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Authors: Karen Kendall

Open Invitation?

BOOK: Open Invitation?
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She wanted to lick him

And Lilia had never licked anyone in her life. She was quite sure that licking people was not good manners in any country. But that didn't stop her from wanting to crawl all over Dan.

“I have to get my keys,” she said, turning away from him.
You don't like cowboys. You like your men supersonically civilized. Why do you have the hots for a man who rides horses?
she told herself.

She didn't know. She couldn't explain it.

Lilia walked to her front door with the full knowledge that Dan's eyes were fixed on her backside. Heat bloomed over her skin. Giving in to wicked temptation, she dropped her keys, then bent to pick them up, knowing that her skirt would pull tight as she did so.

She inserted the key into the lock and watched him, reflected in the glass of the door. He actually made a fist and stuck it in his mouth. She was pretty sure that was the man-sign for “hubba hubba” or something like that.

Lilia smiled and wondered what was the most proper, mannerly way to seduce someone.

Dear Reader,

If you love opposites-attract stories, then
Open Invitation?
is the novel for you! The third book in my THE MAN-HANDLERS trilogy for Harlequin Blaze, it features Lil, a Connecticut etiquette consultant who learns a few steamy lessons from Dan, her west Texas cowboy client. Lil's got a lesson to learn: that an apparently “rude” cowboy is really the supreme gentleman.

Dan reminds me a little of my own husband, who could burp the alphabet when I first met him, and actually proposed to me in the bathroom while I was washing my face.

ME: (chip clip on head to hold hair back, soap lather on face) You
cannot
propose to me in the bathroom!

HIM: What, like there's a rule about this?

ME: Well, if there isn't a rule, there should be one!

HIM: Look, will you marry me or not?

But hubby is really Prince Charming—just undercover. I hope you enjoy Dan and Lil's story as much as I did writing it. Come see me at www.KarenKendall.com, or you can write to me care of Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario M3B 3K9, Canada.

Happy reading,

Karen Kendall

KAREN KENDALL
Open Invitation
?

1

L
ILIA
L
ONDON
, Connecticut etiquette consultant, grimaced as her bra strap fell off her shoulder and down her arm. She shoved it back up—for the third time—and ignored the throbbing of her left big toe, which ached to escape the sling-back she wore.

An etiquette consultant couldn't run around in just her panty hose, and she shouldn't be flashing her lingerie in public, either. Too bad, because the bra was really pretty. Someone besides her should see it….

Lil banished the thought, straightened her posture and edged closer to the eighteenth-century mahogany card table she used as a desk. She peered at her computer.

“In Chinese tradition,” she wrote, “the last half of the seventh lunar month is viewed as unlucky for weddings. During this time, the Hungry Ghost Festival is held. It is thought that the gates of Hell are opened, freeing lost spirits to wander the earth. No couple wishes them invited to their nuptials!”

She finished typing the last line of a report on Chinese wedding customs for a client and hit the save button on her computer just as the phone rang.

Now battling an itch in an uncouth place, Lil sighed. It was really tough to be a lady today.

She ignored the itch, crossed her legs and punched the speakerphone button with one tastefully manicured, medium-length nail. “Finesse, Lilia speaking.”

“Haaaaaaaaah,” said a man's voice, deep and lazy and full of almost sinister sexual vibrations.

Haaaaaaaaaah?
Since her mind was more focused on
ni hao,
or hello in Chinese, it took her a moment to process his accent.

“Haaaaaaaaaaah,” he repeated. “Maaaah nayme is Dayan Graaanger, Miz Lundun.”

My goodness. His Texas drawl was thicker than the peach preserves Nana Lisbeth used to put away each summer.

“Hello, Mr. Granger. How may I help you?”

“I gotch your nayme by way of a Mrs. Shane.”

Her partner Shannon's mother. Interesting.

“And the dill is—”

Dill? The spice?

“—I need some emergency, uh, charm school lessons. Mah sister's marryin' some blue-blood Brit and she don't want me to embarrass her at her own weddin'.”

Oh, the poor man. So the sister has humiliated him by saying so.
Lil's heart went out to him, even though his accent was almost comical. “When will the nuptials take place, Mr. Granger?”

“In two weeks.”

Lilia raised an eyebrow and looked at her gilt-edged, blue-leather appointment book. “I'm afraid that I'm out
of the office on vacation starting Monday, a week from today. Could you come in tomorrow, perhaps? I think I can clear my afternoon.”

“Ahh think this is gonna take more than a single afternoon, Miz London, but I guess I can try to find a flight.”

“From where will you be traveling?”

“Amarillo, Texas.”

She'd surmised that he was coming from somewhere in the Wild West.

“I can probably give you two and a half days this week, but I'm afraid that's all the time I have,” she said regretfully.

“Here's the dill, Miz Granger. Because I'm guilty of procrastinatin' on this, I'm willing to triple your normal fees if you'll take me on. I need dancin' lessons. I need fark lessons. I need—”

Lil paused.
What on earth is a fark?
“Fark lessons, Mr. Granger?”

“You know. Like knife ‘n' fark. I've been warned there's gonna be five farks at this damn dinner, and hell if I know what to do with 'em. Also, I need to learn ballroom dancin'—the waltz and that kinda crap. And I need clothes, plus a penguin suit.”

Penguin…oh, dear. He needs a great deal more than that, by the sound of it.

“I know it's short notice, Miz London. But I'd make it worth your while. An' I'm a real charmin' guy. It won't be no chore.”

Her lips twitched. “Yes, obviously you possess a great deal of ch—ah, charisma, Mr. Granger. But—”

“Ten thousand dollars a week. How does that sound?”

“I beg your pardon?” Lilia blinked rapidly. “I'm not sure I heard you correctly.”

“Okay, twelve. But that's my final offer. Twelve thousand a week, for the next two weeks. And I'll pay for your vacation that you have to reschedule, if I'm pleased with your work. A bonus, you could call that.”

Lilia's brain didn't require more than a nanosecond to do the math. Twenty-four thousand dollars for Finesse and a free vacation for her? They could hire a PR firm to make a push for more business. And even start anticipating actual salaries!

“Mr. Granger, your offer is very generous.” Lil hesitated, torn between wanting her vacation and wanting the business.

“Well, I think so.”

She
could
take her vacation a little later. “I do hate to ask, but would you be willing to sign a contract with everything down in black and white?”

“I'll sign my own ass in red permanent marker if you'll take me on.”

Lilia tried not to choke. “That—that won't be necessary, Mr. Granger. Why don't you give me your fax number, and I'll send a contract right over?”

“You betcha.” He recited the number, and Lilia immediately typed it straight into her computer, where she'd already opened up a file with his name on it. “Mr. Granger? Just for our records, how is it that you know Mrs. Shane?”

“My mother knows her. Some Paris fashion show they both attend? Or some charity event? The kind where you pay five thousand for a plate of rubber veal, soaked in champagne and topped with escargot? The type of thing where everybody there gets to show off their flashy jewels and plastic surgeon's miracles, while feeling smug and righteous 'cuz every sip of their drink costs a hundred bucks.”

The man has a chip on his shoulder, that much is certain. Poor guy. It sounds like he really doesn't fit in with his own family.
She wondered why he was so different.

Lilia recaptured her thoughts and pressed her lips together, along with her silk hosiery-clad knees. She found something about this man's Texas-accented voice very…carnal.

Which was utterly ridiculous, since she could barely understand that redneck drawl of his. Not to mention the fact that just during their brief conversation so far, he'd butchered the basics of Grammar 101 as she knew it. Still, his voice poured over her like sexual syrup—and she couldn't help liking him.

“Thank you, Mr. Granger,” Lilia said. “I look forward to meeting you tomorrow. Will you confirm with me when you find a flight?”

“You betcha.”

Lilia smiled. “Goodbye, Mr. Granger.”

“Catch ya later, Miz London.”

She sat at her desk reflecting for a moment: was it realistic to think she could break his slang speech patterns or change his accent in two weeks? Probably not.

She could dress him and teach him basic table manners, dance steps and polite conversation. She could explain some of the peculiarities of the English language. But as for the rest, no.

She
could
suggest ways of capitalizing on his Texas heritage and demeanor. She could train him to be a charming eccentric: good-humored about his differences. If he was at all good-looking she'd show him how to kiss a lady's hand and compliment her without smarm. The British women would swoon.

However, she was undoubtedly reading too much into that voice. Dan Granger might be gangly, have a prominent Adam's apple and pizzalike skin for all she knew. She'd just have to wait and find out.

Twenty-four thousand dollars for two weeks of work, though! Lilia decided that she didn't care what Dan Granger looked like. She stood up and pirouetted into the reception area. “Shan? Jane? I'm bringing in the big bucks!”

Shannon stuck her blond head out of her office. True to form, she wore tight, black, boot-cut slacks and an electric-blue leather jacket. “Huh? What's this about big bucks?”

“This Texas guy is going to pay us twenty-four thousand dollars to turn him into Pierce Brosnan in two weeks.”

Jane stuck her dark, curly head out of her own office. “You're kidding!”

Lil smiled at Jane. She could finally pay her back for bringing her into the business; identifying that she
had a unique set of skills that were in demand in the marketplace. Jane had rescued her from a dead-end job as a receptionist in a law firm, and Lil still couldn't believe she was now a professional and a partner in Finesse.

“How raw is the material, Professor Higgins?” Shannon asked, wryly.

Lil's lips twitched and she met their gazes with a steady, even one. “Well…”

“Uh, oh,” said Jane.

“I wish you luck,” Shannon said.

“Thank you. I think I'll need it, judging by how he handles himself on the phone.”

Lilia preferred to work with women. They were easier to mold and they did their homework. Most of the male clients she had were sent by their employers and didn't take etiquette too seriously as a means to move forward in their careers. A mistake, to Lil's thinking.

“So why is this guy paying you so much money?” Jane asked. “Not that I'm complaining.”

“Because I'm having to clear my schedule and cancel my vacation in order to complete his transformation in two weeks. His sister is marrying into British aristocracy, and he doesn't want to embarrass her with his crass, crude ways. Incidentally, Shan, we were recommended to him through your mother. She knows
his
mother from either charity events or fashion week.”

“Small world. Hey, I guess that means I get a kick-back, though, Lil. You can give me a shopping spree at Neiman Marcus.” Shannon winked.

“I think not,” Lil told her. “Good try, though. You'll have to settle for a PR firm instead.”

“Done!” announced Jane.

Shannon frowned. “You're
so
cruel.” She wandered into the small kitchenette they all shared. “Hey! Who ate all the crème doughnuts?”

Jane's face was a study in innocence.

“Jane!”

“Who, me?” Then she gave up the pretence. “You ate them all last time!”

“Yes, but that doesn't mean you should descend to my level…”

Jane laughed. Then she turned back to Lilia. “I can't believe you're giving up your vacation in San Francisco for this guy. But thank you.”

“It's not a sum I think we should turn down, with the business being so new and all. And besides, he offered to pay for my rescheduled vacation—as a bonus, if he's pleased with my work.”

Jane's jaw dropped. “This guy must be either too loaded to care, or truly desperate. He's probably a mess. Are you sure you know what you're getting yourself into?”

Lilia thought about the
farks
. About the
dancin' and crap
. And about the
penguin suit
. She was probably in for a rough time of it.

Was she up to the challenge? “Yes.”

Well, it wasn't as if she had a social life lately, since breaking up with her boyfriend of two years after he'd proposed.

She
had
considered marrying Li Wong, a terribly
sweet Chinese man. But the awful truth was more than Shannon's summary of things: that Li's wong was not so long.

He'd wanted Lil to give him a full-body massage every night—without ever returning the favor—learn Cantonese and move to Beijing as his obedient wife.

Lil had very respectfully declined, whereupon Li Wong had informed her that she was ignorant of the great honor he had conferred upon her by even considering a mixed-breed wife. Half American and half Vietnamese? Why, he exclaimed, she wasn't fit to scrub his floors.

That was the moment at which Lilia agreed with his highness: he should leave her disgraceful hovel immediately and never return. So much for Li's beautiful manners and courteous demeanor. Jerk!

She felt a late-afternoon yawn coming on, and delicately covered her mouth with her hand. She'd been through tougher things than this; most recently the loss of her grandmother, who'd raised her. “I'm not afraid of cowboys, Jane. I can handle Dan Granger.”

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