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Cathy Gillen Thacker
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The Texas Christmas Gift

"Derek McCabe is still on the phone?" the office manager asked.

In her private office, no less. Doing her best to curtail her irritation, Eve Loughlin smiled. "Yep."

Sasha handed her a beautiful red poinsettia from a grateful client. "Well, at least he's easy on the eyes."

Worse, Eve thought, hazarding a glance through the glass door, the amazingly successful venture capitalist had to know it. With his dark brown hair, ruggedly chiseled face and mesmerizing blue eyes, he was handsome enough to stop traffic. His broad-shouldered, six-foot-three-inch frame, currently garbed in an elegant, dark gray suit, made him even more of a catch. If she'd been looking. She wasn't.

Luckily, at that moment his call ended.

Taking a deep, calming breath, Eve squared her shoulders and walked back into her office.

"Sorry about that," Derek said. "I'm investing in a technology company. There were some last-minute details to work out."

"I understand," Eve replied. Even though she didn't. Why did Loughlin Realty's well-heeled clients think their time was somehow more valuable than the agents they employed to buy and sell their houses?

She set the plant on her credenza, next to several other gift baskets and a ribbon-wrapped bottle of champagne, then returned to her desk. "So back to where we were," she continued crisply. Which hadn't been far, given the fact that Derek had taken the call on his cell thirty seconds after he had walked in. "Have you had time to answer the questionnaire I emailed you?"

He shook his head and lowered himself into a chair in front of her desk. "We don't need to bother with that."

Of course they didn't, Eve thought with mounting frustration. She settled into her ergonomically designed swivel chair.

"I know exactly what I'm looking for," he stated amiably.

Eve picked up her notepad and pen. "Then suppose you tell me."

"I want a home in Highland Park, preferably on or near Crescent Avenue. I'd like to pay between seven and eight million for it. It must have at least three bedrooms and two baths. There'll be no need for bank financing, as I plan to pay cash." He paused, allowing her to catch up. "I'd also like to close next week and take possession immediately."

Eve finished writing and looked into the most gorgeous eyes she had ever seen. "I gather this is just an investment?"

"Much more, actually." His sensual lips lifted into an easy grin. "I plan to live there with my daughter." Affection laced his low voice. "So if you could just find something and let me know…" He glanced at his phone again, which was chiming quietly, then rose as if to leave.

Eve stood and moved around her desk. Because of the eight-inch difference in their heights, which was modified only slightly by her three-inch heels, she had to tilt her head to look up at him. "When will you be available to look at properties?" she asked, knowing from experience that he was going to be one of those demanding clients who didn't want to waste an instant.

Derek grimaced. He shoved back the edges of his suit jacket, the impatient action briefly diverting her gaze to his flat abs and lean hips. "I only want to look at one."

Lifting her chin, Eve studied him for a long beat. She couldn't help wondering if the sexy venture capitalist was this way with everyone he hired. Or just the nonessential personnel? "You expect me to choose your home?" she asked drily.

He glanced at his watch as his phone chimed again, his deep blue eyes narrowing. "Yes."

Wanting to make this work—but only to a point—Eve held up a palm. "Then I'm going to need a lot more information."

Derek frowned. He might be only thirty-four, if the information she had found on Google prior to meeting him was correct, but he was all autocratic executive. "I'm too busy for that right now."

Which left her no choice. She walked him to the door and opened it wide. "Then," she said, just as imperiously, not about to make herself miserable—especially at this time of year—by working with a man who was far too big for his britches, "you'll have to find yourself another Realtor."

Derek stared in amazement. "You're firing me as a client?"

Eve nodded and ushered him out. Then she smiled one last time. "Consider it my Christmas present to myself."

Two hours later, as she entered the conference room for the Friday afternoon staff meeting, Eve was still trying to figure out how to tell her mother what she'd done.

The two other sales agents, Vanessa and Astrid, were already there. Eve's mom—the owner of the company—was seated at the head of the table. As always, Marjorie Loughlin was beautifully dressed, today in a red wool suit and heels, her short silvery-blond hair perfectly coiffed. Despite the artful application of makeup, Eve couldn't help but notice her mother looked tired. But maybe that was to be expected. Like the rest of the staff of the all-female realty firm she had founded, Marjorie put in long hours.

"I have great news," she said. "We are still ahead of Sibley & Smith Realty in annual sales by several million dollars." She paused and massaged her left shoulder. "And you all know what that means."

"More exclusive, top-dollar listings and sales," As-trid declared, already pulling out her calculator.

Vanessa winked. "Not to mention that new Mercedes convertible I've been coveting."

Marjorie dabbed a bead of sweat from her hairline. "Luckily, we all have clients wanting to close on homes before the end of the year." Briefly, she went over the list of Astrid's and Vanessa's clients, as well as her own. Then she turned to Eve, addressing the properties and clients of primary concern. "There's Flash Lefleur's condo—which we really need to get sold before the listing expires—and Derek McCabe."

"Right." Eve steeled herself for her mother's disapproval as she prepared to talk about the latter. "About that."

Marjorie's hand went to the left side of her neck. "Don't tell me there's a problem there."

Except for the fact I fired him? Not a one.

Eve noted her mother was pressing her hand against the bottom of her jaw. "Mom, are you all right.?"

Marjorie winced, as if in pain.

Something was wrong! Eve rushed toward her in alarm. "Mom!"

Her skin a peculiar ashen gray, Marjorie swayed slightly. "I feel a little dizzy," she said, then slumped in her chair in a dead faint.

One harrowing ambulance ride, admission to the hospital and balloon angioplasty later, Marjorie was finally declared stable and moved to a room in the cardiac care unit. Once she was settled, the doctor came in to go over the results of all the tests, as well as the emergency surgical procedure. "You were lucky. It was only a mild heart attack," the cardiologist announced.

"Impossible," Marjorie declared, still looking awfully pale and anxious, despite the medicines they had given her to help her relax. "I'm in perfect health. It was indigestion. A lunch gone wrong. That was all."

The doctor turned to Eve. "Is your mother always this difficult?"

"Yes," she said.

"No," Marjorie stated at the same moment.

Dr. Jackson smiled and shook his head in silent re-monstration, obviously having dealt with similar situations before. He turned back to his patient. "We're going to keep you in the hospital, as a precaution, for forty-eight hours, Mrs. Loughlin. After that, I'd like you to go to the cardiac rehab unit, in the annex across the street, for another month, for further evaluation and treatment."

"That's impossible!" Marjorie folded her arms belligerently. "I have work to do."

Clearly unintimidated, the physician countered, "It's absolutely necessary, Mrs. Loughlin. You need to rest and rebuild your strength, and above all else, rethink how you've been living your life."

Marjorie sent Eve a look, begging her to intervene.

"I agree with the doctor," Eve said as the physician slipped from the room, wisely leaving the persuasion to a family member.

"But the annual sales award."

"I'll see we still get it," Eve promised gently.

Still, Marjorie fretted. "I have a new client, that Houston oilman, Red Bloom, coming in soon to see the Santiago Florres-designed home."

Eve smiled. "Not to worry, Mom. I'll take care of that, too."

"You have Derek McCabe…."

Eve had had plenty of time to regret her foolhar-diness. "I'll handle his sale, too," she reassured her mother. At least I hope I will.

"You're sure?" Marjorie started to relax, as the meds finally kicked in.

She nodded. Her mother had done so much for her over the years. It was now her turn to be the caretaker. "Just rest now." She bent and kissed Marjorie's temple. And then, hoping like hell it wasn't too late to undo the damage, Eve went to make good on her vow.

"What do you mean, it didn't work out?" Derek's ex-wife said over the phone late the next afternoon. "Marjorie Loughlin is the best Realtor in Dallas!"

"I didn't get her. I was assigned her daughter."

Carleen paused. The sounds of their infant daughter and Carleen's lively household could be heard in the background. "I haven't met Eve Loughlin, but she's supposed to be good, too."

She was beautiful, Derek mused, that was for sure. Temperamental, too. A knock sounded at his door. Aware that his assistant had already left for the day, he said, "Can you hang on a minute?" He walked across his private office and opened the door.

On the other side was the show-stopping beauty who had sent him packing. In a long cashmere coat, vibrant blue business suit and suede heels, Eve Loughlin was the epitome of Texas elegance and style. Around five feet seven inches tall, she was slender and lithe, with great legs and even more spectacular curves. From her full breasts to her narrow waist and hips, there wasn't an inch of her left wanting. And despite his irritation with her, his attraction didn't end there. Her skin was fair and utterly flawless, her nose pert, her cheekbones high and sculpted. Her shoulder-length golden-brown hair was so lush and thick he wanted to sink his hands into it. Most mesmerizing of all, though, were her intelligent, wide-set amber eyes, which seemed to hide as much as they revealed.

Derek swallowed around the sudden dryness of his throat, and tore his eyes from her plump, kissable lips. No good could come of this. "Listen, Carleen, I've got to go."

As always, his ex understood. "I'll see you at five-thirty. Craig and I will have Tiffany ready to go."

"Thanks. See you then." Derek ended the call.

Meanwhile, Eve Loughlin waited with a patient, angelic smile.

Not about to make it easy on her, after the way she had summarily dismissed him the afternoon before, Derek lifted a brow. Waited.

Her smile only became more cordial and determined. "I'm sorry to interrupt."

If that was the case, Derek thought, she already would have left. "What brings you here?"

"I wanted to apologize for what happened yesterday."

She looked as if she actually might be regretting her actions, if the shadows beneath her eyes—shadows that hadn't been there the day before—were any indication. Derek's attitude softened just a little, even as the rest of him remained wary as all get-out. "I'm listening."

She held her red crocodile briefcase in front of her like a shield. "If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, I'd like to retain your business for Loughlin Realty."

Maybe it was the way his marriage had turned out, or the experiences he'd suffered through with women he had dated since, but he'd had enough fickle women to last him a lifetime. Regarding her skeptically, Derek lounged against his desk, his arms folded. "If that's the case, then why did you fire me as a client in the first place?"

Time to grovel, Eve thought, setting her briefcase on the seat of the armchair beside her. Not her favorite thing, but in this case, extremely necessary if she was to make good on her promise to her mother. Eve noted the spacious office matched him well. Done in varying shades of gray, with large masculine furniture befitting a man of his physical stature, the executive suite had a beautiful view of downtown Dallas.

Gathering her courage, she looked into Derek Mc-Cabe's vivid blue eyes. "Let's just say it was an all-around bad day." Bad time of year, actually. Christmas always made her feel out of sync and vaguely depressed. "I took my frustrations out on you," she admitted, "and that was definitely not the right thing to do." She lifted her palms apologetically. "I wasn't brought up that way, and as a real estate agent, I certainly wasn't trained to behave like that."

Derek looked her up and down, then paused, his broad shoulders relaxing slightly. "I wasn't brought up that way, either." An awkward silence ensued, and then he slid her a long, thoughtful look. "I probably shouldn't have kept you waiting outside your office for a good half hour while I handled other calls."

Understanding flowed between them, as tangible as their previous frustration. Eve easily met him halfway. "Thanks for acknowledging that."

His eyes twinkled. "So maybe we were both at fault yesterday?"

"Maybe." And there it was, she thought as his rueful smile broadened, the legendary McCabe charm.

"Well, good." He came forward and briefly shook her hand to seal the truce. "Then we have something in common."

Eve's skin tingled as they broke contact and politely stepped away from each other. He inclined his head. "So what's next?" he murmured.

She drew a deep, bolstering breath, then took a seat in the armchair and opened her briefcase. "I'm ready to meet your demands."

His phone chimed. He peered down at it, then set it aside. His full attention on Eve once again, he asked, "What stopped you yesterday?"

Watching him take a seat behind his desk, Eve sensed sugarcoating the situation would get her nowhere with the accomplished businessman. "I didn't want to proceed because I felt selecting a property for you, without knowing anything about you or your specific needs, would be a disservice to us both."

He pressed his fingertips together. "In what way?"

"If you end up purchasing a home you're unhappy with, that dissatisfaction will eventually be heaped on Loughlin Realty. And more specifically, me." Hesitating for a moment, Eve crossed her legs and discreetly tugged her skirt a little lower over her knees. "My reputation depends on being able to find the exact right home for my clients. If I can't do that, I may as well not continue as an agent."

His dark brows furrowed. "That's why you wanted me to fill out the forms?"

Finally, they were getting somewhere! "I don't even know how old your daughter is. Or if she lives with you full-time or part-time, or simply visits."

"Tiffany lives with me fifty percent of the time. My ex and I share custody."

"Do you want her to go to public or private school?"

"Probably public, if we're in the Highland Park district, but we're not there yet. She's just turned one."

What was it about this man that had Eve losing her equilibrium? Usually, she was much better at maintaining a casual, inscrutable demeanor. Blowing out a breath, she attempted to rein in her reaction. "You must be very recently divorced."

"It was final last summer. We were separated for a year and a half before that," he related mildly.

And his child was one now, Eve thought, doing some quick calculations.

Also available in this Anthology Reissue

McCabe Homecoming

Cathy Gillen Thacker is the bestselling author of witty romantic comedies and warm, family stories whose books are published in 17 languages and 35 countries.