Excerpt from THE HUSBAND LIST
The home in the mountains, decorated for fall, now included a banner above the fireplace proclaiming Welcome Home, Keenan. Across the room, a large buffet table held generous portions of everything from brisket to wedges of key lime pie. Travis Fisher and his wife, Mary Karen, had pulled out all the stops for this welcome-home party. Or rather, a get-out-of-prison celebration.
Waiters in black pants and crisp white shirts circulated throughout the house holding silver trays with hors d'oeuvres and champagne.
Dr. Mitzi Sanchez turned down the dumplings and baby quiche then took a glass of wine from a passing waiter before stepping into a secluded alcove to study the scene before her. Since moving to Wyoming three years ago, she'd been to a lot of parties in Jackson Hole.
While it appeared most in attendance had come with someone, she'd arrived alone. Her last guy, an NFL football player, had been more of a fling. But even in a casual relationship she required monogamy, and that hadn't been in Kelvin's playbook.
Across the room she saw her associate, Dr. Benedict Campbell, and his wife, Poppy. Of all her relationships, he'd lasted the longest. While on paper they should have been perfect for each other, they'd argued constantly. After they broke up, he'd begun dating Poppy and was now a happily married man with an adorable baby boy.
She didn't want a baby—not quite ready for that commitment—but she would like to be happily-with-someone. Mitzi heaved a sigh.
"That's quite a sigh."
She turned toward the sexy baritone and her heart stuttered. With hair the color of rich mahogany and hazel eyes that tended toward green, Mitzi found the man's square jaw and strong features pleasing. He smelled of soap and a familiar warm male scent that made something tighten low in her abdomen.
"Hel-lo." Mitzi widened her smile and let the word hum between them.
Because Keenan McGregor—the man they were welcoming home—had grown up in Jackson Hole, Travis had invited friends from his school years. Many of whom Mitzi had never met.
Still, Mitzi thought she knew every attractive man in Jackson Hole. "How did I miss seeing you?"
"You were too busy ogling the buffet table."
"I was not—" she began then stopped when a dimple flashed in his left cheek. The rat was teasing her.
"Actually I was checking out who was here." She lowered her voice as she spoke, forcing him to lean close. Mitzi saw his eyes darken as he inhaled the sultry scent of her new perfume.
She took a sip of champagne. This party might be fun, after all. She batted her lashes then extended her hand. "Mitzi Sanchez."
His hand closed around hers and she felt a jolt. She glanced up, stunned by her response. But if he'd experienced the same sizzle it didn't show.
"A pretty name for a very pretty woman."
Though it was a compliment any reasonably attractive woman would hear in a bar any night of the week, he offered it up with such sincerity, Mitzi felt herself smiling back. When his gaze slowly slid down her body, the earlier sizzle ignited into a full-out electrical fire.
Too fast, Mitzi told herself. Take a step back. They'd been words to live by and had kept her from making a few disastrous mistakes through the years.
Deliberately, she shifted her gaze to where their pretty blonde hostess, Mary Karen, stood surrounded by friends, talking animatedly with both hands. Instead of her normal jeans and sweater, MK looked adorable in a royal blue sweater dress with a shawl neckline.
Mary Karen had told everyone the party would be casual. For this crowd that meant anything from jeans to fall dresses and heels. Though the hunk beside her looked mouthwateringly good in Wranglers and a wheat-colored sweater, Mitzi enjoyed dressing up almost as much as she liked changing her hair.
For tonight's event, she'd chosen a corduroy skirt in camel and a crisp cotton shirt in pumpkin spice. Her hair, which changed color so much she couldn't quite recall the original shade, was blond tonight with streaks the color of peanut butter. In a whimsical mood, she'd pulled the sides back and secured the strands with two of her favorite clips.
"You have bones in your hair."
Feeling more in control, Mitzi turned back to him and gave a throaty laugh. "They're femurs."
"Why do you have femurs in your hair?"
"I'm an orthopedic surgeon," Mitzi explained. "I found these hair clips at an eclectic little boutique in L.A. I pull them out for special occasions."
He took a sip of the drink in his hand, which looked like water but may have been vodka. Shadows played in his eyes, making them unreadable. "Tonight is special?"
"It is for Keenan McGregor. The guy got a get-out-of-jail-free card after being convicted of manslaughter." Mitzi lifted her glass of champagne as if making a toast. "A cause for celebration if I ever heard one. Don't you agree?"
"Definitely." His lips curved slightly upward. "An orthopedic surgeon? My arm was broken when I was ten so I guess we have that in common."
Even with a glass of champagne in her hand and a handsome man at her side, Mitzi still wore her doctor's hat. He'd said his arm was broken rather than he broke his arm. If he'd been a child, the wording would have put her on alert. But the man before her was definitely no boy.
"The last thing I want to do when I come to a party is talk about medicine. Let's chat about something more interesting." She stepped closer. "Such as you."
He didn't retreat, merely took another sip of his drink. "I'm not all that interesting."
Oh, but he was. His rugged good looks and confident demeanor called to her in a primal way and made her determined to uncover all his secrets.
Unable to resist touching him for one more second, Mitzi looped a hand through his arm. "You're just being modest. C'mon, tell me something about yourself."
"I love to fly."
"Are you a pilot?"
"I was." His eyes turned dark. "I'm working on getting my license back. That's at the top of my list."
Mitzi thought of her own list, the one she'd compiled just that morning. After years of playing the field, she was finally ready to settle down. Her list detailed essential characteristics she required in a husband. No more wasting time dating the wrong kind of men. "I have one of those."
"A pilot's license?"
The question flummoxed her. Then she chuckled. "No. A list."
"What's on yours?"
"Nah-uh." She waggled a finger at him. "We're not talking about me. We're talking about you. I don't even know your name."
"Tell me one thing first." His slow, easy smile did strange things to her insides. "How do you happen to be at this party? You're not from Jackson Hole."
"I'm from California." Not about to be distracted, Mitzi steered the conversation back to him. "I take it you're from here?"
He nodded, shifted his gaze from her.
"Since you were invited, you must know Keenan."
Those beautiful hazel eyes returned to her. "Extremely well."
"Point him out." Mitzi tightened her grip on his arm. "I've been trying to figure out which one he is but it's difficult. I know Betsy, but some siblings don't resemble each other."
She thought of her sister, who looked one hundred percent like their Mexican mother, while Mitzi took after her Argentinean father with her blue eyes and fair complexion.
"True enough." He brushed back a lock of hair that fell sexily across his forehead.
Her body began to thrum. Mitzi had to force her eyes from his face to scan the crowd. "Can I see him from where I'm standing?"
"Tell me." She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Which one is the convict?"
He tipped her chin up with his finger until her eyes met his. "You're looking at him."
For a fraction of a second, Mitzi's blue eyes widened. Then, she laughed. "Yeah, right."
Keenan wasn't sure why he found the conversation amusing, but he did. "I'd show you my driver's license but it expired when I was in prison."
She was a pretty thing, and unlike any doctor he'd ever known. Not that he ran in that crowd. Or rather, he hadn't in the past. Coming back to Jackson Hole, it had surprised him that so many of his boyhood pals were now important members of the medical community.
"You're not Keenan McGregor." Though she spoke boldly, confidently, the uncertainty in her eyes told him she wasn't so sure. "You're making it up."
"Travis." He gestured his friend over.
The popular OB-GYN, tall and lean with sandy-colored hair and a perpetual smile, sauntered toward them.
Travis had been one of a group of men who'd worked tirelessly for Keenan's release and provided money for his legal fees. Though his friends insisted he didn't owe them a dime, Keenan had vowed to repay every penny, no matter how long it took.
"I see you've met Mitzi." Travis's smile broadened to include the woman at his side.
"We're getting acquainted." Keenan shot Mitzi a wink. "I was just telling her I don't have a driver's license since mine expired while I was in prison."
"You're going to need one." Travis rocked back on his heels. "I understand you'll be working with Joel while you get back on your feet."
Although Keenan had only recently met Travis's friend, Joel had offered him a job with his construction company. "I appreciate the opportunity."
Travis's eyes took on a distant look. "You were always fooling around with wood or engines when we were growing up."
Out of necessity, Keenan thought with a wry smile. He'd had to keep the old jalopy he'd driven running, and if he hadn't done repairs to the dump of a house where they'd lived, it would have fallen in around them.
"Thanks for the party, Trav." Keenan gestured toward the room filled with family and old friends. "You and Mary Karen went to a lot of trouble to pull this together."
"We're happy to have you back." The sincerity in Travis's eyes humbled Keenan. He'd done little to deserve such loyalty. "If you need anything, anything at all—"
"You've done enough already." Keenan clasped a hand on his friend's shoulder. "But thanks. I appreciate the offer."
They talked for another minute before Travis left to answer a catering question. It wasn't until after he disappeared into the crowd that Keenan turned back to Mitzi, who'd been messing with her smartphone while undoubtedly listening to every word. "Satisfied?"
Instead of looking abashed, she grinned. "You were right."
"About being me?"
"I had my doubts." Mitzi looked him up and down, sizing him up. "You and Betsy don't really look alike."
Before he could respond, she spun on her heel. "I'm getting something to eat. Perhaps snag more champagne. I'm not on call so I'm allowing myself two glasses this evening."
Keenan used to drink, quite a bit during high school and even more during the following years. Then he quit. Not because alcohol was a problem for him, but because he didn't want it to become one.
He watched the pretty doctor saunter off and felt a stab of disappointment. Hanging out with her had been fun…while it lasted.
"Hey." Mitzi turned, cast a challenging glance over her shoulder. "Aren't you coming?"
Growing up in East Los Angeles, Mitzi had plenty of experience with convicts. Her mother had dated many and had even lived with a few of them. Her sister had married one. Or was it two? Such relationships never ended well. Mitzi, who'd been determined to get out of that life and never look back, had never been remotely attracted to someone who'd had trouble with the law.
Of course, Keenan had been sent to prison for a crime he hadn't committed. That still didn't mean he was the kind of man she'd be interested in dating.
She wanted a successful man, someone with a lot of drive and ambition. From what she'd heard, Keenan had been living a hedonistic lifestyle before he landed in jail. Still, she enjoyed talking with him. What would be the harm in chatting a little while longer over a crab cake or two?
"Did I offend you with the convict comment?" she asked when he joined her.
"I am a convict." Keenan shrugged. "I spent time in prison. Granted, I didn't kill the guy, but I was still convicted and sent away."
On their way to the buffet table, they were stopped every few feet by someone wanting to hug Keenan or offer congratulations.
He handled the attention well, Mitzi noticed. Keenan had an easy charm and a ready smile, but she could feel the tension in the arm she held and knew this light mood wasn't as effortless for him as it appeared.
"This must be difficult," she said, when they finally reached the table.
"I'm not used to the social thing anymore," Keenan said with a slightly abashed look. "But it's nice knowing so many people care."
Mitzi wondered if she'd inspire such loyalty, then shoved the thought aside. She had more important things on her mind right now. She slanted a sideways glance at Keenan. "Do you like crab cakes?"
He tilted his head. "Is that a trick question?"
"I want a bite of one but not the whole thing."
"You could, I don't know, leave the part you don't want on your plate."
Mitzi had spent many years in a household without enough to eat. She could be wasteful in a lot of areas of her life, but food wasn't one of them. Wrinkling her nose, she shook her head.
His lips twitched. "Since that obviously isn't an acceptable option, I'll be a gentleman and help you out."
With a satisfied smirk, Mitzi dropped a crab cake on the plate. "If you only want a bite of something, I'll do the same."
"I'm not a guy who does things halfway."
Something told her he wasn't joking.
When he reached for his own plate, she put a hand on his arm, shook her head. "We'll share."
Amusement flickered in his eyes. "Anyone ever tell you that you're bossy?"
"All the time." She snatched a deep-fried ball of something from a tray and popped it into her mouth.
Rolling his eyes, he did the same. Chewed. Swallowed. "Tasty."
"Better than prison food?"
"Much better," he agreed.
They made their way down the long table, her pointing to something and him shaking his head, then repeating the process with him doing the pointing. By the time they finished, the plate was full.
Though Mitzi had just met Keenan, conversation flowed freely. They didn't talk about medicine or theater events or fancy wines, but about food and now, cats.
"Mr. Tubs wasn't anything special." Keenan finished off the crab cake Mitzi had sliced in half with surgical precision. "But he was a good mouser and smart as a whip. Betsy and I even taught him tricks. Believe me, that wasn't easy to do."
Mitzi heard the affection, knew the animal had been special. "I had a cat, Oreo. I found her abandoned in a Dumpster. Like your Tubs, she earned a place in the household by keeping the mice population down."
"What happened to her?"
Mitzi lifted one shoulder. "She got old. One day we opened the door and she slipped out. I read cats often go away to die. I like to think that's what happened to her."
Keenan nodded, lifted a mozzarella stick from the plate.
"What happened to Tubs?"
His lips tightened. "My mother sold him."
Just the way he said "mother" told Mitzi there wasn't any love between them.
"Why did she do that?"
"Like I said, he could do tricks." Keenan looked down at the mozzarella stick as if trying to figure out what was in his hand. "She needed money for booze. We came home from school and Tubs was gone. She didn't remember—she said—who bought him. It was…difficult. Betsy was devastated."
From the look in Keenan's eyes, his sister hadn't been the only one. Mitzi took the mozzarella stick from his hand, dropped it onto the plate then set it aside. "Let's take a walk."
When they got to the back of the house, he reached around her to open the French doors leading to a deck festively lit with party lights. Couples stood in small, intimate groups talking and laughing under the golden glow from a full moon. The crisp scent of dried leaves mingled with the pungent aroma of evergreen.
After speaking briefly with several friends and getting hugs from a few more, Keenan moved to the rail and inhaled deeply. "So many times I wondered if I'd ever have this again."
"Well, now you're back."
"And starting over." He paused, shook his head as if clearing it. "That's inaccurate. I'm beginning the next phase in my life. Out with the old. In with the new."
That's exactly how Mitzi had felt when she'd gone to college. Moving on. Leaving the past behind. Except she'd discovered the past often came with you, even without a proper invitation.
"What is that?" Keenan's question pulled her from her reverie.
Mitzi turned, caught her breath at his nearness. With great effort she forced her attention to where he pointed. Someone had tied a sprig of berries to an overhanging branch. She smiled. "It's mistletoe."
Keenan cocked his head, looking perplexed. "Why would mistletoe be hanging from a tree branch in September?"
"It's kind of a tradition." Mitzi explained how Travis and Mary Karen had mistletoe at all their parties, regardless of the time of year.
He stared at the berries and waxy green leaves, then lifted a brow.
The moment his eyes touched hers, something inside seemed to lock into place, and Mitzi couldn't look away. Her lips began to tingle with anticipation. But from the expression of watchful waiting in his eyes, it was clear he wouldn't make the first move.
Though Keenan McGregor wasn't someone she could see herself dating, kissing wasn't dating. It was, well, just kissing.
It could be a "glad-you're-finally-out-of-prison" kiss, a way of welcoming him back to Jackson Hole. It didn't need to be complicated.
Without giving herself time to talk herself out of the impulsive gesture, Mitzi wrapped her arms around his neck and lifted her mouth to his.