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Authors: Lois Faye Dyer

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BOOK: Beauty and the Wolf
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“I'm sure Mom enjoyed the peace and quiet when we all were focused on the screen, too,” Frankie replied. “Parenting looks like a tough job when there are two people, but being a single parent must be beyond difficult.”

“I agree.” Eli nodded. “Watching Justin and Lily with Ava has been a real eye-opener. Don't get me wrong,” he added hastily. “I think she's great, but, man, she wears me out.”

“I know what you mean. Ava has nonstop energy.” Frankie smiled with affection as she sipped her water. “I have a play date scheduled with her on Saturday morning and I'm wondering if I should increase my vitamin intake and start lifting weights to build my endurance.”

Eli grinned at her. “Might not be a bad idea. Aren't you a little old to have play dates?”

“Absolutely not,” Frankie said emphatically. “I adore Ava and every third Saturday, we get together to go to the park or the zoo or a children's exhibition at the Seattle Center. Of course,” she added with a twinkle,
“I call it bonding, but Ava insists we're having play dates.”

“Ah.” Eli nodded. “Makes sense. So what else did you do when you were a child?” Eli asked. “Besides go to movies on Sunday afternoons.”

“Skipped rope, rode bikes, played Monopoly with my sisters, and—” Frankie paused to sip her water “—volunteered at a horse rescue barn in Arlington.”

Arrested, Eli stopped eating popcorn, one eyebrow rising in query. “I didn't know you were interested in horses. I thought you were a city girl, through and through.”

“I suppose I am to a certain extent,” Frankie agreed. “But I love animals, especially horses. When I celebrated my eighth birthday, Mom told me it was time for me to pick a cause to donate my time to and I chose abused horses.”

“Good choice.” Eli nodded, his eyes gleaming with approval. “When Granddad told us we were old enough to start giving back to the community, I picked Habitat for Humanity.”

“That's a wonderful cause,” Frankie enthused. “I've considered signing up, but I don't know anything about carpentry.”

“A lot of volunteers don't when they start. Join my group,” he said. “I'll make sure you learn how to swing a hammer and saw a board.”

“I doubt it's that easy,” she said with a shake of her head.

He shrugged. “It's not complicated—and professional
carpenters team with new volunteers to supervise them.”

“If you promise to teach me enough about carpentry so my contribution doesn't result in a house falling down, I'll sign up,” she told him.

He laughed. “You couldn't make a house fall down. Don't worry about it.”

Before Frankie could respond, the house lights dimmed and the previews for upcoming movies began.

When the popcorn container was empty and napkins had wiped away any traces of salt and butter, Eli caught her hand in his, threading her fingers between his own. Startled, she glanced sideways at him, but he was focused on the screen, his profile lit by the flickering light from the movie.

There was something nice about sitting in the dark theater, Eli's warm, callused palm pressed to hers, the hard strength of his shoulder against hers.

Frankie turned back toward the screen, deciding to enjoy the moment and not worry about what it might mean that her heart stuttered each time his thumb smoothed over the back of her hand.

Since they both had to rise early for work the following morning, Eli dropped her off just after ten-thirty, saying good-night with another kiss that left her breathless. Forty minutes later, as she climbed into bed and switched off the lamp, Frankie realized she hadn't spent such a relaxing, thoroughly enjoyable evening in a very long time.

And it was entirely due to Eli's company.

Part of her loved the thought—while another part dealt with the niggling worry that she liked his company far too much.

A wise woman wouldn't tempt fate, she thought drowsily.

Chapter Six

O
n Wednesday morning, Frankie was in her office at Liberty Hall on the University of Washington campus. Since completing work on a museum exhibit in December, she'd been reassigned from her usual duties as a research assistant. She was now temporarily filling in for an English Literature professor who'd gone on emergency leave. Much as she loved the variety of her research work, Frankie welcomed the opportunity to teach in a classroom. The new responsibility challenged her creativity and gave her one-on-one contact with students, which wasn't usually the case.

Since her next lecture wasn't for another forty-five minutes, she planned to make good use of the time to catch up on a few non-classroom duties.

Her desk was littered with data reports, printouts of
class grading curves and miscellaneous information.

Deep in thought, she contemplated a possible change in her syllabus notes for the current lecture series on classic British authors of the twentieth century.

“Hey, Professor.” The deep male voice was soft, just above a murmur, but Frankie jumped nonetheless, startled, her gaze flying to the doorway.

Eli leaned against the doorjamb, one broad shoulder propped against the walnut edge. He was dressed for work in a blue-and-white plaid flannel shirt that hung unbuttoned over a white T-shirt tucked into the waistband of snug faded jeans. A black leather belt was threaded through the belt loops of the jeans, and dusty black boots covered his feet.

“Hey,” she responded faintly.

“Sorry I startled you.” He shoved away from the doorjamb and walked toward her, his stride easy. “I had to stop at a job site near here, and when I picked up coffee, I thought about you, probably stuck in your office, slaving away. So I brought you a latte—double shot, vanilla, right?” He held up two take-out Starbucks cups with lids.

Frankie beamed at him, delighted. “You remembered.” She took the cup and sipped, closing her eyes in pleasure. “I owe you.”

“And I'll collect,” he shot back, grinning when her eyes opened and she studied him with suspicion. He picked up a straightback wooden chair and spun it around, straddling it, his forearms resting along the
top of the polished oak back. “Any new thoughts about our next move against Harry?”

Frankie leaned back in her swivel chair, propping her stockinged feet atop the open bottom desk drawer, ankles crossed. “Believe it or not, Harry called this morning. He's having a group of people over for dinner on Friday night to welcome a visiting software mogul from London. He asked if I'd like to join them.” She looked at Eli from beneath lowered lashes. “I told him yes, providing I could bring a date.”

“And what did Harry say?” Eli drawled, lifting his cup to sip, his blue eyes watching her over the rim.

“He asked me if my date was Nicholas Dean.”

Eli stiffened, his eyes narrowing over her. “He's still pushing Dean at you.”

Frankie nodded. “Apparently.”

“Has Dean called you?” Eli asked, his voice neutral.

“Interestingly enough, no, he hasn't.” Frankie tucked her hair behind her ear.

Eli's gaze tracked her fingers' movement, lingering over her hair before fastening on her face once again. “So Harry must not be giving Dean the same kind of verbal nudging he's giving you,” he guessed.

“I suspect not.” Frankie frowned, considering. “Has Harry tried to grill you about me?”

“Not yet.” Eli shrugged. “But we have a meeting tomorrow to discuss the Wolf Construction proposal for the south Seattle project. Maybe he's waiting until then.” He sipped his coffee once again. “Harry's
cagey—I wouldn't put anything past him, and if he's not nudging Nicholas about asking you out, he must have a reason.”

“Or maybe Nicholas refused to get involved in Harry's schemes,” Frankie said. “And if he did, then our plan isn't really necessary.”

Eli's eyes glinted. “If you believe that, then you don't know Harry as well as I thought you did.”

“What makes you say that?” Frankie hoped Eli had a really good answer, because she was enjoying seeing him and didn't want their dates to end.

“Harry always has a bigger view of his projects, and if fixing you up with Nicholas didn't work out, he would go to plan B.”

“And what's plan B?” Frankie asked.

“Not what—
who.
I have no idea who Harry would pick out to be the next candidate, but I'm sure he has another name on his list as a backup for Nicholas.”

“Of course.” Frankie sighed, tense muscles relaxing. “You're right. Harry always has a plan. Mom said that's the reason he was always so good at chess.”

“That sounds like Harry.” Eli glanced at his watch. “Time for me to go—I have an appointment in fifteen minutes.” He stood, swinging the chair back into its original position. “What time do you want me to pick you up on Friday?”

“How about seven?”

“I'll see you then.” His gaze flicked to her mouth, lingered, before returning to her eyes. “Have a good afternoon,” he murmured, his deep voice a rumble.

And he was gone, before Frankie could gather her wits after that hot, focused stare.

Several minutes later, she was still sitting motionless, staring blankly at the notes on her desk when, for the second time in a half hour, knuckles rapped against her open office door. She looked up to find her friend and coworker, assistant professor Sharon Katz, standing on the threshold. Before Frankie could say hello, Sharon spoke.

“Wow, Frankie, who was that guy?” she asked, curiosity lighting her face. “He's gorgeous.”

Frankie laughed at her friend's expression. “He's a friend of my cousin Justin.”

“And he's visiting you…why?”

“He brought me a latte.” Frankie lifted the Starbucks cup and saluted Sharon with it before drinking.

“Nice.” Sharon leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed, a sheaf of papers in one hand. “Come on, fess up. Are you dating him?”

“I am.” Frankie grinned when Sharon rolled her eyes and fanned herself with the papers.

“Way to go, Professor.” She straightened, glancing over her shoulder. “Darn, students are already filing into my lecture hall. I have to go—let's have lunch tomorrow, and you can fill me in on all the details, okay?”

“Okay.” Frankie turned back to the half-completed report on her desk as Sharon disappeared, the quick tap of her heels fading away down the hall.

Anticipation buoyed Frankie over the next day. But Friday morning brought disappointing news. Her
department head emailed to tell her attendance was mandatory at an impromptu after-work cocktail party. She suspected her boss wanted to impress his superiors with the presence of the entire department.

Disappointed that she had to cancel her plans with Eli that evening, Frankie dialed his cell phone several times, but each time the call went immediately to his answering service. As the morning flew by and became afternoon, she grew more concerned that she wouldn't be able to catch him before he left the house to pick her up at her condo.

She tried reaching him at the office, but when the message center picked up, she remembered Eli telling her that he'd given the secretaries the afternoon off. She left a message with the answering service but the operator couldn't guarantee Eli would get it before Monday morning when the office staff returned and picked up messages.

Frankie hated the thought that Eli might think she'd stood him up but couldn't think of another way to reach him.

Unless she could catch him on a job site, she thought with sudden inspiration.

She collected her purse and left her office in Liberty Hall. She was fairly certain she knew the address of the Wolf Construction site not far from campus. She had no idea whether Eli would be there or not, but she hoped to find someone who could tell her how to contact him. Within ten minutes, after a wrong turn that had her backing out of a dead-end street, she found the site.

The skeleton of what would become an upscale, five-story condo building rose in the air above her as she turned off the street and onto the bumpy dirt lot. Puddles of water left by the early morning downpour dotted the ground, and Frankie avoided them as best she could. Still, she knew her just-washed BMW would need another bath, and soon.

A contractor's trailer stood at the end of the lot, and several pickup trucks were parked in front of it, two of which had Wolf Construction logos on their doors. Frankie hoped that meant Eli was in the trailer, and she mentally crossed her fingers as she parked next to one of the trucks and got out.

Skirting a muddy puddle, she climbed the two wooden steps and knocked on the metal trailer door.

“Come in.”

Frankie didn't recognize the deep male voice, but nevertheless she pushed the door open and stepped inside, halting abruptly.

Three men stood at a drafting table that was littered with blueprints and notes. A fourth man, his eyes bright blue in a lined face below a shock of white hair, sat in a battered office chair, one foot propped on the opposite knee as he leaned back.

None of the four were Eli. All of them were big, broad and dressed alike in faded jeans, plaid flannel shirts and muddy work boots. And all of them watched her with alert male gazes.

Frankie returned their interested stares with a friendly but reserved glance. She'd never met Eli's brothers or
his grandfather, but the resemblance was unmistakable. These four had to be related to him.

“Hello. I'm looking for Eli Wolf.”

“I'm his brother Connor,” one of three men at the table drawled. “You're too pretty for Eli, honey. I'd be happy to help you—with whatever you need.”

Taken aback, Frankie was speechless for only a second before the twinkle in Connor's eye reassured her. She smiled. “Sorry—honey—but it's Eli I need to find.”

“Smart woman.”

The deep, amused voice came from her left, and before Frankie could fully turn, Eli slipped an arm around her waist and bent to brush a quick kiss against her cheek.

“Hi, Frankie. What are you doing here?”

“I've been trying to reach you, but you didn't answer your cell phone,” she told him. “I have to go to a faculty cocktail party right after work, so I can't make dinner at Harry's tonight. I'm sorry to cancel so late, but my boss just informed me attendance is mandatory. Apparently, the department head wants to impress the university president with our show of support.” She grimaced. “I'd rather spend an hour or two being tortured by cannibals, but I can't get out of it.”

“Sounds pretty bad,” he said with sympathy. “Did you let your mom know we won't be able to join her at Harry's?”

She nodded. “Mom said she'd apologize to Harry for me.” She looked up at him. “You should go, anyway—
everyone has to eat, right? And maybe you could pin Harry down about the contract.”

He shook his head. “No, thanks—I think I'll pass.” He smiled, a slow curve of his lips that made her breath hitch. “Just wouldn't be the same without you.”

“I hate to interrupt you two,” Connor broke in. “But don't you think you should introduce us to the lady, Eli?”

Frankie had been so focused on Eli that she'd all but forgotten the presence of the other four men. Now she realized they were all watching her and Eli with interest and curiosity. Even the older man had a curious gleam in his eye.

“Sorry,” Eli said easily, clearly not the slightest bit concerned at Connor's inference he'd been lacking in manners. “Frankie Fairchild, these are my brothers— Connor, Ethan and Matthew. And the gentleman in the chair there is our grandfather, Jack.” He bent to whisper in her ear, loud enough that the others could hear. “All of them are disreputable and untrustworthy, and they cheat at cards—so watch out if you ever get in a poker game with them.”

“Good afternoon,” Frankie said, her amused gaze meeting each of theirs. Eli's three brothers were as tall, brawny and as handsome—each in his own way—as Eli. They all had coal-black hair and blue eyes and an air of assured male strength. In fact, she thought dazedly, the amount of testosterone filling the air was palpable. She glanced at Jack and found him watching her shrewdly. She felt her cheeks warm under his knowing gaze.

“They're kind of overwhelming, all in one room, aren't they, missy?” he asked, his blue eyes warming. “Just like their grandpa, they have to beat women off with a stick.”

“Geez, Granddad,” Matt groaned, giving Frankie an apologetic look. “Sorry, Frankie. We can dress him up but can't take him out—not anywhere in polite company, at least.”

“Hmmph,” the older man snorted. “Who'd have guessed I'd run into polite company in a construction trailer? Usually it's just you four, and you don't qualify as polite.”

Frankie laughed out loud. She could easily see the affection between the four brothers and their grandfather and was charmed. “I'd better get going.” Frankie looked up at Eli and found him watching her, his blue eyes half concealed by thick lashes as he looked down at her. “I'm keeping you from your work, and I have a class in—” she glanced at her wristwatch “—twenty-five minutes. I'll leave and let you all get back to what you were doing.” She waved a hand at the drafting table with its unrolled stack of blueprints held flat by a large rock sitting on each corner.

“You're not keeping us from work,” Eli told her.

“Not at all,” Ethan added, his voice a slow, deep drawl.

“We were all tired of looking at these damn blueprints,” Connor added.

“Nevertheless, I'd better get back to campus.” Frankie turned, and Eli was there before her, opening the door
and holding it for her. “It was nice to meet you,” she told the four Wolf men.

They echoed a chorus of goodbyes, and Frankie stepped outside, followed by Eli, who pulled the door shut.

BOOK: Beauty and the Wolf
9.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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