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Cari Michaels was having a "take two Tylenol" type of day.
And it was only five minutes to eight.
With tires squealing, she swerved into her parking spot with the speed and arrogance of her sixteen-year-old nephew. She had five minutes to make the executive meeting on time.
Why was Reed Dalton Preston, CEO of Dalton's Department Stores, calling an impromptu gathering of his executives this early? The one morning her alarm clock chose to die.
Seconds ticked away.
No sweat. She'd make it.
Thrusting the gearshift into Park, she turned off the engine and grabbed her purse and briefcase. Then she was off at a run for the elevator, her heels tapping in three-quarter time across the pavement in the parking garage. She prayed Homer, the elevator operator, was waiting with the door open.
He was. She could see his smiling round face, and then she heard a snap. The next thing she knew she was kissing hard, dirty concrete. She moaned as burning needles of pain shot through her knee and elbow.
Damn! Damn! Damn!
Her day just got worse.
"Ms. Cari, are you okay?" Through a wave of humiliation she heard Homer's worried voice and rolled to her feet faster than a quarterback nailed for a loss.
"Yes, Homer. I'm fine." She brushed off her black Prada pantsuit and took a deep breath. "Just broke a heel." She raised her foot to remove the offending shoe and held it up, but she didn't have a moment to chat. Time was running out and she knew she'd get "The Look" from Reed if she slid into her seat one second late.
Homer picked up her briefcase and purse and handed them to her with a concerned look in his eyes.
"Thank you," she said, and hobbled into the elevator. "Can you make Louise fly?"
"No, ma'am," Homer replied, adjusting his bellman's cap with the Dalton logo on it. "She only goes one speed." Homer was mentally challenged and he took his job seriously. He'd named the elevator Louise and sometimes he stayed until every executive was out of the building because he didn't like anyone pushing Louise's buttons but him. Everyone loved Homer, including Cari.
As the elevator smoothly glided upward she removed her other heel. Being just five feet three inches tall, she really needed the heels for the extra confidence-boosting height.
Glancing down, she saw she'd ripped her slacks at the knee. There was also dirt on her cobalt-blue silk blouse. Great. Now she was going to look like a street urchin, but she wasn't missing the meeting.
Elevator music, Bach or Beethoven or something, played in the background and it started to get on her nerves. Why was this thing going so slow? Louise needed a checkup.
"My mama says it doesn't matter what you look like as long as you have a good heart." Homer's bit of wisdom made Cari wonder if she looked that bad.
"You have a good heart, Ms. Cari."
"Thank you, Homer. So do you."
The doors opened. She smiled at Homer a second before she dashed out and down the hall to the private door of her office.
Homer's "Have a good day" followed her.
She threw the shoes and her briefcase onto her desk and took a moment to glance at herself in the mirror by the door. Slipping her purse strap over her shoulder, she ran her fingers through her short, blow-and-go, dark brown hair. At the moment it was more blow than go.
Her sister, the beautician, had talked her into the style. Chic and stylish, Kitty had saidjust what Cari needed for her busy lifestyle. Shaking her head, she hoped her hair looked chic instead of looking more like it had been cut with a weed-eater.
And who's going to notice, she asked herself as she darted out the door to the boardroom. Certainly not Reed Preston. Cari remembered vividly the first time she had seen Reed. He and Richard Preston, his father, were making a tour of the store, something Mr. Preston didn't do too often. But Reed was home for the summer from the University of Texas and Mr. Preston was priming him to take over the reins of Dalton's. Everyone had been on their toes, watching their p's and q's for the momentous occasion.
She'd been a naive, gauche teenager determined to make something of her life away from the small farm where she'd been raised. When she looked at Reed, she saw everything she'd been looking for and everything she could never have. He was tall with dark hair and warm, brown eyes. Cari knew Reed was as far out of her reach as Prince William. Not that she wanted the prince, but that's how she thought of Reedas the Prince of Dalton's.
So did a lot of other women.
She kept her feelings secret. No one knew how she felt about Reed except Marisa Kincaid, Reed's sister, a woman whose struggles with her difficult, demanding family had put her in desperate need of a good friend.
When Marisa was seventeen she'd fallen in love with a rodeo cowboy, Colter Kincaid. Marisa was in training to be a concert pianist and her involvement with Colter was unacceptable to the Prestons. With lies and threats her family had broken them up, but Marisa soon discovered she was pregnant. Unable to locate Colter, Marisa had to deal with her parents alone. She refused abortion and adoption, intending to keep her baby. She had underestimated her parents, though.
Marisa had problems with the pregnancy, so the Prestons devised a plan. They told their daughter the baby was stillborn. In truth, they had called Colter and offered him the baby. For years Marisa grieved for her child.At the time she lived with her mother in NewYork, and she sank into deep depression, unable to play the piano. Her father had brought her to Texas to heal.
Once Marisa was in Texas, the lies and deceit began to unravel. Marisa found out her daughter was very much alive. It had taken a while, but she and Colter had fallen in love again, too. It hadn't been an easy time and Cari had been there for Marisa when she'd needed to talk. Cari admitted their friendship had undoubtedly helped her gain a vice presidency at Dalton's, but she also had earned it.
She had realized at an early age that she didn't want to spend the rest of her life as a salesclerk and, with four siblings, her parents couldn't afford to send her to college or even junior college. So that first year she'd saved every dime she could and took night courses at a junior college, finally finishing up her business degree at the University of Texas in Dallas while continuing to work for Dalton's.
When she entered the boardroom, Cari summoned her years of experience and quietly took her seat at the polished oak table, which could seat twenty people. The paneling on the walls was made of the same vibrant wood, trimmed in an ornate, hand-carved pattern unlike anything Cari had ever seen. Photos of all the stores across Texas, as well as the store's founder, Harold Dalton, hung on the walls. The first time Cari had stepped into this room the sight of it had taken her breath away.
An arrangement of white irises and lavender lilacs took pride of place in the center of the table. Fresh flowers always adorned this room. Their delicate fragrance drifted to her and Cari relaxed, uncaring that her slacks were torn and her blouse was dirty.
The executive team had already taken their seats and Reed stood at the head of the table, looking directly at her. She stared back at him. Yet those honey brown eyes didn't waver for a second.
Nor did hers.
"Nice of you to join us, Ms. Michaels," he said in his deep, smooth voice that usually curled her toes into her shoes. Since she wasn't wearing shoes, her toes curled against the polished hardwood floor that felt cool to her stocking feet.
She smiled sweetly, not rising to the bait.
"I know you're wondering why I called this meeting." Reed turned his attention elsewhere and she let out her breath, not even realizing she was holding it. Her elbow was throbbing and she just wanted to go to her office and regroup for the day. She was sure she'd left her pride somewhere on that garage floor and she desperately needed to get it back.
George, the man on her right, sat with a pen in his hand ready to jot down every word out of Reed's mouth. Mike, across from her, was poised the same way. Cari's pen was in her purse and she didn't see the need to fish for it. Reed's personal assistant always sent memos just in case anyone missed anything.
"I'll make this short," Reed said. "I know you're eager to get back to your jobs. Or at least I hope you are."
That caused a round of muffled laughter.
Cari took a moment to study Reed. In jeans, a crisp white shirt, a lightweight sports jacket and cowboy bootsshe couldn't see them but she knew he always wore custom-made Kincaid boots he appeared to have stepped out of the pages of Texas Monthly magazine. His tall lean frame showed off the clothes, but there was something about him that bespoke power and wealth. Maybe it was the way he looked directly into your eyes. Or that strong chin. Or that razzle-dazzle, made-for-Hollywood smile. Or an elusive quality that was embedded in the way he moved and spoke.
But to her it was none of those things. She admired the man within, the man who was striving to prove to his father he could run Dalton's with strength and compassion. Reed was more involved with his employees than Mr. Preston had ever been. Homer had a job because of Reed. Mr. Preston would never have allowed Homer to be hired.
Reed had new ideas and a new way of doing business. It was showing results. Profits were at an all-time high and Cari enjoyed working with her boss, being on his team. But she wondered if he'd ever see her as a woman.
A desirable woman.
At thirty-four, marriage and family were becoming important to her. If she kept waiting for Reed Preston, her biological clock was going to spit and sputter and run out of time.
"I wanted to let my executive team know before the news hits the papers," Reed was saying. "Daphne Harwood and I are engaged. We're planning an early spring wedding."
What did he say?
People jumped up, shaking his hand and congratulating him. Cari felt herself turning to stone. All her dreams, everything she'd ever hoped for, ended in that moment. Somewhere within her she found the strength to get to her feet. She had to. She was a professional.
Was there something symbolic in that? What could it be? If Reed had a glass slipper, she definitely had a foot to put in it. A bubble of hysterical laughter rose in her throat and she immediately pushed it down.
"I would like for you to meet her. She's waiting in my office." He pushed a button on the phone to his left and then glanced at them. "Please make her feel welcome." Reed motioned to someone at the door and a goddess walked in. That was the only way to describe Reed's fiancée, Daphne. Tall, with champagne-blond hair and gorgeous blue eyes, Daphne's body was a perfect ten on anyone's scale.
Where in the hell did she come from? Marisa hadn't mentioned Reed was dating anyone special. Reed's dating life was a revolving door of beautiful women. No one had told her the door had stopped revolving. When did this happen?
Reed was introducing Daphne to each person and explaining their job. Oh great! She stood on her tiptoes, not that that was going to help her height a lot. Why did she have to break her damn heel?
There wasn't enough Tylenol in the world to fix this day.
Or her broken heart.
She braced herself as they approached.
"This is Cari Michaels, vice president," Reed said. "She's basically my right hand. I can always depend on Cari to" he noticed her shoeless feet and torn slacks "what happened?"
"Nothing." She brushed his concern away. "I took a tumble in the garage and broke a heel, that's all."
"Maybe you should see a doctor," Daphne said in a silky voice that managed to rub against Cari's nerves like coarse burlap.
"Yes," Reed said. "That's a good idea."
"No." Cari felt dwarfed and insignificant by the tall goddess and Reed standing side by side. They reminded her of a model bride and groom atop a wedding cake. "I'm fine, really." She held out her hand. As their palms touched, she noted Daphne's fingers were soft, fragile almost, but that's not what held Cari's attention. It was the large diamond sparkling on her left hand. "It's nice to meet you and I wish you both the very best."
She moved away as quickly as possible, her words ringing in her ears. She prayed they'd sounded normal. She could be a sore loser if she had ever been in the game, but she had never even walked onto the field.
Only in her dreams.
"Cari." Reed caught up with her at the door. "Our plane leaves at one. Will you be ready? We can postpone the trip if you're not up to it."
Good heavens, the morning's events had caused the scheduled September trip to the El Paso store to slip her mind. Her overnight bag was in her car, so her amnesia was only temporary. Reed made random visits to all the stores. He kept an up-close-and-personal connection with every store manager. They were all eager to please him.
He'd said she was his right hand and she supposed that was true. She made the trips with him and together with the manager they went over every minute detail for improvement. This was a system implemented by Reed. Richard Preston rarely visited his stores unless it was an emergency, such as a store not showing a profit.
She usually enjoyed the trips, but this one suddenly took on a feeling of gloom and doom. Spending two hours with Reed in a plane would be pure torture.
He was marrying someone else.
A painful knot clenched her stomach. The fall was the excuse she needed to avoid the trip and she was going to use it.
The word ran through her system like the cheap moonshine she and her cousins had gotten drunk on as teenagers. It had made her sick then and she felt sick now.
But she'd never taken the easy way out and she wasn't about to start.