"Ladies and gentlemen," Brandy Snopes said, tossing back her luxurious auburn hair and wetting carmine lips. "I give you-Carolee Burns!"
Applause broke out and Carolee entered from Brandy's office at Bistro Brandy on Kirkland's Lake Street. The full skirt of her black silk dress flipped about her calves. Her bare shoulders and the decolletage at the neck of the backless halter top were luminously pale.
Wearing a stretchy strapless dress of turquoise sequins, Brandy kissed and hugged Carolee, then backed away, clapping as she went.
Max Wolfe sat at a small round table to the right of the baby grand piano. To the right and with one table closer to, but not blocking, the makeshift space where Carolee performed.
He knew that she and Brandy were old friends--that they'd known each other since grade school. Max and Brandy had met more recently--four years ago when they'd had a brief fling and been lucky enough to realize they weren't meant for each other but that they liked the friendship.
It was Brandy who let Max know each time Carolee was going to play at the bistro. He didn't like feeling disappointed that this would be her last night here for more than a month.
When she sat down, the black dress swirled around slim ankles and drew attention to high, very sexy sandals.
She played, and Max sipped a glass of red wine. He didn't know the names of her pieces, but every one of them turned him on. A feeling that he wouldn't be anywhere else but watching her rattled him. Max Wolfe, the man no woman had managed to tame, had a bad case. Even though he'd been smitten by someone whose complicated life was public knowledge, including the fact that she wasn't interested in a new man, he wasn't finding a way to switch off his feelings. He lowered his eyes. If his history was repeating, the challenge she presented could add to her appeal.
He wasn't looking for a way to stop the feelings.
She looked at him.
Max smiled, just a little, and rolled the bowl of his glass between his hands.
Carolee seemed to keep looking at him but he couldn't be sure she actually saw him. When she played her whole body moved. She wasn't thin and he liked that. He also liked the way she wore her thick, dark hair rolled away from her face and caught loosely at the back of her head. Her face was heart-shaped, her chin pointed. There was nothing typical about her. She'd been described as interesting but not conventionally good-looking. Max had spent more than one solitary evening enjoying visions of her, and wishing he could figure out how to spend a lot more time looking at her unconventional face.
"You again, huh?"
Max jumped and glanced up at a white-haired guy who was probably seventy, even if his light eyes could pierce a man.
"Have we met, Sir?" Politeness to older males had been an obsession Max's father passed on.
"No," the man said. "I'm Sam. You expecting company?"
Max shook his head, no, and Sam promptly commandeered the second chair at the table.
"What d'you think of this place?" Sam asked. "Hokey, huh? Faux Italian."
Max smiled and glanced around at rough-plastered terra cotta walls and silk grape vines draped along pink beams. "I don't know," he said. Bunches of purple plastic grapes dripped from the vines. "Have you been to Italy?"
"Nah. Why would I go somewhere foreign when I live in the best country in the world."
"I went there a couple of times," Max said. "I liked it. Beautiful country. Nice people. This place isn't so far off some of the ones I ate in there."
Sam snorted. "I guess that puts me in my place. Did you have dinner yet?"
"You gonna eat?"
"No," Max said. "Just stopping in for a drink. Can I buy you one? Or are you hungry. Don't let me put you off."
"Just coffee," the man said. "I'm not hungry and I abused the other privilege a long time ago. Now I don't need it."
Max signaled a waiter and ordered coffee.
"I saw you here before," Sam said. "Several times. You must be a real music lover." His sharp eyes skewered Max again.
"Depends on the music. I like this. I heard her play in New York once. She's got a supper club there. Or she did."
"Still does." The guy cleared his throat. "At least, that's what I'm told."
"Nice place. Burns Near Broadway. Good food. But I've got to confess I went for her, not the food. She's phenomenal. I don't guess she gets to New York much now."
Sam shrugged and cleared his throat. "You live around here?"
"Uh huh. A condo. Here in Kirkland."
"I wish these bozos would quit talking and eating," Sam said of diners at the bistro.
Max didn't point out that Sam hadn't stopped talking since he sat down. "They do quiet down while she plays," he pointed out. "They know they're in on something special. I keep expecting the word to spread so much it'll be impossible to get in here, but this is mostly regulars and Brandy doesn't advertise."
"Carolee wouldn't come if things got out of hand."
Max noted Sam's confidence when he made statements about Carolee Burns, but made no comment.
She ran her fingers over the keys and those who continued to eat did so discreetly. Sam's coffee was delivered but he ignored it. He bent forward over a bright yellow table cloth, his eyes fixed on the pianist, and Max frowned. For Sam to have seen him here before meant the other man had also been present.
"What do you think of her?" Sam leaned close and whispered. "She's something, huh?"
"Yes, something." Her fingers skimmed across the keyboard and she sang in a husky voice, a slow, husky voice. Her eyelids closed and he could see her eyes moving beneath. "Gutsy, too. I like that."
"I know who you are, y'know," Sam said. "I bet everyone here does. Must be hard to hide when you're bigger than anyone else around."
"It might be if I was trying to hide." Max didn't want to talk about himself. "She shouldn't be shut away in this backwater. She's a woman who needs to be free and that doesn't make her a bad wife-ex-wife-or mother. She got a bum rap."
The unwavering attention that comment brought him wasn't too comfortable. "You ever been married?" Sam asked.
"Are you involved?"
"No." Max raised his eyebrows.
"I know, I know," Sam said. "Nosey old bastard, aren't I? Just wondered. What d'you do now you can't play football anymore?"
The waiter put a basket of warm bread on the table and Max tore off a piece. He made a diversion of gathering crumbs into a small pile. "I own a software company," he said finally. "And I help out with highschool football for The Lakes. I'm kind of a visiting motivator who gives pointers."
"Must have been a helluva shock. The accident. Trapped under a pickup like that. Then watching your best buddy get your job had to hurt."
"I'm a grownup. I got over it." More or less. "And Rob Mead is still the best friend a man could have. He couldn't help what happened to me." Max didn't want to talk about this anymore. Avoiding comments on what people liked to call his "tragedy" could keep him at home for long periods.
"Do you like kids?"
Startled, Max looked at him quizzically. He thought for a moment. "Yes, I guess I do. I don't think I'd have wanted to get involved with a high school team if I didn't."
"Ever think about having your own?"
"My own?" Max was having difficulty listening to Carolee Burns and understanding Sam's oblique questions.
"Your own kids."
He gave that some thought, too. "With the right woman, sure." Carolee was looking in his direction again and he smiled, making sure his expression was open and friendly. She smiled back but he still didn't think she was really aware of him.
"She's a charmer," Sam said. "Never saw a woman with so much to offer who had so little confidence in herself."
"Maybe you're right, but I like her just the way she is."
"You do, huh?"
"Well," Max drank more wine and followed it with a bite of bread. "Well, I don't know her, do I. But I think I'd like her a lot if I did."
Sam sipped at his coffee and grimaced. "Swill," he said. "This stuff never saw a coffee bean. Do you ride."
"I'm sorry?" Max set his glass down on top of the wet circle that had already formed on the cloth.
"Horses." Sam said. "I'm getting a couple out at my place for when my granddaughter visits. I'm too old to keep up with exercising 'em."
"I grew up riding on my folks' farm. And if that's an invitation, thank you. I might take you up on the offer one of these days."
"That's good." The man's broad grin disconcerted Max.
"Do you know what this piece she's playing is called?" Max asked to change the subject.
Sam considered, then said, "I Know You In The Dark. Strange she never wrote any words."
"Do you know if she wrote the music."
"Sure, she wrote it. When she was married to moron, the guy she was supposed to have taken advantage of. I ask you, does she look like she could take advantage of anyone?"
Good old Sam knew a great deal about Carolee Burns and Max intended to find out why. "She looks intense to me, intense but gentle."
"And she's beautiful if you like a face that's all eyes."
Max grinned. "She is beautiful."
"You must be pretty well fixed," Sam said offhandedly. "All that money from playing in the pros, and now your own software company."
"I can pay my bills."
The piece of music Carolee played didn't need any words. Just knowing the title conjured images of heat and damp skin that caused Max to ache in places where he enjoyed the sensation. She was really sexy, he hadn't noticed just how sexy before. Now and again she ran her tongue over her full lower lip and she kept her eyes closed almost all the time she played, only to open them with an vaguely startled expression, as if she was surprised to discover she wasn't alone.
He could watch her and imagine she was playing for him, telling him she'd know him in the dark.
She didn't know it, but they had things in common. The losses were different, but they had both lost. First her marriage had failed and her child had been all but taken from her. Then she'd chosen to walk away from a dynamic career. She could go back to the career. He didn't have that choice. He'd been a wide receiver with the Broncos. Speed and his teammates' confidence in his reliability went with the job. After the accident he'd brought himself back to excellent physical shape, but the metal plates in his legs meant he wouldn't play again. Carolee obviously wasn't sure exactly what she wanted for the rest of her life. Neither was he.
He'd just like to talk to her-alone. She might turn out to be vapid, but he didn't think so, and he couldn't shake the feeling that they'd have plenty to say to each other.
Sam didn't talk anymore and soon the only sounds in the restaurant came from the piano and from Carolee singing. Her mood changed with the mood of each piece but Max couldn't get that one melody out of his head. I Know You In The Dark. He wanted to know her in the dark, and in the sunlight or the rain.
He'd been alone too long. It was time he found a new lady.
Max looked at a clock on the wall. Carolee had been playing almost forty-five minutes. A crowd hovered inside the front doors, straining to get a better look at her. He saw her nervous expression when she turned her head and saw them.
"Uh oh," Sam said, pushing back his chair. "She's about had enough. Time to get her out of here."
Bodyguard, maybe? Or her driver more likely. Max pushed back from the table, too. He'd follow at a distance but make sure they got away safely.
The moment she finished the number she was playing, Carolee rose from the bench to bow and smile in all directions. The applause would be loud even in a much larger room. She walked toward Sam, caught Max's eye, and veered away toward Brandy's office.
A man reached for her arm as she passed. She sidestepped him, but without appearing angry.
"Parking lot at the back," Sam muttered. "She's not usually this edgy. I'd better get her out through the kitchens."
"I'll make sure no one bothers her," Max said, doing what came naturally and using his height and muscular weight to wall off a path from the office to the kitchens. "Tell her she'll be fine and walk her out. These folks think she's great, that's all."
Sam opened the office door and said something Max couldn't hear. Grinning and waving, Carolee came out, offered Max a grateful wink, and hurried into the kitchens.
Just that quickly she was gone.
And just that quickly Max was left with a wonderful picture of her winking one definitely green eye.
Italian music came from overhead speakers. Chatter and laughter meant everyone was having a good time and that they hadn't noticed any awkwardness on Carolee's part.
"Hey, Max," Brandy said, placing her tall, shapely body in front of him. "She's great. You've got good taste."
"I like listening to her. Thanks for giving me a call and letting me know she'd be here."
Brandy ran her hands up and down his sides and puckered her lips at him. "I was watching you. You look lonely to me, Max. And frustrated, maybe? How about getting together later-for old time's sake. No expectations, just good company."
He really did like her. "Not tonight, kid. I'm beat. Can I have a raincheck?"
"You bet." She pressed her elbows to her sides, showing off awe-inspiring cleavage. "Just one little kiss, though?"
He dropped a kiss on her brow but when she caught his head in both of her hands, he gave up and pressed his lips to hers. Fortunately he'd had enough practice to manage sliding contact. "That was nice," he said honestly. "We'll get together soon."
"Oh, yes we will," she said. "Now run along."
He did as he was bid and didn't get a single comment from the staff when he exited via the kitchens as Carolee and Sam had.
The lot behind the bistro was small, badly lighted, and smelled dank. Sudden shrieks from cats of the night startled him, but Max's luck was holding. He made out Carolee leaning against the side of a one ton Dodge pickup. The hood was propped up and he could hear Sam's voice spitting a venomous tirade from the depths of the engine compartment.
Max hadn't expected to feel shy if he was ever more or less alone with Carolee, but he did. Still he pushed himself to amble toward the Dodge and call, "Hi, Sam. It's Max. You having some trouble?"
Sam's head emerged and he wiped his brow on his sleeve. "Nothing but trouble. Never has been."
"It's been perfectly fine for fourteen years," Carolee said. "It's tired and neglected is all. Time you traded it in."
"No way." Sam used a wrench like a baton. He made a growling sound and said, "Carolee Burns, meet Max Wolfe. You youngsters are to blame for all this planned obsolescence. If something breaks down, you want to throw it away and buy new. If I didn't have a bit of arthritis, I could keep this thing going until we get home. It starts, but it's touchy. If you could drive it, girl--"
"But I can't drive a stick shift. We both know that. I'll take some lessons."
"That's not going to help us now."
Max tossed around the possibilities before saying, "I could drive you in my car, then come back and get you in the morning so you could deal with the Dodge."
"I'm not leaving my truck here," Sam said, all sharpness. "You might not get it, but there are a lot of young whippersnappers just dying to get their hands on something like this. If they couldn't steal it, they'd strip it. I'd better get help."
"I could drive it for you," Max said and shook his head slightly. What was he thinking of, getting involved here?
Carolee spoke at last. "Then you'd be marooned without wheels."
"He could drive your car back," Sam said quickly. "We'd come into Kirkland for it in the morning. Max lives up the street here in a condo."
"I see." Clearly she didn't see, but she wasn't sure how to argue what Sam seemed so sure of.
"You two could drive out in my car while I drive this," Max said. "That would solve everything."
"What do you drive?" Sam asked.
"A Cadillac," he said and laughed uncomfortably. "One of the drawbacks of having mostly metal legs is that it's more comfortable to stretch them out."
"We're not driving your Cadillac," Sam said. "No way. Might do something to it. No, if you'd be kind enough to drive us back, you can use Carolee's wheels for tonight."
Max wanted to ask how Sam intended to get anywhere tomorrow if he didn't have a vehicle. He kept his mouth shut instead. The time always came to give in gracefully.
Carolee went to the driver's side of the truck and Max handed her up. Promptly she slid to the middle of the bench seat and angled her legs to the passenger side of the cab. Sam got in beside her and slammed his door.
Max took a cleansing breath through his nose and climbed behind the wheel. "Here we go," he said and turned the key in the ignition. The engine turned over immediately and smoothly, but he treated the gas and clutch gently just in case.
"I'll bring you home," Carolee said. "Then you'll be put out as little as possible."
He shouldn't be so pleased at the idea of spending more time with her--alone.
Beside him, close enough for their arms to touch, Carolee sat quite still. He wore a gray silk shirt and darker gray pants. It was impossible to ignore the warm feel of her when he turned the wheel. Each time he shifted, his hand brushed her thigh. When he glanced down, he saw that her skirts were hiked above her knees. The sight of her long, well-shaped legs tightened his belly.
"You and Sam seem to know each other," she said to him. "Do you fish?"
Questions, questions. "Not often."
"We met watching you," Sam said, evidently unnerved by the third degree. "He's Max Wolfe the pro-football player."
"Ex-football player. Don't forget to give me directions."
"Turn left on Central Avenue," Carolee said promptly. "Then take a right on Market Street."
Kirkland was crowded. Cruising cars jammed the narrow streets. Groups on the sidewalks hollered responses to blaring horns. Some danced to music blasting from clubs, and from vehicles with rolled down windows. Warm weather had brought out halter tops and shorts. In-line skaters dodged among walkers, skateboarders, cyclists and runners.
Sam's truck didn't have air-conditioning. "Don't need it around here," he'd said and Max had been glad it was Carolee who responded, "You're the only one who thinks so." But tonight Max enjoyed feeling the town's energy, and smelling flowers in overflowing hanging baskets. He liked Kirkland a lot.
"Son of a . . . Will you look at this place?" Sam said. "Damn carnival. They think they own the roads. Look at that. No signal. Geez, move it, will ya? Honk, Max. We should be halfway to Juanita by now."
Carolee's sudden laugh made Max grin and look sideways at her. She gave him a conspiratorial smile that wrinkled her nose and Max felt almost as if she'd put her arms around him. Intimate, that's how her smile felt.