He'd pleaded with her to change the date, but she'd refused. “If you love me, you'll do this my way,” she'd said.
He had loved her, but after a week of sleepless nights, he'd realized she only loved him as a convenience.
The wedding had gone on with one of Julie's childhood friends standing in as the third-generation Valentine's Day groom. It had taken Heath months to recover. Two years later, the couple had divorced, putting a permanent end to Shelton family tradition, but he'd felt no satisfaction.
Julie wasn't the first person he'd given his heart to. As a kid, he'd given it away to everybody, beginning with his drunken father and continuing through the never-ending stream of transient women the old man had brought home. As each woman entered that beat-up trailer, Heath had prayed she'd be the one who'd make up for his mother's death.
When the women didn't work out—and they never did— he'd given his love to the stray dogs that ended up as roadkill on the nearby highway, to the old biddy in the next trailer who screamed at him if his ball landed near her tractor tire garden, to classroom teachers who had children of their own and didn't want another. But it had taken his experience with Julie before he'd finally learned the lesson he never let himself forget. His emotional survival depended on not falling in love.
Someday he hoped that would change. He'd love his kids, that was for damn sure. He'd never let them grow up as he had. As for his wife… That would take a while. But once he was sure she'd stick, he'd give it a try. For now, he intended to treat his search for her like he'd treat any other part of his business, which was why he'd hired the best matchmaker in the city. And why he had to get rid of Annabelle Granger…
* * *
Less than twenty-four hours later, Heath entered Sienna's, his favorite restaurant, to do the job. Annabelle had screwup stamped all over her, and this was a big waste of time he didn't have to spare. As he headed to his regular table in the far corner of the well-lit bar, he called out a greeting in Italian to Carlo, the owner. Heath had learned the language in college instead of from his Italian father, who'd only spoken Drunk. The old man had died from a combination of emphysema and cirrhosis of the liver when Heath was twenty. He had yet to shed a tear.
He made a quick call to Caleb Crenshaw, the Stars' running back, and another to Phil Tyree in New Orleans. The alarm on his watch buzzed just as he finished. Nine o'clock. He looked up, and sure enough, Annabelle Granger was heading toward him. But it was the blond knockout at her side who claimed his attention. Whoa… Where had this one come from? Her short, straight hair fell in a trendy cut to her jaw. She had perfectly balanced features and a long, leggy figure. So, Tinker Bell hadn't been all talk.
His matchmaker was half a head shorter than the woman she'd brought to meet him. Her tangle of reddish gold hair gleamed around her small head. The short white jacket she wore with a lime green sundress was a definite improvement over yesterday's ensemble, but she still looked like a scatterbrained tree fairy. He rose as she performed the introductions.
“Gwen, I'd like you to meet Heath Champion. Heath, this is Gwen Phelps.”
Gwen Phelps looked him over with a pair of intelligent brown eyes that tilted attractively down at the corners. “A pleasure,” she said in a deep, low voice. “Annabelle's told me all about you.”
“I'm glad to hear it. That means we can talk about you, which I can see right away will be a lot more interesting.” It was a corny line, and he thought he heard a snort, but when he shot a quick glance at Annabelle, he saw in her expression only eagerness to please.
“Somehow I doubt that.” Gwen slipped gracefully into the chair he held out for her. The woman oozed class. Annabelle tugged on the opposite chair, but it caught on the table leg. Concealing his annoyance, he reached over to free it. She was a walking disaster, and he regretted ordering her to sit with them, but it had seemed like a good idea at the time. When he'd decided to hire a matchmaker, he'd also promised he'd make the process efficient. He'd already sat through a couple of Power Matches introductions. Even before the drinks had arrived, he'd known neither woman was right for him, but he'd wasted a couple of hours getting rid of them. This one, however, showed definite promise.
Ramon came over from the bar to take their orders. Gwen asked for club soda, Annabelle for something terrifying called a green phantom. She regarded him with the bright, too-eager expression of a dog owner waiting for her prized pooch to perform his tricks. So much for expecting her to lead the conversation. “Are you a native Chicagoan, Gwen?” he asked.
“I grew up in Rockford, but I've been in the city for years. Bucktown.”
Bucktown was a near north neighborhood popular with the younger crowd. He'd lived there for a while himself, and they exchanged general Bucktown chat, which was exactly the sort of getting nowhere bullshit he'd wanted to avoid. He shot Miss Matchmaker a look. She wasn't stupid, and she took the hint.
“You'll be interested to know that Gwen's a psychologist. She's one of the country's leading authorities on sex surrogates.”
That got his attention. He suppressed every locker room comment that sprang into his head. “An unusual field of study.”
“Sex surrogacy is very misunderstood,” the beautiful psychologist replied. “When it's properly used, it can be a wonderful therapeutic tool. I've made it my mission to bring it out from the shadows.”
She began giving him an overview of her profession. She was good-humored, sharp, and sexy. God, was she sexy. He'd way underestimated Annabelle Granger's matchmaking skills. Just as he began to relax into the conversation, however, Annabelle glanced at her watch and rose. “Time's up,” she announced, in a chipper voice that set his teeth on edge.
The sexy psychologist came to her feet with a smile. “It's been lovely meeting you, Heath.”
“My pleasure.” Since he was the one who'd set the time limit, he concealed his irritation. He'd never expected a goof-ball like Annabelle to produce a stunner like this first time up at bat. Gwen gave Annabelle a quick hug, smiled at him again, and made her way out of the restaurant. Annabelle settled back into her chair, took a sip from her green phantom, then dug into her tote, this one turquoise blue with sequined palm trees. Seconds later, he was gazing at a contract identical to the one she'd left on his desk yesterday.
“I guarantee a minimum of two introductions a month.” A springy lock of red gold hair fell over her forehead. “I charge't-ten thousand dollars for six months.” He didn't miss either the stammer or the high color rising in those chipmunk cheeks. Tinker Bell was going for the gusto. “Normally, the fee would include a session with an image consultant, but…” Her gaze took in his haircut, touched up every two weeks at eighty bucks a pop, his black Versace dress shirt, and pale gray Joseph Abboud slacks. “I, uh, think we can dispense with that.”
Damn right they could. Heath had crap taste when it came to clothes, but image was everything in his profession, and just because he didn't give a damn what he wore didn't mean his clients felt the same way. A very gay, very discriminating wardrobe consultant purchased everything Heath wore, and he'd forbidden Heath to match up any shirts, pants, or ties that weren't already coordinated on the charts hanging in his closet.
“Ten thousand is steep for someone with no track record,” he said.
“Like you, I believe in charging what I'm worth.” Her eyes hung up on his mouth.
He suppressed a smile. Tinker Bell needed to practice her poker face. “I've already paid through the nose for my contract with Portia Powers.”
The small cupid's bow at the center of her top lip grew a little pale, but she had game. “And how many women has she introduced you to like Gwen?”
She had him there, and this time he didn't hide his smile. Instead, he picked up the contract and started to read. The ten thousand dollars was a bluff, nothing more than wishful thinking on her part. Still, there was Gwen Phelps. He scanned the two pages. He could lowball her, but how far did he want to go? The art of the deal required that everybody come out feeling like a winner. Otherwise, resentment got in the way of performance.
He pulled out his Mont Blanc and began making modifications, scratching through a clause here and there, amending another, adding one of his own. Finally, he slid the papers back to her. “Five thousand up front. I only fork over the balance if you've found the right woman.”
The flecks of gold in her brown eyes flashed like the glitter embedded in a kid's yo-yo. “That's unacceptable. You're practically asking me to work for free.”
“Five thousand dollars isn't exactly chicken feed. You have no track record with someone like me.”
“And yet I brought you Gwen.”
“How do I know she's not all you've got? There's a big difference between talking a good game and playing one.” He flicked his thumb toward the contract. “The ball's yours.”