As a top insurance agent in Chicago, Katia Stanislaus isn't just used to pressure; she thrives on it. When she finds out her firm's future is at stake, she's the first to dream up a solution: relocate to Indian Lake and land the town's reclusive millionaire as a client. Austin McCreary might be the sweetheart she left brokenhearted when they were teens, but she can't let her feelingsor hisget in the way of her career. If she can just convince him to listen to her explanation, and her pitch, he'll see this is the deal of a lifetime. But that would involve talking, and he won't even take her calls! How ridiculous. Because this is strictly business isn't it?
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Golden and bronze autumn sunset beams shot through the wooden slats on Katia's high-rise apartment windows. She padded across the beige carpet in bare feet, rushing from the bathroom to the bedroom. She was late for her own party.
She'd spiraled a navy towel around her hair, then spritzed herself with jasmine-andalmond-scented body spray. Now, standing in front of her closet, she pulled out the black silk and lace sheath dress she'd recently bought at her favorite resale shop on the far North Side. The dress had obviously never been worn. Like most of the dresses at Sonja's Secrets, this one had probably belonged to an affluent woman from Wilmette or Kenilworth who shopped out of boredom and not need. Katia hadn't had time to be bored since she was very young. Ten years ago, she was too busy building her résumé and her reputation in the insurance business to shop, go to the movies or do anything other than work. Then she'd turned thirty, landed a job at Carter and Associates with Jack Carter, and in her four years there, she'd become a manager. She'd won confidence and approval.
She was on top of the world.
Katia zipped up the dress and turned to check herself in the full-length mirror on the back of the bedroom door. She smiled. The dress fit like a dream and showed off her slender figure, and the well-placed darts accentuated her waist. Katia only had two rules when it came to diet and exercise: no French fries, and she walked the twenty-one blocks to and from work every day. Life already had enough rules to follow, she thought.
Katia unfurled the towel and shook out her messy mane of coppery hair. She quickly applied black eyeliner to make the dark green of her eyes pop. She swooped on blusher and then uncapped a brand-new flame-red lipstick. The salesgirl at Macy's had claimed it was such a powerful red, it would change her life.
Just then, Katia smelled something burning in the kitchen. The turnovers!
Tossing the lipstick onto her dresser, Katia raced, still barefoot, into the kitchen. The timer was chirping, and there was a thin stream of brown smoke coming from the oven. Using an orange pumpkin-shaped pot holder, she opened the oven and pulled out the cookie sheet of feta cheese, spinach and bacon phyllo dough appetizers.
Katia looked over the tray of golden crisp finger foods. Only one victim. I'm saved, she thought.
As she turned off the oven, the intercom rang. It was Joey, the doorman. "Miss Stanislaus. Your guests are arriving. In droves, I might add. Should I send them up?"
"Yes, Joey. Thanks."
Katia hung up and quickly moved the hot appetizers onto a tiered serving stand. She took the stand into the dining nook, placed it strategically on the table and surveyed her work.
Katia's apartment was small, but it had a large enough dining and living area that she could comfortably host small parties, like the engagement party she was throwing tonight for her coworker Tina and her fiancé, Allen. The kitchen was minuscule, but since Katia didn't cookexcept for when she had companyshe didn't mind. The bathroom was more of an alcove than a room, and the only saving grace in her bedroom was the walk-in closet, which housed the bounty of her bargain-hunting addiction.
The building had been constructed in the late 1950s and wasn't very aesthetically pleasing. What it had going for it was great access to her work, security and a massive window that looked out over Chicago. Many was the night that Katia lived to see the lights glittering beneath her, as if she was walking on stars.
Katia smoothed the white cotton tablecloth she'd bought at an outlet storeyet another great bargainand straightened the fruit platter of grapes, pears, melon wrapped in prosciutto, pineapple chunks speared with maraschino cherries, apples for dipping in caramel sauce and twin mounds of strawberries with chocolate fudge. She'd displayed an array of specialty cheeses on a slab of rough-edged marble she'd found at a granite and marble boneyard. She had four kinds of crackers and three bread selections.
She crossed to the antique marble-topped buffet on the wall next to the boring, mantelless fireplace. This was the most important element of allthe bar.
Recently, Katia had discovered Crenshaw Vineyards while passing through her hometown, Indian Lake, on a business trip. She'd gone back four times, and now her wine rack and portable wine cooler were stocked with some of the best wines Katia had ever tasted. Katia had bought discount wineglasses and garage sale decanters, and she'd trawled eBay for the best deals on bar paraphernalia. But she never scrimped on the food and wine that she served to her guests.
Katia loved giving parties, and though she couldn't afford florists, live music, caterers or even a bartender, she enjoyed making holidays and special events even more exceptional for her friends and coworkers. She wanted them to have happy memories.
"I want them to remember me," Katia murmured as the doorbell rang.
Putting her hand on the doorknob, Katia scanned the room one more time. She couldn't remember if she'd dusted the glass shelf in the bathroom or if she'd lit the scented candle in the kitchen.
There was a knock.
It was too late now for a last-minute check. Katia felt her heart pound ever so slightly, as it always did before an important meeting or a special event, then she whisked open the door.
"Hi, guys!" She beamed at Tina Goodman, her assistant at Carter and Associates, and Allen Hampton, the football coach for St. Michael's High School. "If it isn't the bride and groom!" The second the words were out of her mouth, Katia realized she still wasn't wearing any shoes. She'd been so immersed in the food and decor, she'd forgotten to finish dressing. It wasn't like her to be so scatterbrained, but she'd been noticing herself slipping up more often lately.
Allenlean, blond and California handsomekissed Katia's cheek. "You look gorgeous, as always," he said, winking at Tina and pulling her close with a possessive arm.
Katia smiled demurely. "But not as beautiful as the bride." She squeezed Tina's hand.
"Very diplomatic, both of you," Tina teased. She gave Katia a quizzical look. "You're shorter."
"Uh! Didn't have a chance to grab my shoes. Come in before the others get up here. I have to finish dressing."
"We're not early, are we?" Allen asked as Katia ushered them inside.
"No, no. It's just me. I got behind somehow."
Tina shook her head. "That's hard for me to imagine." She turned to Allen. "We call her Miss Excel at work. Because she's so organized, we figure even her leg waxings are plugged into a spreadsheet."
"I'm not that bad," Katia replied defensively, showing them into the living room. "Now, if you'll excuse me for a minute, I have to get my shoes."
Allen grinned playfully and winked again at Tina. "Maybe some earrings, too, while you're in there?" Tina elbowed him and giggled.
Katia rushed to the bedroom, stuck her feet into a new pair of black Stuart Weitzman pumps and put on a pair of dangling emerald earrings and a bracelet to match. The ringing doorbell kept her from double-checking her reflection in the mirror.
On her way through the living room, she saw that Tina and Allen had found the wine bar and Allen was opening a bottle of Crenshaw Cabernet. "Thanks, guys. Oh, and open some pinot grigio while you're at it, please?"
Katia answered the door. Filling the entrance were four couples and a single man, who stood inches taller than everyone else. His charisma dwarfed the group even more. Jack Carter.
"Welcome!" Katia beamed amid hugs and well wishes as her friends moved into the apartment. Jack was last. He bent and placed his hand on her shoulder and started to kiss her cheek, then abruptly pulled back. He smiled awkwardly, as if suddenly remembering she was his employee. He was the boss. "Thanks for inviting me, Katia."
Jack had ironclad rules when it came to office romances. He forbade his employees from dating each other, and under no circumstances could anyone at Carter and Associates date a current or prospective client. Katia thought the rule was wise and necessary, considering the nature of their business. After all these years, however, Katia realized that the long hours and weekends she put in kept her single with a capital S.
Katia had very little time for dating, and even when she was at parties or functions, she was always scanning the crowds for new clients.
Katia was perpetually working the room. The company benefited from her dedication, but as she watched her friends gather in her living room, it struck her that all of her friends had paired up in the past few years. Tina was the only one who hadn't gotten married yet, and this was her engagement party.
Only Katia and Jack were left.
She smiled at Jack and lifted her arm to usher him inside. "It wouldn't be an office party without you," she told him.
She glanced down the hall and looked back at Jack curiously. "Barry and Ava aren't with you?"
Barry was Jack's partner and brother-in-law. Jack's sister, Ava, loved parties and never missed one of Katia's gatherings. Ava had once told Katia that she secretly hoped Jack and Katia would pair up someday. As if that would ever happen.
Jack slapped his forehead. "Sorry, I forgot to tell you. The baby got sick at the last minute. Fever, and Ava didn't dare ask our mother to babysit." He rolled his eyes. "She has tickets to the ballet tonight." He wagged his finger. "Never mess with my mother's ballet plans. Anyway, Barry didn't feel quite right coming without Ava. He said he'd see you at the office on Monday."
"Sure," Katia replied dully, truly disappointed that she would miss seeing Ava. Ava was always so much fun, and before the baby had arrived six months ago, she was always up for resale shopping with Katia. Since little Kaylee had arrived, Ava had nearly dropped out of Katia's life. She still called and texted, but it just wasn't the same.
It wasn't only Ava's baby that had shaken up Katia's life. Katia had felt subtle changes at work, too: a lost client she'd believed was a slam dunk, a corporate takeover that had caused them to lose a large account, Barry spending countless hours building a new website, new furrows across Jack's brow.
"Katia!" Allen shouted. "Did you make these?"
He held up one of her little turnovers. "With the winesuperb!"
"Thanks," she replied, feeling uplifted by the compliment. She crossed to the bar and stood next to Jack, who had just poured a glass of red wine.
Katia took a glass for herself, a burgundy balloon she'd found at a closeout at Macy's, and filled it slowly.
Jack took a sip and his eyes grew wide. "This is incredible. What is it?" He read the label on the bottle. "Crenshaw. Never heard of it."
"You wouldn't have. It's a secret discovery of mine."
"I want some," he said in that firm, authoritative voice he used when issuing commands at work. "Can you get me a case?"
"Sure. I've made friends with the owner. Actually, Liz and I have started emailing back and forth. I'll get on it right away."
Jack flashed his mind-blowing, bone-melting smile at Katia, and she wondered if she'd ever learn how not to respond to it.
"Katia, you're the best."
"Thanks," she replied feeling just the teensi-est bit light-headed. She put down her glass. "I should see to dinner. Would you excuse me?"
"Can I help?" he offered with yet another earth-shattering smile. "I admit I'm not much good around food, other than the consumption of it, but I can lift heavy objects. Turkeys. Prime-rib roast." He chuckled easily.
God, it would be so easy to fall for Jack.
"Thanks, but we're having shrimp creole. I think I can manage." Teetering in her high heels, Katia made it to the kitchen, where she grabbed onto the edge of the sink for stability.
Her heart was hammering, and she'd broken out in a cold sweat.
What was the matter with her? She'd worked with handsome Jack Carter for years. Day in, day out. Evenings. Weekends. She'd never reacted like this before.
Katia looked down at her hands as she let go of the sink. Shaking? I'm shaking?
Suddenly, she couldn't catch her breath. She felt clammy and nauseous.
Tina walked into the kitchen, took one look at Katia and said, "Do you have any paper bags?"
Katia shook her head. "No, why?"
"How do you know?"
"I've been there. You have to breathe your own air. I need a little brown bag."
"Bloomingdales?" Katia forced a smile. "Corner cabinet. Next to the cookie sheets."
Tina shot to the cabinet, withdrew a small paper shopping bag and then clamped it over Katia's mouth. "Now breathe. Slowly. In and out. That's a girl."
Katia didn't know what was happening, but the bilious taste in her throat had subsided, her stomach no longer rumbled and her head cleared. The ground under her feet was solid again. Tina had miraculously infused marrow back into her bones.
Katia took the bag away from her face. "Thank you, Tina. I don't know what that was. I thought I was going to die. Or at least pass out. That's never happened to me before."
Tina pursed her lips. "You had a panic attack. I get them sometimes."
Katia inhaled deeply and smoothed her hair. "Humph." She pretended confidence she didn't feel. "It's never happened to me."
Tina smirked as she glanced back into the living room and spied Jack talking to Allen. Her eyes tracked back to Katia. "Well, it has now."
Despite her inexplicable anxiety attack, Katia's party was a rousing success. The rice was fluffy, the shrimp tender and not overcooked and her homemade French bread and herb butter was gone before she could dish up seconds for Jack and Allen. While the candles flickered merrily and she served dessert with Tina's help, everyone engaged in lively and thought-provoking conversations about the new play at the Oriental as well as city politics.
All in all, it was the kind of evening Katia had hoped it would be. It reminded her of a time, long ago, when she'd watched intelligent and interesting people gather around a glittering dinner table at Hanna McCreary's mansion.
Katia never forgot those conversations, nor the fact that the guests had never wanted to leave Hanna's house before midnight. Even as a little girl, Katia had absorbed every nuance of Hanna's talent for party giving. Tonight, her studies had paid off.
It was odd, Katia mused, as she dipped her spoon into the chocolate mousse, that Hanna should pop into her mind like that. She hadn't thought of Hanna in a long time, though she had been Katia's mentor in many ways.
Was it possible that these old memories had something to do with her earlier panic attack?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This review first appeared on my blog Christy's Cozy Corners. I adored this book! It is just so cute and so sweet! I love love love the Harlequin Heartwarming books! You can pick one up and know that you aren’t going to find any bad language or sex in them. They are just “heartwarming.” Katia’s Promise certainly did not disappoint in the “heartwarming” category. I read this book very quickly. It is one that you’ll not want to put down, so be sure you’ve got time to read when you start! I absolutely love the town in which this book is set. I want to live there! The characters in the story are perfect. I love that they are flawed because it makes them so real. Katia is so super organized…I totally cannot relate lol. But I love her willingness to fight for what she wants. I could relate more to Austin because I can be somewhat of an “avoid the people” type of person at times. I love the romance and how it is rekindled after many years. This book is definitely one for you clean, sweet romance readers to add to your TBR piles! I know I’ll be adding the others in the series to mine! 5 Stars!