6

The delivery guy from the Thai place arrived thirty seconds before Katie did. Zach paid the bill and added a generous tip for speedy service, then waited by the open front door while Katie parked her convertible in front of his house.

She turned off the engine, then collected her ever bulging briefcase and stepped out onto the street.

It was nearly seven, and long since dark. The night was cool and damp. Winter, such as it was, had returned to Southern California, keeping daytime temperatures in the fifties. In deference to the change in season, Katie wore a lightweight coat over slacks. As she approached, street-lights illuminated the red in her hair.

“I wasn’t sure you’d show up,” he called.

She stepped onto the walkway. “This is business. Besides, I don’t scare off that easily.” She glanced at the large bag he held. “Am I too early? I thought you said seven.”

“I did.” He held up the bag. Already the smell of Thai food made his mouth water. “It’s a peace offering.”

She sniffed once, then smiled. “I could be persuaded.”

He was hoping she would say that.

Zach ushered her into his tall, narrow house. The split level entry led down to the main living area and up toward the bedrooms.

“How long have you lived here?” she asked, glancing around. “It’s a fabulous location.”

“Two blocks from the beach with a perfect view,” he said. “David and I moved in two years ago. We’d been living on the west side for a few years and wanted a change.”

They walked into the kitchen and Katie set her briefcase on the granite counter. Bleached birch cabinets lined two walls. Aside from the Sub-Zero freezer and six-burner stove, the previous occupants had left behind a built-in under-the-counter wine cellar and Jenn-Air cooktop in the center island.

Katie did a slow turn. “I’m not a huge cook, but even I could envy this setup.” She glanced at him. “Let me guess. You only order take-out.”

“Something like that.” He set the food on the counter. “Let me take your coat.”

He moved behind her as she slipped out of her jacket. Beneath, she wore tailored black slacks and a soft-looking sweater in emerald green. She’d piled her long hair on her head, leaving her neck bare.

Zach draped the coat over his arm, ignoring the scent of Katie’s body and the warmth lingering in her coat. He hung the garment in the hallway closet and returned to the kitchen. He had to keep his mind on business. At least for now.

But when he found her leaning against the counter, looking at several pictures of David on the refrigerator, he found thoughts of business fading. Instead he focused on the curve of her hip as she rested her weight on one foot, and the way her fingers gracefully skimmed the collection of photos.

He could imagine those fingers touching other things-namely him. He would do some touching in return. Naked, he thought. He wanted her naked.

He mentally cuffed himself. Time for a distraction.

“So you didn’t call me up and tell me to go to hell,” he said.

She glanced at him. “Was I supposed to?”

“You could have. You were mad.”

“I’ve always been more of a ‘living well is the best revenge’ kind of person. I’m going to throw you a party so incredible, you’ll have to eat your words.”

He appreciated that she’d twisted the situation to her own advantage and that she wanted to win.

“Until then, let’s eat Thai,” he said, grabbing the bag of food and moving toward the table in the corner. “You willing to put business on hold until after dinner?”

“Sure.”

He plied her with noodles and Thai chicken, all the while asking questions about what it was like to grow up at the winery.

“Four girls,” he said. “Any complaints about not having a brother?”

“It’s a bit of a sore spot,” she admitted as she scooped up more noodles. “My grandparents are old-fashioned and want a male heir. That’s why there’s some pressure to marry and have grandkids. Jeff, Brenna’s husband, is a sweetie and we all adore him, but he wasn’t interested in wine. Instead he wanted to be a doctor, if you can believe it.”

“You never married.”

Her brown eyes widened slightly. “Was that a question or a statement?”

“Which isn’t going to get me in trouble?”

She smiled. “I think it’s too late for that. As for me being married, I was engaged when I was eighteen, but things didn’t work out.”

“What happened?”

She took a bite of food, then chewed. After she swallowed, she said, “He joined the service three days before the wedding. I always thought it was pretty tacky of Greg to prefer the possibility of going to war over marrying me.”

“He dumped you?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Thank you for putting it so delicately, but yes.”

“Are you okay with that?”

“It’s been about ten years. I’ve managed to get on with my life.”

“Without getting married.”

She put down her fork. “Marriage is one of those topics we should probably avoid.”

She held her own with him-he liked that. “So let’s talk about me.”

“Your favorite subject?”

“Absolutely. Ask me anything.”

“Who do you prefer to represent in your work?” she asked, leaning back in her chair. “The husband or the wife?”

“I take on whoever asks me first.”

“So you don’t care about being on the side of right?”

“We’re talking about divorce. There’s almost never a ’right’ side. I’ve yet to see a marriage fall apart all because one person is inherently evil. Usually both parties have some claim to the blame. In the case of drugs or alcohol, the nonabusing spouse doesn’t usually deal with his or her problems because the substance issue is bigger than both of them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“I never thought about it,” Katie admitted. “There hasn’t been any divorce in our family. I guess we’re just lucky.”

“Luck helps. In my line of work I don’t see very much of it.”

“Why a divorce lawyer? There are a lot of ways for a lawyer to make a living in this town. Why’d you pick that specialty?”

“Let’s move to the living room first,” he said easily, rising, then pulling out her chair for her. “It will be more comfortable.”

She reached for the empty plates on the table, but he brushed her hands away. “I’ll get that later.” At her look of surprise, he shrugged. “I can be domestic when the situation calls for it.”

He put his hand on the small of her back. She didn’t move away. Score one for his side, he thought, pleased that she liked being close to him. He didn’t find her nearness a hardship, either, which meant being charming to get his way had plenty of perks. Pleasant working conditions always improved his attitude.

The sunken living room had west-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows. Katie walked toward them.

“You must see amazing sunsets,” she said, staring into the darkness.

“If I’m home in time.”

“If I lived here, I’d make sure I was home.”

“The hacienda overlooks the Pacific. You see the sunsets from there.”

“That’s where I grew up, so it’s different.”

She started toward the sectional sofa. As she passed a hip-high table, she paused. He saw that her gaze had settled on several framed photographs. Zach shoved his hands into his pockets and waited for the questions. So far everything was going according to plan.

A beautiful blonde smiled out from one picture. The same woman laughed in two other pictures. She and a much younger Zach were together in a fourth.

“She’s stunning,” Katie said, a question in her voice.

“David’s mother.”

“Oh. She’s really lovely.”

“On the outside. On the inside-” He shrugged. “She walked away from David when he was four, and I don’t think she’s seen him more than twice since.”

Katie’s gold-flecked brown eyes widened. “I don’t understand. How could she not want to be with her child?”

“She never wanted children.”

He hesitated, more to figure out how much to tell than because he was reluctant to share his past. He didn’t usually spill his guts to people he just met, but extraordinary circumstances called for extraordinary measures. He needed Katie as an ally, but he had to be careful.

He motioned to the sectional sofa. Katie sank down onto the cushions. Zach settled across from her. He schooled his features into his “I’m concerned but I’m okay” look.

“I met Ainsley in high school. She was the head cheerleader, prom queen. You know the type.”

“I’ve met one or two,” Katie said with a slight smile.

Zach nodded. “I thought Ainsley was a princess. So I wooed and won her. Boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy gets girl pregnant.”

Katie winced. “How old were you?”

“Just seventeen. We got married. David came along nine months later. It wasn’t how I planned to spend the summer after graduating from high school. But we learned how to be parents. It wasn’t easy.”

He didn’t go into details. There was no point in discussing the fights, the anger that had flared between them as they struggled to take care of their son. They’d both felt trapped. Whatever infatuation they’d once shared had quickly burned away.

“I had some money from a trust fund,” he continued. “That paid for our living expenses, although there wasn’t much left over for more than basics. Ainsley’s parents paid for her college. I had a scholarship. Both our moms helped out with daycare. It was still tough.”

Tough didn’t begin to describe what it had been. Ainsley had made his life a living hell. She’d resented David and being married. She had been young and beautiful, and she wanted to be out in the world.

“The day I graduated from college, Ainsley had me served with divorce papers,” he said flatly. “She’d hired one of the best lawyers in the city. My lawyer had been recommended by a friend. He wasn’t in the same league. Ainsley got everything. I fought for custody of David, which turned out not to be a problem. Not only did she not want to see her son, she wanted compensation for the pain and suffering of having to have a child in the first place. She claimed she’d wanted to have an abortion and that I’d talked her out of it. She even had notes from a clinic visit she’d made while she’d been pregnant.”

Katie frowned. “I don’t understand. Had she wanted an abortion?”

“I don’t know. She never said anything to me. In the same breath she told me she was pregnant, she announced we were getting married. I’d been raised to believe a man took his responsibilities seriously, so I never thought otherwise.”

He rested his elbows on his knees. “Let’s just say Ainsley got her pound of flesh and then some. I was to come into the lump sum of my trust fund when I turned twenty-five. She got all of that and didn’t have to pay child support. When it was over her lawyer took me aside. He slapped me on the back and told me next time I needed to get a better lawyer. At that moment I vowed to be a better lawyer.”

Katie looked stunned. Zach knew it wasn’t a pretty story, but every word of it was true.

“So Ainsley simply disappeared from your life?”

“She showed up to collect her checks, but once she had all the money she was due, she disappeared. I heard she moved back East. I don’t care where she is.”

“Why do you keep her pictures out?”

“They matter to David. I packed them away once, but he asked me to let them stay. He has trouble remembering her and the photos help.”

Katie had never had a child, so she was unable to comprehend the depth of Zach’s feeling for David. Still, there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that this man loved his son with every fiber of his being. His intensity, his steadfastness, not only made her quiver on the inside, they confirmed her belief that Mia had made a good choice. David Stryker had an amazing role model guiding him through life.

Now that she’d heard Zach’s history, she understood his concerns for the engagement. She approved of his concern, even if she didn’t appreciate his tactics.

“Did you tell me this to explain your position or to win me to your side?” she asked.

“Both.”

“Because threatening me didn’t work? Now you’re going for the heart?”

“Am I getting close?”

“No, but I have extreme respect for your skill level in court. Can you see the other attorneys trembling or do they hide it?”

He grinned. “They try to act cool.”

Katie leaned back in the sofa. “So if you’re so smart, why did you tip your hand with me?”

“I told you, I wanted to see if you would call my bluff.”

“If I’d caved in, you would have accepted the victory.”

“Of course. And solved the wedding problem.”

Katie didn’t appreciate her sister’s engagement being referred to as “the wedding problem,” but she knew what Zach meant.

“Have you considered that I could rally the entire family to my side?” she asked.

“It crossed my mind, but I’m not worried.”

“Why?”

He smiled slyly. “You can’t risk your grandmothers and mother resenting me. What if the wedding goes through? I’ll be a part of the family. You wouldn’t want to be responsible for screwing up that relationship.”

Her mouth dropped open. She closed it with a conscious thought, but that didn’t stop her from being stunned. “How did you figure that out?”

“Men get over things. Women remember forever.”

He was right, she thought, still amazed. About all of it. Her first instinct had been to call home and let everyone know what he was planning. But she’d reconsidered when she’d realized her mother and grandmothers would hate Zach from that moment on.

He was good. Maybe too good. She was out of her league with him in more ways than one. He was also annoying, what with always being one step ahead of her.

Zach stood up suddenly and held out his hand. “Come on. I’ll buy you a drink and we’ll talk about your plans for the party.”

It took her a second to decide if she wanted to switch gears. But what was the point in arguing? “Actually you’re supposed to tell me that everyone loved my ideas, that they think I’m so incredibly brilliant that they might have to pay me more, and they’re waiting breathlessly for the event to occur.”

“How’d you guess?”

After telling herself not to do anything stupid, Katie placed her hand in his.

Despite having braced herself for the impact, she still felt it all the way down to her toes. Her heart rate quadrupled, her skin flushed, and rational thought fled. She might not trust him, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t chemistry between them.

Zach led her back into the kitchen. He released her hand, which allowed her to catch her breath and try to remember what it felt like to be an adult. While he cleared the table, she pulled the paperwork out of her briefcase.

The good news was that alternating between being annoyed by Zach and being turned on by him kept her from being nervous about planning the party.

“What will you have?” he asked, opening a cupboard and revealing several bottles of liquor.

“I’m driving, so I’ll pass, but please have something yourself. If you pour me ice water in a pretty glass, we can pretend I’m drinking hard stuff.”

“You got it.”

They sat down at the table. Katie spread out her various folders, then turned her attention to Zach. They were close enough that she could see the tiny lines by the outside corners of his eyes and the various shades that made up his deep blue irises. He was handsome, and he smelled good. A potent combination.

“So talk,” she told him. “Tell me the truth-I can handle it.”

He took a sip of the single malt scotch he’d poured for himself. “They love your ideas. John’s pregnant wife thinks everything is, and I quote, ’Too precious for words.’ That’s a good thing,” he added. “She also wants you to call her. She has the names of a couple of jewelry designers who would be happy to come up with some original designs for various prizes.”

“Great. I hadn’t been worried exactly, but I’ll admit to being relieved now.”

“I had every confidence.”

She blinked at him. Was it her imagination, or had he just shifted closer to her?

“I’ll, ah, call the hotel in the morning and finalize the contract. Menus will be next. Do we want to schedule a tasting for everyone?”

“No, thanks. I trust your judgment. And I don’t want to have a heated conversation about flowers, napkin colors, or table placement.” He leaned toward her. “You’re the expert. Dazzle me.”

“You got it,” she said. “I’ll line things up, make some selections, and then run everything by you. While I’ll agree to skip the massive tasting, there are some things I’m going to want you to try.”

“I’m open to that.”

His low and seductive voice made her think of tangled sheets, champagne, and chocolate. Was there a more enticing combination? Throw in a good-looking man…preferably dressed in nothing, with an eager-to-please attitude, and an evening couldn’t get much more perfect.

Just not her evening.

“So if threats and heartfelt stories aren’t going to work, you’ll try seduction?” she asked.

He looked amused rather than embarrassed. “Will it work?”

“Not on me.”

“Too bad.”

A lesser man would have been rattled by being shot out of the water, she thought. But not Zach. Figures.

“Okay, then.” She began to pack up her briefcase. “That’s all I need for now. I’ll just get out of your hair so you can have the rest of your evening to do whatever it is you do.”

She half expected him to invite her to stay, and when he didn’t, she tried to be relieved rather than disappointed. She was about fifty percent successful.

Zach collected her coat, then held it out for her. As she slipped into it, she said, “I know you’re worried about Mia and David, but I wish you’d relax. I thought a lot about what you said, about young marriages failing and I know it happens, but not to everyone. I come from a long line of people who get it right.”

“I’m a worried father,” he said, staring deeply into her eyes and making her want to throw herself at him. “I can’t help it.”

“You’re a good father, too,” she said instead. “Trust that and trust your son. If that doesn’t work, remind yourself that Marcelli marriages never fall apart. I promise.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“I won’t be. You can-”

He cut her off with a kiss. Katie supposed she should have seen it coming, but she hadn’t. One second they’d been talking, and the next she was in his arms, and his mouth had claimed hers.

The brush of his firm lips sent her senses into a tail-spin. Heat surrounded her, as did need and passion. He didn’t deepen the kiss, which only made her want more, and when he stepped away, she found it impossible to speak.

He picked up her briefcase and put his arm around her, then led the way to the front door. By the time they reached it, she’d regained the power of speech.

“Why did you do that?” she asked.

“I wanted to. Should I apologize?”

“Would you mean it?”

“No.”

She tried to work up some righteous indignation, but she tingled too much. “Zach, we have a business relationship.”

“You’re irresistible.”

“You’re lying.”

“Am I?”

Pathetically, she wanted him to be telling the truth. Right. Because she was exactly Zach’s type. Not.

“You can’t use sex to get what you want from me,” she told him.

“What can I use it for?”

She ignored him, grabbed her suitcase, and stalked out of the house.

“You didn’t answer my question,” he called after her.

“Go to hell.”

He laughed. “I had a good time, too, Katie.”

She fumed all the way to the car. When she was inside, she put the key in the ignition. The man made her insane.

She couldn’t wait to see him again.

Seed pearls multiplied in the night. At least that was Katie’s conclusion Tuesday morning when she dumped out bags of them onto the dining room table at the hacienda. Along with the seed pearls were tiny beads and stacks of lace appliqu?s.

Four pairs of eyes turned accusingly from her to Mia. The eighteen-year-old shrugged.

“So the dress has a lot of lace. It’s gonna be beautiful.”

Grandma Tessa fingered the stack of lace, then glared at her granddaughter. “We’ll be beading for months. My fingers will fall off.”

Mia remained uncowed. “I’m your favorite. You love me. You want my dress to be beautiful.”

Grandma Tessa smiled. “You girls are all my favorite, but yes, I do want you to have the most beautiful dress ever. Who needs fingers, right?”

Mia laughed and hugged her. “I knew you’d understand.”

Francesca wasn’t so easily swayed. “How will we get the blood out?”

Katie grinned. Francesca had many wonderful qualities, but she couldn’t sew for spit, and whenever she sewed there were always drops of red scattered on the delicate fabric. It was amazing that she hadn’t bled to death when she’d taken a quilting class a couple of years ago. But then Francesca was a hobby junky. If there was a craft/cooking/decorating class within a fifty-mile radius, she had taken it.

“I can get it out. Don’t worry about it.”

Katie glanced at her watch and frowned. Brenna was late. Maybe traffic had been bad up from the city.

“Let’s get started,” Katie said. “I’ll show Brenna the design when she gets here.”

She opened the sketch pad, exposing the drawing she’d done of Mia’s dress.

“It’s beautiful,” Grammy M said. “So delicate. Just perfect for you, Mia.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Their mother fingered the stack of lace flowers. “I love how you’ve scattered the lace over the dress.”

Even Francesca had to admit that the gown was lovely, before grumbling about the amount of work they were all going to have to do.

Mia, knowing her family, ignored the teasing and discussed hairstyles and shoes instead.

Katie reached for the first lace appliqu?. “It’s pretty simple,” she said. “Outline the flower in seed pearls. Fill in the petals with beads. I did one over the weekend. It took me about four hours.”

Four hours she’d spent not thinking about how complicated Zach was and how much she hated that she’d enjoyed their kiss.

Silence descended. Francesca blinked first. “For one flower? How many are there?”

“About sixty or seventy for the skirt, a hundred and fifty for the hem, twenty-five or so for the bodice.”

“Then we’d better get started,” Colleen said, reaching for several lengths of seed pearls and bags of beads.

Just then Brenna burst into the room. Katie turned to chastise her for being late, but the stark expression on her sister’s face stopped her before she could start.

Their mother moved toward her. “Brenna, honey, what’s wrong?”

Tears pooled in Brenna’s dark eyes, then trickled down her cheeks. “Jeff l-left me,” she managed as a sob caught at her throat. “This morning. H-he says he wants a d-divorce.”

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