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Clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop.
Prince Robert lifted his head and whinnied, to the delight of all six people riding in the horse-drawn carriage.
In the back row, Alyssa Chambers snuggled under the blanket, a cup of warm cider held tightly in her hand. The soft strains of Bing Crosby crooning "Winter Wonderland" drifted back from the speakers hidden low on the carriage side walls. Colored holiday lights sparkled in the fog, the mist giving them an ethereal quality that seemed appropriate for the Christmas season.
The carriage moved steadily down the street, providing Alyssa and the other passengers a stunning view of the ornate homes in Dallas's Highland Park neighborhood, now shining and sparkling for the holidays.
"Oh, man," Claire Daniels moaned. "Isn't this just the most romantic night ever?"
Beside her, Alyssa turned, brows raised. "Um, hello? Dateless, remember?"
Claire lifted her chin. "I'm practicing the power of positive thinking."
Alyssa glanced at the two rows in front of them. Two rows with four people. Two couples. Two guys. Two girls. And they were snuggled under blankets, arms around each other, oblivious to the lights, the music— everything but each other.
And Alyssa, well aware that she was enjoying a romantic carriage ride with her best friend instead of a boyfriend, swallowed hard on the jealousy that rose in her throat.
"Positive thinking, huh?" she asked. "Is it working?" If it was, she was going to have to try it—really try it. Because despite all the ho-ho-ho and happy-holiday festivities that Dallas offered up during late December, Alyssa wasn't feeling the seasonal love.
"Not in the least," admitted Claire. She'd broken up with her boyfriend a few months prior. Or, rather, he'd broken up with her. And the loss of Joe had hit Claire where it counted—her pride.
Alyssa frowned, her mind whirring as she sat quietly in the carriage, plotting creative ways to torture the idiot who had decided that Christmas events should be designed for couples.
Party hosts expected you to arrive with a date. The theater sold dinner-and-show packages for two. Even the carriage ride to see the famous Highland Park lights seated you in even numbers, as if you weren't anybody unless you were part of a pair.
Was it any wonder the suicide rate increased during the holidays?
Alyssa had been single since summer, when she'd broken up once and for all with her boyfriend Bob. It had been a particularly unpleasant breakup, since they'd started out as friends. Good friends. Solid. But after a while, they'd started dancing around the attraction thing, and before Alyssa knew it they were out on a date, and then they were in bed and then they were a couple staring down the road of life to marriage and kids and a dog.
At first, that had seemed perfect. But then little things started to get in the way, and soon, neither Alyssa nor Bob could even remember why they'd been friends. They seemed so uniquely unright for each other that even the memory of the times they used to just hang together had been tarnished.
The breakup had been worse because it had been two breakups: one with the lover and one with the friend. And as an added injustice, Alyssa had been dateless ever since.
"At least you can take Chris," Claire said. "To all the parties and stuff, I mean."
Alyssa nodded. Chris was a prime example of not making the same mistake twice. Her across-the-hall neighbor was desperately sexy, funny and easy to talk to. But he was her friend, and had been from the get-go. The stamp of friendship was firmly on his forehead, and despite the fact that he was sweet and smart and incredibly hot, there was no way she would ever risk that friendship for sex. No way, no how.
She'd learned that lesson with Bob, in a big way.
Not that sex was even in the realm of possibilities.
When she'd first met Chris, she'd felt a warm tingle of attraction, and then firmly and soundly squashed it. For one thing, the tingle had so clearly not been reciprocated. In the two years they'd known each other, he'd never made even the slightest hint of a move on her.
At first, Alyssa's pride had been tweaked by his failure to come on to her, because that was what guys did, right? And, yeah, also because the tingle she'd felt had been more like a loud, clanging bell. But the truth was that his disinterest made her life easier, because Chris, with his freelance-writer lifestyle, was squarely N.M.M.—Not Marriage Material. Alyssa had never seen the point in dating guys who didn't even land on the possibility spectrum. Yes, she'd broken her rule on a few occasions and gone out with guys who were clearly not the matrimonial kind, but she'd never managed to stay friends with them after the inevitable breakup. Better to put those kind of guys in the Friends column from the start and avoid any messy entanglements later.
As far as she was concerned, Chris was at the very top of that column. And, yeah, there were times late at night—when they were watching a movie or making margaritas—that she'd feel a warm flood of desire and frantically wish he'd do something to make that scarlet N.M.M. disappear. But she knew better than to believe that would ever happen. She'd grown up with a man just like Chris, after all: a freelance writer out perpetually chasing a story—and a paycheck.
Alyssa could remember the long weeks when her dad was away on writing assignments, and the pang of longing for a father who was never home. She'd beg to go with him, and when he returned, she'd pore over the pictures and imagine that she'd been right by his side. But her dad never took her. Not feasible, he'd said. Not when she had school and he had to work.
He'd tell her and her mom that he had to chase the stories so that he could pay the bills, but Alyssa had overheard the frequent arguments about money, and most particularly about the fact that her father had turned down an offer of full-time employment at the local paper.
McCarthy Chambers's wanderlust kept him from holding a steady job, and even though he claimed he'd be the next Truman Capote—and was constantly at work on some never-published epic tome—he never managed to land the big stories, much less the big paychecks. When Alyssa's mom was laid off from her teaching job, the family not only lost their car, they lost their home, and eleven-year-old Alyssa found herself living in a one-bedroom apartment with paper-thin walls instead of a charming little house on a tree-lined street with her best friend two doors down.
She'd hated her father that month, an emotion that had been even harder to handle because she loved him so desperately. When he was around and life flowed smoothly, he was a joy. But when money was tight or he got sucked into a creative vortex, it had been a black, lonely hell.
And now that his various medical issues had forced Alyssa's dad to stop traveling for work, her parents were struggling to make ends meet with their minimal Social Security checks. Not the life Alyssa wanted. Not at all.
As an adult, she figured she understood now what made her dad tick. Intellectually, she could acknowledge that he was a man who had wanted a nomadic life, and even though he'd loved his wife and daughter, he should never have been a family man.
Alyssa loved him, she understood him, and she'd even forgiven him for the crappy chunks of her childhood. But there was no way in hell she was ending up like her mother. No way she was foisting that lifestyle on her own children. Alyssa Chambers had very specific things she looked for in a man, and financial responsibility and a steady presence in the house were tops on that list.
And Chris—who didn't even have a savings account much less health insurance, and who spent weeks bouncing around the globe writing travel articles—was definitely not that man. Not in a big way. Even as "just friends," his devil-may-care attitude drove Alyssa nuts. He was an exceptional writer, and had a great relationship with Tourist and Travel, one of the premier travel magazines in the world. From what Alyssa had seen, Chris could have easily landed enough articles to earn him a solid annual salary. But instead, he worked only when his money was running out, and then he'd take anywhere from three to five assignments back-to-back and disappear for two months. The rest of the time, he holed up in his apartment working on a series of novels that he was hoping to sell.
Alyssa told herself that she admired his creative spirit, but the truth was she didn't know how he could stand it. She'd forced him to have The Money Talk once, and he'd admitted that he banked his writing checks, lived off them until the well ran dry, then took another gig to fill the pot back up again. He didn't carry insurance on his motorcycle, and he'd actually lived a few months on beans, rice and spaghetti because he'd purposely turned down an assignment in order to stay home and work on his book.
It wasn't even her life and she was stressed just thinking about it.
Bottom line? There was no way—no way—a guy like Chris would ever end up on her love life radar. Which meant that though she might have an escort for holiday parties, she didn't have a date.
As the two sets of couples in front of Alyssa and Claire snuggled closer—completely oblivious to the fact that they were rudely thrusting their public displays of affection all over the less fortunate in the carriage— Prince Robert turned to the left, then started down yet another austere, tree-lined street. Like all the houses in Highland Park, these tended to be homes to old-money families, the elite of Dallas society. The kind of people who still participated in debutante balls and who could trace their lineage back to the days when Texas was a republic. The kind of people who either stayed home, or took the whole family with them when they traveled.
"That one," Claire said, pointing to an utterly traditional colonial-style mansion. "That's always been my favorite in this neighborhood. And look! The topiaries are shaped like Santa's elves!"
Alyssa had to concede the topiary point, but the house itself did nothing for her. It was big, but it didn't have personality. Even so, given the chance, she'd live there in a heartbeat. The house, she knew, belonged to Russell Starr. And Russell Starr was M.M. all the way. Not even the slightest hint of an N in sight.
The Starr family was Texas royalty, and a century ago had founded the eponymous Starr Hotels and Resorts, a luxurious worldwide chain that had faltered seven years ago after Thomas Starr had passed away, leaving the future of both the company and the family in the hands of his then twenty-three-year-old son, Russell.
Because Alyssa had gone to school with Russell, she'd paid attention when the business community had rumbled about the massive hotel chain being left in the control of an inexperienced twenty-something upstart. And while the society mavens and business naysayers had forecast doom and despair for the company, Alyssa had believed that Russell would pull the family business out of its slow spiral toward oblivion. And she'd been right. Now, seven years since Russell had taken the helm, the Starr chain of resorts was bigger than ever, with hotels on four continents, five-star ratings across the board, and a guest list that would make even the most jaded celebrity watchers drool.
"I'm hoping to land him," she said. "Well, Starr Industries."
"That's my ambitious plan," Alyssa admitted, though she, so far, hadn't thought about how she would implement that plan. But she needed to soon, because although her billable hours were outstanding and she'd brought in an exceptional book of business over the course of the year, she hadn't brought any clients to Prescott and Bayne this quarter, which meant that as far as the partners were concerned, she was the ugly stepchild compared to Roland Devries, who was the other associate with his eye on the partnership slot.
The partners were meeting right after the holidays to decide who would be invited to join the firm as a junior partner, and unless Alyssa could rectify that deficiency, she was afraid that Roland would get the job for which she'd worked so hard. And that was simply not acceptable. She'd gone into law school planning on making partner by the time she was thirty, and she'd signed with Prescott both because of the firm's stellar rep and its fast track to partnership. Like being a tenured professor, partnership in a law firm meant job security and income stability, and for Alyssa, that was the Holy Grail.
"Do you think you have a shot? I mean, surely he's got attorneys coming out of his ears."
"Actually, the company handles most of their legal work in house."
" And you're thinking he' ll hire your firm because…?"
"Remember that fundraiser for Love without Boundaries I worked on earlier this year? The gala and auction to raise money for medical care for orphans in China? Russell was on the committee, too, and he mentioned that he was considering retaining an outside firm so that his in-house staff could focus on big-picture issues and function more in a supervisory capacity." She shrugged. "So why not Prescott and Bayne?"
"Why not, indeed," Claire said, eyeing her suspiciously. "A guy like Russell Starr's probably courted by a lot of firms. Why you?"
"For one thing, Prescott's got a great reputation."
"So does Daniels and Taylor," Claire said, referring to the firm her grandfather had founded. "So do lots of firms."
"True," Alyssa conceded. "But we talked about it, and I really got the feeling that he would be open to me sitting him down and explaining why he should choose Prescott."
"So why isn't he already with the firm?"
Alyssa could feel her cheeks warm. "I was planning to make an appointment after the gala wrapped, but by then… well… I felt a little awkward about it."
Claire's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Why?"
Alyssa drew in a breath. "Because he kissed me. The night of the gala."
"No way. Seriously?"
"Depends. Is one hot-and-heavy kiss within your definition of serious?"