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Kate sank into her overstuffed recliner with a grateful sigh, ignoring her fur-lined hat as it fell to the floor. Her body gratefully soaked in the warmth of her apartment as the silence of the living room rang in her ears.
"Peace and quiet," she said softly, and closed her eyes.
She enjoyed her work, loved the music that seemed to magically float from her violin, liked her fellow musicians and the enthusiastic patrons of the Elizabeth Falls Symphony. Still, it had been a long day, one that hadn't allowed her mind to rest when she should have been gathering her energy for tonight's concert.
Her eyes opened slowly, straying reluctantly to the thick, creamy envelope that lay on her wooden coffee table. It teased her like a naughty child, silent snickering as she stared at it. Of course, she'd known it was coming, and of course, she'd had every intention of ignoring the invitation inside. Leave it to her youngest sister to make that impossible.
"I can't imagine my wedding without you there," Kate said, her words echoing back in a shockingly good rendition of Molly's voice. "I want you to play before I come down the aisle."
She groaned and shut her eyes again, trying to block out exactly what going back meant. If only Molly had been just the slightest bit mean about it, or a bridezilla about it, or even plain old bitchy about it, Kate could have simply gone in for a few hours, seen the ceremony, then disappeared again. The problem was her little sister really did love her; her desire to have Kate there for more than the day came from the heart. But going back to Johnsburgh would mean so many things, some of them bad. Not that Molly would understand that. Katecouldn't blame her sister, of course; both she and their older sister, Dana, hadn't been subject to the same kinds of problems that Kate had.
No, Dana and Molly were the golden Frazier girls. Everyone liked them, with their blonde, all-American-girl looks, bubbly smiles, and outgoing personalities. Both had been cheerleaders, had been on homecoming court every year they were in high school, and were continually voted Best Personality and Best All Around by their classmates. They had never lacked for dates, or friends, or invitations to parties.
Kate had been the opposite. With her unruly red hair, freckled nose, and brown eyes, she'd been the aberration. She'd had no real interest in pom-poms or in conforming to what everyone expected of a Frazier girl. Not that she hadn't secretly longed to be on the stage receiving accolades or hadn't quietly wished that her classmates would suddenly see just how amazing she'd hoped she was. Instead of trying to go down the path her sisters had, she'd done what her heart had told her and had gone down her own rocky road.
She'd become a band geek, and worse, a smart band geek. She'd made straight As without blinking, had devoted her time to learning five different instruments, and had even carved out time to join the foreign language club, where at least seven other people appreciated her knowledge of French, Spanish, Japanese, and Russian. When she'd graduated a year early, instead of taking time off like most teenagers would have, she'd immediately gone to college on a music scholarship. Kate Frazier had run as fast and as far as she could from Johnsburgh, where the local economy's mainstay was the tree tinsel they manufactured for Christmas. Citizens often joked that they were all the way on the East Coast but that they were still living in Tinsel Town. Kate hadn't been satisfied with that, though; she'd wanted to visit Hollywood ... and every other major city between Johnsburgh and California.
Of course, there had been the holiday visits, and the summer breaks, where she'd gone back to her family's home. It had been during one of those visits that fateful summer before her senior year, when she'd allowed herself to fall prey to Ethan Cantrell. He had been the single biggest mistake she'd ever made, one that she still regretted. Realizing that you were being used is a nasty feeling, a feeling that still made her cheeks hot and her stomach sink with a sickening thud. Ever since Ethan had been caught having a flaming affair with the mayor's daughter the month before Kate's graduation, she had done everything she could to avoid Johnsburgh. She had even gone so far as to lure her parents and sisters to Elizabeth Falls for the holidays. Unfortunately, there was no way to maneuver Molly's wedding here.
"Tinsel Town." She said it softly, then chuckled sadly. "I can't seem to get away from it."
She was contemplating a cup of hot chocolate to soothe her nerves when the phone next to her jangled. She cocked one eye open, stared at it, and wondered if she could ignore it. At this time of night, it could only be family or...
Smiling, she picked up the cordless handset, checked the incoming number, and hit the Talk button. "Hi, Betty."
"Hi, yourself. So, we weren't good enough to have drinks and dessert with?"
Kate's lips shot up into a full-fledged grin. "You know better than that. I just ... had a lot on my mind."
Her friend let out a long breath, and Kate could practically see her flipping her dark hair over her shoulder. "Molly's wedding."
"Molly's wedding." She let her head fall back against the chair again and stared up at the white textured ceiling. "You know, I'm an independent woman. I have a great career, a good life, plenty of friends, a nice apartment, a new car, and an excellent credit score."
"So why are you worried about going back to good old Tinsel Town single?"
"Exactly! I mean, it's not like I'm the one who had the affair and screwed my fiancé over."
Betty made a soft, comforting sound. "You're a smart girl, Kathleen Frazier. You know if you go back without someone with you, everyone is going to wonder if you're still hung up on Ethan."
"Or worse, they'll think he was the only one who could tolerate me."
"Tolerate you? I know you're not talking about your figure, Kate." Betty's tone had switched to scolding schoolmarm in an instant.
"No, it's not that, though I have to say finding a good bustier is harder than it should be. Don't get me started on thigh highs. If I could sew, I'd set up a lingerie shop with custom-made undies. I'd be a millionaire."
"You know, I think it's more like you have problems finding a man who can keep up with you. And I don't just mean sex, either."
Kate bit back a laugh as she shook her head. "No, I don't suppose the whole sex thing is an issue for most men. The problem is finding one who can walk the edge of experimentation and not fall to one side or the other."
"You mean either run away because they're afraid of female anatomy or attack you with all sorts of strange toys?"
"Wow, it's like you've been in my bedroom, which is a scary thought." Kate stood and began to make her way into the kitchen. "I don't suppose you have a line on anyone who might fit the bill?"
"If I did, I don't know if I would share him." Betty sounded amused and slightly cynical. "What about that neighbor of yours, that hot one who lives just down the hall?"
Kate stopped, quietly gripping the cabinet door in her hand. Her neighbor ... her hot neighbor. It was all she could do not to sigh like a lovesick schoolgirl. Hot wasn't the word for him. Extraordinary was more apt. With his dark hair and silver-gray eyes, broad shoulders, and perfectly proportioned body, he looked like an ad for all night sin. He was damned intimidating to a woman like her, though heaven knew he never did anything to distress her. He'd been friendly, sharing jokes in the laundry room, holding the main door for her on occasion, smiling and telling her hello whenever they passed in the hallway. Those were the times she wished she were more outgoing, more like her sisters; then, maybe she wouldn't be so uncertain about what to say or do around him. Maybe then, she might be able to ask him out for coffee, or lunch, or even dinner. It was irritating, considering she hadn't had this sort of reaction to the other men she'd dated. Of course, they hadn't been anything like good old 213. She didn't think there was anyone like 213.
"Kate? Earth to Kate? Did I lose you?"
"Huh? Oh, um, no, I'm here, I'm fine." She quickly shook her head and turned to grab an envelope of cocoa mix. "So, you were commiserating with me over my trip home?"
There was a hesitation, and Kate knew Betty was considering whether to pursue the subject of her neighbor. "Commiserate, okay, I can do that. So, uh, Kate, how would you feel if you didn't have to go to Johnsburgh alone?"
Suspicion began a long, slow climb up her spine. "You think I should pick up a stranger off the side of the street? Maybe from a bar?"
"For something like this? No, you'd need a professional."
The mug slipped from her fingers, the white hot chocolate envelope thudding to the floor beside it. "Professional? Oh God, Betty, what did you do?"
"Well." The word was stretched out, tinged with a hint of anxiety and mischievousness. "You agree that it'd be best to have a man for the three weeks you're in Tinsel Town."
Kate closed her eyes and slumped against the counter. "Just tell me, Betty."
"I bought you a Christmas present."
"Christmas present?" She shook her head in confusion, trying to follow her friend's logic. "What does my present have to do with a trip ... no, wait, I don't think I want to know."
The cheerfulness was back in her friend's voice when she replied, "Oh, but you do! And you can thank me for it later."
Giving up hope that it could be a scarf, or a coat, or even a season pass to the ballet, Kate swallowed and spoke, pushing her words through her tight throat. "Thank you for what?"
"Kathleen Frazier, starting tomorrow night, for three and a half weeks, you are the proud owner of one male escort. Merry Christmas!"