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"It's only two million. Is that going to be a problem?"
Lexi Titan forced herself to smile. "Not at all," she lied, wondering if John, her banker, had lost his mind. Two million dollars? She had to come up with two million dollars in twenty-one days? Oh, sure. She would just go home and dig around for loose change in her sofa. There had to be a million-dollar bill or two stashed under the cushions.
"You could always ask your father," John said, studying the papers on his desk as if they were the most interesting thing in the world.
Lexi smiled. "Thanks so much for the information," she said as she rose. Ask her father? Not likely. Even if Jed Titan was willing to bail her out, having to go to him would cause her carefully executed three-year plan to crumble and die. "I'll get back to you."
"Soon, Lexi," John told her, standing and shaking her hand. "You only have three weeks to come up with the money or you lose everything."
Having the ability to sum up the disaster of her life in a single sentence was quite the gift. She hoped John appreciated it.
"I'll figure it out," she told her banker. "Talk to you in a few days."
John looked uncomfortable. "Actually I'll see you tonight, at your sister's benefit."
Where he would spread the news of her failure far and wide? "Are bankers like lawyers? Do you have to keep this sort of thing to yourself?"
"Yes," he assured her. "There's a code of ethics. I won't say anything."
She hoped he was telling the truth. "Then I'll see you tonight," she said, pretending an enthusiasm she didn't feel. She picked up her purse and walked out of the elegant office.
Frustration and annoyance hurried her along the carpeted hallway. She ducked out the nearest exit and found her car in the parking lot. Once inside, it was all she could do not to bang her head against the steering wheel. She could accept that bad things happened. What she hated was when they were her fault.
"You gotta be tough if you're gonna be stupid."
The familiar phrase, spoken in her head by a voice from the past, made her groan. She was in really big trouble and she had no one to blame but herself.
Thirty minutes later she'd left Dallas behind and entered the city limits of Titanville. She ignored the sign that told her to go thirty-five and sped down the divided road. The crap pile that was her life got a little deeper when she heard a siren behind her.
Lexi pulled over and lowered her window. She waited until the deputy approached her car, then pulled off her sunglasses and sighed.
"If you're going to arrest me, could you rough me up a little first? Then I could sue the department."
"Because it's a slow week?" the deputy asked.
"I'm running a little short of cash."
"How much are we talking about?"
"Two million dollars."
Deputy Dana Birch whistled. "I have a new twenty-percent-off coupon from Linens 'N Things in the car, but I don't think that's going to cover it." She glanced at her watch. "Want to talk about it? My lunch break starts in fifteen minutes. I can meet you at Bronco Billy's."
Lexi nodded. "That would be great. I'm going to whine, though."
"I'm used to it." Dana sounded cheerful. "Now stop speeding. You know that really pisses me off."
Fifteen minutes later Dana slid into the booth across from Lexi. It was early, only eleven-thirty, so the place was still quiet. Lexi had spent the time waiting for her friend studying the various Clint Eastwood movie posters on the wall. Bronco Billy's celebrated all things Clint. His movies played endlessly on TVs scattered around, T-shirts and DVDs could be purchased and the "Do you feel lucky, punk" sundae was a regional favorite.
Dana ignored the menu. "What happened?" she asked. "Someone rip you the wrong way during a bikini wax?"
Lexi pretended she hadn't heard the snarky question. Normally she and Dana had a great time sniping at each other about their very different views on female beauty. Lexi owned a luxury day spa and believed in making the best of what a woman had. Dana considered using conditioner on her hair during her daily three-minute shower more than enough girly stuff for anyone. Lexi wasn't sure Dana knew what mascara was for.
Dana wore her dark hair short, dressed in a uniform while at work and jeans and a T-shirt the rest of the time. They'd known each other since they were ten and Lexi had only ever seen her in a dress three times.
Dana leaned back in the booth. "Okay, you're seriously upset. What is it?"
"I wasn't kidding about the two million dollars. I need to figure out how to get it in twenty-one days."
"Are you being blackmailed or something?"
That made Lexi smile. "You're such a cop. No blackmail. Just me being stupid and greedy." She sighed. "When I left my dad's company to start my own business, I had that small inheritance from my grandmother. I got Venus Envy up and running but I was barely making it. I had no assets of my own, except my condo. Without the right balance sheet, being a Titan means a whole lot less than people think. Anyway, I was struggling. One day about two years ago, my banker called me. One of his clients was willing to loan me two million dollars for growth. The terms were simpleI would make payments. The guy didn't even want a piece of the business. I used the money to buy the building and completely expand and redo my spa. It was a dream come true. But there was a catch."
"There always is," Dana said.
"The investor's identity remained a secret and the loan was callable. He could demand full payment with only three weeks' notice." She shrugged. "The clock starts now."
Dana swore. "Is it your dad? This sounds like something Jed would do."
"I don't know," Lexi admitted. "I wondered that myself." Jed Titan was a legendary Texas businessman. Had her father given her the loan only to call it back as a test?
"The reason I want to say no," Lexi continued, "is that Jed isn't subtle. If he was screwing with me, I think he'd tell me to my face."
"Then who's the guy?"
"I haven't a clue. My banker won't tell me."
"What?" Lexi asked.
"Your banker. You have a banker. I know a little ATM machine by the grocery store, but we've never been more than friends."
"Everyone in business has a banker," Lexi said, but knew Dana didn't believe her, even though she should. Everyone thought being a Titan meant something. Maybe it didbut whatever it meant, it wasn't always good.
"What are you going to do?" Dana asked. "Seriously, I've got five thousand dollars in savings. You can have it, but I don't think it's going to help."
"You're sweet to offer, but no. That's the irony. Everyone assumes the Titan girls are rich, but we're not. Well, Skye has her inheritance from her mom but Izzy and I are just like everyone else. Living from paycheck to paycheck. Jed holds all the family money and he wants each of us to prove ourselves before we get a piece of the family business. That's what the day spa was about for me. My grand plan to prove I could make it on my own. I'm not going to lose everything to some faceless jerk. I'll figure out a way to get the two million. I'll do anything. I don't care what."
Dana tapped the badge on her left breast pocket.
"Careful there, little lady. You don't want to break the law."
"If I do, I won't tell you about it."
The waitress appeared. They ordered burgers and fries, along with Diet Coke, because balance was important.
"I hate that I was stupid," Lexi said when they were alone. "I hate that the most. I know better." She sighed. "Okay, I'm officially not going to whine for the rest of lunch. What's going on with you?"
"Your sister is a pain in the ass," Dana grumbled. "Skye is having one of her fancy parties up at the house tonight to raise money for her foundation and expects me to attend. She knows I loathe that kind of stuff." She rolled her eyes. "I have a friend who has a foundation. It's like living in an alternative universe."
"At least you can tell her no," Lexi reminded her. "I'll be required to attend. Not that I'm complaining. Maybe someone will drop a really expensive diamond necklace and I can pawn it."
Dana raised her eyebrows. Lexi's gaze dropped to the deputy badge again.
"Sorry," she murmured. "You didn't hear me say that."
"Fortunately I don't believe you'd do it. Look at the bright side. There will be a bunch of boring rich guys there. Maybe you can talk one of them into giving you a loan."
"I'm not sure I'd want to give them what they would require for that kind of money."
"There is that."
Lexi brightened. "Come with me. It'll be fun. You can mock everyone. You enjoy that."
"No, thanks," Dana said. "I have a date."
"With Martin?" It was all Lexi could do not to roll her eyes.
"Why do you say it like that?"
"Because Martin is just like all the guys you date. He's too nice and you boss him around."
"I do not."
"You do. You find these sweet, unassuming men who adore you and are terrified in equal measure. You completely control the relationship, then complain you're bored. You need to find someone who will be more of a challenge."
"So speaks the woman who hasn't been on a date in six months. You're not exactly an expert."
"I have a career to think about. A business."
Dana just looked at her.
Lexi dropped her head to the table. "That I'm going to lose in three weeks unless I come up with a miracle."
"Your sister runs a charity. Go ask her for the money."
"She won't give it to me. She hordes it for disad-vantaged children. You know Skye. She's practically a saint. It's annoying."
"Tell me about it. At the very least, there will be good food tonight. You can bury your sorrows in appetizers with funny names. Just don't drive drunk."
Lexi straightened. "You so need a man you can't push around."
Dana grinned. "There's no such animal."
"There is and I can't wait until you finally run into him. In the meantime I need to find a man I can push around. Or a miracle. At this point, I'd be very happy with a miracle."
Cruz Rodriguez had never believed that cars and women had much in common. He loved carsthey were his life. But they couldn't keep him warm at night
or in the morning. And even brand-new, they never smelled as good as a beautiful woman about to surrender.
He climbed out of his silver Bugatti Veyron and tossed the keys to the valet. The kid stood there, staring at his car.
"J-jeez. You're gonna let me drive that?"
Cruz looked at the car. "You going to damage it?" he asked.
"No, sir!" The kid walked closer, reached out a hand to touch the side, then pulled it back. "It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
Cruz grinned, then moved toward the massive house. Now it was his turn to stare at the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
Lexi Titan stood on the porch of Glory's Gate, talking to a couple he didn't recognize. Even from this distance he recognized her long blond hair piled on her head, the delicate, classic features of her perfect face. She laughed at something the woman said. The sound carried to him on the warm night air. It was a sound he remembered from a long time ago.
He knew all about Lexistatistics were easy to come by and he'd taken the time to remind himself about her. But he also knew other things. Like the way her skin felt in the shadows and how her breath caught when she couldn't help herself. That she hated her real name, and saying it would make her eyes narrow and her hackles rise. He knew pride was both her greatest strength and greatest weakness, that she played to win and unless her back was against the wall, she lost with a graciousness he'd never mastered.
She was old money and breeding. He was a guy who'd fought his way to the top. There were still plenty of social doors that were closed to him. Which was why he was here. He was ready to get those doors open
by force if necessary. And whether she knew it or not, Lexi was going to help him.
He took the half dozen or so marble stairs up to the front of the house, careful to keep several people between Lexi and himself. He didn't want her to see him just yet. He would determine when and where they met. He would have the advantage. A less confident man might wonder if she'd forgotten, but he knew she hadn't. No woman forgot her first time.
Once inside the house, he took a moment to admire the architecture of the structure. It had been built in the 1940s, when land was cheap and a man was judged by the power of his horses, the beauty of his women and the size of his house.
Twin staircases curved up to a second-story landing the size of an airport runway. The entry glittered with light that reflected on the black and white tiles. A grand piano hugged one of the curved walls because what was an entryway without a grand piano?
Although he'd never been to Glory's Gate before, he knew that the twenty-foot-high ceilings were hand carved. He noticed that the seemingly impenetrable walls of the two living rooms and parlor actually rolled away, creating a massive space that easily held five hundred. Now he walked into an elegant room mostly done in gold and sage green, with touches of red. The center parlor had been set up with rows of armless chairs for the auction that was to follow the cocktail hour.
He'd come to be seen, to rub elbows with the Texas elite. To find a way in to their high-class society. A charity auction would allow him to announce his presence with subtlety and class. If he spent money here, he would be invited to other charity events. Over time, he would be accepted. At least that was the plan.
He went deeper into the room, ordered a Scotch, neat, from the bar, then looked at the people he knew by reputation alone. He knew the exact moment Lexi entered the room, was aware of her chatting with the guests. As he watched her move toward her sister, he wondered how she was going to react when she saw him. Lexi Titan could give him everything he wanted. There was only one problemten years might have passed, but he was sure that when she saw him she would be far more interested in killing him than offering help.