news!" Caron pursed her lips. To Kasey, a new flavor at Starbucks constituted big news. Kasey grinned and continued, "One of our new romance customers is upstairs looking around. I don't know if you remember her? Ruth Parker."
Caron shook her head. "Doesn't sound familiar."
"She said you helped her pick out a couple of books last week and she really liked you."
Okay. "That's great to hear," Caron said, and silently added, But hardly big, big news!
"She works for the Cancer Society, and she's on the committee that is sponsoring that big charity event going on a week from Friday, the old Hollywood-style Gala they've been advertising for weeks. Well—" her eyes lit "—one of the ladies in the runway show had an emergency and can't make it. She needs someone to play Audrey Hepburn and she wants you!" She squealed. "How cool is that? You're going to be on television."
Caron's jaw dropped. "What?" She shook her head. "Oh, no. I'm not getting up in front of all those people dressed in a costume. And I am not going on television!"
"You have to!" Kasey insisted. "It's fun. It's exciting. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. You said you wanted to do something out of the ordinary, to cut loose a little."
Caron didn't do public speaking, let alone walk across a stage in front of a bunch of society people and on television. "By taking a cruise! Not going on television. No. This is not fun to me."
"The store will be in television commercials, in every brochure handed out and in publicity after the event. And for free. She isn't even asking for a donation because the spot is paid for already. This is free publicity for the store and perfect to launch our new romance section and it's the first Friday of December, right smack in the midst of holiday shopping. Talk about a last-minute chance to boost Christmas sales. It's perfect! Go be Audrey for a night. Have fun." She wiggled an eyebrow. "There will be lots of hot, rich men there. In fact, now that I think about it, you have to take me. We have to do this. You have to do it. For the store, Caron. Do it for the store. You know we need the exposure. It could mean lots of business."
Leaning back in her chair, Caron scowled at her assistant. Because Kasey was right. They needed the exposure. And exposure equaled business, which equaled paying her grandmother back the rest of the money she owed her. Suddenly, this wasn't about stepping outside her comfort zone and doing something that felt awkward. This was about responsibility and what was right.
"She's here now?" Caron asked. "Waiting to talk with me?"
"Right outside the door," Kasey agreed. "Your ticket to adventure and great sales. I can feel it."
Caron rolled her chair back from her desk. "I can't believe I am going to do this," she murmured.
Kasey hopped to her feet. "Yes! This is going to be so much fun. Just wait and see. You are going to have a blast. A night of pure fantasy. Did I mention you get a celebrity stylist and hours of being pampered before the show? You are going to be in heaven. You are going to be Audrey Hepburn for a night. To live a fantasy. I'm so excited for you, but jealous. Really jealous."
Right. Fantasy. Audrey Hepburn. Maybe that might be okay. If she could forget the crowds. Right. Forget. The. Crowds. Forget falling down on stage during her high school graduation. She'd never quite gotten over that, but she'd better get over it now. Audrey Hepburn wouldn't fall down, after all. And they wanted her— Caron Avery—to be Audrey for a night.
Friday night came far too quickly, especially in the midst of a busy work schedule that did nothing to abate her nerves. At five o'clock, Caron had been headed toward the Gala for professional primping done by experts, when she'd received the news—the toilet had overflowed in the bookstore. Immediately detouring, she'd rushed back to the store, unable to leave Kasey to such ugliness on her own. An argument with the plumber had ensued over his outrageous fees, and she'd fired him in favor of someone she could afford to pay. The result—toilet fixed but she was late for her appointment with makeup and hair. Almost two hours late. Terribly, horribly late. And since there was absolutely no parking to be found in the hotel parking garage, any relief she had found in finally arriving at the five-star downtown Hyatt was quickly fading. Could this get any more embarrassing?
Caron's little red Volkswagen sputtered on the third go-round in the parking lot, and one look at the gas gauge said, yes, it could get worse. Her car was on empty. She blew strands of dark hair from her eyes. This was not exactly the making of a Cinderella fantasy night.
Desperate times required desperate measures. She lightly pedaled the accelerator, ever aware of her fuel gauge, and turned toward the front door of the hotel. Mini Christmas trees flickering with white lights lined the entryway, and she pulled up behind a line of cars waiting for the valet. Wow! Already people in fancy dresses and tuxes were speckled along the sidewalk and entryway. This was beyond late. This was downright cringe-worthy.
Desperate times, she reminded herself. She shifted into Park and killed the engine. She slid out of the car despite being more than a little self-conscious about her pink sweatpants and butterfly-print T-shirt. Her face was bare of makeup, her hair piled on top of her head. A wilted flower amongst the glamorous roses in glittery dresses. Nevertheless, the fastest path to the entrance, and the parking of her car, was right there, in front of her. She slammed the car door shut and tried to think of the bright side. Instead, she thought how little time the stylist had to transform her into runway-ready. At least she didn't have time for nerves. There was a light at the end of the long, twisting, black tunnel called this day.
Spotting a doorman, she rushed forward, ignoring the horns honking as several cars pulled forward and her Volkswagen remained in place. She half ran to the uniformed attendant, hoping to reach him ahead of a lady in an elegant white formal suit. She hated to be rude, but she had to get into that hotel.
Caron held out her keys, panting a bit breathlessly. "I'm in the show, and I'm very, very late." A gorgeous brunette in a red satin gown walked by, and Caron cringed, her pink sweats feeling dingier by the minute. "Make that three verys. I have to get into costume and I can't find a parking spot and—"
"Miss. I have cars ahead of you. I can't just move you ahead."
This was the part where she needed money that she didn't have. The part where someone rich hands cash to the naysayer and makes them a yeah-sayer. Sometimes she really hated the way money made the world go round.
She plunged onward in her argument. "Again," she said. "I'm in the show. I'm one of the Hollywood starlets—Audrey Hepburn. They can't start without me." He gave her a quick inspection that said he'd believe that the day hell froze over. She frowned. "I'm aware I don't look the role at the moment. I missed my appointment with hair and makeup. The toilet at my store…"
He snatched her keys. "I'll take care of it," he said grudgingly.
Apparently, the mention of a toilet was almost as good as cash. It sure scored her a parking spot. Whatever worked. Now if she could get a ticket to claim her car and disappear. And she almost wished she could just disappear. Unfortunately, it looked as if she'd need that cruise to get her fantasy escape. Tonight was turning into one big flop.
On that note, she accepted the ticket from the valet and whirled toward the door and right into the hard, tuxedo-clad chest of a man. His hands came out to steady her—strong hands—warm hands that sent a shock wave of awareness through her body.
She blinked up into the amber gaze of a handsome face framed with dark hair, a hint of gray sprinkled at the temples. Very George Clooney—Ocean's Thirteen sexy with a strong, square jaw, and firm, nice lips. Oh, God. Don't look at his lips. Back to those amber eyes. Eyes that inspected her pink butterfly shirt with a lifted eyebrow. She swallowed. She'd made it to the fantasy but managed to do it in pink sweats and tennis shoes.
This was so her life, not Cinderella's.
She had blue eyes. That was the first thought that came to his mind as he stared down at the heart-shaped face of the woman who'd unwittingly become his prey. Sky-blue, deep, almost navy with a hint of yellow. He'd guessed green from a distance, a contrast to her dark brown hair. But he liked the blue. He hadn't been on the hunt in a long time; and on this night, certainly, he hadn't expected to be. But there was no denying the demand within him for this woman—the primal hunger she'd taken from dormant to downright raging. The minute he'd seen the pink sweat suit in the midst of the clingy silk gowns, he'd stood at attention.
"I am so sorry." The woman apologized for running into him, her voice as adorable as her pointed chin and cute button nose. "I am sort of in a rush. The makeup people are going to kill me. I… sorry."
"I'm not," he replied, reluctantly letting go of her petite shoulders when everything male inside him roared with demand. A demand to pull her close. No. He wasn't sorry at all. In fact, he'd put himself in her path for a reason. To meet her. "I'm Baxter Remington. You are?"
She swallowed hard. She had a slender neck, a neck meant for kissing. "Baxter Remington," she repeated. "As in the Baxter Remington who owns Remington's? With coffee bars all over the United States?"
And Canada, but he didn't say that. It still amazed him that his father's little dream was launching into a global enterprise. "You know our coffee?"
"Of course," she said. "The shops are everywhere." She crinkled her nose. "It's a little pricey for me, though." Her eyes flared, as if she realized she'd misspoken. She quickly added, "But worth it. I just can't afford… I mean…" She obviously cringed. "I'm late. I need to go. Sorry again." She started to leave.
"Wait!" he called out before he could stop himself.
"Sir?" The valet was standing beside Baxter, offering service for Baxter's 911 Porsche sitting a few steps from the curb.
Baxter held up an impatient hand and focused on the female turning back to him with surprise on her face, as if she hadn't expected him to continue their conversation. Certainly, she hadn't lured him to call after her as most of the women he knew would. Was that what intrigued him? Her unassuming nature? And yet she sent fire through his veins. She wasn't his normal blonde, blue-eyed, big-breasted, thirty-second distraction, then back to work. She was brunette, and wore no makeup. There were no plastic bells and whistles, either, just pure, natural woman. Pretty, earthy, genuine.