Whispers in the Dark Kira Sinclair Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR Karyn Mitchell once thought she'd never let another man touch her. But that was before she was seduced by the sinful voice of Dr. Desire!Listening to the radio talk show host, Karyn knows that his suave advice masks deep urges. Longings she's sure she can answer skin on skin. . . Christopher Faulkner, aka Dr. Desire, has built an on-air career in carnal counseling. When Karyn calls in, he hears a pang in her voice that he longs to soothe.But when they finally have the chance to fulfill their explicit fantasies, he has to wonder which one of them is playing doctor. Because the supersexy treatment he's prescribed seems to be healing them both. . . . “Stay with me tonight?” he asked Chris’s words surprised her, and sent a thrill of hope down Karyn’s spine. “Please,” he continued. “Just one more night to make sure my job is complete.” His blue eyes smiled down into hers. “I’m not ready for our weekend to end just yet.” Neither was Karyn. But wouldn’t spending another night with him just put off the moment she’d have to watch him walk away? After all, they had an agreement. Was she being greedy? Tempting fate? Pleasure blended with misery as the feel of his hand stroking her back made her heart ache and her body hum. As if sensing her internal debate, Chris leaned across the space between them, persuading her with a deep, sensual kiss. The need for his touch won out over her will, the promise of this moment overruling her fear of the future. “Okay, I’ll stay.” He rewarded her with a look that guaranteed her a night she’d never forget. And that was exactly what she was afraid of…. Dear Reader, Whispers in the Dark has been a labor of love for me for a very long time. I’m so excited to finally share Chris and Karyn’s story with you! This book began as a question that popped into my head while listening to a lecture on post-traumatic stress disorder. How do you return to a normal life after something tragic happens? For each and every person, just like for Karyn, the answer to that question is different. But the more I wrote, the more I realized determination plays a key part—the same determination we all need in order to tackle the obstacles that block our goals, hopes and dreams. I like to think that Chris and Karyn shared their determination with me. I hope they do the same for you. I’d love to hear what you think about Chris and Karyn’s story. You can contact me at email@example.com or visit me at www.KiraSinclair.com. Best wishes, Kira Sinclair WHISPERS IN THE DARK Kira Sinclair TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN • MADRID PRAGUE • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND ABOUT THE AUTHOR When not working as an office manager or juggling plotlines, Kira spends her time on a small farm in north Alabama with her wonderful husband, two amazing daughters and a menagerie of animals. While writing in one form or another has always been a part of her life, she’s excited to see her first book published with the Harlequin Blaze line. She’d love to hear what you think of her debut, at www.KiraSinclair.com. There are several people I need to thank, because this book would never have happened without them: The Playfriends—Andrea, Danniele, Kimberly and Marilyn—for brainstorming, Rumors, teeter-totters, late-night calls and panicked e-mail sessions. The Mavens—Beverly, LJ and Linda— for setting such a wonderful example. Rhonda Nelson for that last puzzle piece. Lori Borrill and Leeanne Kenedy for reading… and reading…and reading again. Shelley Visconte for the invaluable information. My own personal hero and our little girls for your love, patience and unflagging support. And finally, my editor, Brenda, for not giving up on me, Chris or Karyn. Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Epilogue 1 “YOU KNOW, as much as I enjoy this ritual, I’m really starting to resent you hogging my Friday nights.” Karyn Mitchell looked up from her half-painted toes and rolled her eyes at her best friend, Anne. “Funny, I don’t remember inviting you, anyway.” “Yeah, well, I know what you’d be doing if I wasn’t here…” “Enjoying a nice, long bath?” Karyn raised a pointed eyebrow. “Booorrrring.” As she flopped down onto the sofa beside Karyn, ice cubes rattled in Anne’s fresh drink. “You’ve been here almost two years—don’t you think it’s time to see something besides your gray cubicle and the inside of this apartment?” “I like my apartment.” There was nothing wrong with it. Or the fact that she preferred to spend her time safe inside it. Capping her bottle of Ravished Red, Karyn tried not to let the familiar irritation surface. Anne didn’t mean to push. She just couldn’t seem to help it. “And grease-stained pizza boxes and demolished cartons of triple-chocolate meltdown, apparently. But neither of those will help you find a man.” A joking smile crinkled her friend’s bright green eyes. It didn’t help. This was territory they’d been over before, and Karyn was getting tired of covering the same ground. The only thing that kept her from exploding was the fact that while Anne might appear thick-skinned to the rest of the world, she was really a softie at heart. “I don’t need a man.” Anne snorted, a sound that clashed with her blond, model-quality exterior, but completely suited the rebel she hid inside. “Every woman needs a man, someone to help you feel pretty, feminine…sexy.” “I wouldn’t know sexy if it bit me in the ass.” “That’s my point.” A bright, mischievous smile flashed across Anne’s face, lightening Karyn’s mood. Anne had that effect on her…on everyone. Sometimes it was sickening. But, God, she’d needed that so much when she’d first moved to Birmingham. Laughter. Something she’d only faked for years. Her family had smothered her. Cocooned her in bubble wrap and walked on egg shells around her. Even surrounded by people, you could be alone. She just hadn’t realized how alone she’d been until she’d met Anne. It hadn’t always been that way. A mischievous child, she’d grown up the center of attention and relished every last moment. And as a teenager, she’d loved being the outgoing, friendly one. Not the most popular girl. But the one everyone turned to for advice and a shoulder to cry on. Being happy had been easy. Then. She missed that girl. Wanted her back. It had taken five years, but she was finally starting to find that place inside again. If she could just break through that last barrier to being whole… “A good man would teach you ‘sexy.’” Anne’s mouth twisted into an up-to-no-good grin as her eyes flashed fun. “Now turn the radio on. The show’s about to start.” Karyn groaned. She had a love/hate relationship with Dr. Desire and his radio show. There was something about that man’s voice that made her insides tingle and turn to goo. Listening to him talk about relationships and sex for hours every night drove her crazy. Of course, she supposed it was self-torture, considering she’d given up all hope of ever having sex again. “You’re on the air with Dr. Desire. Let’s put some spark back in your love life.” His familiar voice filled the room around her. Calm and pleasant, deep and dark, Dr. Desire had the uncanny ability to put her at ease and hype her up, all with that one catch phrase. Comfort and confusion, that’s what he offered. How could she want everything he talked about—a healthy, satisfying relationship plus sweaty, hedonistic, no-holds-barred sex—and yet still be unable to take that first step in finding it? Listening to his show had become a nightly ritual, one she shared every Friday with Anne. It had started out as a sort of self-prescribed therapy. She’d hoped that hearing men and women talk about sexual relationships every night would take the edge of fear away, would get her juices flowing again. And it had, it did, but each and every time she’d attempted to put that energy to good use, the anxiety would resurface. Holy hell, she was frustrated. She wanted sex. She wanted a life. And she wanted someone to share them both with. “How can he fulfill your needs if you don’t tell him what you want? Listen, ladies, we aren’t mind readers. You want a little adventure with your sex? Then spell it out for him. Trust me, he’s probably willing to try anything once.” Karyn sighed and leaned back against her sofa. She rattled the ice cubes in her buttery nipple, wishing, not for the first time, that the warm buzz wouldn’t go to waste. But she never drank hard liquor in public, not when there were men around to take advantage. “Call him.” Rolling her head sideways, Karyn shot Anne a glare. “No.” “He’ll have the answer.” She stared disbelievingly as Anne hopped up and hobbled across the floor toward the phone. “Ah, no—he won’t.” “Look, how can it hurt? You’ve seen how many therapists over the last few years?” “Four in five years.” “And has anything they’ve told you to do helped?” “No.” “Precisely.” Anne duck-walked back to protect her wet polish. With a raised eyebrow and cocked hip, she thrust out the handset. “What do you have to lose?” Staring at the thing like it was a mud-covered spider, Karyn said, “Uh, my dignity, self-respect, sanity? Any of those will work. There is no way I’m going on the most popular radio show in the city to spill my guts. Everyone I know listens to this show. You’re the only person here who knows what happened. I plan to keep it that way.” “So lie, use a different name. No one will know.” “I’ll know.” “You’re assuming he can’t help—” “He can’t. You listen to the show just as much as I do. He might know a heck of a lot about the male/female thing, but somehow I think my problems run a bit deeper than the normal issues he handles. I do not need a sex expert.” “That man is an expert on more than just sex. He knows how to handle a woman, make her feel special. Although, if you ask me, a sexpert is precisely what you need.” Anne frowned and Karyn thought, Oh, shit. Her best friend bright and animated…that was normal. Her best friend with a mission…that was just scary. “That man could charm the panties off anyone—including you. He’d have you naked and panting before fears and your overactive brain could sabotage you.” Standing up, Karyn paced past her friend toward the stereo. She should just turn the damn thing off. Instead she turned back and asked, “What do you think he’s going to say?” Anne lifted one challenging brow. “It’s more what I expect he could do.” “Do? What, you think he’ll pimp for me? Find a man willing to take on the challenge?” Anne twirled the phone in her hand. “Nope. I expect he’d help you himself if you asked.” Her knees went weak, almost like someone had reached in and pulled the bones straight through the bottom of her feet. “Asked. You expect me to ask Dr. Desire for sex?” “Hell, yes.” “Hell, no.” “He’s precisely what you need. He definitely knows his way around a woman’s body. Any man who can talk about women and pleasure the way he does…” Her friend trailed off into a wistful sigh. “At least call him.” Karyn shook her head, not sure what to say. There was no way she could ask Dr. Desire for sex. On air no less! Narrowing her eyes, Anne jabbed the phone toward her. “If you don’t, I will.” Karyn’s heart seemed to seize in her chest. Pulling her gaze away, she decided to ignore the pointed gesture. Anne shrugged and started dialing. Snatching the phone from her, midpunch, she stabbed the off button and hid it behind her back. With a smirk Anne said, “I have a cell phone, you know.” Karyn growled under her breath. Arguing with Anne made her almost as frustrated as fighting with her big brothers always had. A tiny part of her missed those moments with her family, when she could be herself, when her older brothers had acted like annoying, interfering older brothers. No one except Anne fought with her now. “Look, I’m not asking that man to sleep with me.” “Fine. But call him. It can’t hurt to tell him your story, see if he has any advice.” Karyn swayed. Sure, she’d considered calling before. The only thing that had stopped her was an absolute certainty that it wouldn’t do any good. Crossing the room, Anne laid a hand on her shoulder. “You’ve tried everything else. What do you have to lose?” She gave up with an exasperated groan. “What am I supposed to say to him? Hi, my name is Karyn and I’m a victim of rape?” “Well, that depends on what you’re looking for. I’d suggest you start with the fact you haven’t had sex in five years and go from there.” Plopping down onto her sofa, Karyn dialed the number for Dr. Desire’s hot line, 1-800-4DESIRE and cringed. It sounded a little too close to a phone-sex line for her peace of mind. But if this would get Anne off her back for a while it’d be worth any discomfort. She’d call, tell him her problem and just see if he had any suggestions. What she wouldn’t do was ask him for sex. Her heartbeat quickened as the line connected and rang. The bundle of nerves in the pit of her stomach seemed to tighten and churn as she explained to the show’s producer why she was calling. After being placed on hold, Karyn breathed deeply in a vain attempt to dispel the emotions jittering through her. She’d explain her situation—leaving out most of the details—and then when he couldn’t offer her anything constructive would hang up and forget she’d ever dialed the number. She felt better, until she looked up into her friend’s expectant eyes. “I still think you should ask him for sex. I’m telling you, that man knows his way around a woman’s body. The only thing you’d be thinking with him touching you is more, more, more.” The breathless way Anne moaned the words was not helping. “I am not going—” “You’re on the air with Dr. Desire. Let’s find the spark in your relationship.” Karyn’s eyes flew wide as she leaped to her feet, standing uselessly in the center of her living room. His voice slid down her spine, not from her strategically placed speakers, but from the phone pressed tightly to her ear. Her hand flexed around the curved plastic in a bid to hold on to something tight. She certainly didn’t have hold of her sanity at the moment. A vision of Dr. Desire, a carbon copy of the billboard she passed at least twice a day, jumped easily to her mind. With a wide, white smile and rumpled, dark brown hair that always looked as if some woman had just run her fingers through it, the man was gorgeous. No red-blooded, breathing woman could argue that. But it wasn’t just his rugged jaw or kissable lips that held her attention. Something deep inside those smoldering blue-gray eyes made her insides clench and melt whenever she drove past. Even now, just the memory of that picture had her body heating. Heating more than it had for any flesh-and-blood man in the past five years. “Now, don’t be shy. I won’t bite. Unless you want me to.” Karyn heard his laugh. Like his voice, it was deep and sexy and somehow soothing. She relaxed the muscles that had bunched at her back and sank blindly onto the sofa. Her mouth opened and words tumbled out before she could stop them. “I need you to sleep with me.” CHRISTOPHER FAULKNER nearly fell off his chair. He did bobble the microphone in front of him. Considering the timid way this woman had started her phone call, that last statement had been a shocker. Jerking up, he mouthed, “What the hell,” to Michael, his forty-two-year-old producer. The man supposedly screening his calls just shrugged and went back to playing with switches. Chris fought down the urge to strangle him. He’d wrangled with that sensation often over their five-year friendship. There was something about the other man’s laid-back attitude that tended to grate against his nerves. Especially during the past few months. Michael knew he didn’t like to deal with this sort of thing on air. Hell, he could barely walk out his door without being accosted by some primped-up prima donna looking for him to rock her world. All they ever really wanted was an instant catapult to notoriety. Or money. The novelty of fame had long since lost its shine. He really enjoyed helping people, but could have done without some of the headaches that went with the job. Pasting a smile on his face—because the listeners really could hear when it wasn’t there—he put every ounce of experience he’d gained over the past five years into handling the thorny situation Michael had dropped in his lap. At least he’d learned something on his journey from ordinary nighttime DJ to megastar. “Well, gee, I’m flattered.” He forced out a laugh that fell as flat as the lie he’d just told. He was nowhere close to being flattered. In fact, he was much closer to annoyed. “That’s not…I didn’t mean…Let me explain.” The young woman’s voice floated into his ears through the headphones he wore. He heard desperation, which scared him, but also something underneath that caught his attention. Something sweet with a tinge of the same uneasiness he was trying to ignore. In a strange way it stirred a connection, a sense of kinship with the woman on the other end. “I know this must sound crazy to you and, frankly, I wouldn’t blame you if you cut me off, but please just hear me out. Honestly, I didn’t mean what I said before. Really.” Her admission took a bit of the edge off. Barely. She paused, sucking in air. The broken sound reverberated through his brain. When she started again her voice trembled and he wondered what had made her take this step. Whatever she was trying to say, it was obviously difficult. “My name is Katy.” Her voice faltered and drifted away for a moment before beginning again. “This is hard for me to talk about.” “Well, I can’t say I’ll sleep with you, Katy.” He forced out another laugh, but even he could hear the brittle edge. “But I’d like to help. Tell me what’s going on.” “About five years ago I was date raped. I knew the guy. Not very well, but enough to think I’d be safe with him. I wasn’t.” A tight knot dropped into his stomach, punching straight through to his toes. How had this girl gotten through? She’d already hit two of the auto-dump buttons—propositioning him and having a serious sexual issue, one that required professional help. He was no professional. His unfinished business-management degree didn’t really qualify him to deal with severe sexual hang-ups. And if, in the silence of his own mind, he’d thought once or twice about remedying that deficiency in his education…well, there’d never been a reason to admit that idiocy to anyone. He stared hard through the glass at Michael. The other man’s forehead was wrinkled even more than usual. Sure, now he cared. Where had that interest been five minutes ago? Katy’s voice continued, tightening and turning to an emotionless monotone while she recited the bare-bones facts he really didn’t want to hear. “It was terrifying and a long time ago. But I can’t seem to move past it. I’ve tried so many things, listened to so many people. No one seems to have the answer.” “The answer to what?” The sound of his own voice coming through the headphones shocked him. Why had he asked her that? “I can’t have sex. I want to.” The girl groaned softly, the sound lodging right next to the knot at the bottom of his stomach. “God, I want to. But even thinking about it—I freeze up.” His eyes locked with Michael’s through the pane of glass between them, narrowing to slits. His jaw clamped so tight he thought the entire audience could probably hear the grinding sound. This girl had a serious problem. Not the “my boyfriend won’t go down on me,” “my girlfriend won’t do a threesome,” “is this burning sensation something to worry about” kind of stuff he dealt with in a normal night. She needed some professional help. She did not need him. This had disaster written all over it. His show was bubblegum and handcuffs, not emotional turmoil. He’d fallen into the job as Dr. Desire. A few comments to a late-night caller and before he knew it, what had been a play-the-records, punch-the-buttons kind of job had turned into hours of sex and relationship discussions that led to more than he’d ever imagined. But he’d worked hard over the past five years to build a public persona, to provide confidence and helpful information to those seeking sexual answers and a push to try something new. The people who called into his show—the people that got past Michael’s supposed screening process—mostly wanted relationship advice or to share their own fantasies or be turned on. He was prepared for that. He was not prepared for this. “Katy, as much as I’d like to help you, I’m not a doctor. It sounds to me like you need to see a professional.” “I’ve talked to a therapist. Four, in fact. None of them helped.” He looked again at Michael, raising his hands in the universal sign for “What the hell do I do now?” His producer’s response was the cut sign—a hand across his throat. He’d like nothing better than to end this call, but he didn’t think that would be a very good idea. Not for Katy. And certainly not for the show. His female listeners—who comprised more than half his audience—would raise hell. How could he extract himself without appearing cold and indifferent? “Well, Katy. Maybe you just need to give yourself some more time. You had to have been young. You barely sound old enough to drink.” He pushed out another laugh, trying to maintain the tone of the show despite feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. “I’m twenty-six and it hasn’t gotten any better in five years. That’s a long time. I want a husband and kids. At the rate I’m going I’ll be fifty before I have sex again.” Another desperate sound echoed across the line and twanged the nerves at the bottom of his spine. “I don’t think I could handle that.” “I’m sure that’s not true. You’ll have sex when you’re ready. I have to ask—” although something told him he’d be better off if he didn’t “—what makes you think you’d be any different with me?” “I honestly didn’t mean to say that. But I’ve been listening to your show for a long time and it’s obvious you know what you’re talking about. Maybe that’s what I need, a man who really understands how to give a woman pleasure. Who knows how to ignore the fear.” Chris shifted in his seat, completely surprised that the quivery little dip in her voice there at the end had caught his attention. “You should never ignore the fear, Katy. Listen to your body, it knows what you can handle.” Chris paused, leaning in closer to the mike. He really wanted to help this woman, but he couldn’t, not without risking everything he’d built. His show walked a line between offering professional-sounding advice and providing an opinion. Chris tried hard to stay far away from that line. One toe over could cost him everything. One lawsuit because he’d said the wrong thing to the wrong person…Katy was just too close to that edge for comfort. “I know you understand I can’t sleep with you, but please find another therapist. Maybe this time his or her suggestions will work. The fact you were willing to call into the show tells me how important this is for you and how much you’re willing to risk to get what you want. You don’t need me. You need to trust yourself. Find a nice man who’ll understand and go slowly with you. If you need the number of a therapist, stay on the line, and I’ll get the information for you.” “Thank you.” He’d expected her voice to waver or maybe crack with disappointment. It didn’t. In fact, she seemed almost, well, relieved. “ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? I made a complete ass of myself in front of half the south.” “Sure you did…Katy.” Anne winked before hobbling to the kitchen and coming back with a half-empty bottle of butterscotch schnapps. “No one but me knows that was you on the radio.” “And it better stay that way.” Anne smiled. “Of course.” Karyn fought the urge to say something snide to wipe the expression off her face. Her friend hadn’t done anything wrong. She’d been the idiot who’d called and blurted out a request for sex. “You know, I never would have said that if you hadn’t been pounding at me about how perfect he would be as my sex stud.” Pouring another drink, Anne looked over the edge of her glass. “I think you said exactly what you wanted to. Not that it matters.” “Oh, it matters.” “Besides, I happen to agree with him.” “What? You’re the one who told me to sleep with him—” “Not about that. I think you need to find a man, Karyn. One who understands what you’ve gone through. One who’ll go slow and take things one step at a time.” Karyn paced to her bookshelf and back. Realizing she still held the phone in her hand, she tossed it away in disgust. What? Did they all think she was stupid? Of course that was what she needed. “Absolutely. And a guy like that isn’t hard to find. Because telling a man on the first date that there won’t be any sex in his foreseeable future due to the fact that I’m a rape survivor really turns men on.” “So, don’t tell him.” Turning to her friend, Karyn cocked her head to the side and stared. “You’re the one who said I need to find a man who understands. Kinda hard to do if I don’t tell him.” “So, just not on the first date.” Karyn sank down onto the couch. Tears of frustration pricked the backs of her eyes. “That doesn’t work either because then I spend the entire night worrying about what he expects and how I’ll handle it.” “Fine, be miserable.” Anne slipped down beside her on the edge of the sofa and wrapped a supportive arm around her shoulders. “But nothing’s going to change, Karyn, until you take a chance.” 2 “WE HAVE TO DO something.” Chris’s voice echoed against the impersonal walls of the station conference room. He sat in the padded seat to Michael’s right and looked across at the two gentlemen he’d asked to join them, the station manager and their attorney. “We agree. The entire show was dominated by calls about Katy for the third day in a row. Even though your ratings are up this can’t continue. If we take no action there will be a backlash against the show eventually. Your listeners want and expect you to do something.” “Something we all know I can’t do.” Chris leaned over the gleaming surface of the conference table and studied the two men opposite him. To him they resembled aging bulldogs with their sagging faces. They walked around, their mouths pulled down into perpetual frowns as if their every decision affected the balance of the world. Only, today their decisions affected him. He hadn’t felt this out of control in years. Yes, he had money, fast cars and a house he owned outright and had remodeled with his own two hands. But it was his show that was his security and stability. And at the moment, that security felt more like a smoke screen than something solid. If the show ended, he had nothing to fall back on. The Dr. Desire gig had landed in his lap. That kind of miracle wasn’t likely to happen twice. Which was why he normally kept a tight rein on his life and his show. But sometime in the past two days he’d lost that control. With or without the agreement of the men before him, he’d do whatever he needed to get it back. Chris never again wanted to experience the sickening sense of helplessness he had at sixteen when he and his mother had been evicted. One random, unfair event—her illness and inability to work—had cost them everything. He would never be that vulnerable, that dependant, again. Michael chimed in. “The listeners will eventually become less concerned and more forceful. And while I normally wouldn’t worry, we’ve just moved into several major markets. If our ratings begin to slip we’re liable to lose them as fast as we gained them.” Chris’s stomach clenched for one brief moment at the thought before he pushed it away. That wasn’t going to happen. “Michael is right. We need to do something, but I’ll be damned if I know what. I obviously can’t have sex with her.” The attorney’s face flushed hot before returning to its regular mottled red. “Absolutely not. In fact, I’d advise against it.” “What if I took her out to dinner? A nice, impersonal meal. She said she hadn’t been on a date in a while. That would help in one area without moving us into dangerous territory.” Three sets of eyebrows shot straight up, but he watched as they all rolled the thought around and considered. “It might work.” Michael spoke first, his enthusiasm for the idea gaining ground. “It would be a chance for her to meet you face-to-face, you could charm her, give her a T-shirt, CD. At the same time it would give us the opportunity to make a statement on air, something to the effect that we’re doing everything we can to help.” Looking questioningly at Ken, Chris waited. The attorney spoke slowly, weighing things out as he went. “We’d need to keep the details from your listeners. A simple announcement that you heard their concerns and that we’re getting Katy the help she needs. For her protection, you can’t reveal specifics, but want to assure everyone that you and the station are committed to helping this bright young woman through a traumatic experience.” Despite having made the suggestion, Chris wasn’t entirely convinced it was the best idea. In fact, he wasn’t exactly sure where it had come from. Certainly, he’d taken female listeners to dinner before. More than he cared to count over the past five years actually. At first he’d enjoyed the attention Dr. Desire received from the female population. He’d wanted sex, and the women had wanted a brush with fame. Everyone had walked away satisfied. But lately, satisfaction hadn’t been enough. Obviously, this would be different. He wouldn’t expect sex when the night was done, and he would make it clear to Katy that that wasn’t his intention—for her sake, as well as his. He turned the idea over one more time, examining it for pitfalls. If eating a simple meal with her allowed him to lose the sense of guilt he’d been fighting for the past few days, got his audience off his back and helped Katy, well, then maybe it would be worth a few hours out of his life. Heath, the station manager, jumped in as devil’s advocate. “Couldn’t we simply say that without actually doing anything? I mean, we did offer her information on therapists.” Ken countered immediately, “Certainly, if we could guarantee Katy won’t come forward to discredit the statement. If that happened, the show and the station would look worse than you already do.” Chris pushed up from the table, walked to the floor-to-ceiling glass windows and looked out over Birmingham’s skyline. Ruffling a hand through his hair, he could feel the tight pinch of a headache coming on. “We don’t know how to get in touch with her, that’s certainly a problem.” Papers rustled behind his back before Heath said, “We had her call-in number traced. We have her real name, address and home telephone number.” Chris turned and stared at the station manager before moving his gaze to the attorney. “Is that even legal?” Ken shifted in his chair, but met Chris’s ice-blue stare. “It’s a bit gray, but nothing that could land anyone in jail.” “Isn’t that a relief.” Chris narrowed his eyes, boring holes into the other man. “You should do it, Chris. It’s the best way out of this. One night from your life and it’s over. Charm the pan—” Michael stalled and cleared his throat. “Charm her a little. Piece of cake for Dr. Desire.” The impish grin he gave rubbed Chris the wrong way. But whatever Michael’s faults—and they were many—the man did have his back when it mattered. At the moment he was making it difficult to remember that but… Taking Katy out for a nice dinner would be simple for Dr. Desire. Chris on the other hand…he wasn’t convinced. She’d expect him to be on, they all did. Smooth, sexy, sophisticated. Intelligent. Funny. Perfect. Most women wanted everything from a man. Unfortunately, he’d done his job so well they all seemed to think he could give that to them. He was tired of trying. Tired of pretending that the persona he’d built was real. One night out of his life. “I’ll call her. But if she doesn’t want to do this, we all agree to issue a statement on air, anyway.” “Agreed.” Chris took the paper Ken held out to him and glanced down at the neat black ink against the white page. “Karyn Mitchell.” He liked that much better than Katy. KARYN WALKED into her apartment, threw her keys onto the hall table and hung her purse and briefcase on the coatrack. Walking into the silent kitchen, she couldn’t hold back a sigh. Her head pounded, her shoulders slumped and a brick seemed to have lodged at the base of her spine. She knew stress, tension and exhaustion were responsible for her weary state. It had been four days since that damn phone call. For the past three nights she’d turned on Dr. Desire only to hear his show become a heated discussion of her life and what he should do to help her. Her hours at work hadn’t even been safe. Every time she’d tried to add up a string of numbers today someone had popped their head into her cubicle to gossip about Katy. Her so-called best friend hadn’t been much better. Anne had teased and admonished, going so far as to try to cajole her into a double date. After hours of frustration Karyn had snapped at her. And felt guilty for it afterward. But the frustration and anger hadn’t lasted long. It was hard to keep her bad mood when Anne was around. She was always so…chipper. Or rather, that’s what she showed the world. Even Karyn hadn’t realized that the brightness and light Anne seemed surrounded with was a facade. Not until it had slipped. She’d truly known they were friends the night Anne had broken down and allowed her to see the emotions she buried deep inside. That same night Karyn had opened up and shared her own deepest secret. She’d never regretted the action or the trust she’d placed in the other woman. At the moment, however, she was seriously regretting sharing that secret with half the South, even if she had used an alias. She couldn’t believe it was happening all over again. She’d moved to Birmingham to get away from this kind of minute dissection of her life and choices. She’d spent years defending her actions to newspapers, TV stations, radio shows, her lawyers, the judge, not to mention the jury. The job offer from Walker Technologies had provided her with a clean start, the chance to lose herself in the city crowds and forget the trauma everyone at home remembered when they looked at her. And with one five-minute phone conversation she’d inadvertently opened herself up to it all over again. The one saving grace was that the city was discussing Katy’s life, not hers. But she wondered how long that would last. Reporters had a way of digging up details, especially the ones you thought safe and secret. Unfortunately, the only thing she could do was wait and hope the interest died down soon. Doing anything else would just draw attention to herself. She’d gone in to work this morning hoping to bury herself in the minutia of number crunching. It hadn’t worked—she’d completely screwed up the monthly sales report and it had taken all afternoon to rework it. She’d become an accountant because she loved numbers, because they followed hard-and-fast rules that never changed. Today she wasn’t so enamored of them or her job. If only people hadn’t kept interrupting her. If only she’d been able to concentrate on the numbers instead of Dr. Desire… There was no escape. She kept telling herself that the interest in Katy would die down eventually, that something else would happen to catch everyone’s attention. At the moment, that wasn’t very comforting; what would be was a hot bath, a good book and a glass of wine. The only food she wanted was a tub of mint chocolate chip ice cream covered in fudge sauce. Comfort and solitude at its finest. She’d pay for it tomorrow at the gym, but it would be so worth it. Opening the freezer, she pulled out the half-empty carton and grabbed a spoon. With a hip bump she closed the spoon drawer and headed into the bathroom to start her night of relaxation. Pouring the wine, picking out her book and turning on some soft music all helped her settle. She slipped into the hot water with an appreciative sigh. The last of the stress that had built inside melted away with the rising steam. Closing her eyes, she rested her head and just sat for a minute, soaking up a luxury she rarely made time for. After a few minutes of bliss, she reached for the ice cream and scooped a bite from the carton, letting the cold glob melt in her mouth and slip down her throat. The bold, heavy taste burst through her mouth, reminding her of the mint tea her grandmother had always made on sticky summer days when she’d visited. Times like these she missed her family, even her mother. Yes, she’d needed to escape Darby, Mississippi, to put some space between her family’s overprotective tendencies and her mother’s inability to understand. It had been an important step in her recovery, one she’d needed to take. The anonymity she’d found in Birmingham hadn’t hurt, either. Closing her eyes, she tried to ignore the feeling that it was slowly slipping away. She’d just scooped another heaping spoonful into her mouth when the phone rang. Reaching for the cordless she’d brought into the bathroom, she looked at the caller ID and groaned. She should have known better than to bring the phone into her haven of solitude. Pounding the button, she answered, knowing if she didn’t her brother would send up a hue and cry to the entire family. “Hello, Blake.” “Hi, squirt, how’s it going?” She couldn’t suppress the smile just hearing his voice caused. “Well, I was enjoying some downtime until you called. How can I convince you to get lost?” “You can’t. I’m the official family envoy. If I don’t go back to Mom and Dad with specific information, we’re both likely to regret it.” And wasn’t that the truth? Growing up the youngest of three kids and being the only girl meant she was very protected as a child and teenager. If her parents hadn’t worried about something, her older brothers sure had. It’d been a miracle that any guy had wanted to date her. Outgoing and confident, she’d been so eager to escape to college. The overprotective atmosphere had only gotten worse after she’d been raped. It was her family’s natural response, to circle the wagons and ward off anything else that could hurt her. And at the time, she’d appreciated their love and understanding. But it had gotten old awfully fast and was the main reason she’d placed a state between her and the rest of the Mitchell clan. With a sigh of resignation she said, “Okay. What do they want?” “You to visit. We haven’t seen you since Christmas. That’s seven months, in case you’ve lost the ability to count along with the ability to find your way home.” Karyn settled back into the steaming water, letting her hand play back and forth making waves. This would not end quickly, she could tell. “I can’t get away from work right now.” And the thought of going back to Darby always left her slightly unsettled. The place held memories she’d been trying so hard to leave behind. She might not have been raped there, but she’d certainly gone back to live through the aftermath. The long wait, the trial, the media coverage, then the subsequent realization that her word hadn’t been enough for twelve of her peers. She’d worked so hard to get her life back. And aside from this one last major hurdle—her inability to relax and trust someone enough to have sex—she was doing pretty well. But the thought of returning right now left a sour taste in her mouth. Not to mention how the family couldn’t stop treating her like the wounded baby sister. Whether they meant to or not, they always seemed to reinforce her feelings of self-doubt and fear. The same emotions she was trying hard to shed so that she could move on with her life. There had been a time when she’d been confident, invincible. She really wanted to find her way back to that woman. “Look, Karyn, I understand why coming home is hard for you, but everyone only worries more when they don’t see or hear from you for a while.” Everyone worried even when they did, so she didn’t see what difference it made. And while she understood their reactions, they hadn’t helped her much. “The rest of us are getting together for Labor Day, a nice family picnic on the lake.” “I’ll see what I can do, but I make no promises.” “I’m sure you have no concern for the messenger, but I’ll pass that along. And don’t be surprised when you get a call from Mom.” Oh, she wouldn’t. “I still owe you payback for a few childhood incidents. I’ll let you handle Mama.” He gave a derisive snort and paused for a moment before his voice went deep with concern. “I worry about you, sis. I know I probably shouldn’t, but I can’t help it. I’ve been watching out for you for twenty-six years.” “I’m fine. I’ll try to get away. Tell Mom, Dad and Randall that I love them.” “Will do, squirt.” Before she could hang up, the familiar guilt crept in. “I love you, too, Blake. I know you’re just trying to help and I appreciate your concern.” “Yeah, well, what are brothers for?” “You mean besides torturing me as a child and tormenting me as a teenager?” She heard his laugh resonate down the line before it went dead. Placing the phone on the edge of the tub, she settled back to resume her evening of self-pampering. At least as much of it as she could get in before her mother called. Which was why when the phone rang again twenty minutes later, Karyn barely looked up from the book she’d been reading. Answering without glancing at the caller ID—there was no need—she said, “I’m fine. I’ll try to be there for Labor Day but I make no promises. Give my love to everyone. Bye.” She’d moved the phone away, not wanting to give her mother a chance to talk her into chatting—she’d call back tomorrow or on the weekend maybe—when a single word stopped her dead. “Wait.” The small sound echoed from the receiver. That was definitely not her mother’s voice—unless she’d developed a severe case of laryngitis. Looking at the caller ID didn’t help; it showed Unknown. “Hello?” The tiny sound reverberated out of the receiver. Karyn nearly dropped the phone into the water. That voice sounded strangely familiar. Almost like…No. It couldn’t be. There was one way to find out. Holding the phone gingerly by two fingers, she put it to her ear, said, “Hello?” and held her breath. “Karyn? This is Christopher Faulkner.” Oh my God. It was. Her book slid from numb fingers, landing with a liquid plop before swishing beneath the bathwater. Why was Dr. Desire calling her? And how had he gotten her number, her name for that matter? She closed her eyes, a blush of embarrassment joining the flush on her skin from the heat. She did not want to talk to this man. “Karyn?” Dread sloshed through her body. She couldn’t stop the knee-jerk reaction to cover herself and cringed as a wave of water splashed over the side of the tub, soaking the deep green mat on the floor. “Why are you calling?” She knew the urge to rush for her robe was idiotic, but that didn’t stop her from leaning against the cold acrylic to shield her naked body with the edge of the tub. “Do you know who I am?” A tingle rippled down her back, goose bumps following the path. She told herself the reaction was from the cool air across her wet skin. Did she know who he was? Oh, she knew all right. “Yes.” Pulling her legs up under her, she glanced across the room to her towel hanging on the rod by the door. Getting it would mean standing up. Standing up would mean a rush of water, something he would surely hear. For some reason she didn’t want him to know how naked—and vulnerable—she was. “Great. I’m calling to ask you out to dinner.” Whatever she’d expected, that had not been it. “You what? Why?” “I want to help. And while sex with you is out of the question, maybe a dinner date might move you in the right direction.” The right direction? Karyn bit back a bitter laugh. At the moment she wasn’t even sure where that was. Dinner. How in heaven’s name did he think that would help her sexual frustration and inability to trust anyone with her body? “What’s in this for you?” “I’d like to make an announcement on the show, nothing specific, just a quick mention that we’re getting you help.” An attempt to control the unruly mess his show had turned into over the last few days. Maybe if she agreed to this, the fervor over Katy would die down and the entire city would stop talking about her life. “Why don’t you just say that, anyway? We both know you don’t really want to do this.” Silence echoed across the line. Karyn wondered where he was. At the station, in his home, naked in his own bed? Screwing her eyes tightly shut, she wiped that mental image right from her brain. At the station. Definitely. His show would start in an hour or so. “Look, Katy, I have a reputation to uphold. I won’t go on air and lie to my listeners.” “I won’t tell.” “Yes, but I’ll know.” Her mouth opened to tell him, not a snowball’s chance in hell, but she couldn’t force the words out. A few hours from her life. A chance to put the entire situation behind her and maybe get his listeners to do the same. One night had the potential to wipe the slate clean, almost turn back time. “Fine. But no media. No publicity. I don’t want anyone to know who I am.” “Agreed.” Her heart sped up, not with concern, but excitement. “I’ll meet you at Masquerade Saturday night at seven. Do you know where it is?” “Sure.” She didn’t, but she’d figure it out. “Well, then, I’ll see you in a couple days.” Karyn shifted sideways, forgetting about the waist-high water she sat in. He chuckled, the deep, light sound tickling her heightened senses. “Enjoy your bath.” Unexpected heat melted through her. She cringed, but before she could make a snappy recovery, he hung up, leaving her dangling. Flopping back into the water, Karyn closed her eyes and flung an arm across her flaming face. “I’m such an idiot.” 3 “EVERYTHING’S SET?” Michael met Chris at the door, pushing back a throng of women to let him into Oxygen, a downtown Birmingham hotspot. These personal appearances were part of the job, but he really wished the marketing department would find someplace other than local clubs and bars. The place reeked of smoke, and the pounding music and flashing lights made it difficult to carry on a conversation. Although, sometimes that worked in his favor. “We’re meeting for dinner Saturday night. I reserved a private room at Masquerade.” “Private, huh? Please tell me you aren’t considering making a move. I know you’ve been off your dating game lately, but that’s low.” Chris frowned. He was not off his game; he was out of it entirely. But that was by choice. He was tired of pasting on a smile and playing someone else, someone he no longer wanted to be. “Of course not. I’m trying to keep a low profile. Somewhere I can get in and out without anyone noticing me.” “Dr. Desire! Dr. Desire!” Two women slipped past the bruiser holding back the crowd and raced toward him, yelling at the top of their lungs. Chris took a bracing step backward and held his breath. Before they could reach him, another security guard provided by the club intercepted them. With a wry twist of lips Michael said, “I wouldn’t count on it.” “Those women knew I’d be here.” Shaking his head, he moved across the room. “I promised Katy no publicity. No pictures, no interviews. And no using her real name on the air.” His producer shrugged. “Fine. Legal wanted as much, anyway.” “Great. Make sure everyone knows. The last thing I need is for this meeting to leak out. Then Katy really would have something to complain about.” Chris settled into the uncomfortable chair set behind a table at one end of the dark room. Glancing down at the stack of glossy black-and-whites, he suppressed a cringe. He hated autographing these pictures, but they were part of the personal-appearance contract he’d signed. The man staring back was familiar, but not someone he recognized as himself. The concealing layers were visible, at least to him. Slicked-back, styled hair. False, white smile. Tailored suit, a carbon copy of the straining shoulder seams he now shrugged uncomfortably against. He’d worked hard to develop Dr. Desire’s public persona. The fact that it didn’t quite fit hadn’t always bothered him. But it was starting to more and more. “Dr. Desire.” A middle-aged woman stepped up to the table and leaned across to squeeze his neck like they were old friends. It was time to go to work. He spent the next hour talking and laughing with his fans. His cheek muscles hurt from the perpetual smiling, and his throat could have used about five gallons of water. Of all the things that came along with being Dr. Desire, the public appearances had become his least favorite. Finally, just at the point he was seriously beginning to think his wrist would fall off, Michael spoke to the crowd. “Sorry, folks. Dr. Desire has to get back to the station. But be sure to check out the Web site for his next local appearance.” With a smile he could no longer feel, Chris waved as he slipped back out the door. Several feet down the block, his shoulders rose and fell on a sigh of relief. “Remind me not to agree to another one of these for at least six months.” “Sorry, you’re doing another in two weeks.” Rolling his stiff neck, Chris let out a groan. “Publicity means money, for you and the station. Wait here for me. I need to check on something inside, then you can give me a ride back to the station.” When had he become a damn taxi? Whatever. It gave him a few minutes of solitude to unwind. These things always drained him. It was weird, the difference between speaking on air and speaking in person. The people were often the same; at least, they all wanted to talk about the same things. But at night, after the show ended and he left the studio behind, he was never as exhausted as he was after these in-your-face appearances. Chris walked farther away, knowing that the bouncers who’d held the crowd back would soon let them go. Late-summer heat waved up from the pavement at his feet. Even an hour after sunset it still held every ounce of the August sun. But there was a nice, unusual breeze. It slipped past him, carrying the smells of the city. Birmingham was nothing like the little Alabama town he’d come from. Back home the smell on the breeze would have been cow manure, freshly mown grass or a mixture of both. It would have held the mouthwatering scents of barbecuing meat and roasting corn, though neither of those would ever have been coming from his own trailer. Here he just smelled money, concrete and the Chinese place down the block. Not necessarily bad, just different. “Chris.” He turned instinctively, realizing too late that the smooth voice was not Michael’s. Every muscle in his body froze. His skin flushed hot before going clammy cold. He hadn’t seen his father for fourteen years. In fact, he’d only laid eyes on the man once in his life. As far as he was concerned, that was once too many. “How are you, son?” With a blinding smile that reminded Chris a little too much of the pictures he’d just signed, Darrell Odom cuffed him on the shoulder in greeting. Shock quickly gave way to a bone-clenching anger. The one time he and his mother had needed the sorry son of a bitch, he had laughed in their faces and told his mother she was a stupid piece of ass for getting herself in trouble in the first place. “What do you want?” He bit out each precise word. Every cell in his body screamed at him to take the shot he’d wanted to all his life, to pummel the perfect white teeth, golden tanned face and bright blue eyes until they were an unrecognizable mass. He wouldn’t, his mama had taught him better. And if he did he’d be no better than his father. As far as Chris was concerned, he wanted nothing from the man, especially not the questionable moral compass he seemed to operate by. “Can’t a father say hello to his son?” “Not you. Let me guess, your latest mark wised up and threw you out on your ass.” Chris smiled. A small spot in the center of his chest warmed as his father’s jaw clenched, confirming his suspicions. “She catch you with another woman or just in your lies?” Darrell’s smile vanished. The change was remarkable. The jovial, polished man he’d been two seconds ago was replaced by someone Chris never would have recognized in a crowd. For the first time he wondered just how old his father actually was. He’d never asked his mother. Ripples of lines bracketed the man’s drawn lips. Deep furrows creased his forehead and the healthy glow he’d radiated vanished to a pale shadow of what it had been before. “Fine. You’re an adult now—” Like the man had ever known him as a child. “The bitch I was with threw me out without a cent. No warning, no nothing, just changed the locks. I don’t even have a spare set of clothes. I just need enough to get back on my feet, to get a place to stay, some clothes to wear. Ten thousand should do it.” Chris’s body flushed hot, and a shot of adrenaline coursed into his veins. He’d been waiting for this day all his life. He’d often railed at God and fate for what had happened to his mother. She’d worked so hard, spent every moment of her life paying for a mistake no one had loved her enough to forgive. He’d carried the weight of knowing that mistake had been him. And that no matter how perfect a child he’d been, how excellent a student, he couldn’t save her. In the end he’d watched as cancer had eaten her from the inside out, knowing that if she’d had a better, easier life—some insurance—that life might have lasted longer. Now the man who could have helped them and had refused was standing with his own hand out. Life was cruel. But fate had a sense of humor. A harsh laugh that Chris didn’t recognize as his own echoed through the falling night. “Let me get this straight—I watched that night as you denied I was your son, as you told my mother she was an idiot for not aborting me and that any messes she’d made were hers to clean up. You refused to give us even $500 and here you are asking for twenty times that. You’re joking, right?” Darrell’s face turned deep red beneath his too-perfect tan. “I know you have it. I didn’t have five hundred to spare.” “You mean your sugar mama wouldn’t give money to the mother of your bastard son. You make me sick. You’re not getting a penny from me.” Chris turned to leave, rubbing at his chest to ease the tight band there. Somehow that hadn’t felt as good as he’d always assumed it would. Staccato steps on the empty sidewalk alerted Chris that the moment wasn’t over just yet. “Don’t you walk away from me, boy.” Darrell grabbed at his arm, but Chris was too quick. He spun around, stepping into the man to stop him short. His father’s blue eyes glowed with an ominous heat. “Your mother should have taught you manners, son.” “Don’t you mention her to me, you bastard. Ever. You don’t know anything about her, about what you sentenced her to that night you refused to help.” The familiar anger and helpless fear rolled through Chris’s blood. His fists clenched against the hunger for retribution. It would be so easy to inflict a tiny slice of the pain his mother had experienced. The pull of vengeance was almost hypnotic. But the man before him wouldn’t pay the price; Chris would. Dr. Desire would. And it wouldn’t bring his mother back. Taking a deliberate step back, Chris put enough space between them to make physical contact impossible. “Let me give you some advice. Go back to whatever dimwitted divorcåe you were conning this time, get down on your hands and knees and beg her for forgiveness. You have a better chance with her than you do with me.” Chris smiled, his muscles no longer numb, each and every one aching in protest. He kept the facade anyway. “Aren’t we all high-and-mighty, Dr. Desire. You’re no better than I am.” “The hell I’m not.” “We both make our living off seducing women. The only difference is they pay me direct. You have that nice corporation cutting you the check. The end result’s the same, boy.” He smiled a perfect smile that sent ripples of unease across Chris’s body. “Sex sells.” Chris stared, speechless. His brain swirled on the words, but he couldn’t form a coherent response. “I’ll let you think about that awhile. See you around.” His father was halfway down the block before Chris had his mouth open and a logical argument ready. Too late. People streamed from the club he’d just left as his father passed by the front door. Yelling at the man now would draw attention he’d rather not have. Out of the crowd Michael appeared, grabbed his elbow and steered him across the street to his waiting Porsche. “Who was that you were talking to?” “No one important.” It wasn’t true. He was nothing like his father. DARRELL SAT IN HIS CAR and fought down the rage. The candy-apple-red Jag was about the only thing of value he owned, and he only owned that because he’d sweet-talked Virginia into putting the title in his name. It was amazing what women would do if you gave them a mind-blowing orgasm. Selling the car wasn’t an option, he wasn’t ready to part with it just yet. It was sleek and red and young, and it reminded him of the youth he’d squandered bowing and scraping to women in order to get by. He’d deserved so much more. There was another way back to the lifestyle he’d grown accustomed to, the lifestyle he deserved. But it required start-up capital, something he didn’t have. But his son did. Taking a deep breath, he unclenched his hands and laid them over the leather-wrapped steering wheel. He stroked the soft curve up and down. The feel of it always reminded him of a woman’s skin, that smooth, silky place just on the underside of a ripe breast. It wasn’t just the money he missed. His sexual appetites were huge, which was why having only one woman never satisfied him. Or rather had never satisfied him. Just one more item on the list of things old age had taken…right along with his looks, his boyish charm, his charisma—everything he needed to function in the high society world of wealthy divorcåes. Damn it! He needed that money and he needed it fast. Down the street he watched his son speed away in a sports car that strikingly resembled the one he sat in. A small smirk tugged at his lips. They were the same. He wasn’t ready to give up just yet. He hadn’t spent almost forty years of his life manipulating people into giving him whatever he wanted for nothing. He’d find an in with his son. Or a weakness he could exploit. His parting shot had certainly hit home. Darrell hadn’t missed the disbelief and utter denial that had skated across Chris’s face. So the boy didn’t like the idea that he was the apple to his tree. Well, it was certainly a start. Maybe tomorrow he’d pay a visit to his famous son’s place of employment and see what he could shake out of those branches. WHY HAD SHE AGREED to this? Karyn’s foot tapped up and down against the polished hardwood floor beneath the table as she waited for Dr. Desire to show up. Her heel clicked in a rhythm that, coming from anyone else, would have annoyed the hell out of her. She couldn’t stop. At least there wasn’t anyone to bother. She sat alone in the quiet room he had reserved for them. Her eyes swept across the cozy space. The dim lighting, flickering candles and mood music all set her nerves on edge. Apparently Dr. Desire hadn’t told the restaurant this wasn’t a real date. Karyn tried desperately not to fidget. Or admit that a part of her really wished it were a date. A mixture of anxiety and anticipation churned at the bottom of her stomach. She had no idea what to expect, from Dr. Desire or herself. “Karyn.” His voice reached her first as he entered the room, melting down her spine in that familiar trail, turning her bones to liquid mush. He was tall and broad and his presence shrank the already-intimate space. The sheer force of him seemed to consume the excess oxygen in the room, to condense the surroundings to nothing more than a block of space too tiny for them both to occupy—without her brain going fuzzy and her skin flushing hot. Those billboards did not do him justice. Karyn knew she was staring, but couldn’t help it. Her first real life glimpse of Dr. Desire had her tongue seemingly glued to the roof of her mouth. His lips curved into a crooked, charming grin, the same one she’d driven past almost every day for the past eighteen months. Candlelight reflected in his blue-gray eyes, catching the smallest glint of mischief lurking there. Maybe it was the flickering light, but she really thought they were more captivating in person. He stopped by the table, towering over her. She looked up and up into his sexy face and had to swallow hard to wet her suddenly dry mouth. Her foot kicked into double time beneath the tablecloth. Heat burst through her body and her nipples tingled in a primitive response she hadn’t experienced in longer than she could remember. He packed one hell of a punch. “Karyn?” She shook off the daze, cringing at the impression she must be making. By nothing more than walking up beside her, Chris had started a chain reaction inside, awakening places on her body she’d thought long dead. She stared up into his intense eyes and wanted to cry in frustration. Sure she’d made her share of stupid mistakes in life, but what had she done to deserve this cruel twist of fate? The one man who’d finally revved her engine and he’d already said no. Not just no, hell, no, wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot-pole no. “You’re not Karyn? I’m sorry. They told me…” She still had to get through dinner, preferably without embarrassing herself more than she already had. “Yes. I am…Chris.” Standing, she tried hard not to bite her lower lip, a bad habit that tended to surface when she was overwhelmed, and motioned to the chair opposite her. Hopefully the table hid the humming energy that made her knees tremble. At least her foot had stopped tapping. “I’m sorry I’m late. Business.” With his head cocked to the side, he offered a lopsided grin equal parts charm and remorse. His heat reached out and touched her, mixing with the visceral response still bursting inside. Her entire body warmed, and moisture gathered beneath the unruly mass of hair she’d pulled tight at the nape of her neck. His eyes snagged her own across the intimate space of their little table, making her feel…caught. Not like a butterfly with its wings pinned down for display. No. The sensation was more like the pull of gravity right before a plane took off. Like some force of nature was holding her back, gathering strength before letting go so she could fly. She blinked, thinking herself completely insane. She tried to look away but found her gaze drawn back to the magnetic energy he radiated with seemingly little effort. A shiver of awareness slid down her spine at the intensity of his study. His eyes roamed every inch of her face. Usually that kind of masculine stare would have set her nerves on edge. She was on edge all right. But it had nothing to do with nerves. Reaching for her water glass, Karyn gulped a swallow, needing busywork for her hands and mind. He must have taken her silence and hasty chug of water as signs of fear. Laying his palms flat on the table in front of him, he said, “I want you to know you have nothing to worry about. No expectations. No pressure. We’ll have a nice dinner. That’s all.” She realized his words and the look of studied sincerity were meant to put her at ease. And if she’d had her normal reaction to a man sitting intimately across from her, they might have been necessary. But Chris Faulkner would not hurt her. She knew this to the soles of her feet. Fear. Anxiety. Calculating the risks. She thought of none of these normal things. It was the image of those tanned, large, roughened hands on her instead of on the snowy tablecloth that had blood whooshing in her ears. And that surprised her. Yes, in the safety of her mind she had admitted she had a physical response to Chris, to his voice, to the sky-high images that seemed to pepper the city. What red-blooded woman wouldn’t? He was gorgeous and had the sort of lazy, husky bedroom voice that drove women crazy. What she hadn’t anticipated was for those rumblings to be exponentially amplified by his actual presence. The reaction she’d had to his picture was safe. She’d never figured on having the opportunity to meet him in person. Now, all she could hear was Anne’s voice in the back of her head repeating over and over, “That man knows his way around a woman’s body. With him, fear wouldn’t be an option. He’d have you naked and panting before you could blink.” She wasn’t naked, but the room had definitely become stuffy. She went to tug at her collar only to realize she wasn’t wearing her normal high-necked blouse but a low-cut, gauzy silk confection that rubbed deliciously against her skin. “Karyn?” His hesitation and low-pitched sound of concern pulled her focus up. Slowly she took in his charcoal-gray suit and white dress shirt, open at his strong throat. Sophisticated and urbane, there was no mistaking him for any man other than Dr. Desire. She looked up into his dark-blue eyes, at the swirls of gray and flecks of the palest green, and knew this man had it all together. The core of her body clenched. A smile, one she hadn’t seen slip since he’d walked in the door, tipped the corners of those breath-stealing eyes heavenward. Intelligence, laughter, reassurance. Anne was the only other person who’d given her this immediate sense of ease—if you discounted the hum of energy jingling her spine right now. “Yes.” The word came out breathy, almost lost in the muted restaurant sounds from outside the room. “Are you okay?” No. She wasn’t. For the first time in five years, her body had flooded with heat. A heat she remembered, one she’d feared never feeling again. One she wanted to embrace, explore, capture. “Yes. I’m…” surprised, excited, achy “…fine.” “Why don’t we order some champagne? It’ll help settle your nerves.” What nerves? Any nerves she’d felt had melted away the moment he’d walked through the door. CHRIS WATCHED Karyn from across the table. She wasn’t what he’d expected. When he’d pictured her in his mind she hadn’t been ugly—but she hadn’t been beautiful, either. Plain, average, unexciting. That’s what he’d expected. What he’d gotten was nothing close to unexciting. She was understated. But she was also…pretty. Fragile. Surprising. Wisps of auburn hair, dark with only a hint of red, fluttered against her cheeks. A long, shining column spilled over one shoulder, a burst of color against her pale-green shirt. But it was her face that held his attention. Thin, her cheekbones high and sharp, her pale skin seemed to glow luminously in the candlelight. He’d seen his share of beautiful women in candlelight. Karyn would never be classified as beautiful. She was something more…unique. Her deep brown eyes flashed with golden glints he could see from half a table away. They were direct, and despite what he’d expected, calm. He fought the urge to breathe in her scent, to let it linger in his senses. That would not be smart. The beginning tingle of attraction was already racing to the base of his spine. His body tightened. They were familiar signs, ones he’d recognized since he was fourteen and had his first sexual encounter with the older girl next door. The fact that Karyn was the first woman to rev his engine in months meant nothing. Well, nothing other than the fact that it had been too long since he’d had sex. It just hadn’t been satisfying lately. Oh, he and his partner had both enjoyed orgasms—Dr. Desire couldn’t provide anything less—but Chris hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that there was something missing. He was tired of playing a role, second-guessing every touch, taste and word against a list of expectations. The kicker was they were expectations he’d built up himself. Dr. Desire was a prison of his own making. Women never seemed interested in spending an evening with Chris, they wanted his alter ego. Karyn was no different. She’d called in to the show wanting something from Dr. Desire, something he wasn’t able to give. Looking across the table at her, he watched the sharp edge of her white teeth crease the flesh of her bottom lip, the first outward sign that she wasn’t as calm as she wanted him to believe. One thing was certain: Karyn was not a candidate to break his dry spell. There were consequences, and he didn’t just mean for her. His job, his show, the responsibility he had to his listeners, it was all too important to throw away on a sexual whim. Despite what his fath—Darrell seemed to think, he had standards. Somehow, over the past few years, Dr. Desire had gotten a reputation. Rumors abounded about his sexual prowess, his conquests. Women he’d never met claimed to have spent time in his bed. He hadn’t been a monk by any stretch of the imagination, but honestly, if he’d had sex with half the purported number, he would never have slept. Mutually satisfying sexual gratification—that part of his reputation was all true. That’s what the women he did make love with wanted from him and, frankly, that’s all he had wanted from them. Karyn. Karyn needed much more than that. Time. Patience. Understanding. He didn’t think he had any of those things. Not to mention sleeping with her could kill his career. The last thing he needed was for a sensationalized news story to show up about how he’d taken advantage of a rape victim. His listeners wouldn’t appreciate that at all. And at the end of the day, the listeners were all that mattered. If he lost them, he lost the show. Gwen Adair, a reporter for the local newspaper, had been dogging his every step lately, looking for something to make headlines with. She hadn’t taken his gentle decline of a rather obvious sexual offer several months ago very well. And while most of the things she’d printed about him so far had been insignificant, he didn’t intend to give her something real. He might have simply fallen into his role as Dr. Desire, but no self-respecting trailer-trash kid would be stupid enough to throw his golden meal ticket away, especially not for sex. Even sex that his body told him would be fantastic. Grappling with his control, Chris thought charm, and smiled. Their waiter approached the table and took his champagne order. Leaning over, the man also poured more water into Karyn’s glass. It hadn’t been anywhere close to empty; in fact, it looked like she’d taken maybe two sips. She glanced up, smiling slightly at the other man with those big, brown eyes. A seed of something he couldn’t quite name lodged somewhere in his chest. His eyes narrowed as he watched the two interact. He didn’t appreciate the other man’s blatant interest in his date. Or the way he crowded into Karyn’s space. But as Chris’s attention swung back to her, the seed dissolved. He couldn’t miss the way she slid back into her chair. She chuckled at some inane comment, and understanding dawned. She was trying to project the image of a carefree woman. But Chris heard the strain in the delicate noise, and her wildly tapping foot beneath the table didn’t escape his notice, either. It brushed against his pant leg with each upswing. As the man slid away to fill their request, Chris watched her chest rise and fall on a silent sigh of relief. “Why didn’t you just tell him to leave you alone?” “What?” She glanced up, her wide brown eyes looking directly at him, into him. His breath caught and held while he studied her. Determination, acceptance and a tiny spark of fear clouded her gaze. But as he watched, the golden specks caught fire and flashed with something completely primitive and completely feminine. Something deep inside him responded. His heart sped up and the blood quickened, rushing downward. He leaned forward, wanting to be sure it hadn’t been a trick of the light, but as he did she blinked and it was gone. “Why didn’t you tell him to back off? You were obviously uncomfortable with him standing so close.” She looked away for a moment before answering. “Because it isn’t his problem. He didn’t do anything wrong.” “But neither did you.” Her lips ghosted up in the faint beginnings of a smile before flatlining again. He would have said more, but the man returned with their bottle at that moment. Through the uncorking ritual, Chris watched her. Her delicate fingers grasped the stem of her glass flute, settling the rim between her lush lips, the bottom one slightly fuller than the top. Her disproportioned mouth was the one anomaly to her appearance. One he liked. Something that made her unique and delightfully imperfect. Her pale throat worked over a mouthful of the bubbling wine as her eyes scanned the oversize menu before her. How this woman had gotten through the past five years without touching a man, let alone sleeping with one, he couldn’t figure out. “I hope you’re not nervous or embarrassed.” She laughed, the last thing he’d expected. But the sound rolled through him, reverberating inside his chest like the pounding bass in the classic rock he loved to listen to late at night, alone in the dark after his show. “So it’s pretty common for your dates to proposition you before dinner even begins? That’s good to know.” Her ability to laugh at herself and their unusual situation impressed him. And her strength astounded him. Unless you knew what signs to look for, you’d never guess that she was anything but relaxed. “As a matter of fact, I’m pretty used to that.” He flashed her a smile meant to bring back that laugh. “But I don’t usually agree to dates with those women, so you’re a first.” He regretted the words the moment they left his mouth as the spark in her eyes dulled and her cheeks bloomed red. “However, I have been on a ton of first dates and, as you can see, have lived to tell the tales. I promise this won’t hurt. You might even find you like me.” “I already like you, Chris.” “You like my public persona. That guy isn’t all I am.” Now why had he said that? It didn’t matter. She could like whoever she wanted—Dr. Desire, Chris Faulkner, the waiter. After this night it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. No matter how appealing and beautiful she was, he wasn’t getting involved. End of story. “I’d like to think I’m not that shallow. I realize your job isn’t all there is to know about you. But I’ve learned a lot, more than you probably think, by listening to the advice you give.” “Like what?” “I know that you have a wickedly sarcastic sense of humor.” Chris rocked back into his chair, dropping the menu he hadn’t really been looking at anyway. “Usually those comments are at the expense of someone’s pride, and afterward I feel horrible.” “See, I knew it. Under that tough, man’s-man persona there’s a softy. You’re a nice guy.” “No. A nice guy wouldn’t say the stuff in the first place. Or wouldn’t continue saying it. I said I feel guilty, but only for a second.” “Well, that’s because the person on the other end usually needs some sense knocked into them.” Maybe she did understand him. He’d often thought he’d carefully compartmentalized his true persona from the polished, charming Dr. Desire, the voice and personality that garnered ratings and multiyear contracts. Maybe not. “That’s one reason I called the show. Not because you were soft and nice. But because you’re hard and tough and usually right. I trust you to tell me what I need to hear.” “What do you need to hear?” His voice dipped lower than he’d intended. He hoped she hadn’t noticed. The last thing he wanted to do was make her uncomfortable. She waved her hands between them. “This is not supposed to be a pop psych session. Just dinner.” She was right. He’d walked into the restaurant intent on proving to Karyn she could enjoy a nice dinner out with a man, a stranger, without having to deal with the complicated issues. He’d specifically set out not to turn on Dr. Desire. He wanted to stay as far away as possible from that proposition she claimed had just slipped out. He didn’t want to give her another chance to mention what she needed from him, how he could help solve all her sexual problems. He couldn’t solve anything. At the moment, however, his libido was sorely tempted to try. 4 ALL THROUGH DINNER Karyn felt as if she was walking a tightrope. Despite the fact that every cell in her body seemed swollen, excited, expectant, somehow she managed to keep her reaction to herself. Or she hoped she had. Leaning toward him across the table was normal, right? She wanted to hear him over the kitchen clatter coming from behind the doors. And so what that she’d forgotten and let their hands touch. Accident. Pure accident. She just hoped Chris hadn’t noticed that when dessert arrived and her tongue darted across her lips in anticipation, she hadn’t been staring at his chocolate tart. “You should try this. It’s wonderful.” Chris looked at her across the table, his fork halfway to his almost-empty plate, a thoroughly satisfied smile on his face. Chocolate could do that to a person. She started to protest, opening her mouth to insist she was full already. But he didn’t give her a chance. Chris reached across the table, putting his fork loaded down with rich creamy mousse and a buttery, flaky crust into her mouth. Her lips closed around the cold metal in reflex. The sinful treat melted on her tongue. Their eyes collided. Electricity snapped from his hand to her lips through the conduit of the fork. He jerked back, pulling it through her still-pursed lips. It stayed suspended between them, wavering slightly from the force of his hold. She swallowed, not tasting the rich pastry anymore, but what she imagined his kiss would be like, spicy with a hint of sweet temptation. He cleared his throat, the sound seeming to break their connection. “I’m sorry.” “No. It was wonderful.” Karyn dropped her eyes to the tablecloth before her, trying to regain her focus. This is not a date. She let the words swirl around in her brain. Maybe this time she’d remember them. Life was so unfair. The first man she’d been attracted to—and if that wasn’t the understatement of the century, she didn’t know what was—in five long, lonely years, and she’d had to blow it by propositioning him on the radio. She was going to kill Anne. Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925146&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.