Working My Way Back to You by Lauren Kinney

Ryan Russo woke up to an empty bottle of wine sitting on the nightstand. The girl with no-name-he-could-remember was gone. Another party. Another one-night stand. Another woman he’d never see again. He swept his hands through his unruly hair and hoped Miss X locked the door on her way out.
Working My Way Back to You
Working My Way Back to You by Lauren Kinney
Wearing only his jockey shorts, Ryan cautiously slid from beneath the comforter. He felt woozy when he sat up. His stomach churned, and his temples throbbed. A pounding headache flamed behind his eyeballs like torches. He cursed his lapse of judgment once again. At thirty-four, he was not up to being the life of the party the way he had been a few years ago. Maybe, if he closed his eyes, he could go back to sleep. But, sleep eluded him. Ryan got out of bed, making sure to keep his head upright, and bent down to feel around for his jeans. When the denim slipped up and over his legs, the material reeked of stale cigarette smoke. His mouth was dry, and he was dying of thirst. “Gatorade. Aspirin,” he mumbled. Downstairs at the fridge, Ryan poured a glass of the light green liquid, drank it and hoped it stayed put in his queasy stomach. He rummaged around in a kitchen drawer and found a bottle of Tylenol, swallowed four capsules, and gulped more Gatorade. The remote for the TV lay on the counter. Ryan picked it up and hit the power button. An attractive young Asian woman in a navy blue sheath beamed at him. “Chicago is a winter wonderland. We could get four to six inches of snow today. The weather doesn’t seem to be a problem for holiday shoppers searching for last minute bargains. Christmas Eve is tomorrow!” “Great. Don’t remind me.” Ryan hadn’t purchased a single present. Not for his business partner, his assistant, his mother, his sister or his two nephews. He’d have to suck up the nausea, shower, ditch his smelly jeans, and leave the warmth of his condo to shop. The clock was ticking. Christmas Eve dinner was at his mother’s house tomorrow night at six. Ryan climbed the stairs from the kitchen back to his bedroom. With every step, his head hurt and his stomach gurgled. “Crap,” he chastised himself for his procrastination. “Crap.” When he reached the Mecca of consumer madness, he found a parking space in a garage blocks away from his destination. The parking rates downtown always pissed him off. Not to mention trudging through a freezing blizzard to surrender his credit card in exchange for a peaceful Christmas Eve. If he tried to beg off like last year, his mother would give him the stink eye and a lecture to blister his ear. Ryan rounded the corner to State Street and headed for Macy’s department store. A blast of raw winter wind blowing in from Lake Michigan nearly knocked him off his feet. He tucked his chin deep into his leather jacket and turned up the collar. His mood didn’t improve as he was herded into the store with the rest of the Christmas cattle. The air was overheated. Ryan unzipped his leather jacket. Holiday cheer was rampant with shoppers high on last minute bargains. A rake thin blonde with giant fake boobs impeded his path. She wore a Santa hat and enough perfume to make his stomach lurch. “Hi,” she winked and extended a bottle of cologne. “You look like a North Woods kind of guy.” Before Ryan could maneuver his way past her, she aimed at a card, overshot her mark, and sprayed the side of his face. The pungent smell of pine filled his nostrils, and Ryan’s gag reflex kicked into overdrive. He pushed past Santa’s helper and fought his way to the men’s room where he splashed his face with cold water, washed his hands with dispenser soap, and dried off with a paper towel. In a worse mood than when he arrived, Ryan decided to buy the gifts he’d come for and get the hell out of Christmas purgatory. He stopped to get his bearings and collided with a woman jostling shopping bags and pulling two tots alongside her. “Jerk,” she hissed. “Watch where you’re going.” “Merry Christmas to you, too.” Ryan bowed and stepped aside to allow the woman to shove past him. When he raised his eyes, he thought they were playing tricks. Ryan took a second look at the woman standing at the jewelry counter. Lexi Carpenter, the woman he let walk away from him five years ago was not a figment of his imagination. She was a vision. Ryan was rooted to the spot where he stood. All he wanted to do was look at her. Chestnut colored hair cascaded to her shoulders. She wore the same peach lipstick on the lips he’d dreamed of kissing one more time. He swore he could taste her kiss and feel her in his arms. Ryan gathered his resolve, put one foot in front of the other, and started walking. Her coat had slipped from the counter to the floor unnoticed, so he picked it up. "Lexi?" When her green eyes met his, he saw a mixture of surprise and recognition. "Ryan?" “You dropped this.” She took the outstretched coat from his hands. Was she happy to see him? He couldn’t read her expression. “You look great.” She still made him weak in the knees. He felt an impulse to reach out for her, but his hands remained fixed at his side. “What are you doing here? In Chicago, I mean." “I moved back a year ago,” she said. A whole year and not one word. But, why would she want to see him? They broke up, and she moved on with her life. “I’d love to talk to you. How about a cup of coffee?” Ryan didn’t think she’d agree, but he was going to give the invitation a shot. Looking at her now, he wondered why he couldn’t commit. His life might be different if he had. “I can’t. I’m meeting Howard for lunch.” “Howard?” An unexpected pang of jealousy stabbed Ryan in the heart. Did he think she’d be unattached? She’d fall into his arms, and they’d pick up where they left off? “My boyfriend. He’s a news reporter at WCHO. You’ve probably seen him. Howard Cross?” “I can’t say I have.” Ryan didn’t know who the guy was, and he didn’t care to make his acquaintance. “I have to run.” Not to his surprise, Lexi was blowing him off. She checked an expensive watch on her wrist. A present from the boyfriend? How could he get her number? He was going to make damn sure she had his. Digging inside the pocket of his jacket, he found a business card. “Since you’re back, maybe we could get together sometime.” He offered the blue and white card and watched her face as she read the typeface. His life had changed, too. “Kool Kat Records?” “The label is mine.” "You own a company?" “I have a partner,” Ryan said. “But, yes, I own the company.” “I thought you never wanted to be tied down to anyone or anything.” Ryan mustered a confident smile. Lexi wasn’t being mean. She was stating a fact. When they were together, he was a self-proclaimed free spirit, a session musician with sporadic employment. “We’re an independent, but we do okay. I found my niche.” For some time now, he’d fallen into the bad habit of leaving work early Friday afternoon and partying aimlessly until he came to his senses on Sunday afternoon. Why was he trying to make Lexi believe he was solid and dependable? Because I’m not happy. The thought was not a new one, and Ryan quickly filed it away. “That’s great.” She checked her watch again. “I’m sorry, Ryan. I have to go. I’ll be late meeting Howard.” Again with Howard. “The offer for coffee stands. Anytime you say.” Ryan hoped he didn’t sound as anxious as he felt. He’d take any sign of encouragement, but he didn’t see anything in her expression to give him hope. “It was good to see you again. But…” “You have to go. Maybe I’ll see you around.” Lexi smiled politely, and Ryan knew she’d never call. And he wanted her to call. Yuletide shoppers faded into the background. Ryan focused on the woman striding away from him. If he put his mind to winning her back, could he make her forget Howard Cross and remember what they had together? Then the obvious occurred to him. He had no way to contact her. She had his business card. He had nothing. “Duh!” He thumped his forehead with the heel of his hand. She was already out of sight and lost in the crowd. “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.” He wanted to go after her, try to find her, but he knew she was gone. Why did fate allow him to run into her? He could only hope he’d stirred up some past memories, the good ones. Maybe she would call him. More than likely, she wouldn’t. If it was possible, he had to stop thinking about Lexi. He made one last searching glance, turned, and headed for the escalator. “Howard Cross,” he mused. “I gotta get a look at this guy.” Chapter 2 Lexi felt decidedly uneasy. In a city of two million people, she never expected to run into Ryan Russo. The effect he had upon her was disturbing. When she came face to face with him, she’d felt giddy, like coming off a carnival ride. Ryan was painfully hot. A zap of electricity shot through her when she turned at the sound of her name to stare straight into his beguiling brown eyes. When she moved back to Chicago with Howard, she knew where to look if she wanted to find Ryan. And that’s exactly where she didn’t go. Handsome in a rugged way with broad shoulders and a compact muscular body, no guy could fill out a pair of jeans the way he did. Ryan’s Italian heritage shown in his hooded thick lashed almond eyes. His hair was wavy, mid-length to his neck, and his full sultry lips were exactly as she remembered them. A stray curl of dark brown hair had rested on his forehead. Lexi restrained her hand from brushing the errant lock back into place. “You and Ryan are over,” she said under her breath. They had been over for five years, but she’d never forgotten him. “Ryan Russo is a commitment phobe. We broke up because we had no future. Howard is my future.” Had Ryan finally grown up? He owned a record label. Hard to believe the man she knew had settled down. The fun loving trumpet player who moved in and out of gigs, who loved to go to clubs and jam all night was an entrepreneur. Unreal. “Oh, my gosh! He’s history. It was a chance meeting and nothing more. And stop talking to yourself!” Ryan was then. Howard Cross was now. Lexi had met her boyfriend on a return trip from his vacation in the Keys. Howard was a television reporter for WTVW in Evansville, Indiana. Ambitious, attractive, sandy haired, blue eyed, and six foot two, he was easy to talk to, and she enjoyed his company. Lexi had been a flight attendant who made it a point to steer clear of male passengers who asked her for a date. Howard had been different. He had plans, goals and dreams, and he made her laugh. During the flight, he entertained Lexi with stories about his job. He was interested in her career plans and encouraged her when she told him she wanted to give up the airlines to become an interior designer. He said he wouldn’t get off the plane until she gave him her number. They had been together for almost two years. Howard wasn’t perfect, but no man was. Sometimes he could be self-absorbed. When they moved to Chicago, his job consumed him, and his head seemed to swell with his newfound fame. When they lived in Evansville, Lexi quit her job and started working on a degree in interior design. She and Howard had time for walks in the park, movies and plays, eating out, and browsing antique shops for eclectic furniture. The demands on his time in a large market like Chicago were never-ending. And everywhere they went people recognized the reporter and fawned over him, commenting he resembled a young Brad Pitt. He did, sort of. In Chicago, Lexi got a job at Gilson’s Furniture and continued taking design classes. Howard was her biggest supporter. They loved each other, and she knew he’d be a good husband and father. When the time was right, she and Howard would get married. Lexi had come to accept that Howard was a planner, and he wouldn’t deviate from any of his plans. She needed to be patient. Everything was going to work out. Howard was the polar opposite of Ryan Russo, and until today, Lexi would have bet the farm Ryan was drifting along the same way he had been five years ago. The walk to the restaurant took ten minutes. When she stepped inside, Lexi shook off the fierce wind blasting in from the lake. Howard was waiting for her in the alcove. He greeted her, a smile of affection on his face. “Hi, Babe. I thought you’d already be here.” He kissed her cheek and placed his arm around her waist. She wished he wouldn’t call her Babe and had mentioned her dislike a few times, but the fault was a small one. Every couple had pet names for each other. “The walk from Macy’s took longer than I expected. I’m freezing.” “You’re here now. At least you got a day off, and we can have lunch together.” “Only because I’ll work extra hours during the January sale,” Lexi sighed. The job at Gilson’s was an end-to-a-means. She hoped working as a sales assistant would help build a clientele and give her much-needed experience to compliment her degree. A hostess guided the couple to a table. Lexi and Howard passed a booth where the flicker of recognition crossed two young women’s faces. The pair giggled and put their heads together in a female pow-wow. Never failing to zero in on someone who recognized him, Howard flashed his “Yes, it’s me.” smile. More giggles erupted. When they reached their table, Howard helped Lexi remove her coat. The waitress arrived. Howard ordered a glass of chardonnay for her, black coffee for himself and two chicken Caesar salads. Lexi appreciated her boyfriend knew her preferences, but sometimes she felt his gestures bordered a bit on the controlling side. “Lost your gloves again?” Howard placed his hand over hers. “We can’t have you coming down with a cold before Christmas.” “I’m terrible with gloves. No matter how many pair I have at the start of winter, I never end up with a matching set by spring.” “I know. You’re always buying dollar store knit gloves,” Howard chuckled. “So, changing the subject, what did you get me for Christmas?” Lexi feigned impatience. “I’m not going to tell you.” “Your gifts are wrapped,” Howard countered. “I think you’ll like everything you’re getting.” “I can’t wait to see what you got me.” Lexi had memorized Howard’s career plan v. the plan for their future. She couldn’t help but wish one of her gifts was a diamond ring. At thirty, she’d been in too many weddings to count and watched with longing as her friends started families. Her sister had twin boys, and her mother once joked, “Lexi, your eggs are getting old.” Howard’s career plan was to make good at his current job and catch the attention of the network. He never doubted a job offer would come his way. When the call came, they’d put their condo up for sale, move to a better one in New York, and set a wedding date. They both wanted children soon after they got married. The plan made sense in Lexi’s head, but not in her heart. Maybe her ideas weren’t modern, but she wanted to belong to Howard and start their future together as a married couple. She caught site of one of the young women they’d passed on their way in. The blonde, prodded by her girlfriend, got up. Hips swaying, she sashayed straight to their table. “You’re Howard Cross, aren’t you?” She asked in a whispery voice. “Guilty,” he said. Blondie flipped her hair from her shoulders, smiled expansively, and extended a pen and a napkin to Howard. “Wow! You’re the best. I never miss one of your reports. Has anyone told you that you look like Brad Pitt?” “The resemblance has been mentioned.” Lexi felt chagrined, but rationalized Howard couldn’t help the fact he was handsome and worked in a high visibility job. He returned the napkin and the pen. “I’m Kate Kendall, your biggest fan.” “I’m afraid I have biggest fan covered. I’m Lexi Carpenter, Howard’s girlfriend.” “Oh, hi.” Kate eyed Howard like a big juicy steak. “I’m thrilled I got to meet you. I hope you never leave Chicago.” “Thank you,” Howard said. “Keep watching.” “I will. I will.” She gave him a wink and shimmied back to her table. “I’ll never get used to being recognized,” Howard sighed. Lexi was accustomed to women wanting to bask in the reporter’s spotlight. Sometimes it was annoying, but he’d never given her a reason to doubt his faithfulness. A few minutes later, their salads arrived. “Lex.” Howard leaned in and spoke in a hushed voice. “There’s a possibility something big is gonna happen with my job.” “Have you heard from the network?” “No, not yet.” Howard glanced around the restaurant like a covert CIA agent scanning for operatives. “I might be going to the Middle-East.” “The Middle East? Why would you go there?” “Shh! Keep your voice down. There’s a big push to hunt down terrorists and squash them like a bug.” Howard burrowed his thumb into the table to demonstrate killing an imaginary insect. “What’s finding terrorists got to do with you?” “Duh! Lexi! I’m a reporter. I overheard Jackson and Stacey talking about me, but nothing’s certain.” Now Lexi knew why Howard spent so much time after work with Jackson Pond, the news director, and Stacey Bridges, the general manager of WCHO. They had been working on an assignment for Howard. “But, why do you have to go?” “Thanks for being excited for me,” Howard complained. Not wanting to dampen her boyfriend’s enthusiasm with her fears, Lexi assured him. “I have total faith in you, Howard. You’re an awesome reporter, but you can’t get mad at me because I’m worried about your safety. You’re talking about Afghanistan, right?” “The locale hasn’t been determined, yet. Cool your jets. I don’t know anything for sure.” Roadside bombs, kidnappings, beheadings, and terrorist attacks were apparently not enough to deter Howard. The neon lights of the Big Apple were too alluring.” “Lex, I’m looking at a huge deal here. If I work my ass off, I’ll be on my way. Sending me to report on an important operation is a surefire way to get the network’s attention.” The ultimate prize. New York. ABC, NBC, CBS. Lexi supported Howard’s career, but she never dreamed at this point he’d be sent to an unstable part of the world. “I know how much getting to the top means to you, but you could be taken hostage or worse.” Howard solemnly raised three fingers in a boy-scout-type pledge. “Babe, I promise on my honor to come back in one piece, not one hair on my head out of place. I’ll be with the Marines. What could be safer?” Lexi wasn’t worried about his hundred dollar haircut. “How long will you be gone?” “We’re not talking about a sure thing.” Howard pointed to her deserted salad. “In the meantime, let’s eat lunch. We’re meeting Judy and Steve at The Back Porch tonight.” “The House of Blues?” Ryan was a professional musician. The Back Porch was the sort of place he’d haunt. Howard didn’t notice her pre-occupation. He was still talking when she tuned him back in. “Steve’s suggestion. We’ve never been. We’ll have fun.” He stroked his thumb over the back of her hand and winked suggestively. “After lunch I thought we’d go home and catch up. We’ve been running in different directions lately, and I can spare an afternoon.” Translation: We’ll go home and have sex. She enjoyed being with Howard, a satisfying lover, but seduction wasn’t on her mind. Visions of his face on the ten o’clock news lost in the hot sands of the desert repeated like a loop in her brain. “You won’t accept an assignment without talking to me first, right?” “Come on,” Howard groaned. “You’re killin’ me. Let’s drop the subject before you spoil the mood.” “Fine.” Lexi signaled the waitress. “Another glass of chardonnay, please.” Maybe Jackson Pond’s and Stacey Bridges’ big plans would fizzle. A battalion of Marines couldn’t protect Howard if the opportunity arose for him to make a name for himself. And if Lexi knew one thing about her boyfriend, he would somehow, someway, do exactly that. Chapter 3 “The Prodigal Son returns.” Ryan entered the office carrying two shopping bags with a package under his arm. His assistant, Cass Walker, was seated at her desk. “Good to see you, too,” he laughed. His faithful underpaid admin gave him a nod. From inside one of the bags, Ryan dug out a black velvet box tied with a red ribbon. “Happy Holidays, Cass, and Season’s Greetings.” “You sweet talker, you.” She looked pleased and took the offered gift. “Should I open your present now?” “You wouldn’t deny me a look of total adoration when you see what’s inside, would you?” Cass slid off the bow. Her expression softened, and her hand flew to her mouth when she opened the box. “Oh, my.” “I remember when your mother passed away you said you wanted her pearls. Instead, you gave the necklace to your sister. These can’t compare, but I thought of you when I saw them.” Tears welled in Cass’ warm brown eyes. She brushed them away before they could roll onto her cheeks. “I don’t know what to say. I’m touched.” He watched as she removed the single strand from the box and held the pearls up to the light. She slipped the necklace on and beamed at him. A large bronze-skinned woman in her fifties, hair cut short in a no-nonsense style with glasses resting on her wise face, Ryan thought of Cass Walker like his second mother. She could get away with dressing him down like no one else. He was happy he could do something special for her. “Tell Rolle to take you to your favorite restaurant. I’ll pick up the tab, and you can wear your pearls.” “Are you for real?” “Like I said. Merry Christmas.” “Well, I’m not gonna argue with you that’s for sure. Thank you.” She rose from her chair, came around her desk, and gave Ryan a big hug. “Where’s Dave?” Ryan moved on to his office with Cass right behind him. “He won’t be back until after Christmas.” “Oh, okay. What have I missed?” He asked as he leafed through a stack of mail. “We signed DeRoe. You remember the blues CD you re-mastered? Dave said the album is gonna make money.” “Is he pissed I haven’t been in?” “You think?” Cass snorted. “Guess I can’t blame him. Send Dave and Bett a gift basket. Large and expensive.” “Uh huh, Mr. Big Bucks. Why you bein’ so generous? Did you win the lottery?” “I wish. Could I see Edgar’s contract?” Ryan sat down at his desk. “DeRoe,” Cass corrected. “If you call him Edgar, he’ll deck you.” “You might be right,” Ryan chuckled. Dave McAfee, his partner, had brought Edgar DeRoe to the label. Dave didn’t normally deal with artists. He pitched the rapper to Ryan. “We need to branch out, and the label needs more diversity.” Rap wasn’t to Ryan’s musical taste, but he agreed DeRoe would help expand the label’s offerings. Cass peered over her glasses. “What’s goin’ on with you? You bounced in here all full of Christmas cheer, and now you look rode hard and put up wet.” “I can’t answer your question under current sexual harassment laws,” Ryan deadpanned. “Like anyone would believe you could harass me, sexual or otherwise. Don’t tell me you can’t get laid. You got more women on a string than those pearls you gave me.” “Maybe getting laid is my problem.” Ryan looked up at his assistant and couldn’t believe what he had admitted. “I ran into someone I haven’t seen in a long time. I can’t stop thinking about her.” “I didn’t know there ever was a someone in your life.” She sat down across from him. “Before your time,” Ryan said. “Do you believe in second chances, Cass?” “Depends.” “Upon what?” “What you did to make her leave.” “Wouldn’t commit. She moved out and moved on.” “Ah hah,” Cass said. “Now you sound like the Ryan Russo I know. Women with you have always been the flavor of the month.” “She was different.” “I like you, Ryan, but let me tell you something for your own good. You know I have two boys. One is an alley cat and the other is a dedicated family man. I don’t know why one is content and the other is always on the prowl. I love them both, but I do know one thing.” “I’ll bite.” “The alley cat isn’t happy, and he never will be. Don’t confuse love and lust. They are two very different feelings. Lust isn’t satisfying after a while. Lust wears out and wears off. Love fills the soul.” “I’m an alley cat who doesn’t know the difference between love and lust?” Ryan asked amused. Cass stood up and peered down at him. “Maybe. Only you know which one you are. I got work to do.” Ryan watched his assistant walk away. He thought about what she’d said. There had never been any doubt he loved Lexi. Lust was in the mix, but his feelings went deeper than a physical attraction. Before her, his previous relationships hadn’t lasted long. He never felt restless, never strayed when he and Lexi were together. There was an indefinable connection between them. “Why are relationships so complicated?” Easy boy! No need to get worked up over Lexi Carpenter. You’ll never see her again. She’s with some jerk named Howard. The thought of his former girlfriend in the arms of another man gutted his insides. Cass came back with DeRoe’s contract in hand. Ryan thanked her, mostly for the distraction, and concentrated on the legal jargon. Pretty standard stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary. If DeRoe started charting, he’d be no different from every artist Ryan had ever run across. I’m the talent. I want a bigger percentage of the profit, or when my contract is up, I’m walking. Restless, Ryan was ready to leave at four fifteen p.m. He shut down his laptop, scooted his chair back, stood up, and grabbed his jacket. “Cass, have a great holiday,” Ryan said when he passed her desk. “I’ll see you after the New Year. Knock off early, and don’t come in on Christmas Eve.” “You don’t have to tell me twice. When exactly after the New Year do you plan to be in?” “I may surprise you and show up like a regular working stiff on the second.” “Uh huh,” she said and returned to her keyboard. “I love you too, Cass.” “You take care of yourself, and thank you for the necklace. I really do love it.” “You’re welcome. Merry Christmas, again.” “You, too, Santa Claus.” On the drive to his condo, huge snowflakes floated down adding to the foot already on the ground. The late gray winter afternoon was giving way to dark as Ryan guided his car into the building garage. He planned to pop open a beer, land on the sofa, order pizza, and search for sports of any kind on ESPN. No one was around the parking garage area. A feeling of emptiness pervaded. Ryan headed for the elevator armed with Christmas bounty. Four floors later, he emerged, turned to his left, and started down the familiar hallway. To his surprise, a woman sat on the floor propped against his door. And what a woman! Shiny black hair cascaded down her back. Inch long manicured nails gripped her knees which she had pulled to her chest. When she looked up at him, her eyes were a piercing blue, and her lips were lacquered patent leather red. The first thought to enter Ryan’s head was, Whoa! And his second thought was, “Do I know you?” which he voiced aloud. “Ryan.” The woman addressed him in French accented English. Obviously, she knew him. She got to her feet and stretched her arms out for an embrace. “Sillee, you know me. No?” “Ah,” Ryan hesitated. “Yvette from zee partee.” The girl with no-name-he-could-remember when he woke up this morning! “Was I expecting you?” “No. I come back. Ahh, we go inside. Not here to talk.” Keys in hand, Ryan opened the door for his unexpected visitor so she could enter the condo. The aftermath of the party came back to him, the drive home, bedding the leggy brunette, and the copious amounts of wine they had consumed. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember what happened next. Ryan closed the door. Yvette took off her jacket and tossed it on a chair. She walked over to him and ran her hands slowly up and down his arms. “Last night. You. Me.” Yvette gestured with her finger back and forth between them. A disappointed look on her face, she nodded her head in the negative. Catlike, she started to rub up against his groin. Now he remembered! Nothing happened because he passed out the minute his head hit the pillow. His machismo and his manhood challenged, Ryan quickly rose to the occasion. “I come back to you. You are sexzee,” Yvette cooed. Ryan liked the way she said sexy drawing out the y with an e. How lucky could he get? A beautiful woman waiting on his doorstep, hot and enticing, ready to lure him into bed. Cass’ voice popped into his head. Flavor of the month. Lust or love? Yvette was lust pure and simple. The image of Lexi, like a gossamer ghost, floated across his mind. A question unfamiliar to Ryan shot through his hormone fueled brain. Should he do what his body was urging him to do? Hadn’t he tried to convince himself all afternoon he could win Lexi back? Turn over a new leaf and become a different man? But Lexi wasn’t here. She was with her reporter. Sex was sex. A biological need. Yvette, heating up in his arms, had nothing to do with Lexi. Tonight wasn’t New Year’s Eve, and he didn’t feel like making resolutions. Ryan decided to seize the day and go with the flow. He blotted out the image of Lexi in Howard’s arms by taking Yvette into his. Chapter 4 After lunch, Howard and Lexi caught a cab back to their condo. The steady snowfall made the dingy interior seem cozy and inviting. Lexi put her arm through Howard’s and leaned her head against his shoulder anticipating the afternoon ahead. Until Howard’s mobile went off and changed everything. From his end of the conversation, Lexi knew his assignment editor was on the other end of the call. “Babe,” Howard addressed her after he hung up. “I’ll drop you at home, and then I have to go.” Lexi watched her boyfriend morph into Howard Cross, Super Reporter, anxious to speed to whatever had exploded, imploded or burned down. “Jet skidded off the runway at Executive Airport. Nose gear collapsed,” he explained excitedly. “I’m meeting the live truck.” “How long do you think you’ll be?” Howard gave her his standard reply. “Don’t know. Sorry, Babe.” “I understand.” She knew how important his job was to him. He was a big-city reporter now. On the flip side, ruined plans were starting to mount up; her birthday party, a cancelled weekend get-away, a no-show for a Chicago Blackhawks game, and now a languorous afternoon by the fireplace, and this evening’s dinner with Judy and Steve. When news happened, all bets were off. Howard was on call twenty-four-seven, and he was always dashing off somewhere. Jackson Pond and Howard’s femme fatale of a General Manager pushed plum assignments his way. When the cab stopped in front of their building, Howard leaned in for the kiss-off. “I won’t make dinner. I’ll call as soon as I can. Love you, Lex.” “I love you, too. I’ll call Judy, and I’ll wait up.” Lexi got out of the cab knowing Howard wouldn’t have time to call her. Massive quarter sized flakes fell onto the shoulders of her coat. Visions of a bottle of wine in front of the fireplace and her boyfriend’s undivided attention vanished into the snowstorm. On her way up to the condo in the elevator, she stuck her gloveless hands in her coat pockets to warm them. Her fingers brushed against Ryan’s business card. Lexi pulled it out and looked at it once again. She was a little unnerved when she realized his business address wasn’t far from Gilson’s. “Ryan Russo, Executive Producer and A & R.” She and Ryan were over. There was no need to keep his card. In the fading light of the afternoon, she let herself into the condo and flipped the switch at the door. The Christmas tree standing in the corner lit up. It would have been nice to snuggle with Howard and sip wine in front of the fireplace in their holiday decorated condo. Lexi shrugged off her coat and threw it on the back of the chair. She sank into its oversized cushions and faced the windows. Her thoughts grew melancholy, and her mind drifted back to the first time she met Ryan Russo. Seven years ago, Lexi was working at Stellar Records, a small operation in a run-down brick building miles from the heart of the city. Not the best job, but the paycheck covered the rent. She was waiting to hear about the flight attendant job she hoped was her ticket to a better future. From her desk’s vantage point, a man got out of a red mustang convertible and slung a case over his shoulder. A horn. She got the impression he was a little too sure of himself. Dark wavy brown hair rested at the nape of his neck. The musician was dressed in a black turtleneck, faded jeans, a bomber jacket and boots. Taking the steps two at a time with a palpable burst of energy, he entered the small lobby and landed in front of Lexi’s desk. “Hi. Are you one of the musicians for Haley Blackwell?” “Yeah, I’m Ryan Russo. I’m supposed to meet Haley’s producer here.” His grin was expansive. One of his dark eyebrows raised in a questioning crook. Lexi pointed to the door behind her desk. “Sam, Haley’s producer, is already here.” The musician with the sexy stride stood at her counter slightly longer than necessary. “Through the door,” she directed. “Turn right. You can’t miss the studio.” Ryan Russo’s deep-set eyes were magnetic, his expression mischievous. When he walked away and fumbled for the doorknob, it was because his eyes never left hers. After the recording session, he returned to Lexi’s desk. The other musicians straggled out to the parking lot. Haley Blackwell invited Ryan for a drink, but he declined. When she and the band were gone, Ryan asked Lexi if she’d have coffee with him. “No, thanks.” She begged off and starting packing up for the day. “I don’t bite.” His infectious grin and the twinkle in his sun-flecked brown eyes made her reconsider. “Okay,” she relented, “but I have somewhere I have to be at six-thirty.” They walked a block from Stellar to a coffee house. Lexi ordered decaf and dumped spoons full of sugar and a packaged creamer into the steaming liquid. Ryan ordered his coffee black. “How long have you been at Stellar?” “Six months, but I don’t think the job’s going to last much longer,” she answered, averting his heated gaze. “How’s that?” “Stellar’s in real trouble.” “I’m not surprised, but too bad.” Ryan lifted his cup and took a long swallow. “Do you live in Chicago, or are you passing through?” Lexi had fended off a number of musical gypsies at Stellar. She didn’t expect Ryan Russo to be any different. “Chicago born and bred.” Lexi made herself comfortable and waited for the pitch she knew was coming. Ryan delivered. “You are stunning. Are you with anyone? I’m hoping not.” His words raced toward her with the speed of a verbal fastball, and Lexi let them sail past her. She reached into her handbag, found a dollar for the tip, and laid the bill on the table. “I’m out of here. Thanks for the coffee.” Ryan threw his arm out to block her retreat. “I’m sorry.” He looked up at her. “I made a really bad half-assed first impression.” “Really bad and really half-assed,” Lexi assured him. “Please. Don’t go. Give me a do-over?” Lexi sat back down wondering why she should give him another chance. “What I wanted to say was I’d like to get to know you.” Ryan folded his hands around his coffee cup. “You are beautiful, but I have a feeling there’s a lot more to you than meets the eye. Grant me some grace? Maybe, just a little.” Those deep brown pools implored her and dragged her into their depths. She should listen to her misgivings, but Ryan had an indefinable quality about him. Or maybe she was still sitting there because of her attraction to him pure and simple. “Okay, but you’ve got your one and only second chance.” A smile flashed across his face. He crossed his heart. “I won’t blow it.” Their first encounter led to a heart-stopping three year relationship. Ryan Russo was an exciting man, and he completely captivated Lexi. In hindsight, their break-up seemed inevitable. “Ryan, do you ever think about marriage?” Lexi asked when they’d been together three years. “I guess, sometimes.” Not the answer she had hoped to hear, not to mention the lack of enthusiasm he displayed. Lexi knew why Ryan was uncomfortable with the subject. His dad walked out on his mother and left her with two young children. His father was absent from his life. Ryan had no idea where he was. He and Lexi discussed marriage only in the vaguest of terms. He often told her he loved her. Lexi never doubted he did, but his attitude toward their relationship was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” “I mean about you and me getting married.” Ryan tried to dodge the issue. “I wouldn’t want to marry anyone else.” Lexi allowed the subject to drop. She didn’t want to pressure Ryan into marrying her, and she didn’t want to give him an ultimatum. Another couple of months passed, and Lexi felt Ryan growing distant. Not helping matters, it seemed every other weekend they attended a friend’s wedding. Ryan was in two nuptials two weekends in a row. Lexi broached the subject again on the drive back to the city from one of the weddings. “Ryan, I feel like you’ve been backing away from me ever since I brought up the subject of marriage. I’m not trying to get you to do something you don’t want to do, but I think we should clear the air.” “I’m not backing away from you. Everything’s fine.” “You seem to be somewhere else lately.” “You’re imagining things,” he answered light-heartedly. “Look, you know I’m a free spirit, right?” “And what does that mean for us?” “You’re twenty-five. I’m twenty-nine. We’ve got years to think about what we want. We’re good together just the way we are.” They fell into an uneasy silence the rest of the drive home. Ryan turned up the radio, a barrier of sound, a wall of insulation between them. Did she want to marry him? He was right when he described himself. No real ties, except to his mother and his sister, and her, she hoped. A session musician like Ryan seldom had secure employment. She doubted he thought much about the future, preferring to take things one day at a time. Ryan slept soundly that night, but Lexi lay awake. She came to terms with the fact she wasn’t a free spirit. She wanted a home and a family, and she wanted Ryan. Her heart broke when she looked over at him. She loved him. No doubt she’d happily spend her life with an itinerant musician, but she needed a commitment. Ryan couldn’t give her one, not now, maybe not ever. Lexi threw back the covers and went into the bathroom. She didn’t want Ryan to wake up and hear her crying. Their relationship continued to deteriorate. Both knew they were going through the day-to-day motions and avoiding the real issue. It was Ryan who suggested, “Maybe we should take some time apart.” “And see other people?” Lexi filled in the last of his thoughts. “We sort of want different things.” “Oh, Ryan,” Lexi’s voice quivered with sadness, tears formed in her eyes. “All I want is you, but…” He took her hands into his. The eyes she loved to look into were downcast. “I know,” he whispered and leaned his forehead against hers. “But I can’t give you what you want, not right now.” There were no fireworks; no angry words hurled back and forth, no accusations, only loss, pain, and heartbreak. Lexi moved out hoping new surroundings would help put Ryan behind her. Starting over without the man she loved took time, a lot of time. Lexi lost a part of herself when they split up. There was no reconciliation. They were over. Now by chance, they’d met again. Lexi still held Ryan’s business card in her hand. Misty-eyed, she wiped the tears away with her fingers and dropped the white card stock into the wastebasket. “The past is better left in the past.” She shouldn’t have dredged up all those old memories. Her life was good. Sometimes Howard’s job got on her nerves, but she knew what he did when she met him. She had a future, and it was bright. When Howard came home in the wee hours of the morning, Lexi was waiting for him. Together they watched the recording she’d made of his news report. A nervous passenger relayed the incident. Howard stood at his side, microphone leaning in, listening intently. “I felt the plane skidding, and it shook violently. There was a really loud scraping sound, like the plane was coming apart. I thought we were finished. We were lucky, real lucky.” A prominent New Jersey business man suffered a heart attack when the private jet skidded off the icy runway after the front landing gear crumpled. Bumps, bruises, and fear of certain death made a riveting saga. Howard was in his element. People opened up to him, a distinct advantage for a reporter. “I’m proud of you,” Lexi said. Howard put his arm around her shoulders, kissed the top of her head, and pressed the remote button to speed back to the beginning of the report. Lexi settled against his chest and fell fast asleep. Chapter 5 Christmas Eve began at eleven AM when Ryan, warm and comfortable under the down comforter, slowly opened his eyes. He rolled over expecting to find Yvette, but her side of the bed was empty. Ryan sat up straight. Where was she? He would never admit sex could be exhausting, but after the third time, he begged off, wrapped his arms around Yvette, and fell into a coma. “Yvette?” he called out. “Yvette?” He threw back the covers. The room was freezing because the window was wide open. Ryan shivered and wrestled the blanket off the bed. He wrapped himself up, went over to the window and slammed it shut. The sun was shining, and the snow had stopped. He walked through the condo looking for Yvette. She was gone. Her disappearing act made him feel, “Used,” he said aloud. Why should he feel used? Alley cat. Sounded Cass’ accusation. “Arrrgh!” he sighed in frustration. Sex was a basic need, nothing more, nothing less; unless you’re in love like he had been with Lexi. Did he want to see Yvette again? She’d given him no way to contact her. No strings attached. No emotional involvement. Yvette was every man’s dream, wasn’t she? With the blanket he’d grabbed draped around his shoulders, he made coffee in the kitchen, drank a cup, and headed for the shower. At least he’d have no trouble arriving at his mom’s for Christmas Eve at the designated six o’clock hour. *** “You’re my boys’ favorite uncle today.” Cindy Bennett laid a hand on her brother’s shoulder. “A Play Station was high on their list.” “What kid wouldn’t want a Play Station?” “You are coming to the house tomorrow, right?” “Ah, Sis, I don’t know. I’m not good at holiday stuff.” “You begged off last Christmas. You spend too much time alone. Aunt Dorothy is coming, and you know Mom needs us as a buffer. Not to mention Irene and Gordon and those monsters they call children.” Ryan shuddered at the thought of his cousins. “We’ll see.” He shoved his hands into his jeans’ pockets. “What’s going on with you? You certainly aren’t in a holiday mood.” His older sister was the one person Ryan could confide in. Unlike his mother, she never butted in with unwanted advice, and she never lectured him on his choices. “Let’s go to the kitchen.” Ryan checked to make sure his mother was occupied with her grandsons. He took a seat at the table across from his sister and glanced out the window at the dark December evening. “Something’s up. I can always tell,” Cindy said. Ryan looked into his sister’s concerned face. Alone since her husband Joe died at thirty-five of an unexpected heart attack, Cindy managed to be both mother and father to her two young sons. Ryan admired and envied her strength of character. At five foot four with the same dark hair as her brother, more curly than wavy, Cindy was an attractive woman. She’d put herself through nursing college, married Joe Bennett at twenty two, and produced two boys. In spite of being a young widow, Cindy remained an optimistic person. “I don’t know where to start.” “Yes, you do. At the beginning,” Cindy encouraged. “Well, there’s this girl I met at a party. She’s French. Shows up at my apartment, lands in my bed, doesn’t appear to want a commitment, and never stays over. I wake up and poof! Gone. I shouldn’t complain, right?” “Hmm.” Cindy cradled her face in her hands and leaned in on her elbows. “Sounds like your dream girl.” Ryan drummed his fingers on the table idly contemplating Yvette. “Ordinarily, yes, but.” “But, what?” “Lexi,” he answered. His sister’s eyebrows danced upward. “Lexi? Carpenter? The Lexi-you-should-have-married-but-let-her-get-away because you wanted to play the field? Not to mention the friend I lost when you two broke up.” “You have an excellent memory,” Ryan replied caustically. Contemplative silence fell between brother and sister. Cindy got up from the table and poured two cups of coffee from the coffeemaker. Ryan, lost in the memory of seeing his former love at Macy’s, felt pangs of misery. When Cindy returned with the mugs, Ryan took a few long swallows before he continued. “I saw her downtown when I went Christmas shopping. I thought my eyes were playing tricks. She’s been back in Chicago almost a year. Cindy, I thought she was history. But seeing her made me think about how we broke up. Then when I got home, there was Yvette waiting at my door. She’s incredibly sexy. And, well, you can figure out the rest.” “You fell into bed with a woman you barely know,” his sister observed, “but you sound like you’re still in love with Lexi.” “My id got the best of me,” Ryan said sheepishly. “You weren’t thinking with your id, Sigmund Freud. You were thinking with your. . .” “Okay! Okay!” Ryan shot up a hand in protest. “I’m weak. I admit it.” “You were in love with Lexi, maybe for the first time in your life, but you walked away. I think you’ve regretted your decision ever since.” “Maybe.” “You’ve spent the time since then being an all-star bad boy. Are you happy?” Ryan stalled for a satisfactory answer. “Relationships are hard work. I’m not good at them.” “Bullshit,” Cindy declared. “You got cold feet. What counts is what you do now.” “Lexi’s seeing some reporter. Howard somebody at WCHO.” Ryan made a mental note to watch the station’s newscast. “Pretty boy Howard Cross?” Cindy’s eyes lit up in amusement. Ryan grimaced. Even his sister knew who the guy was. “Yeah, I think so.” “He’s not Lexi’s type.” “And you know this how?” “The man is stuck on himself. Anyone can see that.” “I don’t think Lexi shares your opinion.” Ryan’s shoulders sagged remembering how Lexi gushed about her boyfriend. “I’ll bet you anything he’s wrong for her. She probably feels her biological clock is ticking.” “Not exactly a comforting thought, Cindy. For sure, she’d rather be with him than take a second chance on me.” Ryan headed his sister off before she could argue with him. “Doesn’t matter, anyway. I’ll never see her again.” “But you want to,” Cindy persisted. “I wouldn’t know how to find her. Besides, she’s not interested. I tried to entice her to have coffee. She turned me down flat.” Pigs would grow wings and fly before Lexi agreed to meet him, even if he could find her. “Where did you run into her?” “Macy’s. We didn’t end well, remember? I didn’t want her to leave. I said some dumb shit about taking time apart. She wouldn’t take me back. I doubt she believes I could change.” “Are you ready to settle down with a wife and kids?” “Whoa! Back up the truck.” Ryan’s hand shot up like a sidewalk crossing guard stopping traffic. “Who said anything about a wife and kids?” “Then Yvette is perfect for you until you get bored and move on,” Cindy said, closing the subject. “You’re not being fair,” he protested. “I wasn’t bored when I was with Lexi, and Yvette just happened.” “Yvette just happened. Amanda just happened and Carla, Kristy, and Renee. Gosh! There’ve been so many since Lexi, I’ve lost track.” “You’re mocking me.” His sister smiled and gave him her usual logical advice. “Take some time to figure out what you want. If you don’t want the same life Lexi wants, then let her go once and for all.” “Ouch.” Deep down he knew she was right. “Love hurts.” “That’s all you got?” Ryan joked, trying to lighten the mood. Cindy reached out to ruffle the hair on his head. “Smart ass.” “Or maybe I’m just an ass.” Chapter 6 Christmas Eve dawned clear and cold. Lexi awoke at ten AM beside a slumbering Howard. She didn’t remember how she got into bed the night before. When she fell asleep with her head on Howard’s chest, he was still over the moon about his report. “I knocked the competition out of the park.” He crowed gleefully when they sat down to watch the recording. “Our crew got there first, and we got all the good stuff.” “You were great,” Lexi had agreed. “I was at the top of my game! Let’s watch it again.” Those were the last words she remembered hearing before she drifted off. Now she wanted Howard to wake up, so they could have a cozy breakfast. They had decided to open their presents this morning. Christmas Day, Howard was manning the early morning anchor desk and working an extra shift. When he came home, he’d be beat. He didn’t look like he was going to come alive anytime soon. His eyes were shut tight, and he emitted a little snore with every other breath. Lexi swung her legs over the side of the bed, sat up, and yawned. Maybe the smell of fresh coffee would revive her boyfriend. She made her way to the kitchen and started the coffeemaker. When she turned on the radio, a familiar Christmas carol was playing. Later, she would call her family in Danville. Her mom wasn’t happy she wouldn’t be home for Christmas, but her family wasn’t overly fond of Howard. “He’s conceited. What do you see in him? Do you really think he’s going to marry you?” Her mother chimed in her two cents. “Lexi, you deserve better.” “Mom, Howard is great, really,” she defended her boyfriend. “Of course he is, just ask him.” Her parents had married at the age of twenty. Their marriage was a loving union that lasted until her dad’s death two years ago. Her mom had a point, but Lexi would never admit it to her. Howard’s ego had inflated since they moved to Chicago. Better to make the drive out to Danville alone after the holidays. She walked back to the living area and turned on the Christmas tree. She glanced at the colorfully wrapped presents beneath. Maybe next year they’d be in a condo in New York and she and Howard would be engaged. She’d received lots of advice on marriage from opposing camps. Her married girlfriends gushed about their husbands and, those who had children, about motherhood. The career girlfriends told her marriage could wait. Enjoy some years of freedom and income before settling down, they’d said to her. Lexi was excited about her career, but she didn’t understand why couples lived together indefinitely and never vowed to love each other forever and exchange rings before friends and family. If Ryan hadn’t told her where he stood, she would have come to the same conclusion he had. Marriage wasn’t in the cards, and it was pointless now to think about what might have been. When Lexi turned away from the tree, she stumbled against the wastebasket. “Ow! Ow!” She rubbed her shin. How did the offending basket move from beside the sofa to where it now stood? The bin turned over soundlessly on the thick cream colored carpet. Ryan’s business card had tumbled out. When she picked it up and rubbed her thumb over his embossed name, memories of another Christmas morning swept over her. Lexi sank down on the carpet facing the tree. “Wake up!” Ryan shook her shoulder. “Come on, Lexi! I can’t wait any longer.” Pulling her from bed, he led her to the living room where the tree was lit. Two mugs of coffee and her favorite orange muffins waited on a tray beside the crackling fireplace. “You go first.” Ryan encouraged and plucked a gift from underneath the tree. He handed her an aqua box tied with a white bow. “I hope you like it.” A sterling silver Rollo link bracelet with a heart-shaped charm lay inside. The inscription read, “Ryan” on one side and “Lexi” on the other. “How did you know I wanted a Rollo bracelet?” “Last time we walked past Tiffany’s window, you pointed and said, ‘Oh, I love that bracelet.’” “Clever man,” she laughed. “Thank you!” Christmas was one surprise followed by another. The morning ended in Ryan’s arms, the sweetness of his embrace better than anything under the tree. The bracelet was currently tucked away in her lingerie drawer. “Good morning,” boomed Howard’s voice. He sat down beside her and wrapped his arms around her. His chin rested on her shoulder. “Oh!” Startled, Lexi snapped back to reality. She closed her fingers over the business card in her hand and managed to slip it into the pocket of her robe. Howard kissed the back of her neck. “You were a million miles away. Thinking about what Santa brought you?” “Yes. I was hoping you’d wake up. Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas Eve.” “Right,” she smiled. “Merry Christmas Eve.” “Sorry I have to work tomorrow.” “Don’t apologize. I get it, and you are anchoring.” Even if he did have to get up at three AM, Lexi knew any opportunity to prove he could handle the desk was important for his career. “You’re the greatest, Babe.” He nuzzled her cheek. “How about we go back to bed before we open our presents?” Ordinarily, Lexi would have agreed, but having sex with Howard while Ryan was so recently on her mind didn’t feel right. “Let’s open our presents first. Maybe later,” she suggested. “Yeah. No problem.” He broke the embrace and got to his feet. “Coffee?” Lexi got up as well and hurried off to the kitchen. She had the feeling Howard was not happy she’d turned him down. “Great.” He called after her. When she returned, he was busy sorting presents. “Ah ha!” He looked up at her in triumph. “We got the count right. I’ve got four, and you’ve got four.” Ryan never counted presents. Lexi always ended up with more gifts than he did. “I love to spoil you, and what better time than Christmas?” Lexi silently chastised herself. She had to stop thinking about the Ghost of Christmas Past. “You first, Babe.” Howard picked up an oblong box wrapped in silver paper topped off with a gold bow. He offered the present to Lexi. She pulled the tissue back to reveal a pair of expensive tan kid-leather gloves. “They’re lovely.” She tried to sound enthusiastic, but they weren’t her style. “Try not to lose them, okay?” Howard admonished. “I won’t. Thank you,” she answered peevishly. Why did he need to remind her she had a hard time keeping up with gloves? “How about something for me?” Lexi passed a gift box to him containing a pair of silver engraved cuff links for the French cuffed shirts he favored wearing. “Oh! Wow! Very classy.” He examined the engraved initials. “Really super. Thanks, Babe.” At Howard’s prompting, Lexi opened two large boxes. One contained a full length leather coat and in the other, a designer handbag. The gifts were expensive, no doubt, but she wasn’t one to match her gloves, coat and handbag. Maybe, if she found a colorful scarf, she wouldn’t look like a giant candy caramel. Howard’s remaining presents from Lexi were a French cuff shirt, a book on the life of the legendary broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow, and a membership renewal to his gym. It was Howard’s turn to serve up the last present. He handed her a small gift box wrapped in bright red foil adorned with a white bow. “For my girl,” he winked. Lexi looked at Howard and then at the present in her hands. Could it be? Anticipation rose inside her as she removed the paper and opened a black velvet box. Inside, two diamond solitaire earrings winked at her. They were beautiful and, at the same time, disappointing. “Each one is a half-carat. They were meant for you.” “They’re beautiful, Howard. Thank you.” “I know you were hoping for a ring. We’re right on schedule, Lex, and when the time is right, I’ll buy a rock to knock your socks off. I love you, you know.” “I know you love me, Howard.” She felt ashamed for feeling so let down. Howard did love her. They were making a life together, and they were on the same page. Knock it off, Lexi. Stop acting like a spoiled child. “I wasn’t going to bring the subject up,” Howard interjected, “but. . .” “But, what?” Howard, whose basic nature was optimistic, suddenly grew serious. “Well,” he paused. I’m excited, and I hope you will be, too.” He took her hands into his. “Let me tell you everything, and then you can ask questions.” A look of triumph spread across his face. “I’m going.” “Going where?” But Lexi knew before he told her. “Stacey heard rumblings about me at ABC. She told Jack we should strike while the iron’s hot. I’m going to the Middle East. I swear on the day I get the call from the network, we are heading straight out to buy you the biggest diamond we can find.” Stacey Bridges, of course! The woman was in a constant state of heat for Howard, always inviting him out for drinks to discuss his career. Lexi wondered who Stacey would fawn over if Howard wasn’t around. “It’s not about a ring. I know you love me. I know we’ll get married. The point is you’re going to a dangerous part of the world. I understand it’s what you do, but I can’t help but worry. I thought we were going to talk about everything before you decided.” “The pieces fell into place really fast. Was I supposed to say no? Besides, I’ll be with the Marines, and I’m getting training before I go. “Look, I wish I could tell you everything, but I can’t. We just got clearance from the State Department. It’s all hush-hush, but when my stories break, you’ll see how big a deal this is. Stacey said when I get back I’ll get a one-hour special.” Okay, maybe she was being irrational. This was his job, after all, but still, Lexi didn’t like the idea Stacey had become his Svengali. She wouldn’t be surprised if the woman tagged along after him. Whoa! Was she jealous of Stacey? She should be happy the general manager was moving Howard closer to his goal. And he would be surrounded by Marines, but if something happened, how safe would he be? “Are you the only reporter going?” “No, no. There’s a pool of reporters. I’ll have to stand out, really bust my hump, but I’ll do it. This is my big break.” There was no way she could stand in his way. His dreams, his plans, his goals were all coming true. She wanted to be happy for him. “What kind of training?” Howard shrugged. “I dunno. Whatever the guys think I need. There’s one more, thing, though, Stacey and I decided.” “What one more thing?” Howard’s anticipation spiked like a fever. “I leave for training in Alabama in three weeks. We ship out the second week in February.” Lexi fell silent. Her heart sank, and her stomach dropped to the floor. “Say something,” Howard prodded. “I’m scared.” “I’ll be okay. Don’t worry, Babe.” He reached out to take her into his arms. “Hey! Maybe I’ll get a book deal.” Another Howard Cross plan. Lexi shuddered to think what could happen to him. Maybe she wasn’t cut out to be a reporter’s wife. The thought unnerved her. You’re upset, that’s all. You love him, and his job is what he signed on to do. How are you going to get through a lifetime with him if you can’t accept what he does? Howard nuzzled his nose in her hair and kissed the side of her neck. “I think we should make the most of our time together, don’t you?” Lexi wanted to be with him, wanted to give him her full attention. In his arms, her body responded, but her mind raced with perilous thoughts. After their love-making, Howard fell into a peaceful doze. Lexi stared at the Christmas tree. He was leaving! She didn’t know when he would come back, or if he would come back. Of course, you’ll come back, she reassured herself, snuggling against his chest. But her uneasiness lingered. There was nothing she could do to change his mind, and she knew it. Chapter 7 Ryan couldn’t remember the last time he spent New Year’s Eve alone. The mysterious Yvette had not returned. He wasn’t sure how he felt about her, if he felt anything except raging hormones when she was around. Invitations to celebrate were plentiful, but Ryan chose to sit in front of the tube and watch the countdown to midnight at Times Square. He was tormented by thoughts of Howard Cross, ass reporter, caressing Lexi. The beers he drank in succession didn’t dull his discontent. After the ball dropped and the New Year rolled in, Ryan flipped off the television. “Bummer.” He finished the last swig of his beer and sat the bottle on a nearby end table. The summation of his life the last few years was “bummer.” Could he change? Did he want to change? Maybe the winter blues or Seasonal Affective Disorder had the best of him. Since his Christmas Eve conversation with Cindy, all he could think about was Lexi Carpenter. Who was he kidding? She wasn’t coming back, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the woman he let walk away. Ryan got up and turned off the lights. He didn’t bother to change from his sweatpants and t-shirt. He fell face-first on his bed and slept soundly. He spent New Year’s Day dining on chips, beer, left over pizza, and watching college football. His mobile remained off, and his obsession with Lexi refused to let go of him. At one o’clock in the morning on January second, he awoke to the insistent ringing of his doorbell. Whoever was leaning on the bell wasn’t going away. Ryan was ready to punch out the offender as he made his way to the front door. When he peeked through the keyhole, he sighed in frustration, took the chain off the lock, and opened the door. “Ah lo, Cherie.” The leggy brunette was wearing a tiny red dress that hugged her body like the skin on a grape. Yvette giggled and brushed past him. There’s no way she’s wearing anything underneath. Yvette shook her long mane of hair from her shoulders and kicked off her black stiletto heels. “I miss you, Babee.” Ryan closed the door and fought off the urge to peel the clingy red material from her body. “Where the hell have you been?” “I work.” His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You worked during the holidays?” “Oui. Bikinis in Bahamas.” “What?” “Model.” She walked toward him, hips swaying, working an invisible runway. “You’re a model?” “Oui. Bikini calendar. Zat is where I go.” He could almost taste her tempting lips when she put her arms around him. Yvette traced her tongue around the outside of his ear. Her breasts lay firmly planted against his chest. Ryan’s resolve crumbled. The fiery lust he felt when she was near him erupted into an inferno. “Kiss me,” she cooed softly. Disoriented by desire, Ryan barely remembered heading to the bedroom. Yvette shimmied out of her dress, flung the flimsy garment across the room and fell on top of him. He was right. She wasn’t wearing anything underneath. After a serious sexual workout, Yvette rolled off Ryan and turned on her side to face him. “Good, no?” Ryan’s chest heaved from exertion. “What’s your last name?” “LeBeaux.” “Yvette LeBeaux,” he repeated. “Nice to meet you.” She curled up on her side, ready for sleep, and pulled the comforter over her. “Why do you keep running out on me?” “Hmm. Shh. I sleep now.” Yvette snuggled further into his bed. “You’re gone when I wake up.” “I have the places to go. I work. I tell you zat.” Ryan gently shook her shoulder to keep her awake. “Hey. Don’t go. I don’t like waking up and finding you’re not here. Stay. Okay?” He hugged her backside to his belly, fighting hard to stay awake. If he fell asleep, she’d be long gone when he woke, and her disappearing act was starting to bug him. At least she’d distracted him from thinking about Lexi who was probably in bed with her boyfriend. Great! Lexi again! Ryan’s New Year’s resolution to return to work wasn’t going to be an easy one to keep. When the alarm on his clock went off, and his favorite jazz station came on, he realized he had fallen asleep. Yvette was gone. “Dammit!” He sat up and heard a faint drumming sound. The shower was on. Ah ha! He’d caught her before she could escape. Ryan threw back the covers and headed for the bathroom. When he opened the door and stepped inside, a fog of steam closed in around him. “Yvette?” She opened the shower door suds sliding down her body. She crooked her finger. “Ryan, babee. Come to Yvette.” “You are outrageous!” The woman was a sex machine, not that Ryan was complaining. If he was annoyed thinking she’d left again, his concern evaporated when Yvette plastered her body against his and backed him against the shower wall. She was hot, delicious, wet, and wild. His head banged in rhythmic thrusts against the tile wall of the shower. When Yvette was finished with him, she rinsed off and abandoned Ryan in the steamy spray. In a split second she was out of the shower and into a towel. She bustled out the bathroom door on her way to the bedroom. Ryan caught his breath, found a towel, and raced after her. In the bedroom, Yvette was pulling the red dress over her head. She slipped on her heels, braided her wet hair, exited the room, and headed to the living area. Once there, she picked up her jacket and started toward the front door. “Oh, no, you don’t!” Ryan raced after her, and his towel fell away. He flung his naked body against the door and faced her down. Impatient and petulant, Yvette complained, “I go. I must.” Ryan drew a line in the sand. He was tired of being cast aside in such a cavalier manner. “No way. You can’t keep showing up and pulling a Harry Houdini.” A perfectly arched eyebrow shot up. “’arry ‘oudini?” “Disappearing act. Don’t you want to stay? Have breakfast, dinner, a movie, something? I don’t even have your phone number.” Ryan waited for a response. Unmoved, Yvette stood where she was. “I find you. I come back,” she said. He should be happy. Apparently, the woman didn’t want anything more from him than his body. Maybe that’s what she thought he wanted, too. Maybe she didn’t understand they could have a deeper relationship. He had to get on with his life if he was ever going to get over Lexi. “Don’t you want something more than sex?” Was he really asking the question? “Sex is good, no?” Ryan had never encountered a woman like Yvette LeBeaux, especially where an intimate relationship was concerned. In his experience, after sex, women started having visions of white picket fences, SUV’s, and rug rats. Maybe her attitude had something to do with being French. “Give me your phone number. I’d like to take you to dinner.” Ryan was not going to let her escape into the hallway until she complied. “Why?” “Why? Because I’d like to get to know you.” Now he was the one becoming impatient. Yvette dug inside her shoulder bag, produced a pen, and scribbled a number on the back of a scrap of paper. “I go? Oui?” She put her hands on her hips and repeatedly tapped one of her stiletto heels on the hardwood floor. “Oui.” Ryan stepped aside to allow her to pass. Why did he let her get under his skin? She was an incredibly desirable woman all too willing to pounce, drain him dry, and leave. What else could he ask for? A connection? Like the connection he’d had with Lexi? The impossible was not an option. Move on, Ryan. Lexi’s gone. Naked, shivering, dripping water on the floor, Ryan closed the door and sprinted to find his abandoned towel. “I don’t understand women,” he grumbled. “Who does?” The clock on the nightstand confirmed he could make work on time if he hurried. He was looking forward to the surprise on his partner’s face when he arrived at the office ready to start fresh. Chapter 8 “You’re here.” David MacAfee, arms folded across his barrel chest, filled the frame of Ryan’s doorway. “I know what you’re thinking.” Ryan looked up preparing for what was coming his way. “I’m thinking you never show up after a holiday.” “I’ve decided to become responsible.” “New Year’s resolution?” Dave scoffed. Ryan and his business partner had been friends and fellow musicians for over a decade before they decided to purchase a dying label named Abbott Records. They renamed the company Kool Kat. Dave’s wife, Bett, wanted them to move the business to L.A. Ryan talked his partner into staying in Chicago. Kool Kat was solvent, barely, but they never missed a lease payment. Dave was the numbers guy, the wizard who handled the finances, contracts and legalities. Although he occasionally courted an artist, Ryan was responsible for talent management, developing recording artists and producing their sessions. Hiring technicians and session musicians, spending countless hours working distribution and marketing belonged to him as well. Their partnership worked until they had a falling out over Ryan’s frequent absences from the office. After Lexi moved out, Ryan embraced the lifestyle generally known as sex, drugs and rock and roll. He was smart enough to leave hard drugs alone. Booze and women fueled his partying. He’d come in late on Mondays, work until Thursday afternoon, sometimes a couple of hours on Friday, and lose himself partying throughout the weekend. Ryan continued unpacking his briefcase. He set the worn leather bag aside. “I’m flying straight, Dave. I have to do more with my life than party.” “Yeah, right. Seeing is believing.” “I don’t blame you for being skeptical. I’m surprised myself. But I have something you might be interested in. Annie Nichols’ manager called me. Her contract with Guiding Star is almost up, and she wants to make a move to a new label. He told me to call him back today, and we’d talk about a possible move.” A dismissive wave of the hand and a reply loaded with derision followed. “Annie Nichols? Give me a break, Ryan. You expect me to believe the hottest little ticket since Madonna called you?! Oh, let me guess. You used to screw her, and you’re dumb enough to think it means she’ll drop her label for ours.” Ryan swallowed hard and allowed Dave’s insult to wash over him. He wanted to slug him, but he had to admit his partner was pissed off for good reason. “Rusty Hamilton,” Ryan stated calmly, “was a roadie for the first band I played with. Annie and I had a thing a long time ago before anyone knew who she was, but the past has nothing to do with the present. Rusty said she’s unhappy and wants to make a change. I’m at least going to try.” “Be my guest, big shot. You’d have to give her the company to sign her. Don’t even try to cut a deal until you run it by me. Last time I looked, I still handle the contracts.” Dave turned on his heel and walked away. Despite his partner’s lack of faith, Ryan had a good feeling about Annie. Maybe his karma was about to change. He knew her long before he met Lexi. He and Annie parted on good terms when he encouraged her to pursue her career in L.A. “You know Annie Nichols?” His assistant stood in the doorway. “Morning, Cass. Yeah, I know her. Her manager called me. He thinks Annie and I should meet.” “Then do it. She’s got a voice that turns gold into platinum. If she keeps my paycheck comin’, go talk to her.” Cass stepped inside his office and closed the door. “You wanna know what crawled up Dave’s butt?” “I’ll take a stab in the dark. Me?” Cass settled her ample self in the chair across from Ryan. “You don’t help for sure, but that greedy wife of his wants a divorce. You’d think she could wait until after the holidays, but no, she told him Christmas Eve. They got into an argument over how much money she spends. You know Bett loves money. Anyway, she spit divorce in his face right under the mistletoe.” Ryan emitted a low whistle and sank back into his chair. “Oh, man. They’ve yanked each other’s chains for years, but they always made up.” “He was yellin’ at her so loud on the phone before you got here, everybody knows about the divorce. Now you do too,” Cass stated. “Dave’s worried she’ll take him to the cleaners. He’s a tight-fisted man where money’s concerned.” What Cass said was true. When he and Dave talked dollars and cents, Ryan’s head spun trying to keep up with his partner’s rapid fire calculations. “His tight-fistedness is why we’re still afloat. Dave has the heart of an accountant. The label is everything to him, but I wish he’d told me about Bett.” Cass was sympathetic. “You two used to be like brothers. If you’re on the straight and narrow for real, maybe you can mend some fences. He’s gonna need a friend.” “I’ll do what I can to make things up to him.” “Say, what about love or lust?” Cass asked. “Did you figure it out?” “What?” “The girl you told me about before Christmas. The one you ran into.” Cass put her palm under her chin and leaned in with her elbow on the desk. “Was she love or lust?” “Love,” Ryan said. Lexi had definitely been love. “But I can’t get her back, so I’ve decided to move on. New Year. New Man. I’m seeing someone else.” Although he wasn’t certain what he was doing with Yvette qualified as courtship. “I see.” His assistant wagged her head. “I know what you’re thinking. Flavor of the month. She’s different.” Yvette was really different. “You said those same words about the other woman.” Cass got to her feet. “Your business. Not mine. If you need an ear, you know where to find me.” “Thanks, Mom,” Ryan laughed. “I think I’ll go see Dave. Maybe I can help.” When he got to Dave’s door, his partner looked up from his desk. The expression on Ryan’s face must have given away his reason for seeking him out. “Bad news travels fast around here.” “I’m really sorry, man.” “Thanks for your concern, pal. I’m fine.” Dave put his hands behind his head and propped his feet on the desk in a show of macho prowess. “Could you stop being a dick for five minutes? I let you down. I was wrong, okay? But, I’m back. I’ll do whatever I can to help. Just say the word.” “And I suppose you’re going to tell me you know what I’m going through because you once got your sorry ass dumped. Well, you don’t know Jack. I have two kids, and I don’t want to be a weekend dad. My darling wife is a shake-down artist who’ll take me for everything she can.” Ryan refused to rise to the bait. “Illinois isn’t a community property state. Get a good divorce attorney.” “Pearls of wisdom from Ryan Russo,” Dave laughed sarcastically. “You are right about one thing. I put up with your erratic work schedule for a helluva long time hoping you’d come out of your coma. I could have forced you out of the company, but I didn’t.” Indignant, he continued with his rant. “You waltz in here and tell me you’ve got religion. Lotta good your new-found work ethic does me now.” Ryan knew he had to make things right with Dave if he was going to survive in the company. He had damaged their friendship and their partnership. What had started out as a pity party had become a habit. What an idiot he’d been! “Everything you say is true, Dave, but right now you’re the one being a jerk. Believe me, I get what you’re going through, but right now you need a friend, and I may be the only one you’ve got. Maybe I wouldn’t trust me either. I know I have to prove myself, and I will.” Dave swung his feet from his desk and turned in his chair away from Ryan to stare out the window. “Whatever.” “Go to the gym. Punch something. You’ll feel better. I’ll be in my office.” Ryan left Dave and headed back down the hallway. When Lexi left, he had taken out his frustration on his home gym equipment. He worked out to the point of exhaustion so he would be too tired to think about her. Dave was angry and in shock. Best to leave him alone and let him deal with his emotions. At his desk, Ryan called Annie Nichols’ manager and got his voicemail. “Rusty, I’ll meet her wherever, whenever she wants. Annie’s my number one priority. I’ll wait to hear from you.” He placed the receiver back in the cradle. Hopefully, Rusty would call back soon with a time and a date. Could Kool Kat afford Annie Nichols? She’d want a sweet deal, but at least he had the opportunity. If she jumped Guiding Star and Ryan caught her, she’d be the windfall of a lifetime. Cass supplied him with a stack of demos. Most of the mail was routine. Ryan skipped lunch and around four decided he’d call Yvette and ask her to dinner. The thought of her naked in his bed was extremely appealing, but he shook off the imagery. He was going to do things right. Dinner first. Marathon sex later. Searching through his pants pocket, he located the paper with her number and called. “Prescott Models.” “Hello?” Ryan questioned. “Ah, I’m calling for Yvette LeBeaux. Do I have the right number?” “Are you calling for a booking?” “A booking?” Yvette had given him the number of her modeling agency! Ryan’s face burned. “No, I’m not calling about a booking. I need to speak to her.” He’d heard the French could be rude, and Yvette was doing nothing to dissuade his opinion. The woman on the other end of the line hesitated. “If your call is personal, we don’t take messages. She has an answering service. I can give you the number.” “Sure. Thanks.” “319-555-1620.” Answering service? What game was she playing? “Very funny, Yvette. I don’t give up easily.” He jabbed the numbers into the keyboard of his mobile phone. “Good afternoon. We’ve Got Your Number. Who are you calling, please?” “Yvette LeBeaux.” “What’s your message?” “Tell her to call Ryan as soon as possible. She has my number.” “Anything else, sir?” “No, thanks.” Would Yvette return his call? “Thank you, I’ll see she gets your message. Good-bye.” The rest of the afternoon was a lost cause. Ryan was angry with Yvette, but she’d made no promises. At best, she was a free spirit who was hard to pin down. His mobile rang. Maybe Yvette was calling him back, but it was Cindy’s voice that greeted him. “Hey, Sis. Boy, am I glad you called. What a day I’m having.” Her bright voice came over the line. “Always happy to be of service. What’s up?” “Aye yi yi. Where do I begin? Dave and Bett are getting a divorce. Dave doesn’t believe I’m going to straighten up and fly right. I’ve got major fences to mend there. I’ve been off the rails so long no wonder he has a burr up his butt. My mystery woman showed up again. I think she and I could have something, but she’s being difficult. I’m trying to reach Annie Nichols. Maybe I can sign her. Wouldn’t that be something? Annie Nichols! I get dizzy just thinking about the possibility. Kool Kat would be on the map.” He was breathless by the end of his update. “Slow down, Ryan. I can’t take everything in. Dave and Bett are divorcing? What happened?” “He wasn’t in the mood to discuss the gory details.” “I can only imagine. You’re really back at work to stay?” Another skeptic, Ryan thought and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “Yeah. I’m back.” “Hmm. I see, and the mystery woman is part of your new game plan?” “I am through playing games. I’m not so sure about her. What can I do for you?” When she didn’t answer, he asked, “Cindy, are you there?” “Denny’s trying to get my attention.” He heard her speaking to her eight-year-old son. “I’m on the phone, honey. Sorry, Ryan. I accepted a job offer today at Northwestern, and Denny is freaked out I won’t be around to take him to soccer practice. I told him I’ll have pretty much the same hours. Mom’s offered to baby-sit if I have scheduling problems.” “Can I help?” Ryan wasn’t sure he wanted his sister to say yes. He had zero experience caring for his nephews. “Thanks. I’ll keep your offer in mind. I’d love for you to spend more time with the boys.” His sister was right. If the Annie Nichols’ deal worked out, he’d set up a college fund for Denny and Rory. A stab of guilt reminded him money couldn’t take the place of being a presence in his nephews’ lives. “Did you decide against finding Lexi?” “Lexi?” The mention of her name squeezed Ryan’s heart. “Yes, Lexi,” Cindy insisted. “You still have feelings for her. Don’t you?” “She doesn’t want me,” Ryan said. Since bumping into her, she hadn’t left his thoughts. “I wouldn’t know how to find her, anyway.” “I see.” “Why did you call?” Ryan knew he sounded impatient. His sister had ruffled his feathers by bringing up Lexi. “I called to ask if you’d like to have lunch next week on my day off.” “Sure. Next week looks pretty good.” “Okay. Let me know where and when you want to meet.” “Will do,” Ryan agreed. “Sorry I snapped.” “I understand, but thanks for apologizing. I’ll talk to you soon.” “Yeah. Later.” Ryan opened the bottom drawer of his desk and dug beneath some folders. He pulled out a small silver-frame. Inside was a picture of him and Lexi snapped the summer they broke up. Taken by a friend at one of the weddings they attended, Lexi was wearing a form-fitting bandage dress. She was smiling and leaning into his shoulder. She looked beautiful that day, even more beautiful than the bride. He rubbed his thumb over her image. He never loved anyone the way he loved Lexi Carpenter. If only he could go back and undo the mistakes of the past. “Ah-hmmm.” Startled, the frame slipped from his hands onto the hardwood floor. Ryan bent over, picked up the picture, tossed it into the open drawer, and kicked it shut. “Yes, Cass.” “Sorry to interrupt. I got a message from Annie Nichols herself. You were on your cell.” Ryan perked up. “Annie? Did she leave a number?” “She said I could take a message. Said she was in a big hurry. Here’s what she told me word for word. ‘Tell Ryan to take the Mercedes waiting outside his office Thursday at five-thirty.’” Cass handed her note to him. “A little cloak and dagger,” Ryan chuckled. “Her sweet face is plastered everywhere. Maybe she didn’t want to waltz in here with the press nipping at her heels.” “The ball’s in our court, Cass, and I plan to score.” Ryan felt a zing of anticipation. If he could sign Annie, he was sure Dave would forgive his former trespasses. They would move up to the big leagues, and once they had Annie, attracting bankable artists would be a piece of cake. Maybe his karma was about to change. Chapter 9 “Red is a very difficult color to match.” Lexi watched her potential customer appraise the sofa like a piece of fine art. “If we had a paint card it would make it easier to see if the color is right for your room.” “Hmm,” he contemplated. “No, I don’t have one, but I have a pretty good eye for these things.” Lexi was tired. She’d been with him for almost an hour. Customers were hard enough to deal with. But this guy, a well-dressed male, short in stature with a halo of wispy blonde hair, south of his thirties was a handful. He rounded the nubby-textured red sofa again. A hand flew to his chin while he walked around the sofa studying it intensely. “The walls are red, too. I have spectacular black leather chairs with chrome legs arriving next week. A red sofa would make a dramatic statement, especially with the fabric I’ve chosen for the window treatments.” Fortunately, Mr. Fussbudget couldn’t see Lexi roll her eyes. The image of a traditional red sofa set against red walls with modern chairs made Lexi’s nose wrinkle. She couldn’t fathom her customer’s concept. “Gilson’s has a generous return policy. You’d have thirty days to decide.” “Oh, I don’t know. I just don’t know.” Another trip around the sofa. “I did see another one at Mason-Hall I thought might work. I’d better take another look before I decide.” Sixty minutes down the drain. No sale. No commission. “Mason-Hall marks up thirty per cent. We pride ourselves on selection, price and quality. I can offer an additional fifteen percent discount.” Her customer shook his head in the negative. “Price doesn’t matter. The room has to be perfect.” “Certainly.” Lexi surrendered her business card and resisted an urge to could kick his shins. “I could put a hold on the sofa for twenty-four hours.” “Hmm. I’ll consider your offer,” FB replied. “I must say, I like the lines.” Lexi doubted she’d hear from him again. She had been on her feet all day thanks to the January store-wide sale. On days like this one, she questioned if she had made the right decision leaving the airlines for interior decorating. Cranky customers were cranky customers, but at least with the airline she had travel perks. Most of the people who walked into Gilson’s were not upper-end clientele. Her nattily dressed customer appeared to be an exception. Paul Frazier, her manager, approached. “Lexi, I was watching you. You let your customer walk away from a good deal. How long were you with him?” “At least an hour. I did everything except load the sofa on the truck and drive it to his house.” “Your sales numbers are down. I hired you because you’re getting a degree in interior design. I thought you’d be an asset,” her manager warned ominously. Uh oh. Lexi didn’t know he’d been tracking her lack-luster performance so closely. Building clientele wasn’t easy. Selling was more difficult than she’d anticipated when she took the job at the moderately priced furniture store. Lexi wanted a design studio, a top of the line establishment, but those places didn’t hire novices. “I guess I’ll have to work harder.” “I guess you will.” If her numbers didn’t improve, she’d be gone. Lexi limped to her desk and sat down wearily. Howard was leaving in a few days, and now her job wasn’t going well. One of her co-workers stopped by her desk. “You look pretty discouraged. Paul on your tail?” “Where else would he be?” Lexi looked into Gloria Johnson’s perpetually tanned face. “At least you got a handsome hunk at home to console you. Breaking into sales is rough, especially somebody like you who wants to go first class. How about I throw some business your way? I got a couple with four kids coming in. They need kiddie bedroom furniture and maybe some other stuff. Frank’s in town. I’d like to leave early. How about you cover for me tonight, and I steer them your way?” Lexi knew from countless coffee breaks that Frank Delorio was Gloria’s married boyfriend. When he traveled to Chicago on business, Gloria got a call. The last thing Lexi wanted was to spend the evening away from Howard. Lately, though, he’d been on the phone non-stop or in the newsroom meeting with Jackson Pond. She needed a good sale to help mollify Paul. “Okay,” she reluctantly agreed. “Thanks.” “You’re a doll. I’ll cover for you while you grab some dinner.” “Sounds good. I’ll get my stuff.” Lexi headed to the break room to pick up her coat and handbag from her locker. Fleeing from Gilson’s, even for forty-five minutes, would be a pleasure. The winter cold bit through her coat. Lexi hurried down the street in search of food so Gloria could have a rendezvous with Frank, the faithless wife cheater. She ducked inside a café and took the only table open near the window. The waitress appeared shortly after she sat down. “What can I get you?” A young woman in a faded pink uniform stood ready with a pad and pencil. Her nametag read Tracey. “Hi, Tracey. I’ll start with coffee. Do you have any Bailey’s?” “One Irish coffee coming up. I’ll be right back.” Lexi glanced over an uninspired menu and decided upon a salad. She put the menu aside and stared absently out the window. A shiny black Mercedes pulled to the curb. “Wow,” Lexi sighed, admiring the car. A Mercedes was something she would love to own. Bet the leather seats have heaters. Howard drove a BMW, a racy little two-seater, and had offered to replace Lexi’s six-year-old Jetta. But, she thought they should be frugal. Two cars, while living in the city, was luxury enough for now. If Howard landed at the network, the zeros at the end of his paycheck would surely increase. Would she even need a car in New York? When the coffee arrived, Lexi placed her order, took a sip of the delicious drink, and returned her attention to the window. The driver of the Mercedes emerged, walked around the car, and opened the passenger door. From the building next door to the diner, a man hurried to the curb and hopped into the car. The driver shut the door, returned to his side, and pulled into traffic. The passenger glanced into the window of the diner and his eyes met hers. The man was Ryan Russo. Lexi sprang to her feet to get a better look and bumped the table in the process. The hot mug of coffee tipped over and dove to the tile floor. Diners’ heads turned in unison upon hearing the crash. Tracey came running with a mop followed by a bus boy with a broom and trash can. “Oh, my gosh! I’m so sorry,” Lexi gasped. Hot coffee and rum shot up the legs of her pants. Shaken, seeing Ryan appear out of nowhere, she grabbed napkins from the table dispenser to absorb the damage, found a twenty dollar bill in her handbag, left the money on the table, and shot out of the diner. The freezing air assaulted her face and bare hands. Oh no! She’d left her gloves, Howard’s Christmas present, on the table. No way was she going back to retrieve them, not tonight. Lexi jammed her chin into her coat, put her hands into her pockets and hurried off up the street. Why did she keep running into Ryan? Then she remembered the address on his business card. His building was next door. What if he’d been in the diner? She picked up her pace, arrived back at Gilson’s, and stepped inside the door. Gloria caught her before she could get to the employee lounge. Two adults and four little boys surrounded her. Gloria made the introductions. “John and Susan Reign, meet Lexi Carpenter. These little tykes are Billy, Tommy, Casey and Carter. Lexi’s going to take good care of you.” One of the little boys tugged at his mother’s sleeve. “Mommy, she smells funny.” “I spilled coffee on my pants,” Lexi quickly explained. “Well, folks,” Gloria piped up, “you’re in the best of hands. Thanks again, Lexi.” Her co-worker vanished, and the Reigns, all six of them, looked expectantly at her. “Let’s get started, shall we?” Lexi took a moment to ditch her coat and purse at her desk. She led the group to Children’s Furniture. Perfect. The Reigns. She thought of the old cliché. When it rains, it pours. Could her day get any worse? Chapter 10 “Lexi?” Ryan pressed his nose against the window. “Lexi!” He had no doubt she’d been the woman at the window, but he couldn’t go back because he was on his way to see Annie. The driver cocked his head toward the backseat. “Something wrong?” “No. No, nothing’s wrong. I thought I saw someone I knew.” Fate was messing with Ryan’s head. Just when he decided to pursue Yvette and push Lexi to the back of his mind, there she was again. Where had she come from? He couldn’t allow himself to go down that road again. He needed to concentrate on his impending meeting with Annie. “Where are we headed?” “Annie said you’d recognize the place. We’re about twenty minutes away.” Ryan didn’t care where they were going. All he cared about was sewing up the biggest pop star in the music industry. To his surprise Yvette returned his call and agreed to dinner. They were going to meet downtown after he met with Annie. Why was Lexi at the diner? He was sure she’d seen him. Stop thinking about Lexi. You’re going to the most important meeting of your life. Ryan struck up a conversation with the driver to distract his thoughts. He learned his name was Toby Madison. He doubled as a body guard and driver for the twenty-eight-year-old super star. After turning the car into a neighborhood on the far south side of the loop, Toby curbed the Mercedes. “The address is 2523. She said you’d know.” “Oh, wow.” Ryan gave a low whistle. He hadn’t been here in years, the house where Annie lived with her mother until she left for California and stardom. “Yeah, I know the place. When did she get in?” “Four AM. on a charter jet. I’ll wait until she calls me to take you back,” Toby stated. A rush of nostalgia for the old neighborhood washed over Ryan. He’d met Annie at a recording session for her first demo. She was barely eighteen-years-old. He got a call to fill in for one of the musicians who was a no-show. A year later at age nineteen, Annie left Chicago for L.A., and the rest was history. Every note she sang turned platinum. He glanced around and realized not much had changed. Annie waited for him at the door. “Thanks for coming,” she said, offering a warm smile. Annie Nichols had grown into a woman. Her signature platinum blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail with wisps trailing at her temples. Her eyes were the same amazing cornflower blue. Annie looked every inch the pop queen dressed in tight black leather pants, suede boots, and a deep V-neck beaded sweater. Although he’d seen her many times on television, nothing did Annie justice like seeing her in person. She offered a hug. “I’m so glad to see you.” “I’m glad to see you, too.” Ryan patted her back and looked around for his old friend. “Where’s Rusty?” Annie released him and closed the door after he stepped inside. “He’s not here.” She took Ryan’s hand and led him past a staircase into the living area. A silver service sat on a scarred coffee table along with a neatly arranged plate of scones, jam and honey. “Please, sit down.” Ryan took a seat on the sofa wishing her manager had come to the meeting. “Rusty and I agree,” Annie began. “We want to go with your label. Did he tell you we’re getting married?” “Really?” Ryan calculated Rusty Hamilton was forty-two, fourteen years older than Annie. But, what difference did that make if they were happy? Annie reached for a pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. Her hands shook when she lit up. “When did you start smoking?” “I shouldn’t, especially since I’m pregnant.” Ryan’s mouth fell open. Annie chuckled. After two long drags, she stubbed out the cigarette on the silver tray. “I trust you to keep the information to yourself.” She placed her hand on his knee and looked into his eyes. “I didn’t plan on a baby, but Rusty will take good care of us.” She reached for another cigarette, but stopped herself. Ryan thought Annie looked tired and older than her years. “I wanted to be a star, you know. Worse than anything. I’ve sung every place on the planet, and there’s no award I haven’t won. Now, I can’t go anywhere, do anything, or lead a normal life. I’m a prisoner of fame. I can’t take a breath without a camera in my face. I’m getting out.” “You’re quitting the business?” Ryan was thunderstruck. “Why kind of a life would my kid have? Am I supposed to surround a baby with bodyguards every time I step outside? “Ryan, I’ve watched your label. You’re doing okay, but I can change everything. I can make your label a powerhouse.” Annie snapped her fingers in front of his face. Ryan blinked. Before he could say anything, she rushed on. “I’m bowing out with a final album and a limited farewell tour after the baby comes. Then I’m done, finished. Rusty and I are moving to Spain.” Her retirement would be of epic proportions in the industry. Tabloid headlines flashed before Ryan’s eyes. “Do you really think the world will leave you alone?” “Maybe not at first, but there’s always someone waiting in the wings. The next big thing.” “I can’t believe you want to walk away, but if I can help you, I will.” “I hate those pricks in L.A.,” she vowed. “They treat me like property. No one thinks I’m anything more than a money-making machine. But I’m not stupid. I own my catalog. I’ll package a greatest hits CD and release my final tour on DVD.” Annie started another cigarette and took a couple of puffs before crushing the remains out. “I’ve got to quit smoking.” Annie Nichols, the glamorous blonde who lit up the world with her high wattage smile and angelic voice would not easily be forgotten. Ryan laid a hand on her shoulder for support. Annie absently rubbed her thumb over his skin. “I’m through being a cash cow for Guiding Star. Why not make some green stuff for someone I like?” Annie changed the direction of their conversation and snuggled into the crook of Ryan’s arm. “Do you ever think about what might have been if we’d stayed together?” She raised her face to his, so close she could have kissed him. He didn’t want to go down memory lane, but he couldn’t afford to offend Annie, either. He knew he was walking a tight rope. The best defense was a good offense, or in his case, the truth. “Annie,” Ryan sat up straighter and gently removed her arm from around him. “You know what signing you with Kool Kat would do for the label, but I think you’ve got stars in your eyes where I’m concerned. I would’ve let you down. You’re better off with Rusty.” He had prodded Annie to go to L.A. because he’d grown tired of her neediness. “They say you never get over your first love,” she replied in a soft voice. He wasn’t sure how to reply or where this encounter was going. Annie turned her attention to the plate of food, slathering honey over a scone. “I guess that’s the past, huh? I’m lucky, though,” she said, biting into the quick bread. “Rusty is solid.” “He’s a good man.” Rusty was a good man, and Annie was being coy. Why was she flirting with him? “I’m anxious to sign a contract.” Ryan calmed his racing heart. Annie was going to give him the keys to the pop kingdom. “I need to talk to Rusty about that, and, of course, your attorneys. We should discuss the terms.” “No. Rusty and I will work up the draft. If your lawyer likes my offer, let him talk to my attorneys. We’ll strike the deal, and I’ll sign.” A pause hung in the air. Ryan had come here to discuss her demands. If they weren’t going to talk business, why was he here? When Annie broke the silence, her voice was tinged with sadness. “When we split up, my heart broke. It wasn’t an easy choice, but you helped me understand I had to go to L.A. You believed in me. You paid for my ticket. Without you, Ryan, I wouldn’t be where I am. No one ever cared about me the way you did. Make yourself rich. You more than deserve it.” The day Ryan paid for her plane ticket to L.A., he wasn’t being noble. Annie had started to cling to him like saran wrap. He wasn’t heartbroken to see her go. Far from it. “I don’t know what to say except thank you,” he said. “You’re welcome.” The next thing he knew, Annie arms flew around his neck. Her lips were on his. She parted them with her tongue and kissed him. Tobacco stung Ryan’s taste buds. He didn’t return her embrace. His impulse was to recoil, but, thankfully, Annie released him. “I’ll always love you, Ryan Russo.” She laid her hand against his chest and tilted her face so their eyes could meet. “I wish I could have taken you to the top with me.” Where was Annie going? What the hell was he going to do if she headed to the bedroom? Ryan knew she was toying with him, but why? Annie abruptly sat up and scooted to the center of the sofa. She propped her boots on the coffee table. “But, we were a long time ago, weren’t we? Now I have to think about the baby and Rusty. Stay for a while, okay? I don’t want to be alone. I promise I won’t tempt you again,” she teased. “Ah, sure.” Unfortunately, he’d have to cancel dinner with Yvette. Annie was about to give him the moon. There was no way he could walk out on her. How did he get himself into these situations? She cracked open the door to seduction, and unlike his usual inclination, he felt no urge to open it further. When she kissed him, loyalty to Yvette didn’t stop him from making a move. His thoughts were about Lexi and how much he wished she was the woman in his arms. Chapter 11 The Reigns made a substantial purchase. Lexi was exhausted and barely able to concentrate on the drive home. She entered the lobby of her building and went straight to the elevator bank. All she wanted was a hot bubble bath before falling into bed. She turned the key in the lock and was surprised when Howard greeted her at the door. “You’re home.” Then she took a second look at what he was wearing. “What are those?” Dressed in camouflage, Howard made a full turn for her inspection. “Aren’t these cool?” Her boyfriend looked like a life size GI Joe doll. Even the drab colors couldn’t diminish his good looks. “They want you to wear fatigues? Won’t you look like a soldier? Someone might shoot you!” “You worry way too much.” “I have a bad feeling about all this.” Lexi couldn’t shake her anxiety surrounding his departure. Howard, on the other hand, couldn’t contain his excitement. “Babe,” he brushed her off. “I’ll be fine, really. Stop with all the bad vibes.” She followed him into the bedroom where he admired his get-up in front of the full-length mirror. “I stayed home tonight because I wanted to be with you,” he said. “How come you’re so late?” “Paul’s been on my case about my sales. I didn’t know you’d be here, or I wouldn’t have agreed to cover for Gloria. You’ve been so preoccupied with work.” “You should find another job. He doesn’t appreciate you. Did Gloria hook up with her boyfriend?” “Yes, but she’s not so bad, maybe just bad judgment where Frank is concerned.” Howard turned from his reflection, walked over to Lexi, and put his arms around her. “I’m beat. I’m going to take a bath.” “You look beat. I’ll run the tub for you.” He’d get no arguments from her. All she wanted was a long soak. Together they entered the on-suite. Howard turned on the water and poured in her favorite bubble bath. When he finished, he drew Lexi to him. “Lean on me, Babe. I’ll help you forget your lousy day.” Lexi warmed to his touch, his embrace, his kiss. Howard slowly began to undress her. Desire ignited, and her weariness faded. Naked in his arms, she felt loved and protected. Howard ran his hands down her back in long slow strokes. He nuzzled his face in her hair and whispered in her ear. “You are so beautiful, Lexi. Beautiful and sexy,” he whispered. He helped her into the Jacuzzi, turned off the water, shed his clothes, and got into the bath with her. Howard lathered his hands with warm bubbles and kneaded her neck and shoulders. The cares of the day, the fear that haunted her about Howard’s assignment flew from her mind. “You’re good to me,” Lexi sighed. “I like being good to you. I love you.” Howard lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her deeply. “Move closer, Babe.” Lexi wrapped her legs around his waist. His muscular body met hers in an embrace, and her body relaxed. She was floating. Nothing could be better than this moment. She realized how much she’d missed him the last few weeks. They’d had precious little time together since his announcement. “I’ll miss you, Howard. I wish you didn’t have to go.” “I’ll miss you, too, but I’ll be back before you know it.” He moved his hands to her breasts and slowly began to stroke them. Sliding them to her belly, then to her thighs, he cupped her bottom and drew her in for another lingering kiss. Lexi grew hot with urgency. Her body ached for him. She arched her back and reached for him under the water. And at that precise moment, Howard’s cell phone rocked alive in his discarded fatigues. “Just one sec,” he said breaking the embrace. “I gotta get that.” He was already leaning over the tub reaching for his pants. “Howard! Not now!” Lexi cried. “I need you! Let it ring.” “I can’t ignore her. It’s Stacey’s ringtone.” “Stacey Bridges?!” The desire that inflamed her seconds ago was snuffed out. Lexi hadn’t had an evening alone with Howard in weeks. Now Stacey Bridges, that bimbo, was trying to lure him away. Damn her! Lexi was tired of being in competition with his general manager. Howard was on his feet and out of the tub. He slipped on the tile and skidded across the floor. With a hard thud, Lexi heard his backside hit the vanity cabinets. “Ow!” Howard curled into a fetal position and doubled up in pain. “Shit! I think I broke something!” Lexi was furious. To hell with the news of the world, around the corner, and down the street! Stacey, the bourbon guzzling floozy, probably wanted Howard to meet her for drinks. “Stacey…Lexi,” he corrected himself. “Help me up.” “I’m not Stacey Bridges! You spend so much time with her maybe you can’t tell the difference anymore.” In the heat of the moment, a nagging suspicion reared its ugly head. All those after-work drinks, late night sessions at the office, and urgent phone calls Howard made a beeline to answer. Was Howard’s and Stacey’s relationship something more than professional? “Come on, Lexi. I need your help.” “I’m coming,” she snapped. Grabbing a towel from the rack, she laid the terry cloth on the floor and dried the bottom of her feet before getting her robe and wrapping it around her body. “Anytime tomorrow! And find my phone. I have to call her back,” Howard ordered. “Stacey can wait! Maybe she can drink alone for a change. Wouldn’t that be a novel experience?” Lexi walked to where Howard lay and helped him to his feet. When he got up, she saw anger flash in his eyes. “And exactly what do you mean by that remark?” “She’s always coming on to you. I’m not blind.” “Stacey’s my boss,” Howard said through gritted teeth. He made an exaggerated hobble for his robe on the hook of the back of the bathroom door. He threw it on and tied the terry cloth ties into a knot. Rubbing his backside, he winced. “Damn that hurts. I’m gonna lay down. Get some ice, will you, and my phone.” What was she? His personal servant? Lexi dug into the pocket of his fatigues and took out his mobile. He had a voicemail. Next she scanned his phone log. Howard was right. Stacey had called him. Unable to resist the temptation, Lexi quickly checked his text messages. Several were from the woman in question. You up for Willy’s tonight? The story is yours. Brian’s mad as hell. Let’s celebrate. Got your flowers. THX! Aren’t you thoughtful? Jack doesn’t have a clue. Keep him offline. My office after the show! Hurry!! “Lexi,” Howard called out. “I need my cell.” “Be right there.” She tapped the Photostream icon. An album labeled “Work” came up. Lexi opened it to find pictures of Stacey and Howard. They stared into each other’s eyes in what appeared to be a bar. In another snap they were making silly faces. There was a photo of Stacey’s lips firmly planted on Howard’s cheek, an exaggerated grin on his face, and Stacey’s arms around his neck. Lexi didn’t have time to search for more pictures, but she knew instinctively there were more. What was she looking at? When she went into the bedroom, her hands were shaking. “Here’s your phone.” She tossed it on the bed and went downstairs to collect her thoughts. She paced back and forth in the kitchen and told herself to calm down. But the more she thought about the past few months, the more she wondered if she was onto something. Howard often used the excuse he had to work late. He begged off a number of their plans always followed by profuse apologies. Since the news of his assignment, he’d given Lexi the same reason over and over. “Sorry, Babe. It’s the nature of the biz, especially now. I’ll make it up to you.” There were countless meetings with Jack and Stacey. Was Jack Pond at every meeting, or was Howard meeting with his general manager alone? “Stacey really cares about her reporters. I’m learning a lot. She’s mentoring me.” “I’ll bet she’s mentoring you,” Lexi fumed. How late had she been to the party? Why hadn’t the possibility of Howard being a cheat occurred to her? “Okay. Okay. You have to get yourself together and talk to him. Talk. Not accuse. Got it?” Lexi took a couple of deep breaths before returning upstairs. She had to know what was going on, if anything, between Howard and Stacey. She heard him speaking quietly on his phone and stopped outside the door to eavesdrop. “I’m always here for you. You can call me anytime. Yeah, we’ll Skype whenever we can. Thanks, again, Stace. We’re solid. I promise.” Stace? Their relationship sounded more personal than professional to her ears. After Howard said good-bye, Lexi closed her eyes and counted to ten before she entered the bedroom. “Hey, Babe, where’s the ice?” “What’s really going on between you and Stace?” “Were you listening to my conversation? That’s beneath you, Lexi.” “And how many times has Stacey been beneath you?” “What? You’re paranoid. Jealousy is a terrible thing, Lexi.” “Should I be jealous?” Howard changed the subject. “Stacey thinks we should go to the emergency room, get me checked out just to be sure I’m okay.” “Does she?” “It will make her feel better. Besides, you’re not a doctor,” he replied steadily. “I can’t take any chances on losing out on this assignment.” “They’ll laugh you out of the ER, and Stacey doesn’t want her pet reporter to look foolish.” Lexi adopted a news anchor’s voice. “Howard Cross, a reporter for WCHO, was seen at Parks Hospital this evening in the emergency room for a bruise on his posterior. How will Mr. Cross deal with terrorists if he can’t handle a sore bum?” “Careful, Lexi,” Howard warned. “You’re making fun of me.” “None of this is funny,” Lexi shot back. “Why didn’t I see the writing on the wall? You’ve got texts from her thanking you for flowers and asking you to celebrate with her in her office. You’ve got more pictures of Stacey Bridges on your phone than you do of me! All those late nights and broken dates.” Howard slowly got up off the bed. He placed his hands squarely on his hips. His eyes narrowed. “You’re spying on me? Stop acting like a crazy desperate bitch.” “I’m not crazy. I’m not desperate, and I am not a bitch. You’re trying to side track me.” Lexi folded her arms resolutely across her chest and stared straight at him. “Look.” Howard approached her and tried to put his arms around her. Lexi recoiled and stepped back. “The news business is tough, Lexi,” he said. “You play hardball, or you strike out and go home. Stacey gave me a break. She could send a more seasoned reporter, but she’s sending me. Whatever you think I’ve done,” Howard said. “I’ve done it for us. You and me.” “What exactly have you done?” “This isn’t a small market like before. Chicago is a stepping stone. Stacey has connections. She’s a woman who gets what she wants. In return, we do, too.” Stunned, Lexi couldn’t believe her ears. This was the man she loved. The man she planned to marry and have his children. “You’re having sex with her.” Lexi stated, knowing it wasn’t a question. It was a revelation. “I’m not in love with Stacey. I told you she gets what she wants, and for now, she wants me. Think of it as part of doing business.” “Who are you?” The knowledge she was with him in the same timeframe he was with Stacey made her stomach turn. “She’s part of a larger plan. Nothing’s changed between you and me. I’m the same guy you fell in love with.” “I don’t think you’re the same guy at all. When did you and Stacey start sleeping together?” Howard waved a hand in the air in a beseeching gesture. “Oh come on! You really want the details?” “Yeah, I really do.” At first she wasn’t certain he was going to tell her, but she stood her ground, determined she wasn’t going anywhere until she knew everything. “If that’s the way you want it,” he cautioned. “But remember, you wanted to know. We got involved when it became clear she was interested in me as more than a reporter. I want to go to Afghanistan, but so do other reporters on the staff. Stacey and I have a mutually beneficial arrangement. She has network contacts, and she’s talking me up. It’s not like she expects me to leave you.” “Is that supposed to comfort me? What if she has other plans? Does she go with us? Or would you just dump me? How could I be so stupid? So utterly in the dark? I thought I knew you. Now I wish I’d never met you.” “Lexi.” Howard tried to soothe her. “You’re being irrational. Once I’m in New York, I won’t need Stacey.” “No, you won’t, will you? But then you’ll find another way to boost your ego and your career. If it’s another woman, so be it. I can’t believe how warped your thinking is. I have to go,” Lexi said. “I have to get out of here.” “Maybe that’s a good idea. Take a drive. Cool off and look at the big picture. I’m going places, Lexi, and you’re going with me.” She was amazed how reasonable he sounded. Like they’d had a minor spat and she’d soon come to her senses. “I see the big picture. You’re doing your boss to get ahead.” Howard shook his head back and forth, obviously trying to be patient with her. “That’s an ugly way to look at things.” “Everything about you and Stacey is ugly.” “Lexi,” he protested. “Grow up. If you want the brass ring, you reach for it. That’s all I’m doing.” “You’re despicable.” “My job puts a roof over your head. I support your career, and you should support mine. You want an expensive condo, my last name on your driver’s license, private schools for our kids. Sometimes there’s a price to pay. You have no idea what I’ve sacrificed to make it this far. If you really think about it clearly, you’ll see things my way.” “When hell freezes over,” Lexi spat back. “How could I have made such a terrible mistake?” “You didn’t make a mistake!” “I left your gloves at the diner.” “What?” “I hated them. I hated the coat and the handbag, too.” “What in hell are you talking about?” Lexi walked to the double-door closet, opened them, and pulled out a large weekend bag. She ripped clothes from the hangers and stuffed them inside, stripped off her robe, and hurriedly re-dressed in the clothes she’d worn to work. “You’re leaving me?” Howard asked in an incredulous tone. “You need to settle down, Lexi. Think about what you’re doing before it’s too late.” “Later than you think, buddy.” “We make a good team. I don’t care about Stacey. It’s you I love.” “Love?” She asked in astonishment. “You love me?” Howard briefly closed his eyes. When he opened them, they were as blue as ever. Lexi once thought she would never tire gazing into them. Now she was certain she never knew the man behind those eyes. “You know I do,” he assured her. “No, I don’t. I don’t know anything anymore.” Lexi gathered her bag and left Howard standing in the bedroom. Downstairs she threw on the coat she’d left on the chair in the hallway, found her handbag, and reached inside for her keys. She had to get out of the condo, away from Howard. Outside in the sub-zero temperature, she wiped angry tears from her cheeks. Her Jetta shimmied a little before the engine turned over. Lexi drove, but didn’t remember the route she took. There was no one she felt she could tell her troubles to. Platitudes and unsolicited advice were not what she needed tonight. She saw the lights ahead and the sign for a comfortable chain hotel. Lexi turned the car into the lot. Before she turned off the ignition to go inside and register, she laid her head on the steering wheel and began to sob. Chapter 12 Ryan decided to take Annie at her word. She was unhappy and wanted out of the business. They spent the rest of the evening talking, and she didn’t make any more unwanted advances. Signing her to a contract was a dream-come-true, but he was filled with relief when she called Toby to take him back to his office. Yvette seemed indifferent when he cancelled their dinner plans. He tried calling her after his meeting, but her mobile went straight to voicemail. A few nights ago when she showed up out of the blue, Ryan refused, at first, to take her to bed. Instead he led her to the kitchen table where they sat down to have a heart-to-heart. He thought back on their conversation. “Yvette, our physical relationship is incredible, but I want to get to know you. A real relationship, not just hooking up. Okay?” Her full lips had turned upward, a questioning look on her face. “Ah, you propose, no?” Ryan’s heart had leaped into his throat. “No! No, Yvette. Not marriage.” He waved a finger back and forth between them. “You and me. See, you and me. Boyfriend. Girlfriend.” The language barrier had taken him to the deep end of the pool, and he was far from ready to dive in. “Girlfriend. Boyfriend.” She had repeated cocking her head in a questioning attitude. “Yeah, you understand? Right?” “Is good. Vatever,” she agreed. Though not with the enthusiasm he expected, Ryan took her response to mean she was officially his girlfriend. He secured her personal mobile number and a dinner date, the one he’d cancelled because of Annie Nichols. After Toby dropped him at the office, Ryan retrieved his car and started the drive to his condo. Where could Yvette be? Maybe she was waiting for him at home. He should give her a key. On the drive, he mulled over Annie’s proposal and Dave’s reaction. Surely his friend’s opinion of him would rise. And Annie? He could handle Annie. After all, she was going to marry Rusty. Ryan felt good about his prospects. He was determined to mend his relationship with Dave. In the process, he would make both of them very wealthy men. Yvette was his gorgeous new girlfriend. Who knows? Maybe someday he’d settle down and get married. A chill ran down his back. Well, maybe someday in the distant future. When he arrived home, Yvette wasn’t waiting for him. There was no message indicator light on his answering machine. Ryan dialed her number on his mobile. No answer, only voicemail. The woman was flighty to say the least and, most of the time, impossible to reach. He thought he had gotten through to her when they talked. “Hey, Yvette. Ryan, here,” he spoke to her voicemail. “If you’re upset because I cancelled dinner, I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you. Call me, okay? I really want to talk to you.” After he hung up, he peeked inside the refrigerator. A couple of beers, an out-of-date carton of milk, and a few questionable left-over containers lay inside. Maybe he should go to bed and forget about food. “Pizza,” he decided and placed an order with an online app. He tried Yvette one more time after he ate. She didn’t pick up. Why wasn’t he surprised? Ten-thirty was early to turn in, but a good night’s sleep might give him some perspective on his meeting with Annie. He couldn’t wait to share his news with Dave and Cass. Chapter 13 “Girlfriend, what’s wrong?” Gloria parked her fanny on the edge of Lexi’s desk. “Howard and I are through.” She was still in shock over his confession, and she hadn’t slept more than a couple of hours. “Oh, honey!” Gloria stood up, took Lexi by the arm, got her to her feet, and shuttled her off to the employee lounge. They sat down at the battered faux wood table. Lexi accepted a cup of coffee from her co-worker. “You look like you haven’t slept in a week.” “I spent the night in a hotel.” “A hotel? That must have been some bust-up.” Lexi was having a hard time dealing with the events of the night before. What had started out as a romantic interlude had turned into a horror show. The hardest part was the realization she must be the most naive person in the world not to have seen Howard Cross for who he was. “You shouldn’t be here. Go home. I’ll say you’re sick. Paul won’t be in for at least another hour.” “I can’t go home. I don’t have a home.” The realization stunned Lexi. She really had nowhere to go. “What? The bum threw you out?” “No. I walked out on him.” Lexi pulled napkins from the dispenser and dabbed at her bleary eyes. “I can’t go back until I think things through. I don’t want him there when I pick up the rest of my stuff.” “Look, kiddo. I’ve had some knock down drag outs in my time. Everybody fights and says things they don’t mean. Tell you what. You can stay with me until your boyfriend realizes he’s being a jerk.” If only she knew, but Gloria was involved with a cheater herself. Lexi felt shamed by Howard’s affair. He had fooled her for a long time, and she wasn’t ready to share the details with anyone. “You’re kind to offer, but I can’t take advantage of you. I’ll figure out what to do.” “You can’t stay in a hotel. You’ve been there for me when I’ve been in the dumps about Frank. You got a better offer?” She didn’t have a better offer, and Gloria didn’t know her well enough to pry, she hoped. Besides, she needed to concentrate on her next steps. “Only for a few days and I could help out.” “Sure, honey, we’ll talk. Right now, you take my spare.” Gloria reached into her pocket and pulled out a wallet, extracted a key, and folded it into Lexi’s hand. “Go back to your hotel and clear out your stuff. My address is 1297 Ellis Court, Schaumburg.” “You live in the ‘burbs?’” “Ronnie and I bought a sweet little house before he died. Go on. Get outta here before our lunk head of a manager comes in.” Lexi stood and gave Gloria a hug. “Times like these, we girls have to stick together. Fix yourself some tea and take the yellow bedroom. Make yourself at home.” “I can’t thank you enough.” Gloria waved her away. “No need to thank me. Hey! How’d you do with the Reigns last night?” “Good. Really good. Paul should be happy.” “The old coot wouldn’t be happy if we sold everything in the store. But, good for you.” Together they walked to the back door that led to the employee parking lot. “And Frank? Did you have a good evening?” “Frank is Frank. I’ll tell you about our date tonight when I get home. Now, go, scoot.” Relieved she wouldn’t have to face her manager or customers, Lexi decided to skip her evening design class and settle in at Gloria’s. The house wasn’t what she expected. Located in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood, her co-worker’s home was wood-framed with white siding and dark blue shutters. The sidewalk to the house was neatly shoveled. Lexi climbed two steps to the porch and immediately felt a sense of welcome. She turned the key in the lock and stepped inside. The décor was classic. Lexi passed an antique grandfather clock in the entryway. A piano with silver-framed photos sitting on top was in the living room to her left. A warm vanilla shade covered the walls. Navy pillows propped on a light colored sofa opposite two chairs in a navy and brown block pattern composed a conversation area. An old writing desk and a cane seated chair sat against the wall near the piano. “Great taste.” Lexi felt bad for thinking the house might be a little down at the heels. She sat her bag on the hardwood floor and toured the bungalow. Gloria’s bedroom and on-suite were equally well decorated in shades of green and beige. The yellow guest room was cozy. Across the hall, she found a full bath. Lexi felt grateful to have temporary housing. She retrieved her carry-all, unpacked, and settled into the yellow bedroom. A nap sounded good since she’d slept so little the night before. Later, when she got up, she planned to investigate Gloria’s kitchen. The least she could do was to make dinner to thank her for the lifeline she’d offered. Lexi took off her slacks and sweater, retrieved an over-sized tee shirt from the dresser, and turned back the comforter on the bed. She slipped beneath the soft cotton sheets and drifted off. When Gloria Johnson arrived home, Lexi had the dining room table set for two. She’d found china and silver flatware on the upper shelf of the pantry. “Lexi?” She heard her co-worker call out. “In here.” Lexi peeked out from the kitchen and wiped her hands on a dish towel. She wore a red and white apron, a rotund French chef appliquéd on the front. “I hope you like dinner. I wanted to say thank you.” “Bless your heart! The food smells wonderful. Hey! We need some wine. I could use a drink. How about you? Paul was a bear today. I’m beat.” “I won’t turn down the offer.” “Lasagna. Oh, my gosh, I’ve been meaning to make lasagna.” Gloria poured two glasses of wine and inspected the oven. “Salute,” she raised her glass. “Salute.” Lexi toasted her friend and drained the contents. “Easy girl. You’ll be snookered before dinner.” “I don’t care.” “Ah.” Gloria slipped off her heels and hitched herself up to sit on the kitchen counter. “I’ve been where you are. Still replaying the fight with the boyfriend, huh?” “I thought I knew Howard. I was going to spend my life with him.” “And you don’t think you two can patch things up?” “No, I don’t. He’s sleeping with his boss. He thinks she can boost his career.” “Oh my!” Gloria sipped her wine. “And you found out.” Lexi nodded. She was a guest, and the subject might be a touchy one for Gloria. “I sometimes wonder if Frank’s wife knows,” her friend mused. “I’m not proud he’s two-timing her. He swears he’s gonna ask for a divorce. Ha! I’ve heard that one too many times to count.” Unsure how to respond, Lexi refilled her glass from the bottle on the counter. What bothered her most were her own failed relationships. Two men she loved. Two very different men. Ryan drifted, and Howard planned. But Howard didn’t just plan, he schemed. “There was someone before him. Someone I loved very much. We didn’t work out, either. Am I the problem? I’ve asked myself that question a lot since last night. What makes me fall for the wrong guy twice in a row?” “Lousy luck, statistics, the alignment of the planets. Who knows? I was married to the greatest guy in the world. Perfect for me, and he got cancer and died. You’re young, Lexi. I know you don’t want to hear a bunch of clichés, but you’ll find the love of your life.” Lexi didn’t feel like dusting herself off and picking herself up. She had never felt so emotionally drained and depressed. When she thought of Howard with Stacey, she almost got sick. “I should have been born in another time. I’m not casual about relationships. I want to grow old with someone I love. I want to build a history, have a husband and kids. My mom and dad had that kind of marriage.” Gloria gave her an understanding smile. “I’m glad you had a great family, but don’t believe for a minute they didn’t have bad times you didn’t know about. It’s damn hard work to keep a relationship together. You have to be all in, I think, is the expression.” “Then I want to be all in. I know my generation is different. I know we seem to do things backwards; buy a house, move in together, have kids, and then get married.” Lexi thought of her mother’s reaction when she found out she and Ryan lived together. “But I never moved in unless I thought we were headed…” “To the altar?” “The piece of paper thing. Standing in front of your family and friends letting everyone know you’re committed to each other. Am I wrong to want that?” “At least you know what you want. Now you have to find the right guy. And you will. Let’s sit down and eat your lasagna. You need a good meal.” The food was delicious, but Lexi picked at her plate. She felt like a throwback to another era. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was two strikes against her in the romance department that made her head hurt. She needed a distraction. “What about you and Frank? How did you meet?” “I never expected him.” Her friend dabbed her mouth with a napkin smearing pink lipstick on the white cloth. “According to him, his wife only cares about her grandkids. She’s the chief babysitter, and there’s little left over for him at the end of the day. His youngest daughter is expecting again. And like you’d think he would say his sex life is caput.” “Were you hoping you’d meet someone when you met him?” Gloria guffawed. “I wasn’t looking for anyone, especially a married man. We met at Gia’s Italian Restaurant, the one near Gilson’s. I was having a solo dinner, and there he was. You know what Frank wants?” “Sex?” The obvious Lexi assumed; the physical intimacy he didn’t have with his wife. “Sex for sure, but he wants company. Someone who takes an interest in him. It ain’t brain surgery. We’re both lonely, and we enjoy being with each other.” “Would you marry him? I mean if he was free?” Lexi thought Frank was a cad who called Gloria for a roll in the hay whenever he was in the Windy City. “Would I marry him? I don’t know. He talks a good game, but I think it’s just that. Talk.” “And you’re okay with your relationship?” Gloria’s shoulders heaved up and down. “I’m south of forty, Lexi. Truth be told, Ronnie was the love of my life. Every man after him has been a pale imitation.” “You shouldn’t give up on love,” Lexi protested. “I’m not going to settle. No damn way, and neither should you.” The woman seated across from her reached out to pat her hand. “I am who I am, honey. But don’t you end up like me.” Chapter 14 “You are going to sign Annie Nichols?” Dave MacAfee inquired skeptically. Cass stood in the doorway. Ryan motioned them both inside and closed the door. “We are going to sign Annie Nichols.” “Say something,” Ryan prodded to break the silence. “I’ve got to reconcile with my wife. If we sign her we’ll be rich, and Bett will hold me upside down and shake every penny out of my pockets.” Ryan was incredulous. “You have nothing else to say? Dave, we’re going to sign the biggest pop diva in the music world. She’s ours, all ours. Kool Kat will explode like a super nova. We’ll have artists begging to sign.” “Bett wanted to move to L.A.” Dave continued in a stream of consciousness. “We fight about staying in Chicago all the time. I should have listened to her. All the best studio musicians, artists and networks are in L.A.” In Ryan’s opinion, his partner couldn’t see the benefits because he was too busy figuring out how his wife was going to take advantage of him. “We can do everything from here. We don’t have to leave Chicago. And I disagree the best musicians are in L.A.” “The Lord provides,” Cass chimed in. Dave McAfee jabbed his hands into his hair. “Man, oh man, oh man. Not a word, Ryan. Not a word, Cass. The Nichols’ deal is top secret. When you find out what she wants, you give the details to me,” he instructed. “I need to know when I should start sending roses to my wife and groveling at her feet. No slimy divorce lawyer is getting my dough.” Ryan expected his partner’s head to start spinning. He was acting like a man possessed. Dave turned on his heel and headed back to his office. “Well, don’t he beat all?” Cass said. “Money is the root of all evil.” “I’ve known him for a long time. He’ll get over himself. Cass, would you please get Rusty Hamilton on the phone? Let’s get Annie’s deal started ASAP. She’s not going to slip through our fingers.” “Now you’re talkin’.” Cass raced off to her desk, and five minutes later Ryan was on the line with Annie’s manager. “We worked up a draft,” Rusty stated the good news. “She was very specific. You’re producing the farewell album. Did she tell you?” “Ah, no. She didn’t.” His name would appear on her album as Executive Producer. Thank you, Annie! “Ryan, she’s burned out. I’ve never seen a star rise so quickly and flame out just as fast. We’re looking forward to Spain.” “And a family. Congrats, Man.” “I’ve always wanted kids. I couldn’t be happier, but right now my main concern is Annie. Let’s get the deal wrapped up before she changes her mind.” “Are you trying to tell me something?” Ryan’s stomach dropped into his socks. “I’m only saying she’s quitting because she’s pregnant. All she talks about is protecting the kid. Annie hasn’t taken good care of herself for a long time. You saw how thin she is, and she’s having a hard time kicking cigarettes.” He was right. Annie looked like a number two pencil. If she lost her baby, would she marry Rusty and change her mind about her career? Signing Annie to Kool Kat was numero uno. “Let’s get everything on the books, Rusty, so Annie will have one less problem to worry about.” “The sooner she’s signed with you, the sooner we get her into the studio and start recording. She’s at her old house. A nightmare for her security, but she refuses to stay anywhere else. The baby is her lifeline and a ticket to sanity. I’ll fax the draft to you. What’s your number?” “319-777-6499.” “Should be there in a few minutes. Call me when you’ve read it,” Rusty replied and hung up. The fax machine was located near Cass’ desk. Everything was riding on the contract. After Ryan read the draft, Dave would have to bless it, and the attorneys would have to finalize the document. Then he could secure the pop diva’s signature. One step at a time to stake his claim at the top of the mountain. Time inched by before the machine stirred to life. Cass joined Ryan to watch the pages come through. “Are you nervous?” “Like a dog that hasn’t been walked in two days.” Ryan rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “Whatever you need, you let me know.” Ryan was touched by her dedication. “You’re a gem. I don’t pay you enough.” “I’m rooting for you,” she replied. “Your life is gonna change. Are you ready?” “More than you can ever imagine.” His assistant gave his arm an affectionate squeeze. His New Year’s resolution was to become a new man. Annie’s deal was a good start. Out of nowhere, the imagery of a home, a wife and kids played in his mind. A little tyke circled his feet. Lexi laughed in delight. Whoa! Where had those thoughts come from? Ryan shook off his imaginings and took the document to his desk. Hard as he tried to read the words on the page, the happy family he’d envisioned was stuck on rewind in his brain. Why was she at the diner? How could he find her? Lexi. Lexi. Lexi. He forced himself to return to the words on the faxed pages. Annie would retain the rights to her songs. She would determine how Kool Kat used them and how her releases would be packaged and marketed. Royalties to the label were incredibly generous, and what’s more, she wasn’t asking for anything up front to sign. “No way!” Ryan re-read the paragraph. Dollar signs leaped from the page. Marketing, merchandising, CD’s and the farewell tour on DVD. The Annie Nichols franchise would generate a cash mountain. There was more. Rusty’s promise Ryan would be her executive producer was there in black and white. He would lay down, with Annie’s approval, the tracks for her final album. Ryan gave a low whistle and sat back in his chair and contemplated his future. Would Lexi find him more respectable if he had a solvent company and financial security? He grabbed the phone from its cradle and dialed Dave’s extension. When his partner answered, Ryan said, “Get in here. Now.” Chapter 15 A few days after the fallout from Howard had settled, Lexi decided to make arrangements to pick up her belongings. What if he changed the locks? What if he was there? Should she call and set up a time? She picked up her mobile phone from her desk and decided to send a text message. “I want to pick up my things when you’re out. What works for your schedule?” There. To the point. Plain and simple. He probably didn’t want to see her any more than she wanted to see him. Howard didn’t text back right away. Probably off on some big story, or too busy to bother with his ex-girlfriend. Around four p.m. he responded. Out tonight. Won’t be home until late. Leave your keys on the kitchen counter. Leave the keys indeed! Her name was still on the mortgage. “Lexi, are you sure you want to go over there alone?” Gloria asked when she arrived home. “Let me go with you.” “No, I’ll be fine. I won’t be long.” “Okay, okay.” Gloria’s hands flew up in surrender. “Maybe you know best. You go ahead, but after what you told me, I don’t like the thought of you being alone in that place.” Lexi had too much wine the first night. She shouldn’t have hung Howard’s dirty shorts on Gloria’s line of hospitality. She gave her friend a warm hug. “I’ll be okay. Howard is a lot of things, but he isn’t a serial killer, and he’s not going to be there.” Gloria hugged her back. “Good luck, honey.” Lexi put on her coat and grabbed her handbag. She hurried to the driveway and dove into her Jetta, turned on the car, and amped the heat up to high. Frigid air blasted from the vents sending a shiver down her back. Rush hour was over. The drive into the city didn’t take as long as she anticipated. She pulled into the familiar dimly lit garage of the condo building and parked in an empty space. “Okay,” she steadied herself. “Why should I be nervous? I’ll be in and out in a flash.” She clutched her shoulder bag, took a deep breath, and got out of her car. A tinny Muzak song, the title of which she couldn’t remember, accompanied her in the elevator. She exited to the connecting walkway over the street. Everything looked different. The entrance to the building didn’t seem as welcoming. The windows on the walkway were dirty and fogged over. The hallway could use a fresh coat of paint. Busy with everyday life, how quickly surroundings became familiar and flaws invisible. When Lexi arrived at the door, she paused for a second to find the right key, inserted it, and pushed inside. The air was warm and stale, and the silence was deafening. Lexi closed the door, turned on the hallway light, and headed to the bedroom. One of the bedside lamps was on. The California King bed was unmade. Several books were stacked on Howard’s side on the nightstand. The titles indicated he was boning up on the Middle East. Lexi turned on the overhead light and the ceiling fan and went to the closet. Inside she retrieved her luggage, rolled the suitcase to the bed, and lifted it to sit on the mattress. She unzipped the bag and started packing. An hour and a half later, satisfied her task was completed, Lexi returned to the living area. She flipped off the hallway light, opened the front door and came face-to-face with Howard. From inside the darkened condo, his frame backlit, he stood in the hallway. “You’re still here?” Lexi glanced at her wrist watch. The illuminated dial read nine forty-five PM. He wasn’t exactly arriving home late as he had stated in his text message. “On my way out,” she replied. Howard didn’t budge. “I thought you’d be gone,” he said. “And you said you’d be late. If you’ll just step aside.” “Howie!” A familiar voice called to him. Stacey Bridges appeared behind Howard out of breath like she’d climbed the stairs instead of taking the elevator. “I couldn’t get Jack off the phone. Oh!” she exclaimed upon seeing Lexi. “This is awkward,” Howard said with a smarmy grin on his face. He crossed his arms and leaned into the door frame. “Not really,” Lexi responded airily. “I believe you two have met.” Really? You brought your boss with extra benefits home when you knew I was here packing up? Unbelievable! What an asshole! “Would you get out of my way so I can leave?” Howard slipped his arm around Stacey and stepped aside. When Lexi passed them, she smelled whiskey radiating from the GM. “I hope you got everything you wanted.” Howard’s tone was patronizing. Lexi ignored him and turned to Stacey. “Take it from someone who knows. You think you’ve got the upper hand, but he’s using you. When he’s finished, you’ll be the one packing up your stuff and wondering what you ever saw in him.” She held her head high and didn’t look back. Howard Cross was a closed chapter, and he wasn’t going to get the better of her now. When Lexi arrived back at Gloria’s, her bravado fell away. She felt humiliated seeing Howard with Stacey. And she knew that’s exactly what Howard had wanted. He’d come back early in hopes of rubbing the other woman in her face. She was proud she had remained calm and walked away with dignity. Fortunately, Gloria wasn’t up, or she had the good sense to leave Lexi alone. She wasn’t in the mood to discuss her encounter at the condo. Lexi unpacked her suitcase and let loose her highly charged emotions about Howard. “I hope you get sun burned so badly your dick swells up as big as your head. I hope you get some weird disease that makes your hair fall out, all of it. I hope you dig a hole, climb in and never re-surface!” The certainty he’d cast Stacey aside when she was no longer useful was some solace. Lexi needed to vent until she felt nothing for Howard Cross. She closed the door to the guest room and didn’t bother to go into the bathroom to wash her face. Instead she peeled off her clothes and kicked off her shoes. She threw on an old college-logo tee shirt and a pair of boxers. Howard wasn’t worth spit. If she’d learned anything, it was that she was lucky, really lucky to have seen him for who he was before she married him. The thought of being his wife made her shudder. ”I will never again sell myself short for any man.” Lexi laid her head on the pillow. At least Ryan was honest when they broke up. He wasn’t ready to settle down, and he said so. She’d rather be alone than make another mistake like Howard Cross. Although Lexi wasn’t ready to give up on love, she needed to be smarter the next time she gave her heart away. Chapter 16 The diner wasn’t busy. A middle-aged couple ate lunch together at one of the Formica topped tables. Two college-age students sat at the counter and lingered over laptops and coffee. A solitary woman ate alone at the table where Lexi sat a week ago. Ryan waited impatiently for his sister to join him. He wasn’t in the best of moods. Last night Yvette had pulled another disappearing act. His voicemails remained unanswered. Her vanishing act left him cold. If he thought he could have a serious relationship with her, he was grasping at straws. Yvette was a sex kitten and nothing more. Ordinarily, he’d have no complaints. Instead, her behavior left him frustrated and angry. The bright spot in his life remained the pending deal with Annie Nichols. His business partner had grudgingly come around. The final contract now rested in the pop queen’s hands. “Coffee. Black. Thanks.” He ordered when the waitress appeared. “Okay, be right back.” Ryan glanced at her nametag. “Ah, Tracey, before you go. Did you happen to see a woman, tall, slender, long brown hair sitting over there the other night?” He pointed to the table by the window. A long shot at best. “Real pretty? Like model pretty? Good dresser, right? Yeah, she was in here. Jumped up to look out the window and spilled coffee all over the place. I guess she got embarrassed and left. Over tipped for the trouble, too.” Now he was sure Lexi was the woman at the window. “Has she been back?” “Nope,” the waitress answered. “But she left something on the table. Hold on.” A wallet. A handbag. Anything to give him a clue where Lexi lived. When Tracey returned, she handed him a pair of gloves. “You can tell by looking they’re expensive. I thought for sure she’d come back, but so far, nothing.” Ryan turned the gloves over in his hands wondering why Lexi hadn’t claimed them. “How well do you know her?” “We go back a ways. Her name is Lexi Carpenter.” “Like I said. Pretty pricey not to come back for.” “Tracey, would you do me a favor? If she does come back, tell her Ryan has her gloves. I work next door. She’ll know.” The waitress scribbled his name on her pad. “Ryan. Sure, if I’m here, I’ll tell her. I better go get your coffee.” “My sister’s joining me. I thought she’d be here by now. Would you bring a Diet Coke for her?” The young woman bobbed her head. “No problem. I’ll be right back.” A few minutes later, Cindy breezed through the door. “At last,” Ryan teased. “Traffic tie-up on the drive. Oh, good. You ordered a Diet Coke.” Cindy took a sip. “What’re those?” “Gloves,” he replied. “I can see they’re gloves. Unless you have a fetish I don’t know about, those are women’s gloves. Where is she?” “I wish I knew. They belong to Lexi. She was in here the other night. I saw her at the window when I was leaving to meet Annie Nichols.” “Hence the invitation to this lovely establishment. You hoped you might see her.” Too transparent for his own good, Ryan admitted, “I can’t get her off my mind no matter how hard I try.” “What about Annette?” “A total no-go and her name is Yvette. She only wants my body.” Ryan propped his chin in his hands and laughed along with his sister. “You’re still in love with Lexi, aren’t you?” “She wouldn’t give me the time of day if I could find her. She’s in love with the anchorman, remember?” “Howard Cross. He’s a reporter. Nothing but fluff and window dressing if you ask me. Hmmm. Cinderella left a pair of gloves instead of a glass slipper. There has to be a way to find her.” Before Ryan could reply, Tracey appeared with her pad and pencil. “You guys ready?” “Why don’t we share a Chicago deluxe deep dish? I haven’t had one of those in ages,” Cindy said. “Large. I’ll take a box for the left- overs for dinner tonight.” The waitress chuckled. “Okey, dokey. One large deep dish with everything coming up.” Tracey left to place the order. Cindy put her hand over her brother’s. “Hey! Don’t give up. You and Lexi are meant to be together. You will find her.” “I have her gloves not a crystal ball. There’re two million people in the city. I can’t camp out here hoping she’ll show up.” “Defeatist,” his sister challenged. “Are you afraid to look for her?” “Afraid? Who? Me?” Ryan asked defensively, but he was talking to the one person who knew him better than anyone. “Maybe a little,” he admitted. “Commitment isn’t exactly my forte, but lately. . .” he trailed off. “I’ve been thinking what a jerk I was. If I got her back, could I be any different?” “Do you want to be any different?” “When I saw Lexi downtown,” Ryan admitted. “I knew in a split second I wasn’t happy without her. I want to be a better man than the one she left.” “Then do everything you can to find her and make things right.” “I thought about hiring a PI.” “Do you know one?” “No, but unless you have a better idea, I think I’m headed for the yellow pages.” “Good luck, little brother.” Cindy gave Ryan a wink. “Let me know when you find her.” “If I find her.” “Have faith and a little patience. I have a good feeling about your odds.” Ryan hoped she was right. The pizza arrived, and they dove in talking about Cindy’s new job and his prospects with Annie Nichols. After lunch, on his way back to the office, he thought about his discussion with his sister. Cindy had ignited his resolve. He was through with Yvette and through playing around with other women. If he wanted Lexi back, and he did, Yvette, no matter how scantily clad she was when she showed up at his door, wasn’t going to melt his resolve. He needed to find Lexi and convince her to give him a second chance. When he arrived at the office, a plan was already percolating. Cass caught him in the reception area. “What’s wrong?” Ryan asked when he saw the look on his assistant’s face. Cass nodded her head in the direction of two huge men sitting in the reception area. They could pass for mafia body-guards. “She’s in there,” she said in an exaggerated whisper. “Who’s where?” “Annie Nichols is in your office!” Cass warned. “She didn’t say much, but she looked upset. Asked for you, and when I told her you were at lunch, she insisted she wait in your office.” “Annie’s here?” “Well, that’s what I said, didn’t I? I thought you’d never come back. You put your cell phone on silent again, didn’t you? If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, don’t turn off your ringer during office hours.” “Okay, Cass. Calm down. I’ll go see what Annie wants.” Ryan continued to his office and opened the door. “Hello, Annie. Cass told me you were here. Did you come to talk about your contract?” The famous diva sprang to her feet and into his arms. “Oh, Ryan! I’ve had a terrible day! My life is a mess!” Annie gripped him in a bear hug. He saw Cass at her desk craning her neck to get a better look. He freed himself and closed the door. “Okay, tell me what’s wrong.” He guided her to a chair. Ryan perched on the edge of his desk, arms folded across his chest. “Only everything! The media knows I’m in Chicago. I was careful, but they found me. They know I’m pregnant.” Sooner or later the press was bound to find out. Surely, her PR people could handle the revelation. “Tough break, especially now, when all you want to is get away from the paparazzi,” Ryan sympathized. “Did they follow you here?” “They follow me everywhere!” Annie whimpered. Then she dropped an unexpected bomb in his office and it exploded. “Ryan, they think you’re the father of my baby.” “What? How could anyone think that?” Ryan, stunned by her news, jumped to his feet. “Long range lenses. Rusty said they have pictures of us at my mom’s house. They’ll be in the rags tomorrow. According to the media vultures, we were having a secret rendezvous. We were, but not about my baby. I can’t take much more! You’re the only one who can help me. I want my life back!” Annie began to sob. The woman sitting in his office was a mental and physical wreck. The tabloids! If Annie was right, bold headlines would trumpet from the newsstands and supermarket aisles heralding Annie’s pregnancy. Ryan remembered her warm embrace at the house before he went inside. A simple hug between old friends had been twisted like a pretzel to fit the headlines. There was no way he could keep Lexi from hearing about the story. Annie’s sudden re-appearance in his life, no matter how many dollar signs followed didn’t seem worth the price. Lexi would believe he’d impregnated the most famous pop singer on the planet. For all his womanizing ways, he was innocent, but the one person he wanted to know the truth might never find out. Perspiration formed on Ryan’s upper lip. “Annie? Where’s Rusty?” “We had a fight,” she sniffled. “Do you have a Kleenex? “No!” he snapped. “I’m sorry. I’m a little stressed out. I’ll get some.” Ryan raced to his assistant’s desk. “Cass, Kleenex.” “She’s pregnant? Oh, have mercy, Ryan. You’ve done messed up now.” He snatched the tissue box and hissed. “I never touched her! We haven’t been together in years!” “Uh huh. You hush her up. Your office walls are paper thin. If I can hear her blubbering, you bet everyone else can, too.” “I’ll do my best,” Ryan retorted, instantly regretting his tone. Cass hadn’t done anything to deserve his lip. “I’m sorry. You don’t deserve my crap. I’ve got one gigantic problem on my hands, and for once, I didn’t do anything to deserve the consequences.” “Ryan,” his assistant replied sympathetically. “I have never seen a man get himself into hot water the way you can. Get in there and do something.” “Get Rusty on the phone for me. You still got his number?” “Yep, right here. Go on now.” She shooed him away. “I’ll find him.” “I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Ryan took a deep breath and headed back to his office. Annie pulled one Kleenex after the other from the box, wiped her tears, and blew her nose. Ryan sat down in the chair beside her. “You’re upset and for good reason, but you have to calm down. There are too many ears outside my office. We can trust Cass, but after her, I can’t be sure. A major recording artist doesn’t walk in here every day. Believe me.” Annie blew her nose again and wrapped her arms around her chest and began to rock back and forth. “Tell me what you and Rusty argued about.” “He wants to release a statement to the media confirming I’m pregnant and tell everyone we’re getting married.” “Makes sense. Rusty’s excited about your future together and starting a family. He loves you. Why wouldn’t he want the world to know?” “Because of Belinda,” Annie answered. “Belinda?” Who was she and why did she matter? “Who’s Belinda?” Annie took another tissue and dabbed her eyes. She crumpled the remains in her nervous hands. “Belinda Morgan. She’s been sniffing around. She used to be one of my backup singers. There must be a leak in my people somewhere. Somebody talked.” “She heard rumors you’re pregnant.” “Yeah,” Annie confirmed. “She knows.” “Okay.” “No, Not okay.” Annie winced. “You don’t know the whole story. A couple of years ago, Rusty was with Belinda. She told him she was going to have his baby. You know Rusty and kids. He married her right away, but she didn’t want kids. She just wanted him. Belinda got an abortion and told him she lost the baby. Rusty found out the truth. He was furious and demanded a quickie divorce in the islands.” Not the worst scandal. Rusty did the honorable thing and married a woman who, unfortunately, tricked him. “Annie,” Ryan assured her. “You can survive the headlines. You have an army of people who can get Rusty’s side out.” “There’s more. Belinda never got around to signing the papers, and Rusty never followed up. I guess he just assumed he was divorced.” “That is tough luck,” Ryan agreed. “Belinda Morgan must be a piece of work.” “She wants money. Rusty said she’s devious. She’ll drag her heels until I pay her off, or worse, run to the tabloids.” “You’re supposed to pay her off because she didn’t sign her divorce papers? Who cares? Have Rusty contact your attorneys. The story won’t be pleasant, but Annie, you’ve had worse problems.” Annie stared at him with shadowed eyes. Ryan instinctively knew he didn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle. “Do you remember my mom turned tricks for drugs?” “I remember.” Darlene Nichols had been a junkie and a prostitute before Annie was born. She left her drug addicted boyfriend and got help when she found out she was pregnant. She tried to be a good mother, but Annie’s childhood was unstable. She and Annie moved around a lot. Their existence sometimes bordered on desperation. That Annie had survived such hard times, and then ridden a rocket to success, was part of her mystique to her legion of fans. “She got clean, and I was okay when I was born.” “Everyone knows how awful your childhood was,” Ryan sympathized. “The story is old news. Darlene did the best she could.” “I know she tried, but…well, she didn’t know for sure who my father was.” “How do you know that? Darlene and Larry were together when she got pregnant.” “I asked her if Larry was my father. She said she didn’t know. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t.” “Annie, I’m sorry. I really am, but does that matter now?” “It does to me.” Annie hung her head. “Like mother, like daughter. I don’t know who got me pregnant. Rusty can’t have kids, and Belinda knows it.” The puzzle was complete, but the picture wasn’t in focus. “Wait a minute. You said he got Belinda pregnant.” “She let him think he did. After he found out she got rid of the baby, he decided to store his sperm. He was thinking about finding a surrogate before we got together.” “And in the process discovered he’s sterile.” Wow! Annie pregnant. Rusty sterile. The tabloids would go crazy for months, maybe years, burying the two of them in a mudslide. “Yeah,” Annie confirmed. “When the place he went to told him about his test results, he confronted Belinda. Now he wishes he hadn’t, but she put him through hell. All along she knew the kid wasn’t his, and she didn’t plan to keep it anyway.” “So, that’s how Belinda knows your baby isn’t his?” Annie nodded in the affirmative. “Did Rusty let you think the baby was his until the proverbial shit hit the fan?” “He said he loves me no matter what. He’s known all along, but we both know if I pay off Belinda, she’ll keep coming back for more.” “Could you get her for extortion?” “Everything would come out in court. The story would haunt me and the baby forever.” Ryan saw her point. “Who else knows what you’ve told me?” “You, me, Rusty and Belinda. Ryan, I’ve been running at warp speed for years. I didn’t understand the price I’d pay for fame. All I wanted to do was sing.” Annie brushed the tattered Kleenex she clutched under her nose. “I’m teetering on the edge of a cliff.” Her emotional state couldn’t be good for the baby. If Annie lost her child due to stress, Ryan thought she might end up in a mental ward. “One step at a time. Are you sure the tabs are coming out tomorrow about you and me?” “Too good not to print.” “I can’t let the world believe your baby is mine. I have a lot riding on my personal life right now.” Ryan was sympathetic, but he wasn’t a martyr. He had enough in his life to clean up without Annie’s mess added to the rubble. “Yes, you can, Ryan, for a little while?” Annie begged. “If Belinda thinks the baby is yours, she’s less dangerous. I think I can get her a record deal with Guiding Star. Right now, they’ll do anything to make me happy. Don’t you see? You can buy the time I need to get her locked down.” “Look, maybe I can help you figure out what to do, but I can’t play along forever. Tomorrow will be bad enough. Annie, there’s someone I could lose before I have a chance to explain to her.” “Who is she?” Annie’s blue eyes narrowed. “No one you know. Rusty’s one in a million. Look what he’s willing to do for you.” “I know Rusty is a good man. Who is she, Ryan?” “Someone from the past I should never have let go,” he replied evasively. “Lucky girl.” Annie rose from her chair and walked to the window to peer down at the street. “Look at the sharks waiting to feed.” “Maybe I can get you out of here unseen.” “They know I’m here. Every exit is covered. You know they’ll get pictures. Given what you told me, do you want to make this circus even worse?” She was right. Ryan didn’t want any further complications than he already had. Annie’s presence in his building was enough to provide more headlines for the tabloids. She turned away from the window and gave Ryan a quick hug. “Walk me to the reception area?” “Sure.” Annie left the Kool Kat lobby, her bodyguards on either side of her. Ryan watched her go and wondered what the next few days were going to bring. The thought made him shudder. On the drive home after work, he contemplated the headlines that would greet him in the morning. He was collateral damage, and he didn’t like the feeling. Lexi’s leather gloves lay on the front seat. If only he could call her, but what would he say? How could he explain Annie? Lexi, don’t believe what you read or hear about me tomorrow. Lies, all of it. Lies. But, he knew better. Lexi was aware of his past relationship with Annie. Why wouldn’t she believe they’d taken up where they left off? Ryan uttered a defeated sigh. His pile of trash was rapidly growing into a mountain of garbage. Earlier in the office, Cass wasn’t able to locate Rusty Hamilton while Annie was there. When Ryan finally spoke to her manager, Rusty vowed to do everything in his power to protect the woman he loved, no matter the cost. “Stand-up guy.” Ryan muttered with respect when he hung up. Dense flakes began to fall for the second time in a week transforming the snow, dirtied from traffic, white. Ryan pulled into his parking space at the condo garage, turned off the car, scooped up Lexi’s gloves, and placed them in his jacket pocket. He’d checked the office before he left. A small band of paparazzi buzzards circled his office building after Annie’s departure. Ryan managed to evade them by using a service elevator to the underground garage. He was surprised they weren’t at his condo building, but after tomorrow, the ravenous wolves of the media would stalk him like prey wherever he went. Maybe a call to his business partner was warranted. Far from angry, Dave’s reaction was, “Any publicity Kool Kat gets is good publicity!” Typical Dave, Ryan thought, always concerned with the bottom line. His head was swimming with problems when he reached his door. Déjà vu, better known as Yvette LeBeaux was waiting for him. Thank goodness he hadn’t given her a key. The leggy brunette was clad in a pink patent leather mini skirt, a skimpy white sweater barely covering her ample boobs, a wooly black waist-length jacket, and her favorite footwear, stilettos. “How much worse can this day get?” Ryan gritted his teeth in determination. Not tonight. Not ever again. The sight of Yvette made him queasy. “Cherie!” She greeted him with open arms and plastered her body against his. “Let us go inside,” she offered suggestively and began to grind her hip against his groin. Ryan grabbed her shoulders and set her aside. “No! Leave me alone! Go away!” “Babee, you have bad day? I fix,” Yvette purred. “I know how to warm you up.” “Gee,” Ryan replied caustically. “I had no idea you could speak a complete sentence in English. Good for you.” He jabbed his keys into the lock. “I mean it, Yvette.” He turned to face her. “Read my lips, if that’s what it takes, we are over. O. V. E. R. Got it?” Yvette was not so easily deterred. She slipped between him and the door giggled and lowered her hand to his crotch. “Oh, poor Cherie. You know Yvette have cure for bad day.” Ryan recoiled in disgust. “Let go of me! I’m not playing around, Yvette!” “Ah, we see.” The woman morphed into a human octopus and latched onto his body. Her arms encircled his neck; her body folded into his, her lips brushed his ear. Ryan managed to get the door open and push inside to the alcove. Yvette hung on for dear life, kissing, licking, cooing, and clutching. “Get off me!” He shouted and dislodged her. Ryan wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He felt her saliva on his neck and in his ear. For a few seconds, only silence filled the condo. “Enough, okay?” He was beyond weary with frustration when he switched on the overhead light. “Enough already, Yvette.” “You have zee problem?” Her tone grew annoyed. Ryan heard the toe of one of her stiletto heels impatiently tap the hard wood floor. “I’ve got nothing but problems, Yvette. Nothing but. Don’t come here anymore. Understand? This thing, this whatever we’re doing, I’m done, finished. Got it?” Yvette‘s eyes hardened into a squint. She started toward him. Ryan instinctively backed up, but not before she slapped him hard across his face. His eyes bulged, and the side of his face stung, bringing tears to his eyes. “This thing? Yvette is not a thing. You don’t know who you’re messing with. What man on earth would turn down sex with Yvette? I could be a Bond Girl!” She struck a pose worthy of any female super heroine. “No one can seduce a man like Yvette can!” Ryan’s mouth dropped open. “Wait a minute! You’re not French. You’re not French! What the hell?” He flinched, half expecting her to slap him again. “I have a final audition coming up.” Yvette’s nostrils flared indignantly. “Audition?” Had he entered a parallel universe for the terminally confused? “What are you talking about?” “I am an actress,” Yvette declared dramatically. “You’re kidding me, right?” “A method actress. All the great ones are.” Ryan was still coming to terms with the fact Yvette wasn’t a ditzy French model. Was someone putting him on? Had he been set up? He rubbed his jaw. He felt like he’d been KO’d by Rocky. “So, it’s a porno flick?” “I don’t do adult films. It’s an Indy production. You should be grateful I chose you. You weren’t exactly born to be a muse.” “A muse is female.” “Whatever.” Yvette rolled her eyes. “Let me get this straight.” Ryan’s head was spinning. “You were rehearsing? With me? You’re not a model?” “My character, Yvette LeBeaux, is a model. I told you, I’m a method actress.” “You’re an actress pretending to be a model.” Ryan stared at her in disbelief. He knew exactly what had happened to him. Yvette’s overtly seductive outfits. Showing up at his condo unexpectedly to ravage him and then disappear into the night. The joke was on him, and he’d laugh if he wasn’t feeling duped and downright stupid. “You played me.” “Oui,” she shrugged as if the revelation was not important. “Relax. Enjoy Yvette. Now let’s get back into our parts. Give me a moment to prepare.” Yvette took several deep breaths shaking her arms down to her hands. She looked like an Olympic swimmer preparing for a race. “Concentrate. Concentrate,” she chanted. “I’m a beautiful French girl who must get to her Hans.” “Hans?” Maybe Ryan had fallen down a rabbit hole. “Who’s Hans?” “The love of my life,” Yvette sighed as if Ryan were dense. “I haven’t heard from him since the accident.” She stretched her arms above her head and took another cleansing breath. “He’s a champion skier. An avalanche struck during a competition, and now my beloved is missing. I’m desperate to find him, but I’m broke. I have no way to get to Germany. “I meet you at a party. You are rich and blinded by desire for me. I lure you into uninhibited sex. You fall asleep, and I steal your cash, pawn your Rolex, and flee to the airport. You are devastated, of course.” “That’s why you vanished in the night! You’re bonkers. Do you know that?” Unnerved by Yvette’s method acting, Ryan wondered if any of his belongings were missing. She snapped her fingers in front of his face. “I knew you would want Yvette. You are a bad, bad boy. Easy to seduce, good looking, and decent in the sack. It was fun, no?” “I’m sure there’s a compliment in there somewhere, but no, it hasn’t been fun.” Ryan wanted her gone. The whole farce was bizarre. He didn’t need another crazy woman in his life causing problems. “Look, Yvette,” he began. “Yvette is my character’s name. I’m Meredith Keyes.” “Okaaay,” Ryan said. “Don’t most people go to Hollywood to break into the movies?” “You know nothing of the performing arts,” she answered dismissively. “I happen to be a professional musician,” Ryan countered. Why was he wasting time defending himself? All he wanted was Yvette’s one-woman freak show to fold her tent and move on. “Yvette...Meredith, you’ve been a trip. I hope you get the part, but you can stick a fork in me because I’m done.” “I have Viagra if you need help,” she offered, opening her shoulder bag. “My pride may be a little mangled, but my libido is fine. Please. Please just go.” “Fine,” she stated perturbed. “But, I warn you.” She came close to him. Her tone was ominously warning. “You made me break character. If I don’t get the part because of you, I know where to find you.” A shiver ran down his back. Whoever this woman was, she was obviously a whack job. He walked to the front door, opened it, and made a sweeping gesture with his hand. “Break a leg.” “You vill mizz me, Cherie,” she purred, morphing into Yvette LeBeaux. Ryan closed and locked the door after her. He laid his forehead against the cool wood. “I’m a first-class dick.” Maybe someday he’d laugh about Yvette and the unbelievable trick she’d played on him. Maybe. Someday. But not today. Chapter 17 Exclusive! Pop Diva Pops Up Pregnant – Are you looking at the future Mr. Annie Nichols? Lexi stood in line at the checkout at Walgreen’s across the street from Gilson’s. She saw Ryan’s face on the tabloid, The Informer. With trembling hands, she reached for the paper. The story claimed Ryan was Annie Nichol’s secret lover. Annie was pregnant according to an anonymous source. Neither Annie nor her publicist could be reached for comment. The article profiled Ryan Russo as a struggling record executive and sketched out his past relationship with the superstar. Speculation was rampant she would sign with the Kool Kat label. Lexi bought the magazine and hurried to work. In the break room at Gilson’s, she poured over every word. Ryan was portrayed as a male gold digger. “Men are scum.” “Ah, sweetie. The sun will shine again.” Gloria, coffee mug in hand, plopped down beside Lexi. “Whatcha readin’?” “Annie Nichols is pregnant, and everyone believes my ex-boyfriend is the father.” “Howard Cross?” Gloria asked in amazement. “Grass doesn’t grow under his feet.” “No, not Howard. Ryan Russo. We had a relationship a few years ago. Ryan and Annie had a thing before he met me. She’s not the only one. There were plenty of other women after we broke up.” “He’ll be set for life if he hooks up with her. She’s worth a ka-billion dollars.” Gloria leaned over Lexi’s shoulder to get a better look at the article. “Good luck to Annie Nichols if she thinks he’ll marry her. Ryan is a commitment phobe.” “Lexi, you can’t believe everything you read in those papers. He is one good lookin’ stud, though. You sure know how to pick ‘em.” Lexi folded the gossip rag and placed it in her tote bag. “Gloria, I keep making the same mistake, choosing the wrong man to fall in love with. I can’t let another Ryan Russo or Howard Cross make a fool of me again.” How could an alleged relationship between Ryan and Annie make her feel worse than what she knew for certain was true about Howard and Stacey? “You sure seem sore your ex is with somebody else. Let’s talk tonight over a bottle of wine,” Gloria offered. After she left, Lexi admitted Gloria hit a nerve. The tabloid story upset her. At Macy’s, Ryan practically begged her to see him. Did he have a pregnant girlfriend all along? All her speculation was useless. She had to stop thinking about Ryan and Annie. Lexi stopped in the restroom and splashed cool water on her face. She needed to calm down. Ryan’s problems weren’t her problems. He and Annie had nothing to do with her. Nothing whatsoever. She’d push them to the back of her mind and get on with her day. When she came out of the rest room, she saw her manager heading toward her. If she’d seen Paul Frazier first, she would’ve ducked back inside. There was no side-stepping him. He caught up with her and took her by the arm. “He’s back,” he said and pointed his finger toward the showroom floor. “Who’s back?” “The red sofa. Go make that sale, Lexi.” Paul gave her a little push forward. Oh crap! The metro-sexual unable to make up his mind about a stinking red sofa. Norman Martin walked slowly in circles around the piece of furniture like a cat circling prey. She took a deep breath and with determination walked to the customer she never expected to return. Lexi plastered a smile on her face. “Mr. Martin, welcome back to Gilson’s. What can I help you with?” “Oh! Hello. Yes, I’m back. I kept your business card.” He waved it in the air and proceeded to pull a paint chip from the inside pocket of his cashmere coat. “See?” Norman laid the color card against the sofa and triumphantly declared, “A perfect match.” Exasperation got the better of Lexi’s good judgment. “Mr. Martin, no one will notice your red sofa. Forget your black leather chairs with chrome legs. For all the difference the chairs will make, go to the bus station and pull out some plastic benches. Monochromatic walls, disappearing sofas, nightmare chairs. You don’t need a decorator. You need to lock the doors so no one will go into that room.” Martin’s clear blue eyes bulged from their sockets. He snatched the paint chip from the sofa. “And what do you know? You haven’t seen my house! The customer is always right.” “Unless he’s very, very wrong.” Lexi was ashamed she’d taken her overwrought emotions out on Norman Martin. In a more conciliatory tone, she explained. “I’m a professional decorator, Mr. Martin. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but in all good conscience, I have to tell you what the results will be.” Norman Martin was not appeased. He sputtered and accused. “My wife wants a red room. She can be very particular and impossible to please. You have no idea what I’m up against!” “No, I don’t.” Lexi assured her customer. “I apologize for what I said. You are the customer, and I want your wife to have the spectacular room she deserves. I can help, if you want me to.” Norman Martin was a nice, if somewhat odd, man. She shouldn’t have snapped at him. From the periphery, she saw Paul Frazier pacing the perimeter. He would fire her on the spot if he had heard any of their conversation. Lexi decided at that moment to take a stand. Her career was one aspect of her life she could control, and she intended to become the best interior designer Norman Martin had ever encountered. She waited as he considered her offer. He eyed the prized red sofa. Norman, hands planted on his hips, announced with skepticism, “I’m not totally sold on you, but I’m willing to listen.” The next hour flew by. Lexi sketched the layout of the room from his description. The way he explained his predicament made Lexi soften her attitude even more. His wife, Wilma, had glanced through a home remodeling magazine while she was waiting for a hair appointment. Norman said she couldn’t stop talking about the red room she had seen laid out on the page. She hadn’t torn the picture out, and she couldn’t remember the name of the publication. Norman offered to employ a designer, but Wilma suggested, “Why don’t you do it and surprise me.” “I painted the room myself. What an ordeal!” The diminutive man took out a handkerchief and blotted his forehead. “When I tried to put a furniture plan together, I simply fell apart.” “Does your wife want a red sofa and black leather chairs?” “I have no idea what she wants. I don’t think she remembers clearly what she saw in that damn magazine. Oh,” he put a hand to his mouth. “I’m sorry, dear.” Lexi chuckled. “No offense taken. I have some ideas. No one has to know I helped you.” Poor Norman Martin. His wife sounded like a commanding presence, but he seemed to like Lexi’s suggestions. “Plantation shutters will work well. We’ll order the same sofa in red and white stripes. I’ll use accent pillows with a cabbage rose pattern. Two club chairs will create a cozy conversation area. I’ll need to make an appointment to see your home in person. I can get an idea of your wife’s taste, and we can adjust our plans from there.” “Perfect.” Norman clapped his hands together excitedly. ”You know, maybe I was trying to spite Wilma for getting me into this mess. Let’s make that appointment, but I think she’ll love the room, and so will I. We’ll need accessories, won’t we? What do you suggest?” Lexi was pleasantly surprised he wanted to proceed before she actually saw the room in question. Norman Martin rang up a whopping bill, and he didn’t bat an eyelash when Lexi offered to open an account. “Oh, no. Wilma and I don’t like credit. Money isn’t an issue. My wife is a very successful divorce attorney,” he said with pride. “I’ll leave a deposit, and when the room is finished, I’ll write a check for the balance.” “Four to six weeks for completion is my estimate.” Norman agreed to the following Wednesday for their appointment, but he assured Lexi she was on target with his wife’s sense of design. “What a relief!” He pressed her hand into his. “I’m glad I didn’t go back to Mason-Hall.” Paul Frazier raced over to Lexi the minute her customer left the store. “I can’t believe how much he spent. Maybe you have the heart of a sales person after all.” “How could you doubt me, Paul?” Lexi giggled with delight. “He kept buying stuff. He even bought new furniture for his den.” Her paycheck was going to look a lot healthier when the commission came through. “Well, congratulations. I think you have a real future at Gilson’s.” Paul patted her shoulder and practically skipped back to his desk. *** At dinner, Lexi sat at the counter in Gloria’s kitchen contemplating her future. “Paul was sure singing your praises.” Gloria reached into the wine fridge and pulled out a bottle of chardonnay. “I’m still pinching myself.” Lexi spread crème cheese on a cracker and hesitated before biting into it. “I’ve got to start looking for an apartment. If I can keep my sales up, the commissions will really help.” “Oh.” Her friend and pseudo-landlord finished pouring a glass of wine for herself and one for Lexi. She returned to the oven to baste the chicken. “You want to move out?” “I thought you’d be happy to see me go with all the drama I dragged with me,” Lexi laughed. “I don’t want to overstay my welcome.” “You brought life into the house. Why don’t you stay awhile longer until you get on your feet? Do you have furniture for a new place?” “When Howard and I moved from Indiana, we sold almost everything. We furnished the condo here together.” “Is your name on the mortgage?” “You bet it is,” Lexi answered. “Then Howard owes you money, girl. Get a good lawyer.” Lexi took a sip of wine before answering. “Oh, he’s not getting off Scott free. I saw an attorney, and she’s going to offer to let him buy me out at a profit. Jerkwad!” “Have your people contact his people,” Gloria winked. “Starting over is going to be expensive.” “At least I had sense enough to keep a separate bank account.” “Then stay here a little longer and save your dough.” “Don’t you need privacy when Frank comes to town?” “Frank’s not a problem,” Gloria assured her. “In the meantime, we’ll split the groceries and utilities. The house is paid in full. Deal?” “Deal.” Lexi was relieved to have a place to stay “Good, that’s settled.” Gloria turned from the oven. “I pretty much got all I need. What’s on your wish list?” “Mmm. Good question.” But Lexi didn’t hesitate long. “I want to make the most of my career. I want a family, but having no prospects at the moment, I’ll concentrate on finishing my degree and selling everything at Gilson’s that isn’t nailed to the floor.” Gloria laughed out loud. “You go, girl. I have total faith you’ll get everything you want. Are you okay where things stand with Howard? Do you want to talk about what went down?” “Nope. Howard Cross is in the past. I’ve moved on.” “Okay,” Gloria looked in on her meal again. “Smells good. Hey! Did I ever tell you about the time Paul got trashed at the Christmas party and hit on me?” “Our Paul Frazier?” Lexi laughed with surprise. “The one and only. Gilson’s threw a fancy party three years ago at the Chicago Hilton. I was dressed to the nines in a little black number.” Gloria placed a thumb on her bottom and made a sizzling sound. The gesture sent both of them into a fit of giggles. Laughing felt good, and there was no one who lifted Lexi’s spirits more than Gloria Johnson. Chapter 18 A reporter lurked everywhere Ryan turned. His landline at the condo lay off the hook most of the time. His mobile went unanswered unless he recognized the caller ID. Last night after work, he popped into the men’s room and a reporter popped out of one of the stalls. Annie continued to insist he not say anything until Rusty received the signed divorce papers. Her manager was in Las Vegas to meet with his hopefully-soon-to-be ex-wife. The contract to make Ryan a wealthy man resided with Annie, and there was little chance she’d sign unless he played along. If he looked at his predicament realistically, Annie was holding him hostage. “Ryan, everybody and his mother thinks you’re the father of her baby! Don’t let Annie Nichols get away with her lies.” “I know, Cass, but she won’t sign until she gets what she wants.” His assistant heaved a heavy sigh. “That don’t make no sense. What good is a divorce gonna do if his ex-wife knows he shoots blanks?” “You have an understated way with words,” Ryan mused. “If Belinda causes trouble, Annie will have Rusty retested and miraculously declared fertile. If you have enough cash, you can buy anything.” Ryan raked a hand through his hair. “My own mother thinks I’m the culprit. She said a good Italian Catholic boy would marry Annie. I’m trying to wait just a little longer to see if we can work this out.” Both looked up to see Dave heading their way. Ryan’s partner was in an exceptional mood. “Do you know who called me?” “The National Enquirer? The Star? The Globe? People? Us? TMZ? Take your pick. I’m on a first name basis with most of the editors,” Ryan said. “Steve Noley.” Dave couldn’t contain the glee in his voice. “Of The Nightwatch?” Cass asked. “Steve Noley’s a legend! He’s older than Mick Jagger and still goin’ strong.” Dave McAfee looked like a three-year-old boy on Christmas morning. “Oh yeah, Cass, that Steve Noley. Ryan, did you know he humped Annie Nichols on a plane over the Atlantic? He said that makes you members of the same club.” Cass crinkled her nose in disgust. “Don’t you men know the meaning of the word discretion? Do you all belong to a one-up sex club?” “Get real, Cass. Annie’s skated around the block a few times. Noley called me when he couldn’t find you, Ryan. Everyone believes you’re Annie Nichols’ baby daddy, and that’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us. We’ve hit the mother lode! Kool Kat is going to produce The Nightwatch’s fortieth anniversary album, and you, my talented friend are the producer.” “Yabba dabba do.” Ryan twirled his index finger in the air unenthusiastically. “What the. . .? Did you hear what I said? Ryan, your life will be a dream come true,” Dave insisted. “I don’t have a life or any dreams. I’m suddenly a hot shot because I’m accused of something I didn’t do. Not the way I wanted to make my mark.” “Stop being an old woman. Take the hand you’ve been dealt,” Dave lectured, warming to the subject. “I’ve been fielding calls all morning from big name acts. And my lovely wife is talking reconciliation. Everything we’ve worked for is finally paying off. You’re a helluva producer. Here,” he offered a slip of paper to Ryan. “Return Noley’s call. Don’t let a big fish get away because of your pride.” Ryan accepted the rocker's number, and Dave left the pair standing at Cass’ desk. “You created a Frankenstein,” Ryan’s assistant declared. “Maybe, but our Frankenstein has a point, Cass. Steve Noley is a big fish. I wish I could’ve landed him on my own, but I should take advantage of the situation. After all, Annie’s taking advantage of me. I feel kind of dirty, though, getting him because of a lie,” he frowned. Cass placed a plump hand on his shoulder. “I’m proud of you, Ryan. I think there’s hope for an alley cat after all.” Ryan contemplated her words. Then he turned away and walked to his office. How long would Annie hold him up? How long was he supposed to be her beard? Would anyone believe he wasn’t the father when the truth was told? Not long ago, he would have played along with her, hoping her star power would rub off on the label. Now the price he was paying seemed too high. In his office, Ryan pulled open the lower desk drawer and retrieved the picture of him and Lexi. “You put a Voodoo curse on me. The more I try not to think about you, the more I do. I’m not the same man you left.” He returned the picture and scolded himself. “Geez! Enough of the pity party.” One thing he knew for sure. He could produce The Nightwatch’s album, and that was exactly what he was going to do. Ryan looked at the number Dave had given him. He picked up the phone and made the call. *** Not long ago, Lexi had questioned her career choice. Now she was the sales leader for January and February. She had lined up several lucrative decorating jobs. Her dreams of a career as a designer were taking shape. Howard Cross was fast becoming a distant memory. Ryan Russo, although a tabloid staple, was irrelevant. At least most days that’s what she told herself. “You’re on fire!” Paul happily handed over her second sales-associate-of-the-month certificate. “Thank you, Paul.” Her manager gave her a pat on the back. Lexi planned to add the one hundred dollar check to her bank account alongside her commissions. When she returned to her desk, she was surprised to find Norman Martin waiting for her. “Mr. Martin! My favorite customer. What brings you back to Gilson’s?” “Well,” Norman chuckled amused. “Wilma sent me. She thought the room was divine. I took credit for your work as long as I could, but when she asked me to decorate her office I told her the truth. So,” he shrugged, held out his hands and turned his palms upward. “Here I am.” “I’m happy your wife likes the room.” Lexi had grown surprisingly fond of the fussy little man. “How can I help?” “We talked about you, and Wilma said, ‘I want to meet her.’” He produced a business card for Lexi. “Wilma Conners Martin. Fink, Fine & Martin,” she read aloud. “Oh, yes,” Norman said proudly. “Wilma is a top-notch attorney. Big names come to her. Fink and Fine won’t touch divorce. She’s the rainmaker.” How ironic, Lexi thought. She was going to see a divorce lawyer when all she wanted was to be happily married. “I’ll do my best to please Mrs. Martin.” “Call her ASAP, dear. Wilma’s sharp as a tack. What she wants, she gets,” he winked and offered a gentle smile. “Thank you for thinking of me.” “She simply wouldn’t have anyone else. Your room has made her very pleasant to live with.” The Martins must be an interesting couple. After he left, Lexi wondered what he did for a living. Maybe keeping his wife happy was Norman Martin’s full-time occupation. “Did I see Mr. Fussbudget?” Gloria caught Lexi in the break room. “Yes,” Lexi answered excitedly. “Mr. Fussbudget is Norman Martin. His wife is an attorney, and she wants me to decorate her office.” “You are on a roll. Soon Gilson’s won’t be good enough for you.” “I need to establish more clients before I can even think about moving on.” “Won’t be long, Lexi. You got more class than Paul Frazier has hair on his head. You should scout out one of those exclusive boutiques on Michigan Avenue. Don’t waste your good fortune stuck at Gilson’s.” “Thanks, Gloria, but if I go, you’re coming with me.” Her friend’s eyebrows shot up. “Sweetie, I may be a diamond in the rough, but I’ll never shine like you.” Before she could protest, Gloria’s name was paged over the speaker system. “Ah, shoot! Paul has his tighty-whities in a bunch. You’re having a great month and mine stinks. I’m sure I’m gonna get the shape-up-or-ship-out speech. Call the Martin woman, Lexi. When the stove’s hot, start cookin’.” Gloria walked away. Lexi decided to return the favor and float some business her way. Their friendship was invaluable, and there was no way she was going to let Gloria believe she couldn’t do better than Gilson’s. Chapter 19 Wilma Martin was not the woman Lexi expected. The willowy blonde lawyer was striking. Her face had distinctive high cheekbones, and her eyes were luminous grey. Her hair was wound in a low chignon. The attorney was dressed smartly in an expensive black and white tweed suit and designer black pumps. Lexi couldn’t fathom how the elegant creature before her came to be Norman Martin’s wife. She came around from her desk and offered her hand. “Let’s sit over here.” Wilma indicated a small sofa across the room. “Norman and I are impressed by your work. I knew he couldn’t possibly have decorated our living area by himself.” “I’m glad I could help. He’s a very nice man.” Wilma’s eyes twinkled, and Lexi saw genuine affection in them. “He told you what I do?” “Yes, he’s very proud.” “Norman convinced me to become an attorney,” she stated, “and he was right. I’m excellent at what I do. I won’t hesitate to pick clean the bones of a soon-to-be ex-spouse. I get for my clients what they deserve.” Wilma Martin was certainly self-assured. Lexi admired her confidence and thought she could learn something from the attorney. “My surroundings should inspire trust and confidence.” Lexi wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of Wilma’s penetrating gaze across a conference room table as she negotiated the end of a marriage. How sad. Lexi quickly pushed the thought to the back of her mind. “We moved into the building two months ago,” Wilma said. “The lease was up at our location in Oakbrook. My partners and I wanted to relocate to the city. In the process, we had a dispute with our contractor. We moved here with no time to decorate or remodel. The place is a disaster.” She wasn’t exaggerating. Her office was badly in need of an update. “My surroundings look cut-rate not first-class. Are you up to the job, Ms. Carpenter?” The lawyer’s challenge inspired Lexi. “Yes, I am. Let’s get to work.” For the next thirty minutes they discussed the needed renovations. “Do you believe Gilson’s can provide what I want?” Wilma asked at the conclusion of their discussion. One thing Lexi knew for sure. Paul Frazier would die trying. She sympathized with Wilma Martin’s concerns. “Gilson’s is mid-range in price, but we have access to high quality product lines. The pieces for your home came from Heisen one of the top furniture makers.” They verbally agreed on the submission of a proposal with Lexi’s presentation and a written contract to follow. Lexi took pictures of the office, and when she finished, offered Wilma a handshake. “I look forward to seeing your ideas. Stop by Amy’s desk on the way out to get on my calendar.” “Yes, I’ll do that. Thank you, again.” Lexi floated out of the attorney’s office to her assistant’s desk. She made an appointment to present her proposal. What an opportunity! She would double up on course work and graduate sooner than planned. If she could secure a reference from Wilma Martin, Lexi was that much closer to her goal. She was filled with excitement and plans as she waited for the elevator. When the car arrived, the doors opened to reveal Ryan Russo standing in the back of the elevator. Her bubble of enthusiasm burst. “Lexi!” He blurted in surprise. “Oh no! Not you. Not now.” She’d walked into Ryan’s building with trepidation remembering all too well the diner next door and the night she saw him get into the Mercedes. The co-incidence of the law firm being located in the same building as Kool Kat made her wonder what devilish trick fate was playing on her. “What incredible luck!” Ryan started toward her. “You don’t know how glad I am to see you. Did the waitress tell you where to find me?” What waitress? What is he talking about? “I had business in the building. I’m on my way out.” Lexi wished she knew where the stairs were located. She didn’t want to talk to him. What was the point? Before she could form an escape plan, Ryan pulled her inside the compartment. “What do you think you’re doing?” The man was exasperating, and she wasn’t going to waste her time talking to him. Ryan broke her heart. Howard humiliated her. Hadn’t she suffered enough at their hands? “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I was a jerk. I am a jerk. I saw you at the window of the diner, and I know you saw me.” “Oh yes, the diner. Uh huh. I saw you, all right, and I saw your face plastered all over the front page of The Informer.” Lexi tried to brush past him, but Ryan managed to block her exit. “None of what you read is true. I swear. If you’d just let me explain. Ever since I saw you at Macy’s, I’ve been trying to find a way to get in touch with you.” “Does your baby momma know you’re trying to two-time her?” “Annie Nichols?” Ryan stood in front of her, a solid block to prevent her from reaching the panel of buttons. “She’s not my anything. Come on, Lexi, you know me better than anyone.” “I wish I had amnesia where you’re concerned,” Lexi shot back. “Still the commitment phobe, huh, Ryan? You should be looking for a justice of the peace. Why am I talking to you? We have nothing to say to each other. You’re a pop-star impregnating cad.” “No, I’m not any of those things,” Ryan insisted and pressed the close door button sealing them inside. “The story’s complicated. Give me a chance to explain.” “You can’t talk your way out of this. Why should I believe one word you say?” She had to get out of the warm confines of the elevator. Up close and personal Ryan was too much for her to handle. His presence filled the small space with clean scented after-shave. The sexy stubble of beard, the deep pools in his brown eyes, and another damn stray lock of hair rested on his forehead to test her resolve. If she didn’t get out of the elevator soon, she might melt into his arms. “Lexi,” he pleaded. “You don’t know the whole story. If you’d give me a chance, if we could have a cup of coffee, I could straighten everything out.” Coffee wouldn’t be a good idea. He’d reason with her, and if she believed him, her boat was sunk. Crap! Ryan Russo was deliciously tempting. The man affected her sensibilities. In a word, he was making her hot. “No.” “No? Not even for what we once had? I’m in the middle of a scandal I didn’t create. Lexi, you made me see who I had become, and I didn’t like myself. Remember when we went to Adam’s wedding? Remember the picture we had taken? I have it in my desk drawer. I talk to you like you’re there because I can’t get you out of my head. What do I have to do? I’m asking you, no, I’m begging you to hear me out. The only opinion I care about is yours. One lousy cup of coffee. If you just give me a chance, I’ll tell you the truth, all of it, every last word.” She’d never seen Ryan in such an emotional state. She wanted to believe him. Oh, how she wanted to believe his every word. “No,” she repeated softly. “I can’t, Ryan. I just can’t.” “Yes, you can.” He insisted and slowly inched toward her. Lexi backed up against the wall of the elevator. Ryan reached out and secured an arm around her waist. He pulled her so close their lips almost touched. Then he drowned out any further protests by firmly placing his mouth over hers. Lexi thought she could resist, but the minute his lips touched hers, she was consumed by desire. She molded her body into Ryan’s and swayed with the rhythm of his embrace. She felt like she could burst into flames. He teased, caressed and nibbled her lower lip. Lexi’s mind was in free fall, and any hope of reason was abandoned. His lips were tantalizing full and ripe, a delicious forbidden dessert. Lexi was instantly addicted, and she didn’t want the high to end. Her notebook and handbag fell away to the elevator floor. She buried both hands in Ryan’s thick wavy hair and began to devour him. The man was luscious. Her lips burned for him. The sheer want of him made her feel five years had never passed between them. She was falling, tumbling, giddy, head-over-heels alive. If only he’d move his hands to her breasts and explore them intimately. Lexi ached to feel the heat of the man inside her. OMG! A red alert blasted through her sensory overloaded brain. What was she doing? She broke their embrace and pushed Ryan away from her. “This isn’t right. No! Not again. I can’t. I won’t!” “Lexi,” Ryan whispered. He tried to come closer and lay his forehead against hers. She turned her face away. “You hurt me once. I won’t let you break my heart again.” “I don’t want to break your heart. That’s the last thought in my head. You want me as much as I want you. We both know it. Give me a chance to explain.” Lexi dropped to her knees to pick up her possessions. She clutched them tightly to her chest to form a barrier between them. “You can’t explain away Annie Nichols, Ryan.” Lexi stumbled to her feet, found the button to open the elevator doors, turned her back on him, and made a speedy exit. A few blocks away she stopped to catch her breath. She turned to see if he had pursued her. There was no sign of him. Lexi was shaken to her core. Whatever emotions Ryan had stirred up, she wouldn’t allow them to send her rushing back into his arms. If the past few weeks had taught her anything, she knew she was the only person she could truly count on. Even if the only man she really wanted was Ryan Russo. *** “Hey! Lexi, honey, are you here?” Lexi heard Gloria calling for her, probably wondering why she hadn’t returned to the furniture store. “In my room.” Lexi called back, looking up from her laptop. “You okay?” Gloria had a concerned look on her face. “I got worried when you didn’t come back to work.” “I decided to work on the proposal at home.” “You look tired.” “I’m fine. I’ve been working non-stop.” “Frank’s in town. I’m meeting him for dinner, and then we’re going back to his hotel. I came home to pack an overnight bag.” “I don’t plan to leave my room if you want to come back here,” Lexi offered. Gloria shouldn’t have to tip-toe around her if she wanted Frank to spend the night. “Nah. Frank’s at the Fairmont. He sprung for an upgrade all on his own. You think I’d miss staying there? I’m driving back to the city after I pack. He called from the airport to surprise me.” “Have a wonderful time.” “If you’re sure, then I’ll go throw a few things together.” “Go ahead, really.” Lexi smiled and waved a hand dismissively. “I’ll be here slaving away.” Twenty minutes later, Gloria was out of the house. Lexi planned to enjoy the solitude. Her loss of control with Ryan was still fresh in her mind. She wasn’t ready to share the details with anyone, not even Gloria. Besides, she had work to occupy her mind. The sooner she had her proposal in Wilma Martin’s hands, the better. And the proposal had to be impressive. She planned to work until she finished, but she needed food to sustain a long evening. Before she got up to head to the kitchen, she gave into the memory she couldn’t forget. Lexi closed her eyes and remembered his lips upon hers. She could smell his after shave. Maybe she couldn’t admit how she felt to her friend, and certainly not to Ryan, but the current of desire he turned on wasn’t easy to switch off. If Lexi was honest, right now, right this moment, she wished she was in his arms again. The logical part of her brain told her another romance with Ryan Russo, on the heels of her break up with Howard, would be too overwhelming to contemplate. Besides nothing could erase the fact Annie Nichols was pregnant, and everyone said the baby was Ryan’s. I’m begging you. His appeal echoed in her head. “Maybe I’m zero for two, but there has to be a decent guy out there somewhere. I can’t go back in time, and I can’t go back to him now. It wouldn’t work.” Lexi distracted her inner conflict by heading to the kitchen to prepare a salad and heat up a can of soup. She took the tray to the bedroom. While she ate, she re-read the draft of her proposal, gathered her thoughts, and dove back into work. Chapter 20 Ryan nursed a beer at his kitchen table, flipped out his cell phone, and spoke to the device. “Call Cindy.” She answered amidst the background noise of her boys arguing with each other. “Hello?” “Am I calling at a bad time?” “Your nephews are fighting over video games.” “Shouldn’t have bought the PlayStation, huh?” His sister laughed. “Those two argue over everything. What’s up?” “I saw Lexi again today. She was in my building.” “I can’t believe you keep running into her. The stars must be aligned in your favor. What did you do?” Ryan reveled in the memory of Lexi in his arms. “I kissed her.” “What?! Did she kiss you back?” “Yeah, she did, but then she left me standing in the elevator.” “Slow down,” Cindy implored. “You cornered Lexi in an elevator?” “She makes me do crazy things. I don’t know where she came from or where she went.” Ryan was crazy alright. Trying to find her might make him certifiable. “It’s fate. You two are destined to be together. Did you hear Howard Cross is on assignment in Afghanistan?” “Really?” Ryan perked up. The smug jerk was out of the country, at least for a while. Wherever she was, Lexi wasn’t cuddled up to Howard Cross. “Uh huh. An embedded reporter gig. I can’t believe he’ll last long in the desert.” Ryan chuckled and leaned back in his chair. If Lexi knew the real truth about Annie, he might have a shot. “I tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t listen.” “I wish I could help.” “I’m the reason you two are no longer friends,” Ryan acknowledged. Cindy and Lexi had been good friends. Both agreed after the break up, the friendship would be too awkward to continue. “If you could help, I wouldn’t let you. I have to find her on my own.” “Keep me posted, little brother. Good luck.” “You’ll be the first to know,” he assured his sister and hung up. “Okay. Jackass reporter is out of the way. There must be a way to find her.” Ryan was still awake at midnight. He had to regain Lexi’s trust and clear his name. Neither task would be easy. Cleaning up his reputation was foremost, even though his housekeeping efforts wouldn’t be popular with some of the parties involved. He wandered from the kitchen, beer in hand, to his big screen TV and absently hit the power button on the remote. Scarlett O’Hara lay prostrate on the staircase of her Atlanta mansion after Rhett Butler walked out on her. “Here’s to you, Scarlett.” He tipped his bottle toward her in a salute. “I hope I have a better chance with Lexi than you do with Rhett.” Ryan turned off the screen and headed to what was certain to be a sleepless night. *** “You don’t need a private detective.” Cass declared the next morning, standing at Ryan’s desk, hands on her hips. “How else can I find Lexi? I have the feeling she’s just out of reach.” His assistant clucked, “Einstein, all you need is Agnes.” “Agnes?” “Agnes of the DMV. I’ll have Lexi’s address in a flash if she’s got a driver’s license, and I assume she’s got a driver’s license.” Ryan cocked his head sideways and gave her a ‘Why didn’t you tell me this before?’ look. “You never asked.” Cass answered before he could open his mouth. “Shoot, she’s one of my best girlfriends. She’ll find Lexi. Now, what’s her name, her full name?” “Alexis Katherine Carpenter. I‘m pretty sure she lives with Howard Cross.” She scribbled the information on a page in her steno pad. “I’ll get his address, too.” “I love you, Cass.” Ryan grinned at her, hope rising in his chest. “Of course you do. I’ll be back when I have what you need.” *** Wilma Martin studied the sketches. “I like your concept. I’ll move into the conference room down the hall while the work is going on. When can you start?” In anticipation of Wilma’s approval, Lexi secured Paul Frazier’s complete and enthusiastic cooperation. At the ready, she’d lined up a reputable contractor. “Work can start in two weeks,” Lexi said. “Six weeks to completion?” “Six to eight. The contractor would like to see the space as soon as possible.” Wilma reached for her Mount Blanc pen, and with a flourish, signed the contract. “Thank you.” Lexi was ready to burst, but maintained her professional decorum. “I promise you’ll be happy with the renovation.” “You have my every confidence. On your way out, please tell my assistant to make an appointment with the contractor.” The two women shook hands. Butterflies did loop-de-loops in Lexi’s stomach. She committed to personally oversee every detail. Nothing would be left to chance. When she finished with Wilma’s assistant, Lexi entered the hallway and took the stairs instead of the elevator. Spooked to be back in Ryan’s building, she wasn’t about to get caught by him again. On her way to Fink, Fine & Martin, she checked the building directory for Kool Kat’s floor and the nearest stairwell. No matter how hard she tried to banish Ryan Russo from her thoughts, he stubbornly refused to go. She never thought about Howard much anymore. He seemed like a distant memory. Upon entering Gilson’s she noticed the store wasn’t busy. An older couple debated a new dining set. A few browsers milled around in the carpet sample area. Gloria sat at her desk filling out paperwork. “Wilma Martin signed,” Lexi announced. “Whoa! Congrats! Nice piece of change for you. Hey, thanks a lot for sending the Decker’s over. They bought bunk beds for the kids and a storage system for their sports gear. The mister picked up a recliner, and the missus bought two end tables and lamps.” “Glad to help out.” Lexi put her tote bag on the floor and plunked down in the chair beside Gloria’s desk. “Hey, girl, for somebody who scored big, you don’t seem all that happy.” Gloria laid her pen down. “Anything else goin’ on?” “I’ve got a lot of other stuff on my mind.” “I heard on the news Howard shipped out.” “Gloria, we were together for two years. You’d think I’d feel sad, or angry, or something, but I don’t. He fooled me for a long time. I’m still trying to figure out how he did it.” “I think once you saw the real Howard, the fantasy Howard went poof! Think what would have happened if you hadn’t found out he was cheating.” “I get sick to my stomach if I dwell on ‘what if’,” Lexi said. “Um, do you remember the guy I told you about? Ryan?” “The guy who got the pop princess pregnant.” “I ran into him in Wilma Martin’s building. He wanted to explain about Annie’s baby. It’s a long story, but the main point is, he kissed me.” “Back up the truck,” Gloria said. “You were talking, and he up and planted one on you?” “Not exactly. I was waiting outside the Martin firm. The elevator doors opened, and there he was. A zillion people in the city, and I keep running into him. What are the chances? Before I knew it, he pulled me into the elevator. He just kept talking, and I didn’t want to listen, and then he kissed me.” “And what did you do?” Lexi felt her face heat. The feel of his mouth, his hands at her waist, the scent of his aftershave. “I kissed him back,” she admitted. “A four alarm fire or a friendly brush on the lips kiss?” She may as well tell the truth. “Four-alarm. I was on auto-pilot. Then I came to my senses and got out of the elevator as soon as I could. I lost it, Gloria. I was back in time five years ago as if nothing had happened between us.” “Sounds like you got some unresolved issues.” “I’m really upset and confused,” Lexi confessed. “Oh, boy. You’re in trouble.” Gloria shook her head. ”I can’t go back to him. He’ll hurt me again. I know he will, but I can’t get him out of my head. And he’s mixed up with Annie Nichols. For the first time in my life, I’m making my own way, depending upon myself to make my dreams come true.” “Do you want to get over Ryan, or get do you want to get him back?” Gloria asked. “He’s trouble.” Lexi hesitated, dodging her friend’s question. “Most men are, honey. Some are just worth it. You’re the only one who’s got the solution to your problem.” “Then I have to get over Ryan,” Lexi said. There was something fishy going on between him and Annie. How could she trust him? He’d broken her heart once, and she had no hard evidence he was any different from the man she packed up and left five years ago. “Lexi, I’m not buyin’ what you’re sellin’,” Gloria mused. “You sure get a dreamy look every time you talk about this Ryan guy.” “I don’t,” Lexi protested. “Okay, whatever you say.” Gloria went back to filling out her sales form. “Frank is still in town. I won’t be back tonight.” “You’re changing the subject.” “Yep.” Gloria nodded and continued to fill out her form. When she looked up again, Lexi saw a wise smile on her friend’s face. “You can fight your feelings all you want, but if Ryan is under your skin, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with the rash.” Ryan was deep under her skin. If Lexi ran into him again, she wasn’t sure she could trust herself Annie Nichols or no Annie Nichols. “I better go fill out my own paperwork.” Lexi got up and retrieved her bag. “Maybe someday I’ll get to meet Frank.” “He’s kind of hesitant considering our circumstances. Maybe we could fix lasagna again when I get back.” “Sounds good.” Lexi headed off to her own desk. She wanted to concentrate on Wilma Martin’s decorating job, but all she could think about was her encounter in the elevator. The best kiss ever, and if she was honest, she wanted more than a kiss. Chapter 21 True to her word, Cass came through with Lexi’s address. “You were right. She lives with Howard Cross.” Ryan’s face lit up when his admin handed him the information. “What would I ever do without you?” “You don’t play her. You do right by her, you hear?” Ryan grinned at his assistant. “Yes, Mom, and thank you.” After work he drove straight to Howard Cross’s building to see Lexi.” “May I help you?” A woman, whose voice was reminiscent of too many unfiltered cigarettes, asked after opening the door. “Is Lexi Carpenter here?” A derisive laugh made Ryan wince. “Not since Howard kicked her out. Who wants to know?” Kicked her out? They broke up? “I’m Ryan Russo, a friend. I’m looking for her, and this is the address I was given.” In the blink of an eye, the door closed, and the chain came off. “Ryan Russo?! Holy shit!” The woman grabbed his arm and yanked him inside. “I’m Stacey Bridges, the GM at WCHO. Sit down. I want to know everything. I’ll get a cameraman over here pronto. I can’t believe you walked into my arms.” A female paparazzi predator! “I didn’t walk into your arms. You dragged me in here, and I don’t want a damned cameraman in my face. I’m looking for Lexi. If she’s not here, I’m leaving.” Stacey gave him the once over and picked up the glass from which she’d been drinking. Probably bourbon, Ryan thought. She swirled the ice around in her glass and took a long swallow. “Lexi moved out. I don’t know where she is. After she came by for her stuff, Howard changed the lock. He asked me to watch the condo for him.” “Then I’ll be going.” “Don’t be in such a rush. All I want is ten minutes. We can do the interview here, just you and me,” she offered eagerly. Annie’s comment about sharks ready to feed bubbled up in his brain. “I’m not doing an interview. The story about Annie Nichols is a huge misunderstanding. I came to talk to Lexi, but since she isn’t here, I’ll be going.” “Are you saying your affair with Annie Nichols is a misunderstanding? Did you leave her?” Here we go. He’d had enough. Annie’s cards were about to fold. She’d held them long enough. “Come on. Cut me a break,” Stacey prodded. “What’s Howard’s ex got to do with you? Are you involved with her? Does Annie know about your relationship with Lexi?” “I told you Lexi has nothing to do with anything concerning Annie Nichols.” Ryan headed for the door with Stacey Bridges hot on his heels. “Call me when you want to talk. I’ll be fair. I’m a great listener.” Hand on the doorknob, Ryan turned to face Stacey. “Yeah, right.” He didn’t want Lexi involved. She’d done nothing to deserve being snared in a media trap. Ryan’s problems weighed on him as he walked to his car. He took his cell phone from his jacket pocket and punched up the private number Annie had given him and went straight into her voicemail. After the beep, he started talking. “Annie, Ryan. Call me back. I can’t play along anymore. We have to tell everyone the baby isn’t mine.” He was not backing down, no matter the consequences. Next, he called Dave McAfee who picked up on the fourth ring. “Hey, Dave.” “Ryan, my man! What’s up? We’re meeting Steve Noley at The Hard Rock. All of a sudden, he’s like my new best friend. Is Bett ever impressed. I think we’re gonna be okay.” “Good for you. All your problems vanished because of an aging rock star. Go figure. Look, Dave, I’m telling the media the truth about Annie. This whole mess is my worst nightmare. I thought you should know.” A nanosecond of silence passed before Dave exploded. “Is your brain fried? Are you smokin’ crack? You can’t tell anyone! She’ll drop our label. No, Ryan. No. No. No. Hell no! We could lose The Nightwatch, too! They haven’t signed, yet.” “Sorry, my mind’s made up. I left Annie a voicemail telling her what I’m telling you. If she won’t agree to come clean, I’ll handle the problem on my own. I wanted to warn you.” His partner sputtered something unintelligible before Ryan cut him off. “Gotta go.” After ending the call, his phone rang back immediately. When he looked at the caller I.D., he saw his mother’s number. “Hi, Mom.” “Ryan,” she sobbed. “Cindy’s hurt.” His heart leaped in his chest. “What happened?” “Oh, Ryan.” She broke down again. “Mom, stop crying. Take a deep breath, and tell me what happened.” When his mother regained a measure of control, she told him about the accident. “Cindy traded shifts with another nurse. On her way to work, a truck hit her car. The driver went through a red light. They took her to Northwestern. I’m with the boys. Can you get there?” A rush of memories flashed before Ryan’s eyes. He saw his sister, long dark curls flying chasing after him when they played freeze tag. Cindy graduating college with honors. Walking down the aisle in a white gown to meet Kevin. Her first-born son in her arms, and not a week ago on Christmas Eve, consoling Ryan about Lexi. Hands trembling, he fumbled for his keys. “I’m on my way, Mom.” When he found his car and unlocked the door, he was shaking so badly, he dropped the key fob on the asphalt. The drive to the hospital was a blur. Bolting from his car into the ER’s bright fluorescent lighting, he found a woman wearing a volunteer smock. Ryan grabbed her arm. “My sister came through the ER.” “Information is over there. They can help you,” she responded, pointing across the room. “Thank you.” Ryan went straight to the desk. “My sister, Cindy Bennett. She was in an accident. They brought her here.” The volunteer started typing on her keyboard. “Okay. I found her. Mrs. Bennett is in surgery. Have a seat in the waiting room. Dr. Kelly will find you.” “Surgery?” Ryan asked, but didn’t receive an answer. Taking a seat on an uncomfortable sofa, eternity crept by before a doctor, dressed in green surgical scrubs, approached him. “Mr. Bennett?” he inquired of Ryan. “Russo. Ryan Russo. I’m her brother.” “Is her husband here?” “He died a few years ago. Heart attack.” “I’m sorry. I’m Dr. Kelly.” The physician introduced himself and offered his hand. Ryan shook it, and the doctor sat down in a chair across from him. Ryan gathered his senses and tried to control his hammering heart. “Why did my sister need surgery?” “Mrs. Bennett was moved to intensive care a few minutes ago. She suffered a punctured lung, several broken ribs, a fractured ankle, a broken pelvis, and a broken clavicle. The surgery was to repair her lacerated liver and her fractures. Everything went well.” “Then she’ll be okay?” Ryan desperately wanted reassurance. Dr. Kelly didn’t look optimistic. He looked like a man about to deliver serious news. “Mrs. Bennett has head trauma. We need to monitor her closely.” “But, she will be okay, right?” An ominous entity Ryan couldn’t identify emerged from his gut to squeeze his heart and clutch at his vocal chords. “She was unconscious when she arrived in the ER. We rushed her to surgery. There’s swelling in her brain. Your sister is in an induced coma, and she’s on a ventilator.” “Cindy’s in a coma?” Ryan felt the world shift. “To allow her body and her brain to rest,” Dr. Kyle explained. “She’s in critical, but stable condition. Only time will tell, Mr. Russo. The next few days will give us a better picture.” “I want to see her.” “This way. I’ll show you how to get to the unit.” Ryan followed Dr. Kelly to an elevator with instructions to the critical care unit. When he got off on the floor, the area seemed almost peaceful. Monitors beeped. Equipment hummed. Nurses moved with stealth through sliding glass doors in and out of patient cubicles. A nurse directed him to Cindy’s room. His sister lay ashen and very still in a hospital bed. Peaks and valleys registered on a monitor. The steady shush of the breathing device sounded rhythmically. Ryan sat down beside her bed, hoping she knew he was there. His mobile phone startled him. He wasn’t going to answer and probably shouldn’t have his cell on in the unit. He relented when he saw the call was from Rusty Hamilton. “Ryan? Man, what were you thinking? Annie’s a mess. Another forty-eight hours and my divorce will be on the books. We’ll straighten everything out then, okay?” “I’m sitting here with my sister,” Ryan began calmly. “She’s in intensive care. Frankly, Rusty, I no longer care what happens to Annie Nichols.” Abruptly, Ryan ended the call and turned off his mobile. Rusty could deal with Annie. Too bad if she was upset. She inserted him into the middle of her problems and wrecked his life. All he cared about was Cindy. Everything else faded into the background. Chapter 22 “Be sure to watch tonight at ten o’clock. Our general manager, Stacey Bridges, spoke off-camera today with Ryan Russo, a Chicago record company executive. As previously reported, Annie Nichols is pregnant, and Ryan Russo is rumored to be the father. According to our general manager, Russo is involved not only with the pop queen, but also with another woman named Lexi Carpenter. We haven’t been able to locate Ms. Carpenter for her side of the story.” The plastic jug of milk dropped from Lexi’s hand to the floor. The container bounced, suffered a minor dent, and rolled a short distance away. Her picture filled the screen, the glamour shot she’d surprised Howard with for his birthday. Stacey must have taken it from his desk. Obviously, Ryan was in on the big scoop. He’d talked to Stacey Bridges, of all people. Lexi bent down to recover the milk jug thankful the cap had stayed secure. “What have you done?” she asked a phantom Ryan. Her mind raced in circles. Should she call the station? No, she didn’t want anything to do with the general manager. Oh my gosh! What if Wilma Martin saw the tease? She could wring Ryan’s neck. How dare he talk about her to that sorry excuse for a female. There was no story! Later, with trepidation, Lexi watched Stacey’s big report. Ryan had gone to Howard’s condo looking for her. How had he tracked down the address? Stacey’s report didn’t have much meat, but more than enough innuendo for a hero sandwich. “Ignore them,” she resolved. “Just ignore all of it. Ryan’s problems don’t concern you.” *** On Lexi’s way into work the next afternoon, Gloria called her cell. “You better come in the back way. The sidewalk in front of the store looks like Oscar night.” “Reporters? Because of that stupid story on WCHO last night? Great! How did they find me?” “Probably wasn’t hard. I got here early after I took Frank to the airport. I heard a promo on the radio.” “A promo? On the radio? I don’t know what Ryan said to that she-beast, but there’s no story!” Lexi protested. After parking in the lot behind the store, she left her car and took the back entrance into Gilson’s. She almost made it to the door before a thundering herd of reporters armed with microphones, cameras, and video equipment stampeded toward her. Lexi wasn’t sure whether to turn around and make a run for her car or try to strong arm her way into the building. “Lexi?” A woman shouted her name. “How long have you known Ryan Russo? Is he leaving Annie Nichols for you?” The reporters were like an angry hive of bees swarming over her beating their wings in her face “Lexi, over here! Have you talked to Annie Nichols? When did she find out you about you and Ryan Russo?” “Leave me alone!” She raised her hand to her eyes to fend off the cameras, feeling like the main attraction in a circus side show. “Get away from her!” A voice boomed over the denizen of paparazzi. Gloria and Jeff Wilson, a muscled warehouse worker, battled their way through the crowd surrounding Lexi. They hustled her to the back door where Paul Frasier stood waiting. Safe from the media hounds, their manager closed and bolted the door. Lexi and Gloria retreated to the employee break room. A few seconds later, Paul entered with a grimace on his face. “Gilson’s is a place of business. Lexi, I can’t open the store. I told Gloria to tell you not to come in today, but she never listens to anything I say.” “Blow it out your socks, Paul,” Gloria sassed back. “Lexi saved your back side with the Martin deal. You owe her.” “Gloria Johnson, you’re being insubordinate.” “This ain’t the Army, Paul. Tell her. Go on, tell her.” “Tell me what?” Lexi asked. Paul cleared his throat. “Mrs. Martin hired you to do her office thinking her partners would come around. They were arguing over who they were going to hire to renovate their firm. They liked her office, so you’re to work up plans to remodel and redecorate the floor, including the conference rooms, library, reception, and lobby areas. All of it. The store is at your disposal. Whatever you need.” “You saved his behind with Mr. Gilson. You’re a rising star, Lexi. The quarter wasn’t shaping up too good, but you brought in a prestigious client and some major bucks. Your Mr. Fussbudget is a gold mine.” “I’ll call her right away. Paul, I want Gloria to work on the project with me.” “Gloria?” Paul asked skeptically. “Yes,” Lexi answered firmly. “You said you’d give me whatever I need, and I need Gloria.” “Okay, I guess. I want to see your plans before you present them to Mrs. Martin’s partners.” “No problem,” Lexi assured him. “I’ll work from home, provided I can get out of here.” “I’ll find Jeff. You should leave your car and take a cab. They’ll swamp you,” Paul warned. “Maybe you’re right. I might have a better chance in a cab.” The manager walked toward the warehouse to find the body builder. “Are you sure you want me?” Gloria asked when Paul was out of earshot. “I need your help. Two heads are better than one.” Her friend’s face lit up. “You’re too generous, honey.” “There’s plenty of work and plenty of credit to go around. I’ll go home and get started after I contact Wilma Martin. We’ll talk tonight. We’re going to have a blast!” Lexi hugged Gloria. “I’ll bring up the inventory for her office. I’ll look over what you ordered and start scouting those lines. “Good idea. I can’t believe they’ll stray far from her plans. The office décor should tie together.” “I’ve got goose bumps,” Gloria laughed. “Me, too,” Lexi agreed, but for reasons other than Fink Fine & Martin. She knew what she had to do and where she had to go. Paul Frazier arrived back in the break room with Jeff Wilson in tow. Gloria called a cab. When Lexi’s ride showed up, Jeff escorted her through the throng of reporters and got her safely into the taxi. Handing the driver a twenty, she instructed. “Keep the change. We’re not going far, but I have to get out of your cab really fast.” “Hey! Thanks, Lady. No problem.” When the driver stopped in front of the building, Lexi headed to the revolving door. A few reporters milled around the outside of Ryan’s building. Keeping her head down, Lexi got out and dashed inside. Security was present, but no one made an attempt to follow her. A young petite blonde sat at the reception desk of Kool Kat Studios. Her nameplate read: Azalea Phillips. “Please tell Ryan Russo Lexi Carpenter is here to see him.” “Um, do you have an appointment?” “No, but he’ll see me.” The girl picked up the receiver, punched a button, and whispered into the phone. In less than a minute, a handsome woman offering a pleasant smile came to the lobby. “I’m Cass Walker, Ryan’s assistant.” “Lexi Carpenter.” “This way. Follow me, please.” She escorted Lexi to Ryan’s office and stood aside to let her enter. “Where is he?” “You really are Lexi Carpenter, right?” Cass closed the door behind her. “Yes, I am. I’m not expected, but it’s important I see Ryan.” “Oh, I’m sure Lucy got a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.” Cass folded her arms across her chest. “I saw the news. Ryan’s gonna be sorry you got dragged into this mess.” “He’s not here, is he?” Lexi asked exasperated. “Do you know about his sister?” “Cindy? What about her?” The assistant’s face sobered, and Lexi knew something was wrong. “Cindy was in a bad car accident. She’s in intensive care at Northwestern. Ryan’s with her, and he hasn’t budged an inch since he found out.” Lexi knew how close Ryan was to Cindy. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” “Head trauma and a bunch of broken bones. I’ll bet you came here to give Ryan an earful about Annie Nichols. His troubles are all her doing.” Obviously, Cass Walker was fond of her boss. “Forgive me, Ms. Walker. . .” “Call me Cass.” “All right, Cass, but I’m sure Ryan isn’t totally innocent.” “Sit down,” she motioned to the two chairs in front of Ryan’s desk. Lexi took one and Cass sat down beside her. “Ryan isn’t a choirboy that’s for sure. I’ve had a ring-side seat for most of the show, but Annie Nichols is a serious liar. I don’t mean to pass judgment, and I’ll pray for her, but she’s the cause of all his grief.” “In what way?” Lexi asked. “That girl came after Ryan. She told him she was leavin’ her label and told him to get a contract ready with Kool Kat. Oh, he was overjoyed, but turns out she had conditions. Her baby daddy is tied up in legal knots with a woman he married years ago. The divorce didn’t go through. She wants hush money, and Annie wants Ryan to keep quiet while she fixes everything.” “Annie Nichols is manipulating Ryan?” “Exactly,” his assistant nodded. “I’m tellin’ you more than I should, but Ryan is like a son to me. He’s in trouble, and you are the last person he wants to hurt. Cindy lyin’ in a hospital bed unconscious. Nothing about life is fair.” “Why can’t Annie fend for herself? She’s weathered worse storms than having a baby with a married man.” “There’s more to the tale than I can tell, but what I can tell you is Ryan could use a friend right now.” “You said Cindy’s in intensive care?” “Some trucker t-boned her. She’s in a coma because her brain swelled. She’s had two surgeries already. God works miracles, but you never know when somebody you love could be taken away.” Her words sent a chill of foreboding down Lexi’s spine. “Northwestern? Maybe I could go see Ryan for Cindy’s sake.” “Hmmm.” “Don’t worry, Cass. I won’t add to his problems.” “There’s a back way out of here. Let me go tell Azalea I’m gonna be out for a minute.” “I can call a cab.” “My car’s in the building. Those reporters don’t know where Ryan is.” “Ugh,” Lexi agreed. “They didn’t pay any attention to me, but you’re right. Why take chances and lead them straight to him.” Cass and Lexi rode in silence to the hospital complex. From his assistant’s demeanor, Lexi knew the woman cared deeply about Ryan. She kept her focus on Cindy knowing how important she was to him, and what a good friend she’d been when Lexi was with her brother. Cass pulled her SUV up to the curb at the stop and drop entrance. “Those bloodhounds haven’t picked up the scent Cindy and Ryan are related. Otherwise, they’d be here, too. We weren’t followed. You’re safe. I’ll say good-bye and good luck here. I know it’s none of my business, and you’ll forgive my meddlin’, but Ryan cares an awful lot about you, more than I’ve ever seen him care about anyone. Keep that in mind.” “Thank you, Cass. I will. I promise.” Emerging from the car into the biting cold, Lexi pulled her coat up around her chin and hurried into the entrance. The bustle and clatter of the large city hospital reminded her of a small town. People in street dress, hospital workers in scrubs and lab coats traversed the hallways going diligently about their business. The intensive care unit, however, was eerily still. “May I help you?” The nurse at the desk looked up from her computer. “I’m looking for Ryan Russo. His sister, Cindy Bennett, is a patient.” “Are you family?” “No.” “You can wait in the visitor’s room. I’ll tell Mr. Russo where you are.” “Thank you.” When she found the lounge, a television on low volume was tuned to CNN. Lexi sat down on a small couch in the dimly lit space. Magazines were fanned out on the coffee table before her. The setting was supposed to provide comfort, but she found the room impersonal. Lexi wondered how she’d feel when she saw Ryan. Suddenly, the door opened and he stepped inside. She got to her feet. Ryan hadn’t shaved in days, and his clothes looked rumpled. There was no light in his dark brown eyes. Characteristic when he was distracted, Ryan ran a hand absently through his thick wavy hair. “Hi.” He looked bone-deep weary from fatigue. “I’m sorry about Cindy. Your assistant told me. How is she?” “Not good,” he answered. Ryan didn’t approach her. He stayed where he was backed against the wall. “How did the accident happen?” “A truck hit her car. She’s pretty smashed up. We haven’t let the boys see her yet, unless, you know. . .” Ryan trailed off. “Ah, you said Cass told you?” “I stopped by your office to see you.” “I’ll bet it wasn’t a social call. Annie Nichols, huh?” “She’s not important now. I came here to see you and ask about Cindy.” Shadows like a valley ran deep under his eyes. Instinctively, Lexi wanted to go to him and wrap him in her arms. “They put her in a medically induced coma. She’s on a ventilator. She had a second surgery to stop some bleeding.” Ryan’s voice cracked, but he quickly regained control over his emotions. Lexi heard the unmistakable fear in his voice. “I’m sure she’s getting the best care possible. I’d like to see her, but I’m not family. Have you had anything to eat? Have you slept?” Ryan shook his head in the negative. “I’m not hungry.” “You have to eat and sleep.” “They have sandwiches on the unit and a chair beside her bed where I can sleep.” “You need a break,” Lexi insisted. “Let’s go to the cafeteria. We’ll tell the nurse to call your mobile if Cindy needs you.” He was obviously torn by her suggestion. “I haven’t left her for more than a few minutes.” “Ten minutes,” Lexi urged. “Okay,” Ryan relented, “but only for ten minutes.” They stopped by the nurse’s station and told her where they would be. On the elevator ride down to the cafeteria, both were silent. The problems swirling around them, thanks to Annie Nichols, paled in comparison to Cindy’s uncertain future. In the cafeteria they got coffee in Styrofoam cups and sat at a vacant table. Ryan fidgeted with his coffee stirrer. “Has your mom been here?” “Mostly at night,” he said. “Her neighbor sits with the boys.” “How are they?” “Mom says they’re confused and a little scared. Denny and Rory are old enough to understand something’s wrong. They want to see their mom.” “Cindy will be glad you’re there for them.” “I’m a lousy substitute for their mom.” “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You love your nephews.” “She was always after me to spend more time them. I let her down, Lexi. I let the boys down. I screwed up. You, of all people, should know.” His fingers wound tightly around his cup. Lexi placed a hand on his shoulder. “Ryan, stop beating yourself up. You’re not thinking clearly.” “I’m very clear, crystal clear. You met Cass at the office?” “Yes. There was an incident at the store. It was overrun with reporters.” Ryan ran a hand over his unshaven face, and his expression grew pained. “Yeah, I know all about reporters. Look, I will tell the truth about Annie. I’ll fix what she’s done, the trouble we both caused you. I can’t now, but I will. I’m sorry I got you involved.” “Annie can wait,” she assured him. “Let’s talk about something else.” “Lexi, why would you give me the time of day? I messed everything up five years ago, and now I’ve made things even worse. If you knew the whole story, what I did after you left, you wouldn’t be sitting here. I know you came because of Cindy. She’d be grateful, and so am I. You always were there for everyone.” “It’s not like you to feel sorry for yourself,” Lexi admonished. “That’s not the Ryan I remember.” “This I know for sure,” he said. “You made the right decision when you walked out. My priorities have been about me for a long time. I hung onto Annie because she was going to make me rich. All I saw were dollar signs, and I was more than ready to sell out. Greed and ego got the best of me. She maneuvered me exactly where she wanted me. None of that matters anymore. Because if Cindy doesn’t come out of this...” Blinking back tears, his eyes shown hard with regret. “Listen to me, Ryan,” Lexi tried to assure him. “Cindy is strong. She’ll be okay. She would never give up on you if the situation was reversed. We all make mistakes, but you can start over. The world is full of second chances.” “I’m not feeling sorry for myself. I’m facing reality. I don’t deserve a second chance. Take my advice. Don’t look back. Forget we ever met.” Ryan backed his chair away from the table and stood up. “I shouldn’t have tried to stir things up again. I’m sorry for the whole mess with Annie. I really am. You’re the last person I’d ever want to hurt.” Coffee cup in hand, he walked to a trash bin, tossed the cup in and walked away. Lexi didn’t attempt to follow him. Only hours before she had vowed to drive Ryan Russo from her life forever. His anguish over his past failures was genuine. His fears for his sister were real. Was he the same man she walked out on five years ago? Lexi hoisted her shoulder bag and made her way out of the cafeteria back to the entrance where she was lucky enough to find a cab. Everything Ryan said replayed in her mind. She needed a sounding board. Maybe Gloria could help her sort through her emotions. She wasn’t thinking clearly about the past or the present. And she wasn’t thinking clearly about Ryan. Chapter 23 “Lexi, do you still love him?” Gloria asked when Lexi finished telling her about her visit to the hospital. “I’m still physically attracted to Ryan. One minute I want him out of my life. The next I keep thinking maybe he’s changed. I’ve changed. I love what I’m doing at the store. I’m not just selling, I’m building a career. For the first time in a very long time, I know where I’m going. Norman Martin gave me more than a great sale. He gave me confidence in myself and my abilities. I’m good at interior design. I don’t need Howard or Ryan to give my life purpose.” “Well.” Gloria put her hands behind her head and leaned back against her chair. “Why does one have to be exclusive of the other? Of course you don’t need a man to take care of you. We’re not livin’ in 1950. Lexi’s emotions churned. She wanted to stay on her current path to independence, but there was a fire of deep desire burning inside her whenever Ryan was near. “I don’t have to decide anything tonight. He’s afraid for his sister. He’s worried she might die.” “I’ve been where he is,” Gloria assured her. “Someone you love dying cuts your heart out.” Lexi could tell by the look in her friend’s eyes she was talking about her deceased husband. “I refuse to believe Cindy will die.” “I hope she doesn’t. Two little kids. Her life in front of her,” Gloria agreed. “You want some more tea?” “No, thanks. Funny, I always thought Ryan was emotionally immature. He’s grieving not only for his sister, but for the mistakes he’s made in the past.” “Any idea what you’re gonna do?” “For now? Nothing.” The memory of Ryan walking away from her was fresh. “I was going to tell him off when I went to his office. Everything changed when I heard about Cindy, and I saw him.” “I think, “Gloria said, kicking off her heels and getting comfortable in the chair opposite Lexi. “You’re looking at ‘to be continued.’” “I’m going to stay home again tomorrow and work. I’ve got to call Ms. Martin. I can’t afford to offend her.” Gloria perked up. “Hey! I found some classy cherry wood pieces I think would work in the lobby. I’ll show you when you’re up to looking. And thanks again.” “No need to thank me. We have a ton of work ahead of us.” “I’m not afraid of hard work,” Gloria declared. “Could I say something, and then I’ll butt out of your business.” “About work or about Ryan?” Lexi asked, knowing the answer. “Ryan. No doubt some of his problems are his own making, but...” “What?” “Lexi, real love is hard to come by, and love always has a price. Maybe he’s not the same guy you walked out on all those years ago. Maybe he’s changed for real.” Too spent to know how she felt about anything, Lexi appreciated Gloria had her interests at heart. Her mind was a jumble. Nothing would be accomplished tonight. “I didn’t have a chance to ask him about why he talked to Stacey. I’m still not happy about that. But, every time I see him, I’m only more confused by the way he makes me feel.” “Understandable.” Gloria yawned and stood up. “I’m gonna load the dishwasher and hit the sack.” “I’ll help.” Lexi started to get up. “Why don’t you sit here and let your mind wander,” Gloria suggested. “Get a better handle on the day.” “Are you sure?” Gloria stretched, placing her hands at the small of her back. “I’m sure. I’ll say good-night before I turn in.” Lexi leaned her head back against the sofa and stared up at the ceiling. There was a lot to consider and a lot at stake. Sleep tonight wouldn’t come easily. Chapter 24 “I’ll stay with her.” Ryan could never win an argument with his mother. “Mom, I’m too tired to fight with you.” “You need a shower, clean clothes, and something decent to eat. I want you to be there when Dennis and Rory wake up. You can fix their breakfast and take them to meet the school bus.” Ryan hesitated. He was clueless how to handle two little boys. Would his four-year-old and seven-year-old nephews see him for what he was? Inept. His mother put her hands on her round hips, a determined look on her face. “Go, and I don’t want to see you back here before nine A.M.” “I don’t know the first thing about taking care of those two,” he protested. “Then learn fast. Go. Now.” His mom was right. Ryan needed food, a solid night’s sleep, a shower, and a change of clothes. Trudging out of the hospital to the car he abandoned in the ER parking lot, Ryan couldn’t remember feeling this bone tired. On the way home, he turned on his cell phone and found voicemails waiting for him from Rusty, Annie, Dave, and Cass. He listened to Cass’ voicemail first. “Ryan, if you need an ear, you’ve got mine. I met your lady today. I’m the one who dropped her off at the hospital. Lord above, Ryan Russo, if you got a brain in your head, you’ll make up with her. Call me anytime. You got my mobile number.” At least Cass was on his side. “Hello?” “Cass, Ryan. Did I wake you?” “What time zone are you in? It’s seven-forty-five in the evening.” “Really,” he chuckled. “I’m driving to Cindy’s house. My mom is spending the night with her. Cass, I have no idea how to take care of kids.” “You’ll do fine,” she assured him. “I don’t suppose you’d come over and help me out.” “I don’t suppose I would. Take one step at a time and use common sense.” “Baptism by fire?” “Uh huh. Ryan, did you meet up with Lexi at the hospital?” “I sent her away. I’m the last person she needs in her life.” “Stop bein’ a martyr for everything you ever did wrong. She cares about you, or she wouldn’t have rushed over there.” “Why was she at the office, Cass?” “I’m pretty sure she came to tell you where to get off the train.” “I’m no good for her.” “Bull hockey,” Cass reprimanded. “You know I chased any woman in a skirt for years, and I almost sold my soul to Annie Nichols for a fat contract. I’m a great catch.” “Listen to me, Ryan Russo. Stop your pity party right now. She came after you. All I’ve heard from you is Lexi this, and Lexi that, and how much you want her back. Then when you get a chance, you kick her to the curb.” “Cass. . .Cass.” “Don’t you interrupt me, young man! You need to get your butt in gear before you lose her for good. Prove you’ve changed, come clean and straighten up your life. You’re lettin’ Annie Nichols get away with her lies, fool. The media don’t know any different because you haven’t told your side of the story. How long you gonna let Lexi stew in your juice?” Ryan considered her words. He ran a hand over his unshaven stubble. Cass was right. If he didn’t defend himself, didn’t make things right with Lexi, no one was going to do the job for him. “You know I love you, right?” he teased. “You’re sweet talkin’ the wrong party.” “I promise on whatever honor I have left, I’ll take care of Annie Nichols.” “See you do. You’re like one of my own, but sometimes I want to slap you up side your head.” Ryan laughed in spite of himself. “And you’re the only one I’d let get away with decking me.” Cass was priceless. He counted on her friendship and her ability to shoot straight. “I’m at Cindy’s. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” “Goodnight, now. You take care.” “I will,” he replied and ended the call. His decision was made. There would be fallout from Dave, Annie, and Rusty. His career at Kool Kat was probably finished. None of those possibilities made any difference. The least he could do was make Lexi’s problems go away. His nephews didn’t deserve to have their mom lying in a hospital bed. What they did deserve was to be taken care of, and, for once, Ryan was determined to put someone else’s needs ahead of his own. *** “Uncle Ryan?” The boy’s eyes, a gentle gray like his mother’s, looked sleepy and a little confused. Ryan sat down on the side of his nephew’s bed. “Good morning. You need to get up for school.” “When is Mom coming home?” A lump caught in Ryan’s throat. “Soon.” “Why can’t we see her? Grandma told us she’s in a special place in the hospital where kids can’t visit. Doesn’t she want to see us?” Talk about unfamiliar territory. Ryan was walking a mine field. “More than anything, Denny, but your mom needs lots of rest. Hospitals have rules about kids. Maybe they don’t seem fair to you, and maybe they aren’t. When we get the okay from the doctor, we’ll take you to see her.” “Even if I’m in school?” “Yes.” Ryan smiled and ruffled Denny’s hair. “Even if you’re in school.” The little boy frowned. “Rules are dumb.” “Let’s get your brother up, and I’ll fix breakfast and take you to the bus.” “I ride the bus. You gotta make sure Rory gets to the carpool. It’s Mrs. Harper’s turn.” “Does she come to your house?” Ryan asked. “Duh! Yeah! How come you’re here, anyway? Where’s grandma?” “She’s with your mom. I’m helping out. And don’t be disrespectful. I don’t know your routine.” The look on Denny’s freckled face was one of indifference. “Does Mom need a babysitter?” “Babysitter?” “Like when Rory and me can’t be alone in the house, Grandma comes over or Susie Ferris. Susie sucks. She makes us play Candy Land.” Denny rolled his eyes. “You shouldn’t say ‘sucks’, Denny. And no, your mom doesn’t need babysitters.” The little boy’s face twisted in exasperation. “Everybody says ‘sucks’, Uncle Ryan. You say it. I heard you,” the seven-year-old responded righteously. “Then I won’t anymore. Why don’t you go wake your brother? I’ll start breakfast.” “Do I have to?” “Yes. Denny threw back his covers and heaved a sigh. “Okay.” In the kitchen Ryan found milk and Cheerios. He got out two bowls and two spoons. Easy enough until Denny arrived with a serious faced Rory behind him. Cindy’s youngest son was attached to a well-worn plush green dinosaur. The four-year-old apparently dressed himself. He wore an orange sweatshirt and green fatigues with a large stain on the knee, and he was barefoot. His dark hair on one side was matted to his head, and the other side stuck straight up. “Good morning, Rory. Where’re your shoes?” Denny plopped down at the table. “I need a banana. Mom always puts a banana in the Cheerios, and there’s no juice. Geez! Uncle Ryan.” “In a minute, Denny. Rory, come here.” “He always looks dopey. He’s a dopey baby who goes to pre-school. Mom picks out his clothes.” Denny chimed in. His little brother made an ugly face and stuck out his tongue. “I’m not a baby! You’re a baby!” “Am not,” Denny shot back. Defiant, Rory stuck his hands on his hips. “Big baby!” “You’re a big dumb baby!” Denny taunted. The little boy tried to run past Ryan, headed for a showdown with his older brother. He restrained his nephew, grabbing the boy up into his arms. The four-year-old was surprisingly strong, struggling and beating his fists against his uncle’s chest. “Let me go!” “Don’t hit me, Rory. Stop it! Stop!” Ryan encircled Rory’s small fists with his hands to stop his pounding. “Dumb dopey baby.” Denny put his fingers in his mouth and stretched them wide, wagging his tongue. With Rory trapped against his chest, Ryan spoke firmly to his nephew. “Denny, stop teasing your brother, or I’ll ground you. I need your help while your mom’s in the hospital. You’re older. You need to be more responsible. Do you understand?” Denny stopped mid-taunt. “You can’t ground me,” he mumbled. “Oh yes, I can, Mister. I’m here to help your Mom and your Grandma, and I expect both of you to cooperate. If you don’t, you’ll see how large and in charge I am. Got my drift?” He didn’t raise his voice, but spoke in an authoritative tone. How did people survive kids? His older nephew piped down, and his little brother became docile. “I asked a question, Denny? Do you understand what I said?” Keeping his eyes focused on his cereal bowl, his nephew answered. “Yeah.” “Great. Good. Rory, we need to find another pair of pants. When I come back, Denny, I expect to see you eating breakfast. If you need a banana, there’s some on the counter. Help yourself. The juice is in the fridge.” Ryan accompanied Rory from the kitchen to his bedroom and located a pair of blue jeans to replace the fatigues. His youngest nephew shimmied into the pants while Ryan found socks in his chest of drawers and his tennis shoes under the bed. When he handed over the little boy’s shoes, Rory admitted forlornly, “I can’t tie shoelaces.” “Let me help you.” Ryan demonstrated tying a bow several times, but Rory’s stubby little fingers couldn’t manage. “Don’t get frustrated. Learning to tie your shoes takes time. We can practice later.” “I want Velcro shoes. Mom says I gotta learn to tie real shoes. Denny called me a retard. What’s a retard?” “You’ll learn to tie your shoes. Your mom is right. Everyone learns. Words can hurt people’s feelings. Calling someone that name is making fun of a disability. It’s wrong.” “What’s a ditzabilly?” Rory asked. “Never mind. Don’t use the word. While I’m here, Denny isn’t going to call you names, and you aren’t going to call him names, either. We’ll practice, and you’ll learn to tie your shoes, okay?” “Promise?” Rory asked with such earnestness, Ryan had to chuckle. “I promise. There! Shoes all tied. Let’s tackle your hair.” Ten minutes later, Ryan returned to the kitchen. Denny had finished breakfast. To his surprise, his nephew had cut up a banana for his brother’s cereal and poured a glass of juice. “Thank you, Denny. Rory, thank your brother.” The younger responded with a dramatic roll of the eyes. “Thank you.” “And thank you both for being cooperative,” Ryan chipped in. “Denny, please get dressed. I don’t want you to be late for the bus.” After going over Denny’s spelling list with him, Ryan got Rory off with Mrs. Harper and walked Denny to the bus where he waited patiently with the other parents. Afterward, he returned to Cindy’s house to do the dishes and pick up toys from the night before. He was gaining a lot more respect for his sister. “Remember to have the boys put their toys away before they go to bed,” he said, making a mental note. Relieved he’d successfully gotten his nephews up and ready for school, Ryan knew challenges lay ahead. His nephews were a handful. Vague answers about their mother’s condition wouldn’t pacify them for long. Next he decided to pick up clothes and personal items from home. Later, he had business to attend to, and he had to make sure he was at Cindy’s when Rory got home after pre-school. On the drive to his condo, his cell rang. He checked the ID. Steeling himself for more epitaphs from his business partner, he pressed the phone button on the steering wheel to hook into Bluetooth. “Hello.” “Hey, pal! Great time for you to go dark when my life is falling apart,” Dave snarled. “I was at Cindy’s taking care of my nephews.” “Oh, yeah, how’s your sister doing?” Dave’s voice softened. “About the same.” Ryan assumed he had called about Annie Nichols. Instead Dave surprised him with unlikely news. “Are you ready? My beloved wife ran off with Steve Noley.” Stunned, Ryan took his foot off the accelerator. A driver in a pick-up truck blasted the horn, made an obscene gesture, and raced around his car. “What did you say?” “A hack geriatric guitar player ran off with my wife to parts unknown. Bett left a ‘Dear John.’ I found the letter in the kitchen. What am I supposed to tell my kids?” The reason Steve Noley had buddied up to Dave became clear. A notorious womanizer, the founder of The Nightwatch had been married five times, including once to his manager whom he dumped personally and professionally to marry her daughter. What was Bett McAfee thinking? “I don’t know what to say.” “You haven’t heard the best part,” Dave announced, rancor in his voice. “The old geezer signed on the dotted line. We’re producing the band’s anniversary album. I swear when Noley shows up at the studio, I’m gonna kick his flabby ass from one end of the studio to the other!” Be careful what you wish for, Ryan thought. Dave was none too concerned when he told him his problems concerning Annie. Only that the label might lose The Nightwatch, too. “We can contact our attorney and see what he says about the contract,” Ryan suggested. “You know what he’ll say. The document is legal and binding. The only attorney I’m talking to is a divorce attorney. Noley’ll get tired of my money-grubbing wife. He always gets tired of them. He’s been married what? Sixteen times?” “Five. The last one was twenty-two. Uh, Dave, maybe now’s not a good time, but I want you to hear the news from me. I’m taking care of the Annie problem today. I’m sure she won’t sign.” Ryan waited for his partner to go ballistic. “Gotta do what you gotta do,” Dave replied wearily. “I’m too fried to think about anything except making my wife my ex and fast before she comes after my kids and the bank account. I gotta go, Ryan. Keep in touch.” Life wasn’t sex, drugs, and rock and roll Ryan mused. There were better things to aspire to. He turned into the parking garage of his building with the certainty he’d been right the moment he saw Lexi Carpenter at Macy’s. Regardless of what he’d said to her at the hospital, he’d been traveling the wrong road far too long. “High time to make a U-turn,” he said aloud. Chapter 25 The proposal for Fink, Fine & Martin occupied Lexi’s morning. A fussy little man, indecisive over a red sofa, had given her the opportunity of a lifetime. In spite of her attempts to work, Ryan interrupted her thoughts like an annoying internet pop-up ad. Lexi checked her watch. Eleven-thirty. Maybe lunch would re-energize her. At the fridge, she took out some of Gloria’s left over chicken to make a sandwich. She rounded out lunch with a container of potato salad and grabbed a Diet Coke. Lexi turned on the television and channel surfed before deciding upon the news. To her surprise, Ryan Russo filled the screen. Stacey Bridges was interviewing him. Her appetite lost, Lexi stared at the set. “Annie Nichols’ publicist confirms she’s pregnant, but you deny you’re the father.” Dressed in a funereal black suit and a crisp white blouse, hair pulled back in a bun, wearing minimal make-up, and a serious expression, Stacey looked more like a prosecuting D.A. than a newswoman. Ryan responded evenly. “Annie has never stated publicly the baby is mine because it isn’t. We had a business meeting at her home in Chicago. The media ran with a speculative story when they saw me there. My relationship with Annie Nichols is strictly professional.” “What exactly was the meeting about?” Stacey probed. “We discussed a recording contract.” “You were hoping Annie would sign with your label, Kool Kat, since her contract with Guiding Star is almost up.” “Annie Nichols is the most famous female recording artist in the industry. If I could sign her, I would.” “Has she signed?” “No,” he stated. “Why come forward now with a denial when you’ve made no effort to do so?” “Innocent people got caught in the crossfire. When everyone assumed the baby was mine, I thought the story would run its course. I was wrong, and although I respect Annie’s decision to keep her personal life private, I can’t continue to let the rumors go unanswered.” One of Stacey’s perfectly arched eyebrows shot up in an accusatory manner. “Is one of those people Lexi Carpenter?” Ryan remained unruffled. “Lexi’s a friend. Because I didn’t stop the rumors in the first place, she was inadvertently drawn into the story. There’s no romantic triangle. The press’ imagination is working overtime.” “You and Lexi had a romantic relationship in the past, didn’t you?” “We were together some years ago, but what I said is true. She’s a friend and none too happy about being hounded by reporters. The media runs with whatever they think will sell papers. Lexi is a bystander.” For a few minutes, Ryan and Stacey continued to play chess with questions and answers. Stacey wasn’t getting the better of him. “But, at one time, you were involved with Annie Nichols. Isn’t that correct?” The general manager appeared pleased with her revelation. “Annie,” Ryan countered evenly, “was eighteen years old, unknown at the time, and very talented. We broke up when she decided to pursue her career in California. I don’t know how many times or how many ways I can say this. My relationship with Annie Nichols is a professional one. Period.” “Are you willing to take a DNA test to prove you’re not the father of her child?” Stacey continued. “Hopefully, a test won’t be necessary. When Annie is ready, she’ll reveal her plans, including the identity of her baby’s father. I wish everyone would cut her a break and stop assuming what they don’t know.” The interview faded, and the anchor woman appeared. “For more of Stacey Bridges’ exclusive interview with Ryan Russo, tune in tonight at ten p.m. We have an audience participation survey. Do you believe Ryan Russo is telling the truth? Call the number on the screen. One for yes. Two for no. We’ll disclose the results at ten o’clock.” Lexi turned off the television. Had Ryan given the interview because of her, or because he wanted to tell his side of the story? A contract with Annie Nichols was worth untold millions. Whatever his motive, he had tried to clear Lexi’s name. Reporters would, more than likely, continue to haunt Lexi to see what they could drum up. Maybe, though, they’d ease up and another story would soon capture their attention. “A friend,” she repeated out loud, thinking about Ryan’s reference to her. The description left her cold. He sent her away from the hospital. What if he didn’t want her? Did she want him? Should she want him? She had vowed to be independent, make her own way, and never again settle for another disastrous relationship. Was it possible Ryan Russo really was ‘the one?’ I can’t get him out of my head. Lexi closed her eyes, but Ryan’s face was stuck inside her brain. People could change. The Ryan Russo Stacey interviewed wasn’t the Ryan Russo she walked out on five years ago. Back then, she doubted he would face this crisis head-on. For the most part, his only concern was finding the next gig. He took life as it came, probably because they were so young. They hadn’t experienced enough of life’s twists, turns, peaks, and valleys to worry much about the future. Lexi paced the kitchen floor and wished Gloria, her reliable barometer, was home. Ryan was knee deep in personal and professional problems. Did she want to take those on, too? Is he telling the truth? Does he deserve a second chance? Their relationship fizzled out five years ago, and Ryan broke her heart. Back then she thought a lot about marriage. Her sister was married. Her friends were married or engaged. She’d been in too many weddings to count. The pressure she felt to have the ideal man and the ideal marriage had been enormous. Had she been too focused on being someone’s wife? She wanted to get married. She wanted a mate for life, but she wanted her career, too. Not that she couldn’t have both. Lots of women had a career and a family. If the job with Fink, Fine & Martin went the way she hoped, she had a new goal brewing in the back of her mind. Maybe when things settled down, if they ever did, she and Ryan could have a serious discussion. But that wasn’t going to be anytime soon. Cindy needed to get well. The Annie Nichols mess needed to die down. And Lexi had her own set of questions that needed answers concerning the pop princess. The law firm redesign was going to occupy copious amounts of her time. For now, she’d leave well enough alone. The day would come when she and Ryan would have a heart-to-heart conversation. *** Ryan left the WCHO studios and drove straight to the hospital. On the way, he listened for the first time to the voicemails Rusty and Annie had left days ago. From Rusty. “I don’t know where she is, Ryan. She disappeared. Left a voicemail telling me not to look for her. Call me!” From Annie. “I’m going away for a while, Ryan. Don’t try to find me. Keep quiet a little bit longer, okay?” “Too late, Annie.” Ryan pressed delete at the end of her message. He didn’t regret his decision to give the interview to Stacey Bridges. The label would survive without Annie Nichols. The Noley deal, if Dave didn’t kill the founder of the band, would be very profitable. He’d get serious about the business, bring in new talent, go back to the audio boards where he belonged and start producing records. Cass was right. He not only wanted Lexi, he needed her. Maybe he believed she would be better off without him when he left her sitting in the hospital cafeteria, but he wasn’t being noble. He’d been out of his mind about his sister and ashamed of the life he’d led. Lexi deserved the best, and right now he didn’t have much to offer. First and foremost, his family was number one. There would be a time and a place to sit down with her to ask for another chance. The drive to the hospital seemed endless. Red lights impeded Ryan’s progress and tested his patience. Today the doctor was going to wake Cindy up. When he pulled into the hospital lot, a sense of peace settled over him. His sister was going to be okay. He refused to believe otherwise. In Cindy’s room, he greeted his mother, the doctor, and several staff members. “Good morning, Mr. Russo,” Dr. Kelly nodded. “I believe we’re ready. We’ll bring Mrs. Bennett around slowly. Once she’s conscious, we’ll give her a few minutes to orient herself. Then we’ll ask her to cough to help us remove the respirator.” Ryan instinctively placed his arm around his mother to offer support. She leaned in and whispered in his ear. “You sure took care of Annie Nichols. I saw your interview. I’m sorry I doubted you.” “I shouldn’t have let the lies drag on. I’m sorry, Mom,” Ryan apologized. “You’re a good man, son. I’m proud of you.” His mother kissed his cheek. Ryan’s face heated. He couldn’t remember the last time he had made anyone proud of him. Why had it taken him so long to realize love truly was everything? Chapter 26 After Ryan’s public denial of paternity, the rags fabricated every conceivable angle. When news broke Steve Noley had eloped with his sixth wife, the Ryan/Annie story moved off the front page. Newlywed Noley Betts Wife Number Six Is A Sure Thing! Dave McAfee slid the paper across Ryan’s desk. “She asked for an expedited Las Vegas divorce. I was only too happy to give her what she wanted.” “Be glad he’s stuck with her and not you.” Ryan glanced over the story. “Noley must be getting senile. He didn’t have Bett sign a pre-nup?” “She’ll bankrupt him.” Dave sounded more relieved than vengeful. “How’re the kids?” “Missing their mom. How do you explain to a two-year-old and a four- year-old their mom flew the coup? My mother came in from Boston. She had plenty to say, but not in front of the girls. They love their Granny, and I’m glad she’s here. I have a feeling Bett’s going to ask for joint custody. My attorney says she abandoned them. We’ll see.” “And what will you do if she does file for joint custody?” “I don’t know. I don’t want to hurt the girls, but Steve Noley as their step-father? Are you kidding me?” “Yeah, I hear you.” “Enough about me. What about you? Everything okay with your sister and her boys?” “My nephews are the greatest. Cindy’s in rehab and getting stronger. The boys see her every day.” “Have you heard anything from Annie?” “No.” Ryan had no idea where she was. “I’m sure we can kiss her contract good-bye.” A wry smile crossed his partner’s face. “So be it. The only good news about Bett running off with a rocker is he’s our rocker. I intend to ring every red cent I can from his scrawny neck. DeRoe charted. I’ve been fielding calls from Nicky Abrams and Peter Zost. Nice to have talent calling us for a change.” "Amen to that.” “Ah hem.” Cass appeared at the doorway. “Cass,” Dave acknowledged. “What’s up?” Ryan inquired. “Your mom called and wants you to pick up your nephews after school and take them to see their mom. She got into the dentist late, and he’s still drilling.” “Ouch,” Dave winced. “Thanks, Cass. I better go. We’ll talk about the list of prospects tomorrow morning. Are we good?” “We’re square,” Dave said. Ryan’s life was square, too. Cindy was on the mend. He and the boys had formed an affectionate bond. Business prospects were looking up. He found himself humming when he approached the elevator bank. The doors opened, and he walked inside to join two other people. The button for the garage level was already lit up. When the elevator stopped, the pair exited. Ryan saw a woman hurrying toward him to make the elevator. “Lexi?” “Ryan? We really have to stop meeting this way,” she laughed. He thanked the gods of fate for another chance. Why did he think he could push her away? He must have been crazy. “I planned to call you and thank you for clearing my name. I thought you needed some space to deal with everything,” Lexi said. “All I want is to make time for you,” Ryan assured her. If only he had the opportunity now to tell her how much she meant to him. “I wish I’d never let Annie use me. Even more, I’m sorry you got caught in the fallout. I wasn’t myself at the hospital. Everything I said to you, I’m really sorry.” “You were under a lot of stress,” Lexi replied. “Probably not the best time to be rational. Is Cindy okay?” “Making progress every day. I’m picking the boys up from school. We’re going to see her.” “Good news at last. I’m relieved for all of you. Tell her I said hello.” Ryan needed to leave, but he didn’t want to go. In unison they blurted, “We need to talk.” “Don’t I owe you a cup of coffee?” Lexi asked. “The offer still stands. How about lunch tomorrow?” “The diner next to your building?” “Good choice,” Ryan readily agreed. “Noon?” “Noon is perfect. From inside her handbag, Lexi extracted a business card. “My mobile and email are listed.” A huge smile broke out on Ryan’s face. “You work at Gilson’s?” “I’ve doubled up on classes, and soon I’ll have my degree in interior design. Gilson’s is okay for now.” “You always had good taste. Our apartment was cool.” Ryan’s intuition had been correct. Lexi was nearby all along. “Yeah,” she answered softly. “Our place was great. See you tomorrow?” “You bet. I’ll be there.” Checking his watch, Ryan knew he had to leave. “I’m sorry. I have to pick up the boys.” “Go. Go.” She waved him away. “Give Cindy my best.” “I will.” Tomorrow, he’d lay his cards on the table. He didn’t expect Lexi to fall into his arms, but at least he might have a shot at winning her back. Chapter 27 Ryan had established a comfortable routine with his nephews. They seldom bickered at the breakfast table. Rory took every opportunity to demonstrate tying his shoelaces. Denny cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher without too much prompting. When the boys visited their mother, she was impressed with Rory’s new skill, amazed by Denny’s sudden domesticity, but more so by her brother’s genuine affection for her sons. A little after nine a.m., Ryan arrived at his office. “Good morning, Azalea,” he winked. The young receptionist’s face flushed pink. She handed him his mail and a message. “Cass wants you to call her on her mobile ASAP before you go into your office.” “Uh huh,” Ryan replied, half-listening while he sorted through the stack. “Thanks.” When he walked by Cass’ desk, she was nowhere in sight. His nose buried in the mail, he walked into his office and pitched the stack on his desk. When he hung up his jacket, he turned around to discover why his admin had tried to flag him down. “Annie?” “Ryan.” Her tone was cool. Tanned and healthier looking than when he last saw her, Annie’s trademark blonde hair was colored a soft honey brown. The vamped-up style she favored was replaced by a simple tailored white loose blouse and a short black wool skirt. Leather pumps replaced leather boots. “You look good.” Ryan stated, wondering why she was in his office. “I spent a bundle at an exclusive spa in Argentina. Look. “She stuck her hands out in front of Ryan to demonstrate their steadiness. “I took care of the smoking problem, too. Hypnosis.” “Argentina, huh?” He expected a tongue lashing concerning his contact with Stacey Bridges. “I assume you’re here about the interview I gave to WCHO.” “No. I came to tell you Rusty and I are through. I fired him.” “You fired Rusty? Why?” “Once my head cleared,” Annie explained. “I realized he was a crutch. I’m fond of Rusty, but I don’t love him. He tried to protect me, and I put him on a white horse. I’m grateful, but my psychiatrist helped me understand I don’t need to lean on Rusty. I’ve decided to take my life in a new direction.” Ryan stared at Annie in disbelief. After all Rusty had been through with her, how could she act as if he’d meant nothing? Annie reached into her Versace handbag and pulled out a document. “Here.” Her contract. Ryan thumbed to the back page. “Unsigned. I understand, Annie. Sorry we couldn’t do business.” “You don’t understand,” she dismissed his speculation. “I plan to sign my contract. I plan to record for your label, and I want you to produce my future albums.” “Future albums?” “I’m changing my image. I’m not doing the same old stuff I’ve been doing for years. I want to be taken seriously. Once word gets out I’m available, I’m sure I can do Broadway.” Annie had a powerful voice, but she would need great vocal performances and equally great acting to dispel her image as a pop queen. How well would Annie Nichols be received trodding the boards? “You want to star on Broadway?” “Yes. Dr. Arno made me realize I was making myself sick singing those silly vapid songs over and over. I’ve hired a voice coach to help with the transition.” “Okay,” Ryan stated cautiously. He went to his desk and sat down, laid her contract in front of him and contemplated her plans. Annie got to her feet and smoothed her skirt. She walked to his desk, placed her palms face down to steady herself and leaned forward. When Ryan looked up, he was staring straight down her boobs. “I love you, Ryan. Marry me. I’ll sign the contract, and all your dreams will come true.” Her proposal sounded like a business proposition. Although surprised, Ryan kept his poker face and folded his hands together on the desk top. “Count me out. I have plans of my own.” “You were my first love,” Annie persisted. “You sacrificed our relationship to give me a chance at a career. When I saw you again at my house, I knew you were the only man for me. We’ve come full circle. With my talent, we can have the world at our feet.” Her talent? She made him feel like a hanger-on anxious to ride the coat tails of her success. Poor Rusty was probably sitting in a bar somewhere getting hammered. He wished he was here to see Annie’s true colors. “There’s no good way to say this. I’m not in love with you, not now, not then. I didn’t sacrifice our relationship. We had a fling. I was relieved when you left.” “I don’t believe you,” Annie countered, her face growing red. “We’re meant to be together. Don’t think I won’t put your name on my baby’s birth certificate. I can make you look like a hero or a villain in the eyes of the media.” Annie Nichols, spoiled super-star, on full display. No way could she threaten him into giving in. “Money buys everything including a paternity test,” she challenged. “Don’t you see? We’ll be the new power couple. Major recording artists will beat down your door. What more could you want?” Tired of her fantasies, Ryan answered truthfully. “I want the woman I love, Annie, and she isn’t you.” Even if he could get her to agree to sign with Kool Kat, he wouldn’t. She wasn’t worth the aggravation. Narrowing her eyes, Annie threatened. “Then get over her.” “Maybe you think money can buy anything you want, but you can’t buy me. You wouldn’t be happy for long. You’re too needy.” Ryan pushed the contract across the desk. “No deal.” “You’ll change your mind,” Annie said with confidence. “No, I won’t.” “I know all about your little interior decorator. Don’t be hasty. Keep the contract. You may want to reconsider.” “You have a hard time with the word no. And leave Lexi out of this, or I promise you will be sorry.” Annie turned away to gather up her purse and coat. “I want to sign,” she stated. “I really do. Think about what I said. The Ryan Russo I know wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to sign me.” “Maybe I’ve changed, Annie.” “Really?” “Really,” he answered. “Don’t bother to see me out. I have a limo downstairs. I’ll be in touch.” Ryan was happy to see her go. In his opinion, her headshrinker hadn’t finished the job. Maybe she wasn’t the same shaky tearful Annie ready to retire to Spain, but her new persona wasn’t much better. Either way, the title Diva suited her to a capital D. Cass burst into his office obviously frustrated. “I wanted to warn you, but Dave sent me out to pick up antacids. Didn’t Azalea tell you to call me?” “She can barely look me in the eye, but she did give me your message. It’s my fault I walked into an ambush.” “Shoot! I see Annie N’s long gone. She pranced in here like the Queen of England and parked herself in your office. Dave tried to talk to her, but she sent him off with a wave of her hand. Did you get a load of her? She went from wild child to church mouse.” “Mouse would never be an apt description. The great Annie Nichols wants to do Broadway, and she had a proposition for me. If I marry her, she’ll sign her contract.” Cass’ eyebrows shot up. “Shut the door! What kinda spell do you cast over women?” “Must be my scintillating charm,” Ryan chuckled. “I turned her down. I have a lunch date with Lexi, and if I’m lucky, I’ll convince her to give me a second chance.” “Hmm. Hmm. Hmm. Right before my eyes. Are you really Ryan Russo or an illusion?” “One hundred percent me. I love Lexi, Cass.” “Well, things are lookin’ up, aren’t they? We got The Nightwatch under contract, thanks to their no good guitar player. I can’t believe Dave is gonna be civil, but he swears Noley makin’ money for the label is his best revenge. We got Debbie Blake and Peter Zost knockin’ at the door. The Working for a Living Band is gonna sign, and DeRoe is sittin’ at number five on the charts.” His assistant hadn’t had a raise in well over a year. Ryan made a mental note to talk to Dave. If anyone deserved to profit by their good fortune, it was Cass. “At least your paycheck won’t bounce,” he winked. His assistant snorted and gathered herself to her full height. “About time there was light at the end of a very long tunnel.” “Right you are. Our luck has changed. I’m going to the studio to play some demos. Find me at eleven thirty. I don’t want to be late for lunch.” “You can count on me,” she said with a broad smile. “I know,” Ryan said. “And I’m grateful.” Chapter 28 “Let me in.” Her sunglasses slid down her nose allowing Lexi to get a good look. With or without shades, there was no mistaking her, but what on earth was she doing at Gloria’s door at eleven in the morning? “What do...?” Lexi started to ask. Annie brushed past her. “We need to talk. I could use some tea. Herbal, preferably.” “Excuse me,” Lexi questioned, not about to be ordered around by Annie Nichols. “Why exactly are you here?” “Don’t play dumb.” Annie started down the hallway. “Where’s the kitchen?” Their common thread was Ryan. Was she here because of his interview? Would she try to convince her he was lying about the baby? The tea canister sat on Gloria’s granite kitchen counter. Annie found a mug in the cabinet and filled the kettle. “I love tea, don’t you? Soothing. Very civilized.” “I’ll ask again,” Lexi said impatiently. “What do you want?” “Good. Let’s get straight to the point. I saw Ryan this morning. I told him I’m ready to sign my contract.” “I’m sure he was pleased.” “He will be when he realizes what’s good for him.” Annie leaned against the counter, placed her sunglasses atop her head and stared straight at Lexi. “And you know what’s good for him?” “Yes, I do,” Annie stated. “Me.” Anger nipped at Lexi’s heels. Annie waltzed into Gloria’s house like she owned the place. Her imperious attitude was wearing thin. “Does Ryan have a say in the matter?” The thought of him with someone as insufferable as Annie Nichols nearly sent Lexi over the edge. “You are out of your league. You can’t compete with me. Ryan will never be faithful to one woman. I can tolerate his occasional infidelity. Can you?” Annie removed the kettle and poured hot water over the teabag. “My baby is a girl. I’m going to name her Stella. In spite of his faults, Ryan will make a good father.” Annie’s steel blue eyes challenged Lexi. “Aren’t you jumping the gun? The last time I saw Ryan he wasn’t with you.” “Witty, aren’t you? We belong together. Ryan and I enjoyed a very satisfying relationship in the past.” A knowing smirk crossed Annie’s face. “He’s quite the man, isn’t he? I had some stuff to work out. Now I’m focused on the future. Ryan is a brilliant producer. He and I understand the music scene. We know the people. We know the business. Simply put, I’m better for him.” “Seems you’ve got Ryan’s future all figured out.” “Men only think with one thing,” Annie winked. “He’ll come around once you’re out of the picture.” “You came here to threaten me?” Lexi asked. “Threaten you? I came to offer you an opportunity. You’re a decorator, aren’t you?” “And you care because?” “I can throw business your way. Clients to make you star struck. You’ll become a hot property. All I have to do is mention your name in the right places. Name a figure. I’ll underwrite your start-up.” The gall! Lexi fists clenched at her sides. If Annie was itching for a fight, she’d give her one. “I’m not for sale. I believe you know where the door is.” “Lexi.” Annie sat her mug on the counter. “You left Ryan once. Now you’re a challenge to his ego. Once he wins you back, he’ll get bored. I, on the other hand, am not boring.” “But you are pregnant with someone else’s child. If you think Ryan is such a cad, why do you want him?” A few weeks ago, Annie Nichols’ visit would have confirmed Lexi’s worst opinion of him. Now she was ready to defend Ryan’s honor. “You should go.” Lexi headed for the front door. If Annie didn’t leave, she’d call the cops. “I’m going, but here’s food for thought. If Ryan wants you, why was he so passionate the night we met at my place? Why is he so eager to get me into the studio? Sessions can last a long time, sometimes all night.” “Get out.” Lexi opened the door and backed against it. Annie Nichols was cold and calculating. How could anyone believe a word she said? With exaggerated flourish, the great pop queen put her sunglasses on and swept past her. When Lexi had a chance to simmer down, unwelcome doubt began to creep to the forefront of her mind. Had Ryan been truthful? Was she a challenge to mend his ego? There was only one way to find out where she stood. She grabbed her car keys, coat and handbag. *** “Did you find her?” “Who?” Ryan asked the waitress. “Remember me? Tracey? The woman with the gloves. Did you find her?” “Oh, Tracey, sure I remember. Yes, I found her. She’s meeting me here.” “Good for you. Want coffee while you wait?” “Yes, thanks,” Ryan said. Lexi would be there any minute, and he was starting to feel anxious. The television mounted over the diner’s counter caught his attention. Howard Cross’ face flashed on the screen. You could tell by looking at the guy he was a jerk. Apparently, the story captured Tracey’s interest because she turned up the volume. “Howard Cross was last seen over the weekend when he filed the report you just saw. A sand storm raging near Kabul finally cleared at dawn. That’s when the Marine unit discovered one of their imbedded reporters had gone missing. There’s speculation Cross got separated from the unit and became disoriented during the storm. We’ll keep you updated on the search.” Ryan felt a pang of guilt and a little sorry for him, but guys like Howard Cross had nine lives. He wasn’t expecting what happened next. Two hands flew over his eyes temporarily blinding him. “Lexi!” Ryan smiled, assuming she was surprising him. “No, dahling. Yvette.” “Oh, no,” Ryan groaned. Not now! Of all people he didn’t need Yvette hanging around when Lexi came into the diner. He reached for her hands and removed them from his eyes. Swiveling his body in his chair, he looked up at her and growled. “I don’t know how you escaped from the asylum, but I thought I made myself clear.” Ryan got to his feet, intending to escort her to the door. Yvette took hold of him and held his face to hers in a vise-like grip. Ryan couldn’t believe how strong she was. She made a direct hit on his protesting open mouth, ramming her tongue deep into his throat. Ryan gagged. Yvette released him and gave him a little shove backward. Two construction workers wolf-whistled and clapped their hands together in delight. From the corner of his eye, Ryan saw Tracey, coffee pot in hand, take in the scene. He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. Seeing red, he started toward Yvette and stopped abruptly when he caught sight of Lexi. He couldn’t tell if she looked hurt, disgusted or confused. Before he could get to her, she turned around and exited through the door. “Get out of my way, you crazy bitch!” Ryan screamed at Yvette. She wedged herself between him and the door, bobbing and weaving with the expertise of an NBA pro guarding his turf. Ryan bolted straight at her. Yvette laughed, gingerly stepped aside and catapulted Ryan into the front door. He bounced off the heavy glass and landed prostrate on his back. With a malicious grin, she walked to his crumpled form and planted a victorious stiletto heel on his chest. “Goodbye, Cherie. At last I go to Hans.” Throwing her head back, she vaulted her closed fist into the air, leaned over Ryan and hissed. “I got the part asshole! No thanks to you!” Yvette strutted out the door held open by one of the construction workers. Wheezing, Ryan got to his feet, took a deep breath and headed for the sidewalk. How had Yvette found him? He looked both ways. No sign of Lexi. Gilson’s! She must have gone back to the store. Sucking in freezing air, Ryan started running. Yvette would not be easy to explain, but he had to try. After a mad dash to the furniture store, he burst through the door winded, put his hands on his knees and felt a stitch stab his side. “May I help you?” When his lungs re-inflated, he looked up at a deeply tanned woman with bottle-blonde hair. “Lexi Carpenter,” he said. “Is she here?” The woman eyed him suspiciously. “Who wants to know?” Before Ryan could answer, her expression changed to recognition. “Hey! You’re Lexi’s Ryan.” “Guilty,” he confessed. “Is she here?” “Depends. She didn’t look too happy when she came in, and I have a feeling you’re the reason.” “Lady, please. I swear. I have to talk to her.” “I’m Gloria Johnson. Let me go see.” She pointed her long hot pink finger nail. “You wait here.” “Not a problem. I’m not leaving until she sees me.” Gloria disappeared into what Ryan assumed was a break room. “I’m not sure I want to see him.” Lexi said after Gloria told her Ryan was out front. “He ran in here like his pants were on fire. Was he chasing you? You came in in a big hurry, too. You two have a fight?” “We didn’t get far enough to have a fight. Gloria, this is the worst day of my life. First Annie Nichols showed up at your house to threaten me. Then...” “The Annie Nichols was at my house?” Gloria interrupted. “What was she doing there?” “Raising doubts in my mind about Ryan.” “But, you were excited about seeing him today.” “Until I walked into the diner and saw him in a lip lock with another woman. Obviously, they know each other well. I feel utterly defeated, Gloria. Howard cheated on me. Ryan’s been with I don’t know how many other women. What am I supposed to think?” “Well, anyone in your shoes would be suspicious considering what you’ve been through, but Lexi, you never give him a chance to say two words. You just take off.” “What?” Lexi asked. “Why are you defending him?” “Sit down a minute,” Gloria pulled out a chair. ”Let’s think about this. Let’s go over the whole situation. Ryan invited you to lunch. Said he needs to talk to you and apologizes for the way he was at the hospital. Today, you get to the diner and he’s in a clinch with some mystery woman. Why would Ryan want you to see him with another woman?” “I don’t know.” Lexi held her hands up in frustration. She put a hand to her forehead and leaned forward. “I really don’t. I just know seeing him with her hurt.” “Have you ever known Ryan to be deliberately mean?” “No. He may be many things, but he isn’t cruel,” Lexi answered truthfully. “Okay,” Gloria continued. “He could have brushed you off the day you ran into him in the parking garage. You told me he was happy to see you. Why did he give the interview to clear your name? Why did he corner you in an elevator asking for a second chance? Why bother to have lunch only to set you up? Two and two doesn’t add up to four on my calculator.” “I should hear what he has to say, huh?” “Yeah, you should. If he wanted to humiliate you, why would he come running in here after you? He and mystery woman would be back at the diner laughing their butts off at your expense. “Give the guy a few minutes. He looks devastated. If he’s yanking your chain, I’ll help you throw him out with the trash. Sitting in here stewing won’t answer your questions or erase your doubts.” “You’re right. I need to know.” Lexi nodded her head in agreement. “I keep telling you how independent and strong I’ve become. I shouldn’t automatically assume Ryan is like Howard.” “Oh honey, your luck with men hasn’t been the best. Nobody could blame you for being gun shy, but you need to calm down and give Ryan a chance. Stop assuming you’re seein’ the whole picture.” “I hope he has a good explanation. I really want to believe him.” “I’ll go get him,” Gloria winked. If Ryan wanted Annie, she was ripe for the picking. But Annie came to Lexi with bribes and threats. And the mystery woman? Who was she? Ryan was never one for overt PDA’s. He saved his passion for the privacy of the bedroom. The woman was slithering all over him like a snake. Gloria was right. Ryan wasn’t Howard, and it was high time she faced the truth, whatever it might be. “Lexi?” She startled at the sound of Ryan’s voice. He wore a pleading expression on his face. “Who is she?” Lexi asked and looked up at him. “What happened to you? Touching two fingers to the damage, Ryan grimaced. “Must have happened when I ran into the door.” “What door?” “Let me explain,” he said and pulled out a chair to sit down next to her. “Ryan, I need the truth. Even if hurts.” “I’ll tell you everything, even if it sounds crazy. So.” He took a deep breath. “Here goes. The woman you saw in the diner is Yvette LeBeaux. She’s deranged. In fact, beyond deranged. Her real name is Meredith something or the other, and she’s an actress.” “An actress? Are you involved with her?” “I was. I’m not now. Yvette isn’t easy to explain.” Lexi’s heart raced. She couldn’t suffer another blow like the one Howard had dealt her. “I’m listening. Who is Yvette LeBeaux to you?” “Definitely not what you think. Let me go back to when I ran into you at Macy’s. I wasn’t coming on to you. I really wanted to see you again, but you didn’t want anything to do with me. Not that I blame you. That’s when I opened the door to Yvette and her personal freak show. She’s a nightmare.” “I made it clear I was with Howard. So you started seeing Yvette? Is that right?” “I thought I didn’t stand a chance with you, and I didn’t know how to find you. I thought she was a French model, but she’s a wanna-be-actress playing a part. I know how this sounds, believe me.” “Are you still with her?” “No, we ended before we began. Actually, she was an illusion.” “But you were kissing her at the diner?” “I wasn’t kissing her,” he protested. “It sure looked that way.” “In her deluded way,” Ryan continued evenly, “Yvette was settling a score. She thought I’d ruined her chances of getting a part in an Indy film. When I found out she was only playing a part and playing me, it all came crashing down. I told her to take a hike. She isn’t a model. She isn’t French. She’s a nutcase.” “That’s bizarre,” Lexi said. “I couldn’t make Yvette up if I tried. She didn’t want me, not the real me. She claimed to be a method actress. Yvette LeBeaux is her character, and she was living her character’s life. I broke up with her, and she was furious. I wouldn’t throw someone in your face like that. You know me better, don’t you? I pulled a lot of crap, but I never deliberately set out to hurt you, ever.” “This woman unwittingly duped you?” “Yes. I swear I’m not lying, Lexi. I’ve got too much to lose.” Through the grapevine of friends she and Ryan used to hang out with, she knew how he occupied himself when she moved out. He partied, played clubs, and was with a different woman at every turn that more than likely turned up in his bed. She was devastated Ryan could move on so fast, convinced she’d never meant anything to him. Now, here he sat, his deep brown eyes imploring her to take him at his word. “Were you and Yvette together when you pulled me into the elevator?” “No. We were over. You saw her in full-fledged actress mode. Yvette dumping her rich patsy American boyfriend to go find Hans, her German lover.” “Hans? Ryan, this is all very confusing.” “You have no idea what she put me through. The woman is a whack job.” The welt on Ryan’s forehead looked painful. He sounded sincere. She’d seen Yvette shove him, but she thought she was being playful. Her attention had been focused on the woman in question, not on Ryan’s reaction to her. “You’re telling the truth? All of it? Do you swear?” Ryan nodded in the affirmative and crossed his heart. “Lexi, I couldn’t make up Yvette. No one would believe me.” “The kiss, though?” “She grabbed me, caught me off-guard. I know how lame I sound. She said I made her break character. She came up behind me and put her hands over my eyes. I thought she was you. The last person I wanted to see was Yvette LeBeaux. I was trying to get rid of her before you showed up. When I saw you in the doorway, I started after you. I rushed head long toward her because she was blocking my way. She stepped aside, and I got into a smack down with the door. Guess who won?” “I see. I think.” “Lexi, that’s the truth. None of what happened with Yvette is pretty, but it did happen just the way I said.” “When we saw each other at Macy’s, I was with Howard,” Lexi conceded. “I told you he was my boyfriend. Howard humiliated me, and I know you’re not him, okay? But it’s not easy to trust again because I’m tired of getting hurt.” “I never wanted to hurt you. You were the only good thing in my life. When you told me about Howard, the thought of you with him drove me up the wall. I don’t think he deserved you, but I’m sorry he’s missing.” “Missing?” Lexi asked. “Oh,” Ryan sat back against his chair. “You haven’t heard?” “Heard what?” “There was a sandstorm,” Ryan began. “He got separated from the Marine unit. They think he’s in the desert somewhere.” Lexi digested the information. Howard was lost in a sandstorm? “How do you know?” “While I was waiting for you, I was watching the news at the diner. The storm cleared, and the Marines discovered he was missing. I’m sorry. I thought you knew.” “No. I didn’t.” Lexi wasn’t sure what to think about her missing ex-boyfriend. “I’m sure he’ll be okay. The Marines are looking for him,” Ryan assured her. “Howard probably got a lead on a story and went off on his own.” Should she call someone? Jack Pond? No. Howard was with Stacey. There was no reason for her to get involved. He was no longer her concern. “Wait a minute. You said you didn’t know how to find me, but you went to the condo looking for me when you ran into Stacey. How did that happen?” “Cass is how. I was about to hire a private detective. I had to find you. She has a friend at the DMW who found Howard’s address. Your address was the same. But when I showed up, Stacey Bridges was there. She told me you and Howard broke up.” “To her delight, I’m sure. He was cheating on me with her.” “You’re kidding me? With Stacey? He must be one messed up dude. I’m sorry, Lexi. You didn’t deserve that, but I’m glad you left him. Stacey said she didn’t know where you were living, and then she pounced on me about Annie Nichols.” “I wished something bad would happen to Howard, and my wish came true.” The gut feeling she’d had from the beginning that his assignment was a bad idea haunted her. After she found him with Stacey, she wished nothing good ever came his way again. “You can’t blame yourself. When we broke up, I’m sure you didn’t want my life to turn out great.” “Let’s just say a certain part of your anatomy shriveled up and fell off.” Ryan grimaced. “I get the picture.” “Howard made his choice, and he couldn’t wait to get to his assignment. The only person he truly loves is himself. I’m not heartless. I hope he’ll be okay.” “You could never be heartless. They’ll find him.” Lexi changed the subject. “I have something to tell you about Annie Nichols.” “Annie? Has she been bothering you?” Ryan asked. Before Lexi could tell him about Annie’s visit, Paul Frazier poked his head through the door. “Lexi, the re-order for Randolph Fink arrived. I want to make sure the desk isn’t scratched like the last one. I won’t sign for the order until you give the okay.” “Sure, Paul. I’ll be right there.” When her manager left, Lexi turned to Ryan. “My boss. I have to go. The law firm I’m decorating.” Lexi stood up indicating the conversation, for now, was over. “Could we talk later? Could I pick you up after work? Dinner maybe?” Ryan asked. “I only get forty-five minutes. We wouldn’t have time to talk about everything. What about nine fifteen? I came in with Gloria. You could be my ride home.” “I’ll be out front waiting,” Ryan assured her. When Lexi returned to the floor, Gloria met her. “Well?” “He’s picking me up tonight after work. We didn’t get to Annie Nichols.” “Do you believe him?” “I want to. I think I do. Gloria, did you know Howard is missing in Afghanistan?” “Whoa! Missing? How the heck did that happen?” “Probably following up some lead he thought would make his network dream come true.” “You mean his wet dream, don’t ya?” Gloria cackled. In spite of the circumstances, Lexi laughed out loud. “We better get back to work. Paul’s cutting us a break because of the Martin job, but you and I know our luck can’t hold out forever.” “Catch you later.” Gloria headed off to greet a young couple entering the store. In spite of Yvette, Annie’s threats and Howard’s lousy sense of direction, Lexi was willing to talk further with Ryan. She wanted to believe him, but he wasn’t making things easy. Chapter 29 At least she hadn’t thrown him out on his ear. What had Annie done to stir up more trouble? “You seem jumpy.” Cass put two phone slips and the afternoon mail on Ryan’s desk. “Somebody slug you? You got a nasty bump on your head.” “I ran into a door.” He explained when he saw the questioning look on her face. “No, really, I did.” “Uh huh. Bett’s back in town.” “Is Dave okay?” “She gave him the Vegas divorce papers, had the decree delivered here. He doesn’t owe her a dime. I guess she figures she’s Mrs. Moneybags now. They’ll probably fight over the kids. Divorce and kids never ends well.” Ryan glanced over the phone slips deciding the calls could wait. “You’re right. Divorce seldom brings out the best in people. But, I have some good news. Cindy asked me to be legal guardian for boys. I have a lot of time to make up to Denny and Rory.” “Well, how about you! I’ll bet your mom is relieved you’re on the straight and narrow. Cindy trusts you. She’s gettin’ well. The sun finally found a spot to shine on, Ryan.” “Every dog has his day.” Ryan couldn’t believe his luck might finally be changing. “I’m picking Lexi up tonight after work. I’ve got a shot, Cass.” “You got my blessing. I’ll dance at your wedding.” “She’s still pretty skeptical. I can’t blame her.” Ryan sighed and sat back in his chair. “You’ll convince her. Look at where you were and where you are today. It’s been a long journey. You had some hard lessons to learn, and you learned them. You should be proud of who you are. I am.” “Thanks, Cass. Hearing you say those words means a lot.” She waved him away. “Let’s not get all sloppy. I’ll start bawling.” “Me, too,” he laughed. “I need something to occupy my mind.” “Why don’t you start callin’ some of those bands from the demos? I put their names in the database. Some had agents. Some didn’t. Rustle us up some business.” “Good idea. Is Dave here?” “Nope. In a pow-wow with his attorney.” “Oh, okay. Would you find Moshe and Steve? I want their opinion on a sound board I’m considering for studio A.” “Right away, boss.” In spite of keeping himself busy, the afternoon crept by. At six-thirty he decided to call in the day, go home and workout. Picking up Lexi at Nine fifteen couldn’t come soon enough. Ryan was needled with anxiety. He checked his watch every five minutes. He worked out on his bow flex set up in his guest room. He was on the treadmill when he heard the doorbell ring. Hopping off, Ryan grabbed a towel and wiped perspiration from his face and torso. After peering through the security peephole at his unexpected visitor, Ryan opened the door. “Hey, Rusty.” He figured he’d come to see him about Annie. Rusty stepped inside and, without warning landed a powerful left to Ryan’s jaw. Reeling backward, disoriented and in shock, Ryan lost his balance. His backside thudded hard against the floor. “You and Annie behind my back all the time!” Rusty Hamilton was enraged, out of control and clearly had been drinking. Stunned, Ryan struggled to his feet only to be tackled and pummeled again. “No way man!” he shouted, managing to avert another blow. “You don’t understand!” “Oh, I’m real clear on what happened!” Ryan’s teeth hurt. His heart hammered. Every muscle in his body protested in pain. He struggled to his feet, found an opening and managed a hard right to Rusty’s solar plexus. “Annie’s lying. There’s nothing between us.” Wheezing, Rusty panted to catch his breath. “Why should I believe you?” For a guy more than a decade older than he was, Rusty packed a punch. Ryan tasted blood. His jaw was on fire. “Because I’m in love with someone else. Annie came to my office. Said she’d sign her contract if I married her. She’s got some warped fantasy about us. I turned her down flat. I’m not her kid’s father. I’m not her anything, and nothing has been going on behind your back.” Rusty looked like a wounded man. “I love her,” he confessed, tears rolling down his cheeks. “I’m sorry, but she’s not the woman I once knew. Annie’s changed, Rusty, and not for the better.” His friend’s body sagged. “Sorry,” he muttered, walked to the open door and left. Ryan watched him go. What else could happen to him? First Yvette, and now Rusty, turning on him because of Annie’s delusions. His hand hurt from the punch he delivered. Winded and slightly dizzy, Ryan closed the door to his condo. He knew he should assess the damage and made his way to the bathroom. He flipped on the light; afraid of what he might see. “Holy crap.” The left side of his face was starting to mottle red and purple. From a small cut on his left cheek, a thin ribbon of scarlet trickled blood. And the lump on his forehead from his afternoon encounter with Yvette didn’t look any better. “Oh, man,” he moaned. How was he going to explain to Lexi a boxing match with Rusty on the heels of Yvette? Annie’s lies had landed squarely on his jaw. Rusty Hamilton, a former linebacker, had left his mark. Ryan went to the kitchen and grabbed a handful of ice from the icemaker. He dumped cubes into a baggie. The clock on the kitchen wall read eight-thirty-two. Even with traffic, he’d be at Gilson’s on time. It took effort, but he managed to change into jeans and a sweater. Ryan drove one-handed supporting an ice pack with his free hand. He wasn’t sure which hurt worse, his jaw or his throbbing head. Grit, determination and adrenalin kept him going. When he got out of the car to wait on the sidewalk, he leaned against the passenger door for support. The chilly night air did little to clear his head. His body felt like he’d gone ten rounds. No amount of money Annie Nichols threw at him was worth the beating he’d taken. While he waited for Lexi, Ryan planned what he would say to her. He would admit he wasn’t proud of the man he’d become after she left him. He’d been cocky, arrogant and self-indulgent. He’d ask for another chance. Tell her he wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of his life with her. “Please, Lexi,” he prayed, “show up soon.” He heard footsteps and turned at the sound. She was walking toward him. He heard her gasp, saw her hand fly to her mouth and watched her run to him. “What happened to you?” “Rusty,” Ryan muttered. “Rusty?” He could tell the name didn’t register, or maybe she was too shocked by his distorted face. She took his hand into hers. The warmth felt good against his cold skin. “Give me your keys,” she said firmly. Ryan reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out the key fob. “I’ll help you into the car.” He started to protest he was fine, but the sidewalk started swimming. His body slumped against hers. “I think he broke something,” Ryan said. “We’re going to the ER.” Ryan leaned his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes. He felt like an elephant was standing on his chest. The car was moving, but the ride seemed to take forever. At the hospital in a small cubicle, a doctor shined an offensive light in his eyes and asked him to follow his finger. He was whisked away to x-ray. The whole process was an ordeal. Needles, blood draws, x-rays, and tests. His head felt like it was going to explode. The end result was “good news.” Or that’s what the doctor, a pink-cheeked, freckled-faced kid who looked barely legal drinking age told him. “Just some bruised ribs. Nothing broken including your jaw. You should get some rest, though. Can’t tell for sure, but you might have a slight concussion. You’ve got a wicked lump on your forehead.” There was nothing slight about the way Ryan felt. If he’d been carrying an anvil on his back, his body couldn’t feel any worse. Lexi drove him home. “If you want me to, I’ll stay,” she offered. Ryan nodded in the negative. “I’ll lick my wounds in private.” “Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” “Yeah, I’ll be fine. Lexi?” Ryan turned to her after she parked the car in the garage. “I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you’re thinking.” “I’ll admit. It’s been a crazy day. I’m going to get you settled. I’ll cab back to Gloria’s.” “Let me pay. That’ll cost a mint.” Ryan located his wallet, winced in pain, but managed to pull out several twenty dollar bills. “Don’t worry about that now,” Lexi protested. “No, please. At least let me get this right. Here.” Ryan put the money in her hand and closed her palm. “I’ll call you, okay? I just need some sleep.” “I think you need a few days to get back on your feet.” “Yeah. Maybe. You have my mobile, right?” “Yes. Go straight to bed and take one of those pain killers the doctor gave you.” “I will, and Lexi? Thank you for everything.” Once she decided he could maneuver safely in his condo, Ryan made her call a cab and locked up after her. At the kitchen sink he took a large white pill from the vial he’d been given in the ER, downed it with a glass of water and went straight to his bedroom. He stripped to his shorts and climbed into bed. If Lexi hadn’t run screaming in the other direction after today, maybe he really did have a shot with her. On the way home in the taxi, Lexi dialed Gloria’s number to tell her what had happened. “He sure has a lot going on, doesn’t he? Not much luck, but a lot of action,” Gloria mused. “Ryan looks terrible,” Lexi said. “Thank heavens nothing is broken. He should press charges against Annie’s manager, but I doubt he will.” “Annie Nichols is a plague on both your houses. Once he’s back on his feet, I hope you two can work your issues out.” “Gloria, why do guys hit each other?” “Some macho throwback caveman thing, I guess.” “I’d like to punch Rusty Hamilton’s lights out. I guess the impulse isn’t so strange after all.” She heard Gloria chuckle. “Well, nothing’s been the same since Ryan came back into your life. Get some rest. Tomorrow will be better.” “Surely, the worst is over,” Lexi said. “Well, I hope so.” “Me, too, but there’s still Annie Nichols.” “There’s still that,” Gloria agreed. Chapter 30 Ryan worked at home for the next week determined to stay out of harm’s way. He and Lexi talked a few times on the phone, but their conversations were superficial. His jaw had stopped throbbing, and his ribs felt a little better. Although visible, the bruises on his jaw were starting to heal. He was ready to see Lexi, and he hoped she’d listen to what he had to say. When he found her number in his mobile contacts, his hands started to shake and his heart started pounding. “I’ve been thinking about a lot of stuff, Lexi,” he said when she answered. “Could you come over Friday night? I mean if you’re not working. I really need to see you.” “I’m off at six. I could come over then.” Ryan was relieved, nervous, anxious and more than a little terrified. In short, his emotions were all over the map. This was the chance, the conversation he’d been waiting for. He wanted his intentions to be clear. He poured a cup of coffee and sank into a comfortable leather chair in the living area to plan what he was going to say. *** A lot had happened in a short expanse of time. Ryan explained he needed some time to mend and get his thoughts together. Lexi needed the same. He had explained Yvette LeBeaux. For sure he’d made mistakes, but she had made her fair share of mistakes as well. Lexi believed he wanted another chance, and it would be oh-so-easy to fall into his arms. Physical attraction had never been a problem. When he called, it was with relief and some trepidation she agreed to see him. Ryan was an unfinished part of her life, and how they would end or begin again was something she had to find out. But, most of all, she wanted to know who he’d become in the five years they’d been apart. On Friday, Lexi made herself focus on work. Her reward was a couple of solid sales and an appointment for her design services. When six p.m. registered on the clock above Gilson’s front entrance, she anxiously gathered up her handbag and coat. The drive to Ryan’s didn’t take long. Butterflies dancing in her stomach, she walked the hallway to his condo. When she arrived at his door, she took a moment to compose herself. Lexi had dressed for the day in a charcoal grey wool pantsuit, black heels, and a blush colored silk blouse. She wanted to look confident, even if she didn’t feel that way. Her finger reached out to press the bell. Her heart did cartwheels. From inside, she heard footsteps approach. The door opened and Ryan greeted her, a warm smile on his face. “Wow,” he said softly. “You look fantastic.” “Thanks.” Oh, Lord, she prayed silently. Give me strength. Those deep brown eyes got her every time. Even the fading bruises on his face couldn’t disguise how attractive she found the late day growth of stubble on his cheeks. The familiar attraction, the heat of his gaze made her glow inside. For his part, Ryan wanted to travel back in time. Go back five years so this meeting wasn’t necessary. All his carefully rehearsed petitions, explanations and declarations flew out of his head. He wanted to peel off her power suit, take her to bed and ravish her. Instead, he said, “Thanks for coming.” Then he stepped aside, and she passed him, the fresh citrus scent she always wore trailing after her. Ryan suddenly felt awkward. They were both unusually silent. Their greetings were a little stilted. How could two people who loved each other so much come to this end? He’d explained Yvette as well as anyone could, but he had yet to find out what Annie had done. Would Lexi ask about all the other skirts he’d chased? Ryan felt the cold chill of perspiration under his shirt. No matter. Whatever she asked, he was going to tell her the truth. “I thought we could talk in here.” He started toward the living area, but Lexi stopped him by laying her hand upon the crook of his arm. “Let’s go to the kitchen. I could use a cup of coffee.” “Oh, okay. Me, too.” Lexi looked around the sleek modern kitchen and wondered if it was standard in all the building’s condos or if Ryan had chosen the décor. The room was painted a light shade of gray with a glass-tiled backsplash and shiny stainless steel appliances. The ceiling’s recessed canned lighting gave off an ambient glow. Distinct with clean lines and somewhat sparse, the kitchen boasted dark hardwood floors, white cabinets and granite countertops. “This is very nice, Ryan. Did you do decorate it yourself?” “Me?” Ryan shook his head in the negative. “No way. I asked Cindy for help.” “Maybe I should hire her.” Lexi commented, noting the questioning look on Ryan’s face. “I’m going to pitch an investor about starting my own design firm.” “That’s great! Hey, if there’s anything I can do. We’re about to sign some solid artists. I’d be happy to front your business.” “No,” Lexi declined politely. “Thanks, but it’s important I do this on my own.” “Okay,” Ryan said. “I get that.” And he did. The Lexi who took a seat at his breakfast counter had grown into a confident woman, unlike Annie Nichols. In his eyes, the trait only made Lexi more attractive. But, he reminded himself, she wasn’t here to discuss her business prospects. Okay. Don’t blow it. Just go slowly. Follow her lead. Ryan took a seat beside her. He wrapped his fingers around his coffee mug. It’s now or never. “I wish I’d done things differently all the way around,” he began. “You mean now?” Lexi asked. “Or five years ago?” “Both,” Ryan stated. “Definitely both.” He was truly sick of the subject of Annie Nichols, but Lexi told him at Gilson’s she needed to tell him something about her. Better to get the subject over and done with. “Before we talk about us, and I have a lot to say on the subject, tell me about Annie. What’s she done?” He listened attentively as Lexi told him about the pop diva’s visit, her insinuations and the bargain she offered. A strong impulse to go after Annie and set her straight welled up inside Ryan. Who did she think she was barging in on Lexi spewing her lies? But what good would a confrontation with Annie do? She’d probably think he was coming on to her. The woman had done nothing except leave destruction in her wake awash with delusions and lies. “She got it in her head we should pick up where we left off. I think she’s on a fantasy cruise.” “But you two have a history.” “Yeah, she was so talented, you know?” Ryan stated, remembering when he first met Annie. “She’d just turned eighteen, but at times she acted more like fifteen. I’ve never met a woman that insecure. She was clingy and suffocating. In the end I was only too happy to buy her ticket to L.A. My motives weren’t noble. I wanted her gone so I could breathe again. She had a cousin she could stay with, so off she went. We were over long before I met you.” “I remember you told me about when she went to Los Angeles.” Lexi reached for the sugar to pour into her coffee. “You still like it that way? Tons of sugar?” Ryan asked. “I do,” she answered, and a smile crossed her face. Was she thinking about the first time they met at Stellar and he coaxed her into having coffee with him? That seemed like decades ago. “You said you didn’t regret letting her go. But now she’s back.” Ryan’s attention returned to the present conversation. “Annie may be back, but I don’t want her in my life. The number she pulled on Rusty, and the crap she tried to put over on you, there’s nothing from Annie Nichols I want now or in the future. I never encouraged whatever is going on in her brain.” “And the baby? You said her manager is the father.” “If only he was,” Ryan said wistfully. “She has no idea who the father is. I can tell you it’s not me. What I told you is the truth. The past is the past. I swear I haven’t touched her. The night you saw me at the diner, I was on my way to her house to convince her to sign with Kool Kat. Strictly business and nothing happened. The rags interpreted our meeting as a secret rendezvous, and we were off to the races.” “She’s spoiled and used to having her own way.” “You got that right,” Ryan agreed. ”I guess when you get to her level you live on a different plain. She never had much grounding. Her mother was in and out of her life. Everyone knows the story. Drugs. Prostitution. When Annie told me she was going to marry Rusty, I thought she’d found someone stable in her life.” “Maybe she doesn’t know what stability is, but that doesn’t give her the right to lie and make threats. She’s created a lot of chaos.” Ryan knew the truth was important, and Lexi deserved to know everything. “Before she cut out on Rusty, he was going to let everyone believe the baby was his, including Annie. Turns out Rust’s sterile, and he has a wife who conveniently didn’t sign their divorce papers. She wanted money from Annie to keep her mouth shut.” “And if everyone thought you were the father…” “Annie would have time to work behind the scenes to fix her problems.” “Because it’s all about her. To hell with what she’s doing to other people’s lives,” Lexi said. The anger in her voice resonated with Ryan. “In a word? Yes. Annie’s messed up. She bolted. Got mixed up with a shrink that convinced her she doesn’t need Rusty, who despite knocking me on my ass is a pretty decent guy. Whatever voodoo her doctor worked on her, Annie decided to reinvent herself by going to Broadway. Only her audition flopped. She’s more screwed up than ever in my opinion.” “What,” Lexi challenged, “if she signed with your label? Made you rich beyond your wildest dreams.” “Annie already tried that. She came to my office and said she’d sign her contract if I married her.” “What?!” Lexi set her mug down hard on the surface of the counter. Ryan’s gaze never wavered. “We were going to be the new power couple. She made me sound like an appendage to her success. I could hang on for the ride while her talent fulfilled all my dreams. Listen to me, Lexi.” He looked her straight in the eye. “I told her no. I told her I don’t want anything more to do with her. I told her there was someone else.” “That’s why she came to me with threats and bribes.” “Yes.” Neither said anything for the space of few seconds. Ryan fiddled with his coffee mug turning it around by the handle a few times. Lexi was silent. He didn’t know how to interpret her silence, so he decided to plow on. “Okay.” Ryan took a deep breath. “You know about Yvette and Annie, and what I did when we broke up. Here’s what you don’t know because, at first, I didn’t either. I thought when we together we were fine, but now I know we weren’t. I felt committed to you. There was never going to be anyone except you, but I choked. I don’t know how else to describe it. Marriage, kids, a mortgage, a steady job, my parent’s lousy marriage.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I know that’s no excuse. It didn’t mean we’d have a lousy marriage. I don’t have an excuse exactly, only that I was stone-cold scared at the prospect. I certainly wasn’t the man I should have been or the man you wanted me to be. And I didn’t tell you how I felt. You said I was immature, and you were right. I really believe if we’d gotten married then, I wouldn’t have been the husband you wanted.” Her response surprised him. “Oh, I don’t know, Ryan. All our friends were getting married and starting families. I guess I thought we should be like everyone else. I convinced myself I wasn’t pressuring you, but you must have sensed I was. I don’t think I would have been the woman you wanted if I’d given you an ultimatum and we had gotten married. So, you see, I wasn’t very mature myself.” If they’d had this conversation five years ago, they might still be together. But sometimes life offered up a second chance. Ryan felt hopeful, like the sun had broken through clouds. He also knew the conversation wasn’t finished and reconciliation wasn’t guaranteed. “When you talked about our future, I slammed the door on the subject. I was a coward. I didn’t tell you what was going on inside me. You know I’m not the greatest at laying everything on the line.” His explanation elicited a small smile from Lexi. “You’re doing okay.” Ryan felt his face heat. Damn! It was hard for him to put himself out there. He swallowed hard and managed to get the next sentence out. “I got it in my head we either had to get married or break up. I didn’t see any other choice. I felt…” “Trapped.” Lexi finished his sentence. “More like painted into a corner, but it wasn’t you who did the painting. I did that all by myself. I thought. Okay, she’s great. I love her, but it’s not the right time. I’m not the marrying type. I’ll be fine. Only I wasn’t fine.” “Neither was I,” Lexi admitted, sounding wistful. “You think maybe we both had unresolved issues?” “I guess maybe we did.” Vulnerability and machismo mixed like oil and water in Ryan’s veins. Gut it up, man. You love her. Tell her how much you love her. Tell her now. “I never got over you, Lexi. Never,” he confessed. “I partied too much and too often. I drank too much. I slacked off work. I drifted and gratified myself with other women. That whole thing with Yvette? Karma. And you know what they say about karma? I probably got what I deserved because I tricked people, too. If a woman got too close, I ditched her because she wasn’t you, and I went on to the next one.” The inside of his mouth felt dry as dust. He drained his coffee mug feeling shame like he’d never felt before. So much wasted time and energy when maybe he could have had the woman he wanted all along. “And I almost married a man who was cheating on me,” Lexi confessed. “I’m so sorry, Lexi. I can’t imagine how that hurt you.” The thought of having sex with Stacey made Ryan’s skin crawl. Howard Cross must be blind with ambition if he could stomach the woman in his bed. “He said sleeping with her was like reaching for the brass ring. Stacey was part of a larger picture I apparently couldn’t see. And he said their arrangement had absolutely nothing to do with us. All Howard cares about is what he wants and how he’s going to get it.” Ryan felt his blood pressure rise. Howard Cross screwing his boss behind Lexi’s back for his own benefit. Even Ryan had never sunk that low. “Then the man is a fool if he thinks he can compartmentalize his life. What he’s doing will catch up to him. You deserve so much more, but you left when you found out. That makes you a very strong person.” “I’ve learned how to be strong,” Lexi stated. “So you see. You aren’t the only one who made mistakes. I thought Howard wanted the same things I did. Maybe I talked myself into believing in him. I’m not sure.” “Lexi,” Ryan once again took her hand into his. He rubbed his thumb slowly back and forth over her skin. “Tell me what you want. Tell me everything you want. I’ll give it to you. I’ll spend my life trying to be the man you want me to be.” “Uh, uh,” Lexi cautioned. “You have to be who you are. Okay, maybe a better version than the past few years,” she acknowledged. “But, I don’t want you turning into someone you’re not just to please me.” “All I want is to be with you,” Ryan implored. “Lexi, I love you. I never stopped loving you. I’ll do anything for a second chance.” Lexi believed him. The conversation they’d had this evening was long overdue. The last five years had changed both of them. She was a more confident woman than the one who walked away from him five years ago. She believed he’d learned from his mistakes. Her heart broke a little for him. Ryan was not one to bear his soul. He was handsome, sexy, talented and fun-loving, but telling her exactly what he was feeling had never been his strong suit. To her surprise, he hadn’t tried to charm his way out of his past. She could easily forgive and forget and start over. But, Howard had left her cynical, and she still had a bitter taste in her mouth where he was concerned. It wasn’t easy to trust again. Her thoughts were racing and jumbled like a tumbling waterfall. She needed to see things clearly, and to do that, she had to be alone. “I need some time to think.” A fleeting mixture of panic, disappointment and apprehension crossed Ryan’s face. Lexi longed to stroke his cheek and reassure him. She’d promised to keep her emotions in check while she heard him out. But her heart was prodding her. Tell him you want him. It’s okay. You love him, and he loves you. Her head was more logical. Can you trust him? Will it be different this time? At war with herself, Lexi slid her hand from underneath his. She tamped down her thudding heart as best she could. “I’m glad we got everything out in the open.” “Me, too.” Ryan made one more appeal. “Lexi, God knows how much I love you. It may kill me, but take as much time as you need.” She knew he was trying to do what she asked, and she knew it wasn’t easy for him. Or for her. “I should go.” Lexi stood up and retrieved the handbag she’d left sitting on the floor. Ryan got up and followed her into the hallway. Lexi placed her hand on the door handle and turned back to face him. No one tied her insides into knots and left her speechless the way Ryan Russo did. Those were some of the best memories she had, when words weren’t necessary. “I’ll be in touch.” She said and thought she sounded abrupt, but she didn’t trust herself to say more. Ryan’s head bobbed up and down in acceptance. He looked sad and confused, not unlike the day they broke up. There was no going back in time only moving forward. Lexi needed to figure out if her future included him. Letting herself out, the door closed behind her. She stood where she was unable to move, as if the door had symbolically closed on the past. Lexi took a few steps toward the elevator and stopped. “What do I want?” she asked herself aloud. “What do I truly want? Not what anyone else wants, not even Ryan.” She grasped the straps of her shoulder bag like a lifeline. “I want my own business, and I want to it be successful. I want…” she hesitated gathering her thoughts as they crystallized. “I want a man who loves me just because I’m me. I want us to grow old together. I want kids. I want to build a future, a history, my family’s history.” Maybe Howard Cross was a life lesson learned. He certainly showed her what she didn’t want in a relationship. And she had stood up to him and left with no hesitation when he admitted he was cheating. She was going to pitch a business proposal to Norman Martin. All on her own and she was proud she had the guts to do it instead of staying at Gilson’s. When she told Ryan she wasn’t any more mature than he was when they broke up, she was right. He wasn’t ready to settle down and plant roots, and she wouldn’t be the person she was now if he had been. “I like who I’ve become.” Lexi smiled, and a sense of peace settled over her. She looked at the elevator bank, turned around, and looked back at Ryan’s condo. With determination, she headed back to his door and knocked. When he answered, she could see surprise register on his face. “What I want Ryan Russo is you,” Lexi said. Chapter 31 For a second that bordered on eternity, Ryan stood frozen in place. He felt elated and drained with relief at the same time. The only woman in the world for him was finally his. All the heartache melted away. He felt a weight lift from his shoulders. She reached for him placing her arms around his neck. “Lexi,” he whispered in her ear. “Lexi.” I want you, too. She’d said. The surprise of seeing her at his door would forever be etched in his brain. His heart had pounded with fear she might be returning to reject him. Now her cheek rested against his, her breath upon his skin, the second chance he’d prayed for. Ryan had so much he wanted to say, but he was struck mute. Her perfume lingered in the silky strands of hair lying against his shoulder. “I don’t…” he said emotion husky in his voice. “I don’t have words to tell you what you mean to me. I swear I will never hurt you again. You can hold me to that promise.” “I know,” she smiled. “I know.” Ryan lifted his face from hers and drew her back to look into her eyes. They were brilliant emerald green. For the rest of his life he would never tire of looking into those eyes. Emotions he couldn’t begin to unpack welled up inside him. Both were still standing inside the doorway to his condo. His hand trembled when he took Lexi’s to guide her inside and close the door. “We’re going to be okay, really okay. I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime working my way back to you. Everything that happened to me was worth it.” “I think we’re where we’re supposed to be, Ryan.” “Yes,” he nodded and felt a broad grin break out on his face. “We need to talk…” Lexi put a finger on his lips to silence him. “No, not now. We can talk later. Kiss me, Ryan.” He took her into his arms and slid his hands down her back to her waist. “Like this?” Ryan brushed his lips against hers tantalizingly slow before fully closing his mouth over hers. A warm melting sensation flowed from the top of his head to the tip of his toes. Her mouth was pliant when she parted her lips to greedily take his kiss. She tasted sweet. Swept away, Ryan drew her closer and still closer. He felt Lexi’s hands cradle the back of his neck, her fingers lost in the waves of his hair. She was drinking him in, consuming him. He was equally desperate for her, as desperate as a parched man is for water. When they both came up momentarily from the drowning pool of desire, their gazes locked upon each other. No words were necessary. Their thoughts were in perfect tune. They let go of each other at the same time. Ryan watched as Lexi pulled her sweater over her head. She shook her hair back from her shoulders and slipped a finger under the strap of her lacy bra. Ryan’s breath quickened, and his pulse skyrocketed. Mesmerized, he watched the strap fall to bare her shoulder. The opposite strap fell next. Lexi moved her hands behind her back to unhook the delicate garment and it fell away to the floor. Ryan’s heart hammered inside his chest like a bass timpani. She was more beautiful than he remembered, more desirable than he had words to speak. Fumbling to make his fingers work in unison with button and buttonhole, Ryan took his shirt off. Pitching the garment aside, he whispered into her ear. “Lexi, I need you so much.” “Shh,” she laughed softly.” Wait. Just wait.” Lexi kicked off her heels. With her right hand, she unzipped her wool slacks and let them fall to her ankles. She stepped out of them. Hooking her thumbs into the low band of her bikini panties, she took her time removing them. “You’re teasing me,” he said, barely able to get the words out of his mouth. “More like tempting you,” Lexi countered. A river of pent-up greed washed over him. He was going to explode if he couldn’t have her now. She stepped into his arms. Her warm skin lay against his. Ryan‘s stomach dropped, and his knees grew weak. A maelstrom of love, desire and lust overwhelmed him. He was captivated by this lovely creature. He wanted to ravage, protect and keep her all to himself. “You’re my life,” was all he was able to say. “And you, my love, are mine.” Ryan swept her into his arms and carried her into his bedroom. Gently, he laid her on his bed. Lexi smiled up at him. Long satin strands of hair splayed around her head glimmering from the soft yellow light flowing in from the hallway. Her skin looked like dew. Her lips were full and inviting. Ryan saw the longing in her eyes for him. For one perfect moment, braced above her on one arm, he just looked at her. Yvette, Annie, Rusty, the grief, tumult and trouble he’d brought upon himself were trials he had to overcome to win the only woman he could ever love. And now she was his, and he was never going to let anyone or anything separate them again. “I think you’re wearing too many clothes,” Lexi said. A shiver raced down his back. He wasn’t artful in removing his jeans and briefs. Anticipation nearly caused him to tear off his clothes. The woman was driving him to the brink of insanity. When her skin touched his, it was the most erotic sensation he’d ever known. Their lips met and Ryan couldn’t distinguish where she began and he ended. Locked into each other’s arms, they became fully and wholly one person. Nothing existed except him and the woman he loved in this time and in this space. In his arms, Lexi thought back to Macy’s. The attraction she felt for him was still strong. Little did she know then, no matter how much she resisted, she was meant for him. Tonight her heart was full and ready to burst when he opened his door. To be with him was right. So very right. Her body heated under his touch. A brilliant fire stoked the blood running hot through her veins. The center of her universe rested in Ryan Russo. She’d never felt this alive, desirable or brazenly wanton. The only moment she would allow his mouth from hers was to take a breath. When his hands fulfilled desire in one place, she quickly moved them to another area of need and urgency. Reason was abandoned. Passion was her master guide to a sensual pleasure she had never experienced. When the pinnacle of satisfaction and the palpable craving for each other was spent, Lexi rolled onto her stomach. She closed her drowsy eyes, her appetite satiated. Ryan’s feather-like kiss started at the back of her neck and trailed the length of her spine. Gently, he turned her so he could cradle her against his chest. Lexi curved into his body, a perfect fit. What more was there to life than loving someone so deeply, so totally there were no words to describe how she felt. “Lexi,” Ryan broke her reverie. “There’s something I want to ask you.” “Hmm, what’s that?” She lifted her face to his. The room was dimly lit, but she could see him clearly. His languid brown eyes assessed her. The wiry hair on his chest tickled her bare skin. His muscular legs were entwined with her long limbs. Ryan kissed her tenderly. When he released her, the fiery desire she’d known earlier returned, and she had no doubt he felt the same stirrings. “Um, maybe we should talk later.” “Oh,” Lexi agreed running her fingers down his chest. “Definitely later.” Chapter 32 After a spur-of-the-moment decision to take time off from work, Ryan returned to the office the last week in March. “Welcome back. You sure look happy.” His assistant greeted him when he passed her desk. She fell in line behind him, steno pad in hand. “On top of the world, Cass. Beautiful morning. Spring has sprung,” he said with a wink. “By the way you’re acting, I guess it has.” When they reached his office, Ryan hung up his jacket and turned to her. He reached into his pocket and produced a small gift box. “Here’s a little something from me and Lexi. We found them at a shop in Connecticut.” “You went shopping? I would’ve thought you’d had better things to do.” Ryan chuckled. “I won’t lie. We did, but I know you covered for me while I was out. You always cover for me, Cass, and I appreciate all your help with Dave and everything you do for us.” “Don’t get all mushy, now. We all knew why you suddenly took a week off, not like before. This time you had a really good reason.” Cass accepted the proffered box. Inside nestled on black velvet sat a pair of pearl earrings. “What have you done?” “We thought they’d go with your necklace. Lexi picked them out.” “You never fail to surprise me.” Ryan put both arms around his assistant and hugged her, and she hugged him back. “There is no one in the world like you, Cass. And on your next pay check, there’s going to be a well-deserved raise. And with luck, profit sharing next year.” “A raise? Profit-sharing? That’s music to my ears.” “No pun intended.” They said at the same time and shared a laugh. “Things are lookin’ up, aren’t they, Ryan?” “They are, Cass. Dave and I are going to restructure the company. We’re growing. Frankly, we need your support more than ever, and if anyone deserves a raise, it’s you.” “Well, I’m tickled pink for all of us!” Cass exclaimed. “Tell Lexi, thank you. I’ll thank Dave for the extra bucks when I see him.” Ryan’s life had done a one-eighty. No man could be more fortunate or more blessed than he was at this moment. He sat down behind his desk and looked up at his assistant who had followed him inside. “Cass! Where did all this stuff come from?” Demos, mail, proposals, UPS and Fed Ex packages, along with miscellaneous documents, littered his desk. “Like you said, we’re growin’. Dave and I didn’t want to bother you. He looked over everything. I kept up with your emails and phone calls. The floodgates opened when we sent out the press release about who we signed.” “The Nightwatch, Peter Zost, Debbie Blake, and The Working for a Living Band,” Ryan recited. “Hmm. Hmm. So far. But while you were out, Dave took calls from artists whose contracts are up. They heard about The Nightwatch coming onboard, and now they want to, too.” Ryan gave a low whistle. “Unbelievable.” “There’s more,” Cass stated. “More?” Ryan asked. “Are you kidding me?” “Well,” Cass began hesitantly, a woman obviously stalling for time. “Annie Nichols wants to see you. She signed her contract.” “What?!” Ryan exploded. He ran an agitated hand through his hair. “I don’t want her at Kool Kat. I thought she’d disappeared for good.” “She’s more trouble than she’s worth,” Cass agreed. “Dave should have called me.” Ryan was more than irritated. Why couldn’t Annie leave him alone? Hadn’t she done enough damage? “He said you’d blow a gasket, but signing her is good for the label.” “You mean good for Dave’s bank account.” Ryan envisioned his partner doing the happy dance when Annie requested her contract. Why did she sign? To spite him? To keep up her constant badgering? To make his life hell in the studio? “I opened the Fed-Ex envelope Friday and nearly expired when I saw her signature. I went right to Dave.” “Tell her I’m not available and can’t be reached. I’ll contact her when I’m good and ready.” “Leave everything to me. I’ll take care of her.” “Thanks, Cass. I gotta go see Dave.” “Good luck.” “Thanks. I think I have a way to deal with the Annie problem.” Ryan knew what he wanted to do. Hopefully, Dave would grant him some grace and get onboard. When he met with Annie, he wanted to be prepared. He didn’t plan to contact her for at least another week. Let her stew for a while. Chapter 33 Upon Lexi’s return, the offices at Fink, Fine & Martin were ready for the final walk-through. Wilma Martin and her partners were planning an open house in early June. “Did I tell you how much fun the Martin job has been?” Gloria raised her wine glass in a toast. In a celebratory mood, Paul Frazier gave them an extra hour for lunch and even agreed to expense the meal. “Me, too. Gloria, would you like to work together again?” Lexi asked. Her friend’s eyes lit up. “Would I? What’s on the burner?” “Well.” Settling back in her chair, Lexi took a sip of chardonnay. “Let’s start our own design studio.” “Say what?” Gloria’s eyes grew wide in surprise. “I’m serious. I graduate next month. We’re going to make a lot of contacts at the Martin reception. I’ve been thinking about my own business for a while.” Gloria sat in contemplation for a moment. Lexi knew she was mulling over her proposal. “Wow.” “Wow is right. No more Paul Frazier. No more selling cheap furniture. We’ll provide quality work build our reputation and our bank accounts.” “Oh, honey, I don’t know,” Gloria began in the modest way Lexi had come to expect. “The Martin plans were your ideas. I don’t have the first clue about decorating.” “Not true. Look at your house. Who decorated it? Who found those wonderful bookcases for the reception area and the law library?” Lexi countered. “Who suggested the wall covering for the lobby? I recall you vetoed my first choice of silk wallpaper. And you were the one who stayed until after midnight reworking the arrangement of David Fine’s office.” “Don’t remind me,” Gloria moaned. “His wall aquarium cost a mint, and he was a pain in the backside about his desk. We must have moved that sucker five times to give him a better view of the fish. I wrecked my back.” “Gloria,” Lexi encouraged. “You have a great a sense of style. Come on! Surely you don’t want to stay at Gilson’s under Paul’s thumb.” “You got his number all right. The old coot makes me miserable. Won’t we need seed money?” “That’s the best part.” Lexi clapped her hands together in gleeful excitement. “I approached Wilma Martin after our walk-through, and she said I should talk to her husband.” “Mr. Fussbudget?” “One and the same. You won’t believe this, Gloria. Norman Martin is an heir. When his father died, he left him a pharmaceutical business, one of the top companies in the country. He had no interest in running it, so he sold it. The Martins are rolling in money.” “That frumpy little guy has the money? I thought it was his wife. What was he doing shopping at Gilson’s?” “Wilma said he’s very conservative. Their home is nice, but it’s not what you’d expect for a pharmaceutical heir and a top-notch attorney. I’m sure Wilma’s no sponge. She makes plenty of money on her own. She told me she met Norman when they were in college and she was working at the bookstore. They started seeing each other, and he encouraged her to go to law school. In fact, he paid for her education out of his trust fund. And, get this! She paid him back with interest. Wilma said it was a matter of principle. No one in her family thought she had the brains to be an attorney, but Norman told her not to give up her dream.” “Oh my gosh! She told you all that? She doesn’t seem like the chatty girlfriend type.” “She said she’s always encouraged women to believe in themselves. When I told her what I wanted to do, she was downright enthusiastic about the idea of my own design firm.” “Well, I’ll be. Have you talked to him?” “We’re having dinner Thursday evening. Just me and Mr. Fussbudget. Gloria,” Lexi declared with an optimistic tone. “I know he’ll say yes. I just know it. Imagine the possibilities.” “I don’t know, I promise I’ll think about your offer,” Gloria demurred. “Fair enough, but I won’t leave you alone until you say yes.” Their lunch order arrived. Lexi dug into her salmon salad daydreaming about her future. Gloria signaled the waiter. “Paul took the afternoon off to take his wife to the doctor. He won’t know if we get a little tipsy. We need to celebrate you and Ryan getting back together.” “I feel like I’ve been on a roller coaster. A lot has happened in a short amount of time.” When the drinks arrived, the two women clinked their glasses together in a toast. “Best wishes, Lexi.” “Thanks. I can’t believe Ryan and I are finally together.” “Are you happy?” Gloria asked. “Oh.” Lexi knew she was smiling from ear to ear. “I can’t believe how happy we are. In a good way, I feel like the past five years haven’t been wasted. We’ve both changed, but we never stopped loving each other.” “Yeah,” Gloria said and finished her wine. “That’s what I think, too. You and Ryan sure gave me food for thought.” By the furrow in her brow, Lexi knew Gloria had something on her mind. Her mood became reflective. “Like what?” Lexi asked curiously. “I gave you a lot of advice about Howard and how he wasn’t the one for you.” Gloria had expressed her opinion more than once about Howard Cross, and she was one hundred percent right. Not that Lexi hadn’t found out the hard way he was as a big a jerk as she thought he was. “We both know my former boyfriend was a creep.” “He sure was. Now even a blind fool can see how much you love Ryan. No one could take his place even if you had married Howard Cross. But, who did I think I was giving you advice when I was settling for Frank. Where was I going in life with a married man? Shame on me! I’m lonely, but a lot of people are lonely. I found real love once. I’m not gonna be Frank’s on-the-road mistress anymore. Maybe I’ll never find what you have now, but I’d sure be open to the possibility.” “You’re leaving Frank?” Lexi asked surprised. “The deed is already done.” “How did Frank take the break-up?” “Kinda bad.” Gloria voice was tinged with sadness. “He asked me to hang on a little longer. Nah! He’ll never leave his wife, and I don’t know if I want to be the cause of a divorce if he did.” “I’m sorry.” Lexi placed her hand over her friend’s in a gesture of support. “I’ll be okay. I’m good with my decision.” A resolute smile settled on Gloria’s lips. “Here I am throwing cold water on our party.” “No, you aren’t,” Lexi assured her. She was about to urge her to think more about the business venture when her mobile rang. The ID read Ryan Russo. “It’s Ryan. Okay if I take the call?” “Of course,” Gloria answered. “I’m going to the little girl’s room.” Lexi pressed the answer button. “Hi.” “Hi,” he greeted her. “Got a minute?” “For you? A lifetime.” “That’s my plan.” “What’s up?” Lexi inquired. “I didn’t want you to be blindsided. I talked to Dave, and he’s onboard. Reluctantly, but he finally agreed. It’s about Annie.” Lexi’s heart sank about the same time her blood pressure started to rise. “What’s she done now?” “It’s not so much what’s she done, but how I’m going to take care of her once and for all.” “I’m listening.” “Here goes. Tell me what you think.” Chapter 34 Ryan spent considerable time fine-tuning his plan. Now he was ready to meet with Annie. “Good weekend, boss?” Cass asked when she saw him. “The best,” Ryan agreed. “Are we all set with Annie?” “Ten o’clock like you told me,” Cass said. “She peppered me with all sorts of questions, but I handled her.” “I’m sure you did,” Ryan chuckled. He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. Annie no longer held all the cards. Kool Kat was on the map, and he didn’t need her to keep the label afloat. “Are you worried?” “Nope,” Ryan assured her. “After she sashays outta here, I wanna hear all about your meeting.” “Cass,” he promised. “I’ll tell you everything.” At ten minutes after ten, Annie Nichols arrived at Kool Kat. Breezing past the receptionist, she headed straight to Ryan’s office. He was waiting for her behind his desk. He stood and offered her his hand. “Welcome to the label, Annie.” “Don’t be so formal, silly,” she cooed. Dressed in white jeans and a low-cut red sequined maternity sweater dress, black blazer and cowboy boots, Annie declined Ryan’s offer to shake hands. Her trademark blonde hair, restored to its former bleached glory, billowed to her shoulders. “I see the old Annie’s back,” Ryan said and sat back down. “What happened to Broadway?” “A phase.” She dismissed the question and seated herself facing him. “Funny, I heard you didn’t get any offers,” Ryan challenged. Annie shifted uncomfortably. “I’m back doing what I do best. Aren’t you going to ask me why I signed with your label? Aren’t you curious?” “Not really. Now, according to your contract…”Ryan flipped over the cover page of the document. Before he could say another word, Annie jumped to her feet, dived across the desk and grabbed his hand. “What have you done?” she shrieked. “What?” Ryan asked innocently. Twisting from her grip, he held up his left hand. “This?” He looked at the simple band and then at Annie. “I got married. I think you met her. Lexi Carpenter?” Annie’s face grew pale and then reddened with rage. “I signed so we could be together. You don’t need me the way you did before. I humbled myself and signed with your itty bitty label. You tricked me!” “Not so itty bitty anymore,” Ryan said. “I can’t deny you’ll be an asset, but I never tricked you. I wasn’t here when you decided to return your contract. In fact, I would have sent it back to you, but you did sign. So, now you’re ours. When would you like to start recording your next album?” “Never!” Annie screamed, picked up a paperweight from his desk and hurled the object at him. It whizzed past his ear. “I’ll sue! I’ll never record one note.” Ryan held up the back page of the contract and pointed to her signature. “May I remind you that you signed a legal and binding contract?” “Not one note. Do you hear me?” she shouted. “I’ll call a press conference and tell everyone what you’ve done to me. See how long your little decorator stays with you when she reads the headlines. I’ll make both your lives miserable.” “And I’ll sue you for defamation. You know, Annie, the tabs might be interested in how unstable you’ve been lately. Your delusions about me. Your threats to my wife. Then there’s your psychiatric treatment and your under-the-radar audition with Daniel Sodermyer in New York a few weeks ago. I’d hate to think of the headlines in The Informer. “Allow me to quote the director. ‘I was embarrassed for her. She should stick to singing pop songs.’ Now, Annie,” Ryan said in an even tone. “You decide how far you want to push me.” He rose slowly from his chair, crossed his arms over his chest, and stared her down. With a withering look, Annie swept from his office, hopefully gone for good. Ryan reflected back on his conversation with Dave McAfee. At first he wasn’t sold, but in the end, he agreed with all the new talent coming onboard, maybe Annie wasn’t worth the drama. “We’ll offer to let her buy her way out of the contract. I’ll handle the details,” Dave suggested. Always one to go for the jugular, his partner could handle the dirty work. Ryan would be free of Annie Nichols now and forever more. Chapter 35 The invitation for the reception at Fink, Fine and& Martin came in the mail. Lexi was excited for her and for Gloria. When she eloped, her co-worker took the reins and put the finishing touches on the project. Proud of her friend’s growing confidence, Lexi thought she was becoming more receptive about leaving Gilson’s and starting a new venture. When Lexi heard Ryan turn the key in the front door that evening, she sprang up to greet him. She wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his. “Hmm.” Ryan sighed and kissed her back. “The invitation arrived. You have to go with me,” she insisted. “Okay,” he laughed. “What invitation?” “What invitation?! How quickly you forget my biggest triumph.” Lexi playfully tapped him on the forehead with her finger. “Fink, Fine & Martin are showing off their fabulous new offices.” “Oh, now I remember. Wasn’t Paul Frazier the decorator?” Lexi dug her fingers into his ribs. “I’m going to make you pay for that crack.” “Careful. Careful.” Ryan held his side in mock pain. “I’m still fragile.” “Not too fragile as I recall,” Lexi teased back. Ryan took her hands into his and led her to the sofa where he pulled her onto his lap. “All better. Tell me about your day, and I’ll tell you about mine.” “Pretty routine.” Lexi curled up against his chest. “Paul was on his usual high horse.” “You can quit anytime you want.” “I can’t wait to see the look on his face. I didn’t get a chance to tell Gloria we have the financing. Norman Martin is going to back us. She wasn’t at work today, and she didn’t answer her mobile. I wonder where she is.” “I’m sure she’s fine,” Ryan said she kissed her. Lexi felt time and space slip away. Ryan’s mouth on hers was intoxicating. She couldn’t believe she was his wife. When the embrace ended, Lexi shivered when Ryan began to nibble her earlobe. “Hmm, you know my weakness,” she whispered. “My weakness is you,” he said, slowly trailing his lips down the side of her neck. “I would have backed your business. You know that, right?” “Of course, but it’s important I do this myself. How was your day?” “Annie showed up late. I wouldn’t have expected less.” She felt his lips move to the base of her neck. “And how did your meeting go?” “She wasn’t happy.” Lexi’s fingers nimbly unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt. “Stormed out of my office. Oooh.” Lexi slipped her hand inside his shirt and kissed the hollow of his neck. “Poor girl.” She knew she was driving him crazy when she explored the rim of his ear with her tongue. They had spent the better part of their hastily arranged honeymoon wrapped in each other’s arms. “She may sue.” Ryan placed his finger under her chin and lifted her eyes to his. “A woman scorned,” Lexi sighed. “Indeed,” he agreed. Ryan pushed her sweater off her shoulder and put his lips on her bare skin. “We’ll offer to settle. Let her buy out of her contract,” he continued. “Good idea.” “I thought so, too.” Ryan nuzzled his cheek against hers, turned over her hands, and kissed each palm. “I’m going to make up for all the time we lost. I love you, Lexi. More than I can say with words. You’re everything to me.” In response, she kissed Ryan behind his ear, the tip of his nose and sought his mouth. He was hers. She was his. How could she ever have thought she loved anyone else? When she was with him, she understood the meaning of being one with another person. Lexi slid from his lap, stood, and reached out her hands to him. “Let’s make up for some of that lost time.” Ryan allowed her to pull him upright to his feet. “You read my mind, Mrs. Russo,” he winked. Then he swept her up into his arms. “I was pretty confident I had, Mr. Russo.” Chapter 36 Nineteen months later Her friend’s face beamed at her from the newspaper. Lexi delighted in reflecting on Gloria Johnson and David Fine’s wedding. “Gloria looks great, don’t you think?” Seated on the patio of their new suburban home, Ryan took the paper from his wife. “Her maid of honor was certainly the prettiest woman there.” “Matron of honor,” Lexi corrected. “And the bride is always the prettiest woman at her wedding. I’m glad she choose a flattering bridesmaid’s dress considering.” She laid a hand on her baby bump. When Ryan didn’t say anything, Lexi elbowed him. “You’re supposed to tell me I’m beautiful even though I’m pregnant.” “You are beautiful,” he assured her and handed the newspaper back. “Did you see this on the next page?” “See what?” “Here,” Ryan pointed to a story. Reporter Found – Then Lost Again AP (Kabul) On Sunday, military authorities announced Howard Cross, a reporter for WCHO in Chicago, was found after he disappeared in the desert of Afghanistan two years ago. By Monday, he was gone again, apparently abducted by the same group who originally kidnapped him. Before his second disappearance, Cross stated he had been forced into an arranged marriage with one of the tribeswomen. Asked if a new search is underway for the reporter, the military command declined comment. “How mysterious. After all this time, do you think they’ll find him?” Lexi asked. “Beats me. Do you think he wants to be found?” “Only if the story takes him to the network,” Lexi giggled. “I never liked the guy.” “Oh.” Lexi brought her husband’s hand to her stomach. “Feel the baby?” “Yeah,” Ryan laughed in amazement. “Wow!” Lexi laid her head on her husband’s shoulder. "I’m glad we found each other again.” “It wasn’t easy, but here we are. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.” “Me, too, Ryan. Me, too.” Everything had worked out just as he’d promised. Soon, they’d begin a new chapter together. I wonder who he’ll look like. Lexi couldn’t imagine anything better than holding their son in her arms.


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