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"Oh, no Help!"
Of course, she didn't expect any. Eve Easton had come alone into the kitchen and was reaching into the commercial-size refrigerator with its double, glass doors to pull out the carved-crystal punch bowl, made heavier by pounds of chipped ice and boiled shrimp. But just when she turned toward the counter, the unwieldy thing had started slipping from her grasp.
Miracle of miracles, strong arms wrapped around hers in support, and a mellow, male voice assured her, "Got it."
Too relieved to have avoided catastrophe to yelp from surprise that someone had actually heard her, Eve held her breath as, together, she and her mystery hero jointly hoisted the thing to the counter. Unfortunately, their combined momentum made it land with a sharp thud.
"Don't shatter," she entreated the bowl. "Glass shards aren't a digestible garnish." That was the problem with helping out here; everything in the place was genuine, gorgeous and breakable.
"Do you always reprimand inanimate objects?"
As her foolishness sunk in, she chuckled selfconsciouslyfeeling increasingly so for their awkward positioning. "Oh, ignore me. I've spent most of my life either swimming upstream, ignoring logic, or otherwise trying to defy physics."
"Eve? Eve Prescott It is you."
Already remaining stiff enough to shatter herself, Eve willed herself to faint. She was 99.99 percent sure she wasn't dreaming, so there was no other escape from this moment. And the man who held her against the counter so tightly that they were as close as two people could getshort of sexual intimacysounded eerily similar to one of three people she'd hoped never to see again in this lifetime. The fact that he addressed her by her married name confirmed the impossible had happened.
God, leaving Texas wasn't enough? In case you've forgotten, you don't let Southwest fly to Mars yet.
Lifting her gaze to stare at their reflection in the glass cabinets at the end of the kitchen counter, she managed to eke out on a thin breath, "It's Easton now, Mr. Roland. I took back my maiden name." She didn't dare turn her head what with him being so close, his breath already a lover's caress against her ear and cheek.
"Of course. Sorry."
It was then that his gaze lifted, seeming to follow hers, and they were staring at each other in the glass. "What are you doing here?" she asked him.
"I was invitedwellby a friend of an invited guest.
Then by our hostess herself when my friend checked with her."
Responding literally to her question also confirmed her conclusionlike she needed that. Derek Roland was nothing if not a stick-to-the-facts guy. What else would you expect from a government man? "I meant what are you doing in Colorado? Wait. First, would you mind?" She bobbed her head to the right, signaling him to let go and give her some space. "If we get any closer, you'll be able to describe my birthmark."
With an understated clearing of his throat, he did exactly that, stepping around the kitchen bar to grasp the back of a brass-and-wood chair instead. "I live here now. Apparently you do, as well, or are you visiting relatives? You don't resemble either of the Graingers."
Wearing a new champagne-colored cashmere dress that felt like a second skinsomething she intended to let Rae Grainger know was not her best wardrobe recommendation to dateEve ran her hands over her hips where she could still feel his body heat. Yes, it was himDerek Roland. Mr. Tall, Groomed and Stern. Even the perpetual frown between his eyebrows was exactly as she remembered; nevertheless, he was an attractive man, and she didn't actually hold any resentment toward him. To be fair, she'd concluded him to be as much an injured party to what had occurred as she was. His offense was simply to be here and, therefore, was a reminder of the humiliation she'd fled Texas to forget.
"I'm not related to either Rae or Gus," she replied, acutely aware of the visual study he was conducting of her. "Rae is my boss. Denver Events Planning."
"From PTA fairy godmother and Booster Club organizer to events planner. That makes all the sense in the world and probably keeps you as busy as ever. You have to love the wardrobe upgrade?"
"It's different." And keeping busy was the idea. She'd needed to stay as active as possible during her awake hours so she didn't drown in a pity party for one when she should be sleeping. The paycheck was the other motivator to keep at this. "You're absolutely right, though, I'm not qualified for much else," she admitted ruefully.
"I didn't mean"
"Did you transfer to the Denver office, Mr. Roland?" she asked before he could finish. Back in Texas he'd been the most whispered-about person on their block. It wasn't every day you had an FBI agent as a neighbor.
"Please, make that Derek, and, yes, something like that. I'm the S.A.C. here."
"Excuse me, I'm terrible with abbreviations."
"Oh. Oh. Wow. Congratulations." Without trying, he'd succeeded in making her feel even younger and less accomplished than she already did.
The stereotype continued to hold true; even in his gray suit and two-tone silver tie, he looked "government," just as he had back in Texas when he and his then-wife Sam had moved in next door to her and Wes. It was when she brought over a peach cobbler she'd baked herself that Samantha Roland confided that her Derek was with "the Agency." Derek had always struck Eve as a serious man, and you'd have to be obtuse not to notice that his job demanded much of his time. He'd almost never been around for small talk, even when outside mowing the lawn or cleaning up the branch-littered yard after a strong storm. Every chore or project was achieved at a brisk pace that suggested he had more important things to do and places to be. They were speaking more now than they had in all of the time that they'd been neighbors.
Eve doubted that she could bring herself to call him by his first name. He might only be five or so years her senior, but his whole bearing made her feel a full decade deficit in experience. "Rae will be thrilled," she assured him, with a death hold on her role as assistant to one of the most talked-about women in Denver. "I think you've managed to put a new feather in her cap. With the weather as unrelenting as it is, I know she's grateful if the D.A. or a judge will come up here. It's usually the show business and sports people who are brave enough to take on the mountains in these conditions."
"I'm glad I could make it. The place is spectacular." As he spoke, Derek gave the state-of-the-art yet creative room a more thorough and admiring look. "I actually came with D.A. Maines."
She literally bit her tongue to avoid saying, "Oh," and spread her hands in a well-there-you-have-it gesture. If D.A. Maines remembered her, it would be as the coat check girl, when she'd actually handed him a program and glass of champagne at the pre-party to the opening of the theater's yearly premiere of The Nutcracker ballet.
"His wife is with their daughter on a school-related trip to Italy, and he wasn't up for ringing in the New Year with a TV dinner and case files."
Never mind trying to picture the district attorney eating a frozen dinner, Eve had to force her gaze from Derek's mouth. Slightly curved into a smile, his lips weren't as thin as she used to believe, now that they weren't fixed in that tight, white line they usually were back in Texas. In fact they seemed kind, andtempting.
"You cut your hair."
The unexpected observation had her self-consciously smoothing the short wisps at her nape. A year ago, her naturally blond locks had almost reached her waist. "There's an understatement if I ever heard one. My exand probably yourswould say that I look scalped."
"You look great. Very chic, or is that an archaic expression these days?"
At first, she'd worried that the style made her look like a street urchin out of Oliver Twist, but heartened by his seemingly sincere admiration a bit of her impish humor surfaced. "Full disclosure? All I was doing was indulging a little immature spite. Typical southern male, Wes would complain at the slightest trimming I'd do to get rid of split ends."
The truth was, once past her high school cheerleading years, she felt the weight of her hair too much for her slight frame. The first thing she did, after finding the apartment in Denver, was to walk into a full-service salon and ask for it all to be cut off. It not only felt liberating in ways she hadn't imagined, but donating her shorn locks to an organization that would turn it into a wig for a child with cancer gave her a quiet joy. Interestingly, her migraine-size headaches soon stopped, too.
"I can top that." Derek pretended to glance around before sliding her a conspiratorial look. "As I was moving out, I came upon Samantha's engagement ring in the bathroom. I 'accidentally' flipped it into the commode."
Eve couldn't keep from sucking in her breath at the image. Sam's ring was only half the size of Rae's, but it was one hundred percent more than Eve had ever worn. Too grateful for this moment to resist, she asked, "Did she notice before you know?"
With a negligent shrug, he replied, "She must have, she signed the divorce papers."
Eve laughed with relief. Incredible, she thought, they were actually making small talkand it was fun. The few times they'd exchanged greetings back in Texas, she'd hesitated and stuttered like a nine-year-old, finding herself in front of the school principal.
"Are you liking Colorado?" she ventured.
"So far, so good, although it took me a while to adjust to the altitude."
"As physically fit as you people have to be?" Eve didn't hide her surprise. "I thought I was going to have to buy my own personal oxygen tank. And it was a good thing I wasn't wearing a ring anymore because my fingers swelled like sausages on a grill."
Derek's answering glance exposed his amusement but disbelief. "I knew you'd moved, Eve. I just had no idea it was here. I hope this isn't too awkward for you, but I was merely looking for a secluded spot to check my BlackBerry for calls without appearing rude or attracting too much attention."
Sensing he was turning back into FBI Agent Roland, Eve pointed to the sunroom at the back of the kitchen. It was a rather romantic nook with the outdoor lights from the patio twinkling through the floor-to-ceiling windows. "Consider me gone. If you need more light, there's a switch to your left as soon as you enter. You'll have the kitchen to yourself. I'm off to deliver this," she said, gesturing to the bowl that had started their conversation.
Frowning, he reached out to stay her retreat. "Give me a second and I'll carry that beast for you."
With that he removed the BlackBerry from its belt clip, exposing his badge, and focused on the small screen. After only a few seconds and fewer clicks, he replaced it.
"Lead the way," he said, reaching for the heavy receptacle.
She did, acutely aware of his gaze following her every step. Although she thought she looked the best she had in a year, she would have passed on this glove of a dress if not for Rae's insistence when they'd gone on a shopping spree together. Granted, she'd admitted that she was frustrated with her harmless, girl-next-door image, but blatant-vamp persona felt a ridiculous reach. Angelina Jolie in The Tourist, she wasn't. But the knee-length dress was a contradiction, as well. It had a demure, high front, but Derek had the real viewa seriously low, cowl neck in back exposing just about every inch of her from nape to waist, all of which was pricklingand not because the temperature in the house was too low. She wasn't a gambler, but she could feel Derek's gaze contemplating what she was and wasn't wearing beneath the thing.
At the long buffet in the dining room, Eve indicated the spot where the bowl should go and stepped aside for him to put his hefty load in its place. "I do appreciate this," she said as discreetly as she could, counting how many pairs of eyes had noticed.
"My pleasure. Besides, that dress doesn't look like anything you can machine wash and I'm fast concluding that eau de shrimp isn't the right fragrance for you."
She heard a few chuckles from people overhearing the exchange and felt a betraying heat creep into her face. Special Agent Roland was flirting with her. The man whom she last saw angry enough to bite inch-thick bolts in two when he'd come to confront Wes about his affair with Samantha. She couldn't begin to wrap her mind around that idea.