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A selection from A Venetian Affair — Destination: Marriage

Dayle Alexander leaned against the door jamb to Maxwell Kinnick’s office and watched him fuss with his tie. He was standing in profile to her, using his reflection in the glass of a display case to rework the Windsor knot. He had a meeting with a client in half an hour. Dayle’s bet was that the client was female.

     “New tie?” she inquired.

     He glanced over and grinned, not embarrassed in the least to be caught preening. They had known one another a dozen years and been business partners for eight. If Dayle knew one thing about the man, it was that he took great care with his appearance and appreciated fine things. The silk tie and tailored suit he wore were proof of that.

     “I picked it up in Milan last week.” His smile turned wicked. “Same place I bought those red panties for you. Have you worn them yet?”

     The man was a shameless flirt. Benign but shameless. And this was an old game.

     “Maybe,” she offered.

     “I’ll take that as a yes.” He turned his head slightly and regarded her out of one eye. “So, how do they look on?”

     “You’ll have to ask Ryan,” she replied, referring to her long-time boyfriend.

     Max placed a hand over his heart, his expression shifting from wily to wounded. “You’re killing me, Dayle. You know that, right? Absolutely killing me.”

     Unfazed by his dramatic proclamation, she nodded. “It’s all part of my evil plot to take over the business.”

     Together they owned Globetrotter Sales, an import-export company that Max had started from nothing more than a dozen years earlier. The company had been in its infancy when Dayle had hired in as his assistant. The pay had been so-so, the hours horrendous, especially since she’d been trying to squeeze in business classes at New York University at the time. But she’d been glad for the job and eager to be totally self-sufficient after a particularly nasty divorce. Before that, she had been a coddled and over-protected only child.

     Four years after hiring in, their business relationship had changed. Dayle had a good eye for investments, one reason she had amassed a tidy sum in her stock portfolio. While she didn’t believe in taking big risks, she did believe in exploring opportunities. She’d seen expanding Globetrotter’s as one such opportunity. Initially, Max had specialized in high-end imports. Dayle had written up a business proposal suggesting that he consider more mid-range options and add exports. She’d included an analysis of expenditures and then she had boldly suggested they use her nest egg to fund the expansion.

     Max had taken an agonizingly long time to study the proposal. Afterward, he’d said, “That would make you my partner.”

     “Exactly.” She’d held her breath.

     “I’ve never had a partner before.”

     His reply hadn’t been quite yes. Even so, Dayle had stretched out her hand. “Well, now you do. Deal?”

     Even after all these years she could clearly recall the slow smile that had spread over Max’s face and the heat that, for some reason, had suffused her own. He hadn’t taken her hand to shake it. Instead, he’d used it to pull her forward, pull her into his arms. Then he’d kissed her full on the mouth.

     “Deal,” he’d murmured afterward.

     At the time, she’d been shocked – not just by the intimate nature of the kiss, but by the high-voltage current of desire that had zipped through her body during it. After her disastrous, four-year marriage the last thing Dayle had wanted was to become involved with a man, but she had been – and she remained – especially determined to steer clear of handsome charmers like Max. He was too smooth, too ready with a compliment. And his effect on her pulse – even before that kiss – had been a little too reminiscent of the effect her good-looking, good-for-nothing ex had had.

     Still, she hadn’t backed down about becoming Max’s partner, even if she had made it clear that business was the only thing she had in mind. They’d worked side-by-side, putting in many long days and weekends to expand Globetrotter’s. Afterward, they’d moved their headquarters to its current trendy location in a revitalized Lower Manhattan neighborhood.

     Dayle saw to the details and kept an eye on the fine print, searching out goods and products to be shipped abroad or brought into the United States. Max continued to work the sales end. The man was a natural at cutting deals and getting people to sign on the dotted line, and he loved to travel, spending more time outside of New York than he did in it. Their partnership was perfect in many ways, and though the man still flirted outrageously with her, even bringing back red silk unmentionables whenever he went on trips abroad, he’d never kissed Dayle on the mouth again.

     Max buttoned his coat now and faced her. “How do I look?”

     Drop dead gorgeous was the phrase that came to mind, but as Dayle levered away from the jamb, she merely shrugged. “How do you always look?”

     “Come on, sweetheart,” he coaxed, his voice turning low and liquid. “Just this once, say it.”

     He looked like something out of an old Hollywood movie. The jacket fit his broad shoulders perfectly. She’d never met a man who wore clothes half as well, and that included her boyfriend. Whether dressed down in jeans or decked out in designer suits, Max always looked sophisticated, elegant and decidedly debonair. Old Hollywood, she thought again, but she shook her head.

     “You’ll get no compliments from me, Kinnick. I don’t believe in feeding your already enormous ego.”

     “You know what they say. Big ego …”

     She felt her lips twitch, but forced her expression to remain stern. “You’re lucky we’re partners or this conversation would constitute sexual harassment.”

     “Only if the advances were unwanted and the work environment was deemed hostile.” He took a step toward her. “Nothing hostile here.”

     “Move any closer and that could change.”

     Max merely laughed. “When are you going to dump Ryan and admit that you’re madly in love with me?”

     “Oh, about the same time you decide you can commit to one woman and one woman only.” Dayle did smile now. “In other words, it’s not going to happen.”

     “Variety is the spice of life. You should try it.”

     “You should try monogamy.”

     “I am monogamous. I don’t believe in cheating.” This he said emphatically.

     Dayle might have wondered about that, but he’d moved closer, bringing the seductive scent of his cologne with him. It curled around her like a lover’s embrace. She exhaled sharply.

     “You don’t have to cheat, Max. Your relationships have the shelf-life of a carton of milk.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s called commitment phobia.”

     Her pronouncement didn’t bother him in the least. He tapped the tip of her nose with his index finger, and then ran his knuckles lightly over the curve of her cheek. It took all of her willpower not to tremble.

     “You know, a woman who’s been dating to a man for years and has neither moved in with him nor set a wedding date really shouldn’t lecture someone else on commitment.”

     She cleared her throat, reminded of the reason she’d stepped into his office. “Funny you should mention that.”

      For just a moment, she swore Max’s easy smile faltered. But then his lips were curving, his dark eyes lighting. “Don’t tell me you’re finally going to put that poor bastard out of his misery and cuff him with the old ball and chain?”

     “I’ve accepted his proposal of marriage, yes.”

     “You say tomato ….” He shrugged. “Congratulations, sweetheart. So, may I kiss the bride?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He leaned forward and bussed her cheek.

     “Thank you.”

     “So, when did this come about?” he asked.

     “Over the weekend.”

     He studied her, eyes narrowing just a little. “It’s Thursday and you’re just now getting around to telling me? Worried that you might change your mind? Or worried that I might help you change it?”

     She didn’t like his conclusions, especially since the former more so than the latter held a nugget of truth. Dayle wanted to be over the moon with excitement about her decision. Instead, she felt … what was the emotion? Not resigned. No, certainly not that. Realistic? Marrying Ryan made sense, especially now. She supposed that was to be expected since their relationship was based more on pragmatism rather than passion.

     “I’m not going to change my mind.” She said it resolutely, for her own benefit as well as for Max’s, before turning to leave. He fell into step beside her.

     “Well, don’t keep me in suspense. When is the big day?” He draped an arm around her shoulders as they walked to her office, which was right next to his.

     “The last Saturday in June.” She casually removed his arm and scooted around to the opposite side of her desk, putting five feet of solid oak between them.

     “This June?” He pursed his lips in dismay. “That gives you less than six months to make plans.”

     Dayle laughed. “You sound like my mother, Max.” And, oh, was Lorna McAvoy displeased with the situation, even though she was ecstatic that after years of fence-sitting Dayle had finally begun to make plans for a wedding. “When I told her she pitched a fit. She’s determined that I should have a big, splashy affair since I eloped when I married Craig.”

     That had been back when Dayle was young and stupid. She’d been eighteen and so blind, trusting her husband completely when just months into their marriage he had begun to work late. Then weekend meetings started taking him out of town, but she still hadn’t caught on. It was only after she came across a credit card statement that she realized he’d not only been cheating on her but charging everything from hotel rooms and fancy dinners to expensive jewelry to their jointly held card. By the time their marriage was legally dissolved she’d been broken-hearted and broke, wounded but far wiser. She wouldn’t make the mistake of marrying a flirt a second time. Ryan – solid, stable and dependable – was anything but a ladies man.

     “You’re her only daughter. That’s all but a sin.”

     Dayle fought the urge to roll her eyes. Her mother had adored Max from the moment they’d met and no wonder given the way he catered to Lorna’s strongly-stated opinions.

     “I’m thirty-six years old and I’ve been to the altar once.”

     “Even if the bride won’t be blushing, she deserves a day filled with style and romance.”

     Dayle liked the idea of both, but, “I think those can be managed on a smaller scale than what my mother has in mind.”

     She picked up the jade-handled letter opener he’d brought her from Taipei and began opening the day’s mail.

     “Lorna only wants the best for you.”

     “Don’t take her side, Max, or, swear to God, I’ll have to hurt you.” She pointed the opener’s sharp end in his direction.

     “Promises, promises.”

     His gaze turned sensual and the smile he offered would have done Lucifer proud. As it was, it sent the familiar burn of sparks shooting up Dayle’s spine. She’d never managed to become completely immune to such sparks, but she wasn’t about to let them determine her future, let alone sabotage it a second time.

     Max started for the door. “Off to my meeting. It’s likely to run late.” Dark brows bobbed meaningfully. “I won’t be seeing you again until tomorrow morning … or perhaps the afternoon.”

     She set the letter-opener aside. “Actually, Max, I was wondering if you would have dinner with me this evening.”

     He stopped, clearly surprised by the invitation. They didn’t socialize outside of work, even though they sometimes attended events thrown by clients or other business-related functions. Ryan always escorted Dayle. She no longer tried to remember the names of the women who accompanied Max.

     “You’re asking me out? Feeling caged already, hmm?”

     “This is serious. I need to talk to you about something important. It’s about us and the future,” she blurted.

     The easy smile slipped. For a moment, something enigmatic took its place. “Does that mean Ryan won’t be accompanying you?”

     “No. This is between you and me.”

     “How can I resist when you put it like that? Do you have a place in mind?” he asked.

     “I was just thinking of something casual so I won’t feel out of place in my work clothes.” She smoothed down the front of the navy blazer she wore over a silk blouse and wool trousers.

     She should have known Max would object. “Go home and change into something eye-catching. I’ll pick you up at your apartment and we’ll dine at Daniel.”

     She whistled through her teeth and for good reason. A meal at the premiere French restaurant was going to set him back a few hundred dollars at least. Too intrigued by the possibility to dismiss it out of hand, she asked, “Do you think you can get reservations on such short notice? I’ve heard you should make them at least a month in advance.”

     “I know someone who knows someone.” He shrugged. “What do you say? We can toast your nuptials, maybe check out the private dining room as a possible wedding location.”

     She should decline and suggest another, less pricy location. She opted for a compromise. “We’ll go dutch and I’ll meet you there. Is seven okay?”

     He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “I think I can wrap things up with Janiece by then.”

     “Janiece?”

     “The glass artist in SoHo who stopped by the office last week. Tall and blonde with a very firm … handshake.”

     She found it impossible not to chuckle. “God, you’re incorrigible, Max. Truly incorrigible.”

     “That’s only because I try.” He winked and was gone.


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