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Seated in the audience in the darkened New York theater. Morgan Todd stared rapt at the actress onstage. The New York critics were calling her performance in Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof fiery, bold and mesmerizing, and Morgan had to agree. She moved through her role as Maggie with a confidence that showed off her extraordinary acting talents and why she'd won two Tonys in the past three years. Her name was Dina Caldwell. She was a particular favorite of his not only for her killer performances but because at one time she'd been his fiancée.
He watched her verbally blast the actor playing her husband during one of the play's critical moments and the air in the theater crackled with the tension. There'd been no blast like that on the day she'd ended their engagement four years ago. She'd been so controlled and icy, it had taken him days to thaw out. His treatment had been well deserved, however. He'd treated her like crap; he knew it, she knew it and so had the readers of the nation's tabloids chronicling the breakup because Morgan was as famous in his world as she was in hers.
He was Master Chef Morgan Todd, dessert virtuoso to the rich and famous. No Hollywood party was complete without his signature confections and when the First Lady of the United States had needed to impress the French president, she'd called on him. Thanks to his hard work, he had one of the country's best-rated cooking shows on cable, a partnership in two exclusive dessert restaurants in Vegas and South Beach and cookbooks and bakeware bearing his name. He'd begun his career in college, peddling his version of his mother's prize-winning coconut cake to help with the costs of tuition, and the rest, as they say, was history.
Now, at the age of thirty-seven, his name was a household word, and his life was so well ordered and profitable he was making money while he slept. But he'd begun to question where he'd be in twenty years. Economically he'd be fine; the rich would continue to indulge their appetites for fun, fashion and food no matter the economy, but who and where would the man inside himself be? Ideally, relaxing on his laurels and enjoying a wife and kids. That thought brought him back to the woman onstage. In hindsight, she was the only woman he'd ever needed. However, when they were together he'd been too much of a cheating fool to understand that. In his perfect world, Dina would be his wife and the mother of his children, but because of the way he'd screwed up during their engagement she'd been refusing his calls since their breakup four years ago. That was a long time to be angry, but when a woman sees pictures of her fiance and his latest side dish splashed across the front pages of the tabloids she has reason to be mad and to stay that way. He sighed. To have her in his life again would be sweeter than anything he could create, but for that to happen he'd have to convince her that in spite of everything. He'd never stopped loving her.
After the show, a weary Dina sat at the vanity mirror and removed her makeup. Dressed in a loose silk robe, she tissued off the paint, glad to be free of it and the wig she wore each night over her short pixie-cut hair. The cast and crew had put on another stellar performance and the audience had given them a standing ovation in response. She loved her work, especially when everyone involved put the show first and left their egos at the door. The production had a great director, producer and the other actors in the cast were all heavyweight talents she enjoyed sharing the stage with. A knock at the door made her check her robe to make sure she wasn't exposed. "Come on in."
Reflected behind her was her agent and good friend Maureen Anderson.
"How'd you like the show?"
Dina finished the makeup removal with a towel and tossed it into the hamper by her seat. Maureen had a tendency to complain about everything, from the shortcomings of Dina's understudy Rita, to the snarled NYC traffic to and from the theater, to the temperature outside. She'd claimed to have enjoyed tonight's performance, but Dina could tell by her expression that something was up. "So, why the face?"
"I'm still having issues with you taking the week off, honey. Do you know how much money the show may lose with you not onstage? The ticket holders aren't going to be happy to find out they've come all this way just to see your understudy."
Dina sighed. "My being away for one week is not going to send the producers to the poorhouse, and Rita will do fine in the role."
"She can't even get to rehearsal on time."
Dina loved the fifty-five-year-old Maureen. She was efficient, organized and could be a pit bull when called upon, but she was such a worrywart that she sometimes drove Dina insane.
Maureen continued. "What if the producers like her and decide to give her the part permanently?"
"You just said the girl can't make it to rehearsal on time. I don't think my job's in jeopardy, but if that happens. I'll find work somewhere else."
The answer didn't appear to satisfy Maureen but it stopped the fussing. which was all Dina had been after. "Aren't you the one who's been saying I need a vacation?"
"I was talking about in the spring. not the week of Thanksgiving."
"Maureen. this show's been running over a year. I missed three performances last winter because of the flu. but other than that I've been going nonstop, two shows a day, This wedding is important to me, and remember, I told you and the producers last spring that I was going to go,"
Maureen didn't respond,
"Besides, you should take some time off, too, Go see your sister in Atlanta, It's Thanksgiving. Eat some turkey, Have some fun. D,id she say anything else to you about this man she wants you to meet?"
"No, because I told her I wasn't in the market,"
"Don't Maureen me, You need to be worrying about being in the same place with The Buttercream Player all week," she said, helping herself to one of the shrimps sitting on ice in a silver bucket on the table, The dish was one of the buffet selections Dina received after each performance,
The Buttercream Player was Maureen's playful sobriquet for Dina's ex-fiance, Morgan Todd, His sister Jasmine was getting married, and because Dina loved Jas like family she was flying home to Detroit in the morning for the wedding, Dina assumed Morgan would be leaving his Pop-Tarts long enough to fly in for the celebration, too, but she hadn't spoken to him in years. When they crossed paths she planned to be polite, but that would be extent of her interactions with the man she'd loved most of her life and who'd treated her heart like something you put in a garbage disposal. "I'm a Tony-winning actress. I'll just pretend he's not there."
"Uh-huh. When was the last time you two were in the same room?"
"The day I gave him back his ring four years ago."
"Then you might want to prepare yourself."
"He's waiting outside in the hall."
"He wants to see you."
She shrugged. "Could have something to do with you not taking his calls for the past four years." "He can kiss my ass."
"That could be one of the reasons he's here, too, but I'll let him tell you."
Maureen had always had a soft spot in her heart for Morgan, even when Dina wanted him boiled in oil. "Why didn't you just tell him I was unavailable?"
"You know I can't resist dark chocolate, especially when he dangles two front-row-seat tickets to his show. He may be persona non grata, but the man can cook."
"You took a bribe."
"I did," she confessed with mock sadness.
Dina didn't believe this. "With friends like you, I don't need any enemies. Go home, and send Mr. Pop-Tart in. I'll call you tomorrow after I land in Detroit."
"Love you." Maureen trilled as she headed to the door.
"Liar." Dina tossed back teasingly.
In the silence after Maureen's departure. Dina studied her reflection. Morgan. Inwardly, she wasn't prepared for this. She'd purposefully avoided all contact since giving him back his ring, mainly because of how much she'd been hurt. Outwardly, her face was shiny from the makeup remover and there was a stocking cap over her hair. She wasn't looking her best, but she decided, so what. It was only Morgan. He'd have two minutes to say whatever he'd come to say and then get gone.
A quick two knocks sounded on the door. "Come in."
Her first thought was that she hated that he was still so damn gorgeous. Rich brown skin. The razor-cut moustache framing his lips and flowing down to the short clipped beard on his chin made him look like a twenty-first century gun-slinger. The eyes on hers were as potent as they'd ever been. Dark chocolate, indeed.
"Hey, Dee Dee."
Dark chocolate voice, too. "Morgan." "Great show."
"Thanks. What brings you by?"
"Was in town, thought I'd catch the show. Jas said you were headed home for the wedding so I wanted to see if you'd like to hitch a jet ride home."
She'd been in love with him since the age of twelve. In the handsome planes of his face were remembrances of how he'd looked as a teen, as a high-school senior in his football uniform and the day he'd proposed. "You own a jet now?"
"No, it belongs to one of the corporate sponsors of a competition my network will be taping while I'm in Detroit."
"What kind of competition?"
"Holiday-themed cakes. Four contestants. Ten thousand dollar grand prize."
Silence filled her dressing room. They were studying each other. She wondered if he was replaying their past, too. She looked away and removed the stocking cap over her hair. "Any other passengers?"
She noticed that he was checking her out subtly, as well. The casual arms-crossed stance was as familiar as the way her traitorous heart was pounding. "When are you planning on leaving?"
"Told Mom and Jas I'd be in tonight."
"My flight's in the morning."
"That's what Jas told me, but you can always use the tickets another time. If you fly tonight, you won't have to deal with LaGuardia, baggage claim or security, and we can be home in under an hour."
It was tempting, but that's how the devil worked. "Thanks, but I'll wait for my flight in the morning."
"Chicken." he called softly.
She met his reflection in the mirror. Parts of herself were angry that she was still attracted to him in spite of the hurts of the past. "Not chicken. I've gone on with my life."
"Then flying home with me shouldn't be an issue."
The quiet tone touched her in places she thought she'd locked up good and tight. "It isn't. I have to finish packing. Take care of some things."
Another knock sounded. Exasperated, she called again. "Come in."
Arthur Stevens stepped inside. "Hi, doll."
Arthur was a fifty-something-year-old international investment banker she'd been seeing for the past eighteen months. He was a nice sweet man.
She avoided looking at Morgan. "Hey, Arthur. How are you?"
He noticed Morgan and stopped. He looked quizzically between the two of them. "Am I interrupting something?" "No."
Recognition slowly dawned on his face. "You're Morgan Todd. aren't you?" He held out his hand. Morgan shook it. "Yes, I am. And you are?" "Arthur Stevens."
Dina saw the question in Morgan's eyes but she didn't offer an explanation because he wasn't owed one.
Arthur appeared uncomfortable. "I can call you later, Dina."
"No. you're fine. Morgan came by to offer me a jet ride home, but I told him I'd wait and take my flight in the morning."
"A private jet is less of a hassle, though." She wondered why Arthur seemed to be taking Morgan's side.
Morgan appeared buoyed by the support. "See, even your friend here agrees."
Her pointed look his way earned her a chocolate smile.
"Arthur's my date for the wedding." she said holding Morgan's eyes.
The smile faded. She liked that.
Arthur added. "I have to be in Copenhagen for the next few days, but I plan to be back in the states in time to make the wedding. I met your mom and sister over the summer. They're both very nice ladies."
Dina saw the surprise fill Morgan's face and that pleased her, too.
"You've been to Detroit?"
"Yep. She took me home to meet her parents. We had an interesting visit."
What Arthur didn't say was that it was so interesting that Dina's mother Lynne wanted him shot. Arthur was a sweet man but he was also an over-the-top germophobe. By the time they left, he had the entire house smelling like bleach. "I see." Morgan said.
Dina was enjoying his bemusement. She had no idea what Morgan's real agenda was but she hoped meeting Arthur had put it in flux.
Arthur asked. "So what airport are you using?"
Arthur turned to Dina. "Then how about I run you home? You can pick up your bags and my driver can zip us out to the airport. You don't really want to mess with LaGuardia if you don't have to, do you?"
No, and she didn't want to fly on a plane alone with Morgan, either, but in reality he was the lesser of the two evils. She really didn't want to deal with LaGuardia. "Sounds good."
Morgan looked as if he wanted to appeal the plan, but she ignored that and said to him, "We'll meet you there in an hour or so. Now, both of you out, so I can get dressed. Arthur get his number just in case we run late."
"Will do, doll."
Morgan appeared to be frustrated but Dina ignored that, as well.