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Authors: Henke, Shirl

Surprise package

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“Surprise Package”

 

 

 

 

 

By

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shirl Henke

Previously published by Leisure Books

 

Copyright 2000 by Shirl Henke

 

All rights reserved. No part of this ebook may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic means without the written permission of the publisher.

 

Acknowledgement

 

The events and characters herein are fictional except for Kathryn Falk, and Carol Stacy from ROMANTIC TIMES. When I asked them if I could insert them in my story as characters playing themselves, they laughed and said, "Go for it!" My sincerest thanks to two of the best sports and smartest gals I've even met.

 

Other electronic works by Shirl Henke:

 

* * * *

 

A FIRE IN THE BLOOD

 

* * * *

 

“Billie Jo and the Valentine Crow”

 

* * * *

 

BROKEN VOWS

 

* * * *

 

McCRORY'S LADY

 

* * * *

 

The Blackthorne Trilogy:

LOVE A REBEL…LOVE A ROGUE

WICKED ANGEL

WANTON ANGEL

 

* * * *

 

House of Torres Books:

PARADISE & MORE

RETURN TO PARADISE

 

* * * *

 

The Cheyenne Books:

SUNDANCER

THE ENDLESS SKY

CAPTURE THE SUN

 

* * * *

 

The Texas Trilogy:

CACTUS FLOWER

MOON FLOWER

NIGHT FLOWER

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

      “Someday my princewillcome,” Gilly Newsom muttered fiercely. “If nothing else, he can rescue me from the five-twenty rat race.”

      Her companion, also elbowing her way through the rush-hour crowds thronging the subway platform, grinned good-naturedly. “Romance is still alive in your cynic's heart, then?” Charis Lawrence asked.

      “Not really. Look around you, girlfriend. Most people are toting bags of holiday goodies, while I'm lugging twenty pounds of manuscript—three of the mere two dozen I'm currently assigned.”

      “Stop whining. Look at it this way—no need to go to the gym,” Charis said, patting her briefcase full of marketing reports. “Besides, it's called paying our dues in New York publishing.”

      “Easy for you to say when you're going home to Bill, not a cold, empty flat in Yonkers. I don't even have a dog, for Pete's sake. You have William Channing Lawrence, Esquire.”

      A dreamy look came over Charis' pert, pretty face. “True, Bill is very special, but someday there'll be a guy just as great waiting for you. Well, maybe not quite as great—nobody could be.”

      “You wouldn't be just the least bit prejudiced in the matter, would you?” Gilly teased. Charis had always been able to lighten her mood, ever since they met back at Oberlin College nearly nine years earlier. They'd quickly become best friends as well as roommates in spite of the fact that they came from such diverse backgrounds. Charis' family was upstate New York old money, while Gilly's folks were rust-belt Ohio blue collar.

      The subway car—already packed, as usual—pulled into the station, and both women shoved inside with the negligent ease of seasoned New Yorkers. “At least it's semi-warm in here, with all the bodies doing the ‘subway sandwich.’ The temp may be twenty-two degrees, but the wind chill makes it every bit as cold as northeast Ohio,” Gilly groused. “I could use this time to edit.”

      “Oh, yeah. I know you're just dying to get back to Gwendolyn Gleeson's Spanish-American War opus,” Charis said, rolling her eyes as she held fast to a subway strap when the car started up with a lurch.

      “God save me from first-book authors like her. That manuscript is filled with almost as many historical errors as it is with purple—no, fuchsia—prose,” Gilly replied, shuddering.

      “Just because she had the hero going to Washington to consult with the Defense Department and the Pentagon in 1898? Picky, picky.”

      “That one was easy. I just substituted War Department and let it go. But when I came to her description of the heroine's breasts as ‘a milky sea of white velvet topped with wild rosebuds,’ I wanted to write in the margin, ‘It sounds as if you're confusing a window display at Bloomingdale's with an ad for the Dairy Council.’ ”

      Charis whooped with laughter. “Almost had you rippingyourbodice with frustration, huh?”

      Now, it was Gilly's turn to roll her eyes. “I suggested that the phrase was a mixed metaphor, that she'd be better off with something a bit less flowery, like ‘ivory with pale pink nipples.’ ”

      “You're following sound editorial dictum—leave as much rewrite as possible to the author's discretion.”

      “Frustrated writers make lousy editors; that's for sure,” Gilly agreed. “If only I could enjoy my job as much as you do yours.”

      “You're the one who wanted to be an English major,” Charis reminded her.

      “I still love to read, and I'm a darn good editor—”

      “Just underemployed.” Charis had heard this lament before. While she loved her job as assistant director of marketing at a small paperback genre fiction publisher, Gilly was frustrated with hers as an assistant editor. She ached to be in the big leagues, to work for a prestige hardcover house editing literary fiction. “I know it's hard for a Phi Beta Kappa who graduated summa cum laude from Oberlin to edit historical romances, but this is just a stepping-stone for you.”

      “More like I'm the stone. Honestly, Charis, I've had nearly five years of hearts and flowers. I want a real job.”

      “What you want is a real hero. A man to bring some romance into your life, so you can believe in it again.”

      “If I ever did.” Gilly had seen enough of men like her father, Whalen Newsom, even before her one time love Frank Blane delivered the final blow to her girlish dreams.

      “Next month is Christmas, and you're thinking of Frank again, aren't you?”

      “Frank was a loser. I'm much better off without him.” Gilly repeated the mantra.

      “You've got that right. Imagine having both a wife over in Jersey and a kid with his girlfriend here in Midtown. You were lucky to find out when you did.”

      “Yeah. Almost as lucky as I was when Brian Schwin dumped me to marry that cheerleader our senior year at Oberlin. Let's face it, Charis; I'm just not cut out for happily ever after, which is probably why I dislike editing romance so much. Forget the heroes; I’ll settle for a brilliant career in publishing.”

      “Now all we have to do is figure a way to get Farrar, Straus & Giroux to hire you,” Charis replied, tapping one well-manicured nail against her cheek.

      “Wouldn't that be sweet?” Gilly said, swaying as the subway began to slow. A staticky voice announced, “Forty-Second Street,” and she gasped, “What was I thinking? This is my stop!”

      Charis gave a puzzled look. “You live all the way up in Yonkers.”

      Already working her way toward the opening doors, Gilly called over her shoulder, “The library won't have late hours again until next Monday, and I have to check that reference book on the Spanish-American War they're holding for me or it'll vanish into the abyss again! See ya tomorrow.”

      Desperation lent strength to her slender five-foot, three-inch frame when she caught the door just as it started to close on her. Escaping its jaws unscathed, she scooted quickly through the crowd, slinging her heavy tote bag over her shoulder. She began climbing the steep stairway to the cold, windy corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-Second Street, near where two giant stone lions guarded the entrance to the New York Public Library.

      Winter had come to the Big Apple early in November this year. The icy slush of midday had once again solidified into diamond-hard shards. Here and there the city snowplows had scraped paths as smooth as greased tinfoil; but lacking ice skates, Gilly opted to walk on the refrozen slush. Like most New Yorkers, she wore sensible shoes while commuting—in this case sturdy Eddie Bauer lace-up boots with rubber grip soles—and left her heels at the office, safely tucked in the bottom drawer of her desk.

      A sudden gust of wind almost knocked her off her feet as she neared the daunting series of steps up to the library. Clutching her tote like a talisman, Gilly put her head down and walked into the gale, feeling the crunch of ice beneath her boots. Lord, it was cold! Her breath came out in burning white puffs, her lungs seared from the frigid air being forced into them. She would go back to working out at the gym—she would...just as soon as the holiday crush was over and Gwendolyn Gleeson's interminable manuscript went to copyediting!

      Jeff Brandt did not see the small figure laboring up the steps directly in his path until it was too late. Like her, he'd had his head lowered against the wind, watching the treacherous steps beneath his feet. Then, a small booted foot somehow just appeared in the exact space where his big, sturdy Adidas was coming down. At the precise same instant that he was trying to rearrange his feet, a small woolen bundle smelling faintly of vanilla careened into his belly.

      “Oomph!” was all he could manage before they went down together. The fact that the unguided missile in his path was female and much smaller than his six-foot, two-inch frame must have registered. He turned them in midair so that she fell on top of him rather than the other way around, the only chivalrous thing to do.

      When they landed, he was no longer so certain chivalry had been the hot tip. She—or something attached to her person—landed on his gut like a Chuck Norris kick. Then, Jeff became a human bobsled, he and his “rider” rocketing down the steps, his head clunking on every stair.

      By the time they reached the sidewalk, he couldn't even manage a strangled “umph,” just a low, feeble groan as he stared dumbly at the canvas tote gouging his ribs. Its contents were partially spilled, pages of something or other fluttering against the rubber bands holding them together. Above him, he could hear her voice, soft and breathless, concerned. A nice voice, he decided. Slowly, his eyes focused on her face, pale in the artificial lighting from the street. Wind-kissed pink cheekbones set high over softly plump lips, a small button nose, and wide eyes of some light color he could not discern—blue or green. Slim, delicately shaped eyebrows arched with chagrin.

      “Oh, I'm so sorry! I ran right into you, practically knocked you down. This stuff is so heavy. I hope I didn't break your ribs or anything,” she babbled breathlessly as she crawled about, frantically scooping chunks of paper back into the tote.

      To Jeff, this looked about as easy as stuffing cooked spaghetti into a long-neck bottle; but somehow she accomplished it, all the while talking in fast little spurts. His skull pounding, he raised himself up on his elbows, observing her until he had recovered enough wind and presence of mind to say something himself. He considered asking,What the hell have you got in that bag, lady, an anvil?But he refrained. She was obviously flustered enough, and he had been raised to be a gentleman...sort of.

      Gilly tried to conceal her embarrassment. She could tell the tall stranger had deliberately twisted her around so that he took the full force of their fall—a fall she had caused by not watching where she was going. He was nice looking, too, drat the luck. Why did she always mess up at times like this? He had a square jaw and dark, serious eyes, magnified by wire-rimmed glasses, which were now perched catawampus on the end of his straight nose. His features were angular, striking in a scholarly way, offset by shoulder-length black hair that gave him a hippie sort of look. No, make that a university student sort of look. Double drat.He’s probably younger than me.

      “The collision was as much my fault as yours,” he replied. “In this wind, everyone is looking down, trying to breathe without frosting their lungs. Besides”—he grinned—“I'm a lot bigger. A little thing like you couldn't hurt me—although the stairs may have flattened the back of my skull.”

      He admired the view for another instant, trying to decide if her body was as shapely as he hoped beneath all the layers of winter clothing, then sat up and reached for her hand, helping her to her feet.


Page 2

      He was right about their size difference, Gilly saw. She wore flat-heeled boots, and he towered over her. She would definitely need “power” heels to measure up to this guy. Her bemused train of thought came to an end when she realized that she stood with her gloved hand still held firmly in his grasp, staring up into his face as he reached with his free hand to straighten his glasses.

      I must be gawking like a banked carp!She closed her mouth and broke contact, then stooped to pick up her tote—just as he scooped it up to hand it to her. Quickly catching herself, Gilly straightened up—just in time for her head to connect with his jaw. The heavy woolen cap she wore softened the blow, but she could hear his teeth click together. He touched his tongue experimentally against the bleeding edge of his lip.

      Great! Maybe I could render him unconscious and drag him back to my apartment to have my way with him!“I'm so sorry. Does it hurt? What am I saying—of course it hurts. You're bleeding! Here, let me...” She began to root frantically in her tote, searching for a handkerchief. All she managed to come up with were a couple of dog-eared grocery coupons and a lipstick-smeared tissue.

      Jeff dug a handkerchief out of his back pocket and daubed his lip, grinning once again at her flustered agitation. “You know, we might be able to form a really funny circus act, except no one would insure us.” Before she could begin apologizing again, he said, “I'm Jeff Brandt. We may have, er, gotten off on the wrong foot, but that's no reason we can't start over.”

      “I'm Gilly—Gillian Newsom. My friends call me Gilly.” Idiot. She was babbling again.

      “Then I hope I can call you Gilly. The least I can do is buy you something hot to warm you up after that toboggan ride down the steps. There's a little coffee shop down the next block. I'll even carry your tote. It looks pretty heavy.”

      “That's very sweet, but I have to do some library research for a book I'm editing.” The minute the words tumbled out, Gilly could've kicked herself. How often did she get an opportunity like this dropped into her lap—or, rather, her lap sort of dropped into it.

      “But I could—”

      “I could—”

      They both spoke at once. When she stopped, he started again. “What I meant was that I'd be happy to wait while you do your research. Actually, I was just taking a break. I have at least two more hours to put in myself, reading back issues of theTimesfor a sentencing class.”

      “You're a law student?” She did some quick math in her head. The most he could be was twenty-four, maybe twenty-five. By comparison, her twenty-eight seemed positively ancient.

      “Yes. I finally managed to finish a B.A. and get into the NYU law program after four years in the Navy. I'm afraid you're looking at one of those long-on-the-vine Gen-Xers who couldn't decide what he wanted to be when he grew up...until he was pushing thirty,” Jeff said ruefully. “On the plus side, though, if I graduate in the top ten percent of my class, Bradford, Trent and Lange have an opening in criminal law. Very, very snotty outfit, but it would be quite a coup if they made me an offer.”Not that I'd accept it, but damn, it would—will—be sweet.

      He wasn't too young for her! Gilly brightened. But his next question caught her off guard.

      “You said you were editing a book? Do you work in publishing, then?”

      “Yes.” She paused then. This was always the hard part for her, explaining that she edited historical romances. Most people took romance editors about as seriously as they did romance writers, which was to say, not at all. She had heard more than her share of condescending remarks.Just what kind of research are you doing? Wouldn't it be better to conduct it someplace a teensy bit less public than the library? Say, like your bedroom?

      “I have a cousin who works in marketing for Houghton Mifflin. Where do you work?” Jeff asked.

      “FS&G. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, that is.” The words tumbled out before she could stop them. To make matters worse, she found herself adding, “I edit history and literary fiction. Right now, I have to do some research on the Spanish-American War for a book I'm working on.” Well, that much was true.

      “History, huh? My undergrad work was in American Studies. I even did a senior thesis on Roosevelt's Rough Riders. We have something in common, Gilly.”

      “Uh, yes, I guess we do.”

      “Then we'd better get right to work,” he said with another heart-stopping Colgate smile, taking her tote and gently leading her up the icy steps to the library doors.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

      When they entered the reference room, Abbie Kunsler, the librarian, greeted Jeff by name. Obviously, he had used the facilities often over the course of his academic career. Gilly felt reassured. After all, this was New York, and she was by nature cautious. They both went to work on their separate projects, he scrolling through reams of old newspapers while she took careful notes from the antiquarian, non-circulating tome she had found to be an excellent resource to draw upon when correcting Gwendolyn's historical vagaries.

      Within two hours she was finished. Jeff was still deeply engrossed at his computer terminal. Gilly walked over to Abbie's desk. The older woman smiled and adjusted her sharply delineated trifocals so she could make out Gilly's face. How to say this? Gilly cleared her throat nervously.

      “Uh, Abbie, I was wondering...”

      “About Jeffrey Brandt?” The reference librarian didn't exactly smirk, but there was a definite look of amused smugness on her angular, horsy face. “He's such a nice young man. Studious and polite. Been using our facilities ever since he was an undergraduate. I believe he lives somewhere down in the Village, not too far from NYU.” Abbie paused to see if Gilly needed more data.

      The information she had given Gilly was reassuring. The rest of what Gilly wanted was a little stickier. “I was wondering, Abbie, if you would do me a favor—well, not so muchdoa favor as...er...well,notdo something.” At Abbie's puzzled look, Gilly sighed and confessed quickly before she lost her nerve. “You know where I work, but I'd really appreciate it if you didn't mention that to Mr. Brandt. He's under the impression that I work for FS&G.”

      “Oh?” One thinly penciled eyebrow rose above the trifocals.

      Abbie wasn't going to help her out here. Gilly struggled on, knowing her face was getting as red as the wild rosebuds on Gwendolyn's milky sea of white velvet. “Well, I sort of gave him the wrong impression—not that I don't plan to correct it; but...well, I'd rather do it in my own time.”Like by getting that job at FS&G.

      “I never gossip, Gillian,” Abbie replied primly.

      Before Gilly could speculate whether or not that meant the librarian would keep quiet, Jeff came ambling over to them. “All done?”

      “Yes. I have my notes complete.”

      “Good. Do you want to get that coffee, maybe a sandwich?”

      They thanked Abbie for her help and left the cavernous library. Once again braving the icy streets, they walked quickly to a nearby greasy spoon on Forty-Second Street.

      The place was small and crowded. Here, too, everyone seemed to know Jeff. The waitress, a frowsy, mid-fortyish blonde, handed them laminated menus that looked only slightly newer than the Dead Sea Scrolls.

      “The cheeseburgers are very good, but the chili dogs are my personal favorite,” Jeff said while the blonde scribbled his order.

      “I've always had a weakness for cheeseburgers—with Swiss, if you have it?”

      The waitress looked at her as if she'd asked for fois gras, then nodded curtly and wrote up the order, adding the two cups of black coffee they requested. Gilly was careful to place her tote with the Gleeson manuscript on the floor where Jeff couldn't see it. Gwendolyn's working title wasCuban Ecstasy.

      “So, when will you take the bar exam?” she asked.

      “My coursework should be wrapped up by the end of this year. I'm planning to take a few months to review everything, then go for it.”

      “Got to make that ten-percent cut.” She nodded, sipping the steaming coffee the waitress had deposited on the chipped Formica table a moment earlier. “It must be very exciting to have a top-level law firm interested in you. I imagine your family is really proud.”

      He looked down into his cup, then took a swallow before replying. “Yes. BT&L has always been my father's dream.”

      Was there something in the tone of his voice, a faint hint of irony? Gilly couldn't be sure, but she was curious. No more involvement with mystery men who had relatives—like wives and children—about whom she knew nothing. “Do your parents live nearby?”

      “Scarsdale,” he said dismissively. “I don't see them often. It's much more...convenient to stay close to school. I live in Manhattan, near NYU in the Village. Share a pad with another law student named Karl.”

      “I know,” she blurted out, then blushed. “Er, Abbie mentioned it. Tell me about your family. Any brothers or sisters?”Any wives or children?

      “One sister. Older, married. Two kids and a husband who's a broker on the Street.”

      His answers might have been a little on the laconic side, but it was quite apparent that he came from money. “Let me guess. Your dad's a lawyer, too?”

      “Definitely yes, but retired now. He and my mother travel a lot. Right now, they're in Bermuda.”

      “Sounds wonderful on a dreary Manhattan day like this. I'd love to travel if I had the time.”And the money.

      “It's greatly overrated. I saw a lot of the world during my tour of duty. Everyplace from Taiwan to Rio. The rich play, and the poor starve. Just like home.”

      Gilly cocked her head and smiled. “Do I detect a strain of social activism here? It may be passé now, but I like it. Sort of fits you.”

      He grinned. “How so?”

      “Goes with the long hair and wire-rimmed glasses, not to mention the beat-up old Adidas and the necklace.” She eyed the tooled leather with elaborate beadwork hanging partially revealed at the open collar of his shirt. Swallowing, she looked away before the sight of the dark chest hair peeking out around the odd piece of jewelry had her any more flustered.God, I'm acting like one of Gwendolyn's virgins!

      “This?” He held up the small pouch, smiling. “It was a gift from a friend, David Strongswimmer, an Iroquois construction worker. His father is a shaman. He makes these to keep the wearers safe from harm.”

      “If they work high iron, I can see the need,” Gilly said, shivering. “Personally, I get a nosebleed on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.”

      Jeff was not too keen on heights either, and he had given up a really well-paying job with Dave and his dad because of it. But he didn't want to talk about his jobs any more than he did his family. Instead, he switched the conversation back to her. “Tell me about Gilly. You aren't a native New Yorker.”

      “My Midwestern accent gives me away, doesn't it? I graduated from Oberlin six years ago and came to the Big Apple to set the publishing world on its ear.”

      “Seems like you've done a pretty fair job so far,” he said, taking a huge bite out of his loaded chili dog.

      They'd agreed jokingly on ordering onions ahead of time, since he loved them chopped on his hot dogs and she couldn't imagine a cheeseburger without a slice. It was a mutual passion, he'd said, laughing as they trudged through the slush to the coffee shop. Gilly took another bite of her burger, using her fingers to catch the stringy wisps of Swiss cheese before they stuck to her chin. “I want to be an editorial director someday.”

      “You'll make it,” he replied, lifting his coffee mug in a toast to her.

      When he asked her about her family, she debated. Then, remembering that his father was an attorney from Scarsdale, she reverted to the story that made life a little easier for her. The story she'd told everyone in New York. “My parents are dead now. I have a sister living out on the West Coast. I'm afraid we're not very close.” No lie about her and Liv, that was for sure. “I was born and raised in a little town in northwest Ohio—you know, picket fences, apple trees, and Fourth of July parades. Pretty dull stuff to a native New Yorker.”

      “Oh, I don't know. There is a certain appeal to living a quiet, traditional life. And Scarsdale's not all it's cracked up to be.” His dark eyes studied her intently over the rim of his cup, noting the way her pale reddish-blond hair curled in spite of the heavy woolen hat she'd pulled off when they entered the warm coffee shop. Probably natural curl and color. It fit with her light green eyes and the faint sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of that adorable little dumpling of a nose. “Any current relationships?” he asked, surprising himself.

      “N-no.” She cleared her throat. “I broke up with my fiancé six months ago.”


Page 3

      “And haven't replaced him?” He looked dubious.

      “No time.” Not to mention no heart, since Frank had pretty well fractured what little was left of it.

      “So, a lady married to her career.” His smile could have melted the polar ice caps.

      Her heart did a funny little flip-flop as she raised her mug in return. “Here's to passing the bar.”Gilly, girl you're in deep, and this barely even qualifies as a first date!

 

* * * *

 

      “So, he's a real babe,” Charis mumbled through the mouthful of bagel she was wolfing down.

      Self-consciously, Gilly looked around the crowded deli where she and her friend usually grabbed a bite before they went to work in the next block. Once they were at their desks, there was seldom time for lunch. She still found it disconcerting that New Yorkers could sit two feet from a person and completely ignore the most private conversations. “No, he's not a ‘babe.’ I don't go for the ‘babe’ type.”

      “Reminds you too much of cover model hunks, huh?”

      Gilly rolled her eyes in disgust. “Just because I mentioned that he had longish hair. Believe me, he bears not the faintest resemblance to ‘The Blond One.’ He's going to be an attorney. His family's from Scarsdale, for Pete's sake. He's scholarly and...” She groped for the right word.

      “Sexy,” Charis supplied helpfully.

      Gilly sighed. “He's too good to be true, Charis. We talked for hours in that coffee shop. He's sweet, very bright, ambitious, and has a great sense of humor.”

      “Must be fate.”

      “I don't know. My track record with men has pretty much stunk my whole life.”

      Charis nodded. She knew all about Gilly's family background, as well as her ill-fated love life. “I'm not saying fall on the guy and grope him after one date. Just give him a chance. Get to know his family. It's a real plus that they live so nearby. No wives or fiancées hiding in the closets if he takes you home to Mama.”

      “We're hardly at that stage. He only asked me to take in a movie tonight.”

      “Hey, it's a beginning. Lighten up, Gil. This may be the one.”

 

* * * *

 

      It looked as if he was. Over the course of the next few weeks, Gilly and Jeff went to see films and plays and ate dinner in ethnic restaurants. They discovered they both loved old Bette Davis movies, Robert Browning's poetry, and tandoori cooking.

      On the first Friday night in December, they sawThe Barretts of Wimpole Streetat a small art theater on Second Avenue. The city remained unseasonably windy and bitterly cold, although the snow had finally melted. They found a small Italian restaurant more notable for its dimly lit corners than for its food, but neither was hungry...for food. They lingered over glasses of Chianti, discussing the romantic old film, poetry, and history—everything but what was really on their minds.

      “I know it's an old line, but candlelight does become you,” he said softly.

      “Isn't the line ‘moonlight’?” Gilly was suddenly breathless when he took her hand and held it over the checkered tablecloth. His large fingers worked the pulse point of her wrist with maddening delicacy, slowly circling the slim expanse. She knew he must be able to feel her blood racing. Then, he raised her hand to his lips and leaned forward to brush her knuckles.

      “This table's too big,” he murmured, even though it was tiny. He stood up and stepped from behind it, never relinquishing her hand. He slid in on her side of the secluded booth. “Now, where were we...?”

      “The table was too big,” she replied helpfully, amazed that she could even remember his last words, much less repeat them. The heat of his thigh seemed to be searing hers. Their shoulders brushed, and Gilly was aware of how large and hard his frame was compared to her own slenderness. She could feel the tension coiled in that big body as he leaned nearer, but he pressed no farther, giving her the opportunity to withdraw.

      “I think I want to kiss you now. What do you think?” His light caressing of her fingers continued, his thumb working that magic circle on her wrist as he drew her hand once again to his mouth.

      The feeling of his warm breath on her skin made her practically salivate. “I think it's a great idea...absolutely sensational...brillian—”

      His mouth moved closer to hers, and she raised her face, eyes closed, as their lips met. The pressure was light as gossamer at first, warm, very faintly moist. Every nerve ending in her body seemed to respond as he drew her closer in his arms and pressed her back against the wall in the dimly lit booth. Gilly's arms just naturally fit around those broad shoulders, pulling him closer, her fingertips kneading hard muscle.

      His lips traveled from the edges of her mouth up to her blissfully closed eyelids, pressing soft kisses against the fluttering lashes, then moving over to one small ear. His tongue scalded it with a swift whorl, then retreated, moving downward to her neck.He’s a devil for finding pulse points—should've been a doctor, not a lawyer.The thought flitted through her mind but evaporated when he returned his concentration to her mouth, which by now was open, breathlessly panting.

      He tasted of the Chianti, spicy and mellow and male. She grabbed fistfuls of his hair and pulled him closer, giving him some tongue in return. When he growled low and intensified the kiss, Gilly felt her head spin.Whoa! Too much wine...too much man,the Ohio side of her brain reminded her. However, the New York side, a side she had until now never had much occasion to notice, utterly ignored it.

      Gilly ran one hand through his hair, twining her tongue with his, darting it into his mouth, as her other hand glided down his neck to the open collar of his shirt. Her fingers sank into the thick black hair that had so tantalized her. Before she realized what she was doing, several of his shirt buttons were undone, and her hand slid inside. His skin was as hot as a tenement roof in July, and his heart pounded against her palm.

      When he slid his hand up under her sweater and cupped one breast, she moaned and arched against him. Dark little restaurant or not, Gillian Marie Newsom had never in her life put on such a display. And she was loving it! They twisted and writhed with wild abandon until the obligatory wicker-encased bottle with the candle in it began to wobble precariously on the tabletop.

      Jeff came up for air just as the waiter, an elderly Italian man with bushy white eyebrows and a sweet, gold-toothed smile, cleared his throat. He stood patiently with the bill in his hand while the young lovers quickly uncoiled. When he reached nonchalantly to steady the bottle, Gilly felt like slithering under the table with embarrassment. Her sweater was pushed above her waist, and her bra was unfastened! Damn, Jeff had clever hands. She could feel her face flame as he paid the check and the little old man disappeared.

      “I think we'd better put ourselves together and leave so Signor Monserra can close up,” he said, refastening his shirt buttons. All the while his eyes never left her face.

      She could feel the scorching heat of them as she fumbled with her bra, then smoothed down her sweater. “Believe it or not, I don't usually get so...engrossed...at least, not in public.”

      He grinned. “I'm relieved to hear you don't rule out in private. Next time we decide to do this, let's pick a better place.”

      But since he lived with a roommate, they had no better place. Gilly's apartment in Yonkers was small, cheap, and dingy—all she could afford on an assistant editor's pay. She kept meaning to fix it up but never seemed to have the time. Even if it had been beautiful, like Charis and Bill's Park Avenue penthouse, Gilly was still wary of becoming involved too deeply before she found out more about Jeffery Brandt. Already, he had far more control over her senses than any other man she'd ever been with—of course, there had not been all that many.

      Gilly didn't like to think of herself as a prude. Even if Charis said she was one. After all, she had been the only girl in her high school to reach her senior year still a virgin. Ken Planzer had taken care of that one night in the backseat of his father's Olds 98. That had been enough to get her to swear off sex until her sophomore year at Oberlin. The two guys she'd become involved with in college were no great shakes as lovers, although after Ken, they seemed better than they were by comparison. Then she met Frank Blane and knew, for the first time, sexual gratification. Oh, Frank had been practiced all right—with good reason. But he'd taught Gilly a valuable lesson. She wasn't going to fall for a guy again just because he sent her hormones into overdrive.

      So she and Jeff had settled into a pattern of meeting when she got off work and he finished studying. Sometimes, they spent evenings working in the library, then went for a quick bite at the coffee shop down the street. Whatever they did, the fiery interlude in the Italian restaurant was not repeated. Maybe Jeff, too, was having second thoughts about becoming romantically entangled. That thought did not console Gilly one little bit.

      But what would happen if they reallywereright for each other? She'd told him a series of whoppers. Admittedly, they were the same sort of fabrications she'd resorted to with most people she'd met in New York. Frank Blane was the only man to whom she'd told the truth. The irony of that did not escape her. She would just have to wait and see what happened between her and Jeff.

 

* * * *

 

      One brisk, sunny Sunday afternoon Gilly and Jeff strolled casually along a path in Central Park when a jogger approached with two big Rottweiler's trotting obediently beside him. “I'd love to have one of those.” Gilly sighed as the dogs passed by.

      “You had Rotties back in Ohio?”

      “Not exactly, although I'm sure there was some Rottweiler in Belvedere—he had a little of everything mixed in.”

      “Belvedere?” Jeff's tone was teasing. “Youarea serious literary type.”

      She shrugged, kicking a pile of ice-crisped leaves. “I was twelve years old and had just finished readingMorte d'Arthur.I figured he'd be the last dog I had before I left home.”

      “You had lots of dogs growing up?”

      “Three, counting old Rufus, who died when I was a toddler. I don't remember much about him except that he licked off the food smeared on my face. Then, there was Spike. He liked to chase cars. What about you? Any pets allowed in Scarsdale?”

      “My mother raised Afghans.” She made a face, and he laughed. “Okay, so they aren't the brightest creatures, but I had an English sheepdog once that was smarter than some of my law professors. Come to think of it, Raleigh was smarter than most of them.”

      “I miss having a dog. That's one of the tradeoffs for living in the Big Apple, I guess.”

      “Why? Surely you could get a small dog of some kind. Look around you. There are people with dogs all over the place,” he said, indicating a sprinkling of various breeds, leashed and unleashed, roaming around the park with their owners.

      “True, but they don't have Danny DeVito in drag for a super.”

      Jeff burst out laughing. “This person I'd love to see.”

      “No, you wouldn't. She's just like Louie onTaxi, only not nearly as nice. And she hates dogs. Says they bark and wake up the other tenants.”

      “Sounds as if the walls are as thin in your place as the shack where I live.”

      Uh-oh. Gilly had been very careful to evade any questions about her apartment. After all, what FS&G editor would be living in a dump in Yonkers like hers? Since he lived and went to school in lower Manhattan, she had insisted that they meet in the city for all their dates. And, for work and home, she had given him only her cell-phone number. “No, actually, the place is really cool—it's just Mrs. Kleinschmidt who's the problem.”

      “I'd like to see your place...one of these days.”

      His words were laced with meaning as he looked into her eyes. But since he shared his apartment with a fellow student who was almost always home studying, that left him no privacy to bring in a date, and there was no way she could invite him to her place in Yonkers.

      They shared a smoldering look. There had been a lot of those since that first kiss. But what could they do? Come to think of it, they both knew what they could do. Just notwherethey could do it!

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

      “Bill and I will be in Monaco until December seventeenth. Of course you can use our place...” Charis hesitated, then plunged ahead. “But Gil, do you really think it's such a hot idea to become this involved with a guy and not level with him? I mean, sooner or later, you're going to have to tell him the truth.” Charis watched as her friend sorted through the piles of manuscripts covering her desk. She knew Gilly was stalling instead of facing her question. Taking another bite off the end of the stick of celery that was her lunch, Charis grimaced. Raw veggies were all she'd allowed herself to eat for the past ten days. She simply had to drop ten pounds before she could wear that new bikini on the Riviera.


Page 4

      Finally, Gilly shoved a manuscript across her desk and stood up, pacing across the crowded cubicle. “I don't know what to do about telling Jeff. I've tried to confess several times, but then I get to thinking about Scarsdale and Afghan hounds and—”

      “Afghan hounds?” Charis put down her celery and gave her friend an odd look.

      Gilly waved a hand dismissively and kept pacing behind her desk. “Jeff's mom raises them. Everything about his background is so...so perfect, and everything about mine isn't.”

      Charis walked over and took Gilly by both arms. “You won a full scholarship to Oberlin and graduated summa cum laude, kiddo. You're smart and good; and, frankly, I'd kill you for your body—if they could do full body transplants. Look, it's no crime to come from a poor family; and it's sure as hell no crime to work for a romance publisher either—unless this guy's a real snob; and if he is, who wants him?”

      “I do!” Gilly's face reddened as Charis chuckled gleefully. “Oh, I didn't mean to imply that he's a snob. We don't go on fancy dates, and he wears old jeans and sneakers. He's never tried to impress me. In fact, I practically had to pry every bit of information about his family out of him.”

      “So, you're got the hots for the guy, but you're still not sure about him.”

      “That makes me sound awful.”

      “That makes you sound human, Gilly. And still insecure as ever. You've got to get over your past and enjoy the present.” Charis' big brown eyes were filled with sympathy. “Look, sweetie, there is absolutely no reason this Jeff shouldn't love the real you. You have to believe in yourself.”

      Gilly sighed. “I'm trying, Char, honest.”

      Charis pressed a card key into Gilly's hand. “We're leaving Friday morning and won't be back for three weeks. The penthouse is yours. Live it up, sweetie!”

      “You're a living doll, you know that?” Gilly replied, hugging her friend.

      “Yeah, but by the time I eat all that wonderful French food, I won't be Barbie-sized, that's for sure!Ciao,” she said, tossing the remains of the celery stick in the trash as she headed for the door.Maybe this guy will ground you in reality. Then again, it's hard to keep your feet on the ground when you're walking on cloud nine.

 

* * * *

 

      Gilly straightened the magazines on the Ligne Roset coffee table, then fanned them out again. Her nerves were utterly frayed, she thought, gazing around the Lawrences' lush Park Avenue apartment. Some digs. The picture window directly facing her had a smashing view of the Manhattan skyline, glittering like jewels in the night. The living room was thirty feet long, an unheard of expanse for most New Yorkers. On one wall, a huge stone fireplace soared all the way to the ten-foot ceiling, gas logs giving off cheery warmth. A long sofa of butter-soft terracotta-colored suede stretched sinuously against the opposite wall, flanked by two club chairs in deep moss green. A painting that was either an original Picasso or a darn good copy hung over the sofa.

      Gilly's feet sank into the thick pale gold carpet as she made her way soundlessly to the kitchen off one end of the living room. The terra-cotta-tile floor was polished to a rich luster. Her heels clicked over it as she checked the tray of canapés and crystal bowl filled with crushed ice and boiled shrimp. A bottle of Stags Leap Chardonnay was nestled in its sterling ice bucket. There was another bottle chilling in the Sub-Zero...for afterward.

      If only there's a before.Gilly hadn't been this nervous since her scholarship interview with the committee at Oberlin. She walked down the hall to the big bedroom where a king-sized water bed sat enthroned on a raised platform, its fluffy moss-green comforter inviting the viewer to sink into the softness. How would it feel to make love on a water bed? She hoped she'd find out soon.

      The floor-to-ceiling mirrors in Charis' dressing room reflected Gilly's slender figure. She appraised herself critically, smoothing an errant curl that kept slipping out of the French twist. Her sole extravagance on her modest salary had always been clothes. Although she shopped the sales at Bloomie's, the prices on Oscar and Anne, not to mention Gucci, were still steep. But worth it. She was glad she'd splurged on the Versace caftan. It looked casual and chic—and had the added benefit of being very simple to slip out of.

      The security intercom buzzed, interrupting her critique. Breathlessly, she pressed the button, and the doorman announced that Jeff had arrived. “Send him up,” she said with a catch in her voice. “Get a grip, girl. You're carrying on like one of Gwendolyn Gleeson's simpy heroines!”

 

* * * *

 

      Jeff rode up in the soundless elevator, admiring its dark walnut paneling and gleaming brass fixtures. Some class act. They must pay editors a lot better at the big houses than he'd imagined. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if a woman as successful as Gilly would want to marry a struggling assistant district attorney, then quashed the thought with horror. Good grief, he'd met the woman barely a month ago! No reason to be thinking of anything as permanent as marriage. Just saying the word aloud normally made his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth. But then, he'd never met a woman quite like Gilly Newsom. She was funny and bright, wholesomely small town, even if her family was wealthy and she had a high-powered job in publishing.

      The elevator stopped on the seventy-fifth floor, and the door opened silently. He walked across the marble foyer to apartment 7501 and rang the bell. Gilly opened the door the moment he buzzed, indicating that she'd been waiting on the other side. As he handed her the bouquet of white roses he'd bought from a vendor on the way over, his gaze traveled appreciatively over her body.

      She was wearing something soft and flowing made of sheer silk in a dramatic tiger-stripe print. The neckline was cut in a low vee, revealing a sweet amount of pale flesh. The gossamer fabric faintly outlined tips of her breasts as she stepped back, inviting him inside. She buried her nose in the bouquet and inhaled. It was all he could do not to inhale her!

      “How did you know white roses were my absolute favorites?”

      He grinned. “I could claim ESP, but all I really had to do was watch you every time we passed a florist's shop.”

      “That's much sweeter than ESP,” she said, noting the way his crisp white shirt stretched across those broad, muscular shoulders and contrasted with his naturally dark coloring. His shirtsleeves were rolled up and the collar open. He wore age-softened jeans that looked as if they'd been spray-painted on. Her throat suddenly felt dry. No wonder. All the moisture in her body had moved south!

      “Come in and make yourself at home—after you open the wine, that is,” she said, taking his battered leather bomber jacket and hanging it in the entry closet.

      He surveyed the huge living room. The soft sounds of Mozart'sAndantesurrounded them, floating through the vast space. “Wow. Even my old man would be impressed by that view, not to mention the painting. Hard to believe your super would give you grief about having a dog in a place this expensive.”

      “I'm glad you approve,” she replied nervously.

      “Not nearly as much as I do of you,” he said, taking her into his arms. When she slid her arms up around his neck, the silk folds of her caftan rustled softly, and his nostrils were filled with the essence of vanilla. “Mmm, you smell good enough to eat,” he murmured, nuzzling her neck.

      Gilly chuckled. “Silly, you're smelling the flowers.” The bouquet was draped over his shoulder, still clutched in her hand.

      “That's what they say to take time to do, isn't it?” He continued his leisurely path of kisses and soft nips, running his mouth across the silky skin on her collarbone, then traveling up to the pulse racing at the base of her throat, sliding from there to her delicate jaw.

      Her fingers combed through his hair, but she almost dropped the roses in her other hand when his mouth finally claimed hers. What began as a soft exploration suddenly turned to voracious hunger for both of them. Mouths open, tongues dueling, they pressed their bodies together, hips rotating and gliding in promise of things to come.

      Jeff slid one hand from her small waist over her ribs to cup a breast, working the nipple with his fingertips until it stood out pebble hard. She moaned when he finally broke the kiss, but he continued to hold her pressed tightly against his lower body. “I'm going too fast, I know, but I've wanted to do this ever since you sat across from me in the coffee shop eating that damned cheeseburger.”

      “I wanted it, too...but a woman has to be careful,” she murmured, stroking his jaw with her fingers. “You must've shaved really close tonight.”

      “There are places I don't want to give you whisker burn,” he said wickedly. Then, stepping back, he lifted her arm and the roses over his shoulder. “I think you'd better get these into water before they wilt.”

      “Think you can wait?” she asked with a cheeky grin.

      He looked down at the bulge in his jeans with a rueful laugh. “Believe me, I've been in no danger of wilting since I met you!”

      Gilly could feel the heat stealing into her cheeks. “You can make me blush like a schoolgirl.” That fact did not induce her to take her eyes from his jeans, however.

      “I find the trait endearing; but if you don't want me to ravish you right here on the entry floor, you'd better stop looking and blushing.”

      “Right. I think we should at least take advantage of the carpet in front of the fireplace.” She turned in a cloud of gold and black silk and headed for the kitchen. “You can open the wine while I put these in water.”

      She picked up a Baccarat vase from the library table and headed toward the kitchen with Jeff following, admiring the way her hips swayed, faintly outlined through the sheer fabric of the caftan.

      “Where's the corkscrew?” he asked as she filled the cut-crystal vase with water.

      “Er, over there,” she said vaguely, gesturing in the direction of a bank of drawers on the island in the center of the kitchen. She thought she remembered that Bill kept his wine paraphernalia somewhere in there. She prayed he did.Stupid! Why didn't you search for the damned corkscrew when you brought the wine home?

      When she turned her attention back to arranging the roses, he rummaged through a couple of the drawers and located the implement, then opened the bottle with practiced ease. She turned and watched as he completed the task. Of course, he'd know all about fine wines. She only hoped the man at the wine shop hadn't steered her wrong on the Chardonnay.

      He inspected the vintage with raised eyebrows. “I'm impressed.” When she picked up the bowl of shrimp and the beluga canapés and carried them into the living room, he thought,I'm also in way over my head.This woman was used to the finer things, no doubt about it. He pushed the troubling thought out of his mind and followed her, placing the wine bucket on the low kidney-shaped table near the fire.

      Gilly arranged the food while he poured the cold golden liquid into two of Charis' Waterford flutes. They settled down on a big pile of pillows she had artfully arranged directly in front of the crackling fire. Handing her a glass, he raised his to salute her. When she responded, the clear ring of crystal sang in the air, air now filled with intense anticipation. As they sipped, their eyes never broke contact.

      Jeff leaned forward and skewered a fat shrimp from the bowl. He held it out for her to take a bite. When she did so, he popped the other half into his mouth. Suddenly, Gilly had difficulty remembering how to chew. He smiled at her, and she took his dare, picking up a canapé and offering him a bite. As he swallowed it, she watched the movement of his throat. Even the man's Adam's apple was sexy!

      “I saw that once in a movie,” he said.

      “Tom Jones?” She watched him fork another shrimp and offer it to her, only this time instead of waiting for her to finish, he bit into the other end. As they slowly chewed toward the center, he slid the fork out and tossed in onto the table. Their lips met in the middle, tasting of sweet shellfish and salty caviar. After a quick brush that left every nerve end in her body zinging, he took her wineglass and offered her a sip. She drank. Then, he turned the glass to the exact spot she'd sipped from and took a swallow, dark hooded eyes fixed on her lips.

      “I guess some things are worth waiting for,” she finally managed to whisper.

      “Yes,” he replied, placing the wineglass on the table and raising his fingertips to trace the bow of her lips. When her tongue darted out and caressed the pad of his index finger, he inhaled sharply. “I think we've waited long enough.”

      “Oh, yes,” she breathed, but then her eyes grew round, her cheeks pink once more, as she pressed one hand to his chest, holding him off. “Do you have...that is...er—”

      “I used to be a Boy Scout,” he said, withdrawing a condom from his shirt pocket and laying it on the table beside them, charmed by the way she ducked her head shyly. “Now...where were we? Ah, yes.” Jeff reached up and began unfastening the jeweled combs holding her hair, letting the long, pale copper strands fall heavily around her shoulders. He took one silky curl and raised it to his lips, rubbing it sensuously across his cheek. “You have lovely hair. Never cut it, please?”


Page 5

      “When you put it that way, how could I?” she replied as she melted into his embrace. They fell back on the pillows, hands and mouths caressing, exploring, devouring. Gilly could feel the warmth of his palm glide over her calf and the curve of her hip as he slowly pulled up the silk caftan, revealing her legs and the tiny bit of gold silk that comprised her panties. When his hand gently snapped the elastic, her hips arched reflexively.

      “It's been so long...” Her words, low and breathless, faded away.

      “Then we'll go slow,” he murmured against the curve of her shoulder.

      “But not too slow,” she whispered, unbuttoning his shirt and nuzzling her way through the cunning pattern of hair on his chest.

      When her tongue circled a hard male nipple, he growled low and his hands glided up to cup her breasts. “Mmm, no bra. I didn't think so.”

      “I used to be a Girl Scout...I came prepared, too,” she said, pushing her breasts into the exquisite caresses of his fingertips and palms.

      “Oh, you'll come, all right, over and over if I have my way.”

      “Do have your way with me, sir,” she whispered, then added with a low chuckle as she began unzipping his fly, “and I'll have mine with you.” He was as big and hard as the fireplace poker, as hot to her touch as the flames. When she pulled his erection from his jeans and began stroking it, he made a fierce sound deep in his throat that thrilled her.

      If this kept up, he'd lose it before they went much further. Jeff remembered a cardinal rule and focused on it. “Shoes first,” he whispered hoarsely, removing her busy hand. He sat up to pull off his loafers and socks. Then he gathered the soft folds of her caftan and pulled it over her head.

      She raised her arms as the caftan floated to the carpet behind her, and he studied the slender perfection of her body. The pose emphasized the pert thrust of her breasts. They were not large, but neither were they small, just perfectly proportioned, high and firm, with nipples of palest pink, now crinkled into spiky little points, begging for his mouth.

      The heat of his breath sent shivers of delight over her as he opened his lips to take one achy nipple, drawing it in delicately for the exquisite ministrations of his tongue. Then, he moved to the other nipple and repeated the process, alternating between them while her fingers massaged his scalp, pulling him closer, arching into the pleasure.

      “God, you taste sweet,” he murmured, then gasped when her hand once more found his shaft. He let her stroke it several times while he continued suckling and teasing her breasts; then he rolled away and tugged the tight jeans off. He was aware of her eyes fastened avidly on his naked body, could tell she was pleased with how it looked. Women always were...

      Gilly opened her arms as he moved over her, wrapping them around his back, pulling him closer so their naked flesh pressed full length. Never had she been more aware of how small, slender, and soft she was. His body was hard, the muscles sleek and powerful. She buried her face in the curve where his neck met one broad shoulder and began kissing her way to his jaw. He had shaved very close, for she knew his beard was heavy. By morning there would be a dark stubbly shadow, and that, too, would be sexy as hell.

      Jeff balanced his weight on his elbows and began kissing her, his tongue plunging and teasing, hers returning the caresses in equal measure. For all her blushes and shyness, she was a hot little thing, deprived of sexual pleasure for a long time. Not that he'd exactly had the time—or inclination—to be Don Juan himself the past few years. This was the time for them...together.

      He reached back and grabbed the condom from the table, then quickly put it on and returned to her waiting embrace. He slid his palm over the concave surface of her belly, feeling the clenching need deep inside her, then slipped his fingers under the lacy wisp of her panties and cupped her mound. She arched up into his hand, crying out his name. When he began working the fabric over her hips, she raised her bottom and twisted smoothly so the tiny bit of silk slid off in his hand. He raised it to his face and breathed in the sweet musk.

      “I've soaked them,” Gilly whispered, shocked at her boldness, but it seemed to please him.

      “Now,” he murmured, positioning himself between her thighs and raising up so he could look at her as he slid slowly inside her body. Her legs went up, wrapping around his hips as she arched her back, waiting for his thrust.

      “Now,” she repeated.

      It was heaven. Slick, gliding, undulating heaven. Every nerve in her body screamed with the unbearable sweetness of the pleasure. Never before had it felt so keen, so instantaneous, so effortless as it did with Jeff. This was more than the end of a long abstinence.

      I'm falling for this guy!

      The thought came out of nowhere; but before she could examine it further, he began to increase the tempo, and the mounting frenzy of her need drove every thought from her mind. Like a wild woman she clung to him, her nails scoring his back, her thighs squeezing his hips, her back arching to meet each thrust.

      “Little hellcat,” he rasped, loving her wild, uninhibited response, waiting for what he could sense was fast approaching. She was so small and tight that he could instantly feel her orgasm begin, the hard, rippling contractions wringing from him an answering response. Jeff watched her eyes glaze over, the lashes fluttering down. Her body convulsed, flushing pink as she gave everything to her release.

      He'd never seen a woman react so strongly, last so long. But his flash of male pride was quickly displaced when a wave of tender possessiveness swept over him.This could become habit forming, this woman, loving her this way.Not a thought he was expecting to consider the instant before the climax of his lifetime struck him like a tidal wave.

      “Ah, Gilly, what have you done to me?”

      The words were softly slurred into her hair as they lay in a welter of entwined arms and legs. She wasn't sure she'd heard him right or what the words meant.

      Does he love me, too?

 

 

Chapter Four

 

 

      Faint streaks of dim December sunlight climbed across the big rumpled bed where Gilly and Jeff finally ended up sleeping, but not until after they had spent most of the night making love, feeding each other shrimp and caviar, sipping wine before the fire, then rekindling their own flames. Gradually, they had worked their way from the living room into the king-sized water bed, although neither one could have said how they got from one room to the other.

      Gilly awakened to the gentle motion of water when Jeff rolled over, placed one arm possessively across her breasts, then drifted back into deep slumber. Dreamily, she recalled that last night with him gave a whole new meaning to the termmotion sensitivity. Jeff.She turned her head and studied him as he slept.

      Thick black lashes veiled his eyes. Their rich brown depths had glowed like coals before the fire last night. What a waste to hide those incredible eyes behind glasses. He probably had to wear them in self-defense—to keep every woman he encountered from tearing off his clothes! She touched the abrasive stubble of heavy black beard on his jaw. Last night, it had been shaven so smooth that he barely left a mark on her inner thighs. She grew taut and wet just remembering the way he had held her buttocks cupped in his hands and proclaimed in that low, sexy voice that the real feast was only beginning. Never before had she experienced such utter abandon with a lover. Never before could she have allowed one to take her that way...or to take him that way.

      This is it.

      Charis had told Gilly that the first time she slept with Bill she knew he was the one. Gilly had secretly scoffed at the notion. She wasn't scoffing now. It had just happened to her. And the man who'd made her impossible dreams come true believed she was a high-powered hardcover editor from a wealthy family in small-town America. How could she ever justify her deception? Or tell him the truth?

      Whoa, Gilly, she reminded herself. She was putting the cart before the horse. Just because she had gone bonkers over him did not mean that he reciprocated the feelings. Okay, he had said a few things in the heat of passion that could be construed as admissions that he cared. But he never said he was in love with her...in so many words. And even if he had, it had been in the heat of passion. Whew, boy, it had been a blast furnace of passion!

      She wriggled up in bed and sat with his arm draped casually over her lap. Unable to resist, she let her fingers glide over his hair, thick and night dark, a bit tangled from their earlier exertions. He did look a bit like a book-cover model—not the steroid-pumped type, but just as much a woman's fantasy.Herfantasy. Her hand ranged over his shoulder, stroking the sleek muscles as she studied the soft dark hair on his forearm. Without warning, he suddenly rolled over and caught her hand in his, pulling her down on top of him.

      “Good morning,” he said in a low, sexy growl as his fingers tangled in her hair, bringing her face down to his. Between breathless kisses she returned the greeting, and he asked, “Sleep well?”

      “You know I did...what little time I actually had to sleep.”

      “Now she's complaining,” he teased, one hand roaming from her buttocks to the curve of her breast.

      “I'll give you exactly a day or two to cut that out,” she said, arching into his palm.

      “Mmm, think I may take a while longer.”

      He continued the slow, languorous caresses until she was half wild with desire. She straddled his hips, their legs tangled in the badly rumpled covers. She gazed down at him, watching as he continued making love to her breasts, cupping them in his palms, pulling the nipples and rolling them between his thumbs and index fingers. The world was spinning out of control. She placed her hands on his hairy chest, feeling the accelerating thud of his heart. Then, she felt his straining erection brush against the crack of her buttocks.

      “Think you can hold out longer?” she teased.

      “Longer than you. Want to bet?” he murmured, seemingly engrossed in the way her nipples crinkled tighter and tighter under his ministrations. He raised his head, pulling her down so he could replace his hand with his mouth.

      When she scooted back to accommodate him, she also reached down to grasp his stone-hard penis. His groan was muffled against her breast as she centered her body over it, guiding it very slowly inside. She stopped, breathless herself, and whispered, “Want me to stop?”

      “My sweet little cock-teaser,” he murmured, his hands now sliding over her hips, arranging them to his and her intense satisfaction.

      When they again lay breathless and exhausted in each other's arms, he said, almost as if to himself, “It's amazing. I can't seem to get enough of you. You make me insatiable, Gilly girl.”

      “Hmm, I'm a cock-teaser, and you're a satyr. A match made in heaven?” she murmured with a chuckle. “I've never felt this...”Go easy, an inner voice cautioned. “This at ease with anyone before. It's comfortable with you—I mean, besides how we fit during sex.”

      He seemed to consider her words, then nodded. “You're right. And the way we fit during sex is a hell of a lot more than just comfortable, although I'm damned if I know an adjective to do it justice.”

      They lay in contentment for several more minutes; but suddenly he tensed and pulled away from her, looking over at the bedside clock. “It's nearly noon!”

      “So? It's Saturday. You can't have classes on a Saturday afternoon, can you?” Gilly sat up, confused.

      Jeff practically leaped from the bed and stalked naked down the hall, calling over his shoulder, “Not class, a...study session...with several other students. I have to run. I'm really late, Gilly.”

      By the time she grabbed her robe from the bathroom door and made her way to the living room, he was dressed and slipping on his loafers. He walked over to her and took her in his arms, pressing a kiss on her forehead. “I'm sorry, babe. I'll call you tonight when I get off—er, get finished.”

 

* * * *

 

      Gilly had kept her phone by her side all afternoon and evening, several pencils and two manuscripts also lying beside her on the big sofa. She tried to concentrate on editing, but her heart just wasn't in it. Everything had been going so great...or so she thought. Had she done something to scare him off? She hadn't told him that she loved him or indicated that she expected some sort of commitment. Maybe, she just gave off vibes that told men how she felt. Or, worst-case scenario, maybe now that he'd finally gotten her into bed, she'd lost her allure. Some guys were like that, but Gilly would have bet her life that Jeff Brandt was not one of them.

      It was nearly ten that night when he called. He sounded beat. Gilly's heart nearly melted with tenderness when she heard his voice. They talked for half an hour, speaking of the kinds of inconsequential things lovers often do. He wanted to return to her place, but he had a big exam coming up on Monday and needed to study. He sounded disappointed. She was, too. But she had two edits to finish by Monday as well. They made a date for Monday night.


Page 6

      Jeff was going to pick her up at work. She figured she could make it from her job to the lobby in FS&G's building by half past five if she rushed. But at four-thirty her cell phone rang. Jeff had a “family emergency” and couldn't make it. They met the next night; and he was brimming with apologies, although not very forthcoming about what crisis had taken place in Scarsdale. He took her to a small Indian restaurant up by Columbus Circle, where the food was fabulous.

      By the time they reached the Park Avenue apartment, Gilly had other things on her mind than family crises. He left her after midnight, saying he had an early-morning class. She had to be at work early, too. But sleeping in that big bed without him had become quite lonely. And, after all, they only had two weeks before Charis and Bill returned to reclaim their luxurious living quarters. Gilly didn't want to waste a single day.

      This forced her to consider what she'd do when she had to return to her Yonkers apartment. How would she explain that they couldn't use her place any longer? She racked her brain for several days, trying to work up her courage to confess the deception; but every time she was on the brink of doing it, something would interfere. Either she'd lose her nerve or he'd break their date.

      The abrupt breaking of dates was beginning to worry her. What if he was like Frank Blane after all? What if he had a wife or another girlfriend tucked away in his Washington Square apartment? When Charis phoned her from Nice, she laid out her misgivings about the relationship to the only friend she could confide in.

      Charis didn't beat around the bush. “Arrange some excuse to go down to NYU and meet his roommate. But before you even waste time doing that, call the university and verify that they have a Jeffrey Brandt enrolled in the law program.”

      “But...that's so cold...as if I don't trust him.”

      “Well, why should you?”

      “Yeah, he could be lying just like me, right?”

      “You said it, sweetie, I didn't,” Charis chided gently.

 

* * * *

 

      The next day Gilly did some detective work. There was indeed a Jeffrey Lyle Brandt enrolled as a third-year law student at NYU. Although his family had an unlisted number and Gilly had to ask a big favor from an old Oberlin classmate working for the phone company, she learned that a Lyle Bearsford Brandt lived in Scarsdale. From another classmate practicing law on Long Island, she found out that Mr. Brandt was a retired attorney. Jeff was who he said he was. The only thing remaining was to check out the roommate and verify that he was a he.

      “Would you believe the coincidence, Jeff—I'm going to be attending an afternoon workshop at NYU tomorrow. Can we meet somewhere for coffee—that is, if you have time?” Her voice sounded breathy and frightened. She had always been a terrible liar.Except when you came up with that whopper about your job. Ignoring the small squeak of conscience, she made arrangements to meet him on campus after his last class of the day.

      The coffee shop was small and crowded, a favorite hangout for grad students. As they wended their way through the chairs and tables overflowing with a motley assortment of humanity, Gilly scanned faces. Long-haired hippie types with untrimmed beards and Birkenstocks argued vehemently with preppy-looking youths in button-down collars and Dockers.

      “Does Karl hang out here?” she asked brightly. “I'd love to meet him.”

      Jeff shrugged, taking her coat, then pulling off his bomber jacket and piling them on what might have been the only unoccupied chair in the place. “Sometimes he's here. His schedule is pretty crazy.”

      “Whose isn't? This is the first time we've made contact in nearly a week,” she replied.

      He leaned down and brushed his lips across her neck as he pulled out a chair for her, murmuring, “We haven't made contact yet.”

      “Well, if Karl isn't at your place...”

      “It's a student dump—two guys batching it, Gilly. Considering what your apartment is like—”

      “You're a student. I was one once, and I remember what my place looked like—a mix ofEscape from New YorkandAngela's Ashes.”

      He studied her face for a moment as they sat at the small table with noise and people pressing in on them. “You are really incredible, Gilly. You're bright, beautiful, successful, you have everything you want—”

      “Not everything, Jeff.” Her fingers stroked over the back of his hand, tracing the pattern of dark hair delicately with her nails.

      “Let me see if Karl's around.” He squeezed her hand, then stood up and made his way to the bar, where he talked with a balding man sporting a belly that hadn't come from drinking espresso. As he served up coffees, he pointed across the room to a corner table near the window. There sat a tall, lanky man of indeterminate years who bore a remarkable resemblance to Jimmy Stewart, his concentration focused on an oversized textbook and papers spread out across the table.

      Jeff motioned for her to join him as he wended his way over. “Hey, Karl. Dr. Oppermann laying it on again?” he asked as Gilly joined them. Placing his arm around her shoulders, he said, “I want you to meet—”

      “You have to be the legendary Gilly Newsom,” Karl said with a smile as guileless and open as a Kansas cornfield, which exactly matched his origins.

      As he stood up and offered her a chair, they exchanged introductions. Jeff went off to bring them coffee. “Jeff says you're a Midwesterner. So am I. Ohio.”

      “I could tell by your lack of accent. Everyone on the coast has one. You ever notice that for all the kidding we get about being hicks and hayseeds, all the national newscasters talk like us, not New Yorkers, Southerners, or New Englanders?”

      Gilly liked him already. “How long have you and Jeff been rooming together?”

      Karl Mathis scratched his thinning brown hair and considered. “Let's see, I started law the term after Jeff, so that makes it about a year and a half now. With both our crazy schedules, we hardly ever see each other.”

      “Jeff says you really hit the books every night.”

      “Have to. I'm not as smart as he is.”

      Jeff rejoined them, and they talked for a while and sipped the scalding, inky brew. Gilly liked Karl—a plus, considering that she wouldn't have cared if he were an ax murderer as long as his name was Karl, not Karla.

 

 

Chapter Five

 

 

      Everything should have been perfect after that. Gilly even thought up an excuse for when the Lawrences' returned to claim their apartment: she would tell Jeff that the owners of the building were doing a massive repainting project, and she would have to vacate the premises for the holidays and stay with a friend up in Yonkers. That left her with a few more weeks to work up the courage to tell him the truth.

      But her confession had taken a backseat to other concerns. The broken dates were beginning to bother her. Bother her a lot. If he had to work the way she had to put herself through college, or if he had to really beat his brains out with the books, like Karl, she'd have understood. But Gilly knew better. Jeff was uncommonly bright. Karl had told her about his GPA and how easy the law classes were for him. She also knew that no one with parents in Scarsdale's elite needed to hold down a night job. The hours during which he mysteriously disappeared were far too erratic for that anyway.

      Gilly desperately wanted to confront him and ask point blank what was going on, but her guilt over her own deceptions held her silent. The strain in their relationship was telling on both of them. Just as she was leaving the office, her cell phone rang. “This is Gilly,” she answered.

      “Hello.”

      She could sense the hesitancy in his voice. “Hello yourself. We still on for dinner and a movie tonight?”

      “That's what I'm calling about. Something's come up.”

      “This is the third time in the past week, Jeff.” God, she sounded like a nag. Like someone who actually had a claim on him.

      “I'm sorry, Gilly. Look, it's the end of the term, and I have all these projects to complete for my classes.” Jeff racked his brain for something plausible.Damn idiot, introducing her to Karl, so she knows enough to realize I haven't been studying all those nights!

      “But this is such short notice, Jeff.” All his broken dates seemed to come that way—that, or he would simply be unavailable for days.

      He could hear the chilly tone in her voice, and it fueled his guilt. “Professor Anderson has offered a chosen handful of the favored a chance to hear him expound on the New York State bar exam tonight. I can't pass up the opportunity.”

      “I thought Karl said Anderson had already left on sabbatical.”

      Now, the tone of voice had shifted to decided suspicion. He cursed beneath his breath. “Sorry, Gilly, but I really have to go.”

      The next day, just as she was leaving for work, he arrived at “her apartment” with a big bouquet of white roses and a contrite expression. “Forgive me, please? I don't intend for anything to come between us, but you should understand how important finishing my degree is to me.”

      “How can I refuse when you put it that way?” She took the flowers and turned to reach for a vase. He slipped his arms around her and nuzzled her neck. “Enough of that or you'll make me late for work—and don't you have class this morning?”

      He sighed theatrically. “You would have to remind me. Yes, I do, but we can at least take the subway together.”

      She put the roses in water; and they headed to the station, walking briskly in the chill December air. “There's something I've been meaning to ask you, Jeff.”

      He stiffened, faltering a step, covering it quickly “Shoot.”

      She forced a merry expression and teased, “Don't panic, it's not a proposal. Just a special occasion that I'd like you to share with me. My best friends are coming back to town next week and they always give a Christmas party at The Apple’s Eye—you know, the restaurant in Midtown near Rockefeller Center? Charis reminded me about it when she called last night. It would mean renting a tux. Although I know you'd look smashing in one, you might not want to, but—”

      “You're babbling again, Gilly,” he replied, interrupting her with a swift kiss on the cheek. “When is this stellar event?”

      “On Tuesday, seven in the evening.”

      There was a hesitancy in her voice that puzzled him. Hell, she was right. He'd had enough of society events and monkey suits to last him a lifetime...especially monkey suits. But for Gilly he'd do it. “It's a date, kiddo. I just might be able to find an old tux buried somewhere in the back of my closet.”

      “Along with your sweaty gym shoes and that awful Kelly green sweater?” Karl had taken to doing a lot of studying at the law library on campus the past few days. She suspected Jeff had asked him to allow them a bit of privacy—and Jeff had finally brought her to his apartment, which was really not as dreadful as he described.

      “That's my lucky sweater.”

      “Why? You weren't wearing it the day you ran into me.”

      “Conceited woman,” he groused, but before he could say anything more, Gilly gasped sharply. He, too, could hear the sudden screech of a dog in pain. It was coming from across the street, where a squat, muscular man was thrashing a Rottweiler with the handle of the dog's leash. The cracking of leather striking the dog's snout and legs made Jeff wince. Gilly started across the street with fire in her eyes; but before she could get two steps off the curb, he was beside her.

      “Let me handle this.” She did not protest, but neither did she stop following as he darted between cars to the other side. Jeff sprinted toward the guy flailing the hapless animal, a half-grown pup who cowered against the pavement. His tormentor now stood spread-legged over the Rottie, ignoring the hard looks he received from a number of passersby.

      “You stupid, worthless piece of crap! Trip me one more time 'n I'll kick yer brains in!” He started to raise the leash again, cursing loudly as he did it. He did not hear Jeff approach but was vividly aware the instant Jeff reached between his spread legs from behind and grabbed the front of his jacket, jerking it down roughly with one hand as he yanked the man's collar back with the other. Since the most delicate portion of his anatomy was now squeezed by his own coat and Jeff's fist, the abuser was forced to stand on tippy-toes, gasping for breath.

      “What the f—”

      “Is this your dog, you bastard?”

      Gilly had never heard Jeff sound so street hard—a far cry from a scholar from Scarsdale. She paused on the curb, then reached out to grab the pup's leash when the thug dropped it. The poor beast was trying to crawl away. Gilly crouched to gather it in her arms, crooning to it as she listened for the reply to Jeff's question.

      The man shook his head as best he could, bleating out, “N-no, I'm...hired...to walk it.”

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