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The majestic beauty of white-capped Mount Hood was unobstructed from the twentieth floor of the Empress Hotel in downtown Portland. Caasi Crane stood in front of the huge floor-to-ceiling window, her arms hugging her slim waist. Blake Sherrill’s letter of resignation was clenched tightly in one hand.
Blake was the best general manager she’d ever hope to find. His resignation had caught her off guard. As far as Caasi knew, he had been perfectly content. His employee file was open on her computer, and Caasi moved across the plush office to study the information.
His salary was generous, she noted, but Caasi believed in paying her employees what they were worth. And Blake earned every cent. Maybe he’d reconsider if she offered him a raise. But according to the file, he’d received a healthy increase only three months earlier.
Scrolling down through the information, Caasi paused to read over the original employment application that included his photograph. He was six-three and at her guess around a hundred and eighty pounds. Dark hair and brown eyes. None of that had changed. At the time he was hired he was single and thirty. Certainly she would know if he’d married since then. He hadn’t; she was sure of it. Had Blake been with Crane Enterprises that long? Six years?
Caasi pushed her wide-rimmed glasses up from the tip of her nose and sat in her cushioned white leather chair.
Her assistant buzzed, interrupting her thoughts. “Mr. Sherrill’s here to see you.”
Caasi pushed the intercom lever. “Please send him in.” Mentally she prepared herself. Her father had groomed her well for this position. If Blake was displeased about something, she’d soon discover what it was. Employee performance and customer satisfaction were the name of the game. But an employee, even one as good as Blake, couldn’t perform if he was unhappy. If so, Caasi wanted to know the reason. She pretended an interest in his computer file when the door opened. Looking up, she smiled brightly. “Sit down, Blake.” Her hand indicated a chair on the other side of her desk.
He wasn’t a handsome man. His features were rough and rugged, too craggy to be considered attractive. His chin projected stubbornly and the shadow of his beard was heavy. Caasi didn’t doubt that he had to shave twice a day. He wore a dark business suit and silk tie, and his hair was coal dark. Could he be Italian with a name like Sherrill? Funny how she’d never really noticed Blake. At least, not the toughness in the lean, hard figure that stood in front of her.
“If you don’t mind, I’d rather stand.” With feet braced slightly apart, he joined his hands.
“Honestly,” Caasi admonished with a soft smile, “you look like a recruit standing at attention.”
“Sometimes I feel that way.” The words were hardly above a whisper.
“Pardon?” Caasi looked up again.
“Nothing.” The small lines about his eyes and mouth creased in a mirthless smile. “You’re right. I’ll sit down.”
“How long have you been with us now, Blake?”
“Six years, six months, and five days,” he replied drily.
“You counted the days?”
He shrugged. “Maybe I was hoping to gain your attention.”
Caasi gave him a troubled look. Clearly something was wrong. Not in the five years since she’d taken over the company had Blake behaved like this.
“You have my attention now.” She held up the resignation letter. “What’s the problem?”
He looked away. “There’s no problem. The time has come to move on, that’s all.”
“Is it the money?”
“Have you got another job offer?” That was the scenario that made the most sense.
This wasn’t going well, and she was fast losing her grip on the situation.
“All right, Blake, tell me what’s up.”
“Do you want a full report submitted? There’s one due at the end of the month, as usual.”
“I don’t mean that and you know it.” Angrily she glared at him.
“I thought you read every report,” he muttered with an edge of sarcasm.
“I’ve never known you to be cynical,” Caasi cut in.
“But then, you’ve never known me, have you?”
Caasi didn’t know how to answer him. Maybe if she’d dated more often she’d be able to deal with men more effectively. That was one area in which her father had failed to instruct her. Sometimes she felt like a bungling teenager, and just as naïve.
“Take the rest of the week off, Blake. I would like you to reconsider this letter.”
“I’m not going to change my mind.” There was a determined look about him, unyielding and confident.
She didn’t want to lose Blake. “Take it anyway, and let’s talk again the first of the week.”
He gave her a mocking salute. “As you wish.”
Blake’s resignation weighed heavily on Caasi the rest of the day. By the time her assistant left, she was in a rotten mood. It was due to far more than Blake, she realized. That night was the monthly get-together with Edie and June, her two BFFs.
The months passed so quickly that sometimes it seemed that they were meeting much too often—and at other times it wasn’t nearly enough. Yet the two were her best friends . . . her only friends, Caasi admitted grudgingly, as she slid the key into the lock of her apartment door.
The penthouse suite on the twenty-first floor had been Caasi’s home for as long as she could remember. She must have been eight before she realized that milk came from a cow and not the busboy who delivered all of the family’s meals.
Daddy’s little girl from the beginning, Caasi had known from the time she could walk that someday she would be president of Crane Enterprises and the string of hotels that ran down Oregon’s coast and into California. Isaac Crane had tutored her for the position until his death five years earlier.
Daddy’s little girl . . . The thought ran through her mind as Caasi opened her closet and took out a striped dress of teal, plum, and black. Everything about her reflected her father. A thousand times in her twenty-eight years Caasi had explained that her name hadn’t been misspelled but was Isaac spelled backward.
Soaking in a bubble bath a few minutes later, Caasi lifted the sponge and drained the soothing water over her full breasts and flat stomach. Her big toe idly played with the faucet spout. Her medium-length chestnut hair was piled on top of her head as she lay back and let the hot water refresh her.
Steam swirled around the huge bathroom as Caasi got out of the tub, wrapped a thick cotton towel around herself, and moved into her bedroom. She didn’t feel like going out tonight. A quiet dinner and television would be more to her liking, but she knew Edie and June well enough to realize they wouldn’t easily let her forgo their monthly dinner.
An hour later, Caasi entered Brasserie Montmartre, a French restaurant Edie had raved about the previous month. Caasi didn’t mind checking out the competition. The Empress’s own small French restaurant served—in her opinion—some of the best food in town.
Edie waved when she saw Caasi. June apparently hadn’t arrived yet, and Caasi wondered if she would, since June’s baby was due any time.
“Greetings, fair one,” the pert brunette said, as Caasi pulled out a chair and sat down. It was a standard joke among them that, of the three, Caasi was the most attractive. She accepted their good-natured teasing as part of the give-and-take in any friendship. They were her friends, and heaven knew she had few enough of those.
“You look pleased about something,” Caasi said. Edie was grinning from ear to ear.
“I am.” Edie took a sip of champagne and giggled like a sixteen-year-old. “I should probably wait until June’s here, but if I don’t tell someone soon, I think I’ll bust.”
“Come on, give,” Caasi urged, and nodded at the waiter, who promptly delivered another glass and poured for her. Good service, she mused.
Caasi nearly choked on the bubbly liquid. “Pregnant!” she spat back. Not both friends at the same time. It was too much!
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Freddy more excited.”
“But you’re the one who said—”
“I know, but I changed my mind. It’s crazy, but I’m really happy about this. The doctor said there’s no reason for me to lose my figure, and he’s already put me on a high-protein diet. Freddy’s agreed to the natural-childbirth classes. From what we’ve read, it’s the best way for the baby. June’s taking them now, and I’m hoping she can let me sit in on one of her sessions. And then there’s the nursery to do. I think Freddy may make the cradle.”
“Slow down,” Caasi said with a light laugh. “My head’s spinning already.”
“What do you think?” Edie scooted her chair back and arched her shoulders.
“Think about what?” Caasi shook her head.
“Do I show?”
“Show? Good grief, Edie, you can’t be more than a couple of months along!”
“You’re right.” She giggled, her dark eyes dancing. “And no more than a sip of champagne for me. I’m completely off alcohol and caffeine. I was just hoping . . .”
“Hoping what?” A tall blonde waddled up behind them. June’s protruding stomach left little conjecture as to her condition. One hand rested against her rib cage as she lowered herself into the third chair. “Champagne?” Round blue eyes sought those of the others. “What are we celebrating?”
“Babies, in the plural,” Edie supplied with a wide grin that lit up her whole face.
June looked blank for a minute.
“It seems our Edie has found herself with child,” Caasi informed her.
“Edie?” June whispered disbelievingly. “Not the same Edie who marched in a rally for zero population growth when we were in high school?”
“One and the same.” Edie laughed and motioned for the waiter, who produced a third glass.
“We’re talking about the girl who was afraid to eat lettuce because it could ruin her perfect figure.”
“Not the one who said, ‘Lips that touch chocolate shall never touch mine’?” June’s eyes rounded with shock.
“’Fraid so,” Caasi said.
“Would you two quit talking about me as if I wasn’t here?” Edie demanded.
“A baby.” Caasi looked from one to the other and shook her head. “Both of you. Wasn’t it yesterday that I was your maid of honor, June? And Edie, remember how we argued over who got which bed our freshman year?”
“I always thought you’d be the first one to marry,” June said to her in a somber tone. “Caasi the beauty. Blue-gray eyes to die for and a figure that was the envy of every girl in school.”
“The fair one,” Edie added.
“The aunt-to-be,” Caasi murmured, in a poor attempt at humor. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”
“I find it more than just ironic,” Edie said with conviction. “It’s high time you came down from the lofty twentieth floor and joined us mortals.”
“Edie!” June snapped. “What a terrible thing to say!”
“It’s the champagne,” Caasi said, excusing her friend.
“In this instance it’s a case of loose lips sinking ships.”
“Ships?” Edie inquired.
“To friendship.” Edie raised her glass and their former good mood was restored.
“To friendship.” June and Caasi gently clicked their delicate crystal glasses against Edie’s.
“By the way, who’s paying for this?” June questioned.
“I don’t know,” Caasi joked, “but I’m only paying one-fifth, since both of you are drinking for two.”
They all laughed and picked up their menus.
As Edie had promised, the food was superb. With observant eyes, Caasi noted the texture and quality of the food and the service. Such scrutiny had been ingrained in her since childhood. Caasi doubted that she could dine anywhere and not do a comparison to the food at her hotels.
“What about next month?” Caasi eyed June’s stomach.
“No problem. Doc says I’ve got a good five weeks.”
“Five weeks?” Edie looked shocked. “If I get that big, I’ll die.”
“You know, Edie, if your shoes are a little too tight, don’t worry,” Caasi teased.
“My shoes?” Edie looked up with a blank stare.
“After being in your mouth all night, they should fit fine.”
Edie giggled and stared pointedly across the table. “I swear, the girl’s a real wit tonight.”
They divided up the check three ways. Although Caasi wanted to treat her friends, June and Edie wouldn’t hear of it.
Sitting back, she watched as the waiter took their money. No matter what her mood at the beginning of these gatherings, Caasi always felt better afterward. Even Edie’s remark had flowed off her like water from an oily surface. These two were like her sisters. She accepted their faults and loved them nonetheless.
Large drops of rain pounded against the street as the three emerged from the restaurant.
“How about an after-dinner dessert?” Edie suggested. “I’m in the mood for something sweet.”
June and Caasi eyed each other and attempted to disguise a smile.
“Not me.” June bowed out. “Burt’s at home, anxiously awaiting my return. He worries if I’m out of his sight more than five minutes.”
Edie raised both brows, seeking Caasi’s response.
Caasi shrugged. “My feet hurt.”
“I thought I was the one with tight shoes,” Edie teased, looping her arm through Caasi’s. “Come on, be a sport. If you’re extra-nice I’ll even let you take me up to your penthouse suite.”
Caasi smiled. “I suppose something light and sweet would do wonders toward making me forget my problems.”
“What about you, June? Come on, change your mind.”
June shook her head and patted her rounded stomach. “Not tonight.”
The hotel lobby at the Empress was peacefully quiet when Edie and Caasi came through the wide glass doors. The doorman tipped his hat politely, and Caasi gave him a bright smile. Old Aldo had been a grandfather when the hotel hired him twenty years before. Other employers would have retired him by now, but Caasi hadn’t. The white-haired man had a way of greeting people that made them feel welcome. That quality wouldn’t easily be replaced.
The sweet, soulful sounds of a ballad drifted from the lounge, and Edie paused to hum the tune as they waited for the elevator.
“Nice,” she commented.
“The piano player’s new this week. Would you rather we have our dessert down here?”
Edie’s nod was eager. “I think I would. I’m in the mood for romance and music.”
Caasi’s laugh was sweet and light. “From the look of things, I’d say it’s been a regular occurrence lately.” Her eyes rested on her friend’s still smooth abdomen. They chose to sit in the lounge in order to listen to the music.
The hostess seated them and saw to their order personally. The crowd was a good one. Caasi looked around and noted a few regulars, mostly salesmen who stayed at the hotel on a biweekly basis. The after-work crowd had thinned, but there were a few die-hards.
The middle-aged man at the piano was good. A portion of the bar was built around the piano, and Caasi watched as he interacted with the customers, took requests, and cracked a few jokes. She’d make sure he was invited back again.
Edie dipped her spoon into the glass of lemon sorbet while Caasi sampled her own. They didn’t talk. They didn’t need to. The piano music filled the room. A young couple at the bar started to sing and were joined by several others.
Edie’s hand squeezed Caasi’s forearm. “I’m sorry about what I said earlier.”
“No need to apologize.” Edie’s gaze faltered slightly under Caasi’s direct look. “I understand.”
“I worry about you sometimes, Caasi.”
“Worry about me? Whatever for?”
“I love you. You’re more like a sister to me than my own. I don’t know how you can be happy living the way you do. It’s not natural.”
“What’s not natural?” Caasi realized she was beginning to sound like a worn echo.
Mildly disconcerted, Caasi looked away. “It’s the only way I’ve ever known.”
“That doesn’t make it right. Haven’t you ever yearned for someone to share your life? A man to cuddle up against on a cold night?”
Caasi’s laugh was forced. “I’ve got my electric blanket.”
“What about children?”
Although content with her lifestyle, Caasi had to admit that seeing both June and Edie pregnant was having a peculiar effect on her. She’d never thought much about being a mother, but she found the idea appealing. “I . . . I think I’d like that, but I’m not so keen on a husband.”
“If it’s a baby you want, then find yourself a man. You don’t need a wedding ring and a march down the aisle in order to have a baby. Not these days.”
Caasi tugged a strand of hair behind her ear, a nervous habit she rarely indulged. “I can’t believe we’re having this conversation.”
“I mean it,” Edie said with a serious look.
“What am I supposed to do? Find a good-looking man, saunter up, and suggest children?”
Edie’s full laugh attracted the attention of others. “No, silly, don’t say a word. Just let things happen naturally.”
How could Caasi explain that she wasn’t into casual affairs? Had never had a fling, and at twenty-eight remained a virgin? Edie would be sick laughing. Lack of experience wasn’t the only thing holding her back; when would Caasi find the time for relationships and/or motherhood? Every waking minute was centered on Crane Enterprises. Even if she did find herself attracted to a man, she’d have to squeeze him in between meetings and conferences. Few men would be willing to accept that kind of relationship. And what man wouldn’t be intimidated by her wealth? No, the die had been cast and she . . .
“Caasi.” Edie’s hushed whisper broke into Caasi’s thoughts. “What you need is a man like the one who just walked in.”
Caasi’s gray eyes searched the crowd for the newcomer. “Where?” she murmured.
“There, by the piano. He just sat down.”
The blood exploded in Caasi’s cheeks, rushing up from her neck until she felt her face shining like a lighthouse on a foggy night. Blake Sherrill was the man Edie had pointed out. Pressing a tentative hand to her face, Caasi wondered at her reaction.
“Now, that’s blatant masculinity if ever I’ve seen it.”
“He’s not that good-looking,” Caasi felt obliged to say, grateful that Edie hadn’t noticed the way the color had invaded her face.
“Of course not. His type never is. There’s a lean hardness to him, an inborn arrogance that attracts women like flies to honey.”
“Notice his mouth,” Edie continued.
Caasi already had. Blake looked troubled about something, a surprising occurrence, since he’d always presented a controlled aura when he met with her. She watched as he ordered a drink, then emptied the shot glass in one gulp. That wasn’t like Blake, either. As far as she knew, he stayed away from liquor.
“See how his lips are pressed together? The tight, chiseled effect. Women go for that.”
There was a slight tremor in Caasi’s hands as her friend spoke. “Maybe some women. But not me.”
“Caasi.” Edie groaned. “You can’t be that oblivious. You’re staring at an unqualified hunk. My blood’s hot just looking at him.”
“He’s not my type,” Caasi muttered under her breath, at the same time thinking she’d never really seen Blake. For years they’d worked together, and not once had she ever thought of him except as an exceptionally good general manager.
“That man is every woman’s type. I’ve seen women threaten to kill for less.”
Caasi knew her friend was teasing and offered a halfhearted smile. “Maybe he is my type, I don’t know.”
“Maybe?” Edie shot back disbelievingly. “Go over and introduce yourself. It can’t hurt, and it may do you a lot of good.”
“Do you think I should?”
“I wouldn’t have said so if I didn’t.”
“This is crazy.” Caasi shoved back her chair. Really, what did she hope to accomplish? Blake was more man than she’d ever recognized before, but the idea of a casual affair with him was crazy. More than crazy, it was ludicrous.
“Hurry up before he leaves,” Edie whispered encouragingly.
Caasi didn’t understand why she didn’t want her friend to know she was already acquainted with Blake.
Edie stood with her.
“Are you coming, too?” Caasi cast her a challenging glare.
“Not this time, although I’m tempted. I just noticed the time. Freddy will be worried. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“Fine.” Caasi’s spirits lifted. She could leave without saying a word to Blake and Edie need never know.
“I’ll just wait by the door to see how you do. Once you’ve made the contact, I’ll just slip away.”
Caasi’s spirits plummeted.
The stool beside Blake was vacant. Caasi strolled across the room, her heart pounding so loudly it drowned out the piano man. As casually as possible she perched herself atop the tall stool.
Blake looked over at her, surprise widening his eyes momentarily. He turned back without a greeting.
“Evening,” she muttered, shocked at how strange her voice sounded. “I thought you were taking the rest of the week off.”
“Something came up.”
Caasi straightened. “What?”
“It’s taken care of—don’t worry about it.”
“Blake.” Her tone was crisp and businesslike.
Pointedly he turned his wrist and looked at his watch. “I was off duty hours ago. If you don’t mind, I’d like to leave the office behind and enjoy some good scotch.” He raised his shot glass in a mocking toast.
Caasi’s throat constricted. “I’ve had one of those days myself.” She didn’t mention that his letter had brought it on, but that understanding hung oppressively in the air between them.
The bartender strolled past and braced both hands against the bar. “Can I get you anything?” He directed the question at Caasi.
Obviously he didn’t know who she was, which was just as well; she could observe him at work. “I’ll have the same as the gentleman.”
Blake arched both brows. “It must have been a harder day than I thought.”
His lips came together in a severe line. “Drink it slowly,” he cautioned.
“I can hold my liquor as well as any man,” she said, surprised by how defensive she sounded. She didn’t want to be. What she wanted was an honest, frank discussion of the reason or reasons he’d decided to leave Crane Enterprises.
“As you say.” The corners of his mouth curved upward in challenge.
When Caasi’s drink arrived she raised it tentatively to her lips and took an experimental sip. To her horror, she started coughing and choking.
“You all right?” he questioned with a rare smile.
As if she wasn’t embarrassed enough, his hand pounded vigorously against her back.
“Stop it,” she insisted, her eyes watering.
“I thought you said you could handle your scotch.”
“I can!” she choked out between gasps of air. “It just went down wrong, that’s all.”
Blake rotated the stool so that she was given a profile of his compelling features. She turned back around, aware that half the lounge was watching her. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she felt obliged to say.
“So you are,” Blake murmured.
“Aren’t you worried about leaving your job?” she asked, even though he’d basically said he didn’t want to discuss business. He turned to her then, his eyes dark and glittering as his taut gaze ran over her. “No, as a matter of fact, I’m not.”
“Why not?” she queried, her hand curling around the small glass. “At least you owe me the courtesy of telling me why after all these years you want out.”
“It’s not a marriage, Cupcake.”
Caasi bristled. “Don’t call me that. Don’t ever call me that.” Cupcake had been her father’s pet name for her. Only Isaac Crane had ever called her that. “I’m not a little girl anymore.”
His laugh was short and derisive. “That you’re not.”
She took another sip of her drink. It burned all the way down her throat and seared a path through her stomach. But she didn’t cough and felt pleased with herself.
“What do you want from me?” he asked, as he shoved the empty scotch glass aside.
Feeling slightly tipsy and more than a little reckless, she placed her hand gently over the crook in his elbow. “I want to dance.”
His head jerked up, and the color seemed to flow from his face. “Not with me.”
“Yes, with you,” she said softly, surprised at how angry he sounded. Who else did he think she meant? The piano player?
The word was issued with such force that Caasi felt as if he’d physically struck her. How embarrassing and humiliating. All at once Caasi knew she had to get out of there before disgracing herself further. “Thanks anyway.”
Her hands trembled as she slid off the stool. Wordlessly she turned and walked out of the lounge. She made it as far as the elevator before she felt her entire body start to shake.
The penthouse was dark. Very dark. Even the million lights of the city couldn’t illuminate the room. Leaning against the door, Caasi heaved her shoulders in a long, shuddering sigh. She’d had too much to drink that night, far more than normal. That was what was wrong. Not Edie. Not Blake. Not even her. Only the alcohol.
Undressing, she pulled the long satin gown over her head. Accidentally, her hand hit against her abdomen and she paused, inhaling deeply. Lightly her fingers traced her breasts, then fell lifelessly to her sides as she hung her head in defeat.
“I am a woman,” she whispered. “I am a woman,” she repeated, and fell across the bed.