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By the time the Perfect Moment arrived for Gabe Nelson to pop the question, his tongue felt like lead, too thick for the elaborate script he'd written in his head. So he decided to keep it simple.
"Will you marry me?"
Gabe held his breath as he got down on one knee and snapped open the robin's-egg-blue box. Inside a flawless two-carat, emerald-cut diamond sparkled, catching the light from the crystal chandeliers dotting New York City's famous Rainbow Room restaurant.
I don't know what to say." Kara Humphries, Gabe's girlfriend for the past six months, stared at the ring as if it were a two-headed hydra instead of a precious gem.
Not exactly the reaction he'd been hoping for.
He swallowed. Hard. His mind whirred through plans B, C and D. She hadn't exactly said no. There had to be some way to persuade her to accept his proposal.
"Say yes." Gabe took one of her perfectly manicured hands and brought it to his lips, kissing her palm for extra effect. Hell, he hadn't served four years in the Navy JAG corps, then clawed his way to the top spot in the Manhattan DA's Special Victims Bureau by giving up without a fight.
She pulled her hand away and tucked it under the napkin in her lap. "I'm sorry, Gabe. You're a great guy. Really. Any woman would be lucky to have you. But
Ouch. Direct hit. He stood and slunk back into his seat. With sweaty hands, he palmed the ring box, snapped it shut and stuffed it into the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He could feel his heart pounding under the cool cotton of his dress shirt. "Just not this woman, right? It's not me, it's you. Isn't that how the saying goes?"
" She looked down, her hands fiddling with her napkin. After a moment that seemed as long as the wait for his results on the bar exam, her gaze rose to meet his. "It is you. And me."
"What's that supposed to mean?" He tried not to sound hurt, but it wasn't easy. He wasn't used to setting his mind on something and not seeing it through. As far he was concerned, this engagement wasn't any different from negotiating a plea bargain. He and Kara belonged together.
He just had to seal the deal.
She lifted a hand to brush an imaginary lock of her always impeccable ash-blond hair from her cheek, then let it flutter back to her lap. "We both like jazz. The symphony. Sailing. Fine wine."
"Exactly." He raised his glass of 1998 Veuve Clicquotthe two-hundred-dollar bottle of champagne he'd specially chosen to toast their engagementand took a sip, eyeing her over the rim with a half smile. A kernel of hope settled in his chest and he sat a little straighter. She was making his point for him. "It's called compatibility. I fail to see the problem."
"That is the problem." Her voice broke and she took a deep breath. "There's no spark between us. I adore you, Gabe, and I hope we stay friends. But I planned to tell you tonight that I think we should stop seeing each other. We're too much alike. I need someone who'll challenge me, broaden my horizons, introduce me to new things."
He leaned in and studied her intently, his initial shock slowly receding. A mix of determination and curiosity took its place.
"I can introduce you to new things." Why not? She wanted adventure, he'd give her adventure. He could be as fun and spontaneous as the next guy. If he had enough time to prepare.
"Oh, Gabe. You're sweet. But your idea of a new thing is having red wine with fish instead of white. I'm talking about really living life. Taking chances. Not the same old boring stuff we always do."
His jaw tightened and he locked his fingers together. "So I'm boring?"
"Not exactly. Just predictable." She stood, placed her napkin on her plate and smoothed down her skirt. "I'm sorry, Gabe. I wanted it to work. Really, I did. But I can't pretend anymore, trying to make myself feel something that's not there. Someday you'll meet the right woman. I'm just not her."
She made her way through the restaurant, a chorus of whispers in her wake. An occupational hazard of being the daughter of a senator and one of New York's most prominentand wealthyphilanthropists.
He sat alone and uncomfortable, staring into his plate of shrimp scampi. What the hell had just happened? He had planned everything so perfectly. Perfect place. Perfect time. Perfect woman.
Or so he'd thought.
He was thirty years old, for Christ's sake. He wanted a wife. Kids before he was too old to enjoy them. Of all the women he'd datedand he was no John Mayer, but he'd gone out with his fair shareKara was the only one he could see in his life for the long haul. A real partner in every way, beside him at rallies and fundraisers. Entertaining guests, or relaxing together at the end of a long, stressful day, reading or listening to John Coltrane on his state-of-the-art sound system. Okay, so they weren't burning up the sheets just yet. That would come in time. Right?
But she'd said no. Said he was too predictable. Which, in his book, meant boring, no matter how she tried to sugarcoat it.
"Your check, sir."
Gabe looked up at the waiter's sheepish expression. He'd clearly witnessed the whole unfortunate scene.
"Here." Gabe took the leather holder in the waiter's outstretched hand, stuck his credit card inside without even looking at the bill and handed it back to him.
The waiter left, leaving Gabe alone. Again. He shifted in his seat and glanced around the dining room, catching the sympathetic looks of several patrons who quickly averted their eyes, like the waiter, obviously privy to his humiliation.
His very public humiliation.
Not soon enough, the waiter came back with Gabe's credit card. With a gruff "Thanks," Gabe scrawled his signature, downed the rest of his champagne and strode through the restaurant, slipping out into the New York night.
His apartment was only a few blocks south, but he headed in the other direction, toward Central Park. Not the best place to be at night, especially a night like this one. Ripe. Sweltering. Sure to lure out every crazy without air-conditioning. But he wasn't ready to go home yet. He needed to breathe, to think, and nothing cleared his head like a run in the park. Tonight his suit meant he'd have to settle for a brisk walk, even if it meant he'd be covered in sweat by the time he got to his apartment downtown.
He circled the sailboat pond, trying to figure out why he felt more numb than crushed by Kara's refusal, when a high-pitched voice from behind the boathouse froze him in his Ferragamo shoes.
"Get your fucking hands off me, or I'll knee your balls right through the roof of your goddamned mouth."
Gabe did a one-eighty and sprinted toward the sound.
A woman stood with her back to him, fists clenched. Her attacker lay curled at her feet, wheezing for air.
"No means no, asshole."
The guy let out a muffled moan and she bent over him, making her short skirt ride even higher up her toned thighs. Her fishnet stockings covered her long legs, disappearing midcalf into a pair of hot-pink Doc Martens.
"Okay, okay. You made your point. You didn't have to kick me so hard. Frigid bitch."
Gabe stepped out of the shadow of the boathouse. "Watch your mouth. And don't move a damn muscle. I'm calling the police." He pulled out his cell phone and started to dial.
"No cops. Please." The woman held out an arm as if to stop him, and Gabe caught a glimpse of a tattoo on her shoulder. A distinctive, familiar tattoo of some sort of forest fairy. "Freddie just got a little overeager. But I set him straight." She prodded him with one boot, eliciting another moan. "Didn't I, Freddie?"
Gabe's stomach clenched. "Devin?"
She pivoted slowly, her eyes widening and her mouth falling open in recognition.
Of all the white knights in New York City, why did Gabe Nelson have to be the one to ride to her rescue?
Devin Padilla stared at her best friend's brother and swore again.
"It's nice to see you, too."
She crossed her arms. "What are you doing here?"
"Heading home. Same as you should be." Disapproval dripped from his voice as he eyeballed her, frowning no doubt at her outfit of choice. Sure, the lacy camisole clung a little too tightly to her 36Ds and her short skirt showed off her J. Lo booty. But she was a bartender, for Christ's sake, not an astrophysicist. How was she supposed to earn enough tips to support herself and set something aside for Victor ifno, whenshe found him, if she didn't give her customers something to look at on top of her witty repartee.
"Isn't that dive you work at downtown?"
"It's not a dive. And yes, it is. Sometimes I pull extra shifts for a friend at The Mark." She never said no to extra cash, and she always raked it in at the Upper East Side hotel bar.
"Hello?" a voice interrupted from the pavement. "Injured man down here."
"Get up, Freddie. You're not hurt. I barely touched you."
"You know this guy?" Gabe asked.
"He's one of my regulars. Said he'd take me to the subway." She glared down at him, hands on her hips. Just another one in a long line of losers that had hit on her in the past six months. It was like she was wearing a sign that said Attention all guys. Are you mentally stable? Gainfully employed? Reasonably attractive? Then keep away. "The subway, Freddie. Not to heaven against a slimy park viaduct."
Freddie struggled to his knees. "It's not my fault. You've been giving me mixed signals for months."
"Mixed signals?" She raised one Doc Marten and aimed it at him, making him flinch before she broke off and scuffed the ground in front of him. He scuttled back like a frightened crab and she couldn't help but scoff. "How's that for a mixed signal, dirtbag?"
Gabe put a hand on her shoulder. "You're relieved from duty, Freddie. I'll see the lady home."
"Like hell you will." Devin shook off his hand. No way she was spending one minute more than necessary with Dudley Do-Right. No matter how dead sexy he was. "The subway's two blocks from here. I can make it just fine on my own."
"I'm sure you can. But a gentleman always makes sure his date arrives home safely." Gabe tugged off his suit jacket and wrapped it around Devin's shoulders, shielding themand the breasts barely concealed by her skimpy topfrom Freddie's prying eyes. "Isn't that right, Freddie?"
"I'm not your date." Devin's gaze ping-ponged from one man to the other. "Either of you."
"Humor me." Gabe's hand held steady against the small of her back. The shivers she hadn't noticed subsided, tempting her to succumb to the warm, reassuring feeling of a good man's touch.
"Have it your way." Freddie stood and backed away slowly. "But I'm telling you, man, the chick is trouble."
Devin started for him but Gabe held her back, and damn if his touch didn't make her quiver all over again. What was it about Holly's stuffed-shirt brother that got her engine revving faster than a dirt bike at the X Games?
It couldn't be the banging body she was pretty sure he hid under all those designer suitsbroad shoulders that led to an equally broad chest, narrow waist, lean hips and long, strong legs. Or his stormy, gray eyes, intense and mysterious, never revealing what was going on behind them. And it sure as hell wasn't his lips, full, firm and just right for hours of sensuous kissing.
"That's a chance I'll have to take." Gabe slid his hand to her elbow, leaving a trail of goose bumps in its wake.
"It's your funeral," Freddie tossed over his shoulder as he fled into the darkness.
"Asshole." Devin watched him disappear then turned to Gabe. "I appreciate your help."
"But you're fine. Yeah. Got it."
She shook off his jacket, thrust it at him and headed for the subway. She hadn't gone three steps when he caught up with her. "Nice try, but you're not getting rid of me that easily. I meant what I said. I'm taking you home."
His eyes sparked with something. Anger? Frustration? Devin's insides tingled in response. Maybe letting him take her home wasn't such a bad idea. Then he could take her against the living room wall. And on the kitchen counter. And in the.
"Besides, my sister would kill me if she found out I left you alone in Central Park in the middle of the night."
Right. His sister. Duty, not fantasy. Thanks for the verbal equivalent of a cold shower.
"Fine," she huffed. "But we're taking a cab. Your treat."
He took her arm, propelling her toward Fifth Avenue, where he hailed a cab. Hustling her inside, he gave the cabby her address, one he knew well since, until recently, his sister had lived in the apartment directly below Devin's.
"How is Holly?" she asked to break the awkward silence that descended once the cab pulled into traffic. "I haven't talked to her in almost a month. Since she and Nick left for Istanbul."
"She loves it there." Gabe loosened his tie and unbuttoned the first couple of buttons on his impeccably pressed white cotton dress shirt, revealing a triangle of fine dark chest hair. "But my parents are worried sick about her. I can't believe her doctor let her travel in her condition."
Devin swallowed hard and turned to stare out the window. She'd tattooed her share of gorgeous, muscle-bound men and hadn't so much as blinked. But one glimpse of Mr. GQ's freaking chest hair and she was practically hyperventilating.
"News flash," Devin said when she could finally breathe again. "Holly's not due for like five months. Women in her condition travel all the time. And Nick added an ob-gyn and a nurse to their entourage."
With his money, he could have a fully staffed maternity ward on set if he wanted to. And she had no doubt he would if shooting on his latest Trent Savage pic went longer than expected. She'd never seen a couple as devoted to each other as Nick and Holly. It was almost enough to make her forget what a fucking farce love could be.
They lapsed back into silence. Devin focused on the blurred buildings speeding by outside the grimy window. But no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't ignore Gabe, sitting only inches away. His thigh brushing hers when he shifted. The scent of his colognecitrusy, with a hint of cedarteasing her senses.
"Can I ask you something?" His words tumbled out, like he was afraid if he didn't say them at light speed, they wouldn't come out at all.
"Uh, sure." She turned to him with a shrug. "I guess so."
"Would you say I'm
" He raked a hand through his close-cropped, chestnut hair. "Do you think I'm, well, boring?"
Devin almost choked. Boring? Seriously? Of all the words in the English language, boring was just about the last one she'd choose to describe Gabe Nelson. A little strait-laced, maybe. Serious. Panty-meltingly hot. But boring?