Saturday, August 11, 2012

Free Read Friday: WAKE-UP CALL


            Candace Hudson slapped at the alarm clock, but the annoying noise continued. Remembering the wake-up call she had requested, she groaned and fumbled for the phone.
“Thank you.”
            A deep chuckle hummed in her ear. “Well, darlin’, you’re welcome.”
            She jerked upright. The room swayed and her head pounded. “Who is this?”
            “You knew my name last night, as I recall.”
            She shivered and clutched the sheet around her naked body. I’m naked? I don’t sleep in the nude. Last night was fuzzy. She had attended the service awards dinner for the Kids World Summit where she had shared a table with five other people. Three women and the computer geek from California. No, he didn’t have a drawl. The only other man at the table was from Texas. What the hell was his name? He wore boots and a cowboy hat—a walking cliché. No one could have been more out of place. Name, name, name. She squeezed her eyes shut and tapped a finger to her forehead. Her breathing quickened.
            She exhaled slowly. “I don’t know who you are, or what you’re trying to do, but….”
            “Candy? You don’t remember. You downed a few glasses of wine, but not that much. I think that Randall fella got to you. I don’t know what he did to piss you off, but remind me to never do that. Maybe I should come back up there and refresh your memory.”
            “No! Don’t come up here. And don’t call me Candy.”
            An image flashed: Someone removing her clothing and placing her on the bed. She shuddered. What happened to me last night?
            The Texas drawl pulled her back. “Okay then, how about lunch? Maybe seein’ me will jumpstart your memory.”
            “I…I’m hanging up now.” She slammed down the phone as her stomach convulsed. She tossed back the covers and pulled on the robe draped over a chair. In the bathroom, she looked in the mirror. Her smudged eye makeup gave her a raccoon-on-the-morning-after look. Honey-blonde hair spiked out wildly from her head, and her lips were swollen. An oval bruise glared from her neck. What the hell have I done? And who did I do it with?
            She sat on the edge of the tub and closed her eyes again, mentally skimming the faces of her dinner companions. Taking a deep breath, she focused on the image of the man who had sat across from her. A black Stetson and boots—black leather with a thin line of silver trim. Spurs? No, of course not. She let her inner vision work its way up those long, long denimclad
legs. The etched belt buckle—a pair of letters. Double C? No. GC. Name, name. George? Greg? Come on. Come on. Griff…and something with a ‘C’. It figures. The egomaniac wears a vanity belt buckle.
            Continuing her perusal, she recalled the expensive-looking white shirt that hugged a narrow, muscled midsection. A rugged but pleasant face bore a cleft chin and a square, shadowed jaw. A mustache? She hated a mustache. A slightly crooked smile pulled at full lips and revealed another dimple. Her lips parted and she licked them. Move on. Hmm, nice nose. The slightest bump—probably an old sports injury or a bar fight. Cheekbones. Very nicely defined. Now on to the eyes. She gasped. Smoky-gray eyes looked down at her from beneath impossibly long,
dark eyelashes. Down? Oh, my god. Her eyes flashed open.
            She pulled a tissue from the box on the sink and wiped the smeared eyeliner. A wave of nausea rolled through her. Who the hell is Griff?
            She turned on the shower and adjusted the water temperature before stepping inside. Steam clouded the bathroom while a hot stream hit her shoulders. Her head throbbed. A sour taste burned in the back of her throat. Maybe if I stay here until the conference ends, I can pretend nothing happened.
            No such luck. She had volunteered to moderate the ten o’clock roundtable discussion on obtaining grant funding for special programs. She groaned and shut off the water. Perhaps she could dodge the cowboy for the rest of the day, then make a hasty escape as soon as the Summit closed.
            After wincing against the whine of the hair dryer, she returned to the bedroom and donned a gray skirt and white blouse, topped by a gray pinstriped jacket. She pulled her hair up into a modest chignon. Her eyes teared when she tried to insert her contacts. Giving up, she fumbled in her purse for her glasses. The full-length mirror reflected the image of a demure,
stereotypical librarian. Hah.
            In the conference room, Patricia, her assistant, had set up a laptop for a Power Point presentation. “Good morning. Whoa, did you sleep at all last night?”
            “I did…eventually. But I guess I must look like I feel.”
            “Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
            Candace nodded. “Thanks.” She searched her briefcase for her notes.
            Patricia returned with coffee and a croissant from the hospitality table at the back of the room. “You weren’t feeling much pain last night.”
            “I’m feeling it this morning. What about last night?”
            “You were a little tipsy. At least I hope you were. Have you ever watched yourself dance?”
            “Oh god, did I make a fool of myself?” Candace felt the heat of embarrassment and pressed a palm to her cheek.
            “Not completely. It probably wasn’t a good idea to mix wine with that allergy medication you took right before dinner.”
            “That explains why last night is a blur. I forgot about taking that pill. Do I need to be ashamed to show my face around here this morning?”
            “No. Griff rescued you before you made a scene or passed out.”
            “Yeah, who’s Griff?”
            “The tall, handsome cowboy who sat at our table. He intervened when you went off on Randall.”
            “Oh, no. I let that worm get to me. What did I say?”
            “Something about you having given Randall everything, and him aborting your hopes of having a family.” Patricia leaned closer, and whispered, “You didn’t have an abor—”
            Candace gasped. “Of course not. It was a figure of speech. Other people heard me say that?”
            “I wouldn’t worry. No one paid attention. You know how hard this group likes to party at a conference. You look like hell this morning, by the way.”
            “Thanks, good to know that.” She glanced over her shoulder as people began to fill the chairs behind her. “This is all I need, to make a spectacle of myself in this venue when I’m going to ask some of these people for funding.”
            Patricia narrowed her eyes. “Will you be able to do your presentation?”
            “I don’t have much choice.” Candace organized her note cards. “No need for you to suffer through it, though. I’ll see you at lunch.”
            Candace gathered her notes and composed herself. At ten o’clock sharp, she turned to her audience. She scanned the faces of agency directors she’d seen at this and other conferences in the past. Some attendees were new to her. On her left, her gaze lingered on the face of Randall Spiker. He smirked and winked at her. His skin, pale under the fluorescent lights, and his slicked-back dark hair reminded her of a character in one of the old vampire movies. How had she ever found him attractive? She shuddered and looked off to her right, directly into the smiling eyes of the tall cowboy holding up the wall in the back of the room.
            He nodded and waved. Heat flamed Candace’s face as she turned her attention back to her audience. “Uh…good morning. We’re here to discuss…um…to…uh….” Her note cards fell from her trembling fingers and scattered on the floor. “Excuse me.” She stooped to gather them, then pulled herself to her feet, once again facing the workshop participants. “I’m… uh…I’m Candace Hudson, Executive Director of First Steps. Welcome. I think we’ll begin with the Power Point presentation, then go right into our discussion.”
            She sank into the chair beside the table holding the laptop and picked up the remote. Her voice sounded foreign to her as she talked her way through the slideshow. Standing again to open the discussion, she fixed her gaze on a matronly woman in the center of the front row. The woman’s sour expression kept Candace focused until her presentation ended.
            The workshop adjourned and participants filed out. Candace whirled around at the tap on her right shoulder. “Randall!”
            “I just wanted to applaud your performance of last evening. And to think I broke it off because I thought you were boring. Or were you determined to prove me wrong last night?”
            Her mind whirled and she glared at him. “First of all, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Secondly, I don’t need to prove anything to you. Thirdly, you broke it off because you’d already used me to get what you really wanted—a contract to represent the Carr Foundation.”
            His upper lip curled into a sneer. “Bitter doesn’t look good on you, Candace.”
            She shuffled her note cards. “Randall, leave me alone. Don’t you have a meeting to attend, or some other woman to demean?”
            “I might have been very wrong about you. Maybe you just needed a little lube to get the gears grinding. You were almost fun last night.” He accompanied his comment with a swivel of his hips.
            “You’re a disgusting pig. I don’t know what I ever saw in you.” A hand on her back startled her. She looked up into liquid gray eyes shadowed by the brim of a black hat.
            “Hey, darlin’.” The cowboy removed his hat, revealing thick, dark brown hair that curled around his ears and over his collar. “You did a real good job with your presentation.” He smiled, then turned to Randall. “Griff Calhoun.” He extended a hand. “We weren’t properly introduced last night.”
            “Randall Spiker.” Randall shifted his gaze from Candace to Griff. “How long have you and Candace known one another?”
            Candace leaned closer to hear the answer as well.
            “Me and Candy? Oh, we only recently met, but it seems as if I’ve known her forever. She’s that kind of woman, you know, makes an impression.”
            Candace gulped. “Yes, um…about lunch. I’d love to join you. Randall, you’ll excuse us?”
            “Sure. You and Cowboy Bob have a good day.”
            A hand landed on Randall’s shoulder, the fingers wrinkling the fabric of his Armani suit. “You don’t hear too good, do you? My name’s Griff. Not Bob. And I think you owe Candy here an apology on account of you being ungentlemanly just now.”
            Randall’s face drained of color. “Candace knows I didn’t mean anything. We’re…uh… old friends. Aren’t we, Candy?”
            His emphasis of the nickname jarred her, threatening to shake loose some memory that made her stomach tighten. Fingers trailed down her neck and across her breast while a voice talked about playing a game of Candyland. “Just leave.” She looked up at Griff. “Let him go, please.”
            “Anything for you, darlin’.” Griff released Randall with a shove, sending him stumbling backward. Randall hurried from the room. “I don’t much like that guy.” Griff steadied his gaze on Candace. “Now, about lunch.”
            “Oh, no.” She pointed a well-manicured finger at him. “Not until I know who you are and what happened last night.”
            “We went through this once, but you were a little distracted. I’m Griffin Calhoun. I’m looking for someone to help me run a camp on my ranch for kids from divorced families. That’s what brought me to this conference. Otherwise, you wouldn’t catch me dead in New York City. As for last night, you and I started to get acquainted.”
            Flames licked her cheeks. “I mean before…before…that.”
            He toyed with the brim of his Stetson. “Look, let’s get out of here, go for a walk.”
            She drew back. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I don’t know you.”
            “You’d know me better if we’d had a chance to finish what we started. But you fell asleep on me.”
            Candace thought the top of her head would explode.
            “You okay, Candy? You look a little flushed.”
            “I’m fine. And stop calling me Candy. My name’s Candace.”
            “So noted. You know, Randall should have his head examined, leaving a woman like you and calling you boring. You’re anything but.”
            She jerked her head up. “How do you know what Randall said?”
            “You told me all about it. Made me promise not to take him out behind the loading dock for a butt kickin’. Personally, I think you just need the right man to bring out the best in you.”
            Participants for the next workshop began to gather in the meeting room. She grabbed Griff’s arm and dragged him toward the door. “Will you stop talking like that? People will hear you.”
            “Most of ‘em heard you last night.”
            She winced. “Oh, god. Fine. I’ll have lunch with you. Anything to get you out of here.” She rushed ahead of him toward the lobby and ran into Patricia. “Will you be okay on your own for lunch? I need to talk with Mr. Calhoun.”
            Patricia nodded, then smiled. “Hi, Griff.”
            He grinned. “Hey, there, Patsy.”
            Candace looked from Griff to her assistant. “Patsy?”
            Patricia patted her perfectly-coiffed salt and pepper hair, and purred, “Griff, you disappeared before I got a dance.”
            Griff’s face stretched into a lazy smile. “I owe you one next time.”
            Patricia giggled, and Candace stared at her. This man had turned her usually level-headed, mature assistant into a quivering mass of adolescent hormones.
            He set the Stetson in place and cupped a warm palm under Candace’s elbow, steering her through the crowd and toward the revolving door.
            The heat from his palm seared to her fingertips and up to her shoulder. She wrenched free before the warmth crossed into forbidden territory.
            Once outside she shielded her eyes from the sunshine and whirled at him. “What the hell were you thinking last night? Can’t you tell when a woman’s vulnerable, not in control of her…her…actions?”
            He raised his eyebrows. “You sure seemed in control to me. A little wobbly, maybe. All I tried to do was help you get more comfortable.”
            “Is that what they call it in Oklahoma or wherever it is you’re from?”
            Texas. And, yes, we call changing into our nightclothes getting comfortable.”
            “For your information, cowboy, I do not sleep in the nude.”
            He grinned. “I’ll make a note of that for the future.”
            Candace fisted her hands and fought the urge to pound his chest.
            “You took advantage of me.”
            “I would never do that. I respect women.” He cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. “What do you think happened last night?”
            “You know damn well what happened.”
            “Now I seem to be the forgetful one. You were fully clothed when I left you.” He gently took her hand and guided her through stopped traffic and across the street to the park. “We need to get something straight.” He sat on the one available bench, his long legs stretched out in front of him. He patted the seat for her to sit beside him. “Can-dy-dace. We met at dinner. You remember that, right?”
            She nodded.
            “Good. After that, I asked you to dance. You were a little unsteady. You’d downed a few glasses of wine. And you kept staring across the room at that Randall person. I hope you never look at me like that.”
            She glared at him.
            “Yeah, that look. Anyway, we danced, then Randall cut in. It looked as if he was giving you a hard time and you were objecting, so I interrupted. You said you wanted to go to your room, and I accompanied you upstairs. You sat on the bed and started to cry, telling me all about how that dumbass broke off your engagement and said you were boring. Then I sat down to
comfort you.”
            “Yes, and that’s when you took advantage of me!”
            “Whoa. I put an arm around you, and you leaned on my chest and cried. Then you looked up with those gorgeous emerald eyes and said you could prove to me you weren’t boring. And you started to unbutton my shirt.”
            Candace stiffened. “I—did—not! I would never….”
            “Yeah, honey. You did. But being a gentleman, much to my own regret, I declined your offer. I got a nightie from your suitcase and steered you toward the bathroom to change. But you were madder than a cat in a pen full of hounds. If you had shouted my name one more time and told me to get out of your room, I’m sure someone would’ve called security. So I left. I waited outside in the hall for a few minutes, until it seemed all had quieted. I figured you’d fallen asleep.”
            She searched his eyes. “You’re telling the truth,” she murmured.
            “Yes, ma’am.”
            “Then, who…?” The revelation sucked the air out of her. “I have to go back to the hotel. There’s something I have to do.”
            He stood with her. “Are you okay? You’re awfully pale.”
            “I’ll be just fine. I’m sorry for the confusion, Griff. I’m sure you’re every bit the gentleman you claim.” She raced into the street, weaving around moving vehicles. Cab drivers shouted in six languages. One narrowly missed her, the driver flipping a middle finger to accompany his verbal assault.
            Candace stormed through the hotel lobby and up to the front desk. “What room is Randall Spiker in, please?”
            The startled desk clerk stammered, “I’m not permitted to give that out, ma’am. I can call up for you, though.”
            “Please do.” She drummed her fingers on the counter while she waited. Catching sight of Randall entering the bar across the lobby, she said, “Never mind. I found him.” Her heels clicked a staccato rhythm on the marble floor as she crossed the lobby. Through clenched teeth, she muttered, “I’ll kill the son of a bitch.”

# # #

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