11

Katie juggled two “stay-hot” Styrofoam containers, along with her heavy briefcase, as she made her way up the stairs to Zach’s front door. For the entire forty-two-minute trip from the hotel to his place, she’d lectured herself on the importance of staying cool, acting professional, and pretending that the passionate kiss in the hotel garden had never taken place. No matter what, she would not react to him again. Even if he opened the door naked.

Especially then.

In keeping with the “business only” attitude she’d decided was the most sensible-and safe-she’d dressed in a severe black pantsuit and a silk-blend turtleneck. Except for her face and hands, there wasn’t an inch of exposed skin. She refused to give him any ideas.

Speaking of Zach, he must have been watching for her because he opened the door before she had a chance to knock. He grabbed both food containers and eyed her briefcase.

“Do you take that with you everywhere?”

“Just about,” she admitted, unable to keep from smiling at the sight of him. “I never know when I’m going to need to produce a chart or schedule.”

He ushered her into the kitchen. He’d obviously arrived home some time ago. Not only was the table set, but he’d changed out of his suit into jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Katie couldn’t help noticing his butt as he turned to put the containers on the counter.

Most men had pretty decent butts, far better than most women’s, and Zach’s was definitely in the top ten percentile. Damn. Don’t look, she told herself as she moved toward the containers of food. “Jerome prepared all the dishes we’d talked about tasting. Obviously they aren’t as fresh as they will be at the party, so take that into account. Also, the presentation is somewhat lacking.”

She started opening foil packages. Zach set Styrofoam containers on the table. Once the food was laid out, she pulled large, folded sheets of paper from her briefcase. She opened them to show mock-ups of the food displays. As Zach tasted, she explained what foods would be at which stations and how everything would be served.

“Some of the kabobs will be precooked,” she told him, “but others will require guest preparation. Also, we’re going to have a station of exotic meats, and vegetarian stations for those who prefer that sort of thing.”

“Tofu on a stick?” he teased.

She laughed. “I hope it’s more interesting than that, but yes.”

She showed him computer-generated designs for the various carnival booths, then returned her papers to her briefcase and took some food for herself.

They discussed various ingredients, ranked their favorites, and narrowed the menu down to something close to its final form. Katie finished making notes while Zach prepared coffee.

“If only I could get you to care this much about the napkin selections,” she joked as he collected two mugs from a cupboard.

“Never gonna happen.”

“I suspected as much.”

She pulled a flat plastic box from her briefcase. Before she could open it, Zach moved to the table and set her coffee in front of her. He then took the box and opened it.

In that second she realized she hadn’t been thinking. Beading lace in the presence of the one person determined to stop the wedding was bound to get a reaction.

Zach lifted the half-beaded lace flower from its container and turned it over in his hands.

“You do beautiful work,” he said, his voice not giving away his feelings. But then she already knew what was on his mind.

“I’m not doing a good job of convincing you to see my side of things,” he told her.

“Not for lack of trying. You’ve threatened me, tried reason and seduction. What’s next? Money?”

He set the lace back in the box. “Katie, it was one kiss. If I’d been trying to seduce you, things wouldn’t have stopped there.”

She snapped the case shut. Talk about arrogant. “You’re assuming a lot.”

His dark eyes locked on hers. “I know.”

Heat boiled between them. Katie didn’t want to be the one to blink first, but she could feel herself slipping under his spell. Better to retreat and live to fight another day than give in with a pitiful “Take me, I’m yours.”

“So why can’t you consider the possibility of being wrong about David and Mia?” she asked in a feeble attempt to crank down the temperature in the room.

“Because I’m not. The only thing I feel more strongly about than keeping David from marrying Mia in July is keeping him from running off with her. He’s stubborn enough to do it. I’m still building my case. When I have it together, I’ll take it to him.”

“I know you love your son. But Mia is so sure about David, and she rarely makes a bad decision. Can’t you trust her?”

“No.”

Not a surprise. Maybe a nice change of subject was due. “I spoke with my mom this morning. Everyone in the family is really impressed with how you’re handling Brenna’s divorce.”

“Just doing my job,” he said with a shrug.

“They’re also furious with Jeff. I can’t believe he had the balls to come after the winery. I’m half expecting Grandma Tessa to put some ancient Italian curse on him.”

Zach chuckled. “Interesting plan. I prefer to take the legal approach, making him bleed every month as he writes Brenna a big, fat check.”

“Is this where I hum the Jaws theme?”

“If it makes you happy.”

She glanced at him. “So me thinking you’re a shark doesn’t bother you?”

“I am what I am. What I think isn’t going to change your opinion.”

“True, but my grandmothers adore you.”

“They’re fine women with excellent taste.”

“What about the cheek pinching?”

He winced. “That’s not my favorite trait.”

“I’m used to the family, but I would guess you find us all a little overwhelming.” She put the lace flower back in the box. “The last dress I worked on was Brenna’s. Well, Brenna’s and Francesca’s. They had a double wedding. Francesca’s husband died a few years later, which left Brenna as the only married sister. Grandpa Lorenzo was constantly on her to have children. And now she’s getting a divorce.” She sipped her coffee.

“There are worse things,” Zach pointed out.

“Not in our family. She’s feeling a lot of guilt about all this.”

“The divorce isn’t her fault. Jeff is the one who left. From what I can tell, Brenna was willing to tough it out, even if things weren’t perfect at home.”

That surprised her. “She admitted there was a problem?”

“No, but she didn’t have to. Happy marriages don’t end in divorce.”

“I suppose, but whatever the problem was, we never knew. Everyone liked Jeff, which made his leaving such a shock.” She sighed. “Poor Brenna. She’d dealing with her own pain and knowing that this is the first Marcelli divorce ever.”

“She’ll recover.”

“I guess people don’t have a choice. It must be really hard on the kids. Didn’t you mention that your parents were divorced? Or is that too personal to ask?”

Zach leaned back in his chair. “Katie, a few days ago I had my tongue in your mouth. It’s not too personal.”

She swallowed. She’d been doing so well, feeling normal around Zach, and with one sentence he’d made her aware of him again.

“My parents split up,” he said. “Like most couples, they were in trouble years before that. I guess I was ten when I figured out something was wrong. I saw my dad kissing a woman who wasn’t my mother. When I mentioned it to him, he said it was time I learned the facts of life and proceeded to tell me that every man who knew what was good for him kept a little something on the side.”

Katie felt her mouth drop open. She closed it quickly, but knew she looked as surprised as she felt. “He said that?”

Zach nodded. “He thought he was hip. I told him he was a bastard. He only laughed. By the time I was twelve, he started introducing me to his flavor of the month. He never kept them around long, but there was always one waiting in the wings.”

She shivered. “Did your mother know?”

“I never said anything. I was a kid and scared. She probably figured it out on her own.” He hesitated. “Not that it mattered. My dad came from money and she didn’t, so he had the power.”

She heard the bitterness in his voice.

Zach picked up his coffee, but didn’t drink. “He never worked a day in his life. Maybe that was the problem-too much time on his hands. I guess the cheating was the price my mother had to pay for the good life. But eventually the price got too high. They split when I was fourteen.”

“Who did you live with?”

“My mother. After my father left, his money disappeared, too. She went to work, first one job, then two. She wouldn’t touch the trust fund my father set up for me. She kept saying that was for my future. Ironically, despite his millions, my father never paid child support and my mother wouldn’t take him to court to make him. So we went from rich to poor in short order.”

“Why wouldn’t she want him to pay child support? That was for you.”

“I don’t know. Pride? Shame? She was a hell of a woman-always there for me. Once I had David, she was a rock. She died my first year of law school.” He paused, then glanced around the kitchen. “I wish she could have lived long enough to see all of this, and so I could have made her life easier.”

“I’m sorry,” Katie whispered, not sure what else to say. His childhood was light-years from her own. “Is your dad still alive?”

“No. He died a few years back. Turns out he left David a nice trust fund and the rest of the money to me.” He laughed, but the sound had no humor. “Isn’t that a bitch? Every stinking penny to me. But in the end I walked away from it. The old man put too many strings on his dollars, and I didn’t need them that badly. So they went to some charity and I’m finally free of him.”

Ever the man in charge, no hint of pain flickered in his eyes. She wondered if it was still there, or if he’d made peace with the past. Whatever doubts she may have had about Zach changing his mind about Mia and David getting married had just been squashed. No wonder he didn’t think relationships worked.

He shrugged. “Okay, that’s my sorry past. Let’s talk about something cheerful. How about your dating history?”

She smiled. “Why is that a cheerful subject?”

“You being happily married would put a real crimp in my plans to seduce you.”

Katie was glad she wasn’t drinking. Had she been, she might have spit. “Okay, then. Thanks for making that clear.”

“You’re welcome. So tell me about all the Mr. Wrongs and how much more interesting I am than them.”

“There’s that ego again. I should have brought more food.”

“You’re stalling.”

“I have nothing to say. My dating history is pretty much like everyone else’s. I’ve dated men who are afraid of commitment, or men who want to commit for the wrong reason. Even some who should have been committed.”

“That sounds interesting.”

“Less so than you might think.” She considered her dating past. “There were guys who could drive me crazy in three minutes and guys who just weren’t as interested in me as I was in them.” She leaned forward and rested her forearms on the table. “In all of that I never found the one who was…”

“Perfect?” he offered.

“I wasn’t looking for perfect. Just a couple of bells.”

He frowned. “What?”

“You know. Hearing bells or music or something. A cosmic sign that I’d found the right guy.”

“You’re way too romantic.”

“I want what most women want.”

“A free ride and a pool boy for sex?”

She shook her head. “That’s cynical even for you.”

“Okay. You’re right. Not all women are on the take.”

“On behalf of my gender, allow me to be flattered.”

She rose and crossed to the sink, where she rinsed her mug. When she turned, Zach was standing right behind her. His dark gaze settled on her face.

“I never thought that about you,” he told her. “I mean that, Katie. You’re a class act.”

“Thanks.”

He was standing close. Too close.

He reached up and touched her cheek. Instantly heat spiraled through her, making it difficult to remember her plan not to react to him again. Somehow the importance of it all escaped her.

“What are you thinking?” he asked, his voice low and seductive.

“I, um, I’m not really thinking anything.”

Which was true. She was using the moment to get lost in his blue eyes. They were the perfect color, she thought. She also liked the stubble darkening his jaw and the way he-

His mouth brushed against hers. All her senses went on instant alert. The sensible part of her knew this was a really big mistake. Kissing the last time could almost be considered an accident. But if they did it again, it might have significance…although she couldn’t say exactly what that significance would be. And before she could figure it out, his tongue brushed against her bottom lip and she no longer cared.

He felt too good, she thought, surrendering to the moment. Her arms came up and rested on his shoulders as she took a step forward. Their bodies pressed together. He was hard to her soft-thick muscles and angles, unyielding where they touched. She liked that. She liked the scent of him, too. That heady masculine combination of skin and some unique elixir that was the essence of Zach himself.

He cupped her face, then slid his fingers into her hair. When he nipped her bottom lip, she gasped slightly, parting for him, wanting him to move inside of her. Her heartbeat quickened in anticipation. Heat flared between her thighs, and her breasts swelled. Every erogenous zone she owned prepared to party.

Their tongues touched in introduction, then circled each other. She dropped her hands to his back, where she could feel his muscles tensing. Was it suddenly hot in here, or was it her? She felt as if parts of her were on fire.

Zach must have read her mind because he tugged on the lapels of her suit jacket. She moved her arms to her side so he could push the garment over her shoulders. It slid soundlessly to the floor.

Her turtleneck suddenly seemed to be an unreasonable constriction. What had she been thinking? Wouldn’t a silky camisole have been better? Something with thin fabric, lots of lace, and a style that exposed plenty of flesh. Or better yet a-

Her mind experienced thought gridlock when Zach put his hands on her waist and began moving them higher. As there weren’t a lot of choices in the destination department, she had a good idea where he was headed. She also knew what was going to happen when he got there.

If his hot kissing was anything to go by, he would touch her with a combination of gentleness and experience that would rob her of several important abilities. So if she was going to stop things, this would be the moment. Right now. Right this second.

His fingers grazed the undersides of her breasts. Any master plan she’d had was lost, and she could do nothing but surrender to the sensation of his confident caress.

He cupped her curves, then brushed his thumbs against her already tight nipples. Even through the layers of clothing, she was exquisitely sensitive. Her breath caught and her pelvic muscles clenched.

As he gently squeezed her breasts, he drew back from her mouth. Before she could complain, he pressed his lips against her jaw, then moved lower to her neck. Soft, wet kisses made her arch her head back. He moved to the sensitive skin below her ears and gently sucked. She wanted him to keep going lower and lower, but her turtleneck was in the way.

She braced herself for the sensible fairy to burst into her brain and make her stop. She waited for Zach to come to his senses and stop making her whimper with the erotic pattern he traced over her breasts. Instead he dropped his hands to her waistband and started tugging on her shirt.

The first whisper of cool air should have made her reconsider. Under other circumstances-although she couldn’t say what-it would have. Really. Instead she found herself helping him drag up her turtleneck. She slipped out of the arms, then tugged the tight neck over her head.

Even as she tossed it aside, his mouth reclaimed hers. She parted as he plunged inside her. Tongues circled, stroked, danced. He moved closer still so that their bodies pressed together, her bare midsection rubbing against the softness of his shirt. His hands brushed her bare back, then moved up to expertly unfasten her bra.

She felt the slack in the band, then the straps fell off her shoulders. He eased away just enough to slip one hand between them. That large, warm hand moved under her bra cup and engulfed her aching left breast.

Need flooded her. Need and wanting and passion that made her wet and ready in a heartbeat. Every part of her throbbed, but most especially the swelling dampness between her legs.

She quickly pulled off her bra and dropped it to the floor. Her hands moved restlessly, first to his shoulders, then to his back where powerful muscles bunched and released. When he bent down and drew her nipple into his mouth, she groaned. When his tongue flicked against the tight tip, she shook.

Her fingers went to work on his shirt, but his arms got in the way. She managed to pull a couple of buttons free, but that was all. He licked and sucked on her breasts until a steady pulsing beat began between her legs, and she knew that she was already heading for the edge of surrender.

He abandoned her long enough to pull off his shirt and step out of his shoes. She kicked off hers as well, but that was as far as she got before he reclaimed her with a deep, wet kiss that left her shaken down to her melting bones.

“I want you,” he murmured against her mouth. “Katie, I want you. Now.”

Simple words, but powerful. He drew her close and her breasts flattened against his bare chest. The hair there tickled erotically. He cupped her rear and squeezed. She tilted forward until her belly came in contact with his erection. They both groaned.

“We need to move this upstairs,” he said even as he turned and took her hand in his.

He led the way, pausing halfway up the stairs to kiss her neck, her shoulders, then her breasts. Even as his tongue circled her nipple, his fingers slipped between her legs and rubbed against her swollen flesh. She was so wet, so hungry, she surged against him. One or two more strokes would be enough, she thought, fighting desperate need.

“This way,” he said hoarsely and continued to the second floor.

She had a brief impression of high ceilings, skylights, and a king-size bed. The only light came from the hallway, but it was enough. She saw Zach reach for the button on the front of her slacks. When that was free, he tugged down the zipper.

Below she wore bikini briefs which he quickly stripped off, leaving her naked.

“Beautiful,” he murmured, even as he gently pushed her into a sitting position.

Before she’d quite settled on the bed, he’d dropped to his knees and pressed his mouth to the soft skin on the inside of her legs.

Everything was moving so fast, she thought hazily. She barely knew Zach. He was her client. This was all-

Heaven, she told herself as his wet kisses moved higher. Stupid, maybe, but heaven. Need pulsed in time with her rapid heartbeat. She ached down to the very fiber of her being.

She lay back on the bed and rested her heels on the edge of the mattress. The position left her exposed and vulnerable, and him in no doubt of what she wanted.

She didn’t have to wait long for him to agree to her suggestion. Warm fingers gently slid into slick folds of hungry flesh. He brushed perilously close to that one magical spot, without touching it directly. She shuddered. A whisper of breath was her only warning, then his mouth claimed her in a deep kiss that made every cell in her body scream.

He brushed his tongue against her tight center, stroking it rhythmically. Over and around, he teased, he promised, he made her gasp, then not breathe at all. She gave in to the journey because she had no choice. When he slipped a single finger inside her to stroke her from that side as well, she gasped his name. When he moved his tongue faster, she fought for control. When he inserted a second finger, she lost it.

Her orgasm crashed over her with an unexpected intensity. Pleasure filled her to the top and spilled over the sides. Every inch of her body participated, bathing in heat and release. She lost track of time, she lost control, she lost everything except the ongoing pleasure that transported her, shattered her, then returned her safe and sound to the universe of her origin.

Zach slowly lowered her feet to the floor, then kissed the top of her thigh. She risked opening her eyes. He was smiling, the pleased smile of a lover who has pleasured his partner.

Coming first made her feel vulnerable. Coming second hadn’t been an option.

“That was really good for me,” he said.

His words eased some of her nervousness. She smiled back. “Imagine how it was for me.”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

“Amazing.”

“Amazing works.”

He rose and pulled off his socks, then quickly unfastened his belt, then his trousers. Seconds later he was naked. Katie shifted back on the bed, all the while watching him. She liked his body, the swirls of dark hair on his chest and the narrow pattern that seemed to lead the eye directly to his groin.

He was hard, ready, and big enough to please. Despite her ten-point-three on the orgasm scale, just looking at his arousal made her insides clench in anticipation.

He opened the nightstand drawer and drew out a condom.

After he slipped it on, he moved onto the bed. She opened her arms, then drew him close. His erection brushed against her leg as her thigh slipped between his. He shifted so she was draped over him.

One of his hands traced patterns across her back while the other cupped her breast. The second his thumb brushed against her nipple, she felt an answer quiver between her legs. She rocked her wetness against his leg.

“Ready again?” he asked. “I can wait if you need me to.”

“Manful, but unnecessary.”

She expected him to move into place, but instead he put his hands on her hips and urged her to straddle him. Katie didn’t hesitate. She moved over him, then reached between them to guide him inside.

His thickness stretched her deliciously. As she came down so he filled her fully, he reached for both breasts and began to gently squeeze her nipples. The combination, her sliding up and down and his attention to her breasts, was too much. She felt the first rippling clench deep inside.

Zach caught his breath. Having Katie’s slick heat surround him was one thing, but feeling her climax was another. The thick contractions gripped him tightly from base to tip and about squeezed the control right out of him.

“I can’t stop,” she gasped as another contraction shuddered through her. “Oh, Zach!”

She rode him, moving faster and faster. Every third or fourth stroke brought another release. The increased pace shattered his control. The swaying of her breasts, the pleasure on her face, the scent of her body all conspired to make him want more.

He dropped his hands to her hips and dug in his fingers. Plunging faster and deeper, he claimed her and his orgasm, burying himself in her and exploding into pleasure.

Katie awoke sometime after midnight. There was no second of confusion, no wondering where she was. She knew the exact location and even why she was currently naked. In this case, clarity was not a blessing.

She’d had sex with Zach Stryker. Zach-the man who had promised to do anything he could to get her to change her mind about Mia’s engagement. Zach, who was her newest client for the biggest contract she’d ever had, her sister’s divorce lawyer, and a potential in-law. The man who was determined to break her sister’s heart.

She supposed that in the scheme of things, this was probably not the smartest thing she’d ever done. Nope, it probably wasn’t even going to make the top ten.

She turned her head and saw Zach sleeping next to her. He’d been a great lover, and a stellar host. He’d offered her one of his T-shirts to sleep in, plus a brand-new toothbrush, and had taken her order for breakfast. A girl could get used to this sort of treatment.

Make that…“A woman.” A mature woman who handled sexual relationships with the ease of handling a tricky scheduling conflict. A sophisticated woman who understood the rules of the game and occasionally bent them for her own benefit. Someone savvy. Someone together.

Someone not Katie.

Feeling anything but sophisticated and mature, Katie did the only thing that made sense under the circumstances.

She ran.

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