19

The last guest left shortly before two, and the staff had cleared out by two forty-five. Katie sat at a table by the kitchen door and punched numbers into her calculator. The problem was she was almost too tired to see the answer. She squinted, then scribbled down a number.

It looked way too large, so she did the math again. The results didn’t change. If her weary eyes were reading things correctly, the fund-raiser had exceeded expectation by more than thirty percent.

“Wow,” she said, exhausted but pleased. She had a feeling that the auction for the extra prizes might have been what pushed them over the edge. Well, the auction taking place after Grammy M did her best to get everyone drunk hadn’t hurt, either.

To cap off the evening, she had fourteen business cards in her small but tasteful satin clutch. She’d been asked about planning everything from a wedding to a restaurant grand opening. Organization Central had arrived in the big league.

She allowed herself a brief fantasy about a larger staff, new quarters, and an on-site day-care center when she realized her feet didn’t just hurt, they throbbed. She shifted so she could ease off her shoes. Unfortunately the pain didn’t go away, which wasn’t a surprise. What she needed was to get to her car and drive home. Once there she could collapse.

Of course, that meant actually walking out of the hotel, not something she wanted to do. But before she could whip herself into a frenzy and try to move, Zach stepped into the ballroom and headed toward her.

“Do you ever plan on leaving?” he asked.

“Sure. Right now.” She handed him the paper with her scrawled figures. “If I can still add correctly, the fund-raiser was a success.”

“I already know it was. Come on.”

He collected her papers, her shoes, and her purse, then pulled her to her feet. She winced and they headed for the door.

“You’re too tired to drive,” he said. “I’ll take you home. We’ll deal with getting your car tomorrow.”

“Okay,” she murmured, because it was too much trouble to argue. “It was really nice of the hotel manager to put up my family for the night.”

“I’m sure he’s going to regret it. Last I saw, he and Granny M were drinking in the bar. I suspect come morning, he’s going to wish he was dead, while Grammy M will chuckle all the way home.”

Katie smiled at the visual. “I do have a great family.”

“Yes, you do.” He glanced at her. “They came through for you.”

“I know.”

“Were you surprised?”

She thought about the phone call she’d made and that her mother hadn’t hesitated. “When I was dialing the number, I would have told you I was terrified. But the second I heard my mother’s voice, I knew she’d do anything she could. They’re my family.” She glanced at Zach. “Like you and David are family.”

“Only yours is louder.”

They made it to the front of the hotel, where the valet had Zach’s car waiting. Katie climbed inside, secured the seat belt, then curled up in the seat and rested her head against the window.

“I think the party was really good,” she said sleepily. “I did a good job.”

Zach laughed as he started the car. “I agree. I’m happy to write you any recommendation you’d like.”

“Okay.” She sighed. “I’d never done a job that big before. I was a little scared, but then I got the hang of it. But when Jerome called me, I thought I was going to die. I could see my whole career going up in flames.”

“You don’t have to worry about that now.”

“I guess not.”

She didn’t know if they continued talking, nor could she remember what was said if they had. One minute they’d been pulling out of the hotel; the next they were turning into her driveway.

Before she could open her door herself (when exactly had door handles gotten so tricky?), Zach came around and helped her out. But instead of letting her walk to the front door, he picked her up and carried her.

The combination of floating and sleepiness made her head spin. Katie wrapped her arms around his neck and breathed in the scent of him. The man was clever enough to have fished her key out of her purse, because the door opened without her having to do anything.

She smiled to herself. She liked that Zach was clever. She liked many things about him. She-

“Thank you,” he said as he bumped the front door closed with his hip, then slowly lowered her to the floor.

“What?”

“You said I’m clever.”

She blinked. “I didn’t actually say all that aloud, did I?”

“I don’t know what all you were thinking, but you mentioned that I was clever and that you like that…along with other things. Care to talk about specifics?”

She chuckled. “Not even for money.”

“But I like it when you compliment me.”

“That’s because you’re the center of your own universe.”

“Absolutely. Yet another of my charming features.”

“Charming? You?”

“You adore me.”

She was saved from having to respond by his kiss. A good thing, because she did adore him. How could she not?

He’d turned out to be a whole lot more than just a pretty face. He wasn’t just smart, successful, and a great father. He was also warm and caring. Under that cool sharkskin beat the heart of a genuine nice guy, although Zach would be furious if he knew she thought that.

Whatever else happened, she would always remember how he’d stood up to her family for her, how he’d been there afterward. How he’d cared about her.

The kiss deepened and all rational thought fled. Her exhaustion faded, as if it had never been, leaving behind only growing desire. She curled her fingers against his head, feeling the cool silk of his hair. Their heartbeats seemed to be pounding in a rhythm of sensual desire. Her breasts swelled, and between her legs she felt the telltale ache of liquid need.

All this and he hadn’t even made it to first base. She had a feeling that if the man did something wild like touch her bare skin, she might actually start to unravel.

“Katie,” he murmured, then licked her lower lip.

He eased lower, nibbling his way to her jawline, then moving toward her ear. He licked the sensitive flesh under her lobe, which made her cling hard and forget how to breathe.

He traced the outside of her ear, which both tickled and delighted, then returned to her mouth, where he entered without warning. He claimed her with deep, passionate kisses that empowered her into responding in kind. She circled his tongue with hers and followed his retreat to claim him.

Somewhere along the way she remembered to breathe again, because when he broke the kiss, she found herself panting.

Tension filled her. Every place they pressed together made her want more. She felt the hardness of his erection and longed to slip her hand between them so she could touch him. She wanted to be naked, in bed, making love. She wanted the night to never end.

“So,” he said, cupping her face in his hands and staring at her with his deep, dark blue eyes. “This is where I stop so you can tell me you’re too tired?”

She kept her gaze on him. “I’m not wearing any underwear.”

Instantly his pupils dilated and his breath caught in his throat.

“Just checking,” she said casually, pulling free of his embrace and heading for her bedroom. “Actually I am wearing underwear, but I trust you’ll know what to do with it.”

1

Katie rolled over and blinked at the clock. Her eyes focused, but her brain was a little more reluctant to believe. One-thirty?

She glanced at the window, only to see bright sunshine. She’d slept until one-thirty in the afternoon?

She flopped on her back and stared at the ceiling. Considering she didn’t get to sleep until close to three, she was actually still pretty tired. But in a good way. In a talk-about-a-couple-of-hours-of-incredible-lovemaking kind of way.

A smile tugged on her mouth. She turned over and placed her hand on the empty side of the bed, where Zach had been. His body heat had long since faded from the sheets, but his scent lingered. She glanced at his pillow and saw a piece of paper there. She grabbed it and quickly read.

“Hey, gorgeous. You needed the rest, so I didn’t want to wake you when I snuck out this morning. Call me at the office when you wake up. Thanks for last night. I’m going to have a hell of a time concentrating today. Instead of clients, I’ll be thinking about you.”

She laughed softly, contentment filling her. Back when she’d first met Zach, she’d thought he was a player. A heartless, egocentric, all-around slimy guy. She couldn’t have been more wrong about him.

He was everything she’d ever wanted. He was-

Katie sat up and gasped. Everything she’d ever wanted? As in…as in…She flopped back on the bed and pulled the covers up over her head. No way. She could not possibly have fallen in love with Zach. It was impossible. It was crazy.

She was the closet romantic who had once kissed a frog in the hopes of attracting a prince on a white horse. She still had the very first Valentine she’d ever received from a boy. She was hearts and flowers and Zach was anything but.

Except when her entire family had turned their collective back on her, he’d been there for her. She might not agree with his tactics, but he was determined to keep his son from making what he saw as a mistake. He was ruthless, yes, but also giving and kind and holy shit, she had it bad.

All these years of waiting for “the one.” The right guy. The man who made her hear bells. Last night she’d heard at least a tinkle or two.

Katie pushed down the covers and studied the note. She had to call him and she certainly wasn’t going to say anything. What was there to say? “Hi Zach. Last night was great, by the way, I’m in love with you.” Yeah, right. Hardly a well-conceived plan.

She would say nothing, she told herself. She would act completely normal and keep her personal information to herself.

She supposed a case could be made for telling him the truth and giving him the chance to respond in kind. That was probably really mature. Except she wasn’t feeling especially grown-up and strong right now.

Four months ago she would have said that Zach Stryker had the emotional attention span of a gnat, that he wasn’t interested in anyone but himself, and that she would never fall for a guy like him. She’d been wrong on every count. But was she wrong about him wanting what she wanted? Could the cynical divorce lawyer ever find a way to believe in happily-ever-after, marriage, and kids? Was she more to him than just a flavor of the week, or would he walk away from her the way he’d walked away from everyone else?

Too many questions, she thought, and not an answer in sight.

After sitting up, she pulled on her robe and glanced back at his note. She rubbed her finger over his signature, then reached for the phone.

Dora picked up on the first ring. “Zach Stryker’s office.”

“Hi, Dora. It’s Katie.”

“Hi! How are you doing? You won’t believe what’s happening here. The phones are going crazy. Everybody’s calling. They loved the party and the food and your grandmothers. In Style magazine wants to get the ravioli recipe for a spread they’re doing. The partners are thrilled about the proceeds, and I’ve been fielding calls from dozens of people who are trying to get in touch with you so you can plan their next event.”

Katie’s head spun. “I can’t believe it.”

“You’d better start. I think you’re going to need a bigger staff. So, is working for an event planner more interesting than working for a lawyer?”

Katie laughed. “Zach would kill me if I stole you away.”

“Just between you and me, I wouldn’t leave, but I may hint a bit. Just to keep him humble.” Dora chuckled. “Speaking of His Nibs, he’s waiting for your call. I’ll put you through.”

“Thanks.”

There was a click, then Zach came on the phone.

“So you’re finally up?”

“Sort of. I’m awake, but still tired.”

“It’ll take you a couple of days to get back to normal.” His voice lowered a little. “How are you feeling?”

“Good.” She smiled. “Great. I got your note.”

“I didn’t want to just head out without saying something, but I hated to wake you. We have that history of running out on each other after sex. Oh, wait. Only you did that.”

She laughed. “Thanks for the reminder. So you’re not a forgive-and-forget kind of guy. That surprises me.”

“Oh, I forgive, but I don’t forget until I’ve gotten all the mileage I can out of it.”

“How like you.”

“Resourceful? I know.”

“Impossible was more what I was thinking. How’s work?”

He chuckled. “I have no idea. I should have stayed in bed with you. I’m not getting anything done.”

His confession made her feel all shivery inside. “Really?”

“Absolutely. You’re a distraction.”

The same could be said about him. Katie’s body still hummed with pleasure, even several hours after the lovemaking. Zach had done things to her and with her that had left her feeling more like his sexual slave than a bed partner.

“Instead of trying to function on zero sleep, I gave myself and my staff the day off,” she said. “As this is my first free weekend in weeks, I’m heading up to the hacienda this afternoon. We’re having a beading fest. Want to come along? You don’t have to actually bead if you don’t want to.”

“You read my mind,” he teased. “Not about the beading, but about the weekend. I have an official invitation for David and myself. We’re coming up first thing in the morning.”

“Great. I look forward to seeing you.”

“Me, too. And if you look out front, you’ll find your car waiting there. The keys are under the mat by your front door.”

She clutched the phone more tightly as her heart gave a little ping of pleasure. “You went to all that trouble for me?”

“Absolutely. I took the keys when I left this morning and had it delivered. Hey, this is L.A. You can’t not have wheels.”

Katie sighed. Zach might not have a white stallion, but he was still pretty decent prince material.

“I need to let you get back to work,” she said.

“Sure. I can read this file for the third time and see if my powers of concentration have returned, now that I’ve heard your voice. And Katie?”

“Yeah?”

“Last night was really special for me.”

Oddly enough, her eyes began to burn. “For me, too. Not just making love, but the way you looked out for me. It meant a lot.”

“I wanted to take care of you. Scary, huh?”

“You bet. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

David overslept the following morning, which wasn’t unusual but, for the first time in years, annoyed Zach. He sat on his son’s too-small bed in the dorm room he shared with another freshman and waited while David had his twenty-minute shower. Finally he was ready, with his overnight bag and a backpack full of textbooks.

“I have a lot of homework,” David grumbled as he slid into the front seat of Zach’s BMW. “I have this project due next week and finals are in three weeks.”

Zach pulled out of the parking lot. “I’m sure Mia has the same pressure. You can study together.”

David didn’t say anything. Instead he stared out the front window, looking sullen.

Zach frowned. “Look, if you don’t want to go up to the hacienda, you don’t have to.” He would be happy to return David to the dorm and continue on his own.

“It’s not that,” David said, slumping down in his seat. “There’s just a lot of stuff going on.”

“Want to talk about it?”

David shrugged, which could mean yes, no, or maybe.

“It is school?”

Another shrug.

“Mia?”

“We’re fine.”

David spoke the right words, but his flat tone said otherwise. Was it the redhead? Were David and Mia fighting?

“Is there a reason Mia didn’t want to drive up with us?”

“She left yesterday. After the fund-raiser.” His son glanced at him. “So how did it go? Mia said something about everyone getting sick. Were they like throwing up on the dance floor?”

Zach accepted the change of subject for now. When the kid was ready to talk, he would.

“The guests were fine,” he said. “Instead it was the kitchen staff barfing their guts out.”

He explained the details.

David frowned. “How come no one called me to come help? I had some free time.”

“I don’t know,” Zach admitted. “Does Katie have your number? Maybe she thought Mia would let you know.”

“I guess.”

He didn’t say anything more. After a few minutes he leaned forward and clicked on the radio. He pushed the far left station-set button, which filled the car with loud country music. Zach grinned. He and his son were closet fans, although they would rather have their toenails pulled out than admit it.

A rowdy Montgomery Gentry song had them both singing along. When they merged onto the freeway, Zach opened the sunroof and David cranked up the stereo.

There weren’t going to be many more times like this, Zach thought as they cruised north. David had his own life, his own interests. Soon he wouldn’t come home on breaks. He would have his own life, and Zach would be by himself.

He’d never much thought about life after David grew up. There’d been too much day-to-day insanity to distract him. But now that time was fast approaching, and Zach’s life wasn’t looking as full as it had. He felt a longing for something more. Something…meaningful.

Zach snorted. Right, meaningful. That and a tofu taco would get him enlightenment.

He pushed the ridiculous whisper of restlessness away and concentrated on the drive.

The morning was warm and perfect. The kind of June weather that makes the blue sky look like a computer-enhanced image. He was careful to keep no more than seven miles above the speed limit because getting a ticket would only delay his arrival at the hacienda. Even so he found himself wanting to be there now.

He wanted to see the Grands and Colleen and Marco, and even Grandpa Lorenzo. He wanted to look at the vineyards and examine the changes from the last time he’d been there. But mostly, he wanted to be with Katie.

He’d been unable to get her out of his mind and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been unable to forget a woman. He’d had plenty of sex in the past few years, but nothing that…intimate. Being with her was different-better. She made him laugh. She made him see possibilities and a future. Which should have sent him running for the hills. He was willing to admit it scared the crap out of him. But not enough to leave. So if he didn’t walk, what was he going to do?

He and David arrived at the hacienda shortly before noon. When he pulled up next to the three-story house, Mia was waiting on the front porch.

“You’re here!” she said as she danced down the steps to the car.

David climbed out. Zach waited for her to fly into his embrace, but instead they only stood staring at each other. In a way, their intensity made the moment seem more intimate than a kiss, and Zach turned away to give them privacy.

He went around to the trunk. David and Mia finished whatever silent Zen thing they’d been doing and joined him.

“Everyone is inside,” she said. “Just go on in. They’re all talking about the fund-raiser and how much fun it was. Did Grammy M really get everyone drunk?”

“Not everyone,” Zach told her. “A few escaped.”

“I’m sorry I missed that,” she said, then grabbed David’s hand. “Come on. Let’s go for a walk.”

David allowed himself to be led away, leaving Zach to mount the front steps by himself. The door stood open, so he entered and shut it behind him. Once inside, he put down the luggage, then followed the sound of voices to the living room.

All the women of the family sat together sewing. The Grands were there, and Colleen, Francesca (looking normal for once), and Katie. Only Brenna was missing. And Mia, who had gone off with David.

He saw the stack of completed flowers in bags by the coffee table and boxes of beads yet to be attached. Once, not so long ago, he’d seen these women together just like this and had thought they were spiders out to snare his son. Now he realized he’d been wrong. They weren’t spiders and this wasn’t a web. Instead each fine stitch assembled a part of a safety net.

Had this been another time, had David been older, more ready, more mature, Zach couldn’t have asked for better in-laws. He would have considered him and his son incredibly lucky to be a part of this amazing family.

But David wasn’t any of those things. As much as he loved his son, Zach saw his faults clearly. The marriage was destined for failure and most of the blame would be David’s.

“Ladies,” he said easily as he took a seat.

“Zach!” The women greeted him. Katie gave him a quick smile, then ducked her head.

“How was the drive?” Colleen asked. “Did you bring David with you?”

He sat in the chair and stretched out his legs in front of him. “The drive was fine. Yes, David is here. He and Mia went for a walk.”

“Are you hungry?” Grandma Tessa asked. “We’re having lunch in a hour, but if you need a little something…”

He reached over and patted her wrinkled hand. “I can wait. I wouldn’t want anything to spoil my appetite.”

Francesca picked up Mia’s half-finished lace flowers. “Want to help?”

He grinned. “Nope.”

“Me, either.” She sighed. “Sewing isn’t really my thing. I practically destroyed a sewing machine when I took that quilting class. I keep telling Katie that I constantly prick my finger. I’m getting blood all over the place.”

“I can get blood out a whole lot easier than I can bead everything myself,” Katie retorted without missing a stitch.

“So is the dress about finished?” he asked, not sure why he wanted to know.

Katie gave him a quick glance. “Don’t even bring it up. I’m heading for panic mode.”

“The wedding invitations are due any day now,” Colleen told Zach. “I think Mia said we had your list of names. We’ll be addressing them in the next week or so. In the old days they had to go out six weeks in advance, but now everyone says just a month is enough.”

“Where’s Brenna?” he asked.

Grandma Tessa frowned. “She said she had to go to Santa Barbara, but didn’t say for what. She’ll be back in time for lunch.”

Katie rose. “It’s too beautiful to stay inside. I’m going to follow Mia’s lead and take Zach for a walk. We’ll be back in an hour.” She glanced at him. “If that’s all right.”

He hadn’t been alone with her since Thursday night.

“Great idea,” he said, coming to his feet.

“Have fun,” Colleen said, not taking her gaze from her beading.

When they were out on the porch, Zach pulled Katie close and lightly kissed her. She responded, holding on to him and sighing.

“It’s good to see you,” she admitted.

“Same here. I missed you.”

They stared at each other. Zach suddenly wanted to say more, although he didn’t know what. He also wanted to take her upstairs and make love with her, which wasn’t possible. Instead, he took her hand in his and started down the stairs.

“Do you think they’ll start speculating about us right away or will they give us a head start?” he asked.

“Five minutes at the most,” she said with a laugh. “I’m torn between going for the walk I promised you and sneaking back around to eavesdrop.”

“I have a feeling that would embarrass us both. Let’s take that walk.”

“Okay. Have you seen the tasting room?”

“No.”

“Then let’s go that way.”

As they headed for a path that circled left around the house, Zach tried to figure out why he didn’t mind that Katie’s sister, mother, and grandmothers were talking about them. He generally didn’t like people butting into his private life, but this time it was different. Not that he could say why. For now it was enough just to be with Katie on such a beautiful day.

They strolled past acres of vines, then turned again. A mile or so ahead he saw a beautiful two-story building, surrounded by impressive gardens. Dozens of cars were parked in front and on the side. Obviously the public part of Marcelli Wines.

“Why so quiet?” he asked her.

“I’m still a little tired,” she admitted. “And I have a lot on my mind.”

“So you’re thinking about me?”

She turned toward him and swatted his arm with her free hand. “You are not the center of the universe.”

“I’m the center of yours.”

She rolled her eyes. “You and that ego. It’s amazing you have room for anyone else in your life.”

He bumped her shoulder with his. “Come on. You’re impressed by me. I can tell.”

“Not even close.”

He chuckled. “Katie, you’re amazing at a lot of things, but you’re a lousy liar. Besides, you’ve had a thing for me since the second we met. Don’t forget, you told your family I was hot.”

She stopped in the center of the path, pulled her hand free, and glared at him.

“Number one, I’ve told you before-I never used the word hot. Number two, you’re not all that. Number three, the only reason I mentioned you at all to my family is that they were bugging me about not having a boyfriend. I pretended to be attracted to you so they would get off my back and I could have a pleasant weekend. The only flaw in the plan was you showing up ten minutes later.”

She planted her hands on her hips and narrowed her gaze. “Is any of this sinking in?”

Temper flared from her brown eyes. Annoyance colored her cheeks. But under that was amusement and affection. He saw it in the way the corner of her mouth twitched slightly.

She was beautiful. Funny. Smart. A hell of a lover. A hell of a woman.

He grinned. “Nope,” he said as he put his arm around her. “You adore me. Now let’s go to the tasting room and you can buy me a drink.”

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