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Dakota took a look at her reflection in the rearview mirror and cringed. "Good googa-moo, I look like the Queen of the Undead," she said with a sigh.And it was true, although she had a good reason. Driving from Washington, D.C., to Chicago all by herself was a daunting task, especially since she was the sole driver of an SUV crammed full of books, clothes and a computer as well as a truly crabby cat. The cat, a large vain Somali female with big green eyes, let out a low yowl to remind Dakota how much she disliked car travel. "Cha-Cha, I've heard it all before so please put a lid on it. We're here, okay? I just have to stop to get gas and we can be on our way home, all right?"
"Rrrrrowrrr!" Cha-Cha's response seemed disdainful at best, something that actually stung Dakota.
"You're a mean ol" critter, you know that? I just happen to be a very well-known writer and you should treat me with some respect, you hairy little snot. How do you think I pay for all that gourmet cat food and Evian water you consume? You'd better be nice to me or you'll find yourself eating dry kibble from now on."
As she often did, Cha-Cha seemed to understand exactly what Dakota was saying. She looked rather put out but clamped her jaws shut and curled up in her carrier while she feigned sleep. Dakota brightened as she saw a gas station that looked new and clean and, furthermore, boasted a mini-mart. She pulled up to a pump and got out of the car, gratefully stretching. She looked down at her wrinkled jeans and sighed. Nothing to be done about it now; she looked like a bag of rumpled laundry. She filled her tank with premium, muttering under her breath at the obscene total, and then went inside to pay for the gas and use the ladies" room. It was all she could do to keep from screaming when she saw how really bad she looked. She wasn't a vain woman, but she always liked to look her best, and today she was far off the mark. Way far off.
Her long black hair had gone wild from blowing in the breeze as she rode with the windows down much of the way. It was now a mass of wild ringlets Ã la early Chaka Khan. She didn't have on a speck of makeup, although her classic features looked perfectly fine without it. She was wearing a pair of boot-cut jeans, her favorite Nike Shox, a pinstriped cotton shirt that bore the evidence of the hotdog she'd consumed earlier and worst of all, she didn't have on a drop of perfume. Dakota loved smelling good and if she wasn't mistaken, she now smelled like super premium gasoline as she always managed to get a drop or two on herself whenever she filled up her car, which is why she'd usually pay for full service.
Rummaging in her tote bag, she unearthed a huge blue-and-white batik cotton scarf she'd bought years and years ago on sale at Neiman Marcus. It had come to her rescue many times before and it wasn't going to fail her now. Folding it crossways until it was about three inches wide, she tied it on like a headband and sighed at the result. With her big gold hoop earrings, her headband gave her a rather Bohemian air if one didn't look too closely at the wrinkled shirt and the ketchup stain. "Aw, who am I trying to kid? I look like I just got off the bus from a six-month stint at a women's correctional facility," she said, putting her chic little glasses back on her slender nose. "It's a good thing I'm going straight to my place and no one will see me."
Casting a last look over her shoulder she groaned as she beheld the bane of her existence, her generous bottom. If she could just get rid of her big boobs and her equally big butt, she might have a passable figure, but it wasn't happening, at least not today. She left the ladies" room, paid for a bottle of Evian to share with Cha-Cha and strolled back to her pride and joy, her new Chevy HHR.
Her forehead puckered in anxiety as she got behind the steering wheel and stared at the map she'd downloaded from MapQuest. Map-reading was not one of her favorite things, so she concentrated on the page intently. Setting the creased paper aside, she put her vehicle in Reverse and turned to exit the station. She was waiting for a space to open up so she could merge into traffic when a loud thud sounded from the rear. The noise was accompanied by a jolt that shook her hard and sent Cha-Cha into a frenzy. She put the car in Park and turned it off while she collected herself. She was breathing hard with her hand over her bosom when suddenly a shadow crossed her. A deep voice asked if she was all right.
Dakota frowned. Her heart was still pounding and some bozo had the nerve to ask if she was all right. She took a deep breath and was trying to summon a polite answer when the voice sounded again.
"Hey, you in there? Are you okay or what?" The voice was still deep, but its owner sounded impatient. She ignored him while she shushed ChaCha, making sure her kitty wasn't hurt.
"It's okay, baby. Some big ape just smashed us up, but we're fine," she soothed, hoping it was the truth. With her heart still pounding and little pinpricks of fear still jolting her, Dakota unhooked her seatbelt and unlocked her door. She turned sideways to exit the car, but her legs refused to support her. Suddenly a strong male hand reached down to help her and practically lifted her out of the vehicle. His muscular arms supported her for a long moment while she tried to gather her wits about her.
"I asked if you were all right. Can you hear me?" The voice sounded even more impatient, which made Dakota's temper flare up. "How do you think I am, considering the fact that you just slammed into the back of my car? Can you give me a minute to catch my breath?" she asked without a hint of her normal graciousness.
She glared at the man and found herself looking into his chest. She had to angle her head up to get a look at his face, which was obscured by his baseball cap and a pair of Cazal sunglasses. He was tall, too tall for her taste, and had big shoulders that were apparently carved out of the same granite as his big hard arms. For some reason this annoyed her even more and she jerked away from his grasp, making an exaggerated show of brushing off her blouse where he'd touched her.
"Look, lady, I'm sorry about what happened, but it was an accident. I don't think there was much harm done," he offered.
Dakota shoved her glasses up on her nose, a habit she had when she was upset, and right now she was boiling mad. "We'll just let the police be the judge of that, shall we?" Without another word she stalked to the end of her beloved HHR and frowned when she saw that the left taillight was broken and there was a sizeable dent in the rear end. She glanced at his monstrous Cadillac Escalade and made an ugly face when she saw that the behemoth of a vehicle didn't have a scratch on it. Figures, she thought viciously. She was about to dial 911 on her cell phone when the stranger spoke again.
"There's no point in calling the cops because this accident happened on private property. They'll tell us to exchange information and go on about our business," he said in what sounded to Dakota like a condescending tone of voice. She was about to say something scathing when she noticed that the driver of the vehicle was a young, gorgeous woman. Slender, fair-skinned with short reddish curls and a look of horror on her face, she was hardly more than a girl and looked much too young for the big hulking man standing next to her.
She abruptly turned and walked to the front of the car where she dug around in her tote bag for her ever-handy notebook and pen. She wrote out her name, address, cell phone number, office number, the name and number of her insurance company and also got out one of her business cards. She thrust them at him and handed him the notebook so he could give her the same information. While he scribbled in the notebook, she cast another unfriendly look at the driver, who was, if she wasn't mistaken, crying. Lord love a duck, Dakota thought angrily. It's bad enough that she's out with a man old enough to be her father, as soon as she does something stupid she starts bawling. Just pathetic.
She was so busy glaring she didn't see the man offer her the notebook back. "Lady, are you sure you're all right? We can take you to the emergency room or something because you don't look so hot," he said.
Dakota jumped slightly because she'd all but forgotten the man was standing there. She snatched the notebook back and said she was just fine. "I don't need to go anywhere but home, thank you. I expect to hear from your insurance company tomorrow." Without even a nod to him, she turned and got in the car, bending over slightly as she did so, affording him a good look at her voluptuous fanny. She happened to look in the rearview mirror and saw him staring at her with a big smirk on his face. It was all she could do not to back up and run over the big oaf. How dare he laugh at her because she wasn't an anorexic size-zero like the little twit in his truck?
"See, Cha-Cha, that's why I despise pretty men. They always think they have the right to judge women because of how we look. It doesn't matter who we are or what we have to offer, they look at the outside only. Big macho doody head," she muttered.
Cha-cha had heard it all before, chapter and verse. She was still upset about the small collision and was much more interested in getting out of the death trap on wheels her mistress seemed to love so much. "Mrrrroowww," was all she had to say.
"Okay, baby, okay. We'll be at our new house in a little while and I'll cook you a nice little steak, how's that?"
She continued to croon to the cat until ChaCha settled down into a nap. But Dakota's mood wasn't so easily gotten over. She was still pretty hot over her welcome to the Windy City. She hadn't been in the city limits for a good ten minutes before she'd got rear-ended and had had to witness the same kind of mess that had caused her engagement to crash and burn. If Chicago was full of the same kind of men as D.C., she didn't think she'd like it here one bit.