Dani was running late, which meant she wouldn’t be able to stop for coffee. Penny would probably have a pot going, but she was more into food than liquids, which meant the chances of getting a double shot latte with extra foam were about zero.
“Drive-through,” Dani murmured as she opened the front door and stepped onto the tiny porch of her rental. “Drive-through and-“
Her morning exploded into a blinding series of camera flashes and yelled questions.
“How long have you known the senator was your father?”
“Are any of your brothers his kid, too?”
“Are you asking the family for money?”
“Do you expect a cabinet position if the senator wins the election?”
Dani froze, stunned by the dozen or so people standing on her front lawn. Her inability to answer any of them didn’t seem to stop the bombardment of questions.
They called out to her, took her picture and seemed to be waiting for something. A reaction, maybe? They were going to have to accept wide-eyed amazement, because that’s all she had in her.
“Go away,” she managed at last and started toward her car.
Reporters surrounded her, pushing tape recorders in her face and shouting out more questions.
“What does Mrs. Canfield think about you being her husband’s daughter by another woman?”
“Are you going to change your name to Canfield?”
Dani made it to her car and managed to squeeze inside. She started the engine and shifted into Reverse, but the reporters continued to huddle around her car. Not knowing what else to do, she eased her foot off the brake and let the car start moving. At last the reporters withdrew.
Her relief was short-lived. As she backed onto the street, several of them ran to their cars. She blinked. There was no way they were going to follow her, were they?
It was like something out of a movie, only this was real and she didn’t know how to deal with it.
Her first thought was that she couldn’t go to Penny’s. Not with a parade of reporters behind her. She grabbed her cell phone and used speed dial to call Walker. The former Marine would know what to do.
The call went through to voice mail.
Dani swore. She drove through her quiet neighborhood, a six-car escort right behind her. She managed to lose two at the first light and three more at the second. Encouraged by that, she headed for a congested intersection, faked going straight, turned left on the yellow light and zipped around another corner. When she was sure she’d lost everyone, she pulled to the side of the road and called her other two brothers.
And got no one. Apparently they were all busy with their own lives. She stared at her cell for a second, then called information.
“Campaign headquarters for Senator Mark Canfield, please.”
Thirty minutes later, Dani was in a back booth at the Totem Lake Shad’s. She barely had time to order coffee before Alex entered the restaurant. He looked good as he walked purposefully toward her. Despite the trauma of her morning, she could appreciate the broad shoulders and long legs. If nothing else, he was a distraction.
As he slid in across from her, he passed her the morning paper.
“You didn’t see this?” he asked.
She scanned the headline and groaned. “No. I don’t read the paper or listen to the news in the morning. It’s too depressing. I guess I have to change that.” She quickly read the article. “How did this happen? I didn’t tell them. I swear.”
“I know it wasn’t you.” He explained about Bailey and the reporter and the puppy.
She stiffened in outrage. “That’s horrible. Who is the guy? I have a former Marine brother who would be happy to beat the crap out of him.”
“I already did that,” Alex told her.
The waitress arrived with Dani’s coffee. He ordered a second cup for himself. Dani used those few seconds to try to gather her thoughts and return to the real and rational world.
She held up one hand. “What did you say? You hit a reporter?”
He shrugged. “Nobody screws with my family.”
“Don’t get me wrong-I’m not complaining. I would have done it if I could have, but it’s still a surprise.” She would have thought Alex would be one of those totally controlled guys who never let emotion get the best of him.
One corner of his mouth turned up. “Tell me about it.”
“It’s impressive.” So there was a lot of passion lurking inside the tailored suit.
He was joking, but Dani thought there was plenty of truth in the statement. He was tough and basically a good guy. She couldn’t complain about him defending his sister. Which meant he was good-looking
“Can you do that?” she asked. “Hit a reporter? I mean I know you can. Obviously. You did it. But is it a good idea?”
Alex’s expression tightened. “It depends on whether or not the guy files charges. If he does, I’m looking at an interesting change in my future.”
Dani didn’t know what to say. Alex was a lawyer. Weren’t they supposed to uphold the law or something?
She leaned back in the booth. “Okay, this is all crazy and happening way too fast. Let’s start at the beginning. Some sleazebucket coerced Bailey into telling him about me. So the press knows and the story is out. What now?”
“Now we deal. You’re going to be hounded by the press, at least for a while.”
She’d been afraid that was what he was going to say. “Can we define both ‘hounded’ and ‘a while’? Are we talking days, weeks or do I need to move to Borneo?”
“Moving isn’t required, but it could take a while for the story to die down. Do you live in a house?”
She nodded. “A rental. Nothing flashy.”
“It’s not going to offer enough protection. You might want to think about staying with a friend until all this is over. Preferably one who lives in a secure building.”
She didn’t know anyone who fit that description. “I hate the thought of being forced to leave my home because of a story in the paper.”
His gaze was steady. “There’s having principles and there’s reality. The press can make your life hell, at least in the short term.”
“And I’m not even Paris Hilton “
She laughed. “You’re such a guy.”
“Good thing. Otherwise,
“An interesting headline. Senator’s Oldest Son Secretly a Woman. That would be a complication.”
His gaze dropped to her mouth. “In more ways than one”
Was it her or had it just gotten hot in here? She shifted on her seat.
“I’m sorry” she said. “I never meant to make a mess of everything. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I just wanted to find my father.”
He reached across the table and took her hand. ‘This isn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
His fingers were warm. She was sure he meant his touch to be comforting, so she couldn’t blame him if she wanted to stretch and purr and have him stroke her all over.
“So you don’t hate me anymore?” she asked.
“I never hated you.”
“You came really close. There was a little hate in your heart.”
“I didn’t trust you. There’s a difference.”
“Now I think you’re who you say you are.”
“What changed your mind? My sparkling personality?”
He released her hand. One corner of his mouth turned up. “What else could it be?”
Before she could answer, she caught sight of her watch and groaned. “I’m late,” she said. She tossed five dollars on the table as she slid out of the booth. “Thanks for coming to talk to me.”
He picked up the money and tucked it into her jacket pocket. “I’m always up for a good rescue.”
Dani opened Penny’s front door without knocking and burst into the house.
“I’m late, I know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Penny stood and hugged her. “What happened? We were getting worried.”
The “we” in question was Penny; Lori, Reid’s significant other; and Elissa, Walker’s fianc?e.
“I have the best excuse ever,” Dani said as she handed Penny the newspaper she’d brought with her. “I was chased by the press. I had to call Alex and tell him what was going on. Apparently I’m a story.”
Penny scanned the headline, then held out the paper so Lori and Elissa could see what it said.
“It could be worse,” Lori told her. “You could have been abducted by aliens.”
“Good point,” Elissa teased. “No one wants all that anal probing.”
Dani laughed, then shrugged out of her coat and collapsed on the sofa next to Elissa. “You’ve managed to put my life in perspective. Thank you.”
Penny sank onto the floor and pulled out a notepad. “So what happened to get all this in the press? Who blabbed?”
Dani explained the situation. The three women were outraged that some jerk had taken advantage of Bailey.
“Tell Walker,” Elissa said fiercely. “He’ll make the guy pay.”
Dani was intrigued by the seemingly gentle Elissa being so willing to attack. Although it made sense. Walker was a warrior at heart-he would need a woman who was emotionally strong and secure within herself.
“Apparently Alex already did that,” Dani said. “The senator’s eldest son, a card-carrying member of the Washington State bar, punched a reporter.”
Lori winced. “That can’t be good.”
“He said he didn’t know what was going to happen. It depends on whether or not the reporter presses charges.” Dani had a bad feeling he would. All the more attention on the event. Although the downside for the reporter was that he would come off as a jerk. Would he care about that?
Penny eyed Dani. “So the cool, conservative lawyer has a passionate side.”
Dani had thought the same thing, but she wasn’t going to get into that with her sister-in-law. Not right now. “Enough about me,” she said firmly. “We’re here to plan a wedding.” She turned to Elissa. “Where do we stand?”
Elissa drew in a breath. “It’s going to be a big, splashy affair. I can’t help it-that’s what I’ve always wanted. A fairy-tale wedding with lots of flowers and twinkle lights. I want a dress with a big skirt and my hair up.”
Dani felt a twinge of envy. Elissa was happy, in love and getting married. Not that Dani felt any burning need to be married this second, but she would like to fall in love with a great guy.
Not going to happen anytime soon, she reminded herself. In the past year she’d been left by her husband, who claimed she hadn’t grown enough in their marriage-a total sham to cover up his cheating. She’d fallen for and been seduced by a seemingly perfect man who turned out to be married. Last but certainly not least, she’d met a kind, quiet guy who had only recently left the priesthood. It was a challenge she hadn’t been willing to take on.
Her love life had become a cautionary tale.
“You should absolutely have the wedding you want,” Lori said firmly. “Fluffy dress and all.”
“I agree,” Penny said with a sniff. “Even if you’re not concerned about the food.”
Dani groaned. “Don’t go there,” she told Penny. “It’s Elissa’s choice.”
Elissa shifted to the edge of the sofa and touched Penny’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I should have talked to you about this before. I don’t want you catering the wedding.”
Penny’s eyes darkened. “Yes, I know. That’s been made very clear.”
Elissa continued as if Penny hadn’t said anything. “It was a tough decision for me. I know you’re the best chef I could ever hope to find, but you’re going to be my sister-in-law. What kind of sister would I be if I made you work on my wedding? I want you to enjoy yourself. I refuse to be selfish. Our guests will simply have to understand.”
Penny shrugged. “It’s your call.”
“I would love for you to cater the rehearsal dinner, if that isn’t too much trouble. I know it’s still work for you, but we’re talking maybe fifteen or twenty people. That’s nothing for you.”
“True,” Penny said slowly. “I guess that would work, I could give you some names for the wedding. I know a few people who won’t screw things up.”
Elissa smiled. “I would really appreciate that.”
Dani leaned toward Lori. “Impressive. Penny could have held a grudge for years.”
Lori lowered her voice. “Penny and Reid already had this out a while ago. He’s the one who first pointed out Elissa wanted her family having fun, not working in the kitchen.”
Reid and Penny had always been friends- through her first marriage to Cal, their divorce and now that they were married again.
“What about your wedding plans?” Dani asked Lori.
Lori ducked her head and blushed. “Nothing’s set,” she said. “I wouldn’t do this. A big wedding isn’t my style. We’ve talked about flying off somewhere and eloping.”
“Take pictures,” Dani told her. “Otherwise, there’ll be hell to pay.”
Elissa said something to Lori and talk returned to the wedding. Dani looked at the three women her brothers had fallen in love with. A year ago Cal, Walker and Reid had been drifting-now they were settled and happy. Maybe she would be next. All she needed was one good man.
Alex immediately popped into her brain and she pushed him out just as quickly. Not him. Their mutual, nonrelated father was running for president, the press was all over her, and he had an ex-wife beautiful enough to start a cult. Did she really want that kind of trouble in her life?
Absolutely not. Although the man sure could kiss…
“We need to find a way to spin this,” John said.
John was Mark’s media expert. He was single-minded, which Alex guessed was required for success in the position.
“Damage control,” someone else said. “Something public. This has to be handled, and quickly.”
The “this” in question was Dani Buchanan. Alex wondered what she would think about the meeting. He had a feeling she would hate being the cause and resent anyone using the word
“A charity event,” John said. “Katherine does them all the time. She’s on committees and crap like that, right?”
Alex raised his eyebrows. “It’s her life’s work,” he said mildly. “That raises it up above the level of crap, don’t you agree?”
John looked momentarily uncomfortable. “Sure. Whatever. My point is she’s visible. What if she and Dani worked some charity together? If they were copresenters or cohosts? Whatever they have. A luncheon, a benefit. Something good, though. Not obscure and not foreign. A happy, local, media-friendly charity.”
Mark nodded slowly. “Katherine would agree to that.”
She wouldn’t like it, Alex thought. But she would do it because Mark asked.
“Will Dani?” John asked. “Can you make her?”
Mark looked at Alex. “Will she do it?”
Alex wondered when he’d become the resident expert on Dani Buchanan. Or had his father sensed the sexual tension between them? Alex had done his best not to let his interest show, but every now and then Mark surprised the hell out of him.
“Once she understands what’s at stake, she will,” Alex said.
“Good.” John entered some information into his BlackBerry. “We need to work on spinning the story. Right now it’s just out there and they’re running with it. We need some control. They’re going to find out Dani’s mother was married when you slept with her. That’s not good. Of course you weren’t married, which helps, but still. I’ll have to work on this.”
The meeting continued for another ten minutes. When it ended, Mark asked Alex to stay behind.
When they were alone, Mark looked at him. “Anything else happen with the reporter?”
Alex wasn’t surprised Mark already knew. “You mean did I really hit him? Yes.”
“There’s nothing in the paper yet, but I got a call. You’re in deep shit on this.”
Alex had been expecting a bad reaction. Even so, he felt a tightening in his gut. If he was convicted, he was screwed. Not that he would change anything about that moment. The bastard had deserved it.
Mark stood and glared at him. “What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t. Someone had used Bailey. I was defending my sister.”
“You think Bailey appreciates what you did? Do you think she understood what was happening? You could get disbarred for this.”
“I’ll handle it.”
“As long as no one pisses you off, right?” Mark paced the length of the conference room. “Dammit, Alex, you’re going to ruin your career. Don’t you care about that?”
Alex stood. “I know there will be consequences. I said I’ll deal with it and I will.”
“You have to learn to walk away.”
The words shouldn’t have surprised him. Mark was nothing if not a consummate politician. “I don’t walk away where my family is concerned.”
“Then I hope you’re ready to give up the law, because it’s about done with you.”
Dani walked into the restaurant and wasn’t surprised to find a crowd. The parking lot had been overflowing with cars. What she didn’t expect was to be attacked by several reporters with flashing cameras and tiny, digital tape recorders.
“Have you met with your father today?”
“How long have you known you’re related to Senator Canfield?”
“Did your mother’s husband know about her affair?”
Dani drew in a deep breath, then held up both hands. “If you’ll be quiet for a moment, I have a statement I’d like to make.”
They were instantly silent.
She cleared her throat. “This is a privately owned restaurant. It is not public property or in the public domain. You are more than welcome to order a very expensive dinner, complete with cocktails and dessert, and tip really well, or you can leave.” She looked at her watch. “You have thirty seconds to decide. Then I’m calling the cops and having you arrested for loitering.”
A couple of the reporters headed out. One moved toward her.
“You can’t do this,” he said. “You’re a story.”
She dug her cell phone out of her purse and flipped it open. “Twenty. Nineteen. Eighteen.”
The man swore and left. Seconds later, the foyer of the restaurant was empty. Dani breathed in a sigh of relief, then headed for the tiny office she shared with Bernie. Her boss met her in the hallway.
“Impressive,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do with them. We’ve never had reporters here.”
Dani shook her head. “I’m sorry. I never meant for any of this to be a problem for you.”
“Hey, maybe they’ll mention us in the paper. That could be good for business.”
He was taking this far better than she could have hoped. Still, he couldn’t be happy about reporters lurking around the restaurant.
She went to work. Business was good. Dani made several rounds, checking on guests and making sure there were no reporters getting in anyone’s way. A little after nine, she saw a single man seated at a corner table.
She recognized him immediately and felt her entire body go on sex-alert. Hormones hummed something that sounded a lot like “Take me. Take me now.”
She walked to the wine cellar and pulled out a favorite bottle, then returned to the table. Alex rose when she pulled out a chair.
“Unless you were expecting someone else,” she said.
He smiled. “No. Just you.”
Simple words that shouldn’t have meant anything. But there was something about the way he said them that made her go weak at the knees. Good thing she was already sitting down.
“Are you eating or just visiting?” she asked.
“The ravioli on special is excellent. I’d highly recommend it.”
“Then that’s what I want.”
Was it her or had his voice gotten lower and sexier? It was all she could do to keep from fanning herself.
“How are you holding up?” he asked.
“I’m still taking it all in. The press was here earlier.”
“Your boss told me. He said you handled them perfectly.”
“I appreciate the praise, but I’m not taking credit. I told them to buy dinner or get out.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. It worked.”
“Would you really have called the police?*’ he asked.
“In a heartbeat.”
Dani ordered for them and asked the server to let her know if anything needed her attention. He poured the wine, then left.
Dani took a sip from her glass. “I’m making a mess everywhere I go. Should I quit my job?”
“But they’ll be back. Until something more interesting comes along, they’re going to mess with my life.”
“If you quit, they win. You’re not a quitter.”
There was something in the way he made the statement. “You know this how?”
He shrugged. “I’ve heard.”
Alex looked uncomfortable, which she hadn’t expected.
“When you first showed up, I had you investigated,” he said.
He waited for the burst of anger, but there was only resignation. “A thrilling by-product of being part of the Canfield family?”
“You claimed to be the senator’s daughter. What else was I supposed to do?”
She wanted to say he could have believed her, but that was too naive. After what she’d been through today, she understood the need for caution.
“So what did you learn about me?”
“The basics. Date of birth, where you went to school, how much you have in the bank. That sort of thing.”
She sipped her wine. “None of that says I’m not a quitter.”
He hesitated for a second, then said, “I know about your first marriage. To Hugh. I know he was injured and you stood by him. You did whatever was necessary to get him up and functioning. You could have walked away, but you didn’t. Even knowing he was going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, you married him.”
A polite way of saying even though they would never have a normal sex life, she’d married him. “I loved him,” she said. “More fool me.”
“Because you got a divorce? It happens.”
It had happened to him, too, she thought. “Apparently your research isn’t as thorough as you thought. Hugh left me about a year ago. He claimed I hadn’t grown enough as a person in our marriage. I can’t tell you how much that pissed me off. If I hadn’t grown, it had been because I was busting my ass, taking care of him. Pushing him, as you said. But it turned out to be a bunch of lies. He was having an affair. Maybe several. That’s why he wanted out of the marriage.”
Alex’s expression didn’t change. “Then he’s a fool.”
Two and a half hours later Alex walked her to her car. She knew he would and she knew what would happen when they got there. It was like being in high school again, and dating a guy she had a serious crush on. The evening was just a prelude to what they both wanted… the kissing.
Now that she was an adult, there were other, more interesting pleasures, pleasures she wasn’t ready to think about yet. Not with Alex. But kissing seemed safe.
Although dinner had been good. Lots of getting-to-know-you conversation that had her liking Alex more than she should.
He pulled her into his arms. She went willingly, pressing her body against his, enjoying the hard planes of his chest and the way they fit together. Despite her brief affair with Ryan, she was still getting used to kissing a man while they were both standing. She liked it.
He brushed his mouth against hers, using just enough pressure to let her know he was serious, but not so much that she wanted to step back.
His urgency aroused her. She wrapped her arms around his neck, angled her head and parted her lips.
He swept inside, teasing her tongue with his. They circled and danced; he moved his hands up and down her back. She moved closer, wishing for more contact from him. But he didn’t oblige. It was too soon and they were in public. They were taking enough of a risk, making out like this.
As he nipped her lower lip, she found she didn’t really care if anyone was watching. Not when desire swept through her, making her lean in closer. He cupped her butt, causing her to surge against him. Her belly nestled his erection.
He was hard, she thought, delighted it had been so simple to arouse him. She liked that in a man.
She must have laughed, because he pulled back slightly and stared into her eyes.
“Want to share the joke?”
“I just… You’re, um…” She glanced down then back at him. Thank God it was dark. Otherwise he would see her blushing.
She dropped her hand to his crotch and lightly touched him.
“Are you offended?”
She grinned. “No. I’m impressed. There was one other guy after Hugh. A disaster. One before him, a million years ago. But mostly I’ve been dealing with a paraplegic. Our sex life was different. A lot of work for me. I didn’t mind, at least not while things were good between us. We were in love and I wanted us both to be happy.”
“But it wasn’t easy?”
“I can be easy.”
She laughed again, then kissed him. “And here I thought you’d be a stuffy lawyer.”