THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL
A Bantam Book / January 1993
LOVESWEPT® and the wave design are registered trademarks of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Registered in US. Patent and Trademark Office and elsewhere.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1992 by Leanne Banks.
Cover art copyright © 1992 by Mort Engel.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address: Bantam Books.
If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed" to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”
If you would be interested in receiving protective vinyl covers for your Loveswept books, please write to this address for information:
Loveswept Bantam Books P.O. Box 985 Hicksville, NY 11802
Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada
Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10103.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
OPM 098765432 1Prologue
“I’ll never get over him!” wailed seventeen-year-old Carlene Pendleton.
Russ Bradford patted her on the back and looked around. The rented palm would have concealed them if Carly wasn’t making such a racket. He’d been taking a breather from his friend Brett’s wedding reception when Carly had flopped into his lap aid started weeping. Now he was stuck nursing a heartbroken mass of teenage femininity wrapped in layers of chiffon when he’d rather be home watching the baseball game and nursing a beer.
He felt her tears seep through his starched shirt and gave a heavy sigh. “Carly, you gotta get a hold of yourself. You don’t want your brothers to see you like this. Think how much teasing you’ll have to put up with.”
Carly lifted her moist eyes to his and sniffed. “I can’t help it. I had such dreams for Brett and me. Now,” she choked, “they’re all gone.”
Russ didn’t bother to point out that Carly had been the one with the dreams, not Brett. In an attempt to divert her, he said, “Hey, in a couple of weeks, you’ll start your senior year. You’ll probably have guys lined up asking you to the homecoming dance.”
The thought gave her pause. She sniffed again. “Think so?”
“Sure,” Russ said emphatically. Carly was tall and skinny, and Russ had enough experience with the female gender to know she was definitely a late bloomer. “I bet all the girls wish they had your dark hair and violet eyes. And your brothers are probably gonna have to shoot the male population of Beulah County for whistling at your legs.”
“I’m too tall,” she said miserably. “The doctor says I’ll probably grow at least two more inches. I feel like an ostrich. If I get a date for homecoming, his cheek will be pressed against my rib cage instead of my forehead.”
Russ withheld his chuckle. He didn’t want to bring on another spate of tears. “I’ll tell you what. If you don’t get a date for homecoming, I’ll come back from the university and take you myself.”
“I might as well ask one of my brothers,” Carly muttered as she smoothed her frilly dress.
She had a point, Russ thought. He’d grown up with Carly’s brothers and had become acquainted with Carly when her biggest problems had been colic and diaper rash.
“Baby, you don’t see it now, but everything will come together for you in a year or two. I promise you’ll be leaving trails of men in your wake.”
“I don’t want trails of men,” Carly insisted, her eyes filling with tears again. “I w-want B-Brett.”
Russ’s uneasiness increased tenfold. Carly hardly ever stuttered anymore. The rare occasion she slipped was a sign of extreme distress.
The balcony door opened, and Russ heard the sound of music and masculine voices. He whipped out a handkerchief and wiped Carly’s tears, thinking she was going to kick herself tomorrow if she didn’t dry up now.
From longtime experience with the Pendleton clan, he knew there were two things you didn’t mess with—pride and independence. “You don’t want everybody to get the idea you’re a sniveling crybaby, do you?” he asked, aiming directly for her pride.
Carly stiffened. “I am not a sniveling crybaby,” she said in a wobbly, but stutter-free voice.
“Then quit acting like one.”
Jerking the handkerchief from his hand, she stood, ready to run for the ladies’ room. She took two steps, then turned around. She took a deep breath, “Uh, Russ . . .”
She gave a shaky version of the smile that made her brothers willing to slay dragons for her. “Thanks.”One
“Hey, babe, you’ve got a nice swing on that back porch.”
Carly Pendleton stopped checking the heavily laden table of hors d’oeuvres and cut her eyes in the direction of that familiar, naughty male voice. She shook her head chidingly. “You’re setting a horrible example for these impressionable high school seniors, Russ.”
He shrugged his wide shoulders as he played a ballad on the grand piano. “What can I say?” Russ asked innocently. “In six years, you’ve gotten a rear end that bears watching.”
She fought the smile teasing her lips and lost. “I’m surprised you noticed, what with Tina and Amanda.” Carly looked heavenward in mock confusion. “Or is Natalie the latest one?”
“You wound me,” Russ said. “You know you’ve always had my heart.”
“And I suppose you’ve donated the rest of your body to research.” Carly arched a dark eyebrow. “Feminine research.”
“Well,” he said, running his hands up the keyboard in an arpeggio, “if you ever decide you want to conduct a study of your own . . .” He let the thought dangle seductively between them.
Carly’s breath caught, then she laughed. After all, Russ wasn’t serious. She watched him pick up the wineglass and take a drink. “You know, I never have figured out how you can make your big square hands play such beautiful music on this piano. It just doesn’t seem possible.” She briefly touched one of his broad fingers.
“Years of practice,” he said after she released his hand. “My mother forced me. I took a lot of ribbing until I beat the hell out of a few of my tormentors.”
“I never thought of that.” Carly smiled. “I owe your mother a debt of gratitude. Who’d have ever thought Beulah County’s premier catfish farmer would be playing piano for special occasions on my river- boat?”
a debt of gratitude,” Russ corrected. “I got several black eyes as a result of my music training. The least you could do is console me.” He struggled to plaster an unbelievably pitiful expression on his rugged face.
Carly shook her head. Russell Bradford simply could not look pitiful. At thirty, he stood six feet four with over two hundred pounds of weight distributed into well-defined muscle throughout his tanned body. As a child, his hair had been bright red. The years had toned it to a dark auburn. His craggy, mobile face had the ability to both intimidate an opponent and charm the panties off his current conquest. But although he was an outrageous flirt, he kept his practical heart under lock and key.
“My mother always gave my brothers milk and cookies for consolation,” she said sweetly. “I can have some sent up from the galley.”
“You’re breaking my heart, Carly.”
“You’ll survive.” She glanced around the noisy dining room to make sure everyone was having a good time. The graduation party was going off without a hitch, she thought, then turned back to Russ. “By the way, I’ve had a special request for your services next Thursday night at an anniversary party. Can you make it?”
“You'll have to play me for it,” he replied, loading the simple statement with challenge. “Then we’ll negotiate.”
This was an old routine between them. When she first started the riverboat cruises, she couldn’t afford to pay Russ, so they’d played a hand of poker and she’d won. Now, every time she asked him to play the piano, they still played poker and she won every time.
“You’re on, Bradford. Get ready to lose. Tomorrow night at the potluck at Aunt Bitsy’s okay?”
Russ looked at Carly while she ran a hand through her short, black, attractively mussed hair. Her violet eyes were fringed by spiky dark eyelashes that didn’t need mascara. The color in her cheeks came from her emotions, he knew. He’d teased her often enough to cause his share of blushes. She might have bothered to powder her nose that morning, but it was shiny now. She’d probably nibbled the lipstick off her lips five minutes after putting it on. Russ figured he could take care of her lipstick removal in about ten seconds. His mouth buzzed just thinking about it.
He had plans for Carly Pendleton. The way her sultry eyes danced with a daring light made him want to teach her things she’d never learned before. “Tomorrow night’s okay. But one of these days,” he said roughly, “a man’s gonna take you up on your reckless challenges.”
The growl in his voice brought an involuntary flutter to her stomach. Carly shook it off. Fighting attraction to Russ was as natural as breathing. In her opinion, a prudent woman brushed her teeth, paid her bills, and took Russ Bradford’s provocative masculinity with a grain of salt.
“He’ll have to be fast and smart. I’m too busy taking care of business right now.” She checked her watch. “We’re about to dock, so I’ll see you later.”
Carly greeted a few guests on her way outside, then stole a moment to enjoy the evening breeze and star-filled night. She felt a rush of affection for her boat and nourished her secret wish of full ownership of
. Sharing it with her seven loving, but overbearing older brothers would try a saint’s patience. Somebody up there was giving her a temporary break, though, since three of her brothers were taking a camping trip on the Appalachian Trail.
Carly knew full ownership was more of an emotional issue than a financial one. Her childhood had left her with an aching private need for something or someone to call her own. Someone’s tended to be unreliable, so Carly had chosen
Watching the boat dock, Carly thought of her distant, unreachable father and her remote stepmother. Even now, the pain cut deep. Some dreams, she’d learned, never come true.
• • •
As Carly finished setting the redwood table in the backyard for dinner, she looked up at the threatening clouds and worried. She had a full boat tonight. If it rained, the galley crew would be pulling extra duty.
Russ strolled up beside her. “What are you scowling at?”
“If it rains, it’ll flood the galley.” She twisted her hands. “They’ve got a full boat. I should be there.”
“Are you telling me your crew doesn’t know what to do with buckets and mops?”
“Well, no.” A reluctant smile tugged at her mouth. When he put it in such a matter-of-fact way, her anxiety seemed ridiculous.
“Then don’t worry.” He took her elbow and ushered her toward the dessert table set up under a weeping willow. “Enjoy your family. Enjoy the food. Enjoy me.”
Carly stumbled and felt a flush steal across her face. “I think I’ll start with the brownies,” she said dryly and scooped up one from the table. “Three more groups have asked you to play the piano at their parties within the next two months. Do you think you can do it?”
“I’ll play poker for it.” Russ stole a large crumb of her brownie and put it in his mouth. Then he licked his lips.
Watching the agile motion of his slick tongue, Carly felt a tug of curiosity. His mouth was wet and clever. And Russ was probably equally clever in the ways of using his mouth to steal the breath and sanity from a woman. For an instant, she wanted to know how it would feel to have his undivided sensual attention.