| Mr. Destiny |
By Candy Halliday
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Kate Anderson flashed hot all over. The summer heat wave assaulting New York City had nothing to do with it.
Here she was, Miss Efficient Art Gallery Manager, overseeing the annual "Art in Central Park" outdoor exhibit cosponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet, what was she doing? She was fantasizing about the handsome mounted patrol officer galloping up the path in her direction.
Fantasizing about him naked, to be exact. Prewedding jitters Kate assured herself. That, and her pesky subconscious trying to challenge her belief that size didn't matter. Size didn't matter.
Not to Kate. Not if you were a prominent corporate attorney with a no-nonsense outlook on life that would finally bring focus and clarity to her life.
She'd met Harold Trent Wellington shortly after her time-to-grow-up-now thirtieth birthday. From their first date, Kate had known Harold was exactly the type of man she needed to keep her grounded. Harold was handsome by any woman's standards-tall, lean, a touch of distinguished-looking premature gray at his temples. He was older and settled, another plus. They shared the same interests: opera, art, the finer things in life.
Maybe Harold was a neat-freak and a tad bit anal. Maybe they had a nonexistent sex life at the moment, but they were working through Harold's feelings of inadequacy in the bedroom with a reputable couple's therapist. The main thing was, Harold had been a calming and positive influence over her life from the moment they started seeing each other.
Proof being, overseeing today's outdoor art exhibit; a responsibility her still-in-her-irresponsible-twenties self wouldn't have been able to handle in her pre-Harold days. So size didn't matter at all.
Kate simply wouldn't allow size to matter. She blinked twice, willing the officer's naked image to go away. It didn't. Her fantasy was still nude, rippling muscles everywhere, begging to be touched. The total opposite of Harold, Kate thought briefly. Harold's only interest had been in passing the bar, not in pumping one.
But yikes! Now the police officer was staring back at her just as intently.
Oh God. Had he read her mind? Of course not.
That was impossible. There was no way the officer could have known what she'd been thinking. Still, the look on his face was more than just perplexed. He looked shocked. As if he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing.
Kate sent a nervous look around her, pleased to see the crowd of people milling in and around the exhibit couldn't have been more orderly. There were a few couples, several small groups, one or two lone art admirers. Many of them were regular customers she recognized, politely showing their support for Anderson Gallery of Fine Arts. Everyone was even speaking in hushed tones, as if the exhibit were being held inside at her grandmother's prestigious art gallery in SoHo, one of the most notable art galleries in the city.
No, nothing was amiss with the crowd. Nor would he find anything wrong with her paperwork, if that was the reason for the concerned look on the officer's face. She had a permit and everything else in order right there on her clipboard.
But wait. Was he looking at her? Or was he staring at the painting beside her?
Kate glanced at the oil painting sitting on an easel to her right. She'd never cared for the artist who called himself "Apocalypse." His paintings were usually dark and violent. But there was nothing offensive about this painting. Who could possibly be offended by a painting of the Madonna and Child?
She squared her shoulders when the officer pulled on the reins, bringing his mount to a stop a short distance away from her. He slid one leg easily over the back of the horse. The second his shiny black boots hit the ground her fantasizing stopped.
Thank God. He was fully clothed again. He walked up and stopped in front of her, the name on his badge announcing he was Officer Anthony Petrocelli. An Italian on a stallion, Kate thought.
No wonder her libido had kicked into overdrive the minute she saw him.
She followed his gaze to the painting. "From your expression, I can't tell if you like this painting, or if it disturbs you," she said. "And that's a first for me. I can usually read people pretty well."
His sexy grin caught her off guard. Kate tensed.
She was not going to let her gaze drift any lower than his chin-even if he held his gun to her head. He didn't reach for his revolver. Instead, he unsnapped his chin strap and took off his helmet.
Mercy. He was all male and even more handsome than she'd imagined. Sexy brown eyes. Chiseled features. Olive skin. Just a hint of a five-o'clock shadow running along his strong angular jaw.
Maybe it was the contrast between this guy and Harold, Kate decided, that made him so appealing to her. He had that reckless unrefined edginess about him-something calm, cool, and always collected Harold didn't have.
He ran a hand through his short black hair and hit her with another grin. "I don't know how to tell you this," he said, "but you and I were destined to be together."
What? The fantasizing was definitely over. After an idiotic statement like that one, he could have been stark naked with a willy the size of Texas, and she still wouldn't have been interested in Officer Anthony Petrocelli.
Kate sent him a bored look. "That has to be the corniest pickup line I've ever heard."
"I'm not trying to pick you up," he said quickly. "If you'll let me explain, I think you'll understand why I had to stop and talk to you."
"Not interested," Kate told him. His challenging look called her a liar. "A total stranger walks up to you. He tells you the two of you are destined to be together. And you aren't the least bit interested in why a guy would be willing to make a complete fool of himself with a statement like that?"
"Not in the least," Kate said. Of course she was curious. But she wasn't going to tell him that.
For all she knew he could be some weirdo pervert who was only impersonating a police officer. Except for the horse, she decided, glancing past him for a second. She doubted even a pervert would go to the trouble of rounding up a horse. Plus, this was one fine-looking weirdo pervert, if he was one. One she doubted had any trouble whatsoever when it came to picking up women.
"I'm interested in why you would make a complete fool of yourself with a statement like that one."
Kate turned around to find Alexis Graham, a.k.a. best friend, standing behind her. The best friend who was supposed to have arrived at the exhibit hours ago to lend support. And the best friend who was also camping out on Kate's sofa at the moment, thanks to the current squabble Alex was having with her husband.
Alex was dressed for success as usual-a power suit befitting her important AT&T executive title. Her signature short dark hair was heavily moussed and slicked back dramatically-manly almost. Except there had never been anything manly about Alexis Graham. Not her seductive grin. Not her flirtatious personality. Definitely not her dynamite all-woman figure.
"Oh, come on, Kate," she said. "Let the officer tell us his story." She ignored Kate's stern look, stepped forward, and thrust out her hand. "Alex Graham, best friend." She looked back at Kate. "This is Kate Anderson."
He smiled. "Are you the artist, Kate?" Kate missed the question.
Her mind was wandering back in the naked direction again. It made no sense, but now that she knew he wasn't trying to pick her up, it was safe to fantasize about him. Besides, fantasizing was harmless. Her thoughts were her own. It wasn't anybody's business if standing this close to a man with such raw sex appeal made her want to . . .
Alex punched Kate with her elbow. "What?" Kate said when Alex sent her a what'swrong- with-you look.
Alex looked back at the officer. "No, Kate isn't the artist," she said. "Kate's grandmother owns the gallery hosting this exhibit. Kate is the manager of Anderson Gallery of Fine Arts."
Damn! Her best friend was giving her fantasy way too much information.
Alex ignored Kate's frown and smiled at him. When he happily smiled back, Kate's eyes betrayed her and moved slowly down from his chin. Lower, lower . . .
"It's ironic you should bring up the subject of grandmothers," he said. "My grandmother is the reason I'm standing here now."
Forget grandmothers! Grandmothers had no place in the middle of her fantasy. He pointed to his name tag. "Petrocelli. Think big, meddlesome, Italian family. That would be mine. Think an adorable but eccentric grandmother from the old country. That also would be mine. A grandmother who reads tea leaves for the male members of the family on their sixteenth birthdays so she can make a marriage prediction."
"Fascinating," Alex said. Kate was still only half-listening. Her gaze kept wandering back to his mouth. He had the most incredible lips. Full, yet firm. The kind of lips that would . . .
He laughed, snapping her back to the conversation. "I'm glad you think tea-leaf reading is fascinating, Alex," he said. "I call it ridiculous."
"I'd say ridiculous is a fair description of this whole situation," Kate said, and Alex quickly shushed her.
He said, "Twenty years ago my grandmother read my tea leaves. She predicted I wouldn't marry until I was thirty-six years old. That I would marry a beautiful blonde with green eyes. And . . ."
"Oh, please," Kate said, and "pop" went her fantasy bubble again.
"And," he repeated, "my grandmother said I would meet this woman in Central Park, standing beside the Virgin Mary."
Alex gasped. All three of them automatically looked at the painting sitting on the easel directly beside Kate.
"Unlike the rest of my crazy family," he said, "I've never had a superstitious bone in my body. Tony, I told myself, a blonde with green eyes? Maybe. But the Virgin Mary hanging out in Central Park? Forgetaboutit."
"Until today," Alex spoke up. "When you came riding through Central Park and saw Kate standing beside this painting."
"Exactly," he said. "And since I just turned thirty-six a few weeks ago and I'm still not married, the Twilight Zone music definitely kicked in for a second." "And who could blame you?" Alex said. "Right, Kate?" All Kate said was, "Wrong blonde." She held her left hand up, hoping the sizable bling bling on her finger would snap both of them back to reality. "I'm already engaged. I'm getting married in two months."
Alex nodded-sadly, Kate noticed-confirming everything she'd just said.
She felt like slapping Alex. And she definitely didn't like the way he was staring at her now-searching her face-as if he sensed that whether she was getting married in two months or not, she'd been fantasizing about the naughty things she'd like to do to him from the moment he'd come trotting up the trail.
"Well, there you go," he finally said, impaling her with one last look. "So much for destiny." "And such a pity," Alex said.
This time Kate gave Alex an elbow-to-the-ribs punch. He snapped on his helmet. "Thank you, ladies. For listening to my story."
"Our pleasure," Alex said with a wistful sigh. "And thank you, Kate, for finally putting my grandmother's prediction to rest."
Kate's nod was cordial. Almost.
She wanted him gone. On his way and out of her face. She was an engaged woman. Soon to be married. The last thing she needed was some gorgeous and overly congenial hunk like this one showing up to remind her that if she did marry reserved and marginally stuffy Harold, she might be getting the short end of the stick-in more ways than one.
Good. He's leaving.
He sent both of them a friendly salute, then turned and walked back to his horse. After slipping a boot into the stirrup, he pulled himself effortlessly up on the back of his horse, rode off down the path, and never looked back.
Alex immediately sent her the perturbed look Kate was expecting. "You dummy. He was gorgeous. He had a great sense of humor. He even got a little misty-eyed talking about his grandmother, for Christ's sake. How could you let a romantic guy like him ride out of your life like that?"
Kate rolled her eyes. "You tell me, Alex. Why do you think I wasn't interested in some misty-eyed cop with a crazy story about his tea-leaf-reading grandmother? Aside from the fact that I'm already engaged. Because I am going to marry Harold, Alex. You can boycott my wedding. You can even keep pulling stunts like the one you pulled just now, trying to fix me up with random guys on the street. But it isn't going to work. I'm interested in Harold. And only Harold."
Alex snorted. "Oh, come on, Kate. The only reason you've ever been interested in Harold is because you've always been a sucker for a sad story."
"A sad story?" Kate shook her head in protest. "Harold doesn't have a sad story. He's smart. He's successful. He . . ."
"He has a gherkin instead of a dill?" Alex said. "And that's pretty damn sad if you ask me."
Kate frowned. "I never should have told you his exgirlfriend made some ego-shattering comment that Harold's still trying to overcome."
"And I still can't believe Harold told you his french fry was a tad short of a Happy Meal. What kind of a man would admit that? Unless, like I said, he was trying to play on your sympathy?"
"He didn't just walk up to me and say, 'Hi, I'm Harold Wellington, and I have a small penis,' Alex. Harold's intimacy problem is a mental issue, and you know it. You were the one who suggested we should see a couple's therapist so Harold could get his confidence back in the bedroom."
"And how's that going for you?" When Kate frowned again, Alex said, "I'm boycotting your wedding because I don't trust him, Kate. You're my dearest and closest friend. It worries me that Harold has been rushing you to the altar from the first night he met you. What's the big hurry? You've only known him six months."
"Eight months," Kate corrected. "Long enough to know Harold is the most charming man I've ever met. Plus he adores me. Tell me how being married to a successful and charming man who adores you can be a bad thing."
"He's nauseatingly charming to you, Kate," Alex said, "but he's an arrogant prick to everyone else." She thought for a second, and said, "No, make that an arrogant unresponsive prick, since that's more appropriate for Harold and his limp Wellington."
"Alex!" Kate scolded, looking around them. "Clean up your language, or at least keep your voice down." Alex grinned, leaned forward, and whispered, "I bet there's nothing limp about Officer Petrocelli. And from the way he was looking at you earlier, I'd say he'd be more than willing to prove it to you."
"Not interested," Kate said, and it was true, now that temptation had finally ridden off down the path and out of her sight.
"Liar," Alex said with a smirk. "I saw the way you were ogling the guy before he even stopped to talk to you. Admit it. Why do you think you didn't even realize I was here?"
Kate's cheeks flushed. "Okay! I admit it. I was attracted to the guy the second I saw him. It was all I could do to keep from dragging him into the bushes and demanding that he frisk me. But that still doesn't change a thing." "How do you know? If he'd frisked your brains out, you might have come to your senses and called off the wedding."
"See!" Kate said. "There's just no winning with you, Alex."
Alex reached out and put a supportive arm around Kate's shoulder. "Hey, there's no reason to feel guilty about being attracted to a good-looking guy. Especially with your hopeless celibacy situation. What bothers me is that I've never once seen you look at Harold the way I just saw you look at the man who could very well be your Mr. Destiny."
Again, Kate blushed at the truth. She pushed Alex away, and said, "I'd be worrying about my own celibacy situation, if I were you." There.
She could give back as good as Alex could send. Alex only sent her a sympathetic look. "At least I know my celibacy situation is only because I'm being too stubborn to go home right now."
"Don't lecture me, Alex." "Don't mess with destiny, Kate." Alex's warning made her shiver.
She'd had her own premonition moments earlier as she'd watched him ride away. Something told Kate she hadn't seen the last of Officer Anthony Petrocelli.
"Well, I just took stupidity to a whole new level," Tony said aloud, when he was safely out of hearing range of the two women who had just witnessed him making a complete fool of himself.
Skyscraper shook his head up and down several times, pulling his bridle from Tony's hand. "Hey!" Tony said. "That wasn't a cue for you to agree with me."
The horse's ears pricked for a second, then relaxed, signaling to Tony that even his horse wasn't going to argue that moot point. Except stupidity didn't accurately describe the stunt he'd just pulled.
Insanity would be a better word. Only a crazy person would have walked up to a total stranger and spent five full minutes telling her about the idiotic marriage prediction his grandmother had made twenty years earlier-especially when she'd told him up front that she wasn't interested in anything he had to say.
Of course, then her take-charge best friend had butted in and opened the door so he could prove without a doubt that he really was too stupid to live.
Tony shook his head disgustedly. Skyscraper did the same.
He shifted in the saddle slightly, making Skyscraper's ears twitch impatiently at his restlessness. But even after he'd settled back into a comfortable riding position, he couldn't stop thinking about how Kate Anderson had looked when he rounded the curve and saw her standing there on the path.
The late-afternoon sun had been at her back, shining through the flimsy material of her free-flowing dress, and giving him a silhouette peek at luscious curves he wouldn't have had the privilege of seeing otherwise. The sexiness of her stance alone had set his head reeling.
His gaze had drifted up from her shapely legs to her beautiful face. High cheekbones. Perfect mouth. The sexy way she was nibbling at her bottom lip. That's when his heart had picked up more than a few extra beats. And the real clincher?
Without a doubt, that long straight hair of hers, shining like spun gold against her slender shoulders.
He'd been awestruck at the mere sight of her. That had been before he'd even noticed the painting of the Blessed Virgin sitting on the easel beside her. Or before he'd gotten close enough to determine the color of her eyes. Yet once he did get closer, those moss green eyes had drawn him in like a magnet. For one brief second, he'd even had the audacity to think, This woman is my destiny.
"Idiot," Tony said aloud, and Skyscraper came to an abrupt halt. Tony nudged the horse gently in the sides with his knees. "I meant me, dammit. Not you." Skyscraper snorted, then moved forward again. A green-eyed blonde standing beside the Virgin Mary. He still couldn't believe it.
Nonna's twenty-year-old prediction had come back to haunt him for real.
In fact, Nonna's prediction had been all everyone in his large family-from his parents to his tongue-in-cheek brothers-in-law-had been talking about since his thirtysixth birthday party a few weeks ago. Crazy people. All of them. Even crazier was the family legend that Nonna had never been wrong about one of her sainted marriage predictions.
Not that he hadn't voiced his own unpopular opinion on the subject the night of his birthday party, because he had. He'd patiently pointed out that it had been the generic nature of Nonna's predictions, not destiny, that had fulfilled the marriage prophecy for the four Petrocelli men preceding him. His own father's tea-leaf prediction being one of them-whether his mother wanted to believe it or not.
So maybe his parents had met on the subway. What New Yorker didn't ride the subway? And maybe his mother had been wearing a coat with a fur collar and a pair of red high heels. There had to be thousands of women in the city, even today, who had fur-collar coats and red high heels in their closets. Believing his grandmother could actually predict the future was nothing short of ludicrous.
Almost as ludicrous as finding a green-eyed blonde standing beside the Virgin Mary in Central Park.
Tony let out a deep sigh. Skyscraper responded with a horse-type version of the same, forcing air though his muzzle so it came out in a long, loud pfffffft.
"Would you just focus on the trail?" Tony said, which was another stupid thing to say because Skyscraper knew their routine as well, if not better, than Tony did himself. As proof, Skyscraper left the path without even being prompted. Heading, Tony knew, for one of their first favorite afternoon stops. A particular shaded park bench located at this end of the park near the Met. A park bench where summer days like this one would find Solomon Stein, a rather stooped elderly Jewish man, working the daily crossword puzzle in the New York Times and feeding the pigeons.
Sol looked over the top of his wire-rimmed reading glasses when Skyscraper came to an automatic stop by his park bench. "I'm stumped again," he said, reaching out to give the horse a fond rub down the full length of his nose. "Ten-letter word that means carefree. Begins with 'i.'"
Tony thought for a second. "Insouciant." Sol penciled in the word with a frown on his face. "You're welcome," Tony said.
Sol only grunted. "I say this every time you give me a split-second answer to a word that's had me stumped for hours. What a waste of a good Princeton education." Tony laughed. "And every time you say that, I remind you that no education is a waste. And, that after spending two miserable years sitting behind a desk on Wall Street, I finally pulled my head out of my MBA ass and headed straight for the Police Academy."
Sol shook his gray head. "A cop with a Princeton education. What's wrong with that picture?"
"Nothing," Tony said. "It's who I am. It's what I do. Get over it."
"Only if you'll admit you have that photographic memory I've always suspected," Sol said, reaching into the paper sack sitting on the bench beside him. "Which, aside from being a Princeton man, is the only explanation I have for why I've never been able to stump you with a crossword answer yet."
"We all have photographic memories, Sol," Tony said, grinning. "Some of us just don't have enough film." Sol looked over at Skyscraper. "A wise man and a wiseass. A deadly combination." He slipped the horse the apple wedge he'd taken from the sack, then waved impatiently, motioning them forward. "Get your smart-mouth partner out of here," he said to Skyscraper. "He's breaking my concentration."
As if the horse understood, Skyscraper headed back to the trail, leaving Sol with his pencil already poised back over his crossword puzzle again.
But Sol hadn't been the first to question why Tony had decided "to protect and to serve" rather than continue his uptown life and his coveted spot on Wall Street. He'd surprised everyone when he'd taken an unexpected turn during his late twenties. Still, that didn't mean he'd let his experience on Wall Street or his fine Princeton education go to waste.
He'd invested wisely in the stock market. Because he had invested wisely, he'd been able to purchase an apartment building not far from his parents' Italian restaurant-Mama Gina's-in Queens. He'd bought the building from a money-grubbing slumlord who hadn't cared about the living conditions or the safety of his tenants. He'd turned the building back into the type of residence people wanted to call home.
Tony was proud of that. He lived in the building himself.
When a tourist family of four began waving in his direction, Tony pulled on the reins and brought Skyscraper to a stop. Looking at their smiling faces reminded him exactly why he wasn't still sitting behind a desk in some stuffy office on Wall Street. He liked the flexibility of his shift schedule. He also liked the freedom of being outside- almost as much as he loved the opportunity to mingle with the people.
That's what had drawn him to the police force. And the biggest reward of all?
His opportunity to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the greatest city on earth.
"Could you pose for a picture with the kids?" Mr. Tourist called out.
"Sure," Tony called back. "Skyscraper is a real ham when it comes to posing for pictures." Though Skyscraper was as gentle as he could be stubborn, Tony still bent down and gave the horse a few reassuring pats on the neck when the kids started in their direction.
The little girl, Tony guessed, was around eight years old. She eagerly sprinted forward, a big grin on her freckled face and her red pigtails bouncing up and down as she skipped in their direction. Her too-cool older brother, however, was more reserved. The teenager jerked the bill of his New York Yankees' ball cap farther down on his forehead and took his time sidling up beside them. He did a few major eye rolls as his father snapped the shutter several times.
"You're a Yankee fan?" Tony asked, trying to ease the kid's embarrassment at finding himself in a situation too humiliating for his age.
The kid looked up at him. "Isn't everybody?" "Right answer," Tony said, and the kid grinned. When the family went on their way, Tony nudged Skyscraper forward. But as they plodded along on their regular park patrol, he couldn't keep his mind from wandering right back to the woman who had been wearing a rock on her finger so large it was borderline tacky. That's what bothered him.
His gut instinct about people was usually correct. Kate Anderson didn't strike him as one of those all-about- money-and-prestige social climbers. She just didn't give off those all-about-me vibes. Nor did she strike him as the type who would be engaged to a man who obviously felt the need to flaunt his success by giving her a showy top-this diamond.
In fact, had she been standing in a would-you-date-her lineup instead of beside the Virgin Mary in Central Park, he would have still picked her out for himself in a heartbeat. Until he saw the engagement ring.
The ring said it all. She was marrying an uptown man. He'd turned his back on uptown long ago. Still, Tony couldn't shake off the feeling that something wasn't quite right there. He hadn't missed her wooden response when she'd held up her hand and announced she was getting married in two months. There'd been no sparkle in her eyes. No lilt to her voice. No excitement that she would soon be marrying the man of her dreams.
Were those the actions of a typical bride? Hardly.
Being the oldest child born to Mario and Gina Petrocelli, and the only brother to five younger sisters, he'd gone through five big fat Italian family weddings. Typical brides? He could write a book about them. Kate Anderson was not your typical bride.
He hadn't missed the best friend's expression at the mention of the wedding, either. He was, after all, a cop, trained to read between the lines when it came to dealing with people.
Yup. There is definitely a problem in paradise. Just not his problem.
His problem was going to be breaking it to his family during their weekly Friday night dinner at his parents' restaurant that Nonna had lost her touch. Maybe then everyone would cut him some slack and stop asking every five minutes if he'd met the green-eyed blonde. Oh, I've met her, all right, Tony thought sadly.
Forgetting her-that was going to be the problem.
Excerpted from Mr. Destiny , by Candy Halliday . Copyright (c) 2005 by Candy Viers. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top