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Garrett King was in Hell.
Dozens of screaming, laughing children raced past him and he winced as their voices hit decibels only dogs should have been able to hear. Happiest Place on Earth? He didn't think so.
How he had let himself be talked into this, he had no idea.
"Getting soft," he muttered darkly and leaned one hand on the hot metal balustrade in front of him only to wrench his hand back instantly. He glanced at his palm, sighed and reached for a napkin out of his cousin's bag to wipe the sticky cotton candy off his skin.
"You could be at the office," he told himself sternly, wadding up the napkin and tossing it into a trash can. "You could be checking invoices, keeping tabs on the new client. But no, you had to say yes to your cousin instead."
Jackson King had pulled out all the stops getting Garrett to go along with this little family adventure. Jackson's wife, Casey, was apparently "worried" because Garrett was alone too much. Nice woman Casey, he told himself. But did no one ever consider that maybe a man was alone because he wanted to be?
But he still could have begged off if it had been just Casey and Jackson doing the asking. But Garrett's cousin had cheated.
He had had his daughters ask "Uncle" Garrett to go with them and frankly, when faced with three of the cutest kids in the world, it would have been impossible to say no. And Jackson knew it, the clever bastard.
"Hey, cuz!" Jackson's shout sounded out and Garrett turned to give him a hard look.
Jackson only laughed. "Casey, honey," he said, turning to his stunning wife, "did you see that? I don't think Garrett's having any fun."
"About that," Garrett cut in, lifting his voice to be heard over the raucous noise rising from the crowd, "I was thinking I'd just head out now. Leave you guys to some family fun."
"You are family, Garrett," Casey pointed out.
Before he could speak, Garrett felt a tug at his pants leg. He looked down into Mia's upturned face. "Uncle Garrett, we're going on the fast mountain ride. You wanna come?"
At five, Mia King was already a heartbreaker. From her King blue eyes to the missing front tooth to the dimple in her cheek, she was absolutely adorable. And not being a dummy, she knew how to work it already, too.
" Garrett glanced behind Mia to her younger sisters Molly and Mara. Molly was three and Mara was just beginning to toddle. The three of them were unstoppable, Garrett told himself wryly.
There was just no way he was getting out of this day early. One girl pouting was hard to resist. Three were too much for any man to stand against.
"How about I stand here and watch your stuff while you guys go on the ride?"
Jackson snorted a laugh that Garrett ignored. For God's sake, he owned the most respected security company in the country and here he was haggling with a five-year-old.
Garrett and Jackson had been good friends for years. Most of the King cousins were close, but he and Jackson had worked closely together over the years. Garrett's security company and Jackson's company, King Jets, fed off each other. With Garrett's high-priced clients renting Jackson's luxury jets, both companies were thriving for the loosely defined partnership.
Jackson's wife, Casey, on the other hand, was one of those happily married women who saw every determined bachelor as a personal challenge.
"You going on the Matterhorn with us?" Jackson asked, plucking Mara from his wife's arms. The chubby toddler slapped at his cheeks gleefully and Garrett watched with some amusement as Jackson practically melted. The man was a sap when it came to his family. Funny, because in business, Jackson King was a cutthroat kind of guy that nobody wanted to cross.
"Nope," Garrett told him and lifted the baby out of his cousin's arms. With the crazed population explosion in the King family, Garrett was getting used to dealing with kids. Comfortably settling the tiny girl on his hip, he said, "I'll wait here with Mara and the rest of your" he paused to glance down at the stroller and the bags already piled high on it "stuff."
"You could ride with me," Mia insisted, turning those big blue eyes on him.
"Oh, she's good," Jackson whispered on a laugh.
Garrett went down on one knee and looked her in the eye. "How about I stay here with your sister and you tell me all about the ride when you get off?"
She scowled a little, clearly unused to losing, then grinned. "Okay."
Casey took both of the girls' hands, smiled at Garrett and headed for the line.
"I didn't ask you to come along so you could just stand around, you know," Jackson said.
"Yeah. Why did you ask me along? Better yet, why'd I say yes?"
Jackson laughed, looked over his shoulder at his wife and then said, "One word. Casey. She thinks you're lonely. And if you think I'm going to listen to her worry about you all by myself, you're nuts."
Mara slapped Garrett's face. He swiveled his head to smile at the baby. "Your daddy's scared of your mommy."
"Damn straight," Jackson admitted with a laugh. He headed off after the rest of his family and called back, "If she gets cranky, there's a bottle in the diaper bag."
"I think I can handle a baby," he shouted back, but Jackson was already swallowed by the crowd.
"It's just you and me, kid," Garrett told the girl who laughed delightedly and squirmed as if she wanted to be turned loose to run. "Oh, no, you don't. I put you down, you disappear and your mommy kills me."
"Down." Mara looked mutinous.
She scowled again then tried a coy smile.
"Man," Garrett said with a smile. "Are women born knowing how to do that?"
Bright, cheerful calliope music erupted from somewhere nearby and the smell of popcorn floated on the breeze. A dog wearing a top hat was waltzing with Cinderella to the cheers of the crowd. And Garrett was holding a baby and feeling as out of place ashell, he couldn't even think of anything as out of place as he felt at the moment.
This was not his world, he thought, jiggling Mara when she started fussing. Give Garrett King a dangerous situation, a shooter going after a high-profile target, a kidnapping, even a jewelry heist, and he was in his element.
This happy, shiny stuff? Not so much.
Owning and operating the biggest, most successful security company in the country was bound to color your outlook on the world. Their clients ranged from royalty to wealthy industrialists, computer billionaires and politicians. Because of their own immense wealth, the King brothers knew how to blend in when arranging security. Because of their expertise, their reputation kept growing. Their firm was the most sought-after of its kind on the planet. The King twins flew all over the world to meet the demands of their clients. And he and his twin, Griffin, were good with that. Not everyone could be relaxed and optimistic. There had to be people like he and Griff around to take care of the dirty jobs.
That was his comfort zone, he told himself as he watched Jackson and his family near the front of the line. Casey was holding Molly and Jackson had Mia up on his shoulders. They looked
perfect. And Garrett was glad for his cousin, really. In fact, he was happy for all of the Kings who had recently jumped off a cliff into the uncharted waters of marriage and family. But he wouldn't be joining them.
Guys like him didn't do happy endings.
"That's okay, though," he whispered, planting a kiss on Mara's forehead. "I'll settle for spending time with you guys. How's that?"
She burbled something he took as agreement then fixed her gaze on a bright pink balloon. "Boon!"
Garrett was just going to buy it for her when he noticed the woman.
Alexis Morgan Wells was having a wonderful day. Disneyland was everything she had hoped it would be. She loved everything about it. The music, the laughter. The cartoon characters wandering around interacting with the crowd. She loved the gardens, the topiary statues; she even loved the smell of the place. It was like childhood and dreams and magic all at once.
The music from the last ride she'd been on was still dancing through her mindshe had a feeling it would be for hourswhen she noticed the man coming up to her. Her good mood quickly drained away as the same man who had followed her on to It's a Small World hurried to catch up. He'd had the seat behind her in the boat and had come close to ruining the whole experience for her as he insisted on trying to talk to her.
Just as he was now.
"Come on, babe. I'm not a crazy person or anything. I just want to buy you lunch. Is that so bad?"
She half turned and gave him a patient, if tight, smile. "I've already told you I'm not interested, so please go away."
Instead of being rebuffed, his eyes lit up. "You're British, aren't you? The accent's cool."
"Oh, for heaven's sake."
She was really going to have to work on that, she told herself sternly. If she wasn't paying close attention, her clipped accent immediately branded her as "different." Though it would take a much better ear than that of the man currently bothering her, to recognize that her accent wasn't British, but Cadrian.
But if she worked at it, she could manage an American accentsince her mother had been born in California. Thinking about her mom brought a quick zip of guilt shooting through her, but Alex tamped it down. She'd deal with it later. She was absolutely sure her mother would understand why Alex had had to leaveshe was just in no hurry to hear how much worry she'd caused by taking off.
After all, Alex was a bright, capable adult and if she wanted a vacation, why should she have to jump through hoops to take one? There, she was feeling better already. Until she picked up on the fact that her would-be admirer was still talking. Honestly, she was trying to stay under the radar and this man was drawing way too much attention to her.
Trying to ignore him, Alex quickened her steps, moving in and out of the ever-shifting crowd with the grace earned from years of dance lessons. She wore a long, tunic-style white blouse, blue jeans and blue platform heels, and, at the moment, she was wishing she'd worn sneakers. Then she could have sprinted for some distance.
The minute that thought entered her mind, she dismissed it, though. Running through a crowd like a lunatic would only draw the notice she was trying to avoid.
"C'mon, babe, it's lunch. What could it hurt?"
"I don't eat," she told him, "I'm an oxygenarian."
He blinked at her. "What?"
"Nothing," she muttered, hurrying again. Stop talking to him, she told herself. Ignore him and he'll go away.
She headed for the landmark right ahead of her. The snow-topped mountain in the middle of Anaheim, California. This particular mountain was probably one of the best known peaks in the world. Alex smiled just looking at it. She lifted her gaze and watched as toboggans filled with screaming, laughing people jolted around curves and splashed through lagoons, sending waves of water into the air. The line for the mountain was a long one and as her gaze moved over the people there, she saw him. He was watching her. A big man with black hair, a stern jaw and a plump baby on his hip.
In one quick instant, she felt a jolt of something like "recognition." As if something inside her, knew him. Had been searching for him. Unfortunately, judging by the black-haired little girl he was holding, some other woman had found him first.
"Quit walking so fast, will ya?" the annoying guy behind her whined.
Alex fixed her gaze on the sharp-eyed man and felt his stare hit her as powerfully as a touch. Then his eyes shifted from her to the man behind her and back again. He seemed to understand the situation instantly.
"There you are, honey!" he called out, smiling directly at Alex. "What took you so long?"
Smiling broadly, she accepted the help he was offering and ran to him. He greeted her with a grin then dropped one arm around her shoulders, pulling her in close to his side. Only then did he shift his gaze to the disappointed man.
"There a problem here?" Her Knight in Shining Denim demanded.
"No," the guy muttered, shaking his head. "No problem. Later."
And he was gone.