Authors: Kylie Brant
He watched her take the pans out of the oven and turn off the controls. Reaching for another cookie, he chewed slowly, thoroughly enjoying the situation. He couldn't remember the last time he'd sat in someone's kitchen enjoying freshly baked treats and conversation, but undoubtedly it had been when he was a child. Not his own kitchen then, of course. His mother hadn't been the type for baking before his father had walked out, and afterward had been too tired from her jobs to do much cooking. But he'd been to friends' houses, had occasionally stayed with his grandmother, before her health had failed.
While Kate started putting cookies in plastic storage containers, he studied his surroundings with interest. Her condo was small, but unlike most of the new buildings springing up around the D.C. area, it didn't lack character. Bright curtains hung at the kitchen window, and the narrow woodwork gleamed with a fresh coat of white paint. He was sitting at a wicker table, obviously an antique that had been carefully restored. There wasn't a lot of furniture in the rooms he'd
passed through, but all of it looked as though it had been chosen carefully. Framed prints dotted the walls, green plants brightened corners, and photographs in antique frames were carefully arranged on top of the TV.
The total effect was of a home, a reflection of the woman who lived here. He frowned a little, wondering just how she'd managed to convey the feeling of warmth that emanated from the place when he, for all his money, couldn't find a decorator he didn't feel like strangling after two minutes.
“I should hire you to decorate my house,” he muttered.
She looked at him askance. “You have a taste for Early American Poverty?”
“It's not what you have in it,” he tried to explain. “Or it is, sort of.”
“You scientific types are very succinct, aren't you?”
He grinned. “What I mean is, the place looks like a real person lives here. It has personality.”
“And what's your house like?”
“Empty, mostly. It literally echoes. I just bought it a year ago, and I haven't had time to do a lot of furniture shopping. Plus, I have no idea about colors or styles. I just knowâ”
“What you like,” she finished for him.
“There are all kinds of interior design businesses who specialize in such things. I wouldn't think it would be too difficult to find one who could come up with something to your taste.”
“I don't want a place that looks like it's been âdone,'” he explained. “I want a real home, one that looks like real people live there. I've never met a decorator who could coordinate homey with classy. I got so desperate I almost asked my mother for advice.” He shuddered. “Luckily I remembered what her place looks like in time to save mine from being turned into a museum.”
“How about Chloe?” Kate asked, her interest clearly piqued. “Sometimes kids come up with creative ideas. Have you asked her opinion?”
“Oh, yes. And it was very creative.” He rolled his eyes
expressively. “She thinks we should put a trampoline in the living room.”
That smile showed up again. It transformed her features in a totally unexpected way, turning her lovely, slightly serious expression into an intoxicating vision that had his loins tightening, his pulse ping-ponging with physical chemistry. This woman had the potential to wreak serious havoc with his cardiovascular system, not to mention his libido, which seemed to simmer in a semistate of arousal just in her presence.
All in all, he was pleased with the events of the evening. It had gone well, better than he'd expected, much better than he'd deserved. She'd been guarded but gracious when he'd barged into her home, showing a sense of humor and genuine warmth that he found too enticing to be physically comfortable.
He tore his eyes away from her with effort and made a show of looking at his watch. “I've taken up too much of your time,” he said, attempting to sound regretful. He rose and lifted his coat off the back of the chair where he'd hung it. He shrugged into it carelessly, not bothering to zip it, and headed toward her front door. She followed him.
At the door he turned and looked down into her face. “Thank you again.”
Her head tilted upward to meet his gaze. “For the cookies?”
“For not throwing me out.”
“I told you, it's all right.” Her smile was wry. “Believe it or not, you're not the first parent to disagree with me.”
“You're too generous,” he said soberly. Without conscious volition, he reached out one blunt-tipped index finger and brushed a curly tendril of her hair over her shoulder. It sprang back into place beside her delicate jawline as soon as he removed his finger. He smiled bemusedly. It felt alive, as if it had a will of its own. The rest of his fingers itched to bury themselves into that thick mass of hair, to feel it tumbling over the back of his hands and wrists.
His pulse slowed to a heavy thud at the evocative image. For a moment, before rational thought kicked in again, his
face moved closer to hers. Her eyes widened, but she didn't move away from him. Her lips parted a bit, and he imagined he could feel her breath on his chin. All it would take was a couple more inches. If he lowered his head just that small amount, he would be close enough toâ¦
Violently he jammed his hands into his jeans pockets, then stepped back. “I appreciate your hospitality. We plan to go out on Wednesday, fairly early so that we don't keep Chloe out past her bedtime. How about if we pick you up at four-thirty?”
Kate blinked a couple of times and then shook her head. “That won't be necessary. I can just meet you there in my car.”
“It's no problem. Besides, you don't know where we live, and we'll have to go back to the house after Freddie's.” He winked at her, turning to open the door. “What's a birthday without ice cream and cake?”
Before she could summon a protest, she was faced with his retreating back.
Only after Michael's taillights had disappeared did Kate become aware of the brisk air. Stepping back into her condo, she closed the door, shaking her head wryly. She felt as if a steamroller had entered her life, then just as quickly left it. She would have preferred arriving at the party in her own car. The thought of going to Chloe and Michael's home afterward filled her with a sense of unease. She couldn't shake the feeling that this whole episode today had been part of a well-orchestrated plan, with her being herded, ever so good-naturedly, directly down the path that Michael wished her to go.
She headed back for the kitchen, then paused for a moment in the small living room. She looked at it, trying to see it as a stranger would, as Michael had. The carved oak rocker had reminded her of the one in her grandmother's house, so she'd had to have it. The afghan draped over the back of it had actually been her grandmother's, given to Kate for her sixteenth birthday. The telephone sat on a whimsically carved
table next to the television, and the couch, although bought new, was reminiscent of styles a century ago. She'd skimped on the curtains, choosing filmy fabric that let in the light. She was satisfied with the effect she was slowly building. It was comfortable, it was home for her. But she saw nothing here that would impress a man of Michael's wealth. Perplexed, she finally shrugged and went back to the kitchen.
Running water in the sink, she concentrated on washing the dishes she'd used baking. Even though she was aware that she had been finessed by an expert, she truly didn't mind being part of Chloe's birthday celebration. She enjoyed all of her students but privately had to admit that Chloe had become a favorite from the first day, when Kate had had to persuade her, gently but firmly, that she'd have to sit at her desk and not in the windowsill. The little girl had willingly complied, shooting Kate a grin that could melt steel. Even though Chloe had spent only five minutes at her desk before getting up again, her teacher's heart had been stolen.
When the child was a teenager, that appeal was going to give the boys some very uncomfortable nights. She'd gotten it from her father, of course. His crooked smile did unbelievable things to his rough-hewn features, softening all those blunt angles and making him much more attractive than mere handsomeness could. All in all, Michael Friday was an explosive waiting to detonate, and she was glad that she would never see the full extent of his overwhelming charm. A man like that could haunt a woman, ruining her for safer, more ordinary men.
Her actions stopped as she remembered the long moment before he'd left. When he'd touched her hair, all hints of teasing had abruptly fled from his face. He'd seemed closer somehow, but instead of stepping away, she'd remained rooted to the floor, tempted by his proximity.
She felt a flush crawl up her cheekbones, and she scrubbed harder at the cookie sheet in the sink. For just a split second, for one desire-laden instant, she'd been tempted to go up on tiptoe and press her lips against Michael Friday's. The memory was humiliating but true. Her gaze had focused on his
mouth, entranced by the sensual curve of his full lower lip. And then he'd turned away, thankfully unaware of her uncustomary lapse of logic.
He was unlike anyone she'd ever considered dating, anyway. A man didn't get to be that wealthy and powerful without gaining quite a bit of experience along the way. She'd almost found out firsthand how ruthless he could be when he wanted something.
No, he wasn't the sort of man she'd ever get involved with. She'd escaped from a father who'd brandished control over his family like a weapon. From the distance of adulthood she could see that he'd clung to it as his only way of exerting some sort of power in his life, but she found that quality of his, and the misery it caused, difficult to forgive. Michael wasn't a man who would need such a contrivance. He radiated power and control. That made him a dangerous man to her, regardless of his charm.
Her gaze landed on the yellow roses, and an involuntary smile played across her lips. A simple apology wouldn't be enough for him. The lavish gesture hadn't been completely wasted on her, though she'd striven not to show it. Drying her hands, she crossed over to the elegant flowers and finally gave in to the urge to bury her nose in their delicate petals. She loved flowers; as a child she'd filled their home with wildflowers she'd picked from nearby meadows. Buying fresh-cut flowers seemed an extravagance to her, one she could ill afford. Which meant she would savor these lovely roses.
Picking up both jars, she carried them to the living room and sat them on the coffee table. Such generosity was probably of little consequence to Michael, and he couldn't have predicted her reaction to the gesture. He didn't need to know that he was the first man to ever utter an apology to her.
She inhaled deeply of the roses' delicate scent. And under no circumstances would she let him guess that he was the first man ever to bring her flowers.
hloe whispered her idea to Kate and then sat back with her hands clasped over her mouth, her eyes wide and waiting.
Kate blinked. “You want a big clown's mouth to hang on your bedroom wall?”
Clapping her hands, Chloe nodded gleefully. “Just like the one my daddy has to talk into when he orders my hamburgers.”
Kate finally understood. “You mean at the fast-food place.” The chain of restaurants the child was referring to had a garish three-foot clown with an enormous mouth one had to speak into when placing an order. In her one visit to the restaurant, Kate had found the process unappetizing enough to prevent her from returning.
“I can talk into the mouth and it will talk back to me,” Chloe said. “Just like it talks back to my daddy.”
Kate slid a glance at Michael, who was taking care of the bill at Freddie's Funhouse. “What does your father think of this idea?”
Chloe dimpled. “It's gonna be a sa-prise,” she whispered loudly.
Michael rejoined them in time to overhear Chloe's last words. “If you're talking about that clown mouth for your bedroom again, shortstuff, then you're going to be the one âsa-prised.'” Swooping down, he caught her up and raised her until they were face-to-face. “It ain't gonna happen.”
Chloe wrapped her arms around her father's neck. “Yes, it is,” she said confidently.
Michael sent Kate a harried look. “You see what I'm up against? If she had her way, our home would be turned into a circus tent.”
“Surely there's a decorating firm you can hire.”
“No dekraters,” Chloe said wisely from her perch in her father's arms. “They're brainless bozos who have as much taste as a dog inâ”
The rest of the sentence was mercifully cut off by Michael's hand over Chloe's mouth. A dull red flush crawled up his cheeks. Glaring at his daughter, he muttered, “You know what I say about big ears on little pitchers?”
She peeled his fingers away from her mouth “You say I'm pretty as a pitcher.”
Michael looked hunted. “Not quite the same thing,” he muttered.
Kate burst into laughter. Chloe joined in mirthfully.
“I'll go get the car,” Trask said. Kate looked at him from the corner of her eye. His deep voice matched his daunting physical appearance. He was several inches taller than his employer and was solid enough to qualify as half a defensive line. His hair was black, without a trace of gray, although his face bore signs of at least five decades of hard living. With his deep-set eyes and prominent forehead, he made an imposing figure. Even at the conferences, he'd never looked directly at her, instead examining the ceiling or a spot past her left shoulder with great concentration while she'd spoken. But he seemed more comfortable in the company of Michael and Chloe and, indeed, had been as patient with the child tonight as her father had. Kate was beginning to suspect that beneath the man's rather alarming appearance existed a good-size soft spot for his small charge.
“Me, too,” Chloe declared. She wiggled down from Michael's arms and danced over to Trask, slipping her hand into his. “I'll drive, Trask. You can rest.”
As they walked toward the door, Kate heard Chloe tell Trask earnestly, “Maybe we can get you a clown mouth for your room, too, Trask.”
The man's tone was dry. “You're too generous.”
Michael shook his head as they walked out of sight and glanced at Kate. “You wouldn't happen to still be laughing at me, would you?”
Kate feigned astonishment. “Me? Take amusement from another's embarrassment?” Then she ruined it by giggling again. “You should have seen your face.”
A corner of his mouth kicked up engagingly. “I've found the refreshing honesty of children to be vastly overrated. I swear, the kid can't remember that I asked her to hang up her coat, but she's as good as a tape recorder when it comes to repeating things she shouldn't have heard anyway.”
“That's children,” Kate agreed. “Sometimes my students will play school, and I have to wince when I hear the one playing teacher. I know they're mimicking me, and I have to tell you, the experience keeps me humble.”
He moved closer to her to allow a family more room to enter the restaurant, and when he looked down at her again, the smile had faded from his lips. One long, curly tendril had escaped from the low ponytail she'd secured her hair in, and he reached up and smoothed it away from her face. She started a little at the intimate gesture.
“You're a good sport, you know that? Not many women would want to give up an evening to help a little girl celebrate her birthday at âFreddy's House of Horrors.'”
“Oh, come on,” she chided. “It wasn't that bad.”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Which part? The part where you got the Skee-Ball dropped on your toe, or when you wound up wearing half a pizza?”
“My toe is fine,” she assured him. “I'm sure your clumsiness was only due to the fact that I was beating you. And it was one slice of pizza. The blouse will wash.”
He eyed the still-visible stain on the front of her silky white blouse doubtfully. When Chloe had made that sudden grab for another piece of pizza, he and Trask had reacted like old pros. He'd reached for the pitcher of pop, while Trask had steadied the table. He'd made a move as if to stop the pizza from reaching its inevitable destination but had checked himself. Kate had been grateful. She'd much rather deal with the stain than his hand's proximity to her breast.
“Like I said,” he repeated, “you're a good sport. Send me the bill for the blouse.”
She shook her head. “I think I'll be able to get the stain out. And Chloe really seemed to enjoy herself tonight.”
“With three adults lavishing her with their undivided attention, what's not to enjoy? But judging from the number of times she said so, yeah, I'd say you're right. And we haven't even got to the best part of the evening yet.” At her uncomprehending look, he explained, “The presents.”
“I really should be getting home.”
“What? And miss all the âsa-prises?'” Michael asked, his tone shocked. His voice lowered as he leaned toward her and murmured, “Stick around, Miss Rose. The best is yet to come.”
“You hid the sa-prises real good, Daddy,” Chloe said as the car moved up a long driveway. “I never did find them.”
Michael snagged one of his daughter's pigtails. “Are you admitting that you were snooping, munchkin?”
She shook her head vehemently. “Uh-uh! Honest! I was just helping Mrs. Martin clean. I cleaned in all the closets and under all the beds.”
“And anywhere else a present might be found,” Michael added amusedly. “I'm sure Mrs. Martin appreciates your yearly acts of assistance.”
“Do you still need to stop in the stables to speak to Hank, Michael?” Trask's deep voice rumbled.
Michael snapped his fingers. “Gosh, thanks for reminding me, Trask. I do have to talk to Hank tonight. You don't mind, do you, munchkin?” he asked Chloe. “It won't take long.”
He explained in an aside to Kate, “Hank's our stable manager. I need to stop in and talk to him about my stallion's training.”
“Can I come in and pet Diablo?” Chloe wheedled.
“No!” Michael and Trask answered as one. Michael went on, “I mean, you can come in, but you mustn't try to pet Diablo. I've told you that. But you can look at him.”
“Okay,” Chloe said cheerfully, and Kate knew that the little imp had gotten what she'd wanted all along. Meeting Michael's gaze, she smiled inwardly. The poor man really did have his hands full.
Dusk was beginning to blanket the ground in long shadows, but outside lighting had been strategically placed along the winding drive. Kate gasped in spite of herself when they got closer to the house.
Gone with the Wind
's Tara had nothing on this home. It had Southern antebellum architecture, with porches on each of its two stories. Graceful white columns lined the front of the house.
The stables stood near the back of the property. At Michael's urging, Kate got out of the car and joined them. She didn't understand his grin or the long look he exchanged with Trask when Chloe ran into the stables ahead of them. Then came an earsplitting shriek, and both men burst out laughing.
“Daddy! Daddy!” Chloe exited the stable the same way she'd entered it, at maximum speed. “Daddy, come look! There's a new horse in our stable.”
“A new horse?” Michael said, sounding puzzled. “Now, how do you suppose a new horse got in our stable, Trask?”
The man's mouth twitched. “Couldn't say. Maybe Chloe's just seeing things.”
“Am not, am not! Come look!” she demanded, tugging at her father's hand. Michael caught Kate's hand in his free one, and she was pulled in with them. The stable was spotlessly clean, and the smell of leather and straw mingled in the air. Stalls lined the corridor. From the first one a brown-and-white pony watched them curiously.
“He's beautiful! And he's mine, isn't he, Daddy? You got him for my sa-prise, didn't you, Daddy? For my birthday.”
“Slow down, honey.” Michael laughed, reaching down to ruffle her hair. He still hadn't relinquished Kate's hand, and if he noticed her subtle attempts to free herself, he was pretending not to. “It's a she, not a he. And yes, she's your birthday present.”
“All right! Just what I wanted! I'll bet she goes really, really fast, doesn't she, Daddy? As fast as Diablo, right?”
“She goes plenty fast, kiddo. Just fast enough for a big seven-year-old girl like you.”
“Have you seen her, Trask?” When the big man nodded, Chloe turned her attention to her teacher. “Come pet her, Miss Rose. She won't hurt you.”
Kate's hand was released, and she moved toward the stall with Chloe. The animal pushed its soft muzzle into her hand and looked at them with soft, good-natured eyes.
“Well, I'll be darned, Trask. I think I see a couple of sa-prises in here that the Clo-worm hasn't even discovered yet.”
“Where?” Attention momentarily diverted, Chloe darted back to her father. “Oh, I see it. Oh, Daddy, it's awesome!” She ran over to the child-size saddle and ran her hand over it reverently.
“Thought you might be needing this, as well.” Trask held up a shiny leather bridle that matched the saddle.
“Thank you, Trask, thank you.” Chloe threw her arms around his legs and hugged him.
Kate found herself being drawn away and looked at Michael quizzically. He gave her a crooked grin. “Now I get to show you
horse,” he said. They went to the end of the stable. This stall was bigger than any of the others, and there were bars on the stanchions too narrow for the horse to get his head between.
“Good Lord,” she said faintly. “He's huge.”
The stallion was jet-black with white markings on his face. He was powerfully muscled and so high-strung she imagined she could see him quiver at their scent.
“He's a beauty, there's no doubt about it. Just got him this year, and we still don't have him completely broken. Hank
works with him every day, and I exercise him every chance I get. He loves to run, don't you, boy?”
The horse fidgeted suddenly, and Kate backed away, coming up abruptly against Michael's chest. His hands grasped her shoulders, and he held her in place. “Do you like horses?”
They were close enough for him to speak the words in her ear, a low, husky rumble. She shivered, a totally involuntary response to his nearness. She could feel the solid width of his chest pressed against her, and his fingers kneaded her shoulders lightly. It didn't take much imagination to envision being wrapped in those arms, pressed tightly against his solid strength, his heat enveloping her. Deliberately, she stepped away and turned to face him. “I haven't been around horses much. I'm fascinated by their power, though. I've often thought it must be a wonderfully liberating feeling to race along on top of a horse.”
“It is. We'll have to get you on one someday so you can see for yourself. But first,” he said, looking at his watch, “I have a daughter who's going to miss her bedtime if we can't drag her away from her sa-prises.”
It was the temptation of ice cream and cake that finally proved strong enough to entice Chloe back to the house. She kept up a steady stream of chatter throughout dessert. “Someday my horse will be as big as Diablo, right, Daddy?”
“'Fraid not, shortstuff. She's a Shetland pony. She won't get any bigger than she is right now.”
“I'll feed her really good,” Chloe said earnestly over her ice cream. “She'll grow, you'll see. She'll get lots bigger.”
Michael caught Kate's eye and shrugged. “What are you going to name her, honey? Have you thought of that yet?”
Chloe nodded vigorously. “I'm going to name her Rosy. 'Cuz she's the beautifullest horse in the world, and Miss Rose is the beautifullest teacher.”
Kate choked on the piece of cake she was swallowing. Michael roared with laughter. Even Trask's normally gloomy expression lightened a fraction.
Michael said, “Miss Rose might not want to be the name
sake to a horse, sweetheart. Maybe you should think of another name.”
Chloe's brow wrinkled. “What's a namesake?”
“It means when you name something after someone else. And Miss Rose doesn't mind a bit,” said Kate. She smiled and added, “I think you should name your pony anything you want.”
The matter settled, Kate rose and went to the counter, reaching for the package she had set there. Offering it to Chloe, she said, “Maybe you can use this to decorate your bedroom.”
Chloe ripped the paper with little fanfare and let out a scream of delight. “It's one of mine, Daddy, look.”
Michael looked at the drawing that Kate had had professionally matted and framed. “It's wonderful. Now you have something to hang in your bedroom. It's lots better than a clown head, isn't it?”