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Matt Rome sat in one of the best steak houses in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Waitpeople moved between linen-covered tables that held flickering candles. The dim lighting cast a spell over the room. The piano player explored an old tune. Having dined earlier with the woman from his most recent affair, Matt was back for a late-night coffeeon a mission. He'd tipped the maitre d' generously to seat him in the section assigned to Brianna Costin. While he watched her wait tables, hurrying between the dining room and kitchen, he ran his fingers along the handle of his coffee cup.
Whenever he saw her, it only served to reinforce his opinion that she was one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. The fact that she was a waitress was no hindrance to his plans. Just the oppositeher status and income would probably make her more cooperative. She was tall with luscious curves and flawless skin. Her black hair was always thickly coiled at her nape. She suited his future plans fine.
His time and patience both had dwindled and still, he had no more likely a candidate for a paper marriage. Once, he would have given serious consideration to Nicole, the woman he'd had dinner with, but no longer. She was too demanding of his time. Their fight tonight had been the final push for them to break off relations. It had been easy to tell her goodbye when she'd issued an ultimatum to spend more time with her or get out of her life. His thoughts shifted to Brianna as she approached his table.
Usually his waitress now that he'd started requesting her, she was efficient and courteous. Beyond that, she seemed barely to take note of her patrons. Even though Matt always gave her impersonal courtesyas if he hadn't noticed her, he couldn't avoid watching her as she made the rounds. Sometimes she would glance his way, whether out of professional reasons to keep up with her patrons' needs, or something more personal, he had no idea.
It was half an hour until closing, yet a few diners still lingered. Holding a carafe of coffee, Brianna approached his table to refill his cup.
"Do you want anything else?" she asked. Even though she never held eye contact long, when he gazed into her thickly fringed green eyes, the contact fueled a primitive reaction.
"As a matter of fact, yes, I do," he replied. "I'm back to see you. I'd like to talk to you after work."
"I'm sorry. I never socialize with our patrons," she answered coolly, all friendliness leaving her voice. "It's better that way," she added without a flicker of change in her expression.
Unaccustomed to rejection, he bit back a smile. "I'm asking for an hour over a cup of coffee. If you prefer, you can meet me somewhere else. I promise you, I'm safe to be with," he said, reaching into his pocket to hand her a business card. "I'm Matt Rome."
"I know who you are," she replied. "I imagine everyone in Cheyenne knows who you are, Mr. Rome." Without glancing at the card, she pocketed it.
"It won't take long," Matt continued. "How's the Talon Club?" It was an expensive private club located at the top of one of the city's tallest buildings.
She smiled. "Thanks, but I don't believe they would allow me inI'm not a member."
"I belong to the club. If you'll meet me in the lobby of the building, after your shift, they' ll let us in. Or if you prefer, since it's three or four miles from your work, I can wait and follow you home to take you from your place."
As if mulling over his offer, she paused. "I have a feeling you intend to ask me something big. I can save you time by saying no now."
Again, he suppressed a smile. "This is not what you're thinking, I can assure you. Here isn't the place to talk. I would wager a sizable bet you'll be pleased we talked tonight."
For the first time since he'd met her he seemed to have her full attention as her eyes narrowed a fraction. He waited, his amazement increasing. Matt could usually outlast any silence at a bargaining table, though as time stretched, he decided she was sticking by her refusal. "I understand you can't talk as freely here," he said finally.
"That's for sure. My clothes might not be presentable for the club either."
"Yes, they are," he said, glad to find she was considering his offer. She wore what every other waitperson in the restaurant woreblack slacks and a black shirt, only on her, the outfit was as stylish as a high-dollar ensemble.
"Very well, I'll meet you in the lobby at a quarter before midnight."
"Excellent," he said, his eagerness making him laugh at himself. When had it ever been this difficult to get a woman to go out with him? He was more amused than annoyed.
"You don't intend to order anything else now?" she asked.
He raised his coffee. "This is sufficient. As a matter of fact, I'll take the check so they can clear this table."
She left to return in a few minutes with his bill. "Thanks."
"I'll see you in the lobby," he said, and she was gone. Congratulating himself on his victory in getting her to go out, he watched her walk away. The black slacks rode low below her tiny waist that was emphasized by the ties of her white apron. He wondered how her legs looked they were obviously long and slender. He liked watching her, mentally peeling away the slacks, wishing for a moment this was a restaurant where waitpeople wore skimpier clothing.
Despite the fact that she was reserved, and with obvious barriers, he remained interested.
Time seemed to drag in the lobby of the building that housed the club until the revolving door spun to reveal her. The apron was gone and her straight black hair cascaded over her shoulders. As she approached him, her hips swayed slightly. His desire stirred.
"I'm glad you came," he said, lust warming him.
"I'll reserve judgment on whether I can say the same or not."
He laughed. "I'll admit, the last woman who responded similarly was a little six-year-old girl in grade school, I think. I had some hostile encounters in the first grade," he said, expecting to wring a smile from her. Instead, she gave him another solemn glance and remained silent. "Let's have a drink and then we can talk," he said, motioning toward the dark, glossy elevators.
"Is this why you've asked for my section each time you've come to the dining room lately?" she probed as the elevator sped them skyward.
"Not exactly maybe partially. You're good at your job."
"Thank you," she answered, giving him the feeling she was hoping to get this meeting over with so she could go home. Her lack of interest was beginning to bother him.
The maitre d' greeted them and escorted them to a table by the window overlooking the city. On the table, a small candle threw a soft glow on Brianna, catching shining glints in her silky dark hair. They gave their drink orders, hers a limeade and his a glass of brandy. As soon as they were alone, she looked at him expectantly.
"I've wanted to meet you," he said, and something flickered in her eyes that made him suspect that she felt the sparks as much as he did. That awareness jolted him.
"Brianna, I've had my staff look into your background so I could learn more about you," he said. This time the flash in her green eyes was unmistakable indignation.
"I'd call that an invasion of my privacy."
"Not really. I only have information that is more or less public knowledge. You're from Blakely, Wyoming, the first of your family to attend college. You're enrolled in Wyoming University in Laramie, commuting from Cheyennethat one stumped me even though it isn't a long drive."
"I doubt if it gave the information that I found a better job here and I only have classes on campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays this semester, thanks to the convenience of online classes. So tell me what else you know about me."
"You have five siblings, two married sisters and three younger brothers. One brother is still in high school and all three of them work. You are a senior in college and you hope to go to law school."
"So far, you're right. How much deeper did you look into my private life? Do you do this with every woman you invite out?"
"Calm down," he said, noticing her words were becoming more clipped. Her irritation was showing.
"How's school going?"
"I have a suspicion you already know. I like my classes. So far, I have all A's."
"Commendable," he remarked. "And at the moment there is no man in your life. I'm surprised there wasn't one waiting in the wings. You're a beautiful woman."
"Thanks, and there isn't one, waiting or otherwise," she said with the first faint smile since her arrival.
"What do you really enjoy? Tell me about yourself," he said, leaning back slightly.
"I have the feeling I'm being interviewed for something," she said. "I like cold winter nights, roaring fires, roasting marshmallows. I like achieving my goals, living in the city." As she talked, he watched her. They were the closest face-to-face they had ever been, and she was even more gorgeous up close. Her green eyes captivated him, and he could only imagine them filled with passion. Her bow-shaped mouth and full lips made it impossible to avoid conjuring up fantasies of kissing her. She was composed, rarely gesturing when she talked with a soft voice that was as sexy as everything else about her.
"And what do you dream about doing?" he asked, trying to get through the barrier she kept between them. For some reason, probably out of her past, she had a chip on her shoulder. Or perhaps it was because any man with a pulse would try to hit on her. He knew she had men in her life on occasion.
"I dream about being a lawyer, having complete independence, helping my family."
"But on a more personal level? Everybody has hopes and longings."
"That's easy," she replied, smiling at him. "I want to see things I've never seen in real lifepalm trees, sea-shells, the ocean, tropics with balmy weather. I've never seen the ocean. Actually, I've never been out of Wyoming or even flown in a plane." For the first time, she looked as if she had relaxed with him. "I dream about going to Europe because pictures of foreign places are breathtaking. So, Mr. Rome, what do you dream of doing when you've probably already done everything in life you want to do?"
"It's Matt, not Mr. Rome. What do I want? That's part of what this is about," he said, pausing when their drinks were served. "I hope what I'm going to discuss is something appealing, not something threatening to you."
"Since we've been all around the mulberry bush, so to speak, why don't you tell me why I'm here?"
"I'm not certain being so direct is going to help you in law school," he observed.
"I'm not in law school tonight," she said, and he knew she was waiting for an answer to her question.
"This evening isn't going exactly the way I expected.
I'll grant that while I don't know you, I'd like to. Will you have dinner with me tomorrow night?"
When she stared at him in silence, he thought perhaps she was going to get up and walk out. "You could have asked me that when I was your waitress at dinner. It didn't take all this."
"I want to get to know you. Also, I had a feeling if I'd asked you then, you would have turned me down."
"You're right. I think there's more to this than going to dinner with you. Guys at the club ask me out often and they don't actually take me out ahead of time to do so."
"Let me guessyou've never gone out with any of them."
"You're right," she said. "You and the other men who ask me out want one thingmy body. I'm not in your social class and we both know that. I'm a waitress, you're a wealthy bachelor. Not all the men who've asked me out are even single. I've received explicit invitations when the wife is in the powder room. At least you're not married."
As she looked away, her cheeks flushed a bright pink. The color heightened her beauty, and he knew he wanted her body as much as any other man had. Every inch of her was enticing. So far, he also enjoyed being with herall reasons to support the argument that he was making an acceptable decision.
Zach Gentner's warning floated in the back of his mind. He could recall too clearly his best friend and chief investment advisor trying to talk him out of even thinking about getting to know her. Zach had his own arguments: her poverty-stricken background, her lack of education, her lower-class life, her large, uneducated family.
Worst of all, she was three or four weeks pregnant by a man who had run out on her. That last argument had almost carried the day for Zach, until the next time Matt had gone to the club to eat. With Nicole accompanying him, he had surreptitiously watched Brianna, finding he was still drawn to her. Because of her pregnancy she might possibly be an even more likely candidate. She would need the moneyno other woman on his list of candidates did. Until Brianna, the women he had taken out since college had been almost as wealthy or wealthier than he was. He knew, too, without any doubts, that all the other women on his list, including Nicole Doyle, would not want a two-year marriage of convenience. Not at all. He and Nicole had fought tonight over how seldom she had seen him. He was tired of her relentless dissatisfaction, which made him leery of choosing her as a candidate for his proposal.
Brianna seemed the perfect choice and when the marriage ended, she would be easier to get out of his life.
Leaning forward, she propped her chin on her fist and seemed to shake off the anger in her previous comment as she smiled at him. "So again, Matt, what's behind all this really?" Brianna inquired in a coaxing voice.
Desire flared. He wondered if lust had completely clouded his judgment as Zach had declared. Perhaps it had, because at the moment, Matt knew he craved her with an intensity that surprised him.