| The Bachelor |
By Carly Phillips
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Roman Chandler glared at his oldest brother, or more accurately he glared at the quarter in Chase's right hand. After getting the phone call about his mother's heart problem, Roman had grabbed the first flight out of London. He'd flown into JFK Airport, taken a connecting flight to Albany, and then rented a car so he could drive an hour to his hometown of Yorkshire Falls, just outside of Saratoga Springs, New York. He was so tired even his bones ached from sheer exhaustion.
And now he could add stress to his problems. Thanks to his mother's heart condition, one of the Chandler brothers would have to sacrifice his freedom in order to provide Raina with a grandchild. A coin toss would decide which brother would shoulder the burden, but only Rick and Roman would be involved. Having already done his family duty by giving up college to run the paper and help his mother raise his younger brothers, Chase wouldn't take part in the tossdespite his argument to the contrary. He'd wanted things equal. Rick and Roman had insisted he opt out.
He'd play executioner instead. "Call it. Heads or tails," Chase said.
Roman glanced at the unpainted ceiling, toward the upstairs of his childhood home where his mother was resting, as per doctor's orders. Meanwhile, he and his brothers stood waiting on the dusty, dirt-smeared floor of the garage that was attached to the family house. The same garage where they'd stored their bikes and balls as kids, and where Roman had snuck beers when he thought his older brothers weren't around. And the same house they'd been raised in and their mother still held on to, thanks to Chase's hard work and his success with the newspaper.
"Come on, guys, someone call it," Chase said in the wake of the surrounding silence.
"You don't have to sound like you're enjoying this," Rick muttered.
"You think I'm enjoying this?" Chase twisted the coin between his fingers, frustration tugging at his lips. "That's bullshit. I sure as hell don't want to see either of you lose the life you chose just because of some whim."
Roman was certain his oldest brother felt so strongly because Chase hadn't chosen his own life path. Instead he'd been thrust into the dual roles of publisher and parent overnight. At seventeen and the oldest sibling when their father died, Chase had felt a duty to take his father's place as head of the family. And that was the motivating factor for Roman's participation in the coin toss now. Roman had been the one to leave Yorkshire Falls and follow his dreams, while Chase had stayed behind and given up his.
Both Roman and Rick looked to Chase as their role model. If Chase thought their mother's dire health and her deep desire for a grandchild warranted a sacrifice, then Roman had to agree. Not only did he owe his brother, he shared the same sense of devotion to family.
"It's no whim Mom suffered," Roman said to his siblings. "She said it's a weak heart that can't handle stress."
"Or disappointment," Rick said. "Mom didn't use that word, but you know damn well she meant it. We've disappointed her."
Roman nodded in agreement. "So if grandchildren will make her happy, then it's up to one of us to give her one to coddle while she's still around to enjoy being a grandmother."
"Knowing one of us is happily married will take the edge off that stress she's supposed to avoid," Chase said. "And a grandchild will give her life direction."
"Can't we just get her a puppy?" Rick asked. Roman understood the sentiment. At thirty-one, his lifestyle precluded settling down. Marriage and family hadn't been in the future. Until now. It wasn't that Roman didn't like women. He did. Hell, he loved women, how they smelled and how their soft skin felt gliding against his aroused body. But he couldn't imagine giving up his career in favor of looking at the same female face across the breakfast table every day for the rest of his life. He shuddered, amazed that his life choices had come down to this one moment.
He turned to his middle brother. "Rick, you've tied the knot once. No need to do it again." Though Roman had no desire to announce himself the man for the job, he couldn't let his sibling repeat his past-marrying to help someone else while sacrificing himself in the process.
Rick shook his head. "Wrong, baby brother. I'll take part in the coin toss. Last time has nothing to do with this. This is about family."
Roman understood. The Chandlers were all about family. So he was back to where they left off. Would he return to his job as foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, continue to land in political hot spots and get the untold stories out to the rest of the world, or would he settle down in Yorkshire Falls the way he'd never planned? Though sometimes Roman wasn't sure whose dream he was actually pursuing his, Chase's, or a combination of bothRoman lived in fear of replicating his brother's life, of being closed in with no options.
But despite his churning stomach, he was ready and nodded in Chase's direction. "Get it over with."
"Whatever you say." Chase flipped the coin high into the air.
Roman inclined his head toward Rick, giving him the choice, and Rick called out, "Heads."
As if in slow motion, the quarter circled and flew in the air. Roman's carefree life passed before his eyes the same way: the women he'd met and flirted with, the special ones who'd lasted long enough to constitute a relationship but not a life mate, the occasional hot, steamy encounter, less often now that he was older and more discriminating.
The sound of Chase's palm slapping against his hand stunned Roman back into reality. He met his oldest brother's solemn gaze.
A life change. The death of a dream.
The severity of the situation hit Roman in the gut. He squared his shoulders and waited, while Rick sucked in an exaggerated breath.
Chase lifted his hand and glanced down, before meeting first Rick's, then Roman's gaze. Then he did the job the way he always did, without backing down. "Looks like you'll be needing a drink about now, baby brother. You're the sacrificial lamb in Mom's quest for grandchildren."
Rick heaved a heavy sigh that was nothing compared to the ball of lead sitting in Roman's stomach. Chase walked up beside Roman. "If you want out, now's the time. No one's going to hold it against you if you don't want to do this."
Roman forced a grin, emulating Chase at eighteen. "You think scoping out women and making babies is a tough assignment? By the time I'm through, you're going to wish you were me."
"Make sure she's a babe," Rick said helpfully, but no real humor tinged his words or tone. He obviously felt Roman's pain, though his own relief at not being the chosen one was tangible.
Roman appreciated the attempt to lighten his mood, even if it didn't work. "More important that she doesn't expect too much," he shot back. Any woman he married had to know up front who he was and accept what he wasn't.
Chase slapped him on the back. "I'm proud of you, kid. This is a once-in-a-lifetime decision. Be certain you can live with her, okay?"
"I don't plan to live with anyone," Roman muttered. "Then what do you plan?" Rick asked.
"A nice long-distance marriage that doesn't change my life much at all. I want to find someone who's willing to stay at home and raise the kid, who'll be happy seeing me whenever I can make it back."
"You've got enough baggage as it is, is that it?" Rick asked.
Roman scowled at him. His attempt at mood-lightening had gone too far. "Actually, we had a damn good life while growing up and I want to make sure anyone I marry can provide the same thing for my kid."
"So you go on the road, the wife stays home." Chase shook his head. "You'd better watch your attitude. You don't want to scare potential candidates off too early in the search."
"There's no chance of that happening." Rick chuckled. "There wasn't a girl in high school who didn't lust after the kid, before he left for a life of adventure."
Despite the situation, Roman laughed. "Only after you graduated. Yours were big shoes to fill."
"That goes without saying." Rick folded his arms over his chest and grinned. "But fair's fair. I had to walk in Chase's footsteps, and they were huge. Girls loved his strong, silent bit. But once he graduated, they turned their sights on me." He tapped his chest. "And once I was gone, the field was open for you. And they were all interested."
Not all. Without warning, the memory of his high school infatuation resurfaced, as it often did. A beautiful girl with jet-black hair and green eyes, Charlotte Bronson had made his teenage hormones run wild. Her stinging rejection lived within him, as sharp now as it had been back then. He considered her the one who'd gotten away, and he'd never forgotten her. Though Roman would like to label it a teenage crush and leave it there, truth dictated he admit his feelings had run deep.
Not that he'd admitted it aloud to his brothers then, nor would he now. A man had to keep some things private.
Last Roman had heard, Charlotte had moved to New York City, the fashion capital of the world. Though he shared a rent-controlled apartment in the same city, he'd never run into her, nor had he looked her up. Roman was rarely in town long enough to do more than sleep one night, change clothes, and head out again to his next destination. He hadn't heard any gossip from his mother lately, and curiosity won out now. "Charlotte Bronson back in town?" he asked.
Rick and Chase exchanged surprised glances. "She sure is," Rick said. "Owns a little business on First." "And she's single," Chase added with a smile at last. Roman's adrenaline kicked in hard and fast. "What kind of business?"
"Why don't you stop by and see for yourself?" Rick asked.
The notion tempted him. Roman wondered what Charlotte was like now. If she was still as quiet and sincere as she'd been way back when. If her jet-black hair still hung down her back, tempting a man to touch. He was curious to know if her green eyes were still expressive and open, providing a window to her soul for anyone who cared enough to look.
He'd cared and had been shot down for his effort. "Has she changed much?"
"Go have a look." Chase added his prompting to Rick's. "You can call it your first chance at scoping out potential candidates."
As if Charlotte would be interested. She'd walked away with ease after their one date and let him move on, apparently without an ounce of remorse. Roman had never believed her proclamation of disinterest, and he didn't think it was his ego talking. The sparks had been strong enough to light the entire town, the chemistry so hot an explosion had threatened. But sexual attraction wasn't the only thing they'd shared.
They'd connected on a deeper level, connected enough for him to share his dreams and hopes for the future, something he'd never done before. Revealing such an intimate part of his soul had left him open for hurt and made her rejection that much more painful, he realized now, thanks to the adult wisdom he'd lacked in his youth.
"Maybe I will look her up." Roman remained deliberately vague. He didn't want to give his brothers any more indication of his renewed curiosity in Charlotte Bronson. Especially when he needed a different kind of woman, one who'd agree to his plan.
He let out a groan, recalling why this conversation had begun in the first place. His mother wanted grandchildren. And Roman would do his best to give them to her. But that didn't mean he could provide a spouse with all the strangling emotions and expectations a typical marriage entailed. He was a man who needed his freedom. He wasn't a husband for all seasons. His potential wife would have to want kids more than a husband and enjoy being on her own. An independent woman who adored children would do just fine.
Because Roman intended to get married, get his wife pregnant, and get the hell out, while doing his damnedest not to look back.
Sunshine shone through the plate-glass storefront window, bathing Charlotte in incredible warmth and heat. Aperfect setting for the tropical display she was setting up. She tied the back of a string bikini around the mannequin that would be featured prominently in the window, and turned it toward her assistant. "So what do you think?"
Beth Hansen, also Charlotte's best friend since childhood, chuckled. "I wish I were built so fine."
"You are now." Charlotte glanced at Beth's petite figure and enhanced breasts.
Yorkshire Falls was a small town, four hours from New York Cityfar enough to remain a small town, but close enough to make travel to the big city worthwhile if the reason was good enough. Apparently bust alteration was good enough reason for Beth.
"And you could be. You don't even need to use too much imagination." Beth pointed to the mannequin. "Take a look at her and imagine yourself like this." She outlined the curvaceous shape with her hands. "An uplift would be a start, but an extra cup size would do even more to attract male attention."
Charlotte exhaled an exaggerated sigh. "Considering the interest this store's been getting, I don't need help attracting more attention of any kind."
As for men, she hadn't had a date since her New York City days six months before, and though she was sometimes lonely, she wasn't ready to begin the dating routine againthe long meals with drawn-out silences or the obligatory good-night kiss in which she inevitably had to grab her date's wandering hand before any real groping could begin. Although, if she were ever to complete her life with a husband and kids added to her career, she'd have to get back into the dating game one day soon.
"Every woman needs more male attention. It's an ego boost and who can argue with that?" Charlotte frowned. "I'd rather a man be" "Interested in your mind instead of your face or body," Beth parroted, hands on her hips. Charlotte nodded. "That's right. And I'd give any man the same respect in return." She grinned. "Am I beginning to sound like a broken record?"
"Maybe a little." "Tell me something. Why is it the men who attract me are only interested in the packaging and don't stick around for the long haul?" Charlotte asked.
"Because you've dated the wrong men? Or maybe it's because you don't give them a chance. Besides, it's a proven fact that the packaging attracts a man first. A smart guy, the right guy, will get to know you and then you can blow him away with your brilliant brainpower."
"Men who go for looks first are too shallow." "There you go again. Jumping to generalized conclusions. And I beg to differ." Beth placed her hands on her hips and scowled Charlotte's way. "It's the packaging that makes the first impression," she insisted.
Charlotte wondered why Beth could assert one thing when she was living proof of another. If Beth believed in a man being attracted to packaging first and then getting to know and appreciating a woman for who and what she was, why had she undergone plastic surgery after meeting her fianc?? Charlotte cared too much for her friend to hurt her by asking.
"Look at this store, for example." Beth waved a hand through the air. "You sell the packaging, and hence you're responsible for the rejuvenation of many relationships and marriages that have gotten stale."
"I can't argue with you there." Charlotte had been told the same thing by many of her customers.
Beth grinned. "Half the women in this town are getting lucky, thanks to you." "I wouldn't go that far."
Her friend shrugged. "Whatever. The point is, aren't you sending the message that packaging is important?" "I'd rather think I'm sending the message that it's okay to be yourself."
"I think we're saying the same thing, but I'll drop it for now. Did I tell you David offers packages? Eyes and chin, uplifts and implants."
Charlotte rolled her eyes. As far as she was concerned, Beth had been perfect before going under the knife, and Charlotte still didn't understand what had compelled her to think she needed to change. And Beth obviously wasn't talking. Just advertising her soon-to-be husband's services.
"Has anyone mentioned you're beginning to sound like an advertisement for your plastic surgeon?" Beth smiled. "But of course. I plan to marry the man. Why not boost his business and our joint bank account at the same time?"
Beth's mercenary words were at odds with the sweet, down-to-earth woman Charlotte knew her to be. Another subtle change in Beth that Charlotte had noticed since her return. Like Charlotte, Beth had been born and raised in Yorkshire Falls. And like Charlotte had once done, Beth would move to New York City soon. Charlotte hoped her friend enjoyed the bright lights and big city. She remembered her own experience there with mixed feelings. At first, she'd loved the busy streets, the frantic pace, the glow of light and life even late at night. But once the newness faded, an emptiness grew. After living in a close-knit community like Yorkshire Falls, the loneliness had been overwhelming. Something Beth wouldn't have to deal with, since she was moving to New York to be with her husband.
"You know I'm never going to be able to replace you," Charlotte said wistfully. "You're the perfect assistant." When Charlotte had decided to leave her sales manager job at a posh New York City boutique and open Charlotte's Attic back home, it hadn't taken more than one phone call to convince Beth to leave her job as a receptionist at a real estate office to come work with Charlotte.
"I'm going to miss you too. This job has been more rewarding than anything else I've done."
"That's because you're finally putting your talent to use."
"Thanks to your vision. This place is incredible."
Charlotte merely blushed. She'd been worried about a chic boutique succeeding in her small, upstate hometown. It was Beth who'd pushed and supported her emotionally during the preopening stages. Charlotte's concern had been unwarranted. Thanks to television, the Internet, and magazines, Yorkshire Falls' women were ready for fashion. Her store was a hitif somewhat of an oddity among the oldtime shops that still remained.
"Speaking of talent, I'm so glad we chose this aqua color instead of black." Beth fingered the strings tied tightly around the back of the mannequin.
"It's the exact color of the water off the Fiji Islands. The Koro Sea, and the South Pacific Ocean." Charlotte closed her eyes and envisioned the setting depicted in the brochures she had in her backroom office.
Not that she planned to travel, but the dream of faraway places had beckoned to her for as long as she could remember. As a young girl, pictures of idyllic resorts nurtured her hope that her errant father would return and share what she'd perceived as his glamorous life. Today she couldn't squelch the occasional urge to see exotic places, but she feared that desire made her too much like her father-selfish, shallow, and ungiving-so she settled for photos instead. Like the ones in her office portraying glistening water, white frothing waves, and hot sun heating bare skin.
"Not to mention the aqua color will complement the rest of the summer window display?"
Beth's voice intruded on Charlotte's thoughts and she opened one eye. "That too. Now be quiet and let me return to my daydream." But the spell had been broken. "It's hard to get used to looking at bathing suits when we're just coming off winter."
"I know." Besides luxurious and basic undergarments, Charlotte also sold some fashionable eclectic pieces- sweaters in the winter, bathing suits and matching coverups in the summer. "But the fashion world works on its own schedule."
And so did Charlotte. The cold air had barely begun to give way to a slight March warming trend, but Charlotte dressed for the summer season anyway, in shockingly bright colors and light fabrics. What had started as a bid to lure people into her store had worked. Now word of mouth brought people to her store, and she'd grown to love the clothes she wore.
"I was thinking we could put the bathing suits in the right-hand corner of the display," Charlotte told Beth. "Sounds like a good plan."
Charlotte dragged the mannequin toward the window overlooking First Avenue, Yorkshire Falls' main strip. She'd been fortunate in nabbing the perfect location, formerly Guy's Clothing Store. Charlotte wasn't worried about putting another retail store in the space because her merchandise kept up with the times. She'd had six months at the old rental before a rent increase kicked in, time enough to get her business off the ground, and her success told her she was on the right track.
"Listen, I'm starving. I'm going to grab some dinner next door. Want to join me?" Beth grabbed her jacket off the rack in the back and slipped it on.
"No, thanks. I think I'll stick around and put some finishing touches on the window display." Charlotte and Beth had accomplished an almost complete overhaul of inventory today. It was easier to get things done when the store was closed than during business hours. The customers didn't just enjoy shopping, they enjoyed chitchat as well. Beth sighed. "Suit yourself. But your social life is pathetic.
Even I'm better company than those mannequins." Charlotte started to laugh, then glanced at Beth and saw something more in her friend's eyes than a good joke. "You miss him, don't you?"
Beth nodded. Her fiancé had come up almost every weekend, staying Friday through Sunday night before returning to the city for the work week. Since he'd missed this weekend, Charlotte figured Beth probably wasn't looking forward to another lonely meal.
Neither was Charlotte. "You know what? Go get a table and I'll meet you there in five...." Her voice trailed off as she caught sight of a man outside the window.
Jet-black hair gleamed in the sunlight and a pair of sexy sunglasses were perched on the bridge of his nose, obscuring his face from view. A worn denim jacket covered his broad shoulders, and jeans hugged his long legs. Charlotte's stomach did a flip, bringing a warm sensation to her belly as recognition flickered with possibility.
She blinked, certain she'd been mistaken, but he'd backed far enough away that he was gone from view. She shook her head. Impossible, she thought. Everyone in town knew Roman Chandler was off traveling and reporting the news. Charlotte had always respected his ideals, the burning desire to expose unreported injustices, even if she didn't understand the needs that kept him far from home.
His aspirations had always reminded her of her actor father's. So had his good looks and charm. A wink, a smile, and women swooned at his feet. Heck, she'd swooned, and after a lot of flirting and lingering looks, they'd gone on their first date. One nighta night in which she'd connected with Roman on a meaningful level. She'd fallen hard and fast, as only a teenage girl could. And a night during which she'd discovered Roman's intention to leave Yorkshire Falls as soon as the opportunity arose.
Charlotte's father had abandoned his wife and child for Hollywood years before. With Roman's declaration, she'd immediately recognized the devastation he could leave in his wake.
She had only to look to her mother's lonely life to find the nerve to act on her conviction. She'd walked away from Roman that same night, lying that he didn't "do it" for her. And she hadn't let herself look back, no matter how badly she hurtand she had hurt.
Look, don't touch. Smart rules for a girl who wanted her heart and soul intact. She might not feel like dating now, but when the right man showed himself, she would. Until then, she'd abide by her rules. She had no intention of following the same path her mother had taken, waiting for the wanderer to sporadically return, so she wouldn't involve herself with a restless soul like Roman Chandler. Not that she had to worry about such a thing. No way was he in town, and if he were, he'd steer clear of her.
Beth's hand on her shoulder caught her by surprise and she jumped. "Hey, you okay?" "Fine. I just got distracted."
Beth flicked her blond hair out from beneath her collar, then opened the door to the street. "Okay, then. I'll grab a table and see you in a few minutes." She let the door close behind her and Charlotte turned back to the mannequin, determined to finish the joband calm downbefore heading out to dinner.
There was no way Roman was back in town, she told herself. No way at all.
Excerpted from The Bachelor , by Carly Phillips . Copyright (c) 2002 by Karen Drogin. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top