Carter Matthews had just tipped the glass into his mouth when someone started banging at his door. Nosy Mrs. Beedleman and her binoculars, he was sure, had seen him and Cemetery Kitty through her courtyard window. And, as Mrs. Beedleman was wont to do, had assumed the worst about him and called the authorities.
Carter sighed, placed the glass on the counter and opened his apartment door.
“Let me guess,” he said to the slim brunette in his hall. She wore a funky pair of dark purple glasses that turned up at the corners, in that popular Sixties style. Tall, thin, she wore her brown hair in an angle cut bob that set off a graceful neck. But the suit she had on was all business and Carter knew better than to flirt with a government employee. “You’re from the ASPCA and you’re here to write me up on charges of animal cruelty, right?”
“The thing is stuffed. Tomorrow, I’m firing the guys who invented it. So go on back to the office or wherever you came from because there’s no dead cat in my apartment. At least, not a real one.”
She blinked. “Dead cat?”
“I told you, it’s not real. It’s the Cemetery Kitty toy.”
She blanched. “Uh, I think I knocked on the wrong door. Thanks anyway.” The woman turned to leave.
She looked like someone he knew, but hell, so did half the city of Lawford. As a new CEO, he made more friends he didn’t need at city networking events and golf tourneys, then forgot their names as soon as he put on his coat.
Still, something was familiar about this woman. Not familiar in the kind of way that told him he’d dated her, though.
How deplorable. He had dated so many women, he’d forgotten more than he remembered. Unlike his brother, Cade, who had found his true love in high school, married her after graduation and was still enjoying the fairy tale.
Carter was more of the big, bad wolf smart fathers warned their daughters about rather than the prince on the white horse.
The woman in his hallway had a long, delicate face with a slim nose and defined cheekbones, giving her a Grace Kelly kind of beauty. But unlike the screen legend/princess, her hair was a medium brown, and the easy way it skipped over her jawline and neck seemed made for convertibles and lazy summer days. And her legswell, hell, they were made for a lot of things he was pretty sure were illegal in Indiana.
Whoa. He needed a bigger drink.
Either way, hers was the first friendly face he’d seen all day. And here he was chasing her from his apartment, like a fool. “Wait.” She pivoted away from the elevator. “Can we start over?”
She paused a moment, then relented and returned to his doorway.
He ran a hand over his face. “Sorry. It’s been a long day. I’ve got an unmarketable stuffed cat sitting on my La-Z-Boy and I’m out of alcohol. Let me try this again. I’m Carter Matthews, and you are?”
Daphne. Didn’t ring any bells.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Daphne.” He slipped on the smile that had won a number of women’s heartsand broken a few too. “What brings you by?”
“I have a message for you.”
“Now that’s intriguing.” Carter leaned against the doorframe and sent a second glance running over her. “And what might that be?”
She smiled, any trace of friendliness gone. “Actually, a little hate mail.”
He thought of telling her where she could stick her hate mail, then reconsidered. She was, after all, a pretty woman and he had wished for one a few minutes earlier. He had the drink, albeit a thimbleful a wine, and with the certain demise of Tweedle-Dee Toys now that his designers had launched a goth theme for spring, he’d have that vacation he wanteda permanent one.
Be careful what you wish for, Matthews. It might just come true in spades.
Yet again, he was proving his father’s adage that he was about as useful as snow in August. Carter hated when his father was rightand hated how easy it had become to be the kind of man who fell instead of rose to the occasion.
“Tell me who hates me now,” Carter said. Besides his entire staff, and himself, of course.
“You? Why?” Oh, Lord, she must be an ex-girlfriend. Definitely a sign he was dating and drinking too much.
Daphne Williams parked a fist on her hip and glared at him. “You made me break up with my boyfriend for no good reason.”
“Are you insane? I don’t even know you.”
“No, but you do know a” she reached in her pocket and pulled out a small card, “Cecilia, who sent you a breakup basket today.”
Oh, damn. That really did take the cake for his day.
“A breakup basket?” Not that he hadn’t been more or less expecting something similar from Cecilia, who had made it clear that his inability to commit was no way to conduct a relationship.
Cecilia had expected the usual Carter Matthews treatmentdinner at fancy restaurants, drinks in jazz bars, impromptu trips to a B&B, but when Carter had told her he needed to spend his time making a stab at this CEO instead of stealing away with her for weekend rendezvous and late nights on the dance floor, she’d thrown a fit.
“According to Cecilia,” Daphne went on, “you’re a no-good jerk and she doesn’t want to see your face ever again, even if you were” for this, she looked down at the card for the exact wording, “the last cockroach left on earth.”
“And this, I believe, is yours, not mine.” She pivoted, picked up a massive black wicker basket he hadn’t noticed earlier and thrust the thing into his arms. Skulls and crossbones decorated the outside, along with words like “never again” and “make hate, not love”.
Inside the basket were all kinds of goodies. A voodoo doll with spiky dark hair that he suspected was supposed to be him. Stuffed and tortured with pins and red X’s marking the mortal wounds. A half-dozen dead, shriveled black roses, a copy of Men Who Are Jerks and The Women Who Dump Them, a can of dog food with a spoon taped to the side, and a pint-sized bottle of Lester Jester’s Eau de Skunk.
“Guess she wanted to get her message across,” he said.
“You must be one heck of a boyfriend.”
“I’m actually a very nice guy.”
She arched a brow at him. Apparently it was too late to make a good first impression.
Carter glanced again at the voodoo doll and noticed the hat pins sticking out of its eyeballs. Granted, that didn’t speak well for him. “I don’t get it. Tell me how my breakup ruined your life.”
“This,” she pointed at the basket, “was delivered to me.”
“I’ll be sure to complain to the delivery company.”
“Too late. I already ended a perfectly good relationship because of this thing.”
“Did it breed in your living room? Or were you totally overcome by the fumes of Lester’s skunk aroma?”
“I thought it was from my boyfriend.” She glared at him as if every glitch in the universe was Carter’s fault. A few he’d lay claim to, but not this one. “So I broke up with him.”
He smirked. “A pre-emptive strike?”
She colored. Clearly, Daphne Williams didn’t like having the tables turned on her. “Yes.”
“Didn’t you read the card?”
“I didn’t open the box until…after.”
He tried to bite back his laughter but gave up the effort. “You broke up with your boyfriend, thinking he was breaking up with you, and you hadn’t even opened the box?”
She parked her fists on her trim little hips. “I have had a very bad day.”
“Well, so have I.” He grinned. “But you just made me laugh, so it’s starting to improve.”
She gave him a glare. “I don’t find this funny.”
He raised the can of liver-flavored dog food in her direction. “I can’t believe you ruined a relationship over this.”
“It’s your fault.”
“It is not.”
“If you hadn’t been such a horrible boyfriend, Cecilia wouldn’t have sent you this and I wouldn’t have thought it was meant for me and ended things with Jerry.” She threw up her hands. “You have no idea how this throws a wrench into all my plans. I needed Jerry, and not just for a little dim sum on Friday nights.”
He shook his head, needing a second to follow her long-winded logic. He hadn’t had any dinner and the lack of sustenance had his brain firing in the wrong directions. “First off, I wasn’t a horrible boyfriend.” He thought a second. “Well, I wasn’t exactly a horrible boyfriend. Second, you breaking up with Jerry was your choice, not mine. So I don’t see why I owe you anything at all.”
“I truly don’t care what you think, Mr. Matthews. The way I see it, you owe me a favor. Two, in fact, because I lugged this thing all the way up to the fourth floor to deliver it to the right recipient.”
“I disagree. I say Jerry was just waiting for an excuse to break up. My basket happened to be handy. So there’s no favor required here at all.” He started to shut his door.
She blocked him with a dark blue two-inch pump. “That’s not true. I was a wonderful girlfriend.”
He gave her a sardonic grin. “If you were so wonderful, then why did he let you get away so easily?”
Carter Matthews looked at Daphne Williams’s furious, silent face and thought he’d never seen anything so pretty as a woman who didn’t have a ready retort. She stepped back, sputtering and steaming, but not a single word came out.
“Have a good day, Miss Williams,” he said, and shut his door.
Then he realized winning the battle didn’t seem quite so victorious, considering he was left alone with a faux dead cat and a basket full of hate messages.
And a few truths about himself that weren’t so fun to face.