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Festive lights twinkled on Reunion Tower and across the sprawling metropolis of Dallas. Nick Rafford barely noticed his view. While he enjoyed guests at his party celebrating his return after being in Côte d'Azur the past three weeks, his attention focused on Grace Wayland, his caterer.
He had never seen her until tonight. His secretary had made arrangements for the catering company to do this Christmas party. From the first glimpse, Grace had surprised him.
Memory flashed back to the moment his butler had announced Grace's arrival and shown her into the penthouse study.
Rising to his feet, Nick suffered a jolt to his system as sea-green eyes met his gaze. For an instant she seemed equally startled because color drained from her face and her eyes widened. It was fleeting, vanishing when she regained her composure.
Grace Wayland's plain black dress should have caused her to fade into anonymity. Instead, he was riveted as she crossed the room and held out a slender hand to shake his.
When his hand closed over hers, the contact sent a sizzling current. She stood only a few feet away and hot attraction engulfed him. Mere seconds or a minutehe didn't know how long their gazes remained locked. Breaking the spell, she said in a low voice, "I'm Grace Wayland."
Her name was enough to bring him out of his daze, causing his second surprise of the evening. Brilliant green eyes mirrored his own anger. He had anticipated a different response, expecting her to fawn over him, to do all she could to please him with this party. Curious about her cool manner, he studied her.
"And so I meet one of the Raffords," she added.
"You knew who I was before my secretary called about this party?"
"Of course," she said, removing her hand from his, warmth lingering from the slight physical contact. "I imagine you've heard about me, just as I certainly have you. We have something in commonMichael. That's who this is about, isn't it?"
Nick kept his features impassive, hiding his surprise at her bluntness. "I figured I'd be the one to bring up Michael. My party isn't the place or time for a discussion. Will you be available if I come to your office Monday?"
"Fine. I'll be free around nine. How's that time?"
"I can be there at nine," he said, having already cleared his Monday calendar in anticipation of meeting with her.
"I assumed Michael was why you paid an exorbitant fee to get me to cater tonight. You could have saved yourself money by coming to me directly to book the party," she added, her voice dropping to a whisper.
He shrugged. "You were highly recommended and I thought this was a way to meet. Tonight, my focus is on my party," he said, suspecting it was going to be difficult to keep his mind on his party or his guests with Grace around. As he'd answered her, he noticed her full, rosy, inviting lips.
"When it comes to Michael, to my baby, I doubt we have anything to discuss," she declared.
His surprise over her responses deepened. Mixed reactions were churning inside. He wanted to remind her that her "my baby" remark had been inaccurate, but he restrained himself from antagonizing her unnecessarily. His annoyance battled his attraction. Once more, their gazes collided, the heated moment stretching until she broke the spell.
"I have your instructions regarding the party. My help is waiting in the van to bring in the food and get ready."
"I detect reluctance about catering for me," he said.
"This job will be good for my business," she replied, the barrier of coolness still in place.
"Summon your help. I'll have someone show you around," he said, while he considered her professional, noncommittal answer. Nick walked to the intercom to talk briefly to his butler, who responded in seconds. As Grace left with him, Nick watched her walk out, noticing her long legs and narrow waist.
Casually, while guests arrived and mingled, he checked on the arrangements, finding food, setupsevery aspect of the preparationsflawless and accomplished with no disruption to him.
Later in the evening he stood with his two closest friends. He was only half-listening to their conversation while he watched Grace replenish a dish on his dining table.
"I don't blame you for paying little attention to us," Tony Ryder, Nick's tall, curly-haired friend, said. "Where did you find her? The hors d'oeuvres are excellent, but I don't think it would matter how the food tasted if she came along with it. Is she the manager?"
"Manager and owner. It's a small business I heard about, so I thought I'd try it."
"Right," remarked Jake Benton, his blue-eyed gaze flicking to Grace and back to Nick. "How soon are you taking her out?"
Nick shook his head. "I don't think so. So how has the basketball game been while I've been away?"
"Team missed you," Jake said. "Hope you're not too out of shape after a month off."
"Given the amateurs we are and playing twice a month at best, I don't think my missing a couple of games will matter except for the score of our team," Nick remarked, and his friends laughed.
"Great party, Nick," a tall, blue-eyed man said as he joined the three. "Missed you at the last game."
"See, Gabe agrees. The team needs you," Jake said.
Nick faced Jake's younger brother. "I don't think I'm all that important. I'm not giving up my trips for basketball with the three of you," he added, and the others grinned.
As they talked about their hobby, Nick tried to keep his attention on his friends. They had known him long enough that they would notice if he continued to watch Grace. Both Tony and Jake were as close to him as brothers. Gabe was close also, since he had grown up with them. Nick knew he could trust all three if he told them about Grace, but he didn't care to discuss Michael with anyone.
He didn't want to discuss his nephew with Grace either, but he had to. Later during the party, when she was in the kitchen, he strolled in to find her refilling a tray of hors d'oeuvres.
After a glance at him she returned her attention to the job at hand. "I hope everything is satisfactory."
"More than acceptable," he replied, watching her long fingers move, deftly arranging bruschetta, mini quiches, enticing tidbits on the tray. Even though her hands bore no rings, he already knew her single status. He caught a whiff of an unfamiliar, exotic perfume. Too much about her enticed him to the point he forgot his mission for minutes at a time. When had he found a woman as distracting as Grace?
"You're very good at this, yet you've only been doing it a few years," he said, taking a tasty cheese phyllo she had just placed on a silver tray. Replacing it immediately, she continued working.
"As I expected, you've inquired about my background," she remarked without looking up. The light glinted on gold highlights in her silky brown hair worn clipped in a loose bun on her head. "I've worked in restaurants or in catering since I was in high school." Her long brown lashes hid her eyes as she worked.
"So this catering business of yours, is it a childhood wish come true?"
"Not exactly, but close," she answered. Big green eyes jolted him as they had at his first encounter. The crystal, vivid green beneath the long lashes was a stunning combination. Each look burned with a simmering animosity. He had to concede to himself that her beauty complicated his mission in spite of having nothing to do with the problem between them.
"You've done an excellent job tonight. You've impressed my friends."
"Thank you," she answered.
He left, fighting the urge to flirt with her, because that would be the road to disaster. He remained astounded by her aloof manner. He had never anticipated it. Her coolness made him reassess his view of her. Her poise and self-assurance denied her impoverished background. While she demonstrated little gratitude for his business, the catering had been executed with perfection. She loomed a more formidable foe than he had imagined.
"I don't have any idea what the deal is, Nick," Jake said, walking up to him. "Anyone can feel the sparks when you and your caterer are together, yet the looks she gives you contradict that."
"You've forgotten," Nick said. "I told you about my brother and this baby he supposedly fathered."
"I remember," Jake said, turning to look again at Grace. "So this woman is the guardian?"
"Yes. I keep expecting Dad to revert to his old self and forget this nonsense about wanting a grandchild in the family, but so far he hasn't. He wants the baby to have our name and be in his life. He doesn't expect or want to have complete custody."
"He's older, Nick, and he's had a brush with mortality. That can change a man."
"This is totally out of character for him. Dad's thinking isn't as clear as it was before the last heart attack."
Jake sipped his drink and frowned slightly. "On other subjects or just this one?"
"I'll admit, mostly this one, but I'll repeat, this interest in a baby is so unlike him."
As a mutual friend approached, Nick turned to greet him and the conversation switched to golf, yet Nick couldn't lose his continual awareness of Grace. Occasionally, he looked into her green eyes and each time, electricity zigzagged through him. Certain he had the pertinent facts about her, he had been surprised there was no man in her life.
Thinking she would be impressed by the family wealth, he was still surprised by her frosty manner. His stubborn father would not back down. If she was uncooperative, they would be in for a battle, and he was the one in the middle who would have to do the negotiating. Normally, where a beautiful, single woman was involved, he would be happy to step in, but in the current situation, he opposed what his father wanted. Maybe Grace herself would settle the whole thing and for once in his life, the old man would have to accept not getting what he wanted.
Nick's spirits lifted only slightly. He hated to break the news to his father, who was frail now and in failing health. Eli had spent a lifetime getting his way and didn't take it well when he couldn't. Monday morning, Nick would discover where they stood.
A piano player filled the evening with music and conversation grew louder after everyone had eaten their fill.
In spite of enjoying his guests, Nick kept track of Grace, who remained in the background assisting and directing the cleanup. He had been watching her talk to one of her staff but then a guest took his attention and the next time he looked for Grace, she was nowhere in sight. The catering staff had disappeared as well. He excused himself and strolled through the crowd, entering an empty kitchen.
He saw an envelope with his name neatly typed on the front. The bill was inside and she had gone. He tapped the envelope against his palm. She hadn't been the woman he had expected. What would an appointment with her Monday bring?
Shivering from the cold winter night, Grace drove away from the high-rise condo where Nick resided in an exclusive, gated area near downtown Dallas. She heaved a sigh of relief. Visions of dark chocolate-colored, thickly lashed eyes bedeviled her. Nick Rafford was charismatic, overwhelming, sexy, and accustomed to getting what he wanted. Each time she had been near him tonight there had been a disturbing electricity between them. What woman wouldn't feel tempted around a man that attractive?
She had tried to hide her initial shock when she had entered the room to meet him. It was the first time she had seen one of the Rafford men in person. She had seen pictures and knew Michael had their black hair and dark eyes, but in person, she noticed more. Michael and his uncle had the same straight nose and thick eyelashes, a dimple in the right cheek. The seven-month-old baby under her guardianship bore a strong resemblance to his uncle. Michael had good genes.
As she drove, she recalled glimpses of Nick smiling, laughing with friends, shaking hands, talking earnestly. He was breathtaking, handsome, too appealing. His white shirt with flashing gold cuff links and navy slacks added to his commanding appearance and there had been no mistaking his arrogance. The man made it obvious that he expected to have his wishes granted.
What did Nick really want? Was he coming after Michael? Another chill ran down her spine. Yet the coldness vanished as she continued thinking about Nick. No one could stay chilled remembering Nick.
She didn't want the Raffords in Michael's life. She admitted to herself she was terrified they would take the precious boy from her. She'd had him from the moment he left the hospital after his birth and loved him as if he were her own son. She mulled over the strong resemblance to his uncle. His incredibly handsome uncle.
Her fears had heightened when she had stepped into Nick's ritzy condo with its glass walls in the living area and panoramic views of the city. The opulent furniture and lamps were expensive. The kitchen had been state-of-the-art and when she had stepped into a spacious bathroom, the mirrors, plants and sunken tub with gold fittings had been as luxurious as the rest of the condo. She remembered seeing a spread about his home in a Dallas magazine. Imported marble, a New York decorator, priceless antiques, original oils, a lavish backdrop that added to his aura of wealth and power.
She wished she could shake Nick out of her thoughts, hoped even more that she would never see him again.
When she entered her small ground-floor apartment, she greeted her aunt, who was babysitting Michael.
Dressed in a gown and robe, Clara Wayland brushed brown hair away from her sleepy green eyes. "How was it?"
"The job went well. He seemed pleased."
"And I have an appointment with him at my office Monday morning. Otherwise, I'm as uninformed as ever about what he wants. Well, maybe I know a little more, since I've actually met him. I'll tell you about it after I change clothes and look in on Michael. How was he tonight?"
"A n angel. A happy baby who went to sleep about nine."
"I've missed him."
"You always do," her aunt said as Grace went into her bedroom, shedding clothes and changing into cotton pajamas and a robe. She tiptoed over to look at the crib, fighting the urge to pick up the sleeping baby and hold him in her arms. A chill gripped her. There could be no good reason Nick Rafford wanted to meet her. None. She didn't want him near Michael. She gazed at the baby, so aware of the startling resemblance to Nick. She leaned down to brush Michael's cheek with a light kiss and caught a whiff of baby powder. "You're mine now, sweetie. Not the Raffords'," she whispered.