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It was a lover's night, velvet-dark and sultry, with silvered moonlight and the intimacy of midnight stillness that invited temptation and seduction.
But Katerina Whitcomb-Salgar wasn't with the man she'd professed to love and had intended to marry. She'd left him behind, another woman in his arms, along with the confidence that there were certainties she could rely on, and at the top of the list was that one day she'd be Mrs. Tate McCord.
Instead, she was on her way home with Tate's older brother and wondering what the lingering revelers at the party they'd abandoned were making of that. More strongly, she questioned herself and what had prompted her to accept his unexpected invitation to escort her to her doorstep.
Katie looked sidelong at Blake McCord, covertly studying his profile in the dim shifting glow of passing cars and streetlights. He and his brother shared the same dark blond good looks, but Blake's arrogance and focused resolve, the qualities she'd defined him by over the years, showed clearly in the lean, hard lines of his features. He and Tate were so different, almost oppo-sites; nothing about him should have attracted her.
Yet here she was, alone with him and conscious of an edgy, almost nervous energy that was both unfamiliar and unsettling.
"You're very quiet," he said, in a low voice that filled the silence in the car and betrayed no emotion except polite concern.
"I'm sorry, it's been a long evening." It had nearly been an evening at home. She'd considered making her excuses about attending the lavish Labor Day party at the McCords' Dallas mansion, especially days after she and Tate had broken their engagement, knowing people would betalking, speculating, asking questions. But backing out simply to avoid a few uncomfortable hours seemed cowardly so she'd put on a little black dress and a smile and walked in alone. Except she didn't remain alone. Blake, oddly enough, had spent the majority of the time at her side, attentive in a way that was almost protective. He'd even made a point of getting her alone for a few minutes to ask for her version of her and Tate's broken engagement and how she was handling it, then made his offer to take her home early.
He briefly glanced her way. "No apologies necessary. Seeing Tate with someone else can't have been easy."
"No, but not in the way you mean," she told him honestly. "It's more my having to make explanations to everyone as to why we broke things off."
"He hurt you—"
"I told you before, at the party, it's not like that." Katie sighed, not sure how to explain her feelings any more clearly than she'd tried earlier. Blake wasn't a man who inspired confidences. Unlike Tate, whom she could easily read, she was never quite sure what Blake was thinking, what emotions lay behind the cool, aloof face he presented to the world. That he was Tate's brother—longtime friend or not—made this whole conversation, their being together at all, strange and more than a little uncomfortable.
She repeated the assertion she'd made to him the first time. "A marriage between Tate and me wouldn't have worked. We've both known it for a while now. I care about Tate, I always will. But there wasn't any… passion between us."
"You were lovers."
Katie felt herself flush, glad for the covering darkness. "It's not the same thing. Neither of us ever felt compelled to be together. There was never anything overwhelming about what we felt for each other."
"That sounds like Tate talking," Blake said tightly.
"You seem determined to blame him. But believe me, it was a mutual decision. I'm just feeling a little… lost, I guess. Tate and I were together for so long. It's the starting over part of this that isn't easy."
She didn't expect Blake to understand. In all the time she'd known him, the women he'd dated seemed nothing more than accessories to him, the obligatory beautiful and well-dressed companions for the social events he attended and, she assumed, casual lovers. Against her long-term attachment to Tate—cultivated by their families from childhood—Blake would have no basis for comparison.
"It may have been mutual, but as far as I'm concerned, he treated you badly. He never appreciated what he had in you. All those years you were together, I wouldn't have called him faithful or even considerate a good part of the time. You didn't deserve that."
The underlying anger in his tone surprised her. She wouldn't have pictured Blake in the role of her defender and yet she had the impression this wasn't the first time he'd voiced these opinions, probably to Tate. It left her more confused about who he was and what she wanted.
The conversation lagged the remainder of the ride and the short walk from his car to the front door of the Salgar estate Katie still called home. Awkwardness took hold, at least on her part, as she hunted for the conventional courteous phrases to release him from any further obligation to her and finally end what had been several taxing hours.
"Thank you for bringing me home," she said. "It was nice of you to take the trouble."
He was looking at her with an odd expression she couldn't decipher. "It was hardly the chore you're making it out to be."
"I appreciate it all the same." She hesitated before adding, "Good night, Blake."
She expected an echoing rejoinder and him leaving. Instead he let several moments pass before reaching out and tracing his fingertips over her cheek.
His touch, gentle and unexpected, hitched her breath. "Blake…"
Under any circumstances, she wouldn't have anticipated him touching her like this, let alone taking it further. But when he did, she couldn't think of a reason he shouldn't. She couldn't think at all.
He moved closer and, drawn by the intensity of his gaze, she matched him until they stood lightly pressed against each other. Bending to her, he brushed her lips with his, the barest touch at first. It teased her senses, giving her a taste of the wine he'd drunk, a hint of his heat, the spicy scent of his cologne. She returned the caress in kind, testing the novel sensation of his mouth on hers and finding the scant feeling more enticing than an intimate kiss.
After long seconds, Blake broke the tentative contact to look at her, as though gauging her and his responses. Whatever he saw apparently made up his mind and he slid his hand around her nape, threading his fingers into her hair, bringing her closer at the same time he slanted his mouth over hers.
If he had been aggressively passionate, she would have found him easy to resist. But his kiss, slow and sensual, with a depth of tenderness she never would have guessed he possessed, had her melting into his arms, yielding to a rush of desire so intense that what she'd felt when Tate held her suddenly seemed pale in contrast.
It was impossible. This was Blake. They couldn't— and it didn't matter because she was kissing him back, her hands on his shoulders, his free hand splayed low on her back molding her body to his, and her world in that brief time narrowed to him.
She might have given into temporary madness and allowed her feelings to seduce her into inviting more intimacy than a few kisses, but Blake didn't give her the chance. Almost abruptly, he stepped back from their embrace and from his slightly stunned look she knew he'd been as caught off guard as she by the feelings he'd exposed.
He half raised a hand as if to touch her again then let it drop. "Good night, Katie," he said softly.
He left her in the pool of light on her doorstep, watching him stride away and fighting the urge to call him back….
Slim fingers waved in front of her face, jolting Katie back to the present.
Her assistant, Tessa Lansing, stood at her side, with a handful of papers and the twitch of her lips threatening to become a grin. "I've got the information on those grant proposals you wanted but it looks like you're somewhere else a lot more interesting than here. Whoever he is, he must be somebody special."
"I was just thinking," Katie said quickly, sure her face was as red as Tessa's bobbed curls.
"I got that. But that look on your face begs the question about whom?"
Coming from anyone else, the blunt curiosity about her personal life would have been irritating. Tessa, though, was a friend and after eight years of working closely together, helping Katie in her position as administrator of the Salgar's charitable foundation, there wasn't much about Katie's moods that escaped Tessa's notice.
"No one in particular," she said lightly.
Tessa eyed her over the top of her glasses. "Right. I've never seen you look like that even when you talked about Tate. Sorry," she added at Katie's small frown, "I'm sure that's a sore subject right now."
"I am getting tired of everyone assuming Tate dumped me for Tanya Kimbrough or that I left him because he treated me badly and that either way, I'm devastated."
"Oh, I see," Tessa teased. "You're saying you dumped him for the guy that makes you all dreamy-eyed."
"No, and I wasn't all dreamy-eyed. Let me take a look at those," Katie said, taking the papers from Tessa to change the subject.
But the subject—Blake McCord—was no more easily dismissed in her thoughts than he was in person.
Nearly a week had passed since that kiss that shouldn't have happened and she should have forgotten. Except she couldn't forget, and forbidden or not, she couldn't rid herself of the restless, indefinable longings he'd stirred up in her.
If things were different, she would have avoided him until she could sort out the tangled mess that was her feelings these days. But she and Blake were the primary planners for the Dallas Children's Hospital's major annual fund-raising ball, and at this phase of the preparations, she couldn't limit their contact to phone calls and e-mails without compromising efficiency.
In fact…she glanced at her watch. In a few hours, because of the scheduled hospital board meeting, they would be in close company again. She didn't know what to expect, from him or herself. Would he pretend it never happened and nothing had changed between them? Or—and this was the more daunting option—would he want to confront it, either dismissing it as a moment's impulse or acknowledging it was something more?
Uncertain how to answer herself, Katie was less sure which alternative made her more uneasy.
Blake McCord stared at the electronic display of times and dates telling him where he was supposed to be today, not really seeing the neatly plotted schedule, but instead having an all-too-real vision of disaster.
He was fast running out of time. Unless he could pull off the risky scheme he'd devised to rescue McCord Jewelers, there might be little left to salvage from the wreckage of the family fortunes. There was no question about his determination to succeed. But he didn't like the odds that the entire plot would blow up in his face and leave him with an even worse situation.
Wishing for other options was a waste of time. He'd committed himself to carrying this through, despite the dangers. There was no going back.
"This is becoming a bad habit with you." Seated at the head of the table, Eleanor McCord frowned at the brief glance her oldest son gave her in acknowledgment. "I don't know why you bother coming to meals anymore. It's obvious that business has all your attention."
"I'm sorry," Blake said shortly. He put aside his BlackBerry long enough to finish off the last of his coffee, wondering at the same time why he did bother. This morning, in particular, he should have avoided a breakfast tête-à-tête with his mother in favor of the relative solitude of his office. He had enough on his mind these days without adding family issues to the mix. "I'm juggling a number of things and they're all priority at the moment."
Eleanor didn't respond at once but instead studied him. "You never share your responsibilities," she observed after a moment. "I can't remember a time when you allowed yourself to share the load."
"That would be because they are my responsibilities. Besides, It's not like anyone has exactly begged me for the opportunity."
"Perhaps, but nonetheless, I'm concerned about the effect that whatever this latest crisis is having on you. I don't think I've ever seen you quite as irritable and distant as you've been these past few weeks. I'm assuming the situation with the business is worse off than you've been saying. Or is it something else?"
"It's nothing you need to worry about." The lie came out smoothly.
"It's not that, so much," Eleanor said. "I'm worried about you."
"That would be a first," he retorted, immediately regretting it.
Under other circumstances, he would never have let his feelings slip. But things between him and his mother had been more tense than usual since Eleanor had revealed that an affair twenty-two years ago between her and Rex Foley, patriarch of the rival Foley clan, had produced Blake's youngest brother Charlie. That her late husband, Devon McCord, had apparently never known Charlie wasn't his son hadn't made Eleanor's confession any easier for her four other children to accept. What with the weight of being solely liable for the family business's survival or collapse coupled with the knowledge of his mother's betrayal, Blake silently admitted his temper was more than a little frayed. It was straining all his relationships, but particularly those with his family. He and Eleanor had never shared a warm, close bond, but her admission had severely tested the link there was.
Still, he hated his inability to keep his emotions in check. Shoving them aside, he made an effort to backtrack. "Everything is fine, or will be soon. I just need a few more weeks to straighten things out."
Eleanor's raised brow telegraphed her annoyance. "I'm not stupid, Blake. I know there are problems. Your father's spending habits were hardly a secret. Sometimes I still find it hard to believe how much money he managed to go through in a relatively short time. I know he didn't do the business any good, and with the retail market the way it is, McCord's must be suffering."
"If there are problems, I'll take care of them," Blake said, getting to his feet, deliberately ignoring the familiar criticism of his father. He, better than anyone, knew how many millions Devon had squandered on maintaining the lavish lifestyle he thought he was entitled to. "I always do."
"I have to go. I have a full schedule and a board meeting at the hospital this morning," he explained referring to his seat on the board at Dallas Children's Hospital.
"Will Katie be there?" Eleanor asked.
At the mention of his brother's former fiancée, Blake retreated further behind carefully constructed indifference. "I would assume so. She is a board member."