Read an Excerpt
Changing the Rules
By Niqui Stanhope
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Monique Johnson
All rights reserved.
Marcel gave her watch a quick look and then leaned heavily on the horn.
"Come on! Come on!" she bellowed at the vehicle just in front of her. She had been stuck behind the same white monstrosity for the past several miles and had been forced to creep along the main street out of downtown San Diego at about twenty miles per hour. At this rate she would never make it to Versailles and back to her office in time to finish the mountain of work she still had to complete before the launch of the next issue of La Beau Monde. Why had she let Tracy talk her into lunch now? She had no time for this sort of thing. Not now.
She leaned on the horn again. What was wrong with the idiot driver anyway? Didn't he understand that when the lights turned amber everyone sped up? No one at all in his or her right mind actually slowed down at an intersection when the lights were about to change.
Her gaze flickered over the license plate and her mouth tightened in disgust. An out-of-towner. Of course. The man was probably out having a great time sightseeing or maybe he was just plain lost. Well, either way, she had absolutely no more time to spend inching along behind him. She was going to have to take drastic measures. And she would do so at the next light.
The white truck dropped another five miles per hour, and Marcel muttered a heated, "That's it!"
She pulled her little Toyota onto the right shoulder of the road and then stepped hard on the gas. The car responded to her touch like a racehorse that had been reined in for far too long. In a burst of speed, she pulled alongside the offensive white vehicle and prepared to dart into the lane ahead. But, just as suddenly, the white truck canted to the right and began to turn.
Marcel leaned hard on the horn and bellowed out the window of the car, "No, no! You can't turn, you idiot! Are you blind? I'm over here. I'm over here!"
But the driver paid her scant attention and continued his turn as though he hadn't a care in the world.
Marcel stepped hard on the brake as the white side of the pickup truck loomed almost directly before her. She could just see it now, her broken and twisted body sprawled all over the curb and the lunatic in the truck, the one who had caused the whole mess, would probably escape the entire ordeal without a single scratch in place.
She hung on to the steering wheel with eyes closed as the wheels locked. Please, God. Please, God. Please, God. If she ended up with an entire mouthful of dentures or a severed leg or something, not even the most kindhearted man in the world would want her then. She would have to resort to eating soft food and hobbling and thumping her way around with her one-and-a-half leg. Then, before she knew it, she would probably start losing huge chunks of hair, and of course she would start going blind, too.
A loud bang on the driver's side window caused her eyes to spring open. Thank God. The car had stopped moving, and she wasn't maimed or dead or something.
"Good God. Are you OK? Don't you know that you're not supposed to drive on the shoulder of the road? Are you trying to kill yourself?"
Marcel placed a nicely manicured finger on the control panel and eased the window by just a crack. Was she trying to kill herself? Was he actually accusing her of almost causing her own dismemberment or death?
"Don't you know how to drive?" she countered in a very steady voice, and her gaze rose to meet two of the most gorgeous male eyes she had ever seen. "There is a minimum speed requirement on most of these roads, you know."
The man pressed a hand to the side of his head and muttered something about women drivers that caused Marcel's blood pressure to rise by several notches. So, he is a chauvinist too.
"Are you hurt?"
Marcel's chin tilted. "No, I am not hurt. But no thanks to you, of course. Didn't you see me beside you when you started to turn? Don't you use your side-view mirrors?"
Her gaze flickered over him as she spoke and his masculine beauty brought a flush of hot blood to her face. Lord, but he was a fine-looking man. He was tall. Definitely over six feet. Had smooth brown skin. Unusually beautiful amber eyes. A broad chest. Hard, flat stomach. White T-shirt. Faded blue jeans. Curly black hair. Wonderful lips. ...
"Well, I'm glad you're OK. I never would've forgiven myself if I'd injured you in any way." His voice snapped her out of her sudden fantasy of sweet, hot kisses.
She blinked at him and swallowed away the ridiculous dryness in the back of her throat. "What?"
"You're not hurt," he said again in a very patient voice. "And you haven't done much damage to my truck, so I don't think we need to make this formal. Of course, if you want to make it up to me, maybe you'd like to have dinner one evening this week? My name is Ian Michaels, by the way." And he gave her a sexy, confident smile that made Marcel grit her teeth. A player. Of course. She'd had her fill of those.
She drew in a tight breath and leaned forward to turn the key in the ignition. God, how she despised men who played fast and loose with a woman's affection. Never, never again would she ever have anything to do with any of them. They were all invariably immoral, lying, dirty dogs. And this tall, brown Adonis standing at her car window was no different. He probably had a wife hidden somewhere or, more likely, an entire legion of baby mamas scattered around the city and state.
She didn't offer her name but instead said in a very precise manner, "Thank you for being so ... understanding. But since this incident was entirely your fault, you'll have to excuse me if I'm not overly grateful."
Marcel turned the key and the engine purred softly to life. The man stepped back from the car window and stood there looking down at her with an expression of hard speculation in his amber eyes.
Marcel gave him another flickering glance through the half-open window, and even though she was still smarting from her recent dumping, she had to admit that this man was one tall package of temptation. He was long and hard, with beautifully muscled legs, and appeared to possess exactly the kind of physical characteristics that on a normal day would have made her think twice before turning down an invitation to dinner ... and maybe even more than twice, if she was completely honest about it.
She shook herself. What was she thinking? If this guy wasn't Alex all over again, then her mama wasn't a matchmaker. No, she wanted nothing more to do with any men like him.
"So, you're turning down my invitation to dinner?"
Marcel gave him a direct look. He sounded surprised. He had probably never been rejected before. Well, the experience could do him some good. It might even help him understand that he couldn't have every single woman he laid eyes on.
"I'm turning it down." She favored him with a little smile. "If I were you, though, I'd spend some time working on my driving skills and not so much time trying to pick up the women you run down."
A smile flickered in his amber eyes and a surprising dimple appeared in his left cheek and then just as quickly disappeared.
"As far as my driving skills go, you almost ran into me, young lady," he said, a note of lazy amusement in his voice. "And, believe me, I don't usually pick up women I run into on the street. Not that I run into all that many."
Marcel nodded. Right. A likely story. But how could he know that she'd met his type many, many times before?
"Good luck to you," she said, not bothering to argue the point with him. "And just remember that a minimum speed of thirty miles per hour is recommended on these busy downtown streets." And with that said, she roared back into the noonday traffic.
As she very nearly ran down another car, she noticed that there was a child in the front seat of his pickup. The expression on her face hardened. How right she had been to turn down his invitation to dinner. It was baby mama drama all over again. ...CHAPTER 2
Versailles was a jewel of a restaurant sitting atop a grassy swell on Harbor Island. It was perched on a ridge of land just overlooking the glittering blue of San Diego Bay, and on most days it was next to impossible to secure a lunch reservation there.
Ian Michaels turned his white truck into the curving drive of willowy palms, cut the sputtering motor with a gentle twist of his hand, climbed out, walked around to the passenger side, then lifted the little girl down from the passenger seat.
The child looked up at him with vaguely impatient eyes. "But you promised me a hamburger and ice cream, Uncle Ian."
"You'll get your hamburger," Ian promised, and he gave the tip of her nose a fond little tap. "But Uncle wants to talk to that nice lady we just saw a little while ago. OK?"
The child gave him a doubtful look. "Do we have to stay long?"
"Come on, you little worrywart. I promise you it'll be fun. Trust me?"
A parking attendant materialized from the confines of a fashionably thatched hut at almost that exact moment and the child's attention was distracted by his very cheerful, "Well, hello there. Aren't you a pretty little thing? What's your name?"
"Go on. Tell him your name," Ian urged. "She's a bit shy," he said to the man.
"I am not shy," she objected. "My name is Daniella Michaels. But everyone calls me Dani for short."
The parking attendant shook the outstretched hand in a grave manner while Ian did his best not to let the smile he was feeling show on his face. His niece was a force unto herself. There was no question about that.
"Put the truck in a good spot, would you?" Ian said.
"It was my daddy's truck," Daniella added helpfully.
The valet grinned and nodded. "Don't worry. I'll find a very special spot for it, OK?"
Ian pressed a folded twenty-dollar bill into the man's hand and allowed his gaze to drift in a leisurely manner about the parking lot. When he found what it was he sought, his lips curled at the corners. He had followed her at a distance and had been pleased to discover that she was having lunch at one of his favorite restaurants. Now he intended to see for himself who it was she was lunching with. He was a firm believer in thoroughly researching the competition before launching any form of attack. And attack he would, using every weapon in his collective arsenal.
A slight furrow appeared between his brows. She would be lunching with a man, of course. Possibly a boyfriend or someone she was currently dating casually. He had noticed that she did not wear a ring. So it was more than likely that she wasn't involved in a serious relationship. Whoever it was, though, would be dispatched with all possible speed. It had been many years since any woman had managed to capture his interest in this way. But the mystery woman had actually made him laugh, and it had been a long time since he had done even that. And when she had turned down his invitation to dinner, her fate had been sealed. She had aroused his hunter's instinct without even realizing what it was she had done. In that very moment, he had decided that he would have her. And he would do so before the close of this very month. That was a promise.
"Come on, Dani," he said. And he took the child's hand and walked briskly up the short flight of whitewashed stairs. He was greeted at the entrance by the maître d'.
Much was made over the little girl again, and then the headwaiter asked pleasantly, "Would you like your usual table overlooking the bay, Mr. Michaels?"
Ian's amber eyes swept the sea of nicely arranged foam green tables. "No, I'd like that table over there, Pierre. Behind the large potted fern."
The maître d' nodded. "Ah ... I see. Yes, of course. Come with me, please."
After they were comfortably seated and the head-waiter had left to attend to another table, Ian pressed his finger to his lips to still the child's curious question and gently parted one of the large fronds before him. His lips curled in pleasure at what he saw on the other side of the plant. The mystery woman was seated just a few paces before him. And she was not lunching with a man....
* * *
On the other side of the giant pot, Marcel gave the trembling leaf of the large fern a distracted glance.
"I know what you're saying," she said after a minute more spent staring at the plant. "But I don't know if I'm ready to start dating again just yet."
Tracy gestured with a bread stick. "Girl, you can't bury yourself in that magazine of yours. You've gotta find some time to get out and start looking again. How else are you going to run into Mr. Wonderful?"
Marcel snorted. "Mr. Wonderful. Right. You know I always end up choosing the wrong man."
Tracy gave her a sympathetic look. "Everyone has an Alex in their life at one point in time or another. But that doesn't mean you stop trusting your instincts, you know what I mean? You're a great judge of character."
Marcel drew breath to object and Tracy waved away her protests with, "You are. You just chose the wrong man this time out. But that's OK. Everyone's entitled."
Marcel gave an unconvinced, "Hmm," then paused to stir her glass of iced tea with a sugared swizzle stick. "What I really want to know is, How come nothing's ever easy for me? I mean, why do I have to suffer like this all the time? You know? Why does nothing ever just fall right into my lap?" She gestured with a hand. "Take this whole finding a man thing. I see tons of women every day with good relationships. With good men. And I look at them and think, 'Now why can't that be me?'"
Tracy adjusted the stylish glasses on her face, and for just a moment, her eyes became intent. "Maybe you're looking for a perfect man, Marcy, honey. And the simple truth is, he just doesn't exist."
Marcel pursed her lips. "Well, I know that's right. I've had more than enough of men who seem all nice and normal in the beginning, but a few months down the road you've got nothing but the very devil in disguise."
Tracy broke a bread roll and spread one half with garlic butter. "What you need is the kind of man who'll make you feel all warm inside. The kind who will rub your back when it's sore ... make you chicken soup when you're sick. Cook for you every now and again. ..."
Marcel crunched on a bread stick. "God, yes. That's exactly what I need. And girl, you know I was never one to pay too much attention to this whole biological clock thing. But of late ... I don't know if it's turning thirty that's getting to me or the fact that this whole not being able to find a man thing's making my mother completely crazy." She took another sip of iced tea. "Truthfully, I've got more important things to worry about. Business things. I don't need this kind of aggravation."
Tracy nodded and gave a noncommittal "Hmm."
Marcel sighed. "You know I love my mother to death. But sometimes she just drives me crazy. She means well, but ... every single time she calls? The same exact thing? And she doesn't understand how hard it is out there. It's not like there's a pile of eligible bachelors just standing around waiting to be scooped up. It's hard to find a good man these days. I mean, it's really hard." She nodded at the waiter as he placed a plate of steaming chicken fettuccine before her. "But I don't expect you to understand what I mean. You've been married for too long, and not only that, you've got yourself one of the few really good men in existence."
Tracy moved her glass out of the way and rested both elbows on the table. "You didn't know Tommy in the early days," Tracy said. "You think he wanted to get married?" Two elegant eyebrows climbed toward her hairline. "Please. No man wants to get married. Messing around is in their blood. But," and she leaned forward to whisper in a conspiratorial manner, "the good ones can be trained."
"I don't know. ..."
Tracy waved an authoritative finger in the air. "Trust me on this one, OK? Men have to be trained. All men. Even the good ones. They really don't know how to do the right thing on their own. It's just not in their nature to behave that way. And don't think for a minute that the problems are over once you get them down the aisle."
Marcel took a bite of creamy chicken. "I just don't know what to do. I'm so confused. I don't seem to have what it takes to really hold a man ... for any length of time. I don't know what it is. Everything usually starts out fine, and then ... just as it did with Alex ... they begin to lie and sneak around. ..."
"Girl, Alex was just a dog, OK? Accept it and move on. I told you from the very first time I met him what he was like. But you were all in lust and everything. And would you listen to me?"
Excerpted from Changing the Rules by Niqui Stanhope. Copyright © 2003 Monique Johnson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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