From This Day Forward

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From This Day Forward

   

Little Annie Smith had just been the victim of an armed bank robbery and was in need of protection. The problem was, she wasn’t so little anymore. And Griffin Chase, self-proclaimed guardian, had just watched her throw her bra out the window of his car!

   “Are you okay?” Annie asked, once the task was completed.

   “I was just wondering about the, uh, this sudden need to divest yourself of, uh…” Griffin stuttered.

   She laughed, a delicious, free little giggle that would have reassured him if he’d ever imagined that quiet Annie Smith, the housekeeper’s daughter, could make such a sound.

   “Oh, Griffin,” she said. “I’m just tired of waiting.”

   Waiting for what?

   “From now on, my life is never going to be the same!”

   Cold prickles gathered force at the nape of Griffin’s neck. Though he’d never considered himself a superstitious man, he suddenly had the terrible feeling his life would never be the same, either….

   Dear Reader,

   When Patricia Kay was a child, she could be found hiding somewhere…reading. “Ever since I was old enough to realize someone wrote books and they didn’t just magically appear, I dreamed of writing,” she says. And this month Special Edition is proud to publish Patricia’s twenty-second novel, The Millionaire and the Mom, the next of the STOCKWELLS OF TEXAS series. She admits it isn’t always easy keeping her ideas and her writing fresh. What helps, she says, is “nonwriting” activities, such as singing in her church choir, swimming, taking long walks, going to the movies and traveling. “Staying well-rounded keeps me excited about writing,” she says.

   We have plenty of other fresh stories to offer this month. After finding herself in the midst of an armed robbery with a gun to her back in Christie Ridgway’s From This Day Forward, Annie Smith vows to chase her dreams…. In the next of A RANCHING FAMILY series by Victoria Pade, Kate McDermot returns from Vegas unexpectedly married and with a Cowboy’s Baby in her belly! And Sally Tyler Hayes’s Magic in a Jelly Jar is what young Luke Morgan hopes for by saving his teeth in a jelly jar…because he thinks that his dentist is the tooth fairy and can grant him one wish: a mother! Also, don’t miss the surprising twists in Her Mysterious Houseguest by Jane Toombs, and an exciting forbidden love story with Barbara Benedict’s Solution: Marriage.

   At Special Edition, fresh, innovative books are our passion. We hope you enjoy them all.

   Best,

   Karen Taylor Richman

   Senior Editor

From This Day Forward Christie Ridgway


   

   For my big brother, Matt.

    Maybe it’s not as tasty as my chocolate-chip cookies,

    but it is another way of letting you know I love you.

CHRISTIE RIDGWAY

   considered herself a writer from that first haiku (about the sound of footsteps in the rain) she wrote in second grade. She became a romance writer in the sixth grade, when she penned a series of love stories starring herself and the teen idol of the time. She turned published author after marrying the love of her life and having two sons. Now she lives in Southern California, where she writes, wifes and mothers. She prefers not to say which one comes first, but they are all vitally important to her. When she isn’t concocting a new story or concocting some way to sneak vegetables into fish sticks and apple-sauce, she makes time to volunteer in her boys’ school. Finally, for her sanity, she always finds a way to curl up with a good book.

   You may contact her at P.O. Box 3803, La Mesa, CA 91944.


Contents

   Chapter One

   Chapter Two

   Chapter Three

   Chapter Four

   Chapter Five

   Chapter Six

   Chapter Seven

   Chapter Eight

   Chapter Nine

   Chapter Ten

   Chapter Eleven

   Chapter Twelve

   Chapter Thirteen

   Chapter Fourteen

Chapter One

   Annie Smith shuffled a half step forward in the long Friday-morning teller-line at her branch of the Strawberry Bay Savings and Loan. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a harried-looking woman in a silk blouse and business suit speed around the corner from the entry doors, then skid to a halt just millimeters before her nose smacked into Annie’s half-turned shoulder.

   Annie had been the last in line. Now the harried woman was, and she didn’t look very happy about it.

   “Unh,” the woman grunted in annoyance. “I just hate waiting, don’t you?”

   Annie quickly murmured a polite noise and spun to face completely forward, unwilling to confess her one guilty secret.

   She didn’t mind waiting.

   Of course, not if it was a line for the ladies’ room or not if she was on her way somewhere important. But as the owner of a small, but growing catering business, and as a twenty-four-year-old—almost twenty-five—single woman, she was a ship under her own steam and her own schedule.

   And the fact was, this ship was pretty content to wait her turn. Annie liked watching the other people in line, dreaming up their occupations and lifestyles, amusing herself with their “Candid Camera”-worthy reactions to the frustrations of using the bank-supplied pens.

   Annie tightened her hold on her handful of checks ready for depositing. She’d signed her name and written her account number with her own trusty Bic.

   One customer concluded her business, and the line shuffled forward again. Annie shuffled, too, the soles of her discount-store sneakers squeaking against the parquet linoleum. As the satisfied customer strode toward her, Annie noted the silver-dollar-sized hearts dangling from the woman’s ears, and her red blouse, pants and high heels. Against the blouse, two more hearts, pink, nodded and bobbed, attached by little springs to a big pin that screamed Happy Valentine’s Day! in silver glitter.

   Wow. And the fourteenth was still a couple of days away.

   Bemused, Annie couldn’t help but turn her head as the holiday-happy lady passed her. Which is why she didn’t miss seeing the woman don the final touch to her ensemble—a red fuzzy headband that sported two upstanding and overstuffed furry hearts.

   It was also why Annie was the first to notice Ronald Reagan enter the bank.

   She blinked. She supposed he could be in Strawberry Bay, this was California after all, but shouldn’t he be accompanied by the Secret Service? And shouldn’t they be the ones carrying the gun?

   The gun.

   Just as that started sinking in, the man yelled from behind his mask—the fact that he was wearing one was just starting to sink into Annie’s consciousness, too. “Everybody get down!” he shouted. His big, black, scary-looking weapon glinted dully in the light.

   Annie discovered she couldn’t move. Some people in the line immediately dropped and others shrieked, but Annie was frozen and her voice was, too. Several around her appeared to be just as paralyzed as she.

   Then Ronnie aimed the gun at the ceiling and fired.

   Annie hit the floor before the first chunks of acoustic ceiling did.

   Her cheek pressed against cold linoleum smelling strongly of pine cleaner, Annie tried to make herself as flat as possible. That’s what people always did on police shows and “Gunsmoke” reruns. She didn’t know exactly why, though, because as the gunman moved her way, she realized that, flat or not, she made an easy target. Her fingernails clawed at the floor, instinctively trying to dig beneath it for cover.

   Somewhere close to Annie’s right, from her own spot of parquet, the woman who had been standing behind Annie in line moaned.

   The terrified sound sucked the last of the air from Annie’s lungs. The gunman’s shoes came nearer, and when the woman moaned again, Annie kept her eyes on the moving feet and inched her hand in the direction of the sound. The cold, thin fingers of her frightened fellow bank customer clenched hers.

   The feet paused.

   Annie’s heart stopped. The man stood right over her, the gun in his hand feeling like a hundred-pound weight on her back. Stomach roiling, Annie focused on the toes of those black shoes and waited for her life to pass before her eyes.

   It didn’t happen.

   Not until the feet moved on, and she heard the gunman shouting commands to the tellers. It was then, in the few minutes it took for them to follow his directions, that Annie’s life replayed in her mind.

   Her father’s defection when she was four. The move her mother and she made from a tiny apartment to a cottage on the Chase estate when her mother took the position of housekeeper. Public school, cooking school, her mother’s retirement. The Chases kind offer to rent Annie the cottage and, finally, the day she opened her own catering business.

   Like a winding snake of dominoes, she saw her life as static images that fell, one upon another, leading her to this moment in the Strawberry Bay Savings and Loan. Too swiftly she was dumped back in the present, her cheek against the gritty floor that smelled of pine, her toes lumps of ice in her cheesy sneakers and the underwire of her cheap bra jabbing into her side.

   If they had to take her to the hospital, she thought dizzily, her underwear would be clean, but it would be frayed.

   Whoa. No hospital thoughts, Annie ordered herself. Think macaroni and cheese. Peanut butter and jelly. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Sometimes merely thinking of comfort food brought comfort.

   The hand holding hers squeezed, and Annie turned her head to look into the eyes of the woman lying on the floor beside her. She didn’t look harried anymore, not with her pale face and too-wide eyes. She looked afraid.

   “I should have had Pop-Tarts instead of Special K this morning.” Annie read the words on the woman’s lips more than heard them, she was whispering that quietly.

   Despite her still-churning stomach, Annie’s mouth twitched in amusement. Apparently food had come to the other woman’s mind, too. But more, she knew immediately what the woman meant. Suddenly, life was too precious to spend worrying about the circumference of your thighs.

   Annie mouthed back to her. “No more store-brand ice milk for me. I’m gonna go for the good stuff.”

   From the front of the bank, another gunshot. More of the ceiling fell. “Hurry up!” the gunman shouted.

   Annie glanced at her new friend. The other woman’s pupils were even more dilated. Annie tightened her grip on the icy fingers. “Let’s think about something else,” she whispered. “I’m planning a shopping spree at a fancy lingerie store.”

   When the woman didn’t seem to hear her, Annie tried again, thinking of her crummy tennies. “And shoes. I’m going to buy some nice shoes.”

   That caught her partner’s interest. Her eyes focused. “Shoes,” she breathed.

   Annie squeezed her fingers again. “At full price.”

   The woman stared at Annie’s face and held onto her hand like it was a lifeline. “You’re right,” she said. “I have things to do.”

   And Annie knew what the other woman meant by that too. Not “things to do” in the sense of a list of chores or errands. But “things to do” in the sense of things to accomplish or experience.

   “Yes,” she whispered. “Think about what you have to do.”

   The other woman spoke again. “I didn’t kiss my husband goodbye this morning and it’s almost Valentine’s Day.” The anguish on her face twisted Annie’s heart.

   She hadn’t kissed anyone goodbye that morning either. Annie didn’t have anyone to kiss goodbye.

   When her mother had retired, she’d moved from the cottage they’d shared to an apartment closer to town. Now Annie lived alone and a romantic life was something she realized she’d been waiting patiently for, too.

   It seemed a shame—no, more than that—a crime to have been on the earth this long and never loved.

   Sirens sounded in the distance. The gunman shouted again. His black shoes moved past Annie once more, this time in such a rush that the hem of his pants fluttered. A loud clank signalled he’d left the bank through the heavy front doors.

   Someone started crying. A man muttered, “Thank God, thank God, thank God.” The customers remained glued to the floor though, probably waiting for the police to arrive and tell them it was safe to move.

   Annie shut her eyes, feeling her heart lurch as it restarted, feeling her blood begin moving through empty veins. Then emotion bubbled, bringing her even more alive, and whether it was relief or anger, or some potent combination of the two, the feeling made Annie surge to her feet. Her gaze snagged on a nearby hunk of fallen acoustical tile and then moved upward, to a yawning, jagged hole in the ceiling.

   That’s a bullet hole, she thought to herself. The man had a real gun that could really and truly have killed her. She might have died wearing discount clothing and dreaming of gourmet ice cream. And with regrets. Regrets that she’d never loved a man. Her stomach roiled again.

   Annie extended her hand to help up her new friend, though the others around them remained waiting, still belly-down on the floor. Annie shook her head. She wasn’t going to do any more waiting, not if she could help it. She had things to do and she was no longer going to postpone them.

   Life was too darned short.

   

   Griffin Chase, corporate attorney and vice-president of Chase Electronics, squeezed the receiver of the phone, its plastic edges biting hard into his palm. “What? She what?”

   He’d left some papers at the family home this morning, forcing him to rush away from his office at Chase Electronics to retrieve them. With his parents and the housekeeping staff on vacation, he’d naturally picked up the ringing phone, only to find himself in a strange conversation with a detective from the Strawberry Bay Police Department.

   Now the man patiently went through the facts all over again. Earlier that morning, an armed gunman had robbed the Savings and Loan branch at Kettering and Pine. The customers in the bank at the time—witnesses—were in transport to the police department to give their statements. And Annie Smith, little Annie Smith, the daughter of their former housekeeper, was one of those witnesses.

   “She gave the officer in charge this number,” Detective Morton said. “We’re calling families to come in. It might reassure the witnesses to see a friendly face after their ordeal.”

   Ordeal. Griffin squeezed the phone again, remembering shy, quiet little Annie Smith. He wasn’t even quite sure he knew how old she was now.

   “I’ve been working out of the country for two years and just returned to town earlier this week,” Griffin said, still trying to take it all in. “Did you say a robbery like this one has happened before?” Good God. Just a few months before, Strawberry Bay had been rattled by earthquakes. Now this.

   The other man’s voice turned professionally cautious. “I can’t say for sure that it’s the same robber, but the M.O. is the same. Anyway, sir—”

   “I’ll be there shortly.” Griffin was already digging for his car keys.

   “Or, since you’re not related to her, Mr. Chase, I can have her call you if she truly needs assistance,” the detective suggested.

   That image of a slight, big-eyed Annie sprang into his head once more. “I’ll be there shortly,” he said again. Then he tossed the phone back onto its receiver, dashed down the stairs and headed for his car.

   When a paddy wagon pulled up to the sprawling, one-story police complex, Griffin was already inside the building, propped against the lobby wall and staring through its smoked-glass windows. As an officer opened the back doors of the vehicle, Griffin pushed away from the wall and strolled toward the lobby entrance, his hands shoved in his pockets.

   His eyes narrowed as people slowly descended from the vehicle. Would he recognize her? She had to be twenty-something now, because he remembered his mother saying she’d gone to cooking school and was running a catering business from the housekeeper’s cottage on the estate.

   But he hadn’t caught a glimpse of her since returning a few days ago. Even though he was back home, the cooperative deals he’d brokered between Chase Electronics and several Pacific Rim countries during the past two years continued to consume his time and attention.

   A young woman with wavy, blondish-brown hair and big brown eyes jumped from the paddy wagon. He glimpsed a small, triangular-shaped face and his belly clenched. Even as she turned to help someone else out, he was certain.

   Annie. He recognized her—no, it was more than that. He knew her.

   Without thinking, Griffin found himself pushing through the glass doors and hurrying down the cement steps. An officer held out a hand. “You’ll have to stay away from the witnesses, sir.”

   Griffin didn’t take his gaze off Annie. Yes, it had to be Annie. She wore slim-fitting black pants topped with a hip-length blouse that buttoned down the side and was printed with brightly colored kitchen utensils. As she peered into the paddy wagon, she gave herself a hug as if she was cold.

   “I’m her attorney,” he said shortly, nodding in her direction.

   At the sound of his words, she stilled. “Griffin?” She turned, and her silky brows rose over her pretty brown eyes.

   He was surprised she had recognized his voice. Hers was throaty and soft, a woman’s voice. He didn’t associate it with the bashful little girl, clinging to her mother’s hand, who had arrived at the estate all those years ago.

   He saw her swallow and color rushed up her cheeks. “Wh-what are you doing here?” She swallowed again. “I don’t need an attorney.”

   He moved forward and touched her shoulder. Though it strangely reassured him that beneath the starchy fabric of her blouse she felt solid and warm, he’d never noticed how delicate a woman’s shoulder could be. Little Annie Smith’s shoulder. “You gave the police the house number. They called.”

   “Oh.” Her face flushed deeper. “I guess I said it automatically. My mother…”

   “Worked there for eighteen years. It would be natural in a time of stress to rattle it off.”

   Lord. Little Annie Smith had actually been a witness to an armed bank robbery. Griffin’s belly clenched again. He thought maybe she swayed a bit, so he wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

   There. That probably made her feel better. Her blondish hair tickled his chin. “Let’s get you inside.”

   Griffin had known Annie Smith since she was four years old and he was eleven. She’d come to live on his parents’ estate when her mother became the family housekeeper. Though he’d never paid much attention to her, he remembered her following him around a time or two. She’d been much younger, and a girl, so he’d mostly ignored her.

   But now a breath of a light, sweet scent and the sensation of her warm body against his arm and his side made it quite clear that Annie Smith wasn’t a little girl anymore. Griffin frowned. He shouldn’t be noticing something like that about Annie. She wasn’t his type.

   After two years out of the country, two years of virtually non-stop traveling and dealmaking to position the family company for even greater success in the next decade, he was glad to be home in California. There was still more work to be done—as always, he looked forward to it—but he planned to carve out a little time to play or he was going to be a very dull boy, indeed.

   He’d already made a few get-reacquainted phone calls to the kind of women he did well with. Sophisticated women who knew what Griffin’s commitment to the company meant he could offer—occasional opportunities for conversation, companionship and sex when the attraction warranted it. Sophisticated women who knew what he didn’t offer—marriage.

   So he had no business seeing Annie Smith—whose big, trusting Bambi eyes and soft mouth told him exactly what kind of hearth-and-husband woman she was—as a…well, woman. He inhaled another breath of that subtle, sweet scent of hers and almost groaned. It was vanilla. She smelled of sugar and vanilla. No wonder she made his mouth water.

   But she’s the hearth-and-husband type, he reminded himself. Don’t forget that. For a man who worked intensely and had sex casually, it was better to think of her as that quiet, bashful kid.

   They were steered toward the desk of the police officer who had phoned him. A woman in a no-nonsense business suit lingered nearby and introduced herself as Agent Blain of the FBI. But she gestured toward the man seated behind the desk. “The officer will be asking the questions, Ms. Smith. You tell Detective Morton everything you remember and then we’ll get you out of here.”

   Annie seemed to remember her morning in clear detail. She’d catered the mayor’s monthly staff breakfast, then headed for the Savings and Loan.

   Griffin studied her face while she talked. If he’d been asked to describe her from memory, he would have said “average.” Average height, average build, average blondish-brown hair of average length. A sweet-looking kid. She used to wear her hair in two pigtails tied with pink yarn.

   He remembered the pink yarn and pigtails.

   She didn’t wear her hair like that anymore, though. Now the wavy, chin-length stuff was tucked behind her ears.

   And Annie had cheekbones. High cheekbones that angled to a small chin that matched her small pert nose. Her mouth was small, too, but full and soft-looking and it was the color of that pink yarn he suddenly remembered so very well.

   Griffin shifted restlessly against the vinyl seat of his chair. He shouldn’t be looking at Annie’s mouth. Most certainly not at a time like this.

   To punctuate the thought, he suddenly picked up on her first hesitation in answering the questions about the robbery. Griffin straightened and paid more attention as the detective repeated himself. “Was there anything about the man you recognized, Annie?”

   Her brow furrowed and her soft, pink mouth turned down. “I don’t…think so.” She frowned deeper. “Something…” Then she shook her head and her voice was more decisive. “No. I didn’t recognize him. At first it was just that mask, and then I only saw his shoes. That’s all I could see, really.”

   “Could you describe the shoes?” the detective asked.

   “Black men’s shoes that laced.” She looked around the room, stuffed with desks and chairs and other officers interviewing other witnesses. “Like those.” Her forefinger indicated a pair on a man one desk away, and then pointed again. “And those…and those.”

   She peered down at Griffin’s cordovan loafers, then shrugged and looked back at the detective. “Sorry.”

   “That’s all right, Annie. You did great.” With a smile, Detective Morton reached across the desk and patted her hand.

   Griffin frowned. Damn. The detective’s smile was gleaming brighter than the shine of the fluorescent light off his bald spot.

   Then Annie smiled back, and a dimple showed up, just at the left corner of her mouth. He’d never known Annie had a dimple. Or never noticed.

   Frowning again, he leaned over and grabbed her wrist to tug her hand away from the detective’s. Then Griffin stood, pulling her up with him. “Can we go now?” he said abruptly.

   Detective Morton rose to his feet, too, his gaze still on Annie. Griffin felt another spurt of annoyance. The other man was obviously sucking in his gut. It had to be unethical for a cop to hit on a witness, but despite that, it was more than professional interest written all over the detective’s face.

   “One last thing, Annie,” Morton said.

   Her eyebrows rose. “Yes?”

   “I could put you in touch with a victim’s support group,” he said. “You might want to talk with other people about your experience. People trained to help you, and people who have gone through something similar.”

   Instead of answering the detective, Annie jerked her head toward Griffin.

   “Sorry,” he said hastily, suddenly aware he’d painfully tightened his grip on her wrist. Gritting his teeth, he forced his fingers to relax.

   “Thank you,” Annie said to the detective, flashing that dimple at him again. “But I’m going to be just fine. I am fine.”

   Now Griffin could breathe. Just for a second there, with the notion of Annie being a victim, he’d felt…a tad concerned.

   But she’d said it herself. She was fine.

   Which was why he didn’t feel the need to talk much as they left the station beyond, “I’ll give you a ride to your car.” When they reached his Mercedes, however, he did open the passenger door and politely help her into the leather bucket seat.

   Before he could shut the door, though, she touched his arm. “Would you mind putting the top down?”

   He cocked an eyebrow. While February in coastal California was mild—the temperature was probably near seventy today—women usually liked the convertible’s top up and the air-conditioning on, if necessary. The hair issue, he always figured.

   But apparently Annie was different. “I want to feel the wind on my face,” she said.

   With a shrug, he complied with her request, and in a couple of minutes they were turning out of the police-station parking lot. The sun on their faces and the wind in their hair, they started down a fairly busy two-lane road.

   Griffin sucked in a huge breath of fresh air and relaxed. Hell, but the sun felt good. With only one hand on the wheel, he rubbed his neck, trying to ease the tension slowly unknotting.

   He slid a glance at Annie. Her head was against the back of the seat, her eyes were closed, and that pink mouth wore a little smile.

   She’d said she was fine. She looked fine.

   His muscles loosened even more. Now that she was safely in his car, he didn’t mind admitting that he’d been somewhat bothered by the idea of little Annie Smith being the witness to a bank robbery. Then once he’d seen her again, seen how she’d grown up into a young woman who was still quiet and composed but also so pretty and so delicate, well, he’d downright hated the idea of Annie being shaken up.

   “Hey, I’m glad you’re okay,” he said.

   “Oh, I am.”

   Griffin glanced over at her again. She had her eyes open now, and her cheeks were pink, from either the sun or the wind or both. In each of her hands she held one of the small white sneakers she’d been wearing.

   Funny.

   It wasn’t so funny when she cocked back her arms and tossed them over the side of the car.

   At first, Griffin’s lips couldn’t move, but his gaze darted to the rearview mirror to see the shoes tumbling along the side of the road behind them. Then his wits returned, and he shifted his foot to the brake pedal, abruptly slowing the car. “Annie—”

   The vehicle behind them honked at their sudden change in speed, then pulled around to pass. “Annie—”

   The vehicle behind that one honked, too, and the driver flipped Griffin an angry gesture as he passed them as well. With the shoes now several hundred feet behind and the traffic starting to pile up, Griffin gritted his teeth and moved his foot back to the accelerator. “Damn it, Annie,” he said. “You threw your shoes out of the car.”

   “So sue me,” she answered.

   Griffin stared. Maybe the bank robber had kidnapped his nice, quiet Annie Smith—so composed and so delicate, he’d just thought—and put this suddenly flip woman in her stead. “That’s littering,” he felt compelled to point out. “It’s illegal.”

   “I think Detective Morton would let me off, don’t you?”

   Griffin’s eyebrows rose. That was all he had time for, because then Annie grabbed his arm and pointed toward the gourmet-ice-cream shop up ahead. “Stop there.”

   “Are you okay?” he asked.

   “I told you, I’m fine.” She squeezed his arm again. “But I want ice cream. Please. I want ice cream now.”

   There was no denying that the opposite sex had interested Griffin all his life. He’d first kissed a girl at eleven, he’d first dated at thirteen and women had only become more fascinating from there. Twenty years had passed since that novice kiss, and he’d been paying attention through every one of them. He knew not to mess around when a woman spoke in that decisive tone of voice.

   He braked to a stop in front of the small shop with a wide front window that proclaimed in gilded letters Strawberry Bay’s Supreme Ice Cream. Annie hopped out in her stocking feet. “Do you want something?” she asked.

   He shook his head, baffled.

   Her dimple winked at him as she unfastened a couple of buttons at her neck, and then she crossed her arms in front of her to grasp the hem of her long blouse. With a quick movement, she whipped the garment over her head and tossed it down on her seat, revealing the black V-neck T-shirt she wore beneath it. Then she twirled on her white socks and dashed into the shop.

   All the speedy movement left Griffin’s head spinning.

   It couldn’t be that Annie’s neat little body made him dizzy. Certainly he’d noticed that women had breasts before. Lots of them had trim waists and hips. Still, it was disconcerting to find that sometime when he was away, or maybe before that, when he wasn’t looking, Annie had developed the kind of pert, up-thrusting breasts and gently curving hips that were hard to look away from.

   He ran a hand through his hair and forced his gaze off the door of the shop. What did it matter what Annie looked like? Annie was Annie. Annie the housekeeper’s daughter. Little girl Annie.

   Annie all grown-up.

   He pushed that thought away, and it wasn’t really so hard to think of her as a kid again when she was suddenly back in her seat, an enormous cone in her hand. “Double double chocolate fudge,” she said, with all the relish of a child for a special treat.

   When her tongue snaked out of her womanly mouth for a taste though, he hastily looked away and started the car. “No time for breakfast this morning?” he asked lightly.

   She swallowed. “I wanted ice cream.”

   “Fine.” Then he hesitated. She’d used that word too, she’d said she was “fine,” but something about the shoes and the sudden urge for sweets made him just the slightest bit edgy again. “Are you sure you’re all right, Annie?”

   “Mm.”

   He pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the road. Her mumble sounded positive, but it didn’t do much for his edgy mood. He wanted to be assured that her experience this morning hadn’t affected her. Because, strangely enough, he had a terrible premonition that that might affect him.

   Griffin cleared his throat. “Sure?”

   “Mm.” She made that same sound again.

   He glanced over, and instantly figured out why she wasn’t giving him a straight answer. She was already pretty well occupied juggling that cone with one hand while the other snaked up the front of her T-shirt. When that hand quickly reappeared, she transferred the cone to it and then the now-free hand disappeared, worming its way into her short sleeve and then…down.

   Griffin hoped like hell that the road remained clear before him, because he couldn’t have looked away to save his life. He’d heard about this—among men it was almost a locker-room joke—but as he himself had never been witness to it before, he’d always considered it an urban—er, gender?—legend.

   But now he knew it to be true. Because, after Annie took an emergency lick of her melting cone and after she executed one or two little shimmies, out the sleeve of her T-shirt came her hand, and in her hand was…her bra.

   Which, of course, she immediately tossed over the side of the Mercedes.

   As he watched in the rearview mirror the piece of white cotton depart, fluttering in the breeze, Griffin tried not to believe that his peace of mind wasn’t getting away that easily, too.

   Despite the warm sun, he felt the distinct beginnings of a chill. “Uh—” He had to clear his throat to get her name out. “Annie?”

   “Are you okay?” she asked. “Is something the matter?”

   She was stealing his lines. Worse, she was stealing his sense of well-being. “I’m just wondering about the, uh, this sudden need to divest yourself of, uh…”

   She laughed, a delicious, free little giggle that would have reassured him if he’d ever imagined that quiet Annie-Smith-the-housekeeper’s-daughter could make such a sound. “Oh, Griffin,” she said.

   She patted his arm encouragingly. He caught sight of that unexpected little dimple again. He refused to let his gaze fall any lower than her mouth.

   “I’m just tired of waiting,” she said.

   Waiting for what? That chill grew stronger, cold prickles gathering force at the nape of his neck.

   Her honey-colored hair swirling around her cheeks, she threw her free arm in the air, wiggling her fingers in the wind. “From now on, my life is never going to be the same!”

   With the power of a waterfall, the cold prickles poured down Griffin’s back. Though he’d never before considered himself a superstitious man, he suddenly had the terrible feeling that his life would never be the same either.

Chapter Two

   Annie pulled her face out of her pillow and opened one eye. Bright sunshine flooded her bedroom and she quickly squeezed the eye shut against the piercing light and moaned.

   She was hungover, she thought, as that peek of daylight echoed painfully in her brain. Not from anything alcoholic, but from adrenaline, she supposed, or stress. She’d run on nerves gone wild yesterday, cleaning closets, counters, floors and then cooking until well past midnight. After that, she’d fallen into bed, too tired to even dream of the robbery.

   The robbery.

   Both eyes popped open and she breathed through another startling shock of sunlight. Yesterday she’d actually witnessed an armed man rob a bank.

   As she pulled the bedcovers closer around her, the event replayed in her mind, even to the churning of her stomach and the sharp tang of pine cleaner in her nose.

   Think of something else, she commanded herself. Anything other than the surprise and the fear. Think of the ride in the paddy wagon. Even think of the almost surreal experience of being questioned by the police and the FBI.

   The safe, protective police station. The nice detective behind the desk and Griffin Chase acting lawyerly—no, acting like a sleek but threatening guard dog, really—by her side.

   Annie closed her eyes again and sank deeper into the mattress, wishing it could swallow her up. Because, after the police had let her leave, what had she done? Given poor Griffin a heart attack by tossing items of clothing out of his car. She pulled the sheet over her hot face.

   She’d thrown her bra, for mercy’s sake.

   Wallowing in embarrassment, she recalled the uneasiness filling his blue eyes. The man hadn’t seen her in two years, and while to her he seemed as elegant and cool as always—his brown hair with its dark gold streaks shorter than before, but his body’s lean strength and latent sense of power just the same—to him she’d likely appeared at least dotty if not downright crazed.

   What must he think of her?

   Probably nothing, a little voice inside her answered reasonably. In the past, he’d never noticed her, let alone thought about her. Now, outside of thinking he was obligated to do a favor for the daughter of a family retainer, he probably didn’t think anything about her either.

   “Right,” Annie said aloud, flipping the sheet back down and then kicking the covers entirely away. “Griffin’s likely already put me and anything I did out of his mind.”

   Just as she was going to put the robbery out of her mind.

   And Griffin.

   Determined to get on with her day, she strode into her small bathroom. Its faint anti-bacterial smell testified to her housekeeping mania the day before, and it wasn’t until she’d soaped, shampooed and toweled off that she comprehended just how far that mania had taken her.

   She had cleaned out her underwear drawer yesterday, too. Working with the zeal of the newly converted, she’d ferreted out each ragged or ill-fitting bra, each pair of panties with sagging elastic or in a color so unappealing that they had overflowed the sale bins at the local discount store.

   Which meant that Annie had thrown away all of it. Yes. Every stitch of undergarment she owned was now lying in her garbage can, in a ragged tangle of ugly colors and stretched-out straps.

   And it wasn’t as if she could rescue a piece of it for even a short shopping exhibition, Annie thought in dismay, wrapped in a towel and staring at the contents of her garbage. Because after the underwear drawer she’d moved on to cleaning out her freezer. That ragged tangle was now drenched with two cartons of melted neapolitan two-percent ice milk.

   With nothing left to do but get something on and get to the mall ASAP, Annie hurriedly dressed in a knee-length denim skirt and a dark blue T-shirt. There was no reason to imagine she couldn’t make it to the store and back without detection or embarrassment, she told herself firmly. Hey, and the good news was she wouldn’t have panty lines!

   Still, she was slightly disconcerted by the weird sensation of air passing over her bare…uh…well, there, as she slung her purse over her shoulder and made a beeline for the door. She pulled it open, stepped out and—

   Bumped into Griffin’s chest.

   “Good morning.” His voice rumbled against the tip of her nose.

   Annie leaped back, causing air to whirl up her skirt which in turn made her acutely conscious of all she wasn’t wearing. “Uh, hi.” She tried forgetting that delicious breath of his understated, expensive scent in her lungs as she pasted the insides of her knees together and threw a casual arm across her chest. “Um, I was just on my way out.”

   Oh, great, Annie, she thought, groaning inwardly. Yesterday weird, today rude.

   He looked down at her, that same expression she’d labeled before as uneasiness again in his eyes. “So I didn’t imagine it, did I? You really did grow up.”

   “H-huh?” Annie swallowed and pressed her forearm closer against her unbound breasts. “I mean, um, well, yes. I suppose I did.”

   She had been grown-up two years ago as well, but Griffin had looked right through her or over her or around her since the day she’d arrived at the Chase estate. Not in a superior, I’m-too-good-for-you way, but in a you’re-a-little-girl-and-I-smell-a-potential-pest way.

   She hadn’t blamed him, though it hadn’t stopped her from following him around, either.

   He just hadn’t noticed.

   And while she remembered wanting him to notice her with an almost-humiliating intensity since she was four years old, today, in her underwearless state, she wished she could simply disappear before his eyes.

   But he was noticing something, darn it, as he slowly shook his head. “When did you stop wearing…”

   How could he tell? Annie’s heart froze and she squeezed her knees even more tightly together as she watched his forefingers make puzzling circles beside his ears.

   “…pigtails you call them, right?” He smiled.

   Oh my. She’d forgotten Griffin’s smile. It tilted up one corner of his mouth and both corners of his blue, blue eyes. Over the years she’d seen him smile that smile a hundred times—at her mother when finagling more cookies, at one of the groundsmen for washing and waxing his car, at every girl he’d ever brought home.

   He’d just never smiled that smile at her. Not the housekeeper’s daughter.

   “Annie?”

   “Wow,” Annie murmured, then caught herself, blinking away her smile-induced stupor. “Oh. Yes. What?”

   “Annie?” he said again, probably wondering if there was a padded room nearby. “Are you all right?”

   She desperately cast back to the conversation. Pigtails. “Pigtails. You’re exactly right. That’s what they’re called.” She lifted both hands to imitate those funny ear circles he’d made.

   And then remembered her bralessness and immediately clapped both arms across her chest, as if she was hugging herself.

   Griffin’s expression switched from doubt to concern. “Are you cold? Why don’t we go inside?”

   We? We? But even with that warning, Annie did nothing as he stepped closer except step back, until they were both inside the small front room of her cottage and he’d shut the door behind him.

   Now what was she supposed to do with him? It didn’t seem quite fitting for the wealthy man-about-town to be standing in her modest cottage.

   “Well, um, would you like to sit down?” she felt forced to ask.

   “Sure.” He dropped onto the flowered cushions of her white wicker love seat, settling against its back and extending his long legs.

   Oh, terrific. Not only did his position not make him seem any less out-of-place, it made it clear that he planned to stay awhile. She bit her bottom lip. “And some coffee? Would you like some coffee?” If he was going to stick around even for a few minutes she needed some alone time in her comforting kitchen to catch her breath and find her composure.

   “Sure,” he said again.

   Though trying to keep her legs together made her walk a sort of awkward scurry, Annie hurried off, wondering if she could stitch temporary undergarments from paper towels and the cook’s twine she used for her famous parmesan chicken rollups. She was biting her lip and contemplating the paper towels when Griffin suddenly appeared in the kitchen.

   “Can I help?” he asked.

   The largest room of the cottage suddenly shrank and Annie spun toward her coffeemaker. “Oh, no. This will just take a minute.”

   He didn’t get the hint, instead pulling up one of her kitchen stools to the countertop nearby. “So you became a cook?”

   She sneaked a peek at him, for the first time absorbing the fact that he was wearing a comfortable-looking, almost baggy pair of khakis and a white T-shirt that had the luxurious sheen of silk. The soft leather slip-ons on his feet probably cost more than all the shoes in her closet put together.

   “Well, I’d like to think I’ve been a cook for a long time,” she answered, sounding less nervous than she felt. “I became a caterer, thanks to your parents. When the new housekeeper didn’t want to live on the estate, they rented me the cottage at a rate that made starting my own business possible.”

   Whew. It was much easier talking to him when she could half turn away and keep busy with the coffee. “How about you?” she asked. “Anything new about you in the last two years?”

   Good. The question sounded automatic and impersonal. No way could Griffin guess that she’d trolled for every factoid she could get from his parents and his brother during the last twenty-four months. Old habits died hard, she’d rationalized then.

   But now she blew all her fake disinterest by adding, “I thought you weren’t supposed to be back until June tenth.”

   He didn’t seem to detect her slip. “Believe me, I’m more than happy that I made it back to California early.”

   Annie sprinkled some cinnamon over the freshly ground coffee beans and swung the filter basket into place then pressed the button marked Brew. “Why? Were you that ready to come home?” She suppressed a little teen-ish rush of delight that he hadn’t found some exotic lover impossible to leave behind.

   “That too, I suppose, and I was gratified to wrap up my business deals early. But who would have come to your rescue yesterday if I hadn’t been back?”

   Annie felt her face heat. “I should have thanked you for that right away, though I didn’t really need rescuing.”

   “Oh, I don’t know. If you’d added flagging down a ride to eating ice cream and divesting yourself of clothing, I can imagine all sorts of emergencies that might have come up.” There was a hint of amusement in his voice.

   Okay, so maybe her actions deserved Griffin’s teasing—something she would have lopped off her right ear for when she was seventeen—but she was really starting to regret yesterday’s vows. It was one thing for a woman to kick off her shoes and splurge on double double chocolate fudge. It was entirely another to be left braless and pantyless while having a conversation about disrobing with the one man said woman had mooned over for almost her entire life.

   “I shouldn’t razz you though, Annie,” Griffin continued. “To be honest, I’m mad as hell that you had to go through that experience at all.”

   Annie concentrated on sliding away the coffee carafe so that the dark, fragrant stream of liquid flowed into a thick mug instead. “I’m trying not to think of it too much myself.” An image of the gun flashed in her mind, and she suppressed a shiver while coffee trickled into a second mug.

   With two mugs full and the carafe replaced, Annie finally had to face Griffin. Carrying a mug in each hand, she walked the few steps toward him, watching that she didn’t spill instead of watching him. She put one coffee against the countertop and slid it his way. “Maybe I’ll just pretend yesterday didn’t happen.”

   “I don’t think that will work, Annie,” Griffin said softly.

   She looked up, meeting his gaze. “No?”

   “I can’t forget.”

   Mercy. She’d never been this close to him, and with only two feet of countertop between them, his eyes mesmerized her. Their blue was faceted with clear crystal, and his eyelashes, like his hair, were edged in gold. “You can’t forget what?” she said, trying to break the spell.

   “You said you were tired of waiting.”

   “Oh.”

   “I just can’t help wondering what for.”

   “Oh,” she said again. “Well…” She’d been tired of waiting for shoe sales. Tired of waiting for the someday when she deserved nice lingerie. But most of all, she’d been tired of waiting for love to enter her life. For a man. “That kind of talk was just a reaction. That’s all. I think.”

   “You think?”

   Annie squeezed her mug of coffee between her palms. In the light of a new day, didn’t it seem more sensible—safer—to return to old, familiar paths? She shrugged. “I’m sure. And I’m over the robbery already.”

   His eyebrows rose. “Then I suppose you won’t mind seeing this.” He watched her carefully, though, as he pulled something from his back pocket. A newspaper, creased three times, that he unfolded and then put in her free hand.

   The Strawberry Bay Bulletin. Annie dropped her gaze to the front-page photo and then dropped her mug, not even hearing it crash and break into fragments against the tile floor. Instead, as she looked at the photo of the bank lobby with the massive, jagged holes in its ceiling, Annie was hearing the sound of the robbery. It was the sound of the gunfire and the well of terrified silence and that voice almost sobbing “Thank God, thank God, thank God,” all rolled into one ball of nearly unbearable noise.

   She closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears and then suddenly someone was holding her. Griffin. He was warm and he was big and she couldn’t believe she was gluing herself against him, but there it was.

   It was his luxurious, sandalwood-and-something-else scent that finally dispelled the remembered stench of gunfire and it was his voice, “I’m sorry, Annie. So sorry, Annie,” that finally banished the echoes of yesterday’s sounds.

   His big hand was rubbing her back and she finally found the nerve to look up at him. She tried a smile, but it quickly wobbled off. “I guess I’m not as over it as I thought.”

   “I shouldn’t have sprung the picture on you like that.” His hand smoothed down her back again.

   She should move away, but her legs wouldn’t seem to obey her mind’s commands. And her mind! It wasn’t behaving either. It seemed to have forgotten this was Griffin Chase, vice-president of Chase Electronics, the biggest employer in town, who she was snuggled up against. It seemed to have forgotten this was Griffin Chase, the unattainable prince in every one of her adolescent Cinderella dreams.

   Instead, it registered heat and size and male and something inside her—something warm and liquid—seemed to be rising and falling all at once.

   “Forgive me?” he asked. That one side of his mouth kicked up when he smiled, a bit rueful, and he started to run his hand a third time down her back.

   A hand that abruptly halted midway. Midway, where a bra strap would usually be.

   They both froze. Annie was suddenly, acutely aware not only of the lack of a bra strap, but also that her bare breasts were against his hard chest, with only two thin layers between them. At the thought, her nipples, nestled so closely to Griffin, tightened.

   Oh, mercy. She jumped away from him, the soles of her shoes crunching against pieces of ceramic mug. Her face felt flushed and she crossed her arms over herself as she looked down at the mess on the floor. “I…” She couldn’t think of anything to say.

   “It’s okay,” he said. Maybe his voice was a bit hoarse, maybe not. “Let me take care of it.”

   Take care of what? But Annie’s brain wasn’t firing with all the necessary cylinders even as he strode to the broom propped in one corner of the room and then strode back to start sweeping up the mess at her feet. She didn’t prevent him from cleaning, but merely stepped clear of the debris as she giddily recalled the hardness of his chest and the heavy warmth of his hand and how comforting and…and…um, pleasing it had been to feel Griffin against her.

   She didn’t stop him from opening the cabinet under the sink, either. He had to toss the contents of the dustpan, after all, into the oversized white garbage pail.

   The garbage pail that, she belatedly remembered, was almost overflowing with ice-cream-covered undergarments.

   “Oh!” Annie said, dashing forward. She’d even gingerly pawed through the mess with tongs at one point, desperate for something wearable, so that several bras hung drunkenly over the edge to reveal a pile of ice-milk-sodden, but clearly recognizable panties. “I don’t…I’m not…”

   Griffin looked at her, his brows raised. “You don’t?” He looked back at the contents of the can. “You’re not?” He looked at her again. “I can…see that. I just don’t understand why.”

   Why? How could she possibly tell him about what had gone through her mind yesterday when she was lying on the bank’s floor? Annie chewed on her lower lip, feeling completely foolish about those silly vows. Then someone, a sainted someone in her book, rapped impatiently on her front door. Without a second’s hesitation, Annie grabbed at the opportunity to escape what now seemed horribly embarrassing and completely unexplainable.

   “Company!” she said brightly, pasting on a cheery smile. Then she turned and ran to see who it was, as if the man she’d once adored from afar hadn’t just discovered her naughty, though totally innocent, secret.

   On the other side of Annie’s front door stood two dear, familiar figures—her mother, Natalie Smith, and Annie’s best friend, Elena O’Brien. “Mom, Elena. Come in, come in.”

   With a surge of relief, Annie ushered them inside. They were just the people to remind her of the real Annie Smith. The ordinarily patient and ordinarily shy Annie Smith. She wasn’t the unfamiliar creature who had tossed her clothes away yesterday any more than she was the half-naked woman who’d found herself in the arms of Griffin Chase this morning.

   Her mother and Elena would help her remember that.

   Annie’s mom looked at Annie closely, an unfamiliar frown on her pretty face. “Honey? Are you all right? You look…different.”

   “No, I don’t,” Annie denied quickly. I’m the same. Nothing has changed. “I told you yesterday, Mom, I’m fine. A-okay. Peachy-keen. Hunky-dory.”

   “You left out tutti-frutti.” Elena grinned, her sassy smile bright against the golden color of her skin. Her Mexican mother and Irish father accounted for her straight black hair and blue eyes.

   “Still,” Elena continued, “your mom wasn’t going to stop worrying until I drove her over here. I told her nothing could shake you—” Her eyes widened as she caught sight of something over Annie’s shoulder. “Whoa. Maybe I was wrong.”

   Annie swung around slowly to find Griffin coming into the room. It’s not that she’d forgotten him, exactly, but she hadn’t quite yet figured out how to explain his presence or how to respond to him. Particularly now that she knew he knew that what she wore beneath her skirt and T-shirt was exactly zippo.

   But he took the uncomfortable situation out of her hands by walking directly to Annie’s mom and lifting her off her feet in a grizzly-worthy bear hug.

   “Griffin!” her mom cried. When he set her down she lifted up on her tiptoes to plant a kiss on his cheek. “You’re home.”

   “And completely devastated to discover that in the two years I was gone you had retired.” He smiled down at her. “Any chance I could entice you back? At least just to fill the cookie jar?”

   Her mother laughed, and under the cover of their continuing conversation, Elena sidled over to Annie. “Is there something you want to tell me?”

   Annie rolled her eyes. “I told you yesterday. He gave me a ride from the police station.”

   Elena’s brows rose. “What about last night? Any additional, uh…rides?”

   Annie lightly slapped her friend’s arm. As if a man like him would look at her twice in that way! “Of course not. Griffin merely came over to check on me this morning. It was a neighborly thing to do.”

   Elena’s eyebrows rose even higher. “Neighborly?” she asked, her voice skeptical.

   Before she could scold her friend again, Griffin turned away from Annie’s mom to look at the two younger women. “And this is?” He was asking for an introduction to Elena, but his gaze was only for Annie.

   Suddenly, beneath her clothes, her skin prickled. She was naked. He knew it, she knew it, it was a secret only the two of them shared, and it only made her feel that much more exposed.

   Annie swallowed as more tickles of awareness rose on her bare flesh. “Griffin, this is—this is my friend Elena O’Brien.” She hoped her voice didn’t sound as squeaky to them as it did to herself. “Elena, may I introduce you to Griffin Chase.”

   There was a funny little smile on Elena’s face as she stuck out her hand to shake Griffin’s. “Brother of Logan, I presume?”

   That caught Griffin’s attention. His eyes narrowed. “You know my little brother?”

   Elena gave a casual wave of her fingers. “We go way back. Be sure to give him my best.”

   Annie slid a look at Elena. There was bad blood between Elena and Griffin’s “little” brother—now twenty-nine years old and as big as Griffin himself—over a senior prom date gone awry, though Elena wouldn’t speak of it beyond making nasty cracks about Logan whenever they happened to catch a glimpse of him.

   Griffin glanced at Annie, then back at Elena. “Your best? I’ll be sure to do that.”

   Annie’s friend smiled once more but it wasn’t her usual cheerful one. “Thank you. Be sure to tell him Elena says hello. That’s Elena with an ‘e’ as in every day I thank my lucky stars he left me standing there.”

   Nodding, Griffin gave her one more half-puzzled, half-amused look, then switched his attention to Annie. “I’ll be on my way now,” he said. “I brought piles of work home. Will you be okay?”

   Those crystal-faceted blue eyes of his made it impossible for her to look away, and even more impossible to forget the sensation of being enclosed by his arms. “I wish people would stop asking me that,” she whispered. It didn’t seem necessary to talk any louder, not when she could have sworn there were only the two of them in the room, maybe in the whole world.

   He shrugged, then his hand lifted and he brushed his fingertips across her temple to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. His fingers were cool and his touch gentle. Goose bumps skittered across Annie’s neck and then southward, and she found herself once again crossing her arms over her chest.

   His gaze flicked down toward her breasts, back up to her eyes. “We’re just concerned,” he said softly. “You’ve been through a stressful experience.”

   “My mom and Elena are here.” Somewhere. She remembered how relieved she’d been to see them, because they would remind her of the real, the patient, the so-very-ordinary Annie Smith. The Annie Smith who Griffin Chase had never looked at twice, though she’d followed him around since she was four years old. “So you see, I don’t need a keeper or a…a…brother.”

   He blinked. “A brother.”

   Annie felt herself flushing. “Or whatever.”

   Griffin smiled, and Annie thought he suddenly appeared more relaxed.

   “You’re right,” he said. “I’m certain you don’t need a keeper, or a brother, or a ‘whatever.”’ Cool fingertips brushed her temple again. “Goodbye Annie.”

   Then he was gone.

   With the click of the door behind him, her mother and Elena started chattering, as if to fill up the hole his leaving created. Their talk went on around her: Annie’s impending twenty-fifth birthday and how to celebrate it; her big catering job for the elder Chases’ fortieth wedding anniversary; the most recent phone call Annie’s aunt had made to Annie’s mom. Instead of joining in, Annie wandered to the window.

   Over the lace café curtains, she could see Griffin stride away. As she watched, she thought of his crystal-blue eyes and how they made her skin tingle and how that tingle made her feel alive and even…yes…impatient. Then he disappeared into the thick stand of oaks that separated her cottage from the Chase’s house.

   There was a drive that connected the two residences as well, but the shortest foot route was the way he’d chosen, through the oaks. It would take him past a trellised gazebo, then up the steps to the veranda that encircled the big house.

   Formally named the Montgomery Mansion, the Chase’s massive three-story Victorian with its leaded windows and gingerbread fretwork was listed on the national historic register. In modern times, an adjacent carriage house had been replaced by a fleet-worthy garage embellished with similar Victorian styling. The old carriage house had been moved to the other side of the oaks then renovated as the housekeeper’s residence. It was Annie’s now.

   Griffin, master-of-the-manor Griffin, lived in the mansion while Annie, silly, tingling Annie lived in the cottage. A distance not easily breached, but she’d been watching through windows across it all her life.

   She whirled away from the window and tuned in to her mother and Elena.

   “…my sister keeps insisting I should move to San Diego and share her condominium. It’s right on the beach. Some place called the Silver Strand.”

   Elena flopped onto the love seat, her straight black hair flying up then settling back into place against her jaw. “The Silver Strand. It sounds heavenly. Why don’t you take her up on it, Natalie?”

   Annie’s mom laughed. “Oh, I couldn’t. I’m staying in Strawberry Bay.”

   Annie studied her mother. Though she’d retired when the arthritis in her hands made her housekeeping duties difficult, she remained slim and pretty. She didn’t look much older than the woman whose husband had walked out on her so long ago. Yet Natalie Smith had never dated another man or even appeared interested in one.

   What was her mother waiting for? Annie mused.

   Waiting. That was Annie, too, of course, and she might as well be preparing to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday instead of her twenty-fifth for all the living she’d done. That truth had bothered her yesterday. She’d vowed to find love instead of waiting for it.

   But her common sense had reasserted itself this morning. Yes, common sense…or cold feet?

   Through the open window a breeze blew in and the air swept up Annie’s skirt. The goose bumps rising on her bare flesh caused her to remember the tingles that Griffin’s touch made burst across her skin.

   Certainly he couldn’t be the right man for her. He was merely the one she’d spun fantasies about, the prince a lonely little girl had put on a pedestal. But wouldn’t it be wonderful to find another who made her feel that way? The breeze brushed by her again. Yet what if waiting patiently meant waiting forever?

   “Elena,” she said urgently.

   Her mouth open in mid-sentence, Elena’s head swiveled toward Annie. “Huh?”

   “Come shopping with me.” Though Elena was the sole support of her teenage sister and worked two jobs, she always managed to look chic.

   Elena blinked. “Huh? What?”

   Annie headed for her purse. “I need your help. New clothes. From the inside out. And from the department store, not the discount store.”

   She didn’t miss the gleam in Elena’s eyes. “It’s a miracle!”

   No, said a little voice inside Annie. It’s a man.

   She didn’t know who quite yet, but she wanted one.

   Despite her cowardly attempt at denial this morning, after yesterday’s experience she was certain she wanted love. And she was no longer content to wait for it to find her.

Chapter Three

   “Goodbye, Mother. Tell Dad I’ll be waiting for his call in my office tomorrow.” Shaking his head, Griffin hung up the phone, wondering if his mother would get the chance to pass along the message.

   Though Laura and Jonathon Chase were vacationing in Hawaii, the way they spent their days seemed just as separate as when they were in California. He’d seen it with his own eyes on his way home from his stay abroad. He’d spent a few days at their house on the Big Island where he’d observed his father dedicating long hours to the golf course in the same intense manner he dedicated himself as CEO of Chase Electronics when he was in Strawberry Bay.

   Griffin didn’t know what his mother usually did with those hours alone in paradise, but today she was worrying about Annie. Did she seem bothered by the bank robbery? Did Griffin think she would be recovered enough to cater their upcoming fortieth anniversary party?

   Griffin had nobly bitten back a question of his own. Why the hell his mother wanted to celebrate forty years of glacial matrimony was beyond him. Instead, he’d merely assured her that Annie appeared perfectly able to fulfill her obligations.

   Now he just had to ensure that he didn’t take another trek to her cottage to verify that assertion for himself.

   Because he already knew she was fine. Naked, but fine.

   No. Of course she wasn’t naked. She’d been wearing clothes. Just nothing underneath them. And why that was and why it would so strongly capture his imagination was something better left alone.

   With that resolve, Griffin opened a drawer and pulled out his address book. He would find something to do and someone—a woman—to do it with. After working at home all day yesterday and then spending a few hours in the office this morning, he should enjoy Sunday afternoon, after all. But then his gaze snagged on the calendar.

   Not just any Sunday, damn it. It was the fourteenth. February fourteenth. A totally lethal day for any entrenched-for-eternity bachelor like himself. Taking a woman out on Valentine’s Day was a statement, easily misread as a commitment for at least the rest of the year. He shuddered, quickly slapping shut his address book. If he wanted to reclaim his single-man, casual-with-women lifestyle—that his workaholic ways suited him for—he couldn’t take the risk of a Valentine’s Day date.

   Which is why he was aimlessly wandering around downstairs and considering heading back to the office when his younger brother bounded through the front door. “Hey, bro,” Logan said. “Have you seen my tennis racket?”

   Griffin shoved his hands in the pockets of his slacks, slid them out. He looked over his shoulder, picked up his feet, then finally pulled at the front of his shirt to peer down at his navel. “No. I haven’t seen your tennis racket.”

   “Ha. Ha. Very funny.” Logan said. He jogged toward the staircase that led to his old room. “I can’t remember if I moved it to the condo or left it here.”

   Just bored enough to exert the energy it took to follow, Griffin started climbing the first flight of stairs after him. “Tennis with Cynthia, I presume?”

   Logan froze on the landing, then looked back down at Griffin, a horrified expression on his face. “That’s not funny either. This is Valentine’s Day, have you forgotten?”

   “Well, uh, no.” But Cynthia had been his brother’s girlfriend for ten years. From what his mother hinted at, an engagement was just a nudge or two away. “You’re doing something with her later?”

   Logan blinked, then spoke slowly, as if Griffin had lost some brain cells. “Val…en…tine’s…Day.”

   “I know.”

   “Well then you know that Valentine’s Day is lethal to any firmly entrenched bachelor. You told me that years ago. It’s not something I’ve forgotten, Griffin.”

   Griffin felt a spurt of guilt. Was it right for him to have passed along to Logan his own romantic pessimism? “I know, Logan, but—”

   “Gotcha.” His brother grinned. “The truth is Cynthia herself declined to celebrate with me today. She’s up for some local commercial tomorrow and she wants to spend all day in a cucumber—or was it carrot?—mask. But we did exchange appropriately mushy e-mails this morning.”

   Mushy e-mails? Griffin decided not to touch that with a ten-foot pole. “So who are you playing tennis with, then?”

   “Tom Sullivan,” Logan said. “He’s the cop who talked Dad into sponsoring the mentor program at the company.”

   As their father’s right hand, it was actually Logan who had convinced the old man to employ at-risk, though high-achieving, high-school students as interns at Chase Electronics. Some of those former students were already out of college and very successful in their own careers, thanks to the partnership between Chase Electronics and the Strawberry Bay Police Department.

   Thinking of the police led Griffin naturally back to recent events. “Would your buddy Tom know anything about the investigation into the bank robbery?” Griffin had told Logan about it himself, when he’d finally returned to the office on Friday.

   Logan shrugged. “I can ask. How’s Annie doing, by the way?”

   Griffin frowned. “How the hell should I know?” he asked in irritation, even though he’d wondered the same thing himself all morning, causing the report he’d been drafting to take twice as long.

   Logan’s eyebrows rose. “Hey, it was just a question.” He glanced at his watch. “If I can find that racket, maybe I have time to check on—”

   “Don’t bother.” For some reason, Griffin didn’t want his Valentine’s Day-free and not-completely-taken brother to visit Annie. “I’m going by there myself soon.”

   Thinking back on it, he remembered Logan tolerating Annie pretty well when they were kids. So Griffin didn’t think it was fair for his brother to make a February fourteenth visit. She just might get the wrong idea.

   “Whatever you say, pal.” Logan gave him one strange, thoughtful look, then headed up the stairs.

   Griffin headed down them. He’d told Logan that he’d check on Annie.

   At least it was something to do.

   It took just a few minutes to cut through the oaks and climb up Annie’s steps. When he raised his hand to knock, the sound of loud, yet mild cursing floated through the closed front door. “Darn and darn and shoot, shoot, shoot!” Something clattered against the floor.

   Eyebrows drawing together, Griffin knocked.

   There was a moment of silence—an almost embarrassed silence, he imagined—and then the noise of odd, uneven footsteps. Clop click clop click clop click. Annie opened the door.

   Griffin shoved his hands in his pockets, struck by an unbidden, unwelcome need to touch.

   Honey-haired Annie was wearing pink. A soft, talcum-powder pink. A long-sleeved top criss-crossed her breasts and tied at the side of her waist like something a ballet dancer would wear. It revealed a V of pale skin at her neck and a very modest swell of cleavage. The top was tight enough for Griffin to make out the thin outline of her bra.

   Yesterday vividly came back to him. The pang in his chest when she’d broken down, the fragile warmth of her in his arms, his hand stroking her back and the sudden realization that his palm didn’t bump over a bra strap. And then her realization of his realization. Her nipples had tightened into hard little pearls that had branded his skin.

   Just the memory shot twin arrows of heat from his chest to his groin. Griffin set his jaw and ignored the sensation.

   Forget all that. Think about today. She’s wearing underclothes today.

   But the discovery didn’t make her any less appealing, not when she was in a matching short, swingy skirt that revealed a length of slender legs. The clop click clop sound of her footsteps was explained by the fact that the strap of one cute, high-heeled shoe was buckled, while the strap of the other shoe hung free.

   He smiled at her, he couldn’t help himself. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” he said, before thinking better of it.

   Her cheeks flushed, pinker than her outfit. “Well, thanks. Same to you.”

   “I’m just checking in.”

   “Oh,” she said, making a little face.

   Another memory of the day before surfaced. Her big brown eyes wide, Annie had told him she didn’t need a keeper or a brother or a “whatever.”

   Because she had a boyfriend?

   He was annoyed that the thought hadn’t occurred to him before. Just because there hadn’t been a man in her cottage yesterday morning didn’t mean she didn’t have a man in her life. And Annie struck him as the type of woman who would be very particular about her bed partners, so if there was a man in her life, he wouldn’t be a casual kind of man.

   And she was all dressed up—in pink even—for Valentine’s Day.

   He tried peering over her shoulder to see evidence of standard February fourteenth fare, like flowers or candy. “Having a good day?”

   She made that funny little face again. “Okay, I guess. I’m having trouble with my new shoe.”

   “Can I help?” Without waiting for an answer or an invitation, he moved forward. Inside the cottage he would be able to observe more boyfriend evidence. Maybe even be there when the guy came to pick her up. As her post-robbery rescuer it was certainly natural, almost imperative even, that he perform a thorough inspection of the man, Griffin decided.

   “Okay.” Blinking rapidly, Annie moved back, click clop click.

   Shutting her door behind him, Griffin looked around. It appeared much the same as the day before. No flowers. No boxes of candy, no striped boxes from lingerie stores. Only Annie herself, looking like a perfectly sweet, perfectly tempting Valentine in all that pink.

   And one imperfect shoe. She took it off and held it up. “I can’t get the strap through the buckle.”

   With all the confidence of a man faced with a simple problem, he took the light piece of leather in his hand and made his way to the love seat. “I’m sure I can fix this in no time flat.”

   Hah. The delicate shoe with its even more delicate strap made him feel like each hand was the size and shape of a baseball mitt.

   “I need a tool,” he finally said, frowning at the stubborn strap. As slender as the damn thing was, he just couldn’t feed it through the gold-toned buckle either. But with a tool a man was never at a loss.

   “What kind of tool?”

   He looked up. Annie had a tiny, concerned crease between her light-brown brows that he wanted to erase with the pad of his thumb. He wanted to touch her there, or that place on her cheek where a dimple would wink if she smiled, or at that very smooth, very sweet spot on her temple where he’d touched her yesterday, where he could see her pulse beating today.

   Her mouth moved. He thought of touching her there, too. His thumb against that puffy surface, his forefinger painting the deep dip of her upper lip, his own mouth lowering—

   Her lips moved again, and he heard the words she said this time. “What tool?” she prompted.

   Griffin shook himself. God. Valentine’s Day must be messing with his head. “Needle-nose pliers?”

   She nodded and left the room, giving Griffin time to take a few deep, get-his-brain-back-in-the-right-hemisphere breaths. When she returned with the requested tool, he focused purely on the problem at hand and had the strap threaded through the buckle in moments.

   Without taking his gaze off the shoe, he set it on the floor. “Slip your foot in and I’ll buckle it for you, then pull the strap through the other side.”

   After a hesitation, she obeyed. Encased in a sheer stocking and with each toenail painted a matching talcum pink, the foot slowly lifted. As she pointed it through the wide circle made by the strap, her standing leg wobbled. Griffin quickly knelt on the floor and she placed her hand on his shoulder for balance.

   He went to work on fastening the shoe, his hands back to baseball mitts. Crouched next to her, he felt the warmth of her sleek leg against his cheek and the scent of her filled his lungs. It was cinnamon, he thought. Spicy yet still sweet. He felt a tremor run through her, but he wasn’t sure if she was off-balance again or if his nearness affected her the way her nearness affected him.

   Little Annie Smith, he reminded himself again.

   Annie Smith all grown up, that evil little voice inside him answered.

   He cleared his throat and used all his powers of concentration to ignore Annie in order to pull the strap through the second half of the buckle with the help of the needle-nose pliers. “Whew.”

   He dropped the tool on the floor and straightened just enough to take a seat on the cushions of her love seat. “Mission accomplished.”

   Annie didn’t lift her eyes off the newly fastened shoe. He thought perhaps she was breathing a little fast, but since his breaths were coming even faster, he couldn’t be sure. “Is it okay?” he forced himself to ask.

   God forbid the shoe was too loose or too tight and she sent him to work on it once more. If he got that close to her legs again, he couldn’t promise he wouldn’t run his tongue along the pretty curve of her calf.

   “I’m just wondering…” Annie started.

   “Wondering?”

   “If I’m going to have to wear this shoe to bed tonight.”

   To bed. A woman with a boyfriend would count on him to get it off her, wouldn’t she? “You don’t have a man to take care of that for you?”

   Her head came up, and her brown eyes widened. “Oh! Oh, no.” She blushed. “Well, maybe. But…not yet.”

   Griffin frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

   Her blush deepened. “I’m kind of…shy. A watcher. So I usually hate Valentine’s Day,” she confessed.

   He smiled. “We’re soulmates then.” It was on a Valentine’s Day that he’d finally accepted the lesson of his parents’ marriage. It was the day he’d finally accepted his own true nature.

   Annie shook her head. “Somehow I doubt that, Griffin. But I’m determined to get over how I feel about the day.” Her shoulders squared. “Did you know I’m almost twenty-five years old?”

   Jail bait would be safer for him, but he’d figured she was somewhere in that range. “Congratulations.”

   “No congratulations are in order. That’s the problem.” She frowned, her soft, pink mouth pouting a little. “I’ve been waiting, you see. But today, tonight, I’m seeking.”

   A small rush of alarm ran through him. “Seeking?”

   “As a matter of fact, I’m beginning to think that the fact it’s Valentine’s Day is a good omen.”

   Valentine’s Day and good omens didn’t go together in his book, but he just said, “Exactly what are you doing tonight?”

   “I’m going to a party.” Her voice held a note of pride. “I, Annie Smith, on Valentine’s Day, am going to a party as a seeker of…of love.”

   Griffin stared at her. A seeker of love? The idea struck him as horrifying. Annie Smith seeking love. Terrifying. Heading out on a day like today, full of romantic hope, could spell disaster for her. Who knew what kind of men were out there, ready to take advantage of such optimism?

   “Do you have a date to escort you during this, uh, seeking?” he asked hoarsely.

   She shook her head and then her chin came up a notch. “I’m going alone.”

   Griffin closed his eyes. “Oh no, you’re not.” Maybe this was payback for all those times he’d ignored her when she was a little girl. He vaguely remembered she’d lost her doll once and he’d refused to help her look for it. Whatever the reason, he couldn’t send her out in the world alone.

   Seeking.

   God.

   On Valentine’s Day. She could get hurt.

   Griffin sighed, stood up. “Somebody’s gotta be around to unbuckle your shoe.”

   

   Annie had sputtered some half-hearted protests, but Griffin guessed that she was really grateful she didn’t have to walk into the Valentine’s Day party alone. Not long after he’d fastened her shoe, they found themselves outside the home of their hosts, a recently married couple who were friends of Annie’s.

   There was some sort of holdup at the door, and they stood behind a line of six or eight others who appeared equally puzzled by the delay. Annie introduced him to the couple in front of them and he was pleased to discover they weren’t complete strangers. The male half was the brother of an old friend, while the man’s date was the daughter of a golfing buddy of Griffin’s father.

   He’d forgotten how small Strawberry Bay really was. By tomorrow noon, it would be all over town that Griffin had escorted Annie to the party. If he wasn’t careful, by tomorrow evening the gossips would concoct some sort of grand romance for the two of them.

   Griffin subtly shifted farther away from her and put on his best big-brother expression. Maybe it was too late to question the wisdom of appointing himself her Valentine’s Day protector, but he could make it clear to the partygoers that there was nothing the least bit passionate between them.

   Then after tonight, he’d let her go.

   As they shuffled closer to the front door, a round of infectious laughter had both Griffin and Annie shrugging and exchanging puzzled smiles. Not until they were at the front of the line did they understand what the giggles were all about.

   Annie introduced Griffin to their smiling host, Jeff, and then the man explained what was happening. “It’s a party game,” he said, gesturing at the video camera set up on a tripod in the entry. “Everyone who attends as a couple is kissing on tape. We’ll play the whole thing later and award prizes.”

   Jeff wiggled his eyebrows and his grin widened. “You know, best, worst, coldest, hottest.”

   Uh-oh, Griffin thought. He looked over at Annie.

   She wasn’t looking at him. “We don’t want to play,” she said quickly. Still without meeting his eyes, she took hold of Griffin’s forearm and tried tugging him through the entry.

   Jeff blocked their way, his good-natured grin still in place. “C’mon Annie. Be a good sport. It’s not fun unless everybody plays.”

   She frowned, shaking her head.

   But Jeff wouldn’t give up. He elbowed Griffin in the ribs. “Griffin. You tell her. You gotta play. And you wanta play, right?”

   Oh, hell. What was a man supposed to say? He knew Annie wasn’t keen on kissing him for the camera. But they were holding up the line behind them by refusing and people were gathering closer to see what was happening. So with all these partygoers looking on he was supposed to disagree with Jeff and say that he didn’t want to kiss Annie?

   Both the rock and the hard place pinched like hell.

   “What’s the big deal about one kiss?” he murmured to Annie. He took her hand in his—her fingers were almost insultingly cold—and drew her beside the wall Jeff indicated.

   While the other man fiddled with the video camera, Annie looked up at Griffin and spoke through her teeth. “I don’t want to do this,” she said. “I feel…silly.”

   With his forefinger he notched her chin an inch higher. “Better silly than a party-pooper.”

   “Go ahead guys!”

   At Jeff’s command, Griffin obediently bent. He focused on the soft pink of Annie’s lips and tried gauging just what kind of kiss it would have to be. Short enough to maintain their dignity, but long enough to prove her desirability, he thought. Annie wouldn’t thank him for making it appear he wanted to get it over with.

   As he closed in, she let out an almost panicked rush of breath. It puffed mintily against his mouth and mingled with that cinnamony scent of hers. He cupped her shoulders with his hands and felt her stiffen. “Relax,” he whispered, then brushed his lips against hers.

   She tasted sweet, but she kept her lips primmed and stiff as he brushed by them softly again. Griffin gave a mental frown. At this rate they’d win the prize for best boring kiss.

   Damn it. Male pride made him want to avoid looking as if he’d lost his touch with women. And didn’t Annie claim she’d come here as a seeker of love? Well, no one of the opposite sex would be seeking either one of them back if they didn’t demonstrate their ability to provide a halfway decent kiss.

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