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Julie Nelson's first blind date had gone so badly, she'd sworn off them for the next ten years.
The guy in question had flirted with every female but her at the all-you-can-eat buffet, double-dipped in their shared bowl of salad dressing and then skipped out on the bill, leaving her to pay and get herself home. She'd been sixteen and if she hadn't ended up in the emergency room with a horrible case of food poisoning, she might have been able to put the night behind her.
But throwing up all over the only cute intern had been the last straw. She'd vowed never again, for any reason imaginable in this lifetime or any to follow, to ever go on another blind date.
Until tonight. "This is going to be a disaster," she muttered to herself as she handed her car keys to the valet and made her way to the front of a trendy west side restaurant. "I'm smarter than this. What on earth am I doing here?"
Dumb question, when she already knew the answer. She and her two sisters had been faced with a choice of who got the first shot at dating the infamous Todd Aston III. Their time-honored tradition of making all of life's truly important decisions with a rousing round of Rock, Paper, Scissors had left Julie the loser, and therefore the date. She was a sucker for the scissors and her sisters knew it.
She pulled open the sleek glass door and stepped into the crowded foyer. Apparently tables at this place were as hard to come by as free parking. She wove through the well-dressed crowd until she faced a very young, very thin, very pale hostess.
"I'm meeting Todd Aston," Julie said as she fought against the need to tell the girl that a sandwich wouldn't kill her.
The young woman glanced down at her reservation book. "Mr. Aston is already here. I'll show you to his table."
Julie followed the waif to the rear of the restaurant, trying not to compare her own size-normal hips to the nonexistent ones in front of her. Although feeling inadequate was actually more fun than sweating a meeting with Todd Aston III. How did anyone live with a number after his name? It made her think of Mr. Howell on Gilligan's Island, a late-night favorite when she'd been growing up.
She instantly pictured a younger version of Mr.
Howell, complete with striped slacks and a white blazer and was fighting the need to laugh when the hostess stopped in front of a table tucked in the corner and pointed to someone who very definitely did not look like an aging, pretentious millionaire.
Todd Aston stood and smiled. "Hello. You must be Julie."
Losing Rock, Paper, Scissors had never looked so good, she thought as she took in the fact that he towered over her despite the dangerously high heels she wore. Todd was handsome with dark eyes and a smile that reminded her just a little of the one Big Bad Wolf must have given Red Riding Hood.
He didn't look nerdy, desperate or inbred—and she had a feeling he wouldn't be sticking her with the bill.
"Hi, Todd," she said. "Good to meet you."
He held out her chair, which was a nice and unexpected touch, then moved back to his seat. The hostess left them alone.
She studied him, taking in the dark hair, the hint of a dimple on his left cheek and the subtle power tie that had probably cost as much as her last student-loan payment.
"So, this is awkward," she said cheerfully, deciding there was no point in ignoring the obvious.
His left eyebrow rose. "No social niceties where we ask about the weather and how the traffic was on the drive over?"
"Sure, if you'd prefer. The weather is beautiful, but hey, it's Southern California and we expect that. As for the traffic, it was fine. And your day?"
He smiled again. "You're not what I expected." She could only imagine what that would have been. "I'm not too young, too plastic and too desperate?"
He winced. "Again the lack of social niceties. Whatever would your mother say?"
Julie considered the question. "Only have one glass of wine, make sure that he's nice and if you like him, give him your number."
He laughed. The sound was low and rich and masculine. So far she'd been existing on nerves and sheer bravado, but when his smile turned into a grin, she felt the tiniest quiver somewhere behind her belly button.
Interesting. Maybe she should have given this blind-date thing a second chance a whole lot sooner.
"That's good advice," he said. "I think I like your mother."
"She's worth liking."
The waiter appeared and handed them menus, then asked for their drink orders. Todd chose an eighteen-year-old Scotch while Julie ordered a vodka tonic.
"Not following Mom's advice?" he asked when the waiter had left.
"It's been a long day."
"I'm a second-year associate at an international law firm."
"A lawyer. Pass the bar yet?"
He chuckled. "You sound confident."
"Confidence comes easily after the fact."
"Eighteen-hour workdays and studying. It made for a full life."
"What kind of international law? Human rights, that sort of thing?"
"Corporate international law," she told him. "I specialize in contracts and associations with China."
She loved being underestimated, especially by a man. "It was a natural fit for me. I speak Mandarin."
He was good. He only looked a little shocked and then quickly recovered. "Impressive."
His gaze sharpened slighted as he studied her. "Okay, I think we should start over."
She laughed. "Why? Things are going so well."
"Sure. For you. Look, I was told by my aunt Ruth that there was a 'young lady' she wanted me to meet. I was given a time and a place and I'm here. I was expecting someone...different. You're a nice surprise."
She let her gaze linger on his broad shoulders. Either he worked out or he came from a very fine gene pool. Actually, she could accept either.
"Do you always do what Aunt Ruth says?"
"Most of the time." He shrugged. "She's really my great-great-aunt or something. But she's good to me and I care about her. She doesn't ask me much so if it's important to her, I try to say yes. This was important."
Either he was telling the truth, or he was really, really good with his lines. Right then, she wanted him to be sincere.
"You're a good surprise, too," she admitted, deciding to trust him for now. "When I walked in, I was picturing Mr. Howell."
"From Gilligan's Island? Thanks."
Laughing, she asked, "Would you rather be Gilligan?"
"I'd rather be James Bond."
"You're not British."
"I can work on the accent."
She leaned toward him. "So is it the gadgets or the women that make James Bond so appealing?"
"You're being honest."
"You sound surprised."
She was. "I can adjust," she said. "Okay, James-slash-Todd, all I know about you is you dress like a businessman and you adore your aunt Ruth. Well, and the whole number-after-your-name thing, but we probably shouldn't get into that."
"What's wrong with the number after my name?"
"Nothing. It's lovely. I always have to skip over that box when I'm registering on Internet sites, but you get to stop and put in a big three."
"The three isn't actually that big. It's the same size as all the other numbers. It wants to be big, of course, but unfulfilled fantasies are a reality of life. Three has to get used to that."
Charming, she thought happily. The man was completely charming.
The waiter appeared with their drinks. When he'd left, Todd held up his glass.
"To the unexpected pleasure of a smart, funny, beautiful woman," he said.
Okay, that was a line, but she was having enough fun that she would accept it in the spirit she hoped he meant it.
"Thank you." She touched her glass to his. Somehow she misjudged and their fingers brushed. It was nothing—a brief, meaningless bit of contact. But she was oddly aware of it. Her sister Willow would tell her it was the universe giving her a message and that she should listen to it. Her sister Marina would want to know if Todd was "the one."
"So what do you do?" she asked.
He set down his glass. "I skywrite. You know, those horrible messages people are always leaving each other in the clouds. Barney Loves Cathy. John, Bring Home Milk."
She took another sip of her drink and waited.
He sighed. "I'm a partner in a venture capital firm. We buy into small businesses, shower them with money and expertise until they're big companies, then sell them to someone else and make an obscene amount of profit. It's disgusting. I should be ashamed."
She laughed. "I would have thought you'd be running the family foundation."
"There's a professional board that takes care of that. I'd rather build than give away."
"Sounds ruthless," she teased.
"I can be. Very. People tend to underestimate me because of the number after my name. They assume I'm useless. I'm not."
She believed him. Funny, powerful and very easy to look at. Especially now, when he stared at her so intently. She sensed she had his full attention—which was both thrilling and a little scary.
"But then they underestimate you, too," he added.
"You know this how?"
"Because I did. I assumed human-rights law when you said you were working internationally."
"It's a guy thing," she said. "The assumption that women will go for emotion rather than business."
"You get that a lot." He wasn't asking a question.
"Yes, but I don't mind. I use it. My career is very important to me. The first few years in a big law firm can be tough. I want to get ahead, but I was raised to do the right thing. So I'll take the advantage of being underestimated and run with it."