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Marissa Collins was in the market for a man. A tall, dark and gorgeous man. In fact, she'd set her sights on Philadelphia's most wanted eligible bachelor.
Snagging that kind of prize target might intimidate most women. But since her work as a personal matchmaker had Marissa chasing single guys on a daily basis, tonight's manhunt was all in a day's work.
Handing her keys to the valet in front of the Normandy Farm Hotel in the Philadelphia suburbs, Marissa stepped out of the cramped hybrid car and stretched her legs at the scene of her evening's mission. A tension headache that had started this morning after another call from a high-priority client twisted into a throbbing knot behind her eye. Hockey superstar Kyle Murphy was on her top client's personal Most Wanted list, and Marissa had no choice but to deliver if she was going to keep her customer happy. Ever since her mother had been injured, Marissa no longer worked as a matchmaker just for the love of it. Being her mom's primary caretaker necessitated an income.
"Enjoy your evening, ma'am." The college kid in a bow tie and windbreaker grinned at her as she gathered her purse and an evening wrap to ward off the chill of a March evening.
She handled the silk chiffon carefully, the white showstopper a long-ago gift from her mother. Brandy Collins, her pop singer mom, had bought it while on tour in Italy back when she commanded standing-room-only audiencesbefore the traumatic brain injury that left her frequently confused and fighting to retain basic motor skills. There were experimental medicines available, but without FDA approval, Marissa needed funds to afford the care. She'd give anything to see the light of real recognition in her mom's eyes again.
"Can you tell me which way to the Philadelphia Phantoms event?" she asked the valet as he slid behind the wheel of her vehicle.
She dug into her purse for a pair of rhinestone earrings and clipped them into place.
"The hockey team is in the main conference atrium." The valet pointed as he checked for traffic near the unloading area. "There are signs when you walk in."
"Thanks." She hurried toward the main entrance between pillars wrapped in white lights, then took one last peek at the newspaper article in her evening bag.
Phantoms' Playmaker Wins Shootout, the headline announced in a piece that ran in the sports section yesterday. But the text wasn't as important as the photo of the team's playmaker himselfpower forward Kyle Murphy.
"You look like trouble to me," she muttered, taking note of the hockey star's square jaw and high cheekbones. Forest-green eyes glimmered with good humor while a slightly crooked nose prevented him from being Bachelor of the Month gorgeous. Every other trait belonging to Kyle Murphy was handsome as sin and surely as much trouble.
An opinion Marissa had no problem sharing with her client, local celebutante Stacy Goodwell. But Stacy, the daughter of the obscenely wealthy owner of the Phantoms' arena, hadn't cared the athlete had a reputation for arrogance. According to Stacy, the player's hotness factor was off the charts. Her father had been willing to pay well above Marissa's usual commission to arrange this particular date.
Folding the article back down into the bottom of her bag, Marissa took out one last accessory before she went to work. She slid a plain gold band on her left hand and snapped the purse shut. Some women took off real wedding rings before a night on the town. Marissa suspected she was one of the few who slipped on a fake one. But it helped speed along conversations with single, eligible men when they knew she wasn't in the market for a date. Besides, any guy who didn't respect a wedding ring wasn't the kind of man she'd want for her clients.
"Welcome, miss." A gray-haired hotel employee in a dark suit opened the door for her.
She gave him a nod as she stepped into the facility and strode toward the conference center, determined to sign on Kyle and hoping that he and Stacy were truly a good match. She'd gotten into this job because she worked well behind the scenes, orchestrating other people's lives far more effectively than her own. She didn't want to lose that personal touch now just because financial need had entered the picture. But her mother needed those meds. She deserved a chance to recover her past and her memories. Surely the hockey player could agree to just one date with Stacy. It wasn't as though she was peddling her services to him for a fee since she already had a paying client in hand. She just needed Kyle to agree to a date.
Eighties rock music played by a DJ filtered through open double doors as she reached the atrium where the event was being held, the insistent guitar distinguishable even though the crowd noise swelled.
Rich red walls warmed the long corridor filled with people taking a break from the dance floor or escaping the music to talk. The party was in full swing, a fundraiser for a local children's hospital, with the main attraction being the opportunity to meet Phantoms players.
"Excuse me," Marissa all but shouted as the throng around the doors seemed oblivious.
The sea of bodies moved slightly, giving her room to bypass the social yakkers. A huge chandelier hung over the dance floor in a large hall designed to look more like a barn than a run-of-the-mill meeting space. For that matter, it had been a barn at one time. The high ceiling and rough wood beams of the original space remained.
But where was Kyle Murphy? Scanning the scene, she plotted how to approach a sought-after athlete. To be wealthy, powerful, talented and gorgeous had to be too many blessings for any one person to handle, a condition she'd witnessed in her time navigating her mother's former worldthe insane culture of pop music. While Marissa had never fit into the craziness and excess, she'd cobbled together a network of friends in her travels. Those same friends were her clients today thanks to a couple of great matches she'd made among her nearest and dearest back in the days before she charged for her skills.
"May I get you anything, hon?" a frizzy-haired blonde waitress asked as she tucked an empty serving tray under one arm.
"No, thank you." Waiting for a drink at the bar would be a better way to scope out the bash.
Marissa headed toward the line at a freestanding bar in the corner of the room. With some more perspective on the party, she could see a few Phantoms players seated at signing tables against a back wall. No doubt that's where they'd stationed Kyle Murphy.
Could she outlast the line and corner him after he'd dispensed with the fan meet-and-greet? When he didn't have twenty people around?
Racking her brain for a plan to get him alone without crossing into stalker territory, Marissa was suddenly next up at the bar.
Still with no strategy in sight.
"Can I have a Diet Coke?" she asked the bartender as the women who'd been in front of her finally giggled their way back to the dance floor. The high-octave girly laughter raked along Marissa's already tense nerves, cranking up the ache behind her left eyeball. "Actually, could you add a Macallan over ice to that order?"
She'd be stuck here for a couple of hours if she wanted to wait out the crowds. A little whiskey might take some of the meanness out of the headache, at least.
"I don't know," the bartender shot back with a deep bass, drawing her attention from the mob around the hockey players. "Can I see some ID?"
Frowning, Marissa knew she didn't look remotely close to the minimum drinking age. If anything, she dressed like someone a couple of decades older than her twenty-seven years in an effort to keep herself out of the fray when it came to discussing dates. Still, she reached for her purse to retrieve her license, her gaze moving toward the guy behind the bar who was dressed incongruously in a crisp white tuxedo shirt and a baseball cap.
Forest-green eyes glittered back at her in the icy fluorescent glow from a lamp on the bar. A crooked nose hovered above full, sculpted lips. Even with a Phantoms cap pulled low over his forehead, the shape of the bartender's face remained familiar, perhaps because she'd studied it in a newspaper clipping so recently.
The Phantoms' playmaker stood right in front of her.
She'd wanted a one-on-one with power forward Kyle Murphy. Unfortunately, the sudden appearance of so much potent sex appeal robbed her of speech, thought and good sense.
Silence stretched while her heartbeat thundered.
As professional first impressions went, she couldn't imagine making a worse one.
No words were necessary when sexual attraction spoke a language all its own.
Kyle Murphy enjoyed the moment as he assessed the reed-thin female on the other side of the bar who'd been struck speechless ever since he'd asked for her ID.
The old-fashioned tortoiseshell cat's-eye frames that perched on her nose were vintage 1960s. In fact, she looked as though she could have stepped off the set of Mad Men with her vintage dress and perfectly applied lipstick. Her dark hair was yanked back in an unforgiving twist rarely worn by young women.
Her style seemed purposely quirky. But if she intended to hide behind the glasses and the severe hairstyle, she'd failed miserably. Dressing twenty years older than she was didn't disguise her subtle curves. If anything, the clothes accentuated her hips and her narrow waist. Sometimes the more a woman covered up, the more a guy noticed. Especially when the rest of the women in the room were dressed in spaghetti straps and short skirts. Besides, this female had pretty features. High, arched brows topped off eyes so blue they were practically violet. A slightly upturned nose gave her a patrician look. Creamy, pale skin contrasted sharply with inky dark hair.
Sexy. Unusual. And the first woman who hadn't ordered an appletini or a cosmo in the half hour he'd manned the bar.
She was the kind of woman that appealed to himthe kind who didn't look as if she was trying too hard. But he reminded himself that he was done with casual hookups. First of all because it was deep into the hockey season and he needed to be focused on his game. He hadn't been with anyone since last autumn, when he'd convinced one of the nurses on an opponent's medical staff to come home with him. Turned out she'd only been in the market to see how many pro athlete conquests she could make and she was gone before dawn. So he planned to be more careful with dating when he got back around to itafter he took home the Stanley Cup this spring.
After a long deer-in-the-headlights look, the woman at the bar finally spoke.
"I'm sorry." She shook her head as if to clear it. "On second thought, I definitely don't need the alcohol. Diet Coke will be fine."
"I was only messing with you about the ID," he confided, taking his time with the ice cubes so he could keep her there longer. Figure out what it was that drew his attention like a magnet. "Anyone who rakes in enough dough to warrant a plate at this party deserves a drink."
He wasn't the kind to flirt, so he didn't understand why he found himself sliding closer than necessary to speak to her. Her whole bookworm vibe was an intriguing change from the women who threw themselves at him because of his job. But he had no business getting attached to anyone when he was on the road for most of the year and could be traded at any time. He'd been in Philly for less than a month after playing in Boston for most of the season. For all he knew, he could be on the roster in Edmonton this time next year. The Phantoms had wanted the scoring magic he offered in tandem with his foster brother, Axel Rankin. The two of them had been reunited on the ice at the start of the season when Kyle had started the year with Axel's former team, the Boston Bears. They'd each posted record-breaking stats with the club, but had been picked up by the Phantoms at the trade deadline when the Bears showed no signs of making a play-off run.
"Anyone talented enough to make an NHL roster deserves to enjoy a team soiree rather than work the bar."
"Shh." He put a finger over his lips, wanting her to keep a lid on his secret, and cracked open a soda from a nearby cooler. "Not many people have spotted me over here yet."
"You like downplaying your role?" Her eyebrows knitted, as if she found that hard to believe.
"I prefer to let my stickhandling do my talking." He cut a fresh lemon and tossed a slice in the glass, still stalling and determined to make the most of this little moment. "I'm not much on the dog-and-pony-show promo events, but this is different since it's for a group of the Phantoms' charities. Still, I'd rather offer up manpower behind the bar than sign hats or total strangers' breasts."
He couldn't imagine this woman digging under a T-shirt to offer up her wares at a public autographing event, and that made him all the more interested in earning the privilege to see them privately.