Authors: Debbi Rawlins
“I can see this is going to be a terrific week.” Cassie gave him a wry look. “What's really scary is that you're starting to look good.”
“Keep it up and all this sweet talk is going to go to my head. Come on.” He grabbed her hand. Miraculously she didn't balk, and he skipped the bar and guided them out the sliding glass doors into the garden.
Cassie set down her sherry on one of the patio tables and they took the stone path flanked by fragrant rose bushes with yellow and pink blooms.
“Mary Jane will probably follow us.” Cassie led the way, which didn't bother Dalton one bit.
“Let her,” he said, enjoying the gentle sway of Cas
sie's hips, the way her jeans snuggly cupped her rounded backside.
“We'll have to be careful.”
“That goes without saying, but if we find a place out in the open, we'll be able to see anyone coming.”
“I think we might be headed in the direction of the pool. There'll be a good place to sit there. It's wide-open.”
She gave him a quick smile over her shoulder that got him wondering about her, about the way she responded to even the slightest praise about her work. Someone had apparently done a number on her in the self-esteem department. Which was ridiculous. He liked to tease her but could see she was pretty and bright and gutsy. A lot of women would have refused to help him with this case. Not Cassie. She'd jumped in with both feet.
They wound through a maze of white daisies and red geraniums and ended up at the large gazebo near the pool's diving board. Constructed of intricate white lattice and stocked with a bar, the gazebo could comfortably seat six people.
Cassie, walking a foot ahead of him, passed it up and headed for a chaise longue. He'd have done the same but he doubted for the same reason.
“Don't you think it would have been more comfortable in the gazebo?” he asked as they both settled in their respective chairs.
“Probably, and I doubt it's bugged, but I figure it's
safer to be out here.” She stretched out on the chaise, her tummy nice and flat, her breasts round and high.
He felt a tug at his groin. “Yeah, good thinking.”
There was that pleased smile again. “I'm starting to worry about this place.”
“You think it's an orgy waiting to happen.”
“If Simone had her way. And Zelda's husband. Can you believe that?”
“Because he has the good taste to find you attractive?”
She blinked, and then looked away as her cheeks turned pink. “He was the one chasing Simone when we arrived earlier.”
“Yes. Didn't you recognize him?”
“I wasn't exactly looking at
Cassie sighed. “I guess not.”
“Not that Simone's anything to look at, but I was startled.”
She glanced heavenward. “Not that Simone's anything to look at? Please.”
“She's okay.” He shrugged. “Just not my type.”
Cassie looked as if she wanted to say something more but kept her mouth shut.
“So what do you think?” he asked finally.
“This whole situation. These couples all fit the bill. One or both of the spouses have money. The women
are all wearing rocks on their fingers. Simone's diamond earrings probably cost more than my car.”
“I noticed. What do you think the story is with Kathy and Tom? They're the oddest pair of the bunch.”
“My guess is that Daddy owns the big ranch worth millions and Tom was one of the hands. He loves her but isn't comfortable having a rich wife. He wants to be the one to take care of her. Thus, their problems.”
Cassie wrinkled her nose. “That's so old-fashioned.”
“A man wanting to be able to take care of his wife?”
“What difference does it make where the money comes from?”
Dalton shook his head. Some women just didn't get it. Like Lindaâ¦his ex thought marriage should be all fun and games. She didn't understand a man's need to prove his worth, to know he could provide for his family no matter what. “It makes a big difference, trust me.”
“Didn't you pay attention to your history lessons?”
Cassie laughed, which really annoyed him. “I can't wait to hear this explanation.”
“Let's get back to the present problem.” Dalton was in no mood to spar with any of her feminist notions. “I'm going to need some time to snoop around. Tonight might be good since we know Bask isn't here.”
She studied him curiously, her gaze probing and ir
ritating. “You feel strongly about a man being head of the household, don't you?”
“It's not about that. Look, don't get off track. Tonight after dinner, see if you can get Mary Jane to show you more of the house. Tell her you used to be an interior decorator, or that you're interested in nineteenth-century houses, whatever.”
“And what will you be doing?”
“I'll go with you, just to get more of a feel for the place, but then I'll excuse myself and you keep her busy. I have a feeling the others will be too busy to notice.”
“Yeah, either smashed or playing footsies.”
He smiled. It was kind of cute when she sounded more Southern.
He shrugged. “I agree.”
“What's that grin for?”
“Have you lived in Texas all your life?”
She nodded tentatively, looking as if she thought it was a trick question.
“I like your accent.”
“Oh.” She moistened her lips. “I don't hear it, of course.” After a brief hesitation, she said, “We still have to talk about tonight.”
“We just did.”
“Tonight.” He had no idea what she was talking about.
She made a growling sound. “Don't play dumb. We haven't decided on sleeping arrangements.”
“Ah, that tonight.”
“You think this is so funny.” Cassie adjusted the neckline of her T-shirt. As if that did any good. Her breasts strained against the thin stretchy fabric, driving him crazy. “It's obvious what kind of women you hang around. But I'm not like that.”
“Glad it's obvious to somebody.” Sighing, he locked his hands behind his head and stared at the sky. Staring at her did him no good. “It's been so long since I've âhung around' I can't remember.”
She gave a startled laugh. “Right.”
“I wouldn't lie about a thing like that, honey. Too painful.” After a long silence, he glanced at her.
She stared at him with a puzzled frown. “Why?”
It was his turn to laugh.
She blinked, and looked down, her cheeks filling with color. “Sorry. None of my business.”
“Hey, I'm flattered you find my state of celibacy so hard to believe.” He grinned when she rolled her eyes. “I work a lot. I don't have much time to meet women.”
She pursed her lips, appearing to consider the information. “So marriage is out of the question?”
“Been there, done that. It doesn't work.”
“You've been married?” Her eyes got huge.
“Yeah, for almost two years. That so hard to believe, too?”
“It's hard to picture you as a married man,” she admitted. “Do you have any children?”
He shook his head. “Let's figure out tonight before Mary Jane sends the dogs after us.”
Cassie nodded, but he could see she had a whole load of questions. Shit! He didn't want to talk about his personal life, especially not about his failed marriage.
“Frankly,” he said. “I think it's ridiculous to worry about sleeping in the same bed.”
She folded her arms across her chest and glared.
“Unless you think you'd have trouble keeping your hands off me.”
“Yeah, that's it.”
He smiled. “If it's any comfort, I don't mix business with pleasure.” Her eyes narrowed in suspicion, and he raised his hands, palms out in supplication. “I'm telling you, I don't drink on the job, only enough for show, and I don't screw around. It's a distraction I can't afford.”
“Oh, well, okay.”
Damn, she looked a little disappointed. Dalton shifted in his seat, his blood starting to migrate south. Maybe he should point out that after the week was over they could boink like bunnies. Nah, being that blatant would piss her off.
“So, that's settled. Nobody has to take the floor.”
She chewed her lower lip with misgiving. “We'll at least try it tonight.”
“Fair enough. I'll try to remember to at least keep my boxers on.”
Her jaw slackened, her lips parting in indignation.
He laughed. “Kidding.”
A noise came from the shrubbery behind them. Cassie jerked upright. Dalton swung his gaze around. The
leaves rattled as if someone or something moved the branches.
Dalton started to get up to investigate when a short Oriental man with a brown weathered face and toothy grin stepped out of the bushes. He stomped debris off his boots at the edge of the pool deck and then gave them a slight bow before he walked toward the path leading to the house.
Cassie pushed off the chaise. “Who the heck is that?”
“I have no idea.” Dalton stood, as well, as did the hair at the back of his neck. “I'd like to know how much he heard.”
HERE YOU ARE
Mary Jane put her hands on her hips. “I was about to go look for you two.”
Cassie forced a smile. “We just went for a walk.”
“Private time is good. We encourage it.” Mary Jane had changed into a short sleeveless white dress that showed off her tanned legs and arms and plenty of cleavage. “But it is dinnertime and we like to be punctual so the cook can go home.”
Cassie caught Dalton's eye just as she was about to inform the other woman that this wasn't kindergarten, and ask her if she knew how to buy the right size bra. The way she busted out all over the place made Cassie cringe.
Dalton didn't seem to mind, although Cassie would give him an A for effort. He tried so hard to keep his gaze above Mary Jane's shoulders that he looked like a robot.
“So there's a chef here, huh?” Dalton gave the other woman one of those heart-stopping smiles. “You look like a woman of many talents. I thought maybe you did the cooking, too.”
Mary Jane giggled and linked an arm with Dalton and started toward the dining room. Obviously she
wasn't immune to the smile, either, which really ticked Cassie off. It shouldn't, but it did. After all, he was supposed to be acting like her husband.
“If I had to cook, you'd be eating nothing but yogurt and cottage cheese.” Mary Jane glanced over her shoulder as if Cassie were an afterthought. “Shall we go? Everyone else is seated for dinner.”
“I'm right behind you.” Cassie didn't even try to fake a smile. She stared after the two of them, wanting very much to kick Mary Jane's perfect little butt. Wasn't the twit supposed to be helping bring couples together?
And Dalton. He was worse. Great husband, he made.
“So tell me, this cook, does he or she make all the meals?” Dalton asked.
“Yes, Tasha is Russian and doesn't speak much English, but she's a terrific cook. And pastries. You'll love all of her pastries.”
Cassie came up alongside them in time to see Mary Jane pat Dalton's stomach.
“Ooh. You can eat all you want and not have to worry one bit.” She gave Cassie a smile. “We have a treadmill in the exercise room you can use.”
Cassie blinked in astonishment. Had she just been insulted? Mary Jane looked so innocent, yetâ¦
The startled amusement on Dalton's face cinched it. He turned his head, and she knew it was to keep from laughing. Cassie pried his arm away from Mary Jane. “Excuse me, but I'd like to speak to my husband. Alone.”
“But dinnerâ¦” She gestured to the open dining room. Everyone was already seated and looking at them.
“Tough” teetered on Cassie's tongue. “Go ahead. We'll be there in a moment.”
“Oh.” Mary Jane cast a helpless glance at the others. “Okay, but I'm going to let Tasha start serving.”
“Good idea.” Cassie took the arm she'd absconded and steered Dalton down the hall a few yards.
“I'm flattered that you're jealous but what the hell are you doing? I was trying to find out about the guy outside.”
“He's the gardener. I saw him carrying rakes and a leaf blower to an old pickup.”
“I kind of figured, but that doesn't mean we're in the clear.”
“I didn't think we were, but I bet he doesn't speak much if any English. The cook is Russian? Please. How many people speak Japanese or Russian around here?” She glanced over her shoulder to make sure no one had approached. “Sounds like they're covering their tracks both ways. The staff doesn't understand and the guests can't talk to them.”
Dalton stared at her, the corners of his mouth beginning to lift. Warmth flooded her. The look of approval he gave her made her knees weaker than his sexy smile did.
“Nice deduction, Cassie.”
She lifted a shoulder in a nonchalant shrug even though her heart pounded like crazy. “I'll ask Mary
Jane some gardening questions and get around to finding out how much English the gardener knows.”
He held her wrist when she started to leave. “What did you bring me out here for? Was that it?”
“Iâyes, I think so. I don't really remember.”
“You know that when I pay attention to Mary Jane it's all acting.”
“Why would I care that you pay attention to her? Or if you were seriously interested?”
“We have to appear vulnerable so that Robert approaches you.”
“This conversation is totally unnecessary.” She tried to twist out of his hold.
“Wait. The thing is, it would be better if you didn't act jealous.”
She gasped. “I'm not acting jealous.”
His eyebrows rose. “It's not an act?”
“You know what I mean.”
He smiled. “If it looks like you don't care who I sniff around, Bask will think you're easy pickings.”
“Sniff around? What a charming way to put it.”
A sheepish look briefly crossed his face. “It wouldn't hurt if you did a little flirting yourself.”
“These men are all married.”
“I said flirt, not jump their bones.”
“You really need to work on your vocabulary.”
“Hey, you two.” Mary Jane's voice startled them. She'd poked her head out of the dining room. “We're waiting dinner on you.”
“Sorry,” Cassie muttered and exchanged one last
look with Dalton before leading the way back down the hall.
“Have you two been arguing?” Mary Jane asked as they all sat down at the table.
Mary Jane gestured Dalton to the empty seat beside her, so Cassie took the only other available chair next to Harvey. The way he grinned at her made her skin crawl.
“Nope.” Dalton smiled. “I'm a lover not a fighter.”
Cassie rolled her gaze heavenward.
Mary Jane giggled. “Good. You all are supposed to be reconnecting, not arguing.”
“I'm ready to do some connecting,” Harvey said to no one in particular, and Cassie felt something hit her leg.
Pretty sure it was Harvey's hand, she shifted her knees in the other direction.
“Yes, Harvey, we all know about you,” Simone said in a bored voice. “I need another martini.”
“Tasha will be bringing in the soup at any moment. Ah, here she is.”
A short, stocky dark-haired woman with thick nylons and black shoes that resembled combat boots came through the swinging doors carrying a large ceramic tureen. Her gruff expression didn't waver as she set the soup on the buffet against the wall.
“I don't want any soup. I want a martini. Grant?” Simone gave her husband an expectant look.
“We're going to have wine in a minute, Simone, just hold on.”
She stiffened, her gaze throwing daggers at her husband. “I don't want to have to ask you again.”
Silence saturated the room while the couple dueled with their eyes. Finally, Grant muttered a curse and got up from the table and headed for the parlor.
Tasha paid no attention. She ladled what looked like a borsht into bowls and set one before each person.
“Simone.” Mary Jane's voice was surprisingly stern.
“You're not a rookie at this. You know better. This is not the way to start off the week.”
“Shut up, Mary Jane. Easy for you to say. It's obvious you already have designs on him.” She glanced at Dalton and then drained the last few drops of her martini.
Mary Jane turned redder than a tomato. “Simone, I think perhaps you've had enough to drink.”
The older woman looked as if she were about to bite off Mary Jane's head, but then backed off and stared at her plate.
Odd. Really odd. Cassie had missed something. She'd have made a sizable bet that Simone would never have deferred to the younger woman. Dalton seemed a little puzzled, too, so at least it wasn't her imagination.
Mary Jane smiled brightly at the others. “You're going to love this cabbage soup. It's a borsht, kind of sweet and sour. It's a favorite here.”
While Tasha finished serving, the silence grew thick and awkward. Cassie seized the moment. “Mary Jane,
I noticed there are some Brigadoon roses out by the pool.”
The other woman wrinkled her nose. “I don't know anything about flowers.”
“Oh, I had a question about them. You have a gardener, I assume?”
“Mr. Hamada comes three days a week, but I'm afraid he doesn't speak English.”
Cassie sighed, forcing herself not to look at Dalton. “Oh, too bad.”
“Is that really cabbage?” Tom's tone of disgust drew everyone's attention. “Why is it a funny color?”
“Tom.” Kathy laid a hand on her husband's arm.
He made a face at the soup again, but said nothing more.
Grant returned with Simone's drink and she smiled up at him as she took the glass. “You need to take lessons from Tom here. He knows when to shut up.”
Mary Jane reached across Dalton and grabbed the martini, splashing some of it on the white tablecloth. “Enough, Simone.” She gave the other woman a pointed glare, and then returned to a perky smile. “Okay, everyone has their soup. Let's eat.”
The silence grew awkward again, while everyone concentrated on their food until Harvey suggested Mary Jane fill them in on tomorrow's activities.
She demurred at first. “I thought I'd wait until dessert.”
“Why? Most of us know what we're in for.” Harvey gave Cassie another one of those skin-prickling grins. “Maybe I should explain.”
“That's all right.” Mary Jane quickly set down her spoon. “As most of you know, tomorrow morning we meet for our group session where we'll discuss what we hope to accomplish during this next week.”
Simone laughed. “I don't think that's the part Harvey is interested in.”
Mary Jane gave her a warning glance. “At that time you'll discuss issues in the marriage that have been the cause of disagreements. Every person will have the floor without any interruption, and then your spouse will have a chance to respond. Later, we'll discuss observations of the others about how each couple communicates.”
Cassie looked at Dalton. Her only consolation was that he didn't look any more thrilled over the exercise than she was.
“After lunch,” Mary Jane continued, “you'll relearn how to touch each other.”
Cassie was damn glad she didn't have anything in her mouth that she could've spit out.
“Now, we're talking,” Harvey said, and brushed up against Cassie's leg.
She had a good mind to give him a bruising pinch that would remind him to keep his hands to himself for the rest of the week. Dalton caught her eye and the concern in his face warmed her. He couldn't possibly have seen Harvey's deliberate touch but something in her expression must have alerted him. She gave him a reassuring smile, and he winked.
Silly how the small gesture turned her to mush. Ridiculous, really, but it seemed so personal, as if she
was the only one in the room with him, as if they shared some private joke or secret. Which of course they did, making her reaction all the more silly.
Mary Jane directed her smile at Cassie and Tom and Kathy. “Don't pay attention to them. They like riling the newcomers. It's their version of an initiation.”
Tom and Kathy exchanged nervous glances.
“Tomorrow afternoon you'll relearn how to touch each other,” Mary Jane said evenly. “The exercise will start with massage class.”
Tom muttered a curse.
Kathy coughed. “In front of everyone?”
“Only during the massage lesson. I'll show you the Swedish version and make sure you're doing it correctly. After that, you'll break up and practice in private. I'll peek in from time to time to make sure you're staying in the spirit of the exercise.”
Cassie held her breath. This was not what she'd signed up for. She didn't want to touch Dalton. Well, she did, but that was the problem.
Dalton laughed, and everyone stared at him. “Explain this spirit of the exercise.”
“Pleasing your partner.”
“Oh, goody.” Simone had managed to recover her martini and she sipped it with a bored expression. “How about if we want to please someone else'sâ”
“The goal,” Mary Jane quickly continued, effectively cutting off Simone, “is to recapture the feelings you had when you first met, when you began dating and wanted nothing more than to please each other.”
Simone let out a bored sigh. “Well, Grant, it looks as if we missed a phase.”
Her husband didn't so much as blink.
“When you say you'll be peeking in, do you mean into our rooms?” Cassie asked, and Tom and Kathy leaned forward with interest.
“Wherever you choose to give the massages. By the pool, or in the exercise room, your bedroom, it's up to you.”
At the mention of public places, Cassie breathed with relief. The session couldn't be too bad.
Mary Jane picked up the brass bell in front of her plate and rang for Tasha. “Of course most couples choose the privacy of their rooms since we encourage nudity.”
into Bask's office and locked the door behind him. A computer sat on the credenza behind a large teak desk, already on, but dormant. He moved the mouse, and then while he waited for the computer to come to life, he checked the desk drawers. No luck. Bask had locked everything tight. Dalton would have to break in later. Right now, the information in the computer interested him more.
A couple of file folders sat on the corner of the desk.
He rifled through them. Nothing of particular note, but he copied some names and phone numbers of potential clients. Or maybe they were former clients. Either way, the information could prove useful.
Several icons appeared on the computer screen and he sat down to study them. The chair creaked under
his weight, and his gaze flew toward the door. He waited a couple of minutes. No light came on in the hall.
Damn, he should have used Cassie as a lookout or distraction. He laughed to himself. That was the problem. She was already a distraction. What the hell was wrong with him anyway? Spending the week together posing as husband and wife, sharing the same roomâshit, the same bedâhow could he have thought otherwise?