9

“Maybe we could figure out a way you could just borrow my hips and thighs,” Brenna said as she shifted to get more comfortable on her sister’s lumpy double bed. Not only was the mattress more like a rocky path than a place for restful sleep, the only light in the room was diffused by heavy lampshades, making it difficult for Brenna to bead as neatly as she would like. She had no doubt that if she did a less than perfect job, Katie would reject the lace appliqu? out of hand.

Francesca smiled in response to Brenna’s comment, but didn’t speak as she continued to work on her face. Not her makeup…her face. While the light in the bedroom might be dim enough to qualify for a mood-lit nightclub, that in the bathroom rivaled the intensity of an operating room. Several bulbs illuminated the bathroom mirror from nearly every angle possible. Francesca had placed an eighteen-inch-wide board over her pedestal sink to give herself a work area for her array of cosmetics.

While Brenna found the various pots, jars, and pencils interesting, what really captured her attention was the fat suit hanging in the open doorway. The foam…what, she thought-Garment? Creation? Outfit-consisted of padded shoulders, full breasts, a bulging tummy and thick thighs. Actually it was everything Brenna hated about her own body. If only she could unzip the extra fifteen or twenty pounds she carried around.

Talk about a miracle, she thought glumly.

She reached for another bead from the small bag and sewed it into place. So far she’d completed fifteen lace flowers. She hadn’t been back to L.A. since Jeff had announced he wanted a divorce. She’d called in her resignation to the job she’d always hated and had only taken because the pay was decent. She clenched her teeth. Just thinking about all she’d gone through with Jeff made her furious. She wanted to scream. She wanted to throw something. She wanted to stab an ice pick through his two-timing heart.

Instead she beaded lace. And fumed. Because if she allowed her anger to fade, she found herself feeling lost and alone, not to mention slightly panicked about the future.

She glanced around Francesca’s tiny bedroom. “I can’t stay here forever,” she said more to herself than to her sister.

“Sure you can.” Francesca applied a grayish-taupe shadow under her eyes. She instantly looked tired and drawn. “I like having you around.”

Brenna smiled. “That’s because you like rescuing people. But if I spend many more nights on your sofa, I’m going to be in physical therapy for the rest of my life. It’s not exactly comfortable.”

“Are you thinking of going back to L.A.?”

“For what? I don’t have any real ties there. I quit my job. I guess I need to get my stuff out of the apartment, but other than that…” Her voice trailed off. She’d been too busy working and taking care of her husband to make friends. God, her life was damn empty. Why had she allowed that to happen?

“We should have him killed,” Francesca said, sounding calm enough to be scary.

While Brenna appreciated the support, she wasn’t sure Jeff’s death would make up for much. It would be too easy. In a perfect world, he would have to suffer.

“Are you sure he’s worth prison time?” she asked.

“Good point.” Francesca turned and shrugged. “It’s just he’s such a bastard. I know your pain is the worst and I want to make it better, but on a personal level, and for the family, I want revenge.”

“We could brainstorm a plan.”

“Works for me.”

“I’ll come up with some ideas while I bead.” Brenna returned her attention to the lace in her hands. “In the meantime, I need a place to live.”

“You could move home.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

Moving back to the hacienda wouldn’t be her first choice, but at this point what options did she have? There wasn’t any money. She had worked her ass off to cover the monthly bills and keep up with Jeff’s student loans. Savings had been a luxury they couldn’t afford.

“You know Mom and Dad would be thrilled to have you back. The Grands would treat you like a princess.”

“I could use a little pampering,” Brenna admitted. “Although I’d have to redecorate our old room. It looks exactly the same as when we moved out. My tastes have changed in the past few years.”

“Mine, too.”

“You were smart to stay single after Todd died,” Brenna told her. “You learned your lesson early.”

Francesca shrugged. “My marriage wasn’t all good times and laughter. I’m much happier on my own. Now you get to make that choice if you want to.”

“It’s already made.” Fall for another guy who would only use her to get what he wanted? No, thanks.

“So we’ll be unmarried into our dotage,” Brenna said. “People will think we’re lesbians.”

Francesca smiled, but didn’t look up from the mirror. “Can you imagine how many rosaries would be said by the Grands if they suspected that? They’d need a hotline to heaven.”

As Brenna watched, Francesca used a sharp eyebrow pencil to draw in tiny lines which thickened her eyebrows. She’d already applied fake skin along her jaw line, to round out the shape.

“Are you going for the ugly look on purpose?”

Francesca glanced at her over her shoulder. “I don’t want to be recognized.”

“No chance of that.” Brenna eyed the fat suit. “Doesn’t it freak you out to gain weight instantly?”

“Not really. I know it comes right off.”

Which was true, but made Brenna feel cranky. “I know this is all part of your studies, but I have to tell you that wearing a fat suit is a weird way to get a doctorate.”

Francesca shrugged and returned her attention to the mirror. She shaded more of her face. “Actually today I’m going out in a wheelchair. I’ll use the padded suit later. As for my doctorate, my purpose is to document how people react to me, based on different physical appearances.”

“Oh, I get the theory,” Brenna told her. “I just think it’s strange.”

Francesca reached for a lip pencil that matched the color of her skin. She carefully outlined her mouth, making the curves appear smaller. A tiny dot of a line at each corner drew the shape of her mouth downward, giving her a pinched appearance.

She applied a flesh-colored lipstick which made her mouth practically invisible. Then she reached for her hair-brush.

Several strong strokes tamed her thick, dark hair. She pulled it into a severe bun, after which she sprinkled baby powder on her hands and smoothed it over her sleek hair. Dark brown faded to muddy gray. Heavily rimmed glasses and a shapeless dress completed her transformation. She turned to face her sister.

“What do you think?”

Brenna wrinkled her nose in distaste. “You’re my sister and I really love you, but I have to tell you, sometimes you scare me.”

Several tables clustered together on one side of the vast hotel ballroom. Try as he might, Zach couldn’t imagine the space filled with two thousand guests, nor did he have any interest in the china chosen for the event. But when Katie had asked him to drop by the hotel to make the final seating choice, he’d found himself agreeing. Maybe it was because hotels were filled with beds and he was determined to get her into one.

“There are different philosophies,” she was saying. “Tables of eight are more intimate. People can actually talk around the table. It’s also easier for couples to buy a table when there are only eight seats to fill. Tables for twelve can make for an easier seating plan in a room this size. They’re more efficient for the serving staff, but they make it virtually impossible to speak with anyone but immediate neighbors.”

Katie indicated a large round table set with everything from water glasses to salt shakers.

“With our ’cook your own dinner’ menu, we have to consider allowing people to move in and out of the area. A table for ten falls somewhere in the middle of the two. Obviously.” She shot him a quick smile. “As an aside, tables for eight mean more linen rentals and centerpieces. I could work out the cost differences if you would like.”

Zach already felt his eyes glazing over just hearing her talk about it. A spreadsheet on the subject was about as appealing as a root canal.

“You’re the expert, Katie,” he said. “It’s your call.”

She grinned. “I had a feeling you’d say that. Somehow I suspect this isn’t all that interesting to you.”

“You think?”

Her grin turned into a chuckle. He leaned a little closer to better hear the soft sound. In the process he caught a whiff of feminine fragrance…something sweet and just a little sultry. Tempting-much like Katie herself.

As usual she dressed for success-slacks and a cropped jacket in black, with a red silk blouse. Her hair had been piled on top of her head in a style that was probably supposed to be professional. But it was late afternoon and too many tendrils had escaped for the look to be anything but sexy.

She was doing the “I’m a businesswoman” dance, and all it did was make him want to see her naked. If she knew, she would smack the crap out of him.

“Okay, so you have no vote on the table size,” she said, making a note on her ever-present pad of paper. “Do you want to express an opinion on the color and style of linens?”

“Do you want to have a detailed conversation about torte law?”

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Gee, Zach, if I’d known you were going to be so difficult, I wouldn’t have asked for your opinion on anything.”

“Sure you would. You like hanging out with me.”

She raised her eyebrows. “No wonder you drive such a big car. You need room for your ego. What do you do when you fly? Will it fit in the overhead compartment or do you have to check it into baggage?”

“You know what they say. Big ego, big…”

“Idiot?” she offered with a smile and walked toward her briefcase, which rested on a chair. After opening the bag, she pulled out a thick folder.

“Back to the subject at hand,” she said. “I have a list of the prizes for our high-end donors. I’ve spoken with the jewelry designers Sara recommended. They’re-”

“Who?” he interrupted.

“Sara.” Her eyes twinkled with humor. “Probably better known to you as ‘John’s wife.’”

“Okay. The pregnant one.”

“Right. She recommended a few jewelry designers. They all agreed to sell us unique pieces at cost. Of course their names will be prominently displayed in the program, and I’m sure we’ll start a fashion trend or two that night.” She looked up from the paper. “I don’t suppose you want to look at the design sketches.”

“Not really.”

“Then how about a list of the various prize packages? I’ve worked up a ski vacation in Europe, golfing in Scotland and Pebble Beach, and a lovely weekend in Napa, complete with a private dinner with the three top wine makers there.” She closed the folder. “I used family connections on that last one.”

“I’m impressed.”

“It’s all a matter of knowing who to call. Now, about the centerpieces.”

Zach held up his hands in front of him and took a step back. “Absolutely no flower decisions,” he said. “Order whatever you like in any color or style. I’m sure they’ll be wonderful.”

Katie slid a little closer. “Is the big, bad lawyer frightened of a few orchids?”

He was saved from replying by the arrival of a tall, painfully thin man in a white coat. The dark-haired stranger crossed to Katie, spoke her name in a tone of delight, and kissed the backs of both her hands.

She disentangled herself with grace and a small laugh. “Jerome, you spent way too much time in France. Stop acting so Continental, or I’ll tell my client that you’re actually from Nebraska.”

The tall man winced. “Katie, don’t even joke about that.” He turned to Zach and held out a hand. “I’m Jerome. I’m the head chef here at the hotel, and I’ll be in charge of the food for the charity event.”

“Nice to meet you.” Zach shook hands with the man, then glanced from one to the other. “You two have worked together before?”

“Several times,” Katie said easily. “Jerome is a perfectionist. Fresh produce is practically a religion with him, and his food is the better for it. He’s creative, yet willing to work within the confines of my ideas and, just as important, my budget. That’s unheard of at his level.”

“You flatter me,” Jerome said with obvious false modesty. “I’m simply gifted.”

“I know. And brilliant and all those other lovely adjectives you adore so much. Did you bring the menus?”

Jerome held out several sheets of papers. Katie moved next to Zach so that he could read them as well. They were detailed food selections for the charity dinner. Handwritten notes filled the space by the typed items, detailing everything from possible condiments, to notations on availability and cost per serving.

“You’ll have to pick the chocolates quickly,” Jerome said as Katie flipped a page. “Some are easy enough to get, but if you’re serious about chocolate from around the world, some of my suppliers require a month’s notice.”

“No problem.”

When he started talking about the availability of produce, Zach excused himself and stepped into the hallway to call his office. Dora assured him there were no emergencies. He slipped the phone back into his jacket pocket and watched Katie work.

His mind returned to all the possibilities available in the large hotel. A small room with a smaller bed? A luxurious suite with a Jacuzzi tub? The sauna?

He found he really liked the idea of both of them slick with sweat, sliding against each other, burning from the inside out. He imagined himself pumping into her, then quickly shifted the fantasy so she was on top, riding him, her breasts-

He swallowed a sudden laugh. What the hell. His vivid images had produced a predictable and physical response. He was hard, horny, and couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten an erection during business hours. Work generally consumed him. Just not lately.

Katie made notes as Jerome talked, narrowing down the list of possible choices to something manageable. She would get all the information onto spreadsheets that evening. It would seem less unwieldy that way.

“What about a tasting dinner?” she asked. “When do you want to do that?”

He pulled a Palm Pilot from his jacket pocket and pushed a couple of buttons. “You want it here, or you want to take it with you?”

“Either works for me.” She looked around and saw Zach in the hallway. “You’re not escaping that easily,” she called to him. “Come on. I won’t make you decide on the items for the tasting dinner, but you did promise to help me with the actual eating.”

Zach returned to the ballroom. He moved with an easy masculine grace that left her mouth dry.

He annoyed her, impressed her, charmed her, and surprised her. And she was supposed to be the people person.

“We have two important issues regarding the tasting dinner,” she said, determined not to let him know how much he affected her. “Do you want to eat it here or get it to go, and when do you want to have it?”

“Let’s get it to go,” he said. “Then we won’t be rushed.”

“Sounds great.” Maybe they could make it a very long evening. One that ended with…

She mentally slapped herself into paying attention to the moment at hand. Rather than deal with Zach, she focused on Jerome. At least he was completely safe. “What dates are good for you?”

He named off several.

Zach pulled out his own Palm Pilot and pushed buttons. “I’m pretty open. What about you, Katie?”

She ignored the suggestive tone of his voice. “Same here.”

Jerome pushed more keys. “The fifth?”

“Works for me,” Zach said.

She nodded in agreement, noted the date, and volunteered to pick up the food. They would deal with the “where” they would be eating another time.

Jerome excused himself and returned to the kitchen. Katie pulled seating charts out from her briefcase and held them up to Zach. He shook his head.

“Not in this lifetime.”

“You have no opinion? Isn’t there someone you’re dying to sit next to? A rich divorcee? A female rock star? The latest Hollywood ’It’ girl?”

“I prefer women to girls,” he said. “And despite the rumors, I’m more into substance than style.”

She laughed. “Just once I would like to meet a man willing to admit he likes his relationships simple and his women easy.”

His gaze narrowed. “You don’t believe me?”

“Not for a nanosecond. Come on, Zach. You’re successful, good-looking, and rich. I’ve seen the photos in the press. Tabloid text may not always be accurate, but you know what they say about pictures speaking a thousand words. Are you trying to tell me you haven’t dated all those women?”

“No. I’m saying there’s a reason I walked away from all of them.”

It was a semi-decent comeback. “So you’ve been converted? Now intelligent, articulate conversation is the way to your heart? Big breasts and long legs no longer work? Imagine my surprise.”

He shook his head. “I’m not going to win this conversation, so let’s change the subject. Why don’t you show me these fabulous gardens I’ve been hearing about?”

She couldn’t believe it. “You’re conceding defeat?”

“I’m making a strategic retreat.”

“Wow. I must remember to put a star by this day on the calendar when I get home.”

He grunted in response. Katie was still delighted with her victory as they stepped outside into the landscaped gardens of the hotel.

It was late afternoon on the sort of day that made postcard photographers drool. The sky was the color blue only ever seen on the California coast. A warmish breeze chased away any clouds that might want to linger. Dappled sunlight illuminated the perfectly green grass, while elegant trees provided patches of shade. A few colorful leaves decorated the stone path, and birds offered commentary on the events. All the moment needed was an orchestra playing something dreamy and a quick, magical clothing transformation during which she would shed her sensible business attire for something diaphanous.

But that wasn’t likely to happen. Rather than push her luck when she’d already scored for her side, she went for a safe topic.

“How’s David doing in school?” she asked.

“He’s starting to panic. It’s nearly time for finals again. The quarter system is proving to be a challenge for him. He’s used to being the smartest kid in his class and not having to work very hard, but suddenly everyone around him was the smartest in each of their high school classes. But he’s doing okay. I think by the third quarter, he’ll be more relaxed.”

There was pride in Zach’s voice. And love. He might have a million faults, but his relationship with David made up for a lot.

“I’m surprised you didn’t have more children,” she said idly.

Zach paused, giving her a startled glance. “I never thought about it,” he said slowly. “I like kids. But I was so busy being a single parent, I never considered having more.”

“You didn’t have to stay single.”

“Another marriage wasn’t in the cards for me,” he said easily, his blue eyes staring directly into hers. “What about you? Why aren’t there a dozen or so Marcelli grandchildren running around? It’s not as if your parents wouldn’t have approved.”

She sighed. “They would love it. As you’ve already experienced, the pressure to marry and have children is pretty relentless in our family.”

“Yet you resisted.”

“Probably because a dozen kids seems like a few too many.”

He smiled. “Okay. How about four? It’s a nice round number.”

“I’ll agree.” She’d always wanted children and four sounded perfect. “However, in my world, children require me to be married, and as I’ve yet to find the right guy…”

“You’re kidding?” he asked.

“What? That I think there’s a ‘right one’?”

“Yes. That’s a myth of popular culture.”

She laughed. “So speaks the man who has never risked marriage after one youthful mistake. I don’t think that makes you an expert.”

“My career does.”

“No. Your career makes you an expert on why marriages fail, not why they succeed. You know everything a couple shouldn’t do, but very little about what they should do. In my family, marriages have always been forever.” She glanced at him. “Brenna’s recent troubles to the contrary.”

His gaze narrowed. “You argue a lot.”

“Actually I don’t. I’m a very pleasant person.”

“You argue a lot with me.”

She nodded. “You’re right. Ask yourself why.”

“I already know why. You’re fighting the chemistry between us.”

As he spoke, he moved close. Very close. Close enough that it seemed unnecessary for her to keep breathing. There was also the matter of his arms going around her and drawing her next to him.

She knew what he was going to do, and she didn’t even consider stopping him. Not when she’d secretly wanted another kiss ever since he’d ended the first one. Oh, she knew she should resist, but this was one of those times when being bad felt so good.

His lips moved against hers with the best combination of tension, pressure, and softness. Firm yet yielding, sweet yet masculine. She found herself melting into the sensation, savoring every exquisite millimeter of contact. She wanted to part her lips, to have him plunge inside of her, but she also wanted to continue the kiss, drawing out the moment, enjoying the need and hunger building inside of her.

He moved his mouth back and forth, gently discovering her. When he bit on the full center of her lower lip, she gasped in both shock and delight. A quick brush of histongue on the sensual injury made her shiver in anticipation. She raised her hands to his shoulders, for balance as well as to hold him in place. Her fingers rubbed against the smooth fabric of his suit.

Slowly, as if to give her time to get used to the idea, he slipped his tongue inside. She waited for some voice to call out the need to be sensible, but there was only silent anticipation. Hadn’t Brenna told her she needed to be more bad? Kissing Zach sure had to qualify.

She surrendered to the wanting and parted her lips fully to admit him.

The arms around her tightened. He held her close enough that his heat warmed her, yet she didn’t feel trapped. They moved together, as if they had performed this particular dance a thousand times before. There was no awkwardness, no bumping of noses and knees. Just mind-crushing desire. It swept through her like a tornado, sucking the air from her lungs and making her want to beg him to let her surrender.

Her skin felt too hot and too tight. Every erogenous zone she knew about and some she had yet to discover sent up warning signals that if they were not touched and soon, she would have to die right then. The taste of him, the pressure, the sweet sensations were all more than she had expected.

All her fantasies about Zach, both funny and serious, hadn’t prepared her for the reality. His hands moved up and down her back, making her want to purr. When he slipped lower, cupping her rear, she instinctively arched against him, wanting to feel all of him. The hard proof of his arousal nearly made her scream in delight.

The rational part of her brain, which should have been telling her this was a big mistake, began to gauge the distance to the front desk of the hotel and calculate the embarrassment factor of checking in for a couple of hours of hot monkey sex. The alternative was doing it right here in the garden, but she’d never been one for public displays of affection.

Before she could decide if she could overcome her inhibitions, Zach drew back just enough to break the kiss. He rested his forehead on hers. She had a feeling he’d come to his senses, which really pissed her off. At least he was breathing just as hard as she was. She would hate to be the only one in the throes of uncontrolled passion.

He rubbed his thumb across her swollen lips. “You’re full of surprises.”

She tried to smile, but had a feeling it came out a little shaky at the corners. “The same could be said about you.”

“No way.” He cupped her face and kissed her again. “I’ve been kissing on and off for the past twenty years and I know I haven’t felt anything like that before. So it must be you.”

Even as she told herself his smooth line didn’t mean anything, she found herself desperately wanting to believe it. Okay, Zach had promised to do whatever he could to change her mind about Mia and David, but she didn’t want to believe he would go so far as to seduce her to his side. Except she had a feeling he just might.

The fact that she didn’t know should have sent her running for the hills, or at least her car. Instead she felt only regret that they hadn’t hooked up under slightly less charged circumstances.

“This is going to be complicated,” he said.

“Not for me.”

He grinned. “You’re tough, Katie. I like that. I like it a lot.”

His words made her shiver, which only proved she was a fool.

She stepped back and straightened her jacket. “This was great and all, but I really have to run.”

“You could come back to my place.”

The invitation, delivered in a sensually husky voice, made her knees melt. She had to consciously force her muscles to tighten so she wouldn’t collapse in a heap.

“I could, but I won’t. Thanks for asking, though.”

“Want a rain check?”

She risked glancing at him. His dark blue eyes were bright with passion, his lips were still swollen. He looked impossibly sexy and irresistible. Giving in made perfect sense. No one would blame her.

“This is L.A.,” she said. “We don’t actually get rain.”

“You’re afraid.”

“I’m smart.”

“And scared.”

As they both knew that was the truth; she didn’t see any point in admitting it. “Let’s just say I don’t trust you.”

She picked up her briefcase and made a timely retreat. Because ten more seconds in his company would put her on the verge of giving in, and she couldn’t risk that.

Mia stood up from her place at the kitchen table and stretched to relieve the muscles in her back. Too many hours spent hunched over a book, she thought. She crossed to the calendar posted on the refrigerator door, where she checked off another two-hour block of study. She only had a week until finals. As usual, she’d prepared a schedule dividing up her non-classroom time into review sessions. Also, as usual, she was right on schedule.

Thanks to Katie, she thought, her gaze straying to a picture of all four Marcelli girls standing together in the middle of a vineyard. Her sister had always been the most organized student, and she’d passed all her tricks along to Mia.

A knock on the door made her turn. She knew instantly who stood in the hallway of her apartment building. She wrestled with two parts anticipation and one part apprehension.

She crossed to the door and opened it.

“Before you say anything,” David told her as he entered, “I’m only staying thirty minutes. We need to stay focused on finals. But I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too.”

She studied his familiar face, the blue eyes that she’d noticed right off, and the way his blond hair always fell across his forehead.

He held up a white bag. “I got your favorites,” he said. “Just yesterday I was reading that sugar helps with mental acuity.”

She glanced from the bag containing Baskin-Robbins ice cream to David. Apprehension faded as love swelled to take its place.

For the past few weeks, ever since they’d tried to shop for the gift registry, things had been kind of twisted between them. Not wrong, exactly, but not right, either. The fight had changed things. They’d been seeing each other, but the seeing had been strained.

Suddenly everything felt right again. She wrapped her arms around him and held him close. He dropped the ice-cream bag and pulled her hard against him.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, suddenly fighting tears.

“Me, too.” He kissed her. “I love you, Mia.”

“I love you more.”

He smiled at the familiar joke. She continued to cling to him, needing to crawl inside and be a part of him. Whatever else went wrong in her life, being with David was always right.

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