Tori's Stories

     His mom and dad were coming to the Finals. Cooper had been on the circuit for nearly twenty years, and this was the first time they'd agreed to come see him ride. He knew they watched him on television because sometimes his dad would call to critique his ride or his mom would call to see how badly he'd been injured. But they'd never come to an event before.
     Cooper wasn't quite sure how he felt about that. Glad that they would finally get to see him ride before he retired. Terrified they'd see him fail.
     "Hey, Cooper. Where've you been? Haven't seen you out much this trip."
     He looked behind him to see Leanne strutting her stuff, with the requisite big hair sprayed to a plastic sheen, overdone makeup and fake eyelashes, low cut jeans, and shit kicker boots. Her brightly-colored top was tied just under an impressive pair of fake boobs. There'd been a time when Leanne had given him a place to stay, a warm bed, and a home-cooked meal when he came to Cincinnati, but this time he hadn't bothered to look her up.
     "Not feelin' up to partyin' these days, Leanne."
     She sidled up close behind him, thrust her pelvis against his butt, and slid her arms around his waist. "We could take the party back to my place, just the two of us. I have some steaks in the freezer and beer in the fridge."
     Cooper removed her hands from his belt buckle and stepped away. "Not this time."
     A hurt look passed across her face before her eyes turned frosty. "Well, ain't that just great. All these times you've taken advantage of my hospitality and suddenly I'm not good enough? Is that it?"
     "No, that's not it." Cooper sighed. Actually, that was part of it, but he didn't want to hurt her. He just wanted her to go away. "I got hurt pretty bad last month. I'm still recovering, and I have to be in top form for the finals. Just trying to take things easy."
     Leanne perked up a bit. "Are you gonna give me a buckle this time? I mean, with you about to retire and all, what do you need them for?"
     Cooper's head snapped up. "Where did you hear that?"
     "Here and there. You know how people talk."
     "Well, I'm not dead yet, so don't go planning my funeral. Have you ever known me to give up my buckles? I send 'em home to my dad. So no, sorry. You won't be getting one this time, either."
     Leanne gave him a murderous look and turned on her pointy-toed boots, forgetting to swing her hips as she stomped away. Moments later she was sidled up to another rider and getting the attention she seemed to think she deserved.
     Cooper chuckled and shook his head. So much for true love.
     The thought of retiring filled him with anxiety. This was the only life he'd known since he was a green kid in hand-me-down spurs. He knew he could teach on his friend's ranch like he'd been doing in the off season for years. But with his parents getting older, he needed to think about going home. But he also thought about having a family of his own. He hadn't met the right woman yet, and probably wouldn't back in the two horse town of Morris Springs.
     Then again, he sure wasn't finding what he wanted on the bull riding circuit.
     He wanted a real woman, one with all her own equipment, a fresh-scrubbed, clean face, who wasn't looking for a ride and a buckle. That wasn't too much to ask for, was it?
     Now that he'd screwed his chance to sleep in a real bed this trip, Cooper retreated to his cheap motel room and stretched out on the worn out mattress. His joints ached and he was tempted to take another pain pill, but he resisted. He had to ride later that evening and he needed his mind clear. It took every bit of concentration he had to stay on a bull, and the pain pills dulled his senses.
     After tossing and turning for nearly an hour, he gave up and took the medication. He set the alarm so he wouldn't oversleep, and finally drifted off.
     Three hours later, the alarm dragged him from a deep sleep. Just as he'd feared, his brain felt fuzzy and his reactions sluggish. He took a shower, turning the water to cold in an effort to shock his body awake. He only had a few more weeks to go before Vegas. He was in a good position, points wise. But the toll on his body was mounting and every ride seemed harder than the one before. Tonight he'd drawn a rambunctious bull he'd never managed to ride to the buzzer. But there was no way in hell he'd let that bull throw him this time.

     "Good Lord, ladies. I do believe I've died and gone to cowboy heaven." Carol Tanner glanced around the decorated dance hall at the local cowboys, decked out in their Saturday night best--tight-fitting, starched blue jeans, brightly decorated shirts, hand-tooled leather belts, and boots that probably cost them a week's pay. She deliberately skipped her gaze over Jake Reilly, whose intense gaze hadn't wavered from her face since she stepped into the building. Tonight she'd forget about Jake and enjoy herself, or die trying.
But as hard as she tried to ignore him, she had to admit he did look hot tonight. Pissed, but hot.
     "Now that is one fine example of prime male physique." Jean Sutherland sighed as a tall, muscular cowboy passed by.
     "Just another reason to love this town," Nancy Phillips drawled, with a wink aimed at the cowboy under discussion. "So why are we just standing here? Let's go see what kind of trouble we can stir up."
     Logan and Megan Tanner shook their heads and laughed as the three single women headed into the crowd on the dance floor. Logan took baby Charlie from Megan's arms and kissed his wife's cheek. "I'm glad I married you before that bunch had a chance to corrupt you with their wild ways."
Megan grinned. "Who said I wasn't corrupted? I married you, didn't I?"
     "So you did." He turned to his daughter, Katie. "Listen, you can go meet up with your friends, but do not go outside after dark, do you understand? Most of these cowboys are harmless enough, but some are drifters that we know nothing about. And check in with Megan or me every hour."
     Katie sighed. "I'm not a kid, Dad. See you in an hour." She hurried off, waving at a group of girls gathered around the groaning buffet tables.
     Logan watched her go, wishing she was still young enough that he could keep her by his side. She'd grown into a beautiful young girl. No longer a child, but not yet a woman. "Remind me again that she's still only fourteen?"
     "Fourteen going on twenty," Megan said. "It's all uphill from here."
     "Logan, Megan. Good to see you stepping out for a change." Jake Reilly handed Logan a beer. "You want me to get you something to drink, Megan?"
     "I'd love a root beer, Jake. Thank you."
     When he came back with the icy drink, his face was stormy. "That sister of yours is asking for trouble," he told Logan.
     "Why? What's Carol up to?"
     "Out there on the dance floor, making eyes at those range rabbits. Don't even recognize some of those men. Asking for trouble, I'm telling you."
     "She'll be okay. We'll keep an eye on her. Why don't you go ask her to dance? You're the one she wants to be with, anyway, and you know it."
     Jake shook his head. "I'm going to sit this one out."
For the next hour, Jake watched from the edge of the dance floor as Carol two-stepped her way across the room with first one cowboy, and then another. Every once in a while, he caught her glancing his way--whether to see if he noticed her or hoping he'd ask her to dance, he didn't know. But he noticed, all right. How could he help it? With her skin tight jeans outlining her curves, the close-fitting sweater accentuating her breasts…
     His hands clenched into fists as yet another man cut in and swung her away, out of his sight.
     "You'd better go get her, Jake, before you decide to take out half the town with your fists." Logan leaned against the wall with Charlie tucked against his chest. The baby was sound asleep despite the loud music.
     "What makes you think she'd dance with me? She hasn't spoken to me in two years."
     "You ready to tell me why?"
     "No." Jake scowled at Logan. "It's none of your business."
     "Maybe, maybe not. She is my sister, so I expect anything that has to do with her happiness is my business."

     If someone asked Logan Tanner what hell was, he'd say living in West Texas and working on the family ranch. He hated the wide open spaces, the red dust coating every surface, the sight of pump jacks bobbing up and down, pumping out thousands of barrels of oil, never stopping. The unrelenting sun in the summer, the bone-chilling cold of winter. Every time he returned for a visit, his skin itched as though fire ants marched beneath the surface.
     "Come on, Logan. I'm not asking you to move home permanently. But I need your help to take care of Dad and the ranch." Carol slid an arm around Logan's shoulder and squeezed. "He's worried about it and the animals and it's making him anxious and upset, so I told him we'd take care of things for now."
     "You don't know what you're asking." He was going to be sick. He couldn't let Carol do this alone, but he couldn't endure weeks, maybe months, out here.
     Carol's brown eyes clouded with worry. "It's only for a few months, while he goes through physical therapy. You can design your games as easily here as you can in Dallas, and I can use Dad's kitchen to make my soaps."
     "It's more than that, Carol. I can't be this far from home. I have meetings to attend, I have an apartment. I have a life. I can't just pack up and move." Even as he protested, he knew he was stuck. His stomach churned and sweat broke out on his brow.
     "Logan, what on earth is wrong with you? You're white as a sheet." Carol took his arm and led him to the window seat beneath a stained glass picture of Jesus holding a young lamb. "Sit down before you keel over. This will be good for you. You've been working too hard, and you need some fresh air and sunshine."
     He put his elbows on his knees and rested his head in his hands. He couldn't spend months listening to the wind howl. Months blistering his hands stringing fence and burning his skin under the blazing sun. Think! There has to be another way. "We can hire someone. I'll pay whatever it costs."
     She shook her head. "No. You know Dad wouldn't stand for it. He's always worked the land himself. If we bring someone else in, he'd never forgive us. Like it or not, it's up to us. Or me."
     Damned if he did. Damned if he didn't. "But I have to go to Baton Rouge. I have to see Katie, find out if she's all right."
     "Logan, I'm sure Katie is fine with her mother. I know you're hurt and angry because Sue Ann won't let you talk to her, but a few weeks isn't going to make that much difference. And your lawyer is working on it, right?" Carol put her hands on her hips, ready to fight for what she knew was right. "There's no one else to take care of Dad, so it's up to us. I don't want to put him in a nursing home."
     Logan felt trapped, suffocated as though he'd been buried alive. He'd thought he was free. That he'd never have to return to the life he'd hated since he was twelve years old. "But I have an apartment, a job."
     Carol spit out a curse that would have sent Mama running for a bar of soap. "You can sublease the apartment. You can design computer games anywhere. They do have electricity and Internet service out here, you know. They even have running water."
     "Very funny. And where will I find someone to sublease the apartment? I can't let a total stranger move in."
     "Well, there's Megan, my friend from A & M. She graduates next week and she's looking for a place for the summer. You haven't met her, but I can vouch for her."
     "Great. Just what I need, a college kid who'll have wild parties and tear up my furniture."
Carol rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. "Megan is not a kid, and she's not like that. She's very responsible."
     "Uh-huh." Logan wasn't convinced, but his arguments were weakening. He tried to think of another excuse that would keep him out of Lynn County.
     "Are you going to help me or not?" She plopped down on the seat and looked up at him through her long, dark eyelashes. "Please?"
     Damn it. She'd been doing that since she was old enough to talk. Using that pleading tone of voice that guaranteed he'd give her whatever she wanted. He could only think of one time it hadn't worked. When she'd wanted two of his condoms "just in case" the night of her senior prom. He'd decked Jake Reilly that night, just because Carol had thought of having sex with him.
     "Oh, hell." He leaned back and lifted his eyes to the stained glass window. "You'd better stick close by, Lord, or we're all going to hell in a hand basket."

Greendale, Texas 1997

      Madelyn Cooper shivered in the air conditioned doctor's office, wearing only a cloth gown as a shield against the cold. But it was more than the temperature making her shaky. Being not quite eighteen, pregnant, and the daughter of a murderer seemed to have the same effect.
     The examining room door opened and Doc Myers walked into the room, a frown on his face. "Maddie," he said with a quick nod.
     She tried to smile, but just didn't have the energy.
     "I see you're complaining of exhaustion. Have you been taking your prenatal vitamins?"
     "Yes, every day." She hated them. They made her nauseous, but so did everything these days. Her whole damn life made her sick.
     Doc wrote on her chart, then set it aside to check her blood pressure. As he squeezed the bulb and cut off her circulation, he asked, "Have you given any more thought to what we talked about last time?"
     What a round about way to refer to abortion. And her answer had not changed, even though her circumstances had. "I'm not getting rid of my baby, Doc. No way."
     Doc sighed and removed the blood pressure cuff. "Maddie, surely you aren't planning to have this baby after what's happened? Rand will never forgive you, so any idea you had about marrying him is gone. Hell, the whole town is against you right now. What kind of life will that be for a child? You have no one left, your father is in jail, and you can't even take care of yourself, much less a baby. Being a single mother is hard enough when you have a support system."
     Maddie lifted her chin, defiant. "I don't care, Doc. We'll be fine."
     He shook his head. "No, Maddie, you won't. You won't be able to find a job. There isn't a single person in the entire county who would hire you right now. And you need to worry about reprisals. I don't think you understand how angry everyone is about what your father did." He listened to her heart and lungs, then hung the stethoscope around his neck. "Look, I feel bad about what's happened. You've had a rough time of it since your mom died. I'm going to give you some money, enough to help you get out of town and make a new start somewhere else."
     Maddie shook her head. "I don't want your money, Doc. I'm leaving for a while anyway. My aunt is coming to take me home with her until the baby's born. All I need is a refill on my vitamins to hold me until I find a new doctor."
     Doc seemed to relax a bit. He patted her knee like he had since she was a toddler. "Well, I think that's a great idea, Maddie. Your aunt lives in Dallas, right? Far enough away and big enough for you to blend in, hide out. But I still think you should consider terminating this pregnancy. The last thing Rand needs is for you to spring something like this on him. Poor boy is devastated. He hates you now, you know."
     That broke Maddie's heart. She didn't kill Rand's parents, though she might as well have. They were dead and he refused to speak to her. And now her baby would never know its father.
     "So," Doc said, heading for the door, "when do you leave?"
     Was it her imagination, or did he seem especially anxious for her to go? He'd been good friends with the McCades for many years, so he probably hated her, too. "I'll be gone by this afternoon, Doc."
     "Good. He nodded and started to leave, turning back for one final shot. "And Maddie? Don't ever come back."

     Gage Deveraux curled his fingers around the amulet, felt the incredible energy sealed within the hammered brass, and shuddered. In the wrong hands... He would just have to make sure it didn’t happen. "Thank you," he said to the old cleric who had placed it in his hands with great care. "I will guard it with my life."
     "No!" the old man shouted. "Do not guard it. Destroy it. Take it away in your helicopter and drop it into the depths of the ocean. Do not keep it. It will destroy you."
     But Gage didn’t hear him over the roar of the blades that churned up the desert sand and flung it into his face. He waved and jogged toward the chopper, scrambling aboard as it lifted into the air and swung away towards the base camp.
     He settled into the seat next to the pilot and watched as the old man grew smaller, merely a speck against the sand. Something nagged at him, but he wasn’t sure exactly what it was. How had the old man known he’d be in this place, at this time? Why had he entrusted him with an ancient Babylonian treasure that supposedly held such tremendous power? And what was he going to do with it, now that he had it?
     "ETA twenty-seven minutes, Captain," the pilot said through the headset.
     Gage nodded without taking his eyes off the amulet. It still pulsed within his hand. Heat radiated from it, warming the skin of his palm. Maybe the best thing would be to destroy it so that no one could ever attempt to use its power. But this entire mission was about stopping those who were stripping Iraq of treasures just like this one. He would be going against orders if he destroyed it.
     Still, even a strong man could be tempted by power such as this...

     It was a terrible day to scatter ashes. The night was rainy and cold, miserable with the storm whipping the ocean into waves that thundered and crashed against the shore behind her. But Caitlyn Deveraux had missed the last two chances because she hadn’t been ready to let Gage go. Now that she’d made up her mind, it had to be tonight. She couldn’t stand to look at the urn on her mantle until the next full moon. A full moon, exactly at sunset. He’d left precise instructions in his will.
     Standing at the end of the Santa Monica pier, Caitlyn clutched the cold brass vase to her chest as a gust of wind tried to blow her back from the railing, yanking at her coat and tossing her hair around her face. She brushed it out of her eyes and tucked the strands beneath her collar. The rain soaked her face, mixing with the tears on her cheeks, numbing them. Cold. So damned cold. Drawing on the courage of her ancestors, even though she continued to pretend they didn’t exist, she removed the lid and looked inside. Ashes. All that was left of Gage. All that was left of her family. Of her life.
     It was time.
     Caitlyn leaned over the railing, fighting the dizziness. She hated heights, even though there was a sturdy rail between her and the water, and only her love for Gage kept her in place. It took two tries to let him go. Before she could lose courage again, she turned the urn upside down, shook it, and spoke the strange words he’d written. Words of the Anasazi, the lost ones--who couldn’t be lost enough as far as she was concerned.
     As his remains drifted toward the ocean, a gale-force gust of wind took her breath away. The ashes blew back in her face and she gasped, inhaling the acrid residue.
Caitlyn dumped the last of the ashes from the urn and fled, gagging, back across the pier, stumbling along the boardwalk to her car.
     Oh God. To breathe in Gage’s ashes…

     "Merry, you need to get that article in by tomorrow morning if you want it in next month's issue."
Merry Peterson nodded and resumed typing. "I'm working on it. I'll meet the deadline."
Merry's editor, Jennifer Miller, laid a folder on her desk. "Here's your next assignment. Your deadline is in two weeks."
     There went her weekend. Merry was tired. It was nearly Christmas and she hadn't even started her shopping. Though she didn't care for the commercialism of the holiday, she missed her family and she wanted to take her time picking out the perfect gifts to send back to Boston.
     She shoved the thoughts aside and concentrated on finishing her article on New Year Resolutions. The bi-monthly issue of Dallas Beats would hit the stands at the end of December, so she couldn't afford to miss her deadline. The folder on the corner of her desk tempted her, but she resisted the temptation to see what other nonsense her editor had assigned her.
     Two hours later, Merry finished the article and sent it to Jennifer. Her curiosity finally got the best of her and she read her next assignment. Her nose wrinkled with distaste. What was Jennifer thinking?
Merry tucked the folder into her laptop bag and hurried outside to catch the last bus. She hated working late, hated waiting in the dark, freezing, for the crowded bus to arrive. To make it worse, the bus would be crowded with shoppers and packages. She should have driven her car to work, but the cost of parking made that impractical.
     When it finally arrived, the bus was overloaded and looked like it couldn’t possibly hold another passenger. But it was either force her way on or pay more than she could afford for a taxi. Merry took a deep breath and pushed her way through the crowd.
     There wasn’t a single seat left, and not much in the way of standing room. She grabbed a spot in front of a department store Santa Claus and smiled at the sight of the man decked out in full Santa gear. She’d always loved visits to Santa as a small child and remembered well her disappointment when her mother told her she was too big to sit on Santa’s knee anymore. And then she'd stopped believing in Santa Claus altogether.
     The bus lurched away from the stop and almost sent Merry flying down the aisle. Santa grabbed her free hand and held her in place. "Thanks," she said. "This is going to be a long ride."
     Santa smiled and nodded. "I’d offer you my seat, but this costume is so bulky, I wouldn’t fit in the aisle."
     His voice was deep and smooth, and he sounded younger than she’d expected. His deep blue eyes twinkled when he smiled. Merry wished he’d pull off the fake beard so she could see his face. "That’s okay," she told him. "I’m fine."
     That wasn’t quite true.  She was far from her family, and she’d be spending Christmas alone for the very first time. Unexpected tears welled in her eyes at the thought of the lonely days ahead of her.
     "Hey, are you sure you’re okay?"
     Merry nodded. She was too choked up to speak. Looking around at the other passengers, she noticed that most of them were with someone else, chatting animatedly over the Christmas carols playing on the speaker system. Only she and Santa Claus seemed to be alone.
     The bus pulled to a stop and two more passengers crowded on. Merry let go of the pole in the aisle and scooted back against Santa’s legs to make enough room for a woman with an armload of boxes. When the bus pulled away from the curb, she found herself sitting in Santa’s lap.
     Before she could scramble to her feet, the woman with the boxes took her place at the pole and blocked Merry in so she couldn’t move. "This is so embarrassing," she told Santa. "I’m sorry."
     "I’m not. You’re the best-looking female I’ve had on my lap all day." He shifted her so that she was turned sideways, giving her room to move her legs. "As long as you’re here, why don’t you tell me your name and what you want for Christmas?"
     Merry laughed and brushed the tears from her eyes. "I’m too old to believe in Santa Claus."
     "Nonsense. It’s not a matter of age. It’s a matter of faith. Now what would you wish for if you could have anything?"

     It worked. Hot damn! It actually worked. After five years of research, she--Super Geek Keara Dane--had created a love potion that did everything she’d dreamed it would do--if the look on her young assistant’s face was any indication, that is. Gill West looked like a dog getting his first taste of steak. And she was that steak. Medium rare.
     "Gilly, don’t look at me like that." Good lord, the poor kid might be having some kind of attack. His eyes were fixed and dilated, his breathing rapid, his skin flushed. Maybe she should dial 911. "Yoo-hoo, Gill! It’s me, Keara. Your boss, remember?" She waved a hand in front of his face. He didn’t even blink.
     Uh-oh. This could be serious. It looked like an antidote was the next order of business. In the meantime, she had to do something about Gill. She couldn’t have him mooning after her in the lab. If Riley found out, she’d be in big trouble.
     "Gilly, go home. Right now. You can have the week off."
Instead of the excitement at the prospect of a paid vacation she’d hoped to see, he frowned and shook his head. Then he took a step closer.
     Keara stuck a hand out to halt his progress, but he took it and licked her palm. Eww-eww-eww, that was gross. She scrubbed her hand on her lab coat and used her sternest ‘I’m serious’ voice. "Gill, if you don’t go home right now, you’re fired!"
     This time her words seemed to sink in. His shoulders drooped and she felt like she’d kicked a puppy, but he pulled off his lab coat and hung it on the rack before he headed out the door.
     Thank goodness. If he stayed away for the rest of the week, she might have time to find an antidote before Riley learned she’d gone against his orders and developed the potion after all.
     At midnight, Keara gave up, put her experiments away, and cleaned the lab. Riley was due back from California in the morning, and she didn’t want to take any chances that he might discover what she’d been up to in his absence. She’d hit him with it at the right time, once she had the antidote working and he was in the right frame of mind. Preferably when he was too drunk to remember a word she said.
     Too bad he rarely drank.

"Hurry, Mommy. I wanna ride before it gets dark!" Melanie stomped her small foot and stuck her bottom lip out in an exaggerated pout.
“Calm down, honey. It won't be dark for a while yet. You have plenty of time." Sandy Morrow brushed her daughter’s blonde curls back from her forehead and relished the feel of the soft strands against her palm. God, she loved her little girl. A tomboy with a pixie face, Mel was a constant whirlwind of activity who tackled every task with a single-minded determination Sandy wished she could tap into for herself. She was also stubborn and hard-headed on occasion, and Sandy knew she let her get away with it too often.
Melanie looked forward every evening to getting on her tricycle, a "berfday" gift from her Uncle Ryan, and setting off on new adventures, usually with her best friend, Jenny, in tow. But Jenny was on vacation this week, so Melanie had been at loose ends and more demanding of Sandy’s time and attention than usual.
While her four-year-old chatterbox kept up the running demands to go outside, Sandy changed from her navy-blue pinstriped jumpsuit into a pair of well-worn denim cutoffs and a bright red tank top with a big yellow smiley-face on the front. She took her long hair down from its French twist and immediately felt her headache ease. She left her feet bare because she hated wearing shoes unless it was absolutely necessary.
In the kitchen, she filled a glass with sweet iced tea while Melanie tugged on her shirt as she hopped impatiently from one foot to the other. Sandy sighed and left the kitchen, crossed the short hall that led to the foyer, and opened the front door. As soon as she stepped outside, her daughter dashed out behind her, slamming the door in her impatience. Sandy winced and rubbed her forehead.
Melanie ran for her tricycle as Sandy settled into the swing on the wide front porch. "No farther than Jenny's house, then right back, understand?" Melanie waved without turning around and continued down the sidewalk.
A door slammed next door and a booming male voice yelled, "Jason, get in here right now!"
Oh, Lord, please. Not again. Since they'd moved in two weeks ago, the Thurmans had fought constantly. Screaming and yelling seemed to be their only method of communication, with slamming doors and rattling windows added for emphasis. Not once had Sandy heard them use a normal tone of voice.
All she wanted when she got home from work was a tall, cold glass of tea, the peaceful rocking of the old front porch swing, and time with her daughter. A few minutes to relax wasn't too much to ask, was it? Why couldn't the Thurmans have chosen somewhere else to live? Their constant fights made her stomach churn.
The Thurmans didn't belong in her quiet, family neighborhood. The streets were laid out so that most of them were dead-end, making traffic slow and sparse. It was a safe haven for the kids, a place to ride their bikes and skateboards, or to play soccer in the street. Now they had a teenager--an angry teenager with a drivers license--to watch out for.
Finally, after another door slammed hard enough to rattle the windows, the noise abated next door and Sandy breathed deeply as her taut muscles began to relax. She let one bare foot drop to the floor, pushing the swing in a soothing rhythm. Her eyes drifted closed. Just for a minute.
The front screen slammed next door, the loud snap jolting her upright. She glanced over to see Hunter Thurman, hands fisted in his front pockets, jaw tightly clenched. He didn't seem to notice anything around him as he glared at his porch floor.
When she'd first met him, Sandy was instantly attracted. It should be a sin for a man to look that good. He was tall and powerfully built, with thick black hair and chiseled features. He carried himself with the grace of an athlete and the perfect posture of a soldier. He'd greeted her with a wonderful little-boy smile, full of mischief, that crinkled his eyes and made her breath catch. Just shaking his hand had made her heart race.
Today he was wearing soft, form-fitting jeans and a green chambray shirt. She'd bet the jewel tone of the shirt brought out the depth of color in his hazel eyes. Eyes that made her think of moonlight and kisses, soft sheets and tangled limbs. Things she, as a single mother with responsibilities, shouldn't be thinking about.

     Caramia Kensington glanced around the lush hotel room and let out a sigh that was one part satisfaction and two parts jealousy. Satisfaction in a job well done. Jealousy that the only thing she’d get out of it was a paycheck.
     She’d created a seduction scene fit for a king, a sheik, or, in this case, the heir to a banking fortune. The room glowed with the flickering light of a hundred small candles, pulsed with the low background of sensual music, heavy on the bass as requested, enticed with the heady aroma of ylang-ylang and rose. As Cara checked last minute details to ensure everything was perfect, she wished once again that she could be on the receiving end of such decadent attention. Then she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and laughed.
     Blonde hair caught back in a pony tail, all-American girl-next-door complexion totally void of makeup, and a red and white striped t-shirt barely tented by her average B cup—the wholesome package didn’t exactly equal the kind of woman who would drive a man wild and make him willing to spare no expense to see to her pleasure. She felt a little like Cinderella dreaming of going to the ball.
     But since her check ran into four figures for setting up tonight’s little scene, she couldn’t complain. Much.
Cara ran her finger down the edge of her list, mentally checking off each item. Chocolate-covered strawberries: check. Champagne: check. Powdered sugar for dipping...or licking: check. Bubble bath and rose petals near the Jacuzzi: check. Edible body paints: check. Sex toys: check. Large box of condoms: check.
     She grinned at the last item. Sam evidently liked to think positively...or he thought he had a reputation to maintain. Okay, what else? Fruit tray, vegetable and cheese and bread trays, bottles of red and white wines, whiskey, and vodka. Soft drinks in the mini-fridge. Bowls of various kinds of chocolates and nuts placed around the room. Soft porn DVD’s stacked on the TV stand.
     Vases of flowers, brilliant with color and heavy with fragrance, blended rather than competed for attention. Music played quietly in the background.
     Everything was ready, and her latest client was due any minute. She flipped off the overhead lights, switched on the miniature lights--and turned the room into a fairy land.
     Oh my. It was gorgeous. She took a couple of photographs to add to her website before she backed out of the room and eased the door closed behind her.
     “It’s beautiful.” 
Cara spun around and saw nothing but a broad expanse of silk-covered muscle. She thought she recognized the voice, the scent, the rock-hard body. But it couldn’t be. He wasn’t due in town until Monday.
     She looked up. “Gray! What are you doing here? We don’t start training until next week.”
Grayson Montgomery wrapped his work-roughened hands around her arms and set her back far enough to look down into her eyes. “Happy Birthday, Cara.”
     “Huh? My birthday isn’t until tomorrow.” And she really didn’t want to think about it before then, either. She’d be—omigod—thirty!  A small gasp escaped before she could stop it.
Gray grinned, showing perfectly straight, perfectly white teeth that were the result of years of orthodontics and caps—the latter thanks to his love of contact sports.
     “I see you remember our agreement, Caramia.” He made her name sound like a lover’s caress.
Cara tried to back away, but the closed door at her back blocked her retreat. “No, I’d totally forgotten that silly promise. I figured you had, too.”
     His head dipped and she turned her face to avoid the kiss. Gray didn’t miss a beat. He kept going until his lips grazed across her collarbone, sending heat flaring through her midsection. Damn him. Why did he insist on teasing her like this? She wasn’t his type, really, so it couldn’t be true interest on his part.
     He went for the outdoorsy types; the rock climbers and skydivers and parasailers. The closest she got to the outdoors was her one true love—swimming. Put her in water, and she was in heaven. Saltwater or fresh, lake or ocean. So long as it was clear and wet, she was happy.
     But Gray had consented to work with her to improve her general level of fitness on the condition that she gave it her all and didn’t give up halfway through. She’d agreed, but that wasn’t supposed to start until Monday. This was Friday. He was three days early.
     Or else he was right on time. He couldn’t be serious about holding her to that old, outdated promise. Could he? But he’d turned thirty last week. She turned thirty tomorrow. And he was here.

     Regina Baker was going to strangle Sam Hyatt.
     She swiped the back of her hand across her sweaty face, leaving a streak of dirt on her cheek. He'd promised to be home by the time she finished today, and here it was after six p.m. and no Sam. It looked like she wouldn't get paid today like he'd promised. And darn it, she needed that check.
     Someone like Sam didn't understand the concept of living paycheck to paycheck. He'd never experienced an overdrawn checking account, the frustration of overdue bills. All he had to do was snap his fingers and money appeared like magic.
     Reggie gathered up her tools--shovels, rakes, hammers, stakes, water hoses--and loaded her pickup. She took her time, stalling, hoping Sam would show up before she finished. But no, she was ready to leave and still no Sam. He wasn't answering his cell phone, either. She'd left him three messages already. Which meant she would have to face the intimidating George and ask if Sam had left a check for her.
     Reggie smoothed her unruly hair into a semblance of a pony tail, scrubbed her face with the corner of her shirt, and dusted her hands on her blue jeans. Not that it would do a bit of good. Sam's butler would still look at her like she was a cockroach trying to find a way into the pristine Hyatt mansion.
     She took a deep breath and rang the bell.
     The butler opened the door and looked down at her. He didn't say a word, just waited for her to state her business.
     "Hi, George." Reggie straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin with an air of false bravado. "Did Sam leave a check for me?"
     George shook his head. "Not that he mentioned, Miss."
     Darn. "Well, do you know where I might find him?"
     "I'm not at liberty to divulge Mr. Hyatt's schedule."
     "Come on, George. You can drop the act with me. You know darned good and well Sam and I have been friends since he was still in short pants. I need the check for this job or they're going to repossess my truck."
     Did the corner of his mouth just twitch? She'd never thought George might actually have a sense of humor.
     "Well, you didn't hear this from me, Miss Baker. But you might try to catch him at the club."
     He started to close the door, but Reggie stuck her foot inside. "Wait! Which one?"
     His eyebrows arched. "Why, the Manor Country Club, of course."
     Reggie stared at the elaborately carved door. Of course. Like it was the only club in existence. Sheesh.
     She drove across town, fighting the horrific rush hour traffic, afraid Sam would be gone by the time she arrived. Her gas tank was dangerously close to empty, she had no cash on her, and her bank account was as empty as her tank. If Sam wasn't there, she was sunk.
     The reality of what she was about to do sank in as she pulled into the drive behind a stream of new Mercedes, BMWs, Corvettes and Hummers. Her ten year old truck let everyone know she didn't belong there. 

     Angel Kensington could feel the panic attack coming on. Sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat, chest pain, choppy breathing. She searched the kitchen for a distraction and grabbed a cinnamon roll from the counter. She peeled a section off and popped it into her mouth, concentrating on the flavor, the texture--anything but what her younger sister Cara wanted her to do.
     Caramia put a hand on Angel’s shoulder. "I know how hard it will be for you, really. But this is the most important day of my life. Doesn’t that mean anything? "
     She shrugged Cara’s hand off and moved to the other side of the center island. "You should know better than to even ask. Let Reggie do it." Angel turned to their mother. "Mom, tell her. Tell her I can’t do this."
     "Don't bring me into this. It wasn't my idea." Anna Kensington wiped the kitchen counter with a dishrag, shaking her head as her daughters continued to argue.
     "Just tell me why," Cara begged. "You at least owe me that much."
     Angel scowled. Why couldn't Cara just accept no for an answer and let it go? She'd managed to go sixteen years without letting anyone in on her darkest secret, and she didn't intend to start now. "Two reasons. I don’t want to have a panic attack in front of all those people, and you know that’s a distinct possibility. Second, I don't want to be paired up with Mitch Turner, but it's inevitable if he's going to be Gray's best man."
     Cara sighed. "You can take your meds before the ceremony to take care of the first problem. As for the second, you won't be paired up with anyone. All you have to do is walk out with Mitch, then you can stay as far away from him as you want the rest of the time. It's not like I'm asking you to date him."
     Damned good thing, but she still didn't want to do this. How could she not, though, without looking like a self-absorbed bitch? She'd tried very hard to not let her mother and sister know how often she had the attacks, or how bad they were. If they knew, they’d worry a lot more than they did now, and her mother would hover. She knew sixteen years was way too long for it to affect her. But she couldn't help it. She'd tried to put the past behind her, just forget it, but nothing worked.
     The panic attacks came without warning. Stress made them more frequent and stronger. Being in the wedding, being near Mitch, would shoot her stress levels through the roof. Maybe if she doubled up on Ativan… "Fine. But I don't want to be dressed up like some fancy peacock. I get to choose my dress or no deal."
     "No problem. You and Reggie and I will go shopping together. As long as I get to choose the color, you two can do the rest." Cara let out an audible sigh of relief. "Thank you. I want this wedding to be perfect, but how could it be without you in it to share it with me?"
     "Just promise me you won't try to do any matchmaking, or even try to make me dance with Mitch. Because I won't do it, and I won't be ladylike about saying no." Angel turned and fled the kitchen before Cara could press her for more details. Mitch seemed like a genuinely nice guy, but she didn’t trust him. She knew his family, and if he was anything like them, he had an ulterior motive behind those boyish good looks and southern charm.
     Ever since Cara and Gray had gotten back together, Mitch had made it his personal quest to draw her out. She didn't want to be drawn out. She liked her life just the way it was--safe and uncomplicated.
She had her online friends and her photography business to keep her busy. She didn't need, or want, a man in her life. She'd been there, done that, and had the heartbreak to show for it. 

    When Cassie Mills decided to moonlight, she was thinking of something along the lines of taking in typing or writing resumes. Demonstrating Purple Plumes of Passion didn’t even cross her mind.
    “Come on, Cassie. At least give it a try,” her best friend Julia Sorenson pleaded. “I’m making so much money, I’m thinking about quitting my day job.”
    “My mother would kill me.” That was an understatement. Sarah Jane Mills was the queen of appearances. If company came to visit, the house underwent a full, rigorous cleaning. It didn’t matter if the visitor was the preacher, family, or the Orkin man. Shoot, if her mother had a housekeeper, she’d make sure the house was spotless before the woman arrived to clean.
    “Damn it, Cassie. When are you going to quit worrying about what your mother thinks? You’re an adult, entitled to live your own life. Your mother isn’t worth all the angst you go through. It’s time to cut those apron strings.”
    Julia arched a perfectly sculpted eyebrow, reminding Cassie that her own brows were way past due for a wax. And she needed a manicure and pedicure, too. Damn, there went this week’s deposit to her savings account.
    “I know, I know. But now’s not the time to push her buttons. I just need to find a part-time job checking groceries or something.”
    Julia pushed a piece of paper across the Formica-topped table. “Read that and I’ll bet you change your mind.”
    Cassie scooted her breakfast plate out of the way and picked up her coffee cup. The Lone Star Diner, famous for its cheap, home-style bacon-and-eggs breakfast, was their favorite Saturday morning meeting place. It hadn’t changed a bit since 1970, when her mom and dad had carved their initials into the tabletop over milkshakes one Saturday afternoon. The initials were still there, right under her saucer.
    “I’m not going to change my mind.” But she picked up the paper and glanced at it anyway. Julia’s earnings for the first quarter jumped out at her. “You’re kidding me. For working part-time?” That part-time income was more than twice what Cassie made working forty hours a week, and Julia didn’t even have to put up with Belinda the Barracuda to get her paycheck.
    Julia smeared strawberry jam over her toast and used the knife to draw an x in the air. “Cross my heart and hope to die. Sex toys are hot. Everyone who comes to the parties buys something. Some of them drop a couple hundred bucks without batting an eyelash. I just take their money and dance all the way to the bank.”
    Cassie sighed. She wished she could be more like Julia, not worrying about what other people thought. But in the back of her mind, she could hear her mother’s voice-- “Cassandra Jean, what will the neighbors think?”
    “That’s great for you, but I’d get fired, not to mention disowned, if anyone found out I was selling that stuff. I can’t do it.” But it was tempting. Surely, for that much money she could hold up a big, purple dildo with a straight face, right?
    “Look, you want to move to Seattle so you can live in peace, sans relatives, right?”
    “Then one, you need money for the trip. Two, you need deposits for an apartment and utilities, DSL, groceries, and linens and three, you need money for all those other incidentals you always forget to count, plus money to live on for a couple of weeks until you get your first paycheck. So, how much are you putting aside each week right now?”
    Cassie thought about the anemic balance in her savings account. Not much. “I try to put a hundred a month aside, but things come up.” Like the brow wax. And the manicure. And it was time to have her hair trimmed. “Maybe I’ll just find the perfect man and get married, and we’ll move away together.”
    Julia crossed her arms and sighed loudly. “Look, how about just giving this a try? I’ll let you use my kit for the first party, you can see if you like it, and if you do, you can buy your own stuff out of your profits. That way it won’t cost you anything up front.”
    That seemed fair enough. But there was still that one nagging problem. “But what if my mother finds out?”
    Julia slapped her palms on the table hard enough to rattle the silverware, drawing stares from the other diners. “If she does, so what? If she says anything about it, tell her to fuck off. It’s about time you did that anyway.”
    Cassie laughed. You did not tell Sarah Mills to fuck off. “You’re right. I know you are. But the very idea scares me to death.”
    “Which idea? Selling sex toys, or telling your mother to fuck off?” Julia cocked an eyebrow, and Cassie knew Jules was waiting to see if she was going to cave to her mother’s disapproval, or take a chance on putting her plan in motion.
    She looked up and grimaced. “Both.” When Julia crossed her arms again and glared at her across the table, she gave up. “Fine. I’ll try it. But I’m not promising anything.”
   Julia grinned. “As soon as you get that first paycheck, you’ll be hooked. I guarantee it.”
   “Hooked, or hanged? Oh God, I can’t believe I’m even considering this.”

     Seeing Fitzgerald Real Estate Development Corporation on the door in gold letters normally filled Lacy with pride, but today it only reminded her how much she’d let her father down. Again.
     He waved her into his office. "Sit."
     She sat. When he used that tone of voice, she knew better than to argue.
     Her father leaned back in his chair and stared at Lacy as though he had no idea who she was. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he still saw her as a thirteen year old who’d just lost her mother, her anchor in life.
     She waited for him to speak, silently berating herself for getting into this mess. It was like being back in high school, waiting for the principal to decide whether she should be expelled or just suspended for smoking in the girl’s room. That hadn’t totally been her fault either. She’d done it on a dare, then the witch that bet her had tattled.
     Her father breathed deeply, wincing a bit as he inhaled. He didn’t look well. Why hadn’t she noticed that before? His skin seemed more wrinkled than usual, his shoulders more stooped. He sagged against his chair, as though sitting up took a great deal of effort.Before she could ask if he felt okay, he picked up a pen and tapped it against his chin a few times.
     "Lacy, you're twenty-five years old. You've been out of college for three years, yet you've done absolutely nothing with your degree. Your work history is sporadic at best."
     What could she say? He was right.
     "This latest stunt is the last straw.”
     "But Daddy, Suzanne and I were just having a little fun at Savvy’s to celebrate my birthday, and somehow I ended up trying to make some old lecher believe I was a hooker as a joke. How was I supposed to know he was an undercover cop?"
     He glanced her way and she looked down, pretending to study her fingernails. They’d had this conversation before. Different details, maybe, but still the same.
     "It's a damned good thing they took you in front of Judge Hayden. At least he knows you well enough to know you weren't really soliciting."
     Lacy looked out the window, away from her father's piercing glare. She could barely see Central Expressway through the rain. "You're right, Dad. I'm sorry."
    “I don't know where I went wrong. I tried my best to raise you right after your mother died, but somewhere along the line, I failed." Her father set the pen back on his immaculate desk top and leaned forward, his gaze direct and determined.
     She didn’t dare look away first. She was almost afraid to blink.
     "I'm cutting off your allowance. You'll either have to get a job or move back home, but I refuse to finance your escapades any more."
     Oh my God. This was the absolute worst, the meanest, cruelest thing he could do. She was dead broke at the moment, and most of her credit cards were at the max. If he cut off her allowance now—"You wouldn't. You couldn’t." But she knew, even as she said it, that it was a mistake.
     Her father looked up and grinned, as if she’d said exactly what he wanted to hear. Damn! When was she going to learn to keep her mouth shut? There was nothing he loved better than a good challenge. “Wanna bet?"
     She thought for a moment. He could, and he would, cut off her allowance. Up until now he’d been fairly generous, giving her pretty much whatever she needed without asking too many questions. Looked like those days were over. Should she take him up on it? She’d never lost a bet with him, but there was always a first time. “What are the stakes?”
     He thought for a moment before he leaned forward, rubbing his hands together. “I’ll give you five hundred thousand and—”
     “Just like that? You’re going to give me a half-mil and let me fly off to Monte Carlo?”
     He pointed a finger at her. “Listen up, or you’ll miss the terms. My patience only extends so far. If you aren’t willing to grow up and show some responsibility, you won’t get your hands on a dime. Is that what you really want?”
     “Of course not, Daddy.” She tried to look repentant.
     Her father flicked an imaginary piece of lint from the desktop. “Like I said, I’ll give you five hundred thousand, and you’ll use the money to start a business. I’ll let you choose what kind, as long as it’s a real business and not some cockamamie get-rich-quick scheme. You’ll have a year to get it up and running—and in the black—and you’ll do it with no outside funding, no help from anyone. If you accept anyone’s help, you forfeit immediately.”
     Lacy considered the idea. She’d thought about putting her fashion design degree to work but hadn’t been in any hurry to give up the party life for a permanent nine to five. But she could do it. She had some talent.
“What do I get if I win?”
     “I’ll turn the entire Chase account over to you instead of making you wait another five years to get it.”
     That made her sit up and take notice. There was a couple of million dollars in that account. “And if I lose?”
     “You’ll marry Devin Myers. As soon as the year’s up, or as soon as you forfeit.”
     At least now she knew what was really behind this deal. He’d been trying to marry her off to Devin since she’d graduated. She shouldn’t be surprised. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. “No. I know you think Devin would be the perfect son-in-law, but he’s not. He’d bore me to death in fifteen minutes flat. Pick someone else.”
     He shook his head. “Devin is dependable, he’s learning the business, and he’ll be a good, steadying influence on you. It’s Devin or no deal, no money, and no allowance. What’s the matter? Don’t think you can do it?”
     The gleam in his eye was a challenge she couldn’t resist. The old coot thought he could beat her. But he never had, not once in twelve years. There was no reason to think he might this time, either. And if she lost, she’d take her punishment, marry the Dweeb, and divorce him as soon as possible. All she needed was an ironclad pre-nup. One she wouldn’t tell her father about. One that would help her avoid consummating that marriage if she lost.
     Just the thought made her stomach roll. No way. She just wouldn’t, couldn’t, lose.
     Lacy looked up and met his gaze. "You're on."