Read an Excerpt
Anna Cameron ducked behind a tinsel-draped potted plant and peeked through the lacy fronds at the mingling crowd. The Cameron Leather company Christmas party was in high gear. People she'd known most of her life were here, laughing, talking, drinking. She wished she were out there in the middle of them enjoying herself.
Instead, she was hiding from her stepmother. Not that Clarissa Cameron was an evil woman or anything. But she'd had a little too much to drink and now all she wanted to do was corner Anna and try to convince her to win back her former boyfriend, Garret Hale.
"As if I'd take him back," Anna muttered, pulling aside a tinsel-decorated frond to scan the crowd in front of her.
They'd gone out only a few times when Garret's older brother Samuel told him to drop her. He'd actually had the nerve to suggest that Anna was doing exactly what Clarissa now wanted her to do. Using Garret to help her father's company. Okay, fine, a merger with Hale Luxury Autos would probably save Cameron Leather, but she wasn't a bargaining chip. And even if she had been, it wouldn't have worked.
Because Garret had backed away from her so fast that he'd left sparks in his wake. He hadn't stood up for her to his snooty, suspicious older brother. He'd called Anna to tell her they couldn't see each other anymore because the Great Sam Hale had decreed it. He'd threatened to cut Garret off financially if he hadn't stopped seeing Anna.
"No loss," Anna reassured herself. So despite what Clarissa wanted, Anna wouldn't have Garret back on a platter. She hadn't even been that interested in the man in the first place. One kiss had told her everything she needed to know about him. She hadn't felt the slightest tingle of expectation when he kissed her. Hadn't seen a single star. She had known then that he was not the man for her.
She wanted the magic.
Of course, the fact that he'd wimped out for the sake of his big brother and his wallet didn't exactly endear him to her either. And her life might have been easier if she could just admit to Clarissa what had happened. But she had a little pride after all.
Clarissa kept urging her to do exactly what Garret's brother had assumed she was up to in the first place marry the man and bring a nice merger to the family business.
"Anna, honey, is that you in there?"
She jerked, startled and turned to look guiltily into her father's eyes. "Um, hi, Dad."
"What're you doing behind a plant, sweetie?" Dave Cameron's green eyes were smiling, but Anna couldn't help but notice that there was a glimmer of worry there, too.
How to explain that she was hiding from his wife? Nope, couldn't do it. It wasn't anyone's fault, but Clarissa and Anna had never been as close as her dad wanted them to be. Until ten years ago, it had been just her and her father. Her own mother had died when Anna was two, so all she really had were photographs and her dad's stories.
When Clarissa came into their lives, Anna was seventeen. She hadn't been interested in acquiring a new "mother," and at the time had really resented having to share her father's affections. She and Clarissa had finally gotten to the point where they could be friends, if not mother and daughter, but Anna knew her father still worried about their relationship.
So, instead of blurting out the truth, Anna ran her fingertips across the top of the big blue ceramic pot. "Just checking to make sure everything's tidy. Yep, no dust."
He laughed and took her arm, drawing her out from behind the palm. "Housekeeping has never been one of your interests, so what's really going on?"
The music was too loud for any deep conversation and Anna wasn't interested in having one anyway. So she simply smiled, kissed her father's cheek and said, "Nothing, Dad. Everything's great. The party's wonderful."
"So wonderful you're hiding in the shrubbery?"
"Honestly?" she said, mentally crossing her fingers for the tiny lie she was about to tell, "Darren Shivers has had one beer too many and wanted to tell me all about how he won the high school football game back in the seventies."
"Oh, he's not telling that story again, is he?"
"You know Darren," she said, telling herself that really, it wasn't much of a lie. Any time the man had more than three beers, he cornered someone and forced him or her to relive his glory days with him. Still, couldn't hurt to change the subject. "Looks like everyone's having fun."
"Seem to be," he mused, swiftly scanning the crowd that was even now dancing to the music and gathering in knots to try to talk. "Your stepmother's done a fine job."
"Yes, Clarissa's very good at this sort of thing," she said, meaning it. She and her stepmother did have common ground after all. They both loved Anna's dad.
Her dad sent her a sidelong glance. "Is there something going on between you two?"
"Absolutely not," she said, unwilling to put her father in the middle of all this. Besides, Anna knew that Clarissa's tipsy attempt at matchmaking was only because she was worried about her husband.
Hard to fault her for that when Anna was worried, too.
Cameron Leather company was in trouble and despite this wonderful party, the truth was, if something great didn't happen soon, her dad was going to lose the company he'd built up from nothing. But Dave Cameron was an "old school" kind of man. He treated the women in his life like princesses and didn't want them "fretting" about company concerns. Her dad was sweet and old-fashioned and she loved him fiercely.
She forced a smile on to her face and said, "Don't worry about Clarissa and me. We're fine. And it's a great party, Dad. Why don't you go enjoy it?"
"Good idea." He took a step, stopped and asked, "You're not going back behind that plant are you? You're too beautiful to hide away."
She held up one hand. "I swear. I will have a good time. Now go, dance with your wife."
And keep her off my trail, she added silently.
By the time her father had slipped back into the crowd, greeting old friends with a forced holiday cheer, Anna had disappeared from the ballroom. As a child, she'd explored every inch of the big house, so she knew all the nooks and crannies to disappear into.
She was stopped a dozen times to talk to someone or answer a question from the catering staff. The music jumped into a wild dance beat with a tune from the forties and the drumbeats seemed to echo in the headache behind her eyes.
"Clarissa's looking for you," someone said and Anna smiled and kept moving. Just nod, she told herself. Smile and keep walking.
She was almost at the long hallway leading to the front door when she heard, "Anna!"
She stopped again with a barely restrained sigh. Not an easy thing to do at all, she thought, slipping out of a party where she knew everyone. She turned to chat yet again with one of her father's employees.
Eddie Hanover was short, round and sported a wispy gray comb-over. He was one of the guys Anna had grown up around and she loved him like a second father. "Hi, Eddie. How's it going?"
"Going great, Anna. Trust your dad to hold to traditions even when times are hard," he said with a grin.
True. Her father hadn't wanted to even discuss canceling the annual Christmas party. The company might be in trouble, but her dad wouldn't "cheat" his employees out of something they looked forward to all year.
"Have you seen Clarissa?" Eddie's wife Trina asked. "She's been looking all over for you."
"Well, I'll go look for her." In the driveway. Inside her own car.
"Just wanted to say howdy, let you know we all appreciate the Camerons throwing the party," Eddie told her, then grabbed Trina's hand and dragged her off in the direction of the music.
She nodded, but the pair were already lost in the mingling crowd. Then she caught a flash of something bright red out of the corner of her eye. When she glanced over, she saw it was Clarissa, headed her way.
Think fast, she told herself. If only she were dating someone else, she thought frantically. Then Clarissa would have to give up on the whole "marry for the sake of the family" idea and she'd drop the subject of Garret Hale for good.
Unfortunately, there was no man in Anna's life and no prospects for one anytime soon. Her gaze scanning the room, frantically trying to find an escape route, she eventually spotted something even better.
A tall man with no woman clinging to his arm, standing beneath a red ribbon-bedecked sprig of mistletoe.
With Clarissa hot on her heels, Anna sprinted toward him, moving in and out of the ever-shifting crowd like a race car driver on a complicated course. When she was right behind him, she tapped him on the shoulder and shouted to be heard over the pounding music.
"Kiss me and save my life!"
He spun around, his lake-blue eyes fixed on her. Then he smiled, reached for her and said, "My pleasure."
She barely had time to take a breath before his mouth came down on hers. He wrapped his arms around her, held her tight and kissed her as she'd never been kissed before. Long and hard and deep, he sent sparks of something wonderful shooting through her system. His tongue tangled with hers as he tasted her completely and Anna found herself melting into him, giving herself up to the incredible glory of what he was making her feel.
The magic she used to dream about was here. Finally here. In the arms of a man she'd never met before.
Who was her newfound hero anyway?
Clarissa's voice penetrated the lovely glow surrounding her and Anna reluctantly broke the kiss, pulling back just enough to stare up into her rescuer's blue eyes.
Really, the man was drop-dead gorgeous. No, better. He was bring-the-dead-back-to-life gorgeous. Lake-blue eyes, night-black hair, a strong jaw and shoulders wide enough to belong to a professional football player.
The music was playing, the steady roar of conversations continued to roll on, but she felt as though she and her mystery man were all alone in the world. Until Clarissa piped up again.
"You should have told me!"
"What?" she asked, still looking into those deep blue eyes. "Told you what?"
Clarissa moved in close, gave Anna a tight hug and said, "You should have told me that the reason you stopped seeing Garret was because you were involved with his brother!"
"You're Anna Cameron?" "You're Sam Hale?"
"This is wonderful," Clarissa said on a satisfied sigh.
This was a nightmare, Sam Hale told himself, looking down at the pretty woman who had just knocked his socks off.
He didn't belong there and he knew it. Didn't matter that he'd been invited to the Cameron Christmas party. Hell, it looked as if half of Crystal Bay, California, was crammed into the ballroom of Dave Cameron's big house on the sea.
But he wasn't there for the warm holiday celebration, he'd come to get an up close look at Dave's daughter. Of course he'd seen pictures of her, but he hadn't had the time to recognize her before that mind-numbing kiss. The woman he'd heard so much about from his brother, Garret. The same woman who was now looking at him as if he'd just crawled out from under a rock.
He was here to find out if maybe he'd been wrong about the woman. It was no secret that Cameron Leather was in trouble. And the fact that Dave Cameron's daughter had been dating his brother had just seemed too coincidental to Sam. He'd figured that some wily, sneaky, money-hungry woman had latched on to Garret for one reason only.
But Garret was still pissed about this, so Sam had decided to see for himself if his suspicions were true. If he was wrong about her, he could try to smooth things over between this woman and his brother.
He was off to a hell of a start.
"I can't believe you kissed me!" she accused.
"You asked me to," he reminded her. And there was nothing he'd like better at the moment than to kiss her again. As soon as that thought hit his brain, his blood started humming. He was ready and willing and all too damn eager to give in to his desires. So, he clung to the threads of his anger and used them to fight back the growing rush of want.
She pointed to the arched doorjamb above his head. "You're standing under mistletoe. And I didn't know it was you, now, did I?" the redhead with the beautiful eyes argued.
"Anna, you two shouldn't bicker," Clarissa lowered her voice and leaned in to make sure she was heard. "It's a party."
"This isn't what you think it is," Anna said, still glaring at him.
What he should do is leave. Distance himself from this whole mess. But he couldn't quite make himself walk away from her. At least, not yet.
"Lovers' quarrels," the older woman said, "happens to everyone, dear."
"Oh, God," Anna whispered.
Then she licked her lips and Sam's insides tightened. His focus was narrowed on her. This woman was nothing like what he'd expected. The kind of woman his brother usually went for wasless than this one. This woman had fire inside her and a mind of her own. She clearly wasn't an empty-headed party girl looking for a good time. The question was, was she a mercenary woman looking for a fat wallet?
"I can't believe this," she muttered.
Damned if he'd stand there and be accused of being a lecher or something. "You know, I was just standing there minding my own business "
"Have you met my husband?" Clarissa asked.
"You should have introduced yourself," Anna told him.
"Before or after you propositioned me?" he countered.
She gasped, outraged. "I did not!"
"You said, 'Kiss me and save my life,'" he reminded her with a grin. "What did you expect a man to do?"
"Okay, yes, I did. But I didn't know it was you."
"We covered that already," he said.
"I'll just find Dave," Clarissa said, tipsily oblivious. "He'll be so happy to know about the two of you!"
"Don't!" Anna spoke up quickly, but it was too late, the older woman was already disappearing into the crowd. "Oh, for heaven's sake."
"Now that we're alone, want to move back under the mistletoe?"