CHAPTER 1

Ginger perched on the edge of Mrs. Needleman’s guest-room bed, wondering what the old woman wanted to discuss. Whatever it was, Ginger prayed it would be quick, because she was dying to get out of her bridesmaid’s dress. Josie and Rick had long ago departed in a shower of flower petals and good wishes, but Ginger’s boobs remained squished in their pastel prison.

She tugged at the tight satin and tried to smile through her discomfort.

You look simply lovely in that moss-green color, Mrs. Needleman said with a matter-of-fact nod, taking a seat in the antique boudoir chair across from the bed. She went on, Contrary to popular opinion, not all redheads are flattered by green, especially women in their forties. But you have a rosy complexion, and I have to say your skin has held up quite nicely.

Ginger automatically raised a hand to her jawline and gave it a soft pat. Thank you, she said, just before she realized she was offended. What does thiswoman think I am, a 4-H farm animal? And why did she pull me into her room after the reception?

The old lady looked Ginger up and down, smiling. I wanted to prepare you for something, Genevieve. Do you mind if I call you Genevieve? It’s a mystery why you use a nickname in place of something so feminine and sensual.

Ginger squinted at the small, neatly dressed lady who’d officiated at her friend’s wedding. According to Josie, Mrs. Gloria Needlemana widow who fancied herself a matchmakerhad gotten Josie and Rick over their rough patch and to the altar.

Prepare me for what? Ginger crossed her legs and leaned her hands behind her on the mattress.

A man, dear. Mrs. Needleman’s eyes were warm and kind. I thought you should know that there is a man waiting for you, as we speak.

Ginger looked around. Like all the guest suites at Rick’s wine country estate, Mrs. Needleman’s room was tasteful, comfortable, and fitted with valuable Victorian pieces, and Ginger hoped she would have time to feature the Sonoma Valley retreat in the Herald’ s house and garden section before the newspaper went under for good. But a man? Waiting for her? Not unless he was hiding behind the shower curtain.

Ginger swung her foot back and forth, watching her silver-toned sandal dangle from her toes, trying not to sigh with impatience. That’s a sweet thing to say, Mrs. Needleman. Thank you.

You think I’m a silly old lady.

Ginger laughed. No, it’s just that I’m not a teenager anymore. I stopped waiting for my knight in shining armor a long time ago.

But look at Josie!

Ginger smiled sweetly, happy that her thirty-five-year-old friend had found such a loving and devoted man to spend her life with. I’m thrilled for Josie, of course, but that kind of thing is She paused. It’s so rare it’s freakish!

Indeed, the old lady said, smiling. And I insist you call me Gloria.

Ginger nodded, but was growing uncomfortable trying to keep eye contact with Mrs. Needleman, whose stare had intensified. What in the world did this lady want from her?

Mrs. Needleman sighed deeply. You’ve given up on love, I take it.

You could say that.

Why?

Ginger laughed, wondering how she could possibly sum up this tragedy for Mrs. Needleman, especially since it was a topic she and her friends had spent entire eveningsno, yearsdissecting.

Mrs. Needleman stared, waiting.

Okay, well, I recently turned forty, Gloria. I have two teenage boys and an ex-husband who behaves like one. The newspaper where I’ve spent my entire career is on the edge of insolvency. By this pointand I admit it’s taken me long enoughI’ve learned a few lessons.

I see.

And I can assure you that if some man came up to me and told me he’s been waiting for me, I’d dial 911.

Mrs. Needleman’s eyes narrowed. Tell me about those lessons you’ve learned.

Ginger looked up at the ceiling, silently pleading for patience. Oh, you knowlessons about life. About men, she said, returning her gaze to her swinging sandalanything to avoid the lady’s laserlike eyeballs. The difference between reality and fantasy, basically.

Go on, dear.

Ginger shook her head, adjusting her bridesmaid dress to give her a little more room to breathe. She didn’t want to be rude to Mrs. Needleman, because she’d been raised to respect her elders, but she certainly wasn’t in the mood to be analyzed. All she wanted was to get back to her room in the guesthouse, ditch the increasingly tight dress, and chill out before they went to dinner. She was thinking shrimp linguine and a big, crisp salad.

Here’s what I’m sure of, Ginger said, finally returning the woman’s gaze. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the men in the world aren’t worth my time, and I am done wasting my time; therefore, I am alone and prepared to remain so.

That sounds awfully lonely.

Thank God I have HeatherLynn.

Mrs. Needleman frowned. Your daughter?

My bichon frise.

Of course.

Ginger uncrossed her legs, slipped back into her sandal, and stood to go, aware that not everyone appreciated the deep love a woman can have for her dog. For many folks, the idea that a little white ball of fluff had saved Ginger from the depths of despair was laughable. Luckily, her friends Josie, Bea, and Roxanne understood perfectly. The three women in her dog-walking group had become Ginger’s closest confidantes, and the group had walked and talked Ginger through the two roughest years of her life, dogs in tow.

I should let you rest before dinner, Mrs. Needleman, she said. I enjoyed our chat. Ginger had reached the door when the voice rang out behind her, clear and firm.

He is out there.

Ginger spun, shocked that Mrs. Needleman had sneaked up on her. Looking into the woman’s fierce expression, Ginger thought that Josie had been too kind in her description of her. Odd didn’t do her justice. Disconcerting was better.

Will seafood be all right? Ginger was unsure how to wrap up this little get-together, but knew it was time.

It’s nothing to sneeze at, you know.

Seafood?

No. Mrs. Needleman clutched Ginger’s forearm. I’m talking about that one-tenth of one percent of the male species you haven’t yet written off. You could still get lucky, but if you spend all your time worrying that you’re over the hill, then you’ll miss your chance to be over the moon.

Ginger’s eyes went wide.

You must listen to your heart, Genevieve, not your fear. Do this, and you will find happiness.

Super! Bye-bye now! Ginger slipped out, closed the guest-room door, and stepped on to the patio. She raised her chin, shut her eyes, and breathed, damn glad to be out of that stifling room and into the fresh evening air!

A breeze brushed over Ginger’s bare skin, followed by a strange electrical shiver that raced through her limbs. Ginger opened her eyes. She peered up the stone walkway leading from the main house to the guesthouse, squinting into the shadows. Her shivering intensified. She knew she wasn’t alone.

Is someone there? she whispered. Hello?

There was a stirring behind the rose trellis. The wedding photographer stepped from the shadows. Ginger gasped.

His dark eyes smoldered. One of his hands fell comfortably at his side, and the other rested casually in the pocket of his impeccable suit. His lips parted ever so slightly as he smiled. In a heavily accented whisper, he said, I have been waiting for you.

Ginger gasped again, but she couldn’t seem to get any air.

Me has robado el corazon.

Blackness flooded her vision. She knew she was about to faint. And as her knees buckled beneath her, Ginger had two simultaneous thoughts: I really should have ordered this dress in a bigger size, and I sure wish I’d paid more attention in Spanish class.

Technically, Ginger Garrison wasn’t the first bridesmaid to faint into the arms of Lucio Montevez. That had occurred nearly twenty years earlier in Las Alpujarras, at Lucio’s own wedding, when his young bride’s best friend went into an apoplectic fit of jealousy. The girl had managed to call Lucio a hairy wild boar and pound her fists on his chest before she collapsed, which added some levity to the ill-fated event. Sadly, the last time Lucio returned to Spain, he’d encountered the onetime bridesmaid on the main street of his village. He said hello. She spat in the dirt near his feet and continued walking.

Ah, romance.

Lucio propped the most recent fainting bridesmaid against his chest, then reached up under a resplendent amount of green chiffon fabric until he found the back of her knees. He lifted her, pulled her close, and turned toward the guesthouse, where he’d learned she was staying. Lucio knew he should concentrate solely on the placement of his feet on the stone walk, but the allure of Senora Garrison’s exposed bosom and satiny throat were impossible to resist. So he alternated. He looked at his feet on the stones, then at the glorious swells and slopes of the woman in his arms. He carefully placed his feet on the doorstep, then appreciated the graceful lines of her cheek. The stairs, her cute little nose. Kicking open the door, he admired her trim waist.

It was too much for him. The instant Lucio entered the upstairs guest roomeven before he could place her on the bedhe lowered his lips to the satiny warm skin below her jawline. He kissed her there, gently flicking his tongue against her pulse. She would be fine, he knew. She simply needed to loosen her dress. So Lucio placed her on top of the coverlet, rolling her away enough for him to reach the zipper. Slowly, he pulled it down, and with the release of each stainless steel tooth, more of the woman’s taut skin was revealed to his appreciative gaze. Lucio’s breath quickened as the inches of flawless pink revealed themselves between her shoulder blades, around her ribs, along the straight, delicate spine, and lower, lower, to the top of what was proving to be perfectly rounded buttocks.

With great careand an unexpected surge of self-disciplinehe eased her onto her back, making sure the dress covered her bare breasts but did not hinder her breathing. He brushed her left cheek with the back of his fingertips.

Te fuiste, mi amor, he whispered. Wake up, love. You left me for a moment. Breathe now.

She stirred.

That is good, he said, suddenly aware of a strange sizzle in the air, an electrical rush moving through his body. He glanced to check if a breeze ruffled the curtains. But there was nothing.

Then Ginger sighed, her dainty pink lips parting ever so slightly, and Lucio felt it again, stronger this timea wave, a disturbance in the air, a question and its answer tucked inside a crackle of energy. Ginger’s eyelashes flickered. His self-control had been short-lived.

Forgive me, Lucio said as he lowered his mouth to hers. But I must.

He kissed her. Her lips yielded to his gentle pressure, opening to him. Lucio groaned in bliss, the energy coursing through him, the kiss building, surging, growing hotter and hotter

Until she struck him.

The thud of her palms against his chest knocked the wind from his lungs. Lucio prevented himself from falling off the edge of the bed, and managed a smile. Sleeping beauty awakes! he said, bowing slightly.

You freakin’ pig!

With that pronouncement, Ginger sat up abruptly, her thick auburn hair askew, her dress falling far south of modesty. She choked in outrage, yanking the dress up past a set of stupendous breasts all the way to her clavicle. That’s when she screamed.

In the two decades he’d roamed the globe as a nature photographer for Geographica magazine, he’d dealt with hysterical females of every size, shade, nationality, and demeanor. They’d cursed him in a variety of tonguesMandarin, Punjabi, and Cajun French initially came to mindand in a variety of exotic settings. The Nepalese highlands. Kenya’s Rift Valley. Under a canopy of strangler fig vines over the Upper Amazon. But he couldn’t remember any of them being as desirable as Ginger Garrison. There was something beguiling about the womanquite tall but, oh, so feminine. He guessed she was in her mid-thirties, at the peak of mature beauty, with fiery hazel eyes and delicate hands, one of which was, at that very moment, flying toward his face, palm flat and open.

Thwack!

The guest-room door flew wide, and Lucio immediately recognized the cavalry as the other two bridesmaids in the wedding party, an older, mannish woman named Beatrice Latimer, and a little dark-haired cutie named Roxanne Bloom. Though he would have preferred it the other way around, Roxanne was in a bulky bathrobe and Bea was in a camisole and panties.

What the fuck? Bea said, balling her fists at her sides.

Allow me to introduce myself. Lucio rose from the bed and headed toward the neutral center of the room. I am Lucio Montevez, but those who know me well call me Lucky. The women did not seem impressed. Your friend fainted on the walkway outside, and I brought her here to recover.

We don’t care if you’re the pope! Roxanne’s eyes flew wide. We heard Ginger scream and we’re calling the police!

Lucio tried not to laugh. There is no need, I assure you.

Really? Bea took a step toward him, and by the looks of the woman’s defined quadriceps, she meant business. Because it sure looks like you just assaulted her. Bea pointed at Ginger. Her dress is open. She looks unraveled. That scream was the real deal. Your luck has just run out, dude.

Wait. It was Ginger. She fumbled with the dress, clutching it to her chest as she reached around her back to find the open zipper. Then she blinked, quickly shook her head, and touched her lips. Her eyes shot toward him. I couldn’t breathe. I saw you step out from behind the roses, then everything went black. Ginger’s jaw slackened. Her hand fell to her side. And she stared at him in shock.

Ginger’s friend had been rightthe woman was unraveled. Lucio certainly hadn’t meant to unnerve her to this degree. It was only a kiss.

You said you were waiting for me, Ginger whispered, horror in her eyes.

I did.

Then you said something in Spanish. What was it?

I merely explained that you’d stolen my heart.

Ginger’s eyes went wider still. You kissed me.

I had hoped to revive you, Lucio said, smiling. I am happy to see it worked.

Ever heard of a cold cloth on the forehead? Roxanne asked.

Lucio laughed. This has been a rare pleasure, ladies. Please let me know if you should need further assistance.

He headed toward the door, looking back long enough to see the loathing in Bea’s sneer and the distrust in Roxanne’s narrowed eyes. Ginger, however, was once again touching a pair of lips that had drifted into a dreamy smile.

With a nod, Lucio headed down the steps and outside, a smile of his own spreading across his face. Without a doubt, loosening the dress of the hazel-eyed, auburn-haired Ginger Garrison had been the most pleasant surprise of the last three months, and Lucio decided he’d allow himself a moment to savor it. After all, he deserved a brush with beauty in the midst of all the ugliness that had recently become his life.

Are you okay? Roxanne rushed to the side of the bed and knelt on the rug, reaching for Ginger’s hand. Did he hurt you?

Ginger blinked at her friend, feeling thoroughly stunned. Maybe the blackout had restricted the flow of oxygen to her brain! How embarrassing would that be, finding out from her doctor that cramming her size six body into a size four bridesmaid’s dress had led to permanent brain damage?

Ginger? Can you hear me?

Huh? Ginger stared at Roxie until her friend’s face came into focus. Oh. Yeah. I’m fine.

With a loud sigh, Bea shut the guest-room door and began her commentary. It simply fascinates me how men walk around this planet thinking they can just help themselves to women, like the female race is nothing but one giant sexual smorgasbord set out for their enjoyment.

Roxanne and Ginger stared at Bea in silence.

I’m just saying that some men have a pathological sense of entitlement. It must arrive at the moment of conception, along with the DNA coding for testicles.

Roxanne laughed. I think I’ll make that my next quote of the day; would you mind?

Bea shrugged. Half the pearls of wisdom on your man-hating Web site are mine anyway.

And I’ve always given you the credit you deserve.

Bea waved her hand. More power to you. She sat on the edge of the bed. So, she said, examining Ginger. You look like you’ve been through the wringer. You sure you’re okay?

I’m absolutely fine.

So what the hell happened? Roxanne asked.

Pretty much what Lucio said. Excuse me just a minute.

Ginger pressed the loose fabric to her chest, rose from the bed, and retreated into the dressing room. She quickly changed into a short batik skirt, sandals, and a scoop-neck T-shirt. She brushed out her hair and checked her reflection in the mirror.

Not bad, she decided, considering her recent journey to the brink. In factGinger peered closer into the mirror to be sureher eyes had a distinct sparkle to them. Her cheeks gave off a warm glow. Her lips were downright plump and rosy. It must be a hot flash, she decided, because she hadn’t had a microderm abrasion since February, and hadn’t yet gotten up the nerve to have lip augmentation. In fact, she hadn’t touched her makeup for hours, not since she prepared to walk down the aisle ahead of Josie.

Ginger took one last glance in the mirror and let go with a contented sigh. Josie and Rick’s ceremony had been the most beautiful wedding she’d ever witnessed, a real-life fairy tale. And, as she’d told Mrs. Needleman, she was ecstatic for Josie. Her friend had found true love with a truly good man, and there was no woman more deserving.

There is a man waiting for you He is out there You could still get lucky

Ginger smiled to herself at the entertaining coincidence of it all. The old lady had said those words, Ginger opened the door, and a man named Lucky was out there waiting for her. But that’s all it was. A coincidence. She knew Gloria Needleman was a peculiar old lady, and Luckyno, Lucio was his real namewas just an old friend of Rick’s who’d photographed the wedding. She wouldn’t give it any more credence than that. Ginger didn’t have time for a silly fantasy, no matter how tall, dark, and hot he was.

Or what a stupendous kisser he was.

Or how his accent melted her insides.

Or the way a strange crackle of electricity shot through her skin when he touched her.

Her friends were talking quietly when Ginger returned to the room, and by the way they abruptly ended their conversation, Ginger figured she’d been the topic.

Are you sure you’re all right? Roxanne asked. You want to file charges?

Ginger shook her head. My dress was too tight and I fainted. He came to my aid. There’s no crime in that.

Bea rolled her eyes dramatically. Looks like the buffet is officially open!

I can take care of myself, you know, Ginger said, shaking her head with amusement. Besides, I thought we learned our lesson about butting into other people’s businessour interference almost ruined Josie’s life! And here you are, ready to do the same with me? Am I going to find you two under the tree outside my window, like we did to Josie?

Roxanne’s mouth opened, insulted. You were just as much a part of that as we were, and you know we had only the best intentions.

Yeah, Bea said. And I still believe there’s a fine line between butting into someone’s business and making sure a dear friend doesn’t commit the hugest mistake of her life.

You’re twenty years late on that one, Ginger said with a laugh, opening the door for them. Where were you the night I met Larry Garrison at a fraternity kegger?

Ginger’s friends entered the hallway, but Roxanne turned around, narrowing her eyes. You’re going to go after Lucio, aren’t you?

Ginger shrugged. If I happen to see him before we leave tomorrow, I’ll thank him. But I’m not going to make a big deal of it.

Oh, Lord, Bea said, rolling her eyes again.

Ginger smiled. See you for dinner about seven.

Once alone, Ginger turned off the lamp by the bed and went to the open balcony doors. Evening had fallen. The breeze was cooler. The last moments of sunlight had cast a pale orange glow on the vineyards and gardens. Ginger stepped to the railing and inhaled the richly scented air. That’s when she saw him.

Lucio stood quietly on the lawn near the stone wall, in profile, again with one hand in his pocket. He didn’t move, but Ginger could tell by the set of his shoulders and the slope of his neck that he carried a burden. He looked worriedworried that she’d press charges, no doubt. Ginger decided to put the man out of his misery. She’d go down there and talk to him.

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