13

Katie picked up the phone, then set it down. She picked it up again, dialed three numbers and hung up, then buried her head in her hands. This was much worse than the time she’d invited Steve Klausen to the Backwards Dance in high school and he’d made her wait for an answer while he found out if he had to work that night. One would think that at her age she would have learned maturity, poise, and grace. Unfortunately, one would be wrong.

“It’s just a business call,” she told herself, trying to sound both firm and in control. “I have information to share with a client. It is, in fact, my obligation to keep my client updated on what is going on.”

Which was nearly the truth, but not completely. The missing factor was, of course, that she and Zach had made love last week. They’d gotten naked, done the wild thing, then she’d crept out in the middle of the night without even leaving a note.

That could have been recoverable if they’d spoken since. But they hadn’t. She should have called, but she’d been scared and embarrassed and definitely out of her comfort zone. She’d wanted him to make the first move and when he hadn’t, she’d felt…icky.

Now she felt awkward and confused about calling him at work. Normally she never sweated getting in touch with a client, but Zach was the first one she’d ever slept with, so the rules of engagement weren’t all that clear.

She dropped her hands to her desk and leaned back in her chair. She was going to have to get over this and start acting like a sensible person. Baring that, she was simply going to have to suck it up and call Zach because she had to move forward with the fund-raiser.

And she would like to take this moment to remind herself that she had only herself to blame. She could have said no. She could have walked away while still fully dressed and then not have had to worry about postcoital etiquette. This uncomfortable, slightly embarrassed, definitely weird sensation in her midsection was something to remember the next time a tempting client walked into her life and tried to get past first base.

Determined to be brave and professional, she picked up the phone and dialed Zach’s office number. Dora picked up on the first ring and immediately put Katie through.

“Stryker,” Zach said in a deep, masculine voice that made her go weak at the knees-never mind that she was sitting down.

“Hi, Zach, it’s Katie. I’m calling with some good news about the fund-raiser.”

“Okay.”

She hesitated. His response didn’t have the enthusiasm level she’d been hoping for. Nor did he seem to be in a rush to gush enthusiastically about their night together. Had he forgotten already? Or was he so used to one-night stands that this one didn’t matter?

The silence stretching between them was its own response, so she ignored the feeling of being a complete fool and retreated to the safety of business.

“As you know, the, ah, invitations went out two weeks ago. Already we’ve had positive responses from more than fifty percent of those invited.” She consulted her notes. “Of the five hundred we invited to the party-within-a-party, three hundred have said yes. Not only will the rooms be delightfully teeming with guests, but if all goes according to plan, we’re on target to beat last year’s charitable proceeds by at least twenty-five percent.”

She paused and waited for the applause. Or at least a “well done.” Instead she heard silence.

“Zach?”

“That’s really great, Katie. You’re doing a fine job.”

A fine job? The man had seen her naked, made her scream with pleasure, and “a fine job” was the best he could do?

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Did I call at a bad time?”

“I’m afraid so. I’m in the middle of prepping for court.”

She stiffened as if he’d slapped her. The implication of his words being that his work was far more important than hers.

Bitter regret burned on her tongue. His rejection couldn’t have been more plain. She swore silently as she realized that once again she’d risked believing the best about Zach only to have the worst proved to her.

She’d thought he was a real person. She’d thought they were establishing a connection. She thought their night together had mattered. Damn if she hadn’t been wrong on every count.

“I won’t keep you, then,” she said, forcing her voice into a bright, cheerful “you don’t matter because I’m doing fine” tone. “I’m very excited by the positive response to the party and wanted to let you know.”

“I appreciate it.” He cleared his throat. “Don’t feel you have to give me regular updates. Until I hear otherwise, I’m going to assume everything is going great.”

In other words-Don’t call me, I’ll call you.

Her eyes burned, her chest hurt, and she wanted to curl up in a ball and sob. Instead she clutched the phone more tightly.

“Not a problem. Good-bye, Zach.”

She hung up without waiting for him to respond.

It took several minutes for her ragged breathing to return to normal. A few tears escaped, but she congratulated herself on only needing two tissues. He wasn’t worth more than that.

When Katie had gathered at least a facade of control, she placed her hands on her desk and told herself she’d been lucky.

Zach wasn’t for her. He never had been, but she kept forgetting that. Jumping into bed with a man she wasn’t emotionally involved with had never been her style. For reasons she didn’t understand, she’d slept with Zach, and now she was paying the price.

It hurt. It hurt bad. But in time the pain would ease and she would be grateful not to be taken in by a good-looking guy in a six-hundred-dollar suit. Yes, he was funny and smart and fun to be with. And a good father. Oh, and a great kisser and dynamite in bed. But he didn’t care about her. She was a means to an end. One in a long line of women he’d conquered. He used women, then tossed them aside.

If she felt confused and out of sorts, well, so what? She would get over it. People healed from broken hearts all the time. Not that her heart was broken. The fact that he was more than a pretty face and that she hadn’t responded like that to a man since…okay, since never…was interesting but not significant. She would get over him in a flash because she had nothing to get over. Nothing had happened. She’d learned a cheap lesson, and now she was going to move on.

Zach drove slowly through the UCLA campus and circled up toward the dorms. It had been three days and he still hadn’t heard from David.

He’d called dozens of times, left at least ten messages, and not had one of them returned. Zach was done waiting. He would find his son and make him understand that he had never been anything but the best part of Zach’s life.

Careless words, he thought as he parked and climbed out of his car. How many relationships were destroyed by careless words?

He entered the dorm building and spotted several kids hunched over a video game. A couple looked familiar. Zach walked toward them. One of the boys looked up, frowned slightly, then smiled.

“Mr. Stryker?”

“That’s right.” Who was this kid? Jackson? Jason? Oh, yeah. “Justin, I’m looking for David.”

“He’s playing pool. Just back there.”

Zach nodded. “I know the way. Thanks.”

He walked down the back hallway to the rec room. Three pool tables sat in the center of the huge room. There were vending machines along one wall and ratty sofas along the other. All three tables were in use. One had a group of girls, another had guys in sports jerseys playing, while the third had only a young couple at one end.

The girl laughed and turned. As she moved, the overhead light glinted off her long red hair. Zach stopped just inside the room. There was no mistaking Julie, nor his son. David smiled, then slipped his arm around the girl and pulled her close. She welcomed him with an easy familiarity that made Zach’s gut tighten. They kissed, slowly and deeply, losing themselves in the passion.

Victory, he thought. The engagement would end and life would go back to normal.

He waited to feel relieved. Happy. But there was nothing except for a hollow emptiness and disappointment in his son’s behavior. He didn’t care how many girls David slept with, but he hadn’t been raised to cheat.

Zach backed up and returned to the hallway. He wanted to talk to David, but not under these circumstances.

As for Julie-and Mia-Zach didn’t know what the hell he was going to do. There was no way the marriage could take place-not with David sniffing after someone else. But what was he going to say and to whom? He didn’t want to be the one to tell Mia what was going on. That was David’s responsibility.

“A hell of a mess,” he muttered as he walked back to his car. And he didn’t have a clue as to what he was going to do about it.

The hacienda kitchen was empty for once. Francesca glanced around in surprise, then headed for the refrigerator. She was about to drive to Los Angeles for one of her experiments and wouldn’t have time to eat once she arrived. Not if she wanted to be in place by the time people were leaving work and hurrying home.

She dumped some leftover pasta into a bowl and stuck the bowl into the microwave. While her food heated, she bent over and studied the tattoos on her ankles. While she planned to carry an umbrella, the rain might still splash on her legs. Unfortunately in the fake-tattoo world, water was not her friend.

Still, she would have to take a chance. She’d pulled on a relatively short skirt and pumps, leaving her legs bare. A long vine-with-roses tattoo wrapped around one ankle, while a butterfly hovered on the other. She’d put another butterfly on the back of her thigh, just at her hemline, so anyone watching her walk would catch glimpses of the design. With luck, she would get some great reactions today.

The microwave beeped. She drew out her bowl and fished a clean fork from the drawer by the dishwasher. Then she headed for the kitchen table. Unexpectedly a door slammed in the house.

Francesca put down her bowl and headed for the noise. A subtle tension seemed to thicken the air, making her heart rate increase.

As she made her way down the hall, she could hear voices coming from the library. Although the door was closed, muffled words became more distinct as she approached.

“ ’Tis God’s punishment,” quiet Grammy M said with a force Francesca had never heard from her. “It was wrong thirty years ago and it’s still wrong.”

“God has no reason to punish this family,” Grandpa Lorenzo roared. Something heavy, probably a book, slammed on the desk. “We’ve been good Catholics for generations.”

“Sometimes that isn’t enough to please the Almighty,” Grammy M said.

Francesca’s father spoke next.

“This is an old argument that doesn’t change anything.” His voice sounded frustrated. “Do you think there’s a day that goes by that Colleen and I don’t regret what we did? Do you think there’s a day we don’t think of him?”

Francesca froze. She didn’t want to hear any more, but she couldn’t seem to tear herself away. She heard the sound of crying and would guess her mother had given in to tears. Grandma Tessa said something, but was too quiet to be audible.

“I should have been stronger. I should have run away rather than agree.”

Francesca heard her mother’s words and cringed.

“We’re all to blame,” Grammy M said, her voice heavy with pain. “We all carry the burden.”

Francesca took a step back, then another. She didn’t know what her family was talking about, but she didn’t like it. She grabbed her purse and hurried toward her truck. Once she was inside, she turned on the engine and cranked up the stereo as loud as it would go. Maybe the pounding beat would drive everything she’d just heard from her head.

Katie paced through her small house. Normally she found the space cozy rather than confining, but not tonight. Even more frustrating, she could no longer fool herself about the nature of her discontent. Restlessness when combined with excess ice-cream consumption could only have one cause: heartache.

She thought about pounding her head against the wall, if only to experience the relief when she stopped, but how would she explain the bruising?

Obviously her little crush on Zach had become something more when she hadn’t been looking. While she knew she wasn’t in love with him, she was willing to admit to some slight…infatuation.

It was the naked thing. If she hadn’t had sex with him, she would be fine. She drew in a deep breath. Okay. She’d learned her lesson. She was a mature, adult woman who empowered herself and her life and…was there any ice cream left?

Rather than risk the last pint of fudge brownie, she made her way to the bedroom and glanced at her tennis shoes tucked in a corner. Maybe she should go to the gym. A fast-paced aerobics class or some strength training would give her a strong moral backbone, not to mention acting as a counterbalance to all those ice-cream calories she’d consumed. Of course, she didn’t actually have a gym membership. Maybe she could join a gym. Or clean out her closet. That always comforted her. There was something about perfect orderliness that made her life seem complete.

Rather than face actual sweat at a gym, she moved toward her closet, only to have someone ring her doorbell. She glanced at her watch and frowned. It was seven in the evening, midweek. To the best of her knowledge, her family members were all accounted for. So who would come calling?

The answer to that question stepped across her threshold when she opened the door. He was tall, dark, and very dangerous. He also made her palms sweat, her breath quicken, and her hormones begin a quick salsa step through her midsection.

“Zach,” she said unnecessarily, because it wasn’t as if they both didn’t know who he was. But she couldn’t think of anything better to mutter. Not when she was still stinging from his dismissal earlier in the week.

He leaned against the wall, looking both appealing and far too good-looking for her mental health.

“I figured one of us had to be mature, and I got tired of waiting for it to be you,” he said.

“What?” Outrage pushed aside confusion. “When was I not mature?”

“When you ducked out the morning after. No note, nothing. A guy would think you were just using him for sex.”

She genuinely didn’t know what to say. “If I was, it would serve you right. How many times have you just walked away in the past?”

He shrugged. “Every time. It’s what I do. But we’re not here to talk about me.”

“Why not? It’s your favorite topic.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You have a temper.”

“I called and you blew me off.”

“You called about the party and that’s what we talked about.”

Good point. “Yeah, well, if you’d taken fifteen seconds to listen, I might have gotten to something else.”

“I’m in trouble for not reading your mind?”

She ground her teeth together. “Why exactly are you here?”

The corners of his mouth twitched. “I thought I’d let you apologize for leaving so rudely.”

She couldn’t believe it. “I…You…But you…” She glared at him. “If I thought I could get away with it, I’d strangle you right here.”

“No, you wouldn’t. Because I’m sorry, too.”

“Too?”

“Sure. I’m accepting your apology. That’s the kind of guy I am.”

She hadn’t apologized. At least she didn’t think she had. Her head was starting to spin and she couldn’t be sure of anything.

She led the way to the living room and sat on her floral-print sofa, then waited until he took the club chair opposite. Her thoughts slowly collected and organized. “I should have left a note,” she said cautiously.

“Agreed,” he said with just enough cheer to make her hair hurt. “And I…” His voice trailed off and his humor faded. “I’m sorry about the phone call. I had some things on my mind. David mostly.”

She instantly went on alert. “What happened?”

“We had a fight. He stalked out of the house and I haven’t been able to talk to him since. When you called, I was caught up in a hellish divorce case and worrying about him.”

That she could understand. Zach was the kind of father who worried.

“Okay. We’ve both apologized,” she said. “Want me to open a bottle of Marcelli private reserve as a peace offering?”

“That sounds great.”

She rose and started toward the kitchen. “Are you hungry?” she asked before she could stop herself. Dear God, she was turning into her grandmothers.

“No.”

She collected a bottle of Marcelli Cabernet, an opener, and two glasses, then returned to the living room.

Zach had settled back in the seat, looking male and completely out of place in a house of floral prints, candles, and too many pillows. He half rose when she entered the room. She waved him back to his seat.

“Here, I’ll let you wrestle with the cork,” she said, handing him the bottle.

He studied the label. “Must be nice to have an in with the owner.”

“A family perk.”

While he opened the wine, she seated herself across from him. He poured, then handed her a glass, took one for himself, and held it out toward hers.

“To our complicated relationship,” he said.

She touched the rim of her glass to his and nodded.

“Your place is really nice,” he said.

She glanced around at the dollhouse-size proportions of her house, at the feminine furnishings and the pastel colors. “I doubt it’s much to your liking.”

“Agreed, but it suits you.”

He set his glass on the coffee table between them.

He’d obviously come straight from the office. He still wore his suit slacks and a white shirt. The jacket was gone, as was the tie. Stubble darkened his jaw and his eyes looked weary.

Zach reached for his wine, then dropped his hand to his lap. “I’ve been his father for eighteen years. You’d think I’d do a better job of parenting.”

She frowned. “I was just thinking I happen to know you’re a terrific father.” It was one of the things she liked about him, when he wasn’t making her want to kill him.

“Not lately.” He grimaced. “I was scared to death when he was born, but excited and happy. He was so damn small. Ainsley was useless. She barely got out of bed for the first two weeks, then claimed to always be too tired to take care of him. She didn’t want to try breast-feeding. So it was up to me to do the bottle thing. My mom helped out when she had time.”

Katie couldn’t imagine a woman turning her back on her newborn…or any child, for that matter.

“Weren’t you still in college?” she asked.

“Yeah. And working. Money from my trust fund really helped with things like rent and medical insurance, but it didn’t cover everything.”

He glanced at her. “None of that mattered. David was worth it.”

She leaned toward him. “Then why are you beating yourself up? You obviously love your son. You’ve made countless sacrifices, you’ve always tried to do the right thing. That’s what matters. Grammy M is always telling us that we can only do our best. No one can expect more. The rest is in God’s hands.”

“It’s not that simple.” He straightened slightly and reached for the wine. “A couple of days ago David told me he wanted to talk about transferring to a different college.”

“I thought he really enjoyed UCLA. Why would he want to do that?”

Then she knew, but before she could say anything, Zach spoke.

“Nothing against your sister, Katie. She’s a great girl with a lot of potential. She knows what she wants in life, and while I respect that, I think it’s wrong for David to have to give up his dreams to follow hers.”

Katie didn’t know what to say. Mia’s plans had been set for years. But David was two years behind Katie, and when she graduated, the choices would be either not being together or one of them giving up what he or she wanted. Katie knew her sister had never been very good at compromising her own plans.

“They’re so damn young,” he muttered. “Why can’t he see that? Why can’t he see that he’s potentially screwing up his entire life?” He drank some wine and looked at her. “Unfortunately, that’s what I said to him. I pointed out that I knew exactly what came from taking on responsibility too early. He thinks I blame him for screwing up my life.”

“Ouch,” she said sympathetically. “That can’t have gone over well.”

“You’re right. The hell of it is, I didn’t mean it that way. I don’t regret David or anything that has happened because of him.” He shrugged. “With the possible exception of marrying Ainsley. But he didn’t stick around to hear that. Instead he took off and I haven’t heard from him since.”

Suddenly the dark lines and exhaustion made sense. “You’ve been worried about him,” she said, making it a statement rather than a question.

He nodded. “I’m not worried that something happened to him, but I hate us not being in contact.” He returned his wineglass to the coffee table. “He’s just a kid.”

“So they’ll grow up together. My parents did. They fell in love in high school and they’re happy.”

“We can’t all live in Fantasy Land.”

“It beats your constant pessimism. You could be wrong about this, you know. They may be blissfully happy for the next seventy years.”

His mouth twisted. “Right. Or they could just screw up their lives in four months and have seventy years of regret.”

She’d been basking in the warmth of having him confide in her, but as usual, Zach’s cynical attitude chilled the happy right out of her.

“Not every marriage ends in disaster. Yes, a lot of marriages fail, yes, a lot of young marriages don’t make it, but maybe, for once, you could give your son and my sister the benefit of the doubt.”

“Why? If you see a car coming, don’t you step out of the road rather than get hit?”

She gritted her teeth. “You’re assuming. You don’t know anything for sure.”

“I know David’s seeing someone else.”

Katie stiffened, then sucked in a breath. “What?”

Zach swore and reached for his wine. “Forget I said that.”

She leaned toward him. “I can’t. What do you mean he’s seeing someone else?”

“I don’t know. There’s this girl. Julie. She’s in one of his classes. She was at the house with a bunch of his friends celebrating the semester break. They looked cozy. Later I saw them kissing.”

Cozy? Right. Zach was a smart, smarmy lawyer who would do anything to win his case. She’d wondered why he’d stopped by and now she knew. He would do anything to end the engagement.

“Why don’t you just hire some digital photography studio to doctor naked pictures of David in bed with the entire cheerleading squad?” she demanded. “Wouldn’t that be easier? It’s much more a sure thing.”

His gaze narrowed. “You think I’m lying?”

“You bet. You told me once you’d do anything to keep David and Mia from getting married and you’d do anything to convince me. I figure this is just part of the show.”

He stood and glared at her. “I’m not lying. I haven’t lied about anything. I told you David and I had a fight. He didn’t call me back, so I went to see him at his dorm.”

Katie stood and glared right back. “Let me guess. You found them in bed together. Like I believe that.”

“I found them in the rec room. They were kissing and it looked damned friendly to me.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “Do you think I wanted it to end like this? I like Mia. If David were older and more together, I’d be grateful he’d picked her. I don’t want her hurt.”

Zach’s sincerity and his concern about her sister made Katie wonder if he might be telling the truth. And if he was…then what?

“What did he say when you confronted him?” she asked.

“I didn’t. I left and drove around. Eventually I ended up here.”

She didn’t know what to think or what to believe. If Zach were any other man…if he didn’t love his son quite so much…if he hadn’t told her he would do anything to stop the wedding…

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I thought you might have some ideas.”

She looked at him and tried to read the truth in his blue eyes. “You won’t tell her?”

“She’d think what you do. That it’s just a ploy.”

“Would you blame her?”

“No, and I don’t blame you, either.”

He reached out his hand toward her, then shoved it in his pocket.

“I’m gonna head home,” he told her.

She watched him walk to the door and let himself out. When she was alone, she sank back onto the sofa and drew her knees to her chest.

Just when she thought things couldn’t get more complicated, they took a turn for downright confusing. Was David cheating on Mia? If Zach was lying, then he was a worse weasel than she’d thought and she should get herself sanitized after having intimate contact with him. If he was telling the truth, then he was even better than she could have hoped and letting him walk out of her life made her fourteen kinds of stupid.

The worst of it was she didn’t know if sleeping with her had been a spontaneous response to passion, or just one more part of his master plan.

The trick was separating fact from fiction. So where was a crystal ball when she really needed one?

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