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Only two things served to relax Kieran O'Briengreat sex and pumping iron. Since he still had several hours before he could leave work, and no special woman in his life right now, he'd have to settle for a weight session in his own private gym adjacent to his office. A sanctuary far away from the distractions and demands that came from owning two premier Houston health clubs, with a third location in the construction stage.
He strode through the club to the familiar sounds of expensive exercise equipment being put to good use, as well as a chorus of greetings from the regulars, several of whom were women he'd personally trained at one time. Some were women who'd wanted more than the standard workout. On the advice of those who'd groomed him to be a preeminent personal trainer, he'd vowed from the beginning not to mix business with pleasure. Not once had he crossed that line.
He'd kept his dating life separate from his professional life, in spite of the occasional temptation. The constant propositions had been one factor in his choice to halt private sessions; the other involved a lack of time. Not to mention a guy could only be so strong.
Kieran had almost reached his refuge across the room when a tug on the back of his T-shirt halted his progress and his plan. He expected a staff member announcing some minor crisis that needed his attention, or a patron inquiring about one of the latest innovations he'd purchased during a recent expansion. Instead, he turned to find a little girl with wide blue eyes and strawberry-blond hair, dressed in a pink jacket, white T-shirt and faded jeans, a denim backpack draped over her thin shoulder. She looked so sweet and innocent, all his irritation over the interruption melted away. Most likely she'd probably wandered from the play area and couldn't find her way back. A displaced kid he could handle.
"Are you lost, sweetheart?" he asked.
She shook her head and studied the floor. "I'm looking for Mr. O'Brien. Lisa told me he has kind of long dark hair and a lot of muscles and you look like that."
He quickly ran through a mental list of his employees but couldn't remember any Lisa. "I'm Mr. O'Brien. What's your name?"
When she nailed him with a determined look, Kieran's gut told him she probably came by that name honestly. "Is your mom or dad a member?"
"I'm with Lisa and her mom."
Not a whole lot for Kieran to go on to locate a missing adult. "Who's Lisa's mom?"
Now that was a name he wouldn't soon forget. A typical well-heeled, good-looking woman who had too much time on her hands and a disinterested husband, something he'd discovered when she'd hired him two years agoand the reason he'd resigned from the position less than six months later. Not that his resignation had discouraged her from periodically asking if he'd consider taking her back on. "Do you need help finding Mrs. Conrad, kiddo?" A task he would assign to one of his staff members in order to avoid the overly enthusiastic Candice.
Stormy looked highly insulted. "I know where she is. I want to talk to you about buying training lessons."
He had to hand it to the kidshe knew what she wanted. And what she wanted was something he couldn't give her, even if she happened to be old enough to hire a trainer, which she wasn't.
Determined to let her down easy, Kieran guided her to a round table at the juice bar in the corner, away from the hum of treadmills and the whir of recumbent bikes. After he retrieved a cup of fruit juice and set it before her, he took the seat opposite hers. "How old are you, Stormy?"
She shrugged off her denim backpack and laid it on the table. "I'll be eleven two weeks before Christmas." She sent him a toothy grin. "My mom says I was her best present ever."
Considering her small stature, he would've guessed her to be at least two years younger. "You have to be eighteen to have personal-training sessions, but you could join our after-school youth exercise program."
She took a quick drink then wrinkled her freckle-spattered nose. "I don't want you to train me. I want you to train my mom."
A request he couldn't honor, but he could still be of some help. "Just have her call the club and ask for me. I'll make sure she gets a good trainer."
She looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "That won't work. I want it to be a surprise for her birthday. And I want you to do it because Lisa's mom says you're the best trainer around."
Funny, Lisa's mom hadn't seemed all that interested in his fitness skills. "Look, Stormy, personal training is expensive and"
"I know that." She unzipped her backpack, pulled out a fistful of crumpled bills and held them out to him. "I saved up all my allowance. It's almost eighty dollars. That should pay for a month, right?"
That would seem like a lot of money to a ten-year-old kid, but that amount didn't even cover an hour of Kieran's standard fee. "Tell you what. I'll give your mom a three-month membership for free. How's that?"
Now she looked completely dejected. "After school I go to the spa where she works, and I heard her tell the ladies that someday she wanted to hire a personal trainer, when she had some extra money. That's why I have to do this for her."
Kieran wasn't sure how he was going to handle the situation without totally crushing her. But before he could come up with a strategy, she added, "I just want her be happy again, like before."
The abject sadness in her voice had the impact of a punch in the chest, right around the area of Kieran's heart. "Before what?"
He saw the first hint of tears in Stormy's eyes. "Before my dad died six years ago. She still misses him. I miss him, too."
Her tears didn't fall, but something deep inside Kieran did. If he had even a scrap of common sense left after her heartfelt pleas, he'd turn her down gently and turn her away. But despite the shrewdness he'd developed over ten years as a business owner, regardless that he'd grown cynical when it came to people's intentions, along came a child to remind him that not everyone had questionable motives. Not everyone had been blessed with an easy life, either.
She sent him another pleading look. "If you need more money, I can give you what my grandparents send me for my birthday and Christmas. I can save more lunch money, too. I could sell my bike if I have to."
Even though he might regret it later, Kieran couldn't refuse her now. He also couldn't have her giving up everything, either. Not when it seemed she'd already given up too much.
After he took the bills she still clutched in her handmoney he planned to return to her laterhe said, "This should be enough for a month."
Finally, she smiled. A smile that was bound to break more than a few teenage boys' hearts in a few years. "Since I can't get her to come to the gym, you can come by our house tonight and surprise her."
Apparently she was intent on running the show, and his schedule. He still couldn't help admiring her resolve. "What about tomorrow night?"
She took another drink of the juice. "She works late on Friday, but she comes home early on Thursdays because it's pizza night."
Unfortunately he'd already agreed to have dinner with his family at his sister's place this evening. But so what if he was a little late. His mother, a living monument of compassion, wouldn't only understand; she'd congratulate him. He'd just stop by Stormy's house first, which led to another question: "Where exactly do you live?"
She pulled out a piece of folded paper and handed it to him. "This is my address and my phone number, but don't call first. I want it to be"
"A surprise." One he hoped didn't earn him a boot on his butt delivered by a mom who might not take too kindly to her kid "buying" her a fitness programunless Candice had cooked up some scheme with one of her wealthy friends, using a child as a pawn in an effort to bring him back into her life again. He wouldn't put it past her to stoop that low. Only one way to find out.
Kieran studied the address and found that the neighborhood wasn't far from his parents'an area that included strictly middle-class housing, not manicured mansions. Apparently his suspicions about Candice's manipulation were unwarranted for a change.
After he tucked the paper away in his pocket, Kieran considered how he would react if his nieces approached someone they didn't know, and opted to issue a mild caution. "I'll be there, as long as you promise not to give out your personal information to strangers from now on."
She grinned again. "I promise, but you're not a stranger anymore."
He came to his feet and pushed the chair beneath the table. "You probably should find Lisa's mom now, in case she's looking for you." Before she came looking for Stormy and found him.
Stormy stood, rounded the table and gave him a quick hug. "Thank you, Mr. O'Brien."
When he noted the gratitude in her expression, he recognized he was doing a good thing. "You're welcome, and you can call me Kieran."
"My mom's name is Erica." Her smile faded into a frown. "You are going to come, aren't you?"
No way would he let her down now. If he could give this little girl and her mother some peace of mind, he saw no real reason not to make an attempt. "I'll be there around six, if that's okay."
"That works great." She turned and began to walk backward, another bright smile plastered on her face. "This is going to be the best pizza night ever!"
Erica Stevens had never seen such a pretty pizza delivery boy. Pizza deliveryman, she corrected. A buff, patently gorgeous man with longish wavy dark hair and near-black eyes. Over six feet of pleasantly disreputable-looking, prime male flesh standing on her doorstep, wearing a pair of jeans and a black polo covered by a beige jacketand not a pizza box in sight.
Of course not. The pizza never arrived in less than an hour, let alone five minutes after she placed the order. And generally speaking, pizza delivery guys were lanky high school students, not action heroes come to life.
For the sake of caution, she kept the screen door latched securely, at least until she knew exactly who he was and why he was there. "May I help you?"
"Are you Erica?"
Okay, maybe he was a new hire at the restaurant, they had prepared her order in advance and the box was still in his car because he wasn't sure he had the right address. "Yes, I'm Erica. Are you the pizza deliveryman?"
He leaned a shoulder against the white column supporting the porch and slid his hands into his jeans' pockets. "No. I'm your birthday present."
Erica's gaze immediately drifted to his jacket's pocket etched with the words Bodies By O'Brien. Surely not. Then again, she wouldn't put anything past her coworkers down at the day spa. "Please tell me you're not a stripper."
He cracked a dazzling grin, his teeth flashing white against the shadow of stubble surrounding his mouth. "I'm a personal trainer. My name's Kieran O'Brien, owner of Bodies By O'Brien, which is a health club, not a strip club. Or a pizza joint."
None of this made any sense to Erica. Not the circumstance or her slightly warm reaction to his smile. She had the strongest urge to step onto the porch, strip off his jacket and see if his physique lived up to her expectations. Instead, she tugged her oversize sweatshirt down to conceal her obvious physical flaws. "First of all, my birthday is a couple of weeks away." Her thirty-first birthday, which she'd just as soon forget. "Secondly, I don't want a personal trainer."
He shifted his weight slightly, showing the first signs of discomfort. "Not according to the party who hired me. In fact, she said you've mentioned you'd like to have a trainer. That's why she's giving my services to you as a birthday gift."
Erica should've known she would rue the day she'd admitted that to Bette, the self-appointed salon matriarch. "I truly appreciate the gesture, but honestly, I'm a massage therapist at a busy day spa and I work crazy hours. I don't have a lot of extra time on my hands."
"You don't have any breaks?" he asked, his voice laced with suspicion.
"I usually don't get home until after 6:00 p.m., and I work Saturdays. The rest of the time I spend with my daughter."
He scrubbed a palm over his chin. "What time do you go into the spa in the morning?"
She could predict where he might be trying to lead her, and that was a road she didn't care to take. "I arrive around 9:00 a.m., but I don't do mornings well, Mr. O'Brien."
"It's Kieran, and a good workout gets the adrenaline going to carry you through the rest of the day."
"That's why they invented coffee."
"I never touch the stuff. I prefer a natural endorphin high."
She preferred a double espresso mocha cappuccino with whipped cream. But she did remember those endorphin days fondly, during a long-ago time when she'd been an avid gymnast. Back when she hadn't been toting thirty extra pounds and the weight of serious responsibilities on her shoulders. "Again, I'm not a morning person."
Kieran inclined his head slightly and leveled his gaze on her. "If you try it, you might like it. But if mornings won't work, we could come up with another plan that suits your schedule. No sweat."
And if she agreed, Erica assumed sweating would be a major part of the deal. She was already beginning to perspire despite the forty-degree November weather, and he hadn't even put her through a workoutat least not beyond the dubious one playing out in her imagination. "As tempting as that sounds, I'm afraid I'll have to decline. But I'll be sure to let Bette know that I appreciate the thought."
Now he looked confused. "Sorry, but I don't know anyone named Bette."