Zach congratulated himself on having the foresight to have his assistant, Dora, make reservations at a nearby hotel. After the post-dinner brandies, not to mention an impromptu sing-along with a
Instead he and David bedded down in adjoining rooms in a small beach-front hotel that had probably been fashionable back in the nineteen-forties.
He’d barely turned out the lights and shifted on a mattress that had seen better days when he heard footsteps rustling on the carpet. He clicked the light back on.
David stood in the doorway between their rooms. Sometimes his son seemed so grown-up. He was capable and competent. But tonight, wearing the hotel’s too-big bathrobe, with his hair mussed and a thousand questions in his eyes, he looked like a little boy. Zach shoved several pillows behind his back so he could sit up, then motioned to the room’s only chair.
“Let’s talk about it,” he said.
David shifted his weight from foot to foot, then slowly headed for the dark blue armchair. He sat down, legs parted, hands hanging between his knees.
“So what’d you think?” he asked, not quite looking at his father.
Zach considered the question. There was no way he was going to tell his son what he
“Yeah?” David glanced up, his expression hopeful. “I really like them all,” he admitted. “I mean Mia’s great and I love her a lot, so the family’s just a bonus, you know?”
“Sure. Kind of like finding a plastic race car in the cereal box.”
David grinned. “Exactly. I like spending time there.”
He hesitated. Zach waited patiently, knowing that his son would get to whatever he had to say eventually.
“I don’t remember my grandmother very well,” David admitted softly, speaking of Zach’s mother.
“You were what, six, when she died?”
David nodded. “And I never met your dad, or my mom’s parents.”
Zach figured the day had been crappy enough without him having to think about Ainsley, or his ex-in-laws.
“I really like the idea of a big family, Dad,” David continued. “It took me three visits to figure out Mia’s grandparents. Grandpa Lorenzo is always talking about vines and grapes. I don’t get the whole wine thing, but it’s fun to listen. He tells great stories about going back to Europe during the Second World War and smuggling out cuttings from French and Italian vineyards. Mia’s grandparents found these really old architecture plans based on some house for a Spanish nobleman and used them to design the house.”
Zach listened without saying anything. He was just a single father-a lawyer who worked in an office. No way he could compete with Spanish noblemen and war stories.
He wanted to slam his fist against a wall and demand a fair trial. He’d done the best he could. Ainsley had been the least maternal woman known to the human race, and when she’d bailed, he’d been left alone with a child. He and his son had grown up together. Sometimes Zach even allowed himself to think he’d done a damn fine job.
“I was an only child as well,” he said casually. “I know what it’s like to want a big family. But we’ve done okay together.”
David swallowed uncomfortably. “I’m not complaining, Dad.”
“I know you’re not. You’re saying that your attraction to Mia isn’t just because she’s a pretty girl who makes your heart beat faster.”
Zach didn’t want to hear that. It meant breaking them up was going to be more difficult than he’d first thought.
“You were really great tonight,” his son said. “I could tell you were sort of, you know, uncomfortable, but you did good.”
Zach didn’t know if he should be pleased or insulted by the compliment. “Gee, thanks.”
“No, I mean it. You’re trying to keep an open mind about everything.”
Warning bells went off in Zach’s head. “What do you mean?”
David crossed and uncrossed his legs. “Just that you’re not a huge fan of the whole wedding thing. At least not for me.” He grinned. “Dad, you haven’t said anything. But I’m your kid. I know you. I’d have to be a complete moron not to guess that you’re a little nervous about the idea of me getting married. You probably want to ship me off to an island somewhere on the other side of the planet. I appreciate that you’re really listening to me, to what I want.”
He rose and headed for the open door between their rooms. “Some parents would lay down the law, but you’re willing to let me go my own way. I know you think I’m making a mistake, but you’re wrong. Mia is absolutely the one for me. So thanks for being supportive.” He gave a small wave. “Night.”
Zach could barely speak, what with the way his throat was closing. When David climbed into his bed and turned out the light, Zach clicked off his as well. But he didn’t slide back down in bed. Instead he stared into the darkness and mentally ran through every swear word he’d ever heard.
He hadn’t fooled David for a minute. He supposed it was a testament to his child’s intelligence…or maybe it was just that he hadn’t done a good job of concealing his feelings. Either way, he was going to have to be more careful than ever. If David was alerted, he would be on guard. Zach was still determined to stop the wedding at any cost. The trick would be getting David to think it was his own idea.
“My client had an excellent grade-point average while she was in college,” Zach said.
Wayne Johnson, the attorney for the opposition, sighed in mock disgust. “She was studying sculpture. Are you trying to tell us that she plans to get a master’s in sculpturing? I wasn’t aware there were that many openings for professional sculptors. Or is it sculptress?”
Zach ignored the question. He knew Wayne. They’d been on opposite sides of the negotiating table many times. The thing Zach liked most about Wayne was that the man didn’t learn. He had yet to figure out that Zach always won.
Zach glanced at his client, a small, quiet woman in her forties. Her husband, a successful accountant with a practice specializing in movie stars and doctors, had left her for a much younger woman. He wanted to dump the old and used, and marry the trophy wife. Obviously it didn’t bother him that the future Mrs. Allen Franklin was two years older than his oldest child.
Zach turned away from Wayne and spoke to the judge overseeing their mediation session.
“Mrs. Franklin was a promising young artist when she met Mr. Franklin. She’d just received her B.A. and was expecting to start on her master’s in the fall. She’d had two showings, had sold several pieces, and had been given a grant. When Mr. Franklin proposed, he requested that they start a family right away and asked my client to give up her art.”
“She could have said no,” Wayne pointed out.
“She could have. Or Mr. Franklin could have respected her talent. Your honor, my client’s request that her husband support her while she returns to college to get an advanced degree isn’t unreasonable. She plans to get a master’s in elementary education, thereby allowing herself to find a job and be a contributing member of society.”
Zach knew that the request was a little unusual, but it was what his client wanted.
Wayne slapped several folders onto the conference table. “Your Honor, Mr. Stryker and his client have passed from reasonable to greedy. It’s one thing to talk about helping Mrs. Franklin get back on her feet, but between the request for alimony and the ridiculous property split,
The judge looked at Zach.
Zach shrugged. “I’m sorry Mr. Franklin feels he doesn’t have the resources necessary to aid his wife.”
“He does not.”
Zach shifted a file from the bottom of the stack in front of him to the top. “Perhaps if Mr. Franklin were to liquidate some of the assets he purchased for his new lifestyle, he wouldn’t feel the financial pinch quite so much.” Zach casually pushed the folder toward the judge. “Assets he purchased with community property, Your Honor. Actually, under California law, they’re technically half Mrs. Franklin’s.”
Zach gave Wayne a slight smile. Both the lawyer and his client paled suddenly. Mr. Franklin had a heated conversation with his attorney that wasn’t as quiet as it should have been. Zach caught a couple of choice phrases along the lines of “You told me no one would find out about the beach house” and “You mean I have to pay her for half the jewelry I bought Sara?”
“Mr. Franklin was not as forthcoming as he could have been on his financial statements,” Zach said unnecessarily.
The judge was not amused.
An hour later they reached a settlement that would ensure that Mrs. Franklin would have ample funds to support her while she studied for her advanced degree. If she didn’t spend her days on Rodeo Drive, she wouldn’t need to work again at all.
After Wayne and a very angry Mr. Franklin stormed past them, Zach turned to his client.
She shook her head. “I didn’t think you could get it all.”
“You gave me your wish list. I did my best to achieve it. Your husband was stupid. Hiding money in a community property state is guaranteed to make the courts angry. Once I found out what he’d done, I knew we’d win.”
“Thanks to you.”
“Do me a favor,” he said.
She smiled. “Let me guess. Pay your bill on time?”
“I’ll be going after your ex-husband for that. Don’t forget the judge slapped him with the fees. Actually, the favor is-before you get married again, give me a call. I’ll write up a prenup that will protect you so you don’t have to fight so hard next time.”
“I’m not getting married again.”
“Right. Just give me a call.”
They shook hands, then parted. Zach headed for the elevators that would take him to the underground car park. He would bet money that they were both remarried within two years and divorced the following year. He’d seen it happen a thousand times. On one hand, it kept him in business…on the other hand, it was a hell of a way to run the world.
Katie walked into the waiting area three minutes before her appointment with Zach. She’d crammed her briefcase as full as possible, but all her notes weren’t going to ease the fluttering panic in her stomach.
There weren’t enough words in the universe to describe how much she didn’t want to be here. Not after what had happened nearly a week ago at the hacienda. She still cringed whenever she thought of it, which was about forty-seven times a day.
The thing was, she couldn’t tell Zach the truth. If she explained why she’d mentioned him to her family, he would think she was lying, trying to downplay her attraction to him. Saying she wasn’t attracted to him
“Deep, cleansing breaths,” she murmured to herself. “I am confident, professional, and more than ready to take on this challenge.”
After squaring her shoulders, she reminded herself of her greater purpose. This fund-raiser would put her company onto the A-list of party planners. Once there she would be able to expand, pick and choose her jobs, and start saving to buy a house. All that was more than worth a few awkward moments with a client. Besides, rather than focusing on what she’d done, she should think about what she had to do. Putting together a charity event of this magnitude in an impossibly short period of time would tax her and her staff to the point of insanity. If she wanted to sweat something, worrying about the party was a whole lot more productive.
Feeling completely calm and centered, not to mention attractive yet professional in a forest green suit and another pair of killer heels, Katie crossed to the receptionist and gave her name. The young woman there told her to go right back. Mr. Stryker was expecting her.
Zach’s assistant sat outside his office. She stood up as Katie approached and eyed her bulging suitcase.
“I can’t believe he volunteered to be in charge of the annual fund-raiser,” Dora Preston said cheerfully. “If he starts to glaze over when you talk about the details, slam something hard against the coffee table. Loud noises help keep him awake.”
“Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Katie really appreciated the other woman’s friendly nature, but didn’t think she would be using the advice. If Zach fell asleep during her presentation, she would take it as a sign that she was supposed to run for the hills and never be heard from again.
“Go right in,” Dora said.
Katie nodded once, took a deep breath, sucked in her stomach, and opened the door to Zach’s office.
He sat behind his desk, engrossed in paperwork.
“Knock, knock,” she said as she entered.
He glanced up, then rose. He was even better looking than she remembered. When he smiled, she nearly stumbled, what with all her blood rushing around her body like so many lost bumper cars.
Just perfect, she thought, more annoyed than embarrassed. Couldn’t the horror of their previous encounter have chased away her visceral and inappropriate hormonal response to him? Was this fair?
“Katie.” He sounded delighted to see her.
“Thanks for coming by.” He walked around the desk and moved close to her.
“Ah, no problem.”
She was about to point out that the meeting had been her idea when he put his hand on her upper arm and guided her toward the leather sofas in the corner.
“Coffee, tea, soda?” he asked as she settled onto the slick seat.
“I’m fine,” she said as she set her briefcase next to her.
“Let me know if you change your mind.”
Zach sank onto the sofa next to hers. As they were both sitting on the side closest to the corner table, they were actually fairly near each other. Knees had the potential for bumping. Which, of course, she noticed.
For about three or four seconds she thought about pretending the other night had never happened. But there wasn’t just the party to consider. After David and Mia were married, Zach would be her brother-in-law’s father. She didn’t need to deal with undercurrents for the next fifty years.
“I have to explain something,” she said.
He leaned toward her, his forearms resting on his thighs. His expression was attentive, his dark blue eyes fixed on her face. “Yes?”
Her throat went dry. “I, um. I need to apologize for what happened. You know. At my folks’ house.”
One corner of his mouth twitched. Then the other. Then his whole mouth curved in a smile. A lock of dark hair fell across his forehead in a sexy, mussed look that tempted her to push it back into place.
“You mean when you told your entire family you were hot for me?”
She winced. “That wasn’t exactly what I said, but yes. It was completely unprofessional of me.”
“I thought it was charming.”
“Really? I would have thought a man like you would get tired of women saying things like that. They practically line up to be taken advantage of. Doesn’t it get old?”
As soon as the words were out, she wanted to call them back. She slapped a hand over her mouth, but it wasn’t enough. Oh, God, she hadn’t really said that, had she?
Horror and humiliation blended into what was becoming a familiar feeling. Zach leaned back in the sofa and shook his head.
“I see you’ve been doing your research,” he said evenly.
She couldn’t tell if he was just annoyed or completely furious. “Sort of. A little. I do like to know about the people I’ll be working with, and you have something of a reputation.” She shook her head. “But I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’m sorry. I can’t seem to engage my brain and mouth together.”
He looked at her. “Is it circumstances or me?”
“I don’t know. Maybe both.”
Humor brightened his eyes. “Want to start over? Clean slate on both sides.”
In this case she wanted more than a fresh start; she wanted to travel back in time and do the whole thing over. But as that wasn’t available, she would accept what he offered.
He held out his hand. “Then we’ll ignore the fact that you think I’m irresistibly sexy, and I’ll do my best not to come on to you. Deal?”
She’d been about to put her hand in his when his words sank in. Come on to her? As in he thought she was…well, attractive?
It wasn’t that she had a low opinion of herself. Men found her appealing. She had dates, boyfriends. But Zach wasn’t just any guy. He was a world-class player. His women were starlets and models. In the smorgasbord of women available to him, she was little more than an appetizer.
“Deal,” she said and slid her hand against his.
The heat that flared, along with the sparks arcing up her arm, nearly made her laugh. Okay, one problem solved, but the issue of the wayward hormones needed more work.
She pulled her hand free and reached for her briefcase. “Ready to talk about the party?”
“Sure. It’ll distract me from the hell of my day.”
“Mediation.” He dropped his hands to his lap. “The couple had been married for over twenty years. The wife stayed home to take care of the kids. He hit his forties and decided he wanted a new-and-improved spouse. Fairly typical.”
Katie wasn’t sure what to do with the information. “Who were you representing?”
“Her. She got a decent settlement. I guess the real question is why she married the guy in the first place.”
“Probably because she loved him.”
Zach looked at her. His dark blue eyes seemed to flash with anger, and there was a cynical twist to his mouth. “I don’t see a whole lot of that in my line of work. In my world, relationships don’t work, and the kids nearly always pay the price for that.”
He shook his head. “Sorry. I’ll step off my soapbox for now.”
“No, it’s okay. You’re obviously concerned about the people you deal with. I think that’s good.”
He smiled. “Katie, I’m a mean, hard-assed, son-of-a-bitch lawyer. I don’t do ‘concerned.’”
He was right-she’d heard he was a tough opponent. Word had it he was smart, ruthless, and never gave away any advantage. Between that and his reputation with the ladies, she’d assumed he was self-absorbed and someone she really wouldn’t like. But he’d surprised her twice in less than five minutes. First with his gracious offer to forget what had happened at the hacienda, and just now with his comments about kids getting caught in their parents’ problems.
Maybe she’d judged him too quickly. Maybe there was a real person under the sharkskin. Maybe she liked him.
“Okay. Enough about the law. I have a very large charity event to plan.” She pulled several folders from her briefcase. “I looked over the notes you gave me and went to see the hotel that had been reserved. Apparently no one had arranged for a contract, so nothing was firm.”
A tickle of nerves swept across her chest, but she ignored it. She was the professional here. Zach had hired her to make the fund-raiser a success. That’s what she intended to do.
“I want to change venues,” she told him. “The original hotel is older, and while the architecture is lovely, the ballroom isn’t very big. With a crowd of over two thousand people to consider, space is important. We need spillover rooms. Also, I thought it would be fun to make the locale more of an integral part of the party, rather than just the background.”
She glanced at Zach to check for some kind of a reaction, but his expression was unreadable. Assuming silence meant agreement, she passed him a brochure.
“The West Side Royale Hotel?” he asked. “It’s new, right?”
“Refurbished. What I like best about it are the gardens. They start by the ballroom and flow throughout the property. The man in charge is a botanist. He’s done amazing work. A cancellation cleared the weekend we’re interested in. They’ve got a big hole in their schedule, and they’re willing to deal to get it filled. They’re offering a great price to give us the rooms we need.”
Zach flipped through the brochure. The hotel had been done Art Deco style.
“What do you mean rooms?” he asked. “Isn’t there one ballroom?”
Okay, now came the selling part. This is where she proved she was worth what he was paying her. “There can be. That’s more traditional. I’ve pulled articles on different fund-raisers held in Los Angeles. They’ve ranged from funky with organic food and barefoot guests to elegant black-tie. I wanted something different, something special. Something successful. To that end, I’m thinking of a two-tiered system.”
Zach raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“The cost of a ticket is a thousand dollars per couple, right?”
“Yes. The partners set the price.”
“So that can stay the same. The cost of the party is about two hundred dollars a person, leaving a good chunk of money for the charity. But out of the two thousand to twenty five hundred people who will attend, at least three hundred and as many as five hundred are serious players in the charity game. They give away millions of dollars every year. Why not to your charity?”
“We’re not going to invite them to the party and then go begging for additional donations.”
“Agreed. But you could charge them more up front.”
She held up a hand. “I’m suggesting that a few hundred special guests receive an invitation to attend the fund-raiser, but that they are invited to a more exclusive party held at the same time. They’ll have the same dinner and the same entertainment, but there will be separate activities both before and after the meal.”
Katie opened a pale blue folder and unfolded a map of the hotel grounds. She pointed to the main ballroom, and the gardens beyond, then showed a small ballroom flanking the main one.
“I was thinking of games of chance,” she said, “but not gambling. That’s so overdone. More like carnival games, but instead of winning a goldfish at the ring toss, you could win a diamond bracelet worth, say, five grand. We could do ski vacations in Gstaad and balloon trips in France. If we keep the prizes around five to ten thousand a piece and charge the couples twenty-five thousand to participate, we’re still coming out ahead of the thousand-dollars-a-plate donation.”
She couldn’t read his face. He was listening and he hadn’t started screaming. She figured that was all good news.
“Go on,” he said evenly.
“Okay. Well, I thought we’d go with a whole dipping-for-charity theme. The menu would be dipping foods and finger foods. A lot of kabobs, which would mean small grills set up all over. We can do all kinds of exotic meats and fun vegetarian kabobs for those who don’t do the animal-product thing. We can grill bread and have make-your-own appetizers, then do chocolates from around the world in fondue pots for dessert. We’d have entertainment in the ballroom, and then put tents in the gardens. Each tent would be a different food station.”
She stopped talking and surreptitiously crossed her fingers. Yes, it wasn’t the usual kind of party, but Katie figured her best chance of success was to make the event her own rather than trying to do what every other party planner in the city had already done and done well.
Zach tapped the brochure for the West Side Royale Hotel. “We’ve never had a party like that before.”
“I know. Different can be good.”
“I’d have to run it by the partners.”
He smiled-a slow smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle and her heartbeat zip into an aerobic state.
“I like it,” he said.
She nodded briskly, determined not to show her intense relief. “I’m glad. I think it could be fun. At least the larger venue will keep the party from feeling crowded. That seems to be a big problem with mega events.”
He tossed the brochure onto the table and settled back into the sofa. With one ankle resting on the opposite knee, he looked dangerous and masculine…or maybe one went with the other. Could a man look masculine without appearing dangerous?
She found it impossible to stop staring at him, especially when he began loosening his tie. It was only an insignificant length of silk, yet the way his fingers worked the knot, then tugged it free made her thighs go up in flames.
“I’ll present the idea to them in the next day or so and get back to you.”
“Good. The hotel will hold the facilities until the end of the week. As long as I hear by Friday, we’ll have our space.”
She collected her various folders, but left him with the brochure. Their work now concluded, Katie felt she should make her escape as quickly as possible, before she put her foot in it again. Still, one thing continued to bother her.
“I’m more than a little surprised by the coincidence of all this,” she said. “You hiring me to plan this party. Your son getting engaged to my sister. What are the odds of that?”
His relaxed posture didn’t change, but she would have sworn something inside of him shifted. He shrugged.
“Things like that happen.”
Until that moment she’d never thought anything else, but suddenly she wondered if there had been some kind of manipulation behind the scenes.
Don’t be crazy, she told herself. That wasn’t possible…was it?
“So you didn’t hire me on purpose?” she asked, speaking slowly. “You didn’t hire me
“Why would I do that?”
“I have no idea,” she said honestly.
“Unless I wanted something from you.”
She stiffened. Every nerve ending went on alert and not in a good way. “What do you mean?”
“My son is my world, Katie. He’s a good kid. But there’s no way in hell he’s ready to get married.”
She blinked several times. “What? Why are you telling me this?”
He pointed toward her stack of folders. “This job represents a lot of money to your company. It would change your life. What would happen if word got out that you weren’t up to the task?”
Her chest tightened. Half-formed sentences flashed through her brain. Nothing made sense. “Are you threatening me?”
“Do I have to?”
Confusion turned to anger. “Let me get this straight. You deliberately hired me because I’m Mia’s sister. Now you’re telling me if I don’t get Mia to somehow back off from marrying your son, you’ll destroy my company?”
“That sounds melodramatic.”
Not to her. “Do I have it wrong?”
“I’m helping you achieve your goal. I expect you to help me achieve mine.”
Outrage joined fury. “Mia loves David. You want me to sacrifice my sister’s happiness because you don’t approve?”
He leaned forward and pinned her with a gaze that could have cut metal. “It’s not about approving. It’s about my son’s future. Do you know the odds of a marriage surviving past five years? Any marriage? They’re less than ten percent of that when the couple is under twenty. If you’re so damn worried about your sister’s happiness, think about how well she’ll survive a divorce.”
“No. This isn’t personal, Katie. I think Mia’s great. But David’s too young to marry anyone.”
“He’s eighteen. Isn’t that his decision to make?”
“Legally, which is why I haven’t delivered an ultimatum.”
Of course. Because being upfront wasn’t his style. Katie gritted her teeth. To think she’d actually felt badly about judging him. She’d bought into his nice-guy act, but he was just as much of a slimy player as she’d first thought.
She shoved the folders into her briefcase and snapped it shut. “I appreciate that you’re worried about David. You care about him, just like I care about Mia. But here’s the thing. I won’t go behind my sister’s back. She loves your son and she wants to marry him. That’s good enough for me.”
She rose and glared at him. “If you thought you could force me to do what you want for the price of this job, you were wrong. And if that means you’re going to try ruining me, then have at it. Anyone who would be swayed by your opinion doesn’t matter a damn to me.”
She started for the door. Her high heels and the thick, plush carpet slowed her down, so it wasn’t a surprise when Zach caught up with her. He grabbed her arm, holding her until she stopped and faced him.
“What?” she demanded.
His mouth twisted. “You’re saying you can’t be bought.”
“Amazing, isn’t it?”
He stunned her by grinning. “You’re tougher than you look.”
“Gee, that’s nearly as nice as saying I’m smarter than I look.”
“You’re a bastard, Zach.”
“Not technically, but maybe in spirit.” He released her and shoved his hands into his slacks pockets. “I had to try, Katie. He’s my son. I love him.”
Two seconds ago she would have sworn there was nothing he could say that would have made her want to do anything but hit him upside the head with a two-by-four. But with six simple words, he knocked the mad right out of her.
“Then tell him you’re worried. Won’t he listen?”
“No. He already knows what I think.” Zach shook his head. “I tried to keep it from him, but I didn’t do much of a job. He’s determined to marry your sister, and I know it’s going to be a disaster.”
“What if you’re wrong?”
“I’m never wrong.”
The mad returned. “I’m guessing no one has ever accused you of being humble.”
“Color me surprised.” She shifted her briefcase to her other hand. “I won’t get between them. David and Mia want to get married, and I think it’s a great idea.”
“Are you open to persuasion?”
She hated that her first thought was sexual. This man was slime and she still found him attractive and intriguing. There was definitely something wrong with her.
“I’ll listen,” she said, “but only if you’ll give equal time to the opposition.”
As he made his living arguing his side, it didn’t sound fair to her at all.
“You still doing the party?” he asked.
She narrowed her gaze. “Are you going to threaten me again?”
The smile returned. “I was bluffing. I wanted to see how far I could push you.”
That had been a bluff? What would he do if he was serious? “Don’t do it again.”
“Agreed.” He looked at her. “Friends?”
She reached for the door. “Uneasy business associates.”
“I was hoping for more.”
“Hope away,” she said as she stepped into the hallway and walked toward the elevator.