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She was a fake and a fraud.
Cindy Elliott was walking, talking, breathing proof that not only was it possible to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, but you also could take her out in public. So far no one had pointed and laughed at her pretending to be one of the exalted affluent. But the night was young and she was the queen of getting dumped on.
Famous-rich and anonymous-wealthy people were crammed into this ballroom. She was pretty sure that, unlike herself, none of them had won their seat at this thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraiser with a raffle ticket. Any second she expected the riffraff police to see through her disguise and throw her out.
It wouldn't be the worst thing that ever happened to her, but it was not high on her list of things to do. Her plan was to enjoy every moment of this night. Take in every detail and let the memories brighten the daily grind as she dug herself out of the deep financial hole she'd ended up in after trusting a man.
Cindy grew up in Las Vegas but this was the first time she'd ever been to a shindig at Caesar's Palace. Crystal chandeliers glittered overhead and silver light trickled down on white tablecloths and somehow made the fragrant arrangements of fresh, vibrantly colored flowers smell even better. Candles flickered but paled in comparison to the views visible from floor-to-ceiling windows of the neon skyline outside on the Strip.
She wished more people were looking at it instead of her, more specifically male people. A lot of the dapper men in dark suits and tuxedos were staring at her as she snaked her way through the crush of bodies. She felt conspicuous and self-conscious in her strapless, champagne-colored cocktail dress. It was knee length, and now was not a good time to wish for more material.
Finally she reached the perimeter of the room and found the table number that corresponded to the one on her invitation. There were eight chairs and all of them were empty. She decided to sit down and take the strain off her borrowed shoes, minding her friend's warning not to test the limits of a Super Glue repair on a four-inch heel.
Moments later someone appeared in her peripheral vision and a familiar deep voice said, "Is this seat taken?"
Cindy looked up. The face matched the voice as she'd feared it would. Nathan Steele, MD. Dr. Charming himself, she thought sarcastically. He always made her think of Hugh Jackmantall and broad-shouldered, with hazel eyes and dark brown hair. It pained her to admit, even to herself, that his traditional black tuxedo made him look very handsomefor a bad-tempered, arrogant, egotistical physician.
After a couple seconds of him standing there expectantly, the message translated from her eyes to her brain that he was waiting for an answer. Glancing at the seven empty seats, she briefly thought about saying that her date was sitting there, then abandoned the idea. She might be a pathetic loser who was a really bad judge of men, but she wasn't a liar.
"No," she finally said. "That seat isn't taken."
He smiled, then lowered his excellent butt into the chair beside hers. "Isn't that lucky?"
"You have no idea." She looked at him, waiting for the inevitable moment when he recognized her as the incompetent from Mercy Medical Center's housekeeping department. The same employee he'd chastised earlier that day for something that wasn't her fault. The indignity and unfairness still smarted.
"Would you like a drink?" The tone was pleasant, deep and sexy. Definitely not his icy-cold, all-business hospital voice.
"Yes." It was the least he could do. "A glass of red wine would be lovely."
He stood. "Don't let anyone take this seat."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
Dream being the operative word. Nathan Steele was walking, talking female fantasy. Definite hero material. A handsome doctor whose mission in life was to save babies who came into this world too early. Infants who needed every trick in his medical bag to survive outside a mother's protective womb while their not-ready-to-be born bodies caught up. How could a woman not seriously crush on a man like that?
The answer was simple. Pretty to look at, difficult to get along with. Cindy didn't need the aggravation. She was still paying for the last wrong guy at the wrong time. She was a twenty-seven-year-old college student because she'd lost not only her bank account but money she hadn't even earned yet to a good-looking man masquerading as a hero. She literally couldn't afford another stupid man mistake.
A few minutes later Dr. Charming set a glass of red wine in front of her and a whiskey neat at his own place before settling beside her again.
"I'm Dr. SteeleNathan." He looked at her, obviously waiting for her to respond with an introduction. When she said nothing, he added, "And you are?"
Surprised and annoyed in equal parts, she thought. The fact that he didn't recognize her was a surprise. It also annoyed her.
"Cindy Elliott," she said, waiting for the "aha" light to shine in his eyes.
"Nice to meet you, Cindy." He held his hand out.
She wanted to tell him they'd already met. More than once their paths had crossed in the hospital. But then she put her fingers into his palm and a ripple of awareness danced up her arm. He held babies weighing hardly more than a pound, tiny little things that easily fit into this hand. It was warm and strong and capable.
Hero worship threatened until she remembered that doing battle for babies barely alive didn't give him license to be a bastard to everyone else.
"Dr. Steele," she said with as much cool reserve as she could muster.
"Call me Nathan."
"All right. Nathan."
He studied her intently and finally said, "Where do I know you from?"
It was on the tip of her tongue to say she saw him almost every day. Granted, the disposable, white "bunny suit" she wore for her housekeeping job in the neonatal intensive care unit made her fairly anonymous. But still
She was about to tell him, then something stopped her. The devil made her do it. "I look familiar?"
Maybe she'd finally caught a break. "I guess I just have one of those faces."
"Quite a lovely face."
And now it was red. How did she respond to that? "Thank you."
"I can't shake the feeling that we've met." He sipped his drink. "Did you have a baby in the NICU?"
Heaven forbid. A baby was the last thing she needed. Although that would require sex and she hadn't had any for a very long time. "I've never had a baby."
"So you're here at the fundraiser out of the goodness of your heart?"
"I won a seat at the table with a raffle ticket," she said honestly.
"Right." His mouth curved up at the corners.
"I'm not kidding." The amused expression on his face said he didn't believe her. Honesty was always the best policy. "There's no way I could afford to come to something like this otherwise."
"Of course." His gaze lowered to the spot where the champagne-colored piping on her dress criss-crossed over her breasts. For a moment, intensity flared in his eyes and then amusement returned. "Raffle ticket. If I had a nickel for every time I heard that."
"It's the absolute truth."
"Uh huh. Who's your stylist?"
Stylist? She almost laughed. No way could she afford something like that. "Not a stylist. They're called friends. Fairy godmothers."
"So they pulled off a miracle with a magic wand?" One dark eyebrow rose.
"As a matter of fact
" She took a sip of wine and warmed to the subject. "I wasn't going to come, but my friends talked me into it. I borrowed the dress, shoes and bag from Flora, Fauna and Merryweather."
"They're characters from an animated fairy tale. Surely you saw it when you were a kid."
He shook his head and all hint of laughter disappeared.
"You probably don't remember. It's a classic children's movie."
"That explains it. I was never a child."
The sort of lost expression on his face pulled at her heart and she fought the feeling down, mentally stomped the stuffing out of it. Life was hard and then you met someone who made things harder. Not happening to her again. "I don't know what to say to that."
"It doesn't require a response." He shrugged. "Just a fact."
"Sad fact." Those were two words she wanted back. He didn't need her sympathy and she didn't want to feel sorry for him. But tell that to her bleeding heart, which always got her into trouble. Used to get her in trouble. Past tense. She was a reformed soft touch.
"What was your childhood like?" he asked.
"There wasn't a lot of money, but my brother and I didn't know anything different." She thought back to the time before her mother died. "We hung out with friends. Had sleepovers. Pizza and movies. Carefree."
He nodded. "Sounds nice."
"It was." She was going to be sorry for asking, but she couldn't stop herself. "What was yours like? You might not have thought you were a child but everyone starts out that way."
"I was more what you'd call an unaccompanied minor." He took a sip from his glass and drained the contents. "On my own a lot."
He nodded. "You had a brother?"
"Still do. He's in college. In California." And she was struggling to keep him there because it was her fault the money her father had saved for his education was gone. "I miss him."
"And that detour into childhood was really off the subject." His puzzled expression was back.
"What subject would that be?" The question was just a stall. She should just tell him that he knew her from the hospital. She worked in housekeeping. But some perverse part of her wanted a little payback for his earlier temper tantrum.
"Who are you?"
"Cindy Elliott," she answered.
"So you said." He studied her face until shivers of awareness made her want to squirm. Finally he shook his head. "But I still can't figure out why I know you. Where do you work?"
"Mercy Medical Center." That would jog his memory. Again she waited for the "aha" moment.
"Really?" Instead of recognition, his puzzled frown deepened. "What department?"
"Guess." She took a large swallow of wine.
She shook her head.
"No." She twirled the long stem of the glass on the table in front of her. "Dietary?"
"You mean Nutritional Services?" she asked.
"That was politically incorrect of me. Yes, that's what I meant."
She shook her head. "Nope, don't work there either."
"Okay. I give up."
"All evidence to the contrary." If he gave up that easily, there were a lot of babies who wouldn't be alive today. Welcome to a classic conundrum. She was invisible to him. In all fairness, at the hospital he was totally focused on his tiny patients and got points for that. But he'd actually talked to her, chastised her really, for something she hadn't done. How could she admire him so much at the same time she found him to be a pain in the neck?
"What does that mean?" he asked.
That she was an idiot. "I've seen you in action in the NICU."
"But you're not a nurse."
"I'm an administrative intern at Mercy Medical Center. In addition toother things," she said vaguely.
Before he could answer, an announcement was made for everyone to find their tables and the program would begin. Cindy was grateful for the distraction as the seats around them were filled and introductions made. She talked to the people on her right and tried to ignore the man on her left. Not so easy when their shoulders brushed and thighs bumped. Every stroke sent a surge of heat through her.
She smiled politely, laughed when appropriate and planned to slip out at the first opportunity.
Nathan had expected this dinner to be acutely boring speeches and barely edible rubber chicken. A yawn. He'd been wrong. Not about the speeches and chicken. But he'd never felt less like yawning.
That was because of the mysterious Cindy Elliott.
The words from a song came to mind, about seeing a stranger across a crowded room. The shimmer of her blond hair had first caught his attention. Her slender curves in the strapless, shiny beige dress were sexy and so damn hot he needed about an hour in a subzero shower.
He'd have followed her anywhere, but when she sat at his table, he wondered if somehow the god of luck had finally come down on his side. The certainty that he'd seen her somewhere now seemed less important than getting her attention away from the woman she'd been talking to on her right side. All through the endless meal she'd industriously ignored him and that was about to end. A quartet had set up to play music and people were moving to the wooden dance floor in the center of the room.
Finally there was a break in the gabfest. He leaned close and said near her ear, "Would you like to dance?"
She met his gaze for several moments and finally said, "I don't think so."
It wasn't ego that caused his surprise at the smackdown. It was that women simply didn't do that. He was forever being introduced by matchmaking mothers who were trying to hook up the successful doctor with their daughter or niece. Or a friend's daughter or niece. Or second cousin once removed. Women liked him. And he liked women.
There was never a challenge involved. He rubbed his neck as that sank in. Maybe there was a little ego mixed in with the surprise.
"Why?" he finally asked.
"Don't you want to dance?"
Her eyes narrowed. They were the color of cinnamon and snapping with intelligence. He found himself eagerly anticipating her response.
"I need a reason?"
"It would be polite."
"Not if I had to explain about a prosthetic leg. Or a pronounced limp from a serious childhood soccer injury."
Like almost every other man in the room, he'd watched the sexy sway of her hips as she'd glided gracefully to the table. The only imminent injury was the rising level of testosterone threatening to blow the top of his head off.
"Do you have any physical limitations?" he asked.
"Okay." Before she made him navigate more speed bumps, he said, "And you know how to dance?"
"See, that's the thing. Mumsy and Daddy begged me to go to cotillion to smooth out my rough edges"
She smiled. "Yes. My uber-wealthy parents desperately wanted to be here tonight but they simply couldn't tear themselves away from the south of France."
"Uber-wealthy?" That's not what she'd told him before. "Just exactly how much did you pay for that lucky raffle ticket?"
Amusement curved the corners of her full, tempting lips. "So you actually were paying attention."
"It's part of my charm."
"Oh, please. Do women really fall for that line?"
"Yes. Although usually a line isn't involved."
"It's a darn shame." She eased away, a pitying expression on her face. "What?"
"You should really do something about your self-confidence. Surgery. Rehab. There must be some treatment. The miracles of modern medicine"
"Aren't miracles," he finished.
"Really?" There was a spark of interest now.