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Caleb Wilde was doing his best to look like a man having a good time.
No question, he should have been.
He was in New York, one of his favorite cities, at a party in a SoHo club so trendy that the entrance door was unmarked.
Not that trendy was the description he'd have chosen.
Pretentious struck him as closer to the truth, but hey, what did he know?
Caleb smothered a yawn.
His brain had gone on holiday.
Not because of the noise, even though the sound level in the enormous room was somewhere in the stratosphere, but what else would it be when the DJ was so famous he signed autographs between sets?
Not because of the booze, either. Caleb had been nursing the same tumbler of Scotch almost the entire evening, and it was definitely not because the party was dull.
The client he'd flown in to see was throwing it to celebrate his fortieth birthday. The room was packed with Names. Hedge-fund managers. International bankers. Media moguls. Hollywood glitterati. European royals. Second-tier, but royals just the same.
And, of course, the requisite scores of stunning women. The problem was, Caleb was too tired to appreciate any of it.
He'd been on the go since before dawn. A 7:00 a.m. meeting with a client in his Dallas office. A 10:00 a.m. meeting with his brothers at the Wilde ranch. The flight to New York on one of the family's private jets. Late lunch with this client, the birthday boy. Drinks and dinner with an old pal from his shadowy days working for The Agency.
Caleb smothered another yawn.
Tired didn't come close. He was damned near out on his feet, and only courtesy had brought him here tonight. Well, courtesy and curiosity.
He'd celebrated his own birthday not very long ago. A barbecue at the ranch with his brothers and his new sister-in-law, phone calls from his sisters, one from the General—it came two days late, but hey, when you had a world to run, you were always busy.
Everything had been fun, relaxed and low-key. Nothing like this.
"This guy is a little long in the tooth for trendy clubs," Caleb had told his brothers this morning.
"Because," Travis had said solemnly, "you certainly are."
"Well, yeah. I mean, no, not exactly. I mean—"
"We know what you mean," Jacob had said as solemnly as Travis. "You're a dinosaur."
"Absolutely. We can hear your bones creak."
His brothers had exchanged looks. Then they'd started to laugh.
"You guys sound like a pair of chickens," Caleb had said with what he hoped sounded like indignation.
"Cluck-cluck," Jake had cackled, and that had done it. The three of them had grinned, done the obligatory elbow-in-the-ribs, high-five thing grown men do when they love each other, and Caleb, on an exaggerated sigh had said, yeah, okay, he'd make the sacrifice and go to the party.
"And report back," Travis had added, waggling his eyebrows. "'Cause we equally ancient wise ones want all the details."
Caleb lifted the Scotch to his lips now and sipped at it.
So far, the details were just what he'd expected.
From the balcony, where he'd settled once he'd found his host and engaged in the necessary two minutes of shouted conversation, he had a view of everything happening on the dance floor. It was crowded up here but nothing compared to the situation down below.
The DJ high up on a platform. The pulsing lights. What looked like a thousand sweaty bodies gyrating in their glow.
And the women, all of them spectacular, lots of them interested enough to give him smiles and glances that only a dead man wouldn't be able to interpret.
No big surprise there.
It wasn't his doing, it was the Wilde DNA, a mix of Roman centurion and Viking blood tempered by more than a touch of what was probably Comanche or Kiowa.
The Wilde sisters teased him and his brothers about their looks, and showed no mercy.
"Oh, oh, oh," Jaimie would say, in a perfect imitation of a swooning Victorian maiden.
"Be still, my heart," Emily would sigh, her hand plastered to the center of her chest.
"So tall. So dark. So dangerous," was Lissa's line, delivered with all the drama of an old-time movie star.
And this was perfect Wilde territory. So many beautiful women
Except, tonight, Caleb wasn't interested. "Ah'm jest a country boy from Tex-ass," he'd told the blonde who'd slithered over a little while ago. That had gotten rid of her, fast.
Actually, he'd been pretty hard on her, but then, what kind of female batted her lashes at a man and asked, in a breathy little voice he figured was supposed to be cute, was he somebody rich and famous that she was supposed to recognize?
In truth, he was. Rich, for sure. Famous, too, in corporate and legal circles.
Her approach was at least honest.
It certainly was different.
Another time, he might have smiled and said he was both, and what did she intend to do about it? Not tonight.
Right now, he thought, glancing at his watch, what he wanted was for another thirty, thirty-five minutes to slip past. Then he could find his host, if that was possible, tell him he'd had a great time and he was sorry as hell but he had an early-morning appointment back in Dallas.
" for you?"
Caleb turned around. There was a girl standing just in back of him. Pretty, not spectacular, not in a crowd like this but still, she was pretty. Tall. Blonde. Big blue eyes.
Lots of makeup.
Too much for his tastes. Not that his tastes mattered.
Pretty or not, he wasn't in the mood.
"Sorry," he said, "but I'm going to leave soon."
She leaned in a little. Her breasts brushed lightly against his arm and she pulled back but the contact, quick as it was, shot straight through him.
She spoke again. He still couldn't hear her, thanks to the music, but he could certainly take a second look.
What the hell was that thing she was wearing? A dress, or something that could have been a dress if you'd added another twelve inches of fabric. It was black. Or deep blue. Iridescent, anyway, glittery, or maybe it was the effect of the light.
Either way, the dress looked as if it had been glued on her. Skinny straps. Low bodice. A sinfully low bodice, revealing the curve of lush breasts.
His gaze drifted lower, to where the dress ended at the very tops of her thighs.
To his amazement, he felt his body and brain coming back on-line.
He smiled. The girl didn't.
"I'm Caleb," he said. "I didn't get your name."
Those big blue eyes turned icy.
"I didn't give it."
So much for that. She might be in the mood for games. He sure as hell wasn't.
"In that case," he said in his best, intimidate-the-witness tone, "why are you talking to me?"
"I'm paid to talk to you," she said, her voice as cold as her eyes.
"Well, that's certainly blunt but I promise you, lady, I am absolutely not inter—"
"I'm paid to ask what you're drinking. And to bring you a refill." This time, the look she gave him was filled with stony satisfaction. "I'm a waitress, sir. Trust me. I wouldn't have looked at you twice if I weren't."
Over the years, a couple of women had told him off. There was the girl in fifth grade, Carrie or Corey, something like that, who'd slugged him after he'd made fun of her over some silly thing at recess. And a mistress—a former mistress—who'd told him exactly what he could do with the farewell sapphire earrings he'd sent her after she'd told him it was time they set a wedding date.
Neither had put him in his place better than this, or even as well.
He supposed he ought to be angry. He wasn't.
The fact was, he admired Blondie's gumption. An old-fashioned, down-home word, gumption, but it was eminently suitable.
That face, that body, that dress she'd probably been hit on a dozen times tonight until she'd finally thought, enough!
He wasn't foolish enough to think she could have avoided the problem by wearing something else.
Caleb had worked his way through law school, rather than touch his father's money or the money he'd inherited from his mother.
He'd delivered pizza, waited tables at Friendly's, worked at an off-campus bar.
There'd been a dress code for the wait staff at the bar.
For the men: white shirts, black bow ties, black trousers, black shoes.
For the women: black ribbons around their throats, low-cut white T-shirts a size too small, swingy black skirts that barely covered their asses and black stiletto heels.
Or they were fired.
Sexual discrimination was alive and well in twenty-first century America. As a lawyer, as a man, Caleb knew that.
Still, he figured he deserved better than being treated like some kind of predator.
He told that to Blondie.
She raised her chin.
"Is that a 'no' to another drink?" she said coldly.
"That's exactly what it is," he said. Then he turned his back to her, drank a little more of what remained of his Scotch and settled in to observe the scene for the next fifteen or twenty minutes.
It was pretty much the same as it had been since he'd arrived. The only thing that had changed was that the dancing had grown faster. Maybe hotter was a better word.
Lots of bodies rubbing. Lots of moves that were almost as much fun done vertically as they'd have been if done horizontally.
The crowd was really in to it.
The wait staff, too.
He hadn't noticed them before. Now, his eye picked them up without trying. Good-looking guys, shirtless, wearing tight black trousers, laughing with the customers who were obviously joking with them, accommodating the women who flirted with them.
Good-looking women, in duplicates of Blondie's outfit—tight, low-cut, short, glittery dresses that left bare long, long legs made even longer by sky-high stilettos.
None of the women were as good-looking as Blondie.
Or maybe none of them carried themselves the same way.
She was easy to spot, even in the crowd. She had her hair piled up on top of her head in a mass of curls. Plus, there was the way she held herself. Tall. Proud. Her posture almost rigid.
Forget what she was wearing, that I'm-too-sexy-for-this-dress thing.
It was her bearing that spoke loudest, and what it said was, Keep Away.
Caleb found his eyes glued to her.
He saw what happened when she approached one of the tiny tables ringed around the dance floor and one of the bozos seated at it laughed up at her, said something, and put a hand on her hip.
She pulled back as if that hand was a scorpion.
He saw what happened when she fought her way through the mobbed dance floor with a small silver tray of drinks in her hands and another bozo cupped her bottom.
Somehow, she managed to take a step in just the right direction and sink her spiked heel into his instep.
Without spilling a drop.
The lady could handle herself.
At least, she could until the same bozo followed her, crowded her into a small, miraculously vacant corner, and said something to her.
She shook her head.
The guy said something again. And touched her. One fast, quick grope at her breasts.
Caleb's smile faded. He stood straighter, tried to see more of what was happening but people walked by, got in the way
Blondie had slipped free. She was moving as fast as she could, heading for what had to be a service door. The guy went after her.
He got to the door at the same second she did. Caught her by the shoulders. Yanked her back against him. Ground his body against hers.
She fought back.
It was useless.
The man was too big, too determined, probably too high or too drunk. Now he had one hand on her breast, the other, dammit, the other between her thighs.
Anger flashed through Caleb's blood.
Didn't anybody see what was happening? Was he the only one who understood that this wasn't a man making a fool of himself, that it was—hell, it was attempted rape?
He swung away from the balcony railing, dropped his glass on the first table he passed, went through the crowd and down the nearest staircase pretty much the same way he'd gone through linebackers in his days as a tight end on his high-school and college football teams.
Where was she?
He was tall, six foot three, but it was almost impossible to see past this mob.
The service door had been in the back of the room. On the left. He headed in that direction, not bothering with "sorry" or "excuse me" as he shoved his way across the dance floor, just doing whatever it took to get where he needed to be.
It seemed to take a lifetime but finally he broke through the crowd.
Saw the door.
But that was it.
Blondie was gone. So was the guy. Caleb looked all around him. Nothing.
He drew a couple of deep breaths. Some good Samaritan must have seen what was happening and put a stop to it. Or the guy had figured he'd had his fun and given up.
Somebody opened the service door, stepped back fast and let it swing shut. Elapsed time, maybe three seconds but long enough for him to see everything he needed.
The door didn't lead to the kitchen. It led to some kind of big, dimly lit closet. A storage area, probably.
Inside, the blonde waitress was pinned against a wall, struggling against a man who towered over her.
Caleb ran to the door. Shoved it open. Said something hard and loud and absolutely ugly.
The man swung toward him.
"What the hell do you want?" he snarled. "This is none of your business. Go on, get the eff out of here!"
Caleb looked at the woman. Her eyes were enormous, her face pale despite the heavy layers of makeup. One strap of her dress was torn and the bodice was falling down.
"Are you all right?"
"He was going to—" Her voice broke. "He was going to—"
"Hey, pal. You deaf? I told you to get the eff out of—" The man was just about Caleb's size. He had a muscled body, same as Caleb.
But there was a difference. One of them was all lust and ego. The other was all righteous rage. Caleb went straight at him.
It didn't take very long. A couple of quick rights, a left to the gut and the son of a bitch staggered and clutched his belly.
"I was just having some fun," he said.
Caleb's smile was all teeth.
"So am I," he said, and hit him one last time.
That was the blow that did it. The guy fell back, hit the wall and went down it, slow and easy, until he lay right where he belonged.
On the floor, at the waitress's feet.
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