"She's absolutely breathtaking."
The words emerged as a mere whisper from Justin Madaris's lips before he realized he'd spoken his thoughts aloud. Preferring at the moment to be apart from the growing crowd, he stood tall, a solitary figure, barely distinguishable in the shadows, as his mesmerized gaze followed the woman circulating among the other party guests. A seductive gracefulness marked her every movement. Glossy dark brown hair, stylishly cut, cascaded over her shoulders, accentuating her perfect features and complementing her nutmeg skin. She was, simply put, a strikingly beautiful woman.
Justin absently loosened the knot in his tie as a thrumming heat pulsed deep within him. The woman had a stimulating effect on his vital signs.
Who is she? he wondered, lifting a glass to his lips. The sparkling taste of the vintage wine was blotted from his mind as he continued to engage in a visual exploration of her body. The backless black dress was stunning. The delicate fabric clung subtly, defining her shapely figure. He couldn't help noticing that the side slit of the outfit revealed one long beautiful leg. He'd bet her legs fit perfectly around a man's waist while they made love.
Instinctively he took a step forward, intent on finding out who she was. His face dimpled into a smile. The woman had thoroughly aroused his curiosity and totally captured his interest.
There's nothing like seeing old friends again, Lorren Jacobs thought, making her way through the room filled with numerous people from her past. Like her, most of them had spent their childhoods here at what used to be a foster home run by Paul and Nora Phillips. To them, this large house located in the small town of Ennis, Texas?a skip and a hop from Dallas?was home.
Tonight they'd returned and had gone all out to host the party honoring Mama Nora's sixty-fifth birthday. Nora and her husband, Paul, who'd died six years ago, had been instrumental in shaping their lives, providing them with food and shelter, love, friendship, and guidance.
A smile touched Lorren's lips as she glanced around the room. She knew that no expense had been spared. The food committee had special caterers flown in from New York. The decorating committee had depleted every florist shop for miles. The entertainment committee had hired a popular disc jockey to alternate with a well-known jazz band from New Orleans. A small army of people had turned out to celebrate the birthday of a woman who was a pillar of the community, a supporter of noble causes, and a dear friend.
Lorren stopped to hold a brief conversation with Mr. Monroe, the principal of her old high school, when she suddenly had the strangest feeling she was being watched. Scanning the room, she could find no reason for the peculiar sensation.
When her conversation with Mr. Monroe ended, she made her way to the buffet table, passing out quick smiles of recognition and several words of greeting to those she met. The massive spread of food looked delectable. But before she could pick up a plate, someone called her name.
Turning in the direction of the familiar voice, she came face-to-face with her closest friend, Syneda Walters, who had also grown up in the Phillipses' household. Long luxurious golden bronze curls tumbled over Syneda's shoulders, softly framing an attractive light brown face. Syneda's eyes, sea green in color, were perfect for the long curling sweep of lashes veiling them.
"So far, so good. The caterers outdid themselves. Everything's perfect," Syneda said excitedly.
Lorren smiled. "That's the reason we made you head of the food committee, Syneda. You could be counted on to make everything first-class. We didn't give you the nickname 'Classy Sassy' all those years ago for nothing."
Both women laughed. Their sound mingled with the joviality of the other guests in the room. "Let's go in here," Syneda said, pulling Lorren through a pair of double doors at the far end of the room. "It's escape time," she teased. They stepped into a large, book-lined study and closed the door behind them.
"I meant to tell you earlier how sharp your hair looks. That style looks super on you," Syneda said. "I never understood why you began wearing your hair short."
Lorren managed a half smile. "Scott preferred it that way." Saying her ex-husband's name evoked memories of a hellish marriage and the very real relief of her divorce.
"Hey, as far as this sister is concerned, there's a number of things Scott Howard preferred," Syneda responded tersely, not trying to hide the contempt she felt for the man. "One of which was being a fool and not appreciating what he had."
You better shut her up, Lorren's inner voice warned, or homegirl will begin sounding off on Scott's cruddy attributes from now till kingdom come. Even though you agree with all of them, he's the last person you want to think about tonight, she thought, studying the woman standing before her.
The two of them were bonded by a strong friendship. Syneda had been maid of honor at Lorren's wedding, then two years later had helped her through a shattering divorce. Although they were close, they were completely opposite in personality and temperament. Lorren had majored in English literature in college while Syneda had ventured into law and now worked for one of the most prestigious law firms in New York.
Lorren also knew her best friend had achieved the life she'd always wanted. Syneda had been adamant about not getting seriously involved with anyone until she'd blossomed in her career.
Lorren's own life hadn't turned out quite the way she had planned. Unlike Syneda, she had always hoped to be happily married by her twenty-sixth birthday, with at least one child?possibly another on the way?have a beautiful beach house on the Pacific coast where she'd be typing out her second or third award-winning book. With her birthday a few months away, all her dreams seemed unattainable.
"So much for a breather," Loren said, pulling Syneda toward the door. She didn't want to dwell on her lost dreams any longer. "Let's go back."
"Okay," Syneda agreed, sensing Lorren's melancholic mood. "The night's still a baby, and if we're lucky, we'll run into a couple of fine, unattached brothers here."
"Maybe," Lorren answered uninterestedly. "I've noticed you're not lacking attention tonight."
Syneda raised an arched brow at what could have been taken as a dig. "You wouldn't either if you'd loosen up, girlfriend, and stop being so uptight around men. Don't think I haven't been checking you out. And if I've picked up on it, so will Mama Nora, if she hasn't already. The last thing we need is for her to start worrying about any of us. She's done enough of that over the years."
Lorren released a smothered sigh. She'd hoped her self-imposed barriers of protection hadn't been obvious. "You're right." As they left the study she asked, "Are you still flying out first thing in the morning?"
"Yeah. I need to finalize an important case, but I'll be back Monday night. Then I'll be here for at least a week."
Lorren smiled. "Great. I can't wait to have lunch at Sophie's Diner."
Syneda grinned. "Neither can I. I hear their onion burger hasn't changed. You still get more onions than burger."
Laughter erupted between the two women again.
"The woman in the black dress, do you know her?" Justin asked the tall, distinguished-looking older man who happened to be the brother of the honoree.
Senator Roman Malone's gaze followed Justin's, and a thoughtful smile curved his mouth. "That's Lorren Jacobs. She lived here with Nora and Paul, then moved away when she graduated from high school about seven years ago."
"Where's she living now?"
"Was in California, but Nora mentioned earlier tonight Lorren's moved back to Ennis." The senator grinned. "Son, you ask more questions than the National Enquirer, and I've given all the information I intend to." His smile faded. "But I'll give you fair warning, Justin. Nora also mentioned that Lorren's divorce left her with deep scars."
Justin glanced across the room at the woman dressed in black. His gaze took in everything about her. He suddenly remembered things he'd noticed earlier that hadn't made sense.
Now they did.
She seemed to avoid one-on-one conversation. She seemed more comfortable in a group.And so far, she'd turned down every man who'd asked her to dance.
The senator peered up at him. "I can tell by the gleam in your eyes, you aren't taking me seriously."
Justin's face split into a wide grin. "As an old college pal of Dad's, you should know a Madaris can't resist a challenge."
The senator laughed. "Do you want an introduction?"
"No, not yet. I want to enjoy the view some more," Justin replied before walking away.
* * *
Lorren, absorbed in the conversation swirling around her between Syneda and Senator Malone, who'd come to join them, again experienced an eerie feeling of being watched. Another quick scan of the room revealed nothing, but the feeling persisted. A few minutes later she took still another glance around the room.
Then she saw him.
He stood alone, casually leaning against the wall. His stance was formidable, and his gaze scanned her assessingly. The look he was giving her came from a man who knew what he liked and had no qualms about showing it.
Lorren's pulse skittered when his gaze moved appreciatively from her face and downward, over the curves of her figure and legs before returning to her face again. She quickly turned her back to him but, unable to resist a glance, discovered his gaze still glued to her, and, to make matters worse, he was heading her way. Watching him advance with long, purposeful strides, she couldn't tear her gaze from his.
Dressed in an expensive suit tailored to fit his lithe, hard body like a glove, his aura of rugged masculinity suggested he'd be just as relaxed in a pair of well-worn jeans and a chambray shirt. He appeared to be well over six feet tall, and the muscles rippling beneath the suit jacket told her his athletic build came as a result of vigorous physical activity.
His face was arrestingly carved in sharp angles and fine lines. Close-cropped, curly black hair, and a neatly trimmed mustache accentuated his sensual upper lip and emphasized the mystery in eyes the color of chocolate chips. The healthy glow of his chestnut skin tempted her to touch it to see if it really felt like warm satin.
Lorren blinked. She suspected she was finally losing her sanity. Two years of pain and humiliation had somehow slipped her mind, and she'd become utterly fascinated by a total stranger. She had to hand it to the man for giving special meaning to the description tall, dark, and handsome.
"Dr. Madaris. Come join us," Senator Malone said. "Do you know everyone?" he asked, indicating the others.
"No, I don't, Senator," Justin answered smoothly, scanning the group. He quickly returned his gaze to Lorren and focused on her features. Up close she was even more beautiful. She possessed eyes the color of rich caramel, a straight nose, a nicely rounded chin, and a beautifully shaped mouth.
"Well, then," the senator replied. "Syneda Walters, Lorren Jacobs, meet Dr. Justin Madaris."
Lorren's heart hammered against her ribs from the contact of Justin's hand in a brief handshake. Long fingers gently squeezed hers before releasing them. He elicited the most powerful and intense physical reaction she'd ever experienced. It totally unnerved her. His eyes glowed with intense male interest under thick black lashes. A shiver of warning passed through her.
"Lorren, would you like to dance?" Justin asked.
His voice, deep and sensual, stirred something elemental in her blood. Refusal hovered on her lips, but when she caught Syneda's gaze, the message clearly said, Girl, don't be a fool. Go for it!
Against her better judgment, she said, "Yes."
The DJ had put on a slow number by Luther Vandross when Justin took Lorren's arm and led her toward the dance floor. She could feel the gentle imprint of his fingers on her skin and shivered.
"You're trembling. Are you cold?" he asked. His voice, low, strong, yet seductive, caressed the words he'd spoken. His gaze left hers and dropped to her arms as if checking for goose bumps. He returned his attention to her.
"No," she replied coolly, not liking the effect he had on her. She was unprepared for the sheer power of his masculinity. He had a magnetic, compelling charm that undoubtedly paved his way into a lot of women's hearts, not to mention their beds, she thought. When he pulled her into his arms, she tipped her head to study him.
"You hesitated before accepting my invitation to dance. Somebody tell you I've got two left feet?"
Caught off guard by his teasing, Lorren fumbled for an answer.
"No. But you didn't expect me to rush into your arms, did you?" she replied, forcing a demure smile.