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Full Speed : Janet Evanovich's Full Series : Book 3 - Janet Evanovich

Full Speed

Janet Evanovich's Full Series : Book 3

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Dear Reader,

Welcome to the world of Jamie Swift and Max Holt! My good friend Charlotte Hughes and I have teamed up to create a series of books featuring these two characters and they've taken on a life of their own! These books are not set in the same world as my Stephanie Plum novels, but what they have in common is lovable, dysfunctional characters, villains you love to hate, and a cross-eyed way of looking at life. Jamie and Max have intense chemistry-even though they drive each other crazy. Max thinks Jamie is a magnet for trouble and Jamie thinks Max is the most annoyingly sexy, mysterious man she's ever met. She knows she should stay away from him. But boy, oh boy, do the sparks fly when they get together. Jamie is a newspaper owner from a small southern town. And in Full Speed, she's after the story of a lifetime. Max Holt is right in the middle of that story, and so Jamie tracks down the millionaire playboy, forcing him to take her on as partner. What follows is a story of a corrupt minister, a gang of mobsters on the loose, a hound dog called Fleas, a wise-cracking computer genius, and lots of love in the fast lane. Not to mention plenty of steamy action between Jamie and Max.

So have fun with Full Speed. We're going to sign off now and get back to creating more romantic adventures between Jamie Swift and Max Holt. Enjoy and happy reading! Janet and Charlotte

About the Author

Janet Evanovich lives in New Hampshire and has won major crime fiction awards for her Stephanie Plum novels: ONE FOR THE MONEY received the Crime Writers Association John Creasey Award and the Dilys Award, TWO FOR THE DOUGH won the CWA Last Laugh Award and THREE TO GET DEADLY was awarded the CWA Silver Dagger for 1997.

Chapter One

"Our relationship has grown stale." "Give me a break, Max." "You're shallow, Muffin." "Shallow?" She gave a snort of disgust. "This coming from a man who was married to a gold-digger named Bunny for three years? Now, there's a relationship with depth." He grinned. "There's something to be said for gold-diggers. A man always knows where he stands. In the end, both parties get what they want."

"And we both know you always get what you want. But let me remind you, Maximillian Holt, I'm the best thing that has ever happened to you. You need me. I listen to your problems, I feed that enormous ego of yours, and I can match wits with you any day. With both hands tied behind my back, I might add." "Don't forget I made you what you are today, sweetheart. Without me you'd be nothing." "And don't you forget, I'm the one who bails you out every time you get your ass in a sling. Speaking of which, you're out of fuel. You're running on fumes."

"How far to the nearest gas station?" "A good ten miles." "You could have told me sooner." "Yes, I could have." "I've created a monster." Max guided the radically customized car down the narrow mountain road, taking each twist and turn with the precision of a professional driver. A Pink Floyd CD played from a cutting-edge sound system that would not be available to consumers for at least another year.

Max took a great deal of pride in his automobile, the same one his friends laughingly referred to as his Maxmobile. The car had been designed from the chassis up by former NASA scientists. The body and frame were composed of titanium and a newly identified polymer that offered the lightness of fiberglass and the durability of the strongest steel. The end result had resembled a Porsche, but Max's version was bigger, better, and could do things that car manufacturers would not find on their drawing boards for years to come. Nothing was indestructible, but the Maxmobile came close.

The dashboard was more complicated than the cockpit of a Lear jet. A team of first-rate computer whizzes, hired away from top government contractors, had created the car's instrumentation using state-of-the-art equipment. Spread out among luxury automotive goodies like a tachometer, an altimeter, and a global positioning satellite system were a highly enhanced PDA, keyboard, a digital speech recognition module, a photo-quality printer, a fax, a satellite phone, an HDTV display screen, and a full video conferencing suite, all operated by a high-powered computer that was smaller than an ashtray. Thanks to all these modifications, Max, if he wanted to, could run his vast business empire without ever getting out of his car. Only a man like Max Holt would have laid out the kind of money it had taken to build such a machine; and only a man like Max would have created computer intelligence with voice recognition technology and a sassy personality to match. Just for the fun of it, he had named her Muffin and programmed her with a sexy voice that one employee claimed gave him a stiffie every time he heard it.

There were those who'd said it couldn't be done. Max had proved them wrong. He insisted on the best. He drove himself and his employees hard. If he exuded confidence it was because he always succeeded in what he set out to do. Always. Not a difficult task for a man with an off-the-charts IQ, and a business acumen that put fear in the hearts of his toughest competitors. He'd created two companies, simply to put a scare into AOL and Microsoft. The television network he'd purchased ten years ago had grown far beyond even his own imagination. He had recently sold all three companies for a king's ransom, simply because they no longer offered the challenges he craved. The New York Times, Newsweek, and Money Magazine were clamoring for interviews, but Maximillian Holt did not give interviews. He maintained a low profile at all costs. Sure, photographers had grainy pictures of him slipping into buildings wearing expensive Italian suits, or ducking into stretch limos with a gorgeous model or actress on his arm, but he was clever at keeping his image out of the media. Most people wouldn't recognize him, even if they did know his name by heart. And that's the way Max liked it.

He had homes all over the world, but he preferred his horse farm in Virginia, not far from his cousin Nick who'd not only offered him a home, but had instilled in Max a love of horses. His farmhouse offered sanctuary from his hectic lifestyle, and he maintained his privacy with cameras, an alarm system he'd personally created, and enough security personnel to guard the White House. People called him eccentric and egotistical, but Max had never cared what others thought. He made his own rules, especially when it came to women. He didn't like entanglements. Commitment was a four-letter word that spurred him to move on the minute a woman mentioned it. As a result, he had a reputation of being a ladies' man, but he was generous to a fault and did his best to end relationships on a positive note that often created close friends out of once intimate relationships. This included his ex-wife, Bunny, whom, with his help, had launched a new line of bath and body products that competed heavily with the likes of Crabtree and Evelyn. Max liked to think women benefited from knowing him because he believed he was a better man from having been in their company.

"Speaking of women," Max said after a moment. "I want a complete printout on Jamie Swift. See if you can find a photo." "What do you mean see if I can find a photo? Of course I can find a photo. I can get everything on anybody at any time, including where they purchase their lingerie." By the time Max stopped for gas and filled his tank, Muffin had a complete dossier and recent photo of Jamie Swift. "Not bad," he said. "You know how I like blondes." Muffin gave a snort. "Not to mention brunettes and redheads. But you can forget this one, stud. She's engaged to one Phillip Ravenal Standish, a well-respected tax attorney, and the most eligible bachelor in Beaumont, South Carolina."

"Your point being?" "Hands off. Besides, you're going to Beaumont because your sister Deedee needs you." Max smiled. "Deedee needs more help than I'm capable of giving her. Besides, there's no sin in checking on my investment with the Beaumont Gazette while I'm in town. And having the pleasure of meeting Miss Swift. After all, I'm her partner." "Silent partner. And when she finds out Deedee asked you to help her financially..." "She's not going to find out."

"The woman isn't stupid, Max. As soon as she discovers you're Deedee's brother, she'll put two and two together. She and Deedee might be close friends, but I'm willing to bet she won't appreciate people discussing her financial problems. She's struggled for years to keep her newspaper afloat." "She was looking for an investor, and I have a fondness for the newspaper business. Don't forget I cut my teeth on my cousin's newspaper. There isn't much I don't know about it." "Just don't lose sight of why we're really going to Beaumont," Muffin said. "Sounds like Frankie's in trouble." "I still can't believe it," Max said. "Who would have thought my brother-in-law would run for mayor?" "He's not the first wrestler to run for political office."

"I wonder if people still refer to him as Frankie-the-Assassin?" "I'm sure he's maintained a following, despite having retired. By the way, it doesn't sound like Deedee is thrilled about his decision to join the political arena. Her last e-mail wasn't good." "You should realize by now that, although my sister is about as sweet as they come, her life is one crisis after another. Just like our mother," he added. "One big calamity after another." "You don't sound especially fond of your sister." "Oh, I'm crazy about Deedee, although we've never had much in common. She's ten years older than me. Not to mention a little flaky at times," he added. "Your brother-in-law doesn't seem at all concerned about what's going on," Muffin said.

"Frankie knew what he was getting into when he decided to go into politics, and he's not the first politician to receive hate mail." Max paused and smiled. "You know, Muffin, you're supposed to read my mail and report to me, not make judgments or offer advice. And then pout when I don't agree," he added. "One would think you were capable of emotion." The pride in his voice went unchecked. "And they said it couldn't be done. Guess I proved them wrong." "You're gloating, Max. It's not flattering. Somebody needs to teach you a little humility." "A good woman could do that." "She'd have to be armed and dangerous." "Do me a favor. Send a fax to Miss Swift and tell her I'll drop by after lunch tomorrow. That'll give her time to have her hair done and buy a new dress for the occasion." "Oh, puh-leese."

"Then take a nap. You're getting moody on me." "You know I don't nap. That genius mind of yours couldn't find its way out of a paper sack without my assistance; much less make it all the way to Beaumont, South Carolina. Face it, Max. I'm indispensable."

* * * *

"Double damn!" Jamie Swift dropped the fax as though it were hot to the touch. It fluttered to the top of her desk, face up, as though openly defying her to ignore it. Her secretary, Vera Bankhead, drew herself up sharply. "You'd better be glad your father isn't alive to hear you, young lady. I have warned you about using foul language in this office, what with me being a God-fearing Baptist and all. You owe the kitty one quarter for cursing." Without taking her eyes off the fax, Jamie reached into a side drawer of her desk where she kept a stash of change. She pulled out a quarter and handed it to Vera. Sixty years old and the closest thing Jamie had ever had to a mother, Vera Bankhead was a woman to be reckoned with, and the only thing Jamie feared. "Mr. Holt is coming here? Tomorrow?" "That's what it says." "This must be some kind of joke." "Looks serious as an open grave to me, but then I'm just a lowly secretary who hasn't had a raise since they did away with garter belts." "We have to stop him." "I keep a .38 in my purse. It'll stop a Brahma bull at one hundred paces."

"We can't kill him, Vera. Besides, he owns a sizeable portion of this newspaper. We simply have to find a way to detain him. I mean would you look at this place!" Both women paused and glanced around the office, or what there was left of it. Vera nodded. "Yeah, well, I told you not to sell all the furniture, but I knew you needed the money." Jamie's managing editor, Mike Henderson, raced into her office, light brown hair uncombed, shirt badly wrinkled, and his coat askew. His briefcase reflected his personality; the fake leather pouches stuffed with papers and newsworthy articles that he planned to follow up one day but never got around to it. The tie he kept on hand in case he needed it, peeked out from the side pocket of his jacket. "Wonder whose bed he just crawled out of?" Vera muttered.

"Sorry I'm late," he said. Jamie pressed her lips together in irritation. Mike was a good editor, but his poor time management skills and sexual prowess kept him from doing the job he was capable of. She attributed it to immaturity; after all, he was only a year out of college, and he worked cheap. "Do you know what time it is?" Jamie asked. He paused and checked his wristwatch. "Oh, man, I'm later than I thought." Vera gave a snort of disgust. "Long night?" He looked slightly offended. "Okay, so I have a reputation of, well, never mind, but I actually worked most of the night and morning because of our deadline. I must've drifted off to sleep at some point because next thing I knew..." "Well, Miss Swift has enough to worry about without you showing up this time of day." He looked at Jamie. "Did another piece of equipment break down?" "Worse," Vera said. "Mr. M. Holt is coming tomorrow, and this place is pitiful." Mike looked around. "Yeah, we could use some furniture. Not to mention a few desks. I'm working on a card table. By the way, who is M. Holt?" There were no secrets in the office. Everyone knew Jamie struggled to keep the newspaper afloat. "Mr. Holt is the investor who prevented the bank from foreclosing on this place," Jamie said. She looked at Vera. "Why does he get to curse, and I don't?"

"'Cause I didn't practically raise him and teach him good Christian manners like I did you. Besides, he's going to hell anyway for his Tom-cattin' ways." Mike sighed. "I have trouble committing." "You need to learn to keep your britches zipped, mister, and you need to be on time for work." Mike's face reddened, but he, like the rest of the staff, knew better than to talk back to Vera. "What does the M stand for?" he asked as though desperately wanting to change the subject. Jamie shrugged. "Who knows? I was just so glad to get the money I didn't care." She pulled out the center drawer of her battered desk and fumbled through it for a pack of unopened cigarettes." Vera planted her hands on her hips. "Don't you dare light that cigarette, missy, or I'm going to quit on the spot, and then you're going to have to pay someone real money to run this office. Have you forgotten how hard it was for you to give up smoking in the first place? The only reason you started to begin with was because your daddy smoked." "I'm not going to light the darn thing, Vera." Jamie tore into the pack and stuck one of the cigarettes between her lips. Oh, how she craved one. If ever there was a time to light up it was now. "We've got to do something about this place." "Why are you looking at me?" Vera asked. "I don't have any say-so around here. I just keep my mouth shut and do what I'm told when I'm told. But let something go wrong and everybody comes running to Vera. Yessiree." She sank into the old leather chair facing Jamie's desk. "Somebody get me a cup of coffee. It helps me think better."

Jamie hurried down the hall and into the small kitchenette or what had once been a kitchenette before she had been forced to sell the refrigerator, microwave, table and chairs, and everything else that had not been nailed down. Thankfully, the cabinet and small stainless steel sink remained, which meant the coffee pot had a resting place and running water to rinse and fill it. Jamie returned to her office and handed Vera a cup of coffee that looked as though it had been brewed the day before. "It's hot," she warned. Vera sipped cautiously. "Okay, I hate to do this, but I guess I have no choice. We can't allow Mr. Holt to see this place as is." She glanced around. "Lawd, I don't remember when these walls were last painted. We need to do something about that, too." "You have an idea?" Jamie asked hopefully. "A few people in this town owe me favors."

Jamie noted the thoughtful look on Vera's face. Baptist or not, the woman could be downright devious at times. "I'm listening." "You know Herman Bates who owns Bates' Furniture? His son has been busted twice for DUI. Just so happens I was a nice person and kept it out of our arrest section. And then there was that messy scene between Tom Brown and his wife..." "Tom Brown who owns the paint store?" Mike asked. "Uh-huh. Seems he told wife Lorraine he had to work late one night so he could finish painting the VFW Hall, and Lorraine decided to check it out. Found him and Beth Toomey doing the nasty on a sofa in the back office. I heard Lorraine went after both of them with a letter opener. Beth managed to call 9-1-1, and Loraine was hauled in and thrown into the slammer." "Oh, Jeez," Jamie mumbled. "Yeah, and Tom refused to bail her out until she signed an agreement stating she wouldn't do him bodily harm. Didn't matter 'cause there was some serious butt kicking when he got home." "How come I don't know about this?" Jamie asked.

"I decided to keep it out of the newspaper, as well, because both families belong to my church." Jamie shook her head. There were times she wondered who was in charge. Obviously it was a moot question. "So what's the point?" Vera took another sip of her coffee as though trying to build the tension until she reached the climax of her idea. "We need this place painted, and we need furniture. Simple as that. Tom and Herman either do it my way or pay the price." "Isn't blackmail a crime in this state?" Mike asked. Vera set her coffee cup down and crossed her arms over her chest. "Not when it's for a good cause." He and Jamie nodded as though it made perfect sense. Vera rose from her chair in a queenly fashion. "Have either of you ever known me to fail when I set my mind to it? You can rest assured that it's as good as done. Vera Bankhead always comes through, and she doesn't mind getting her hands dirty in the process. Nosirree."

* * * *

Deedee Holt Fontana sat at her French provincial dressing table and gazed into the mirror, frowning. Her Maltese, Choo-Choo, licked the last of Deedee's Frappaccino from a dainty white cup. The man fussing with her hair paused. He wore his own coal black hair in a buzz cut, with the exception of a few wispy bangs that he claimed were necessary because he felt his forehead too tall. "What's wrong, sweetie pie?" He had a French accent mixed with a Louisiana drawl that was sometimes difficult to understand. "Oh, Beenie, I need another facelift," Deedee said in her Betty Boop voice. Despite having recently celebrated her forty-sixth birthday, Deedee had never lost the childlike quality that gave her an air of innocence, even though the woman could be quite savvy at times. The same voice that made Frankie, her husband of twenty years, want to take care of and protect her.

"You most certainly do not need a facelift! You have one more face lift, and your eyes are going to be at the back of your head, and you'll have to enter rooms butt first. You'll give new meaning to the words grand entrance." Beenie waved his comb from side to side as he spoke, as though conducting an orchestra. "Besides, how many women do you know who have an entire room devoted to their beauty queen trophies?" "That was a long time ago, Beenie." "Well, you're still a beauty queen as far as the rest of us are concerned but especially to that hunk of man you married. Why, the way he looks at you..." Beenie paused and shivered. "I get all goose-pimply every time I see it."

Deedee obviously wasn't listening because she seemed to take little delight in his words. "It's a wonder Frankie hasn't left me for a younger woman," she said. She picked up her magnifying mirror and looked into it. "Eeyeuuw!" she screeched so loud that Beenie's hand flew to his chest as though he feared his heart might take flight. "Yikes, where did you get that mirror?" Beenie wrestled it from her. "How many times have I told you not to look into that mirror? Lord, girl, Britney Spears would look like a stray dog with mange in that mirror." "Look at me, Beenie. I've turned into a frumpy housewife." "You are definitely not frumpy." "I have dark circles beneath my eyes." "That's because you're not sleeping at night, sugarplum." Beenie patted her on the shoulder. "You spend too much time worrying about your husband and everybody else you can think of. You're the only rich person I know who worries about leaving a bathtub ring when you have a perfectly healthy housekeeper, who is overpaid in my opinion, to see to it.

And if Frankie knew how much you were fretting over him he'd put you over his knee and give you a good spanking." Deedee seemed to consider it. "That's not a bad idea, Beenie. Frankie and I could use some variety in our sex life." Beenie's hands fluttered about his face like butterflies, something he often did when he became anxious. "I do not believe what I'm hearing. Mr. F worships the marble floors you walk on. His eyes light up when you enter a room. It's obvious he thinks you're the sexiest woman alive." Deedee wasn't listening. She covered her face with her hands. Her long slender fingers flashed with diamonds, as did her dainty wrists and earlobes. She was still as slender as a college girl, and as much as she'd sworn off exercising in her youth, she worked out with a personal trainer three days a week. Of course it was up to Beenie to drag Deedee out of bed, kicking and screaming, and coax her downstairs to Frankie's gym each time her trainer arrived for their appointment. He claimed he was just doing his job, but it was obvious Beenie had a thing for the muscle-bound jock because he always wore his favorite silk Armani shirt, unbuttoned to his navel, and a light oil that left a slight sheen on his hairless chest when the man was expected. Today, Beenie was dressed in Armani.

But Beenie was like a pit bull when it came to Deedee, seeing she ate right, that her hair and makeup were perfect and her clothes neatly pressed. Deedee had stolen her "personal assistant" some three years prior from an exclusive spa, doubling his salary in order to get him. It had paid off. Beenie had transformed her, tossing aside Deedee's tight-fitting, rhinestone-laden outfits of linen and silk, designed especially for her and flown in from Milan and Paris. "I never thought I'd be this old," Deedee cried. "I thought getting older was for everyone but me. I should have married a cosmetic surgeon instead of a wrestler. I tell you, Beenie, the stress is killing me. I don't know what Frankie is thinking. We should have stayed in Scottsdale where it was safe."

"Honey, you know Mr. Fontana loves this little town and the people who live here. He wants to make a difference." "So why is Frankie receiving all those nasty letters?" "People can be jerks." Max had better get his behind here fast. Heaven only knows where he is. He's as bad as our father. Just can't stay in one place long enough." "Now, now," Beenie said. "That's not fair. From what I understand, Max is a very important man with a lot to do. Frankly, your parents have always sounded a wee bit selfish to me, what with traveling all over the world without a second thought to their children. I would never do that to my children." All at once, Deedee cried out. "Eeyeuuw, I'm perspiring! Quick, Beenie, turn down the air before I melt." "The air is already as low as it can go, honeycomb. You're going to cause the units to freeze up like last time if you don't leave the thermostats alone. You're just having another hot flash."

Deedee met the man's gaze in the mirror. The look in her eyes would have wilted a head of lettuce on the spot. "I am not having a hot flash. I am not going through menopause or pre-menopause, as you call it, and that's final!" Beenie slapped his hand over his mouth as though suddenly realizing his mistake. "What was I thinking?" he said. "Of course you're hot. It's the middle of June, and we're having a record heat wave. Look at me, I'm glistening myself." He pulled the lid off her most expensive talcum powder and made a production of powdering her neck and his. "There, now. Feel better?" "I'm having a nervous breakdown, Beenie, that's what it is. I'm going to have to go on tranquilizers. I'll probably become addicted and have to spend time at the Betty Ford Clinic. It'll look bad for Frankie. He'll lose the election and blame me, then he'll get a mistress." "Lord, girl, are you having a mood swing or what?" Beenie said, then winced and raised a fist to his mouth at the look she shot him. "Oh, my, I should cut my tongue out, chop it into little pieces and feed it to an alley cat."

"I need to be alone," Deedee said tiredly. Beenie sighed his immense relief. "That's a good idea." He helped her into a satin Christian Dior bathrobe. "You need to rest now. Tonight is a big night for Mr. Fontana, and you want to be at your best." "I want to be awake when Max arrives." "I'll wake you the minute he gets here." Beenie paused and shot her a coy look. "What does he look like?" "Oh, he's very handsome and polished, and don't think he doesn't know it. He's also a freakin' super genius. Used to blow up everything in sight when he was a kid." Beenie's eyes widened. "Like in bombs?" "Not real bombs, just stuff he found around the house. Kid's stuff, really. He had his own laboratory. Fortunately, our uncle and his wife took him in and turned Max around." Beenie tapped a forefinger against his top lip. "And a genius, huh. I love brainy men." "Don't get any ideas, pal. He's straight as a yardstick." Beenie looked crestfallen. "I am never going to meet a good man. I'm going to end up an old maid like my sister."

* * * *

Frankie grinned and pumped Max's hand enthusiastically the minute the butler led him inside a living room that was the size of a bowling alley. "It's good to see you again, Max. Deedee will be thrilled." "Have you grown?" Max asked, looking straight up in order to meet the man's gaze. Frankie laughed. "Actually, I shrank an inch. I'm six foot seven now." He slapped his massive chest. "Still fit as a fiddle, though. I work out every day." Suddenly, Max shivered. "Why is it so cold in here? Your butler is wearing an overcoat." "Shoot, that's nothing," Frankie said. "The chef has a fire going in the kitchen fireplace." He glanced about as if to make sure they were alone. "It's Deedee," he whispered. "She's going through, uh, the change."

"You mean menopause?" "Shhh, not so loud. She's in denial. Claims she's too young for that sort of thing, but it started about six months ago. You know how Deedee is about maintaining her youth. But don't worry, the housekeeper put an electric blanket on your bed so you won't freeze at night." There was a squeal of delight that caused both men to turn. Deedee raced down the long, free-standing staircase, her robe swirling about her long legs. She ran right into Max's waiting arms. "Oh, little brother, it's so good to see you!" Max hugged her. "Let me have a look at you," he said, stepping back for a full view. "You haven't changed a bit. How do you stay so young looking?"

"She has a facelift once a year," Frankie said, earning a dark look from his wife. As if sensing he'd said the wrong thing, he added, "Not that she needs it, of course." "It's just a teeny-weeny procedure," Deedee said quickly. "Dr. Mitchell says I'm much too young for the real thing. Frankie, honey, why don't you fix Max a drink." "What'll it be?" Frankie asked, heading for a cabinet that opened up into a wet bar. "We have everything." "A soft drink will do."

"Sit down, Max," Deedee said, leading him to a group of sofas that were covered in a bamboo print and sat on a leopard skin rug. Tall wooden giraffes peeked through leafy banana trees, and brass elephants supported glass cocktails tables. "Do you like what I did to the room?" she asked. "I was going for a jungle look." Max took in the room. "You succeeded very well," he said. "I noticed you chose to paint the house pink." "Salmon," she corrected. "It's the in color these days."

"It looks pink to me too," Frankie said, handing Max a cola. "Good thing I'm not still wrestling. The guys would think I had grown soft." Max toasted his brother-in-law with his drink. "Congratulations on winning the primary, Frankie. You'll make a great mayor." Frankie beamed with pleasure. "I still have a lot to do and Election Day is just around the corner, but I have a good campaign manager so it's going okay. The present mayor has been in office for ten years, and his father spent almost twice that time in office. I say it's time we get new blood." He leaned closer and gave Max a conspiratorial wink. "What I say in my speech tonight should win me the election." Deedee covered her face. "Oh, Lord, he's going to make somebody else mad, and they're going to run us out of town." Suddenly, she cried out. "Beenie, come quickly!" There was the sound of footsteps overhead. Beenie raced down the stairs. "What, what? Did your eyelash fall in your drink?" He came to a screeching halt at the sight of Max. He sucked in his stomach and went into a provocative pose. "You must be Deedee's brother."

Max glanced from him to an amused Frankie. "I'm Deedee's personal assistant, of course," Beenie said. He held out his. "Charmed, I'm sure." Max nodded. "Yeah, so am I." "Stop socializing, Beenie, and pack my jewelry," Deedee said loudly. "Sew it into the hem of my dresses like they did in the Civil War when the Yankees came. And all my makeup and moisturizing creams," she added. "But I don't know how to sew," he whined.

She ignored him. "And tell the housekeeper to start packing the china and silver. We'll have to bury it in the backyard." Beenie planted his hands on his hips. "I hope you don't expect me to dig holes and risk ruining my nails. I just spent a fortune having them done." Max watched silently, one corner of his lip turned up. He was obviously enjoying himself.

"Deedee, what on earth are you planning?" Frankie said, his black brows drawn together so that they touched and made him look stern, a look that was completely foreign to him. She began wringing her hands. "That's what people do when they're getting ready to flee their homes." He immediately softened and took her hands in his large beefy ones. "We're not going to be forced from our home, sweetheart. Whatever gave you that idea?" "Frankie, it's obvious somebody doesn't want you elected; otherwise, why would you be getting all that hate mail?" "How do you know about that?" She hitched her chin high. "I'm your wife. I make it my business to know what's going on around here." Frankie looked hurt. "Do you think I'd let anything happen to you? Deedee, I'd risk my own life for you."

"Listen, Frankie, I've watched you in the ring, and I dealt with it better than most wives, but this time I'm scared." "I thought you trusted me." "I do trust you, but I still worry."

"That's for sure," Beenie said. "Why do you think she's got those God awful bags under her eyes? Lord, I couldn't conceal them with white enamel paint." Beenie seemed to catch his mistake the minute he said it because his hands fluttered about his face and he turned three shades of red. Deedee glared at him. "Could we forget I said that?" he asked. "I would agree to forego this year's Christmas bonus if we could just pretend I'd never uttered those words." "I want you to stop this nonsense," Frankie told his wife. "We are not going anywhere. I am going to protect you. Besides, all your jewelry is insured. If somebody takes it I'll just buy you more." "Oh, Frankie. What would I do without you?" He leaned over and gave his wife a long kiss.

Max chuckled. "When are the two of you going to stop acting like newlyweds?" "When you find the right person, it just keeps getting better and better," Deedee said dreamily. "You should try it sometime, little brother." Frankie checked his Rolex. "It's getting late. We have to get ready for the fund-raiser at the local country club." Deedee looked proud. "Frankie's trying to raise money for the park he's planning. He's going to put it right smack in the center of town, and dedicate it to the founding fathers." "Yeah," Frankie said. "It's going to have this big fountain, and in the center a raised statue of two bronze wrestlers, one of them caught in a body scissor." "Like one of those Michelangelo statutes," Deedee added.

"I figure the kids will get a kick out of it," Frankie added. "Oh, and there's going to be a playground for the little ones." "Sounds like you thought of everything but a wrestling ring," Max said. "Oh, Frankie has already had one built at the YMCA," Deedee said, "and he gives lessons once a week." "He's very devoted to this town," Beenie said, still eyeballing Max. "Doesn't sound like you're taking retirement very seriously," Max said.

Frankie shrugged. "I like staying busy, and it's for a good cause." Finally, Max stood. "Guess I'd better clean up." "I'll show you to your room," Beenie offered, already moving toward the stairs gracefully. "I'll even see that your bags are carried up for you." "By the way, there's a tux in your closet," Deedee called out once Max was halfway up the stairs. He turned and scowled down at her. "You did that on purpose. You know how much I hate to dress up."

* * * *

Max stood beside Frankie, shaking hands and making small talk, but the look on his face suggested how bored he was. Deedee had simply introduced him as Max, her little brother, and nobody had made the connection. After an hour, Max slipped through a pair of French doors leading to a large balcony that overlooked a perfectly manicured golf course. He gazed at the woman for a full minute, a smile playing on his mouth. It would have been impossible not to recognize her. Jamie Swift was even better looking in person.

* * * *

Jamie Swift was one irritated woman, and she didn't notice the stranger at first. Her mood had only worsened since she'd learned her investor was coming to town, and the last thing she wanted to do was mingle with the crowd inside. Frankie must have invited close to two hundred people, most of them couples, and she was without a date. Where the heck was Phillip? Here she was, dressed in her navy silk cocktail dress, the one Phillip claimed showed off the best legs he'd ever laid eyes on and brought out the highlights in her blond hair. Oh, what she'd give to be wearing her comfortable jeans and loose-fitting t-shirt and sprawled on her sofa reading a good book.

And what was with these high heels? The sales lady at the discount shoe store had talked her into buying them. Dumb idea. She preferred sneakers. The spiked heels added a good three inches to Jamie's five-foot-seven and made her feel as though she should have strapped herself into a parachute before putting them on. If she fell she would break every bone in her body. Not that it would be the worst thing that had happened to her that day. She took a sip of her wine, her second glass. "Darn you, Phillip," she muttered. "Of all times to be late." He was probably sitting in his private club right now, sipping a Dewars and talking about tax law. Tax law, for Pete's sake! Who cared? The subject held as much interest to her as a hernia operation. "Oh, double damn," she said. Jamie caught movement and turned quickly, almost spilling her wine. Her mouth flew open, and her cheeks burned with embarrassment as she found herself gazing at one of the best looking men she'd ever laid eyes on. And he had caught her talking to herself.

Chapter Two "Excuse me," Max said. "Is this a private conversation?" When the woman winced, he smiled. "I'll bet he's a rabbit and his name is Harvey." Jamie was tempted to dive from her high heels and end it all right there. "How much did you hear?" "Something about a guy named Phillip who's really late." Max cocked his head to one side. "He must not be very smart." "Phillip is my fiancé. And very late. Who are you?"

"Max." "Jamie Swift." She offered her hand. He took it and they shook. "Nice to meet you, Miss Swift." Max reluctantly let go of her hand. Jamie studied him. "You're not from around here, are you?" "Just visiting."

Jamie wasn't surprised. She would have noticed him, what with those broad shoulders and olive complexion that was even more attractive against his white shirt. He did wonderful things to a tux, and while his face was striking, it was equally interesting to look at. She didn't know if it was the wine or the man, but one of them was making her light-headed. Be just her luck to do something stupid and swoon. And her engaged and all. That would certainly start tongues wagging in Beaumont. "Nice to meet you, uh, Max." Dang, her voice suddenly sounded as though a bullfrog were giving birth in her throat. She cleared it. "Welcome to Beaumont." "I came out for some fresh air. The view out here is great." Jamie noticed he was staring at her and not the scenery. Smooth guy, she thought. Very smooth.

"So, is your fiancé the jealous type? Should I disappear in case he shows up and finds you standing out here alone with a strange man?" Jamie chuckled. "Maybe that's exactly what he deserves. I think he's beginning to take me for granted." She checked her wristwatch. "But he's more than an hour late. I seriously doubt he's going to make it at this point." "I'll bet he has a very good reason." "Men always stick together." "If you were my date I would have been here early, and I would have brought you a dozen roses. But that's just me. I'm the sensitive type." Jamie saw the teasing look in his eyes. "Yeah, right. The minute I laid eyes on you I said to myself, "Jamie, there stands one sensitive, touchy-feely guy," she said. Max grinned. "Could I get you another drink?"

"Uh, no thanks. I've had my limit." "And I'll bet you never go over that limit do you? I'll bet you've never once thrown caution to the wind and said, "Oh, what the hell, I'm going to slam down another tequila shooter whether anyone likes it or not." She laughed. "Hey, I've written on bathroom walls."

"No way." Jamie nodded proudly. "In seventh grade I carved Davey Callaway's initials with mine and drew a heart around it." Max pretended to look shocked. "I would never have thought it of you." "I can be quite brazen at times." "Oh, yeah? I'm beginning to hope your fiancé doesn't show up after all."

Jamie realized the wine had gone straight to her head. She tried to pull herself together. "So, Mr., uh, Max. What do you think of our little town?" "I've only been here a couple of hours so I haven't had a chance to see it." "You should take a complete tour sometime when you have an extra ten minutes on your hands." "It can't be that bad. What do people do for fun?" "Mostly they go to church. Folks are big on church socials. You know, potluck dinners and all that. You want a good meal in this town you have to join a church. We have a theater we're very proud of, stadium seating and eight different movies from which to choose. Not to mention a skating rink and arcade for the kids." "Yes, but what does the wilder, more sophisticated people like yourself do for fun?"

"We have a steak house and a seafood restaurant. Not to mention a hamburger joint where the onion rings are so greasy they almost slide off your plate. They insist on checking your cholesterol before you're allowed to order them." "Sounds like my kind of place." "Oh, and we've got this roadhouse on the outskirts that serves the coldest beer in town and plays music on Friday night. The Baptists pretend it doesn't exist so everyone gets along just fine." "And here I thought I'd seen and done it all," Max replied. "I'll bet you can tear up a dance floor." Jamie's smile faded slightly. "I'm afraid I don't go out much. I own the newspaper so I spend most of my time there." Jamie realized she was enjoying talking to the man. "I used to work for my cousin's newspaper," Max told her after a moment.

"Then you know what it's like." "Stressful at times." "You should try finding news in a town this size. That's the stressful part. Not much action around here, you know?" Max chuckled. "Perhaps you could pay someone to commit a crime." "I can't afford it," she confessed. "If you saw my circulation you'd laugh."

"Why do you stay?" "I guess it's in my blood." She smiled. "Maybe I need a transfusion." She drained her glass. "So tell me something interesting about yourself. Anything. Something I can print." He shrugged. "I'm afraid you'd find my life rather boring. I live on a farm in Virginia. My house is old and falling apart. I'm in the process of renovating it. When I have time," he added. "You're doing the work yourself?" "Uh-huh." Jamie looked at his hands. They were nice and brown and strong looking. "I should hire you to renovate the newspaper building. It's falling apart, too. I never really noticed how bad it was until today. I've got this big shot investor visiting tomorrow. I'm sure he'll get a huge laugh when he takes a look at the place." "It can't be all that bad."

"Trust me on this one. The man will take one look at the place and wish he'd never put any of his money in my little newspaper." She sighed heavily. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I guess I just needed to talk to someone. I've had a crummy day." "You know what you need?" "Yeah, a sword on which to fall." "No, seriously. I know what will cheer you up."

Jamie's eyes narrowed. He was so easy to talk to she'd forgotten he was drop-dead gorgeous and a little on the flirtatious side. "I'll just bet you do." Read a Sample Chapter Chapter One Nicholas Kaharchek surveyed his seven new polo students moving across the sandy practice field. He grinned as he watched an especially entertaining female named Billie Pearce. In the four years since Nick had started the polo school, he'd seen his share of companionable stable bunnies and eager polo groupies, but he'd never seen anything like Billie Pearce. She was neither a stable bunny, nor a polo groupie, nor a rider, by any stretch of the imagination. From what he could determine during their brief conversation following the classroom part of the program, she was a housewife, smelling like fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and looking good enough to eat in her brand-new black riding boots and cream-colored pants. A woman like that could make a man forget all his troubles. Well, almost. She had "girl-next-door" written all over her, what with those large hazel eyes and a mouth that was a smidgen too wide for her face. She wasn't wearing a ring; he'd noticed that much right away. But she had an aura of well-rounded maturity and general satisfaction that he associated with a happy homemaker and motherhood. Not that he considered himself an expert on women, although, by God, he did his best.

Nicholas Kaharchek knew horses. It was said he'd inherited his horse sense from his Cossack ancestry. It was also rumored that the Cossack blood ran hot beneath the calm exterior of his personality--a rumor many of the local ladies testified to be true. Nick had actually learned a lot about women while handling horses. He knew precisely what tone of voice to use on a high-spirited filly and how to lull even the most temperamental of them into a sense of well-being when startled. He knew how to move his hands just right over horseflesh--slowly, deliberately, but feather-light, until the muscles quivered like those of a satisfied woman. Yeah, he knew how to play females, and the fact he had money--lots of it--didn't hurt. He genuinely liked women, enjoyed their individual uniqueness. He liked the way a woman smelled, enjoyed the feel of her downy hair when he pressed a kiss on the back of her neck, the way she looked sitting across a candlelit table or lying naked on the thick rug in front of his fireplace. And women liked him. They liked being seen on his arm, the fact he was generous to a fault, and they liked the way he treated them. At least most of them. But Nick had a habit of moving on after only a few dates. Less complicated that way, and he was a man who did not like complications. He'd learned the hard way. He caught sight of Billie Pearce and suspected he was wasting his time, at least as far as polo was concerned. She had about as much business on a polo field as he did at a Tupperware party. He had a feeling teaching Billie Pearce to play polo would be like spitting into the wind. Her horse ambled up to the red, white, and blue beach ball that served as the beginners' game ball and stopped. His ears drooped slightly, his eyes half closed, and he gave a huge horse sigh. The animal obviously had other places he'd rather be. "Listen up, horse," Billie said, "I'm paying forty dollars for a morning of polo. Forty bucks, you got that? That would pay for a pedicure. The least you could do is pretend to enjoy this." The horse snorted. "My sentiments exactly," she muttered.

Billie aimed carefully at her beach ball, swung the mallet in a loop over her head, and completely missed her target. The mallet slipped from her grasp and hurtled halfway across the field. "Dammit." Nick took in the sight with a mixture of disbelief and curiosity. The woman had absolutely no idea what she was doing, and she seemed to be lecturing a horse about polo, though sadly enough the horse probably knew more about the sport than she did. Still, she was cute in an old-fashioned way. She made him think of nice things: the way grass smells after it has just been cut, the feel of crisp sheets against his body, window curtains billowing in a soft breeze, and the smell of something nice baking in the oven. He retrieved her mallet and guided his horse to her side. "Mrs. Pearce," he began in a patient voice, "there's a little leather strap attached to the mallet. If you slip your hand through that strap, it will prevent you from slinging it across the field and committing involuntary manslaughter." Billie felt a rush of embarrassment. She must look foolish to someone with his expertise, and it wasn't easy taking criticism from a man who looked as though he belonged on the cover of GQ, what with his custom-made Argentine-style boots and polo wear that looked as though it had been tailor-made to fit what could only be described as the perfect body. She met his gaze. "Sorry, it was an accident. I was hoping this would be easier, but it's all I can do to stay atop this horse. I had no idea the ground would be so far away." Nick raised an eyebrow. "I seem to remember you wrote on your application that you'd been around horses all your life." "That's right." She wasn't about to tell him the truth: that she'd simply lived next door to someone who owned horses. "It's, uh, been a long time. I've gotten a little rusty. And the horses are shorter where I come from."

He nodded as though it made perfect sense, which it didn't. His saddle creaked under him as he put weight on his stirrups. "Mrs. Pearce, I don't mean to discourage you from playing polo, but maybe it would be a good idea for you to take a few riding lessons first. To sort of get back into the swing of it." Billie looked around and had to admit she was lacking. The other students were much more skilled at managing their horses. One woman in particular had caught her eyes, a stunning brunette whose long hair draped her shoulders like a silk shawl. She wasn't a student; that much was certain from her perfect posture, and an air of confidence that came from years of training. She and her horse moved across the distant riding arena with such fluidity it looked choreographed. Billie realized Nick was waiting for an answer. "The ad in the paper said you didn't need to be an expert rider," she offered as explanation. "That's true, but it helps if you know some of the basics." Such as which end of the horse you're supposed to face, he thought. Was this woman for real? He glanced at his watch and moved his bay gelding away from her. "This session is almost over. Why don't you take Zeke back to the barn and wait for me? I'll give you a lesson in tacking and horse care." "Um, okay, sure." Billie glanced down at the stubborn animal, wondering how to coax him toward the barn. "Go, Zeke," she whispered. "Nudge him," Nick said. "Like this."

It looked easy enough. Billy very gently pressed both heels against the horse's side, prodding him forward. Nick nodded his approval. He had to admit watching Billie Pearce was more interesting than anything else going on in the field at the moment. "That's right." Zeke ambled forward as Nick watched. Like most of the polo-school horses, Zeke had been donated. At one time he might have been the pride of the circuit, but he was retired now, and he took his retirement seriously. In his three years' tenure at the school stable, he had never been known to move faster than a shuffle. Yet, despite being incorrigibly lazy, he was by no means stupid. If forced, he knew when to take the field, when to follow a ball, and when to return to the stable, the latter of which he managed at a faster pace. He carried Billie to the apron of hard-packed dirt in front of the stable, gave a snort, and came to a dead stop, jolting Billie forward. She grasped his mane to keep from falling off. Zeke craned his neck, giving her a look of pure disgust. Nick smiled and dismissed the class. Billie watched the other women guide their horses to the barn and dismount with ease. Stable hands appeared out of nowhere, took the horses, and led them inside the barn. A couple of the stablehands looked to be high-school age, obviously working summer jobs. An older man in a baseball cap appeared, and he barked orders at the boys as they rushed about in their work. Billie tried to block out the man's harsh voice as she sat very still on the horse, waiting, because she had no intention of climbing off Zeke while there was another human being within a twenty-five-mile radius. She had no desire to further embarrass herself and give Nick Kaharchek more conversational fodder for his evening meal. The July sun was high in a cloudless blue sky, and the gentle hills of Loudoun County, Virginia, stretched in front of Billie like a giant, undulating patchwork quilt of field and forest. Horses stamped their feet and whickered softly in their stalls. The air was heavy with the smells of horse, oiled leather, and baking straw, prompting Billie to think of her childhood in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her father had been a small-businessman, but they'd lived side by side with Mennonite farmers. Good, sturdy people, who weren't afraid of hard labor. They revered their land and their marriages and worked to make them successful. Billie respected them for that, and she envied them because she'd had to give up on her own marriage. She'd had no choice. It took two people to make a relationship work, and her former husband had wanted no part of it. Her gaze shifted once more to the brunette woman and her horse, now moving at a faster gait, perfectly attuned to each other. Damn, but the woman was good. Her hair lifted and fell gracefully against her shoulders and back, making Billie think of a shampoo commercial. Would she ever be able to ride like that? she wondered. Billie momentarily closed her eyes and enjoyed the feel of the sun on her back while she listened to the lulling buzz of cicadas singing in the distance. At least she'd held on to the house after the divorce, she reminded herself, thinking back to her disastrous marriage. Her children might have to make do with a part-time father, but they sure as hell weren't going to lose their home and the sense of stability Billie had fought to give them.

"Mrs. Pearce, what are you doing?" Billie jumped at the sound of Nick's voice. She watched in awe as he approached the stable on his own horse. He reminded her of a centaur, that mythical creature who was half-man and half-horse. His riding was so fluid it was difficult to distinguish where the man left off and the horse began. He was as skilled as the woman she'd been watching. Billie envied them both. "I was waiting for everyone else to finish up so you could give me my lesson," Billie said, trying to avoid looking directly into his brown eyes or noting how the sun had bronzed his olive complexion. She did not need to be caught up by his good looks. Kaharchek was definitely not her type. The silent declaration drew her brows together in a frown as she pondered exactly what kind of man would be her type. Well, there was that chemistry teacher with the tortoiseshell glasses who'd made it plain months ago that he was interested. She suspected he would already have asked her out had she returned his interest. And the manager of the Kroger store made it a point to speak to her several times when she was in the store, pointing out various sales, saving coupons for items he knew she purchased with regularity. But she hadn't given either man much thought, because she simply didn't have a lot of time for romance, what with teaching, her children, housework, and gardening, and the list went on and on. But if she had been able to squeeze in a little time for a man, it certainly wouldn't be for someone like Nicholas Kaharchek. For one thing, they had nothing in common. His father had amassed a fortune in his lifetime and provided well for his only son. It was common knowledge that when the elder Kaharchek had retired, Nick had been content to let a number of talented second cousins run the empire while he concentrated on raising horses and being a hands-on owner of Loudoun County's most widely read newspaper. Billie respected the paper, but having heard rumors of Nicholas Kaharchek's various liaisons, she wasn't sure she respected the man. Nick dismounted and handed his horse over to a groom as he regarded her. "You can dismount now." "Easy for you to say." It amazed him how little she knew. "Just swing your right leg over the horse and hold on to the saddle with both hands." She hesitated. "That sounds risky." He saw the doubt in her eyes. "Mrs. Pearce, are you afraid of horses?"

"Of course not. I'm not afraid of anything. I killed a spider yesterday. It was big and black and hairy." She suppressed an involuntary shudder. "Uh-huh." "Okay, so maybe it wasn't hairy, but there was a time I wouldn't have entered the same room with a spider. I've grown," she announced with aplomb. He just looked at her, and she suddenly felt dumb for mentioning the spider. Nick Kaharchek had probably never been afraid of anything in his life. "I just wasn't expecting this horse to be so big," she said, getting back to the subject at hand. "I feel like I should parachute from the back of this animal." She took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and swung her right leg over the horse. The saddle slid through her grasping fingers, her arms flailed at the air. Nick reached for her, trying to break the fall. She grabbed at his shoulders, twisting slightly in mid-air, and fell against him. There was an exchange of grunts as they both hit the ground with a loud, bone-jarring thud. Somehow, she'd managed to knock the man off his feet. Worse, she'd landed right smack on top of him. On top of him, for heaven's sake! She simply lay there for a moment, sprawled across the polo god on the hard-packed dirt, breast to chest, zipper to zipper, thigh to thigh.

Everything touching. Billie blinked and looked into Nick's startled eyes. Lord, Lord, he would think she was an idiot for sure, and he would have every right. She had no idea what to do. How would Miss Manners suggest she extricate herself from such a delicate situation without making it worse? All she could do was apologize profusely and hope he didn't press charges for assault and battery. If only the man didn't feel so good. She tried to remember the last time she'd been so close to someone of the opposite sex and couldn't. All her nerve endings tingled, and something low in her belly tightened and coiled and sent a rush of pleasure through her. Lord, don't let me go and do something stupid like have an orgasm right now, she prayed. "Sorry," she whispered. "I lost my balance, and then my knees went weak." "I know the feeling." "Are you okay?" Billie asked. "I hope I didn't hurt anything." "Nothing I'd want to tell you about." She gave a mental wince. She'd made a spectacle of herself in front of him and everyone else by flipping her mallet out like a Frisbee. Now she'd gone and made a eunuch out of the most eligible bachelor in Loudoun County.

"Well, now," a feminine voice said. "Isn't this cozy?" Billie glanced up. It was her, the gorgeous creature she'd watched earlier. Only the woman was even more beautiful up close. She appeared to be only a few years younger than Billie, but her skin was flawless, as though she pampered it on a regular basis. Nick looked in her direction. "Hello, Sheridan." The woman tossed Billie a look. "I see Nick has taught you how to dismount." She had the smile of a movie star. Billie decided somebody had spent a fortune on braces. She searched for her voice. "This is my first lesson." "I would never have guessed."

Billie suddenly felt small as she took in the mocking smile. Sheridan was the kind of woman who made all other women feel as though they had a huge wart on their nose. Nick gestured. "Sheridan, meet Billie Pearce, my new student. Mrs. Pearce, this is Sheridan Flock, an old, uh, friend." Billie nodded at the woman and carefully lifted herself to her feet. She made a production of brushing dust from her britches, too embarrassed to look at either of them. "It's nice to meet you, Miss Flock," she said, finally making eye contact with the woman, refusing to be intimidated. "I watched you riding earlier. You're magnificent." "I learned from the best." Sheridan eyed Nick in such a way it was clear that horseback riding wasn't all he'd taught her. "I'd best be running along," Billie told Nick. "Not so fast. Your lesson isn't over." Sheridan pressed her lips together in annoyance. "Oh, let the poor girl go," she said. "Can't you see she's had enough for one day? Why, it's obvious she's not cut out for this sort of thing." Billie immediately stiffened, but her voice was pleasant when she spoke. "It's true I'm not as adept as you, Miss Flock, but then, we're not in competition, are we?" Sheridan's smile faltered, but she pretended to ignore Billie. "Nick, I've only been back from Europe for a few weeks, and this is the first chance I've had to ride Clementine. Daddy has been entertaining nonstop since I arrived, so I've been forced to play hostess. I thought we might go riding like old times." Nick wore no emotion. "I can't, Sheridan. I'm working." "You call that work?" She laughed. "Besides, you're the boss. You set your own hours."

"Sorry, I'll have to take a rain check." Their gazes locked. Billie felt like an intruder. Finally, Sheridan dismounted and handed over her horse to a waiting groom. She left without comment, although Billie sensed her anger, boiling inside. Billie looked at Nick and noted the strange twist to his lips. "Are you laughing at me?" "This is called a grimace." Nick demonstrated while he talked. "Let's start with the basics. Now, this is a saddle." Billie's look was deadpan. Nick had no idea why he was taking up his valuable time. No telling what was going on back at the house, and seeing Sheridan again after all these months had left him shaken. He had enough problems, and Billie Pearce was only adding to them. "This is a stirrup."

"Mr. Kaharchek--" "Pay attention. Now, you slide it up snug against the saddle like this. This is a girth. You unhitch the girth and the saddle slides off. You can take the saddle pads off the horse at the same time." He motioned for a stable hand lurking just inside the barn. From the look on the kid's face--bafflement and amusement-- he'd witnessed the whole thing. Nick avoided eye contact. Instead, he handed the saddle to the youth and in turn took a blue nylon halter from him. He pulled Billie toward Zeke's head. "Always leave the reins over the horse's neck while you're removing the bridle." He placed her hand behind Zeke's ears. "This strip of leather is called the `crown piece.' You gently slide it over the horse's ears and--" He paused when Billie's face suddenly registered pain. Her face went white. "Something wrong?" "He'sonmyfoot! The dumb--son--of a horse--is on my--foot!" She tried to shove Zeke, but it was like trying to move Mount Everest. Tears smarted her eyes. Nick reacted quickly; one firm touch, and the big chestnut gelding calmly shifted away from Billie. She stared wide-eyed at her brand-new riding boot, perfectly branded with the imprint of Zeke's hoof. She gasped in pain. "My foot is broken. It's probably shattered." She glared at the horse. Was she just imagining the smug expression? She'd seen that same look on Sheridan Flock's face. "You did that on purpose," she accused. She shot a glance at Nick. "He obviously finds it amusing."

Nick had to agree. It did look as though Zeke were smiling. "I'll have the stable hand shoot him immediately." He signaled for the hovering boy to take Zeke away and brush him down before putting him into his stall. "That's not a damn bit funny," Billie said as she watched the horse walk away with a jaunty sway of its hips. If body language was anything to go by, the animal clearly thought it was the victor in their little encounter. As for her, jaunty swaying was out of the question. She couldn't put any weight on her foot. "I'll never walk again," she wailed. "Mrs. Pearce, please calm down." Nick sighed. Just when he thought things couldn't get worse. The woman was really hurt. She'd probably managed not to sign a release form and would likely sue the pants off him. His insurance company would cancel. His polo school would be history. And she was hurt. That was the worst part. His protective instincts snapped alive. Her pretty eyes were swimming with tears she refused to shed. He purposefully lowered his gaze, focusing instead on the belligerent set to her chin, and decided she probably was brave, even if it didn't look that way at the moment. He scooped her into his arms and turned toward the barn. Her mouth popped open in surprise, but he felt her arms circle around his neck as though she realized she had no choice. She pressed against him for support. Just what he needed after having her fall full length against him, coming in contact with him in all the right places. He envisioned her children and their friends coming home at the end of the day to the smell of homemade cookies and tall glasses of milk. He envied them, wondered if they realized how lucky they were. Having been raised by one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the state, he'd had little opportunity for warm, straight-out-of-the-oven cookies and cold milk. Billie shifted, and the soft material of her tank top brushed against his bare arms. She felt soft and curvy and feminine, a nice contrast to the women he'd dated who felt they could never be thin enough. He owed Zeke a nice red apple.

Damn. He had no business thinking how soft and warm Billie Pearce was. She had room mother and PTA spokesperson written all over her pretty face. She would never consider a three-day weekend filled with sun, fun, and great sex. She was different, and she wouldn't appreciate knowing he was aroused just thinking about her. Inside the barn, Nick plunked her down on a bench. "How does it feel?" "Smushed." "Smushed?" Lord, she was talking like her sixth-graders. "How do you think it feels?" she snapped. "It feels like a horse crushed it to smithereens." "We have to get the boot off." "Oh, no you don't! Not without ordering me a morphine drip."

He almost smiled. "Mrs. Pearce, I need to examine your foot. That means I have to pull off the boot." "Okay, fine. Perhaps after that you can have me drawn and quartered." Billie sucked in her breath and gripped the bench as he gingerly worked the boot off her injured foot. She closed her eyes, trying to remember the breathing techniques she'd learned in Lamaze class years before as she prepared for labor and delivery when her children were born. She took a deep cleansing breath and concentrated on the top of Nick's head. She wanted to touch it, run her fingers through the silky strands. It was the color of black coffee, thick, satiny, falling in lazy waves across his forehead and curling over his ears. Another deep breath. He probably had hair all over the place. Something fluttered in her stomach. She was delirious with pain; that was the only excuse she could come up with for allowing her mind to run amuck with thoughts of his body. Another cleansing breath. She blew out through her mouth. "What are you doing?" "Huh?" Billie blinked and found Nick watching her curiously. His mouth was set in a grim line. She wondered if he had a sense of humor. Not that the occasion called for it. "I'm trying to get my mind off the pain." His look softened. "I'm sorry." He eased the boot from her foot and peeled back her sock as she continued to grip the sides of the bench. She really was trying to be brave. He stood, hands on hips, and uttered an expletive. "It's swollen."

"Imagine that." Nevertheless, she was relieved to have the boot off. Her foot was beginning to swell and change color, seemingly right before her eyes. Not very attractive. Her only saving grace was that she had taken the time to paint her toenails the night before. That and the fact that Miss High-and-mighty wasn't there to witness her second accident of the day. Who was she to Nick anyway? Billie wondered. "It's turning purple," she said. Nick shook his head. It was her right foot. She wasn't going to be able to drive. Someone was going to have to take her to the hospital to get the foot X-rayed. He could ask Arnie Bates, the older stable groom, but the man's disposition had soured considerably since Nick had caught him smoking in the stable, something that was forbidden. The only reason Nick hadn't fired him on the spot was that Arnie's wife was pregnant, and they needed the money. And because Arnie had needed a break. Someone was going to have to take her home as well, Nick reminded himself. He felt his stomach sink at the possibility that it would, most likely, be him. He could already hear himself volunteering. Not that he was averse to being in the company of a beautiful woman, but he had his own worries--his cousins. Deedee was alone in his house, and Max was wandering about the property, up to God knew what. Nick almost preferred having Zeke step on his foot to leaving the pair unsupervised. Deedee was not his greatest concern. She might be a little harebrained, but she wasn't dangerous. Not like Max.

Nick glanced at his watch. Eleven o'clock. Chances were, Deedee was still sleeping. He'd left her a full pot of coffee. Everything should be fineunless she decided to make herself lunch. Slim possibility, he decided. It wouldn't occur to her to prepare her own food, even if she ate on a regular basis, which she didn't, because she was more interested in keeping her model's figure. Max, on the other hand, was hiding out and could do a lot of damage if left to his own devices. Nick gave a weary sigh. He would simply have to take his chances where the boy was concerned. At least for now, since there didn't seem to be any choice in the matter. "You're not going to be able to drive with that foot and you need to see a doctor." Arnie started past them. "Can you cover for me for a bit?" Nick said. "I need to take Mrs. Pearce to the emergency room."

The other man glanced at Billie's foot. "Yeah, sure." Billie didn't think the groom looked very happy about it. Nick reached for the boot, handing it to Billie, and, once again, lifted her in his arms. They exited the barn. "What's his problem?" she whispered, motioning to the stable groom. Nick shrugged. "He's having a bad day. Don't mind him." Most of the students had left, with the exception of a few who still lingered, talking among themselves, probably comparing notes on their first lesson. Nick looked at the cars remaining in the field beside the barn. "Which one is yours?" Billie fished in her pocket for her keys. "The green mini-van."

A mom-car, he thought. He could almost picture her with a van full of youngsters, laughing, their metal braces flashing in the sun. He was sure he'd find animal crackers and a box of Wet-Wipes in the back seat. A simple hospital run, he told himself. They'd be in and out in no time. Max wouldn't have time to do much damage. Maybe. In the meantime, Nick would take the first opportunity to convince Billie Pearce to give up polo. He had his hands full in more ways than one, and the last thing he needed in his life was a woman like Billie Pearce. Not even if he was a man who enjoyed a good challenge.
Janet Evanovich

No. 1 bestselling author Janet Evanovich is the recipient of the Crime Writers' Association's John Creasey Memorial, Last Laugh and Silver Dagger awards, as well as the Left Coast Crime's Lefty award, and is the two-time recipient of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association's Dilys award. She lives in New Hampshire, where she is at work on her next Stephanie Plum adventure.

Visit Janet Evanovich's Booktopia Author Page

ISBN: 9780312983291
ISBN-10: 0312983298
Series: Full
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 352
Published: 15th September 2003
Dimensions (cm): 17.78 x 10.8  x 2.54
Weight (kg): 0.18