Read an Excerpt
"Stop here," Rule Bravo-Calabretti said to the driver.
The limousine rolled to a silent stop at the head of the row of parking spaces in the shadowed parking garage. The Mercedes-Benz sedan Rule had been following turned into the single empty space at the other end of the row, not far from the elevators and the stairs that led into the mall. From where he sat behind tinted windows, Rule could also see the breezeway outside the parking structure. It led directly into Macy's department store.
The brake lights of the Mercedes went dark. A woman emerged from the sedan, her head and shoulders appearing above the tops of the row of cars. She had thick brown hair that fell in well-behaved waves. Settling the strap of her bag on her shoulder, she shut the car door and emerged into the open aisle, where she turned back and aimed her key at the car. The Benz gave an obedient beep.
She put the key away in her bag. She looked, Rule decided, just as she'd looked in the pictures his investigators had taken of heronly more attractive, somehow. She wasn't a pretty woman. But there was something about her that he found much more interesting than mere prettiness. She was tall and slim and wore a blue silk jacket, which was perfectly and conservatively tailored. Her matching blue skirt kissed the tops of her slender knees. Her shoes were darker than her suit, with medium heels and closed toes.
He watched as she settled her bag in place again, straightened her jacket and turned for the door to the breezeway. He thought she looked very determined and somehow he found that determination utterly charming.
She hadn't glanced in the limousine's direction. He was almost certain she had no idea that he'd been following her.
And his mind was made up, just like that, in the sixty seconds it took to watch her emerge from her car, put her key in her purse and turn to go. He had to meet her.
Yes, he'd always told himself he never would. That as long as she was running her life successfully, taking good care of the child, it would be wrong of him to interfere. He'd relinquished all rights by law. And he had to live with the choices he had made.
But this wasn't about rights. This wasn't about challenging her for what was hers.
He had no intention of interfering. He simply had to speak with her, had to know if his first reaction to seeing her in the flesh was just a fluke, a moment of starry-eyed idiocy brought on by the fact that she had what mattered most to him.
All right, it was playing with fire. And he shouldn't even be here. He should be finishing his business in Dallas and rushing back to Montedoro. He should be spending time with Lili, learning to accept that they could be a good match, have a good life.
And he would return to Montedoro. Soon.
But right now, today, he was going to do the thing he'd wanted to do for far too long now. He was going meet Sydney O'Shea face-to-face.
Sydney could not believe it.
The totally hunkyand oddly familiarguy down the aisle from her in Macy's housewares department was actually making eyes at her. Men like that did not make eyes at Sydney. Men like that made eyes at women as gorgeous as they were.
And no, it wasn't that Sydney was ugly. She wasn't. But she wasn't beautiful, either. And there was something much too practical and self-sufficient about her. Something a little too focused, as well. She also happened to be very smart. Men tended to find her intimidating, even at first glance.
So. Really. It was probably only her imagination that the drop-dead gorgeous guy by the waffle irons and electric griddles was looking at her. She pretended to read the tag on a stainless-steel saute panand slid another glance in Mr. Eye Candy's direction.
He was pretending to read a price tag, too. She knew he was pretending because, at the exact moment she glanced his way, he sent a sideways look in her direction and one corner of that sinfully sexy mouth of his quirked up in a teasing smile.
Maybe he was flirting with someone behind her.
She turned her head enough that she could see over her shoulder.
Nope. Nobody there. Just more cookware racks brimming with All-Clad stainless-steel pots and pans, Le Creuset enameled cast-iron casseroles and complete sets of Calphalon nonstick cookwarewhich, she firmly reminded herself, were what she should be looking at. She put all her attention on the business at hand and banished the implausibly flirty, impossibly smooth-looking man from her mind.
Yet another coworker was getting married, a paralegal, Calista Dwyer. Calista hadn't bothered to set up a bridal registry anywhere. The wedding was something of an impromptu affair. Tomorrow, Calista was running off with her boyfriend to some tropical island for a quickie wedding and a two-week honeymoon in paradise.
Sydney had left the office before lunch to choose a wedding gift. It was a task she had come to dislike. It happened so often and always reminded her that other people were getting married all the time. She really should do what a man in her situation would do, just have her assistant buy the wedding giftsespecially in a case like this, where she had no clue what Calista might be wanting or needing.
But no. She was still her grandmother's granddaughter at heart. Ellen O'Shea had always taken pride in personally selecting any gift she gave. Sydney continued the family tradition, even if she sometimes found the job annoying and a little bit depressing.
"Cookware. Necessary. But not especially interesting," a voice as warm and tempting as melted caramel teased in her ear. "Unless you love to cook?"
Good gravy. Mr. Hot and Hunky was right behind her. And there could be no doubt about it now. He was talking to herand he had been giving her the eye.
Slowly, as if in a dream, Sydney turned to him.
Breathtaking. Seriously. There was no other word for this guy. Jet-black eyes, sculpted cheekbones, a perfect, square jaw, a nose like a blade. Broad, broad shoulders. And the way he was dressed casual, but expensive. In light-colored trousers and a beautifully made navy jacket over a checked shirt.
He arched an ebony brow. "Do you?"
She forced herself to suck in a breath and then asked warily, "Excuse me?"
"Do you love to cook?" He gazed at her as though he couldn't tear his eyes away.
This could not be happening.
But wait. A gigolo? Maybe she looked like gigolo bait. Well-dressed and driven. Maybe it was the new black, to go trolling for a sugar mama in housewares.
And then again, well, he did look somehow familiar. She probably knew him from somewhere. "Have we met before?"
He gave her a slow once-over, followed by another speaking glance from those black-velvet eyes. That glance seemed to say that he wouldn't mind gobbling her up on the spot. And then he laughed, a low, sexy laugh as smooth and exciting as that wonderful voice of his. "I prefer to think that if we'd met in the past, you wouldn't have forgotten me so easily."
Excellent point. "I, um " Good Lord. Speechless. She was totally speechless. And that wasn't like her at all. Enough with the stumbling all over herself. She stuck out her hand. "Sydney O'Shea."
"Rule Bravo-Calabretti." He wrapped his elegant, warm fingers around hers. She stifled a gasp as heat flowed up her arm.
The heat didn't stop at her shoulder. Arrows of what she could only categorize as burning excitement zipped downward into her midsection. She eased her hand from his grip and fell back a step, coming up short against the steel display shelves behind her. "Rule, you said?"
"Let me guess, Rule. You're not from Dallas."
He put those long, graceful fingers to his heart. "How did you know?"
"Well, the designer clothes, the two last names. You speak English fluently, but with a certain formality and no regional accent that I can detect. I'm thinking that not only are you not from Dallas, you're not from Texas. You're not even from the good old U.S. of A."
He laughed again. "You're an expert on accents?"
"No. I'm smart, that's all. And observant."
"Smart and observant. I like that."
She wished she could stand there by the cast-iron casserole display, just looking at him, listening to him talk and hearing his melted-caramel laugh for the next, oh, say, half century or so.
But there was still Calista's wedding gift to buy. And a quick lunch to grab before rushing back to the office for that strategy meeting on the Binnelab case at one.
Before she could start making gotta-go noises, he spoke again. "You didn't answer my question."
"Ahem. Your question?"
"Sydney, do you love to cook?"
The way he said her name, with such impossible passionate intent, well, she liked it. She liked it way, way too much. She fell back a step. "Cook? Me? Only when I have no other choice."
"Then why have I found you here in the cookware department?"
"Found me?" Her suspicions rose again. Really, what was this guy up to? "Were you looking for me?"
He gave an elegant shrug of those fine wide shoulders.
"I confess. I saw you enter the store from the parking garage at the south breezeway entrance. You were so determined."
"You followed me because I looked determined?"
"I followed you because you intrigued me."
"You're intrigued by determination?"
He chuckled again. "Yes. I suppose I am. My mother is a very determined woman."
"And you love your mother." She put a definite edge in her tone. Was she calling him a mama's boy? Maybe. A little. She tended toward sarcasm when she was nervous or unsureand he did make her nervous. There was just something about him. Something much too good to be true.
Mr. Bravo-Calabretti either didn't get her sarcasmor ignored it. "I do love my mother, yes. Very much. And I admire her, as well." He studied Sydney for a moment, a direct, assessing kind of glance. "You're a prickly one, aren't you?" He seemed amused.
So he had picked up on her sarcasm. She felt petty and a little bit mean. And that made her speak frankly. "Yes, I am a prickly one. Some men don't find that terribly attractive."
"Some men are fools." He said it softly. And then he asked again, "Why are you shopping for pots and pans, Sydney?"
She confessed, "I need a wedding gift for someone at the office."
His dark eyes twinkled at her, stars in a midnight sky. "A wedding gift."
"Allow me to suggest " He reached around her with his left hand. She turned to follow the movement and watched as he tapped a red Le Creuset casserole shaped like a heart. "This." She couldn't help noticing that he wore no wedding ring. And the casserole? Not bad, really.
"Very romantic," she said dryly. "Every bride needs a heart-shaped casserole dish."
"Buy it," he commanded. "And we can get out of here."
"Excuse me. We?"
He still had his arm out, almost touching her, his hand resting lightly on the red casserole. She caught a faint, tempting hint of his aftershave. It smelled fabulousso subtle, so very expensive. He held her eyes, his dark gaze intent. "Yes. We. The two of us."
"But I'm not going anywhere with you. I don't even know you."
"That's true. And I find that very sad." He put on a teasingly mournful expression. "Because I want to know you, Sydney. Come to lunch with me. We can begin to remedy this problem." She opened her mouth to tell him that as far as she was concerned there was no problem and lunch was out of the question. But before she got the words out, he scooped up the heart-shaped dish. "This way." He gestured with his free hand in the direction of the nearest cashier stand.
She went where he directed her. Why not? The casserole was a good choice. And he was so charming. As soon as the clerk had rung her up, she could tell him goodbye and make him see that she meant it.
The clerk was young and blonde and very pretty. "Oh! Here. Let me help you!" She took the casserole from Rule and then kept sliding him blushing glances as she rung up the sale. Sydney sympathized with the dazzled girl. He was like something straight out of a fabulous romantic novelthe impossible, wonderful, hot and handsome, smooth and sophisticated lover who appears out of nowhere to sweep the good-hearted but otherwise perfectly ordinary heroine off her feet.
And did she actually think the word lover?
Really, she needed to get a grip on her suddenly too-vivid imagination.
"This casserole is the cutest thing. Is it a gift?" the clerk asked.
"Yes, it is," Sydney replied. "A wedding gift."
The girl slid another glance at Rule. "I'm sorry. We don't offer gift wrapping in the store anymore." She spoke in a breathy little voice. Rule said nothing. He gave the girl a quick, neutral nod and a barely detectable smile.
"It's fine," Sydney said. Like her grandmother, she not only bought gifts personally, she wrapped them, too. But she didn't have time to wrap this one if she wanted to give it to Calista before her wedding trip. So she would need to grab a gift bag and tissue somewhere. She swiped her card and signed in the little box and tried not to be overly conscious of the too-attractive man standing beside her.
The clerk gave Sydney the receiptbut she gave Rule the Macy's bag with the casserole in it. "Here you go now. Come back and shop with us. Anytime." Her tone said she would love to help Rule with a lot more than his shopping.
Sydney thanked her and turned to him. "I'll take that."
"No need. I'll carry it for you."
"I said I'll take it."
Reluctantly, he handed it over. But he showed no inclination to say goodbye and move on.
She told him, "Nice chatting with you. And I really have to"
"It's only lunch, you know." He said it gently and quietly, for her ears alone. "Not a lifetime commitment."