Josh McMann smiled at the hostess as he exited the upscale restaurant into the warm Texas night. Despite the fact that Alex was the one who handled these negotiations most of the time. the business dinner had been more successful than Josh had hoped. This wasn’t his area of expertise. Alex was the business brain, Tyler the engineer and he, Josh, the architect. But Alex had left for Phoenix and a meeting with another prospect, forcing Josh to step in.
“You can charm them as well as I can,” Alex had told him, grinning, as he’d headed for the airport.
“But you’ve got all the facts and figures,” Josh had pointed out.
“I left you a cheat sheet. You’ll do just fine.”
And he had. Damn fine! The contract for the new project would be signed tomorrow and he and his brothers would have yet another accomplishment to celebrate. McMann Brothers Development was making its mark in the world of quality construction. No question about it.
He turned to the man standing beside him and held out his hand. “We’ll do a great job for you, Chuck,” he told him.
“I don’t doubt it.” Chuck Barnes shook hands with him. “I’ve seen what you and your brothers can do and I’m very impressed.” He looked around. “You did this strip mall, right?”
“Sure did.” And the brothers had been damn proud of the finished product.
Spanish Oaks was an outdoor mall in an upmarket residential neighborhood. All the walls were whitewashed adobe, the roofs barrel tile and the entrances to each business decorated with a carved arch. The merchants here expected to liberate the well-heeled residents of some fine cash and they needed the ambience to do it. McMann Brothers Development had given it to them. In spades.
“I know I’ll get the same quality in Blue Hills Village.”
“I guarantee it.” And he did.
When they handed their valet tickets to the parking attendant, Josh included a folded twenty with his.
The kid looked at the money and his eyes widened in shock. “Uh, sir? I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth but I think you gave me the wrong amount.”
Josh laughed. “No, it’s yours. This has been a good night for me. This will take care of both of us. Go ahead and get my friend’s car first, okay?”
“Yessir. Right away, sir.” The kid shoved the money in his pocket with a quick movement as if expecting Josh to change his mind and took off at a trot.
“I think you made his night,” Chuck commented.
“Well, you made mine, so I don’t mind sharing the wealth a little.”
Josh congratulated himself on his good fortune. In just a few short years, he and his brothers had established themselves as quality developers of both commercial and residential properties, everything from the design to the finished product. One of the reasons he’d asked Chuck Barnes to meet him at this restaurant was because the upscale center where it was located was one of their star projects.
“Call my secretary in the morning,” Chuck said, “and let her know what time you’ll be by with the paperwork. I’m looking forward to working with you and your brothers.”
“Thanks.” Josh shook hands again with the other man. “Until tomorrow.”
The young valet pulled up in a slate-gray BMW, hopped out and stood by the open door.
“See you tomorrow,” Barnes said as he climbed into his car.
“I’m getting your truck right now, Mr. McMann,” the kid said, hurrying off again.
Josh shoved his hands into his pockets and leaned against one of the columns holding up the canopy, taking a long moment to bask in the evening’s success. But a moment was all he got before his good feeling was shattered.
“Help.” The voice was female and would have been musical if there hadn’t been such a note of panic in it. “Help me. My car’s been stolen.”
Josh jerked himself out of his reverie and stared at the woman clumping her way along the parking lot. And clumping was the right word, what with the walking cast on one leg from her foot to just below the knee. She would have bumped right into him if he hadn’t caught her by the arms.
“Hey. Hold on.” He tightened his fingers when she tried to pull away. “I don’t think trying to run in that cast is the best idea in the world. Now. You said someone stole your car?”
“Yes.” She jerked loose from him and looked around wild-eyed. “Where’s that idiot valet kid?”
Josh studied the image in front of him. Even with the clumsy cast she made his pulse speed up without much urging. She didn’t even come up to his shoulders but the anxiety and anger more than made up for her size. A thin navy sweater and knee-length skirt hugged curves that in any other situation he’d be itching to run his hands over. Thick rich-brown hair tumbled around her face, framing hazel eyes and a sensuous mouth. He saw all of this in a matter of seconds before she started screaming again, and just like that his physical reaction disappeared.
“Listen to me.” He reached for her again. In his business he was used to dealing with crazy clients. How different could this be? “Can you just calm down a minute and tell me about your car? I’ll see if I can help you.”
At that moment, the valet drove up in Josh’s tricked-out pickup. The woman broke away from Josh and limped over to him, managing surprising speed, what with the bulky cast. She grabbed the kid by the lapels on his vest and stuck her face close to his.
“You have to help me. Right now. My car’s been stolen.”
The kid paled and looked to Josh, who had followed the woman.
“Okay.” He managed to peel her fingers from the kid’s uniform and take her wrists. “Can we take a deep breath here and find out just what’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong,” she ground out, “is that someone stole my brand-new car. I parked it over there.” She pointed to a spot somewhere farther down the parking lot.
“Can you tell be a little more specific?” Josh was doing his level best to bring some common sense and calm to the situation. “Maybe you just forgot where you left it?”
She pulled herself away from him again. “Not likely. Who the hell are you, anyway?”
“Josh McMann.” He curved his lips in what his last three girlfriends had told him was a killer smile that could make women melt. He hoped it worked this time because this sexy handful was about to self-destruct. “How about telling me who you are?”
“Vanessa Bowen. Ness. And I’m missing a brand spanking new BMW.” Panic washed over her face. “It doesn’t even have fifty miles on it.”
Josh looked at the valet kid. “Did you park it for her?”
He shook his head, his face pale and panic evident on his face.
He makes minimum wage and tips. He’s not about to claim any knowledge of a high-end vehicle.
Ness waved her hands in the air. “That’s a definite no. Do you think I’d trust it to some idiot?”
Way to make friends, Josh thought, and dragged out his best smile. “Hey, hey, hey. Let’s calm down and find out what’s going on.”
“What going on is my car’s been stolen.” She took a deep breath, let it out and burst into tears.
Josh looked at the valet, shrugged and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket.
She looked at him, her face red and tear-stained, and took the handkerchief.
“Thank you. I don’t know what came over me. I almost never shriek like a banshee or burst into tears.” She gave him a watery grin. “At least not in public.”
He waited until he figured she was as composed as she was going to get before he spoke again. “Maybe,” he said in a soothing voice, “if you show us the exact spot where you parked, we might find some answers. There might be a security camera there. I happen to know this mall has several of them.”
“Okay.” She wiped her eyes once more and started to hand the handkerchief back to him.
“Keep it.” He grinned at her. “You might need it again.”
“Oh, god,” she sighed “I hope not. I promise you I’m not such a ditz. It’s just…it’s just…the past week’s been such a bitch.”
“No sweat. I’ve had weeks like that, too.”
She opened her mouth to speak and the words just tumbled out of. “I got in this accident with my car and it had to be totaled and it took the insurance company forever to settle the claim and I broke my ankle and the guy I’m seeing—was seeing—took off on our vacation with someone else and…” She clapped a hand over her mouth.
The tears started again. Along with a broken ankle, she had a major case of stress. What kind of schmuck would take off with another woman when the one he’d planned his vacation with had ended up with broken bones?
“I didn’t hear a word,” he assured her.
“I apologize. This isn’t me at all, I promise you.” She struggled to regain her composure.
“So how about showing me where you parked?”
She grabbed his hand. “Down here. Let’s go.”
The valet sagged with relief. “I’ll just put your truck over here at the side, Mr. McMann.”
“Good idea.” He slid another folded bill into the kid’s hand. “Keep an eye on it for me, will you?”
“Sure thing.” He shoved the money in his pocket and turned to the waiting crowd of customers.
Ness Bowen was already tugging Josh down the sidewalk, past the restaurant and the very curious crowd of onlookers waiting for their cars. He didn’t have trouble keeping up with her, what with her cast and all. He was more worried about the death grip she had on his hand and the fact she was cutting off circulation to his fingers. They had passed three storefronts when she released his hand, raked her hair back from her face and indicated an empty parking space.
“There.” She pointed. “Right there.”
Josh looked. Yup. The spot was empty. It also had a blue and white sign, impossible to miss, with the legend Restricted: Handicapped Only.
Josh wasn’t sure if he should be mad at the woman’s stupidity or laugh at it.
“Vanessa,” he began.
“Ness,” she insisted.
“Okay, Ness.” What the hell difference did it make? “It appears you parked in a handicapped space. My guess is mall security had your car towed.”
She dragged her fingers through her hair. “But I have a temporary permit.”
“Because of your cast?”
She nodded, breathing out a sigh of exasperation. “Damn. I must have forgotten to display it.”
Josh swallowed a sigh. Why did it always happen to him? His brothers always said he had been born with the white knight gene and he attracted women in distress.
“Maybe it’s the one way you can get them,” Tyler had joked one night, then ducked before Josh could deck him.
Now, he pulled out his cell phone and punched the number for security at the strip center. He had security on speed dial at all McMann projects, even after they were completed.
“Yeah, hi,” he said when a male voice answered. “This is Josh McMann. Did you guys tow a…” He looked at Ness.
“White BMW,” she told him. “With navy interior. One day old,” she added, anxiety edging her voice.
Josh repeated the information into the phone. “Okay, thanks. Uh-huh. Hold on.” He pressed a button on his phone, pulled out a slim stylus and wrote something down. “Got it. We’ll take care of it.”
He disconnected and shoved the phone back in his pocket.
“Well?” Ness looked to be more in control of herself, even with anxiety written all over her face.
“They towed it. About an hour ago.” He looked at her curious as to how this had happened. “Were you in the restaurant? Why didn’t you give it to the valet?”
She tucked her hair behind her ear. “Because I’ve already had one car demolished a couple of weeks ago and I was hoping to last another twenty-four hours before getting a second one dinged. I thought it would be a lot safer here.”
“Were you in there with friends?” He felt as though he was digging the information out of her. “Where did they go? Can one of them take you to get your car?”
She sighed, fiddling with her hair again. “It was a business dinner. I can’t ask a client to take me to pick up my car that got towed. Anyway, he’s gone.”
“Not friends. A client.”
He looked at her cast then back at her face, one eyebrow raised.
She straightened her shoulders, trying to make herself taller. “My broken ankle has nothing to do with my ability to conduct business. I don’t talk with my foot.”
Josh swallowed a smile.
“Well, that kind of leaves you in a predicament, doesn’t it?”
She did that straightening thing with her body again, as if somehow she’d grow another six inches. “I am more than capable of taking care of myself, thank you very much.”
“Is that a fact?”
“Yes. It is. Without question.” Her words were underlined with heavy indignation. She straightened and tried to square her shoulders.
“Could have fooled me.”
“Besides, I’ve bothered you enough. I’ll just go on into the restaurant and they can call a taxi for me.”
“Why don’t you just do it yourself?”
She looked away. “My cell phone is out of juice. And do not make any smartass remarks.”
She turned and began to clump her way back down the sidewalk, shoving his handkerchief in her pocket.
“Hold it.” Josh reached out to take her arm. “Hold it a minute, will you? You don’t need a cab. I’ll take you. And it’s not a bother.”
How many times had he said that in his life?
She stopped almost in mid-clump and stared up at him. “Why would you do that? You don’t even know me.”
He grinned at her. “I know your name, the kind of car you drive and that you have a broken foot or ankle. That’s more than I know about a lot of other people.”
Including some of the women I date. So what does that make me?
“And that’s enough for you to give me a ride?” She tilted her head at a slight angle. “What if I have a gun in my purse and I plan to hold you up?”
He couldn’t help it. He laughed. Hard. She was such a little spitfire. He just wanted to pick her up in his arms and—
Uh-oh. Don’t go there.
Ness Bowen glared at him. “Well, I could.”
Josh pulled himself together. “If you plan to shoot me I’d suggest you not make such a spectacle of yourself. Otherwise, when they find my body, people will remember.”
“You’re laughing at me.” Accusation speared from her eyes along with angry fire. At least it was better than the river of tears.
“No, darlin’. Just at your predicament.” He took her arm again. “Come on. It’s getting later and we need to get your car so you can get home.”
She sputtered at him as he guided her toward his truck. He thought she might give him some sass when he lifted her into the cab but even she realized it wasn’t too practical for her to climb up with her cast.
Josh thanked the valet kid and hopped up into the driver’s seat, glancing over at Ness.
“Seat belt,” he reminded her, hiding another grin at the look on her face.
“I know that,” she seethed, fastening the two pieces together with a loud click. Then, as he eased his way out into the street, she cleared her throat. “I want you to know what I did tonight is all out of character for me.”
“Hey. You were stressed and in a difficult position. No biggie.”
“It is,” she argued. “I never, ever have a meltdown like that. Never.”
“Okay.” He figured the less he said about it, the better. “So how’d you get the cast?” he asked.
“Yeah. You know. That thing on the end of your leg.”