FOUR MEN & A LADY
Harlequin Temptation
15th Anniversary
ISBN 037325850X
October 1999

Leader of the pack . . .

Ben Tannen was the undisputed leader of his group of best friends, nicknamed "The Deck." He was the Ace, of course. Heidi Malone was the Joker, and the only female among them. All four men were half in love with her - Ben maybe more than half . . .

Still, there had always been a certain tension between the Golden Boy and Heidi-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-trakcs. And when he'd offered her money for college tuition, she'd lashed out with her pride - and a bicycle chain.

Fifteen years later, Heidi still owed Ben an apology . . . and he still held an IOU. He planned to collect and prove to her that they'd make much better lovers than fighters.

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BOOKLIST

The Comfort of Favorite Things - Bliss and the Art of Forever - The Sweetness of Honey - Beneath the Patchwork Moon - Boots Under Her Bed - A Blue Christmas/Jingle Bell Rock(Digital Edition) - Unforgettable - The Second Chance Café - Unbreakable - Undeniable - Holiday Kisses/This Time Next Year - Twenty-One Hours/SEAL of My Dreams - At His Mercy - Playing Love's Odds (Digital Edition) - Love Me Tender (Digital Edition) - Love In Bloom - (Digital Edition) - The Icing On The Cake - With Extreme Pleasure - One Good Man - No Limits - A Long, Hard Ride - Maximum Exposure - Kiss & Tell - Deep Trouble - In Danger - At Risk - Tex Appeal - The Perfect Stranger - Beyond A Shadow - Infatuation - The Complete Idiot's Guide To Writing Erotic Romance - Deep Breath - Goes Down Easy - Red Letter Nights - Totally Charmed - Kiss & Makeup - Undressed - Larger Than Life - Sara Smiles/Beach Blanket Bad Boys - The McKenzie Artifact - The Beach Alibi - The Samms Agenda - The Shaughnessey Accord - The Bane Affair - Mother, Please! - Indiscreet - Wicked Games - A Blue Christmas/Jingle Bell Rock - Striptease - The Sweetest Taboo - Bound To Happen - No Strings Attached - Roped Into Romance - All Tied Up - Love In Bloom - Four Men & A Lady - Love Me Tender - The Badge And The Baby - The Grinch Makes Good - The Heartbreak Kid - Call Me - Playing Love's Odds

Junior Year

"I'm not getting out of the car." Heidi crossed her arms, drew up her knees and pouted. Coming here . . . here, of all places. Uh-uh. No way. Not after the day she'd had.

Quentin draped a wrist over the Bug's steering wheel and glared across the dark interior of the car. "You know, Heidi, you can be such a stupid dork at times."

Ha. That's what he thought. If anyone was stupid it was that slut, Maryann Stafford. No. If anyone was stupid it was Ben. Come to think of it, he was a slut, too.

Heidi pushed her chin and her lip out further. "I didn't know we were coming here to practice. I thought we were meeting at the band hall."

"What's wrong with you? We practice at Ben's house all the time. Jeez." Quentin wrenched open his door, climbed out and slammed it hard enough to jar Heidi from her mope.

So what if they practiced at Ben's house all the time? It didn't mean they had to tonight. And she wasn't going to. Not after spending the entire hour of gym class today listening to Maryann Stafford run her mouth about what happened when she lost the top of her two-piece in Ben's pool this summer.

The passenger side door groaned as Quentin pulled it open. Heidi shoved her way out of the car but left her horn in the back seat.

"Will you get your butt in gear?" Quentin yelled. He took hold of her empty hand, realized it was empty, grumbled under his breath as he reached back into the car. Horn and Heidi both held tight, he trudged up the long pebbled walk to the Tannen's front door. "You're being a real jerk, you know that?"

"You call me one more name and you're history, Queenie Boy." Adding a tantrum to her sulk, Heidi fought Quentin's hold, pulling free as the door to the Tannen mansion opened. Quickly, she straightened her vest and T-shirt, but it wasn't Ben.

"Quentin. Heidi." Ben's father--The Royal Tannen, as Heidi called him--acknowledged them both with a nod. He stood in the arched threshold surrounded by dark wood and white tile and light fixtures brighter than the bulbs glowing from inside. With a newspaper folded beneath one elbow, a drink gripped in one hand, he gestured toward the rear wing of the house. "The boys are up in the game room. Waiting."

"Thank you, sir." Quentin started forward, his glare daring Heidi not to follow. She'd follow all right . . .

"It's my fault we're late," she said airily, as The Royal Tannen shut the heavy door. She gestured with one careless hand. Too bad she didn't have a mouthful of bubble gum to pop for the full brainless effect.

"See, my mom got fired today and was crying into the last beer of a six pack when I got home from school. I couldn't leave her like that, ya know? So Quentin helped me get her to bed. Once she was asleep, we hurried right over."

"I see," Ben's father said, though from the granite set of his features, Heidi was surprised he was able to squeeze out a word. "Well--" he cleared his throat "--I hope things . . . she . . . is feeling better tomorrow."

"Thank you, sir. I'll be sure and give her your best." Heidi trotted after Quentin who'd made a hasty escape down the long hallway. Her footsteps made no sound on the plush carpet. She caught up with him at the staircase that wound to the game room above the three-car garage. "You could've waited."

He whirled on her at the third step. "What's wrong with you? You got PMS or something?"

She trudged past him, stomping her way up the circular ascent. What was wrong with her? Besides the ugly picture of Ben and Maryann that wouldn't go away? For one thing, she had an unemployed drunk for her only parent.

Her mother's latest episode meant little chance of affording anything but community college-if even that--next fall. But even worse, it meant she wouldn't be leaving home any time soon. That she'd be stuck with the alcohol, the anger, the affairs and the attic for who knew how much longer.

"I do not have PMS." She stopped at the top of the stairs and snarled down at Quentin. "What I have a serious loathing for Ben Tannen . . . may he and all his money drown in his stupid swimming pool," she finished under her breath.

Quentin reached her then and stood toe to toe, nearly nose to nose, certainly eye to eye. "What you have is a serious attitude problem. Get rid of it. Now. I'm not going to have my chance for a first place ensemble win next weekend blown away by whatever's eating at you."

They stood fuming at one another there in a circle of yellow light. The paneled walls of the landing were dark, the ceiling high. The dangling chandelier gaudy and pretentious. Heidi wanted to puke. A chandelier. In a hallway. Her bedroom wasn't even this big.

She was the first to look away because she knew she was being unfair. Her reactions to anything involving Ben, even the most bubble-brained gossip, had been two years in the making. Today just proved that she had a big problem on her hands. One she'd been avoiding. One due to come to a head by the end of this year. Certainly by the end of next. Their last year.

That was the biggest part of what was wrong with her. Dealing with overwhelming feelings that she didn't want and would go nowhere because she and Ben were about as compatible as a gallon of gas and a Bic lighter. "Look, Quentin. You don't understand."

"Then tell me," he pleaded, his voice low, insistent. "C'mon. That's what friends are for."

But she couldn't for that very reason. Because as frustrated as she was over her home life and college funding and the top to Maryann Stafford's two-piece, she didn't want to bother Quentin with her problems. Not when he was staring a blue ribbon weekend in the face. He needed this win to prove to himself that he had the musical talent to live his dream.

Dreams meant a lot. Or so she'd heard.

"Look," she began again, only to be cut short by a long rectangle of light thrown from the game room door. She looked up; Ben's silhouette--tall and broad shouldered, that of a man--filled the frame as if backlit by a bright sun.

Tension rolled from him in waves, in the rigid way he held his head, in the firm fixed grip he had on the door facing, in the no-nonsense way he stood there and waited wearing a designer logo T-shirt and stylishly ripped jeans.

He'd never had Heidi's problem of control. She tended to bite her tongue way after the fact. Which made it easy for her to recognize that very struggle within him now.

"Where the hell have y'all been?" he asked in that too deep voice that had Heidi closing her eyes for strength. Why did he have to be so . . . so . . . dang it, she couldn't even narrow what she thought about him down to one word.

"Hang on to your shorts, Ace," she yelled back, not bothering to spare Ben a direct eye contact glance. Looking up, she gave Quentin a half smile, a lift of one shoulder and then she said, "I'm fine. And I'm sorry. Let's go practice."

They did, for two hours without a break. To Heidi every second, every minute dragged. She didn't want to be here tonight more than any of the other times in her life when she'd wished she were some place else.

She had to be crazy to be so torn up inside. It wasn't like she expected Ben to be a virgin. But Maryann Stafford? Heidi grimaced, missed a note, caught Quentin's glare and shrugged an apology.

And it wasn't like law school was forever out of her reach. But her future plans to educate women about their rights, to keep others such as her mother from becoming victims of the system, to ensure they received the benefits they deserved, had been moved another few years down the road.

She tried so hard to let the music take her away. But every time she felt she'd conquered the emotional bombs of the day, a fierce pounding detonated behind her eyes, fired against her temples, exploded inside her skull.

The headache couldn't be blamed on her internal battle. The source was clearly external: Ben was mad and his drums were loud. Instinctively, she knew the reason. He'd heard second or third or fourth hand gossip of Maryann Stafford's tales.

Heidi couldn't stand the tension a minute more. She opened her eyes and glanced his way; his gaze was fixed her direction. He followed every move, his mouth set hard, his eyes flinty, sweat-drenched locks of his hair whipping about his face as he ripped into the rhythm of the song.

This wasn't like Ben. To be this wild, his attention focused elsewhere while instinct drove the beat. She knew him well enough not to be frightened of whatever he had on his mind, but she was uneasy. Uneasy enough to call it quits. She set down her sax mid-note. The rest of the song fizzled one player at a time. The drums were the last to cease.

Crossing the room, she leaned a hip on the corner of the pool, er, billiard table. She'd found a distraction. "Let's play a game."

Randy and Jack were quick to follow; Quentin and Ben reluctantly gave in. There were times she got her way because she was the girl. As a rule, she didn't take that advantage. Tonight was an exception.

Heidi pulled the balls from the billiard pockets and settled them into the rack, rolling each until its position suited her mood. "Since it's my game, I'll rack 'em. Ben can break. He seems to be in a destructive mood tonight."

Ben grabbed a cue from the custom-built rack. He pushed back the wet strands of hair that hung long past his brow. His eyes were green and glittered like shards of splintered anger. "At least I'm not self-destructive."

Heidi bristled. Behind her, Quentin cleared his throat. The friendly warning lifted her hackles higher. "But just think. If you were, your daddy could pay to have you fixed." She lifted the rack, stepped back and waited.

Randy guffawed and Jack snickered from where they'd perched expectantly on the cushions of the white leather game room sofa. Ben's icy glare had the first studying the gold and brown patterned carpet between his spread feet, the second slumping back to fiddle with the controls on the stereo system until Duran Duran rocked the room.

Ben's break was clean and hard, but then practice gave perfect boys flawless skill. He'd had years of tutoring, pampering, silver spoon feeding. Why shouldn't his break be as faultless as the crystal prisms of the chandelier lighting the landing?

Shot after expert shot stoked Heidi's temper. Irrational temper, her rational side knew. But Ben Tannen had everything. Everything, dang it. And one piece at a time, with the exact precision with which cue tip met cue ball, her future was dying before her eyes.

She watched his stance, his concentration, seventeen years of instruction in what society deemed proper handed down from The Royal Tannen on high. Ben's way in the world had been bought and paid for with Tannen money. And all he'd had to earn was his father's respect.

He had. He was a perfect father's perfect son. But she hated him the most because he gave her no real reason to hate him at all. He must've sensed the burning in her chest. He finally looked up into her eyes . . . and missed the shot.

She blinked hard against overwhelming emotions, against the feelings so close to the surface she felt as if her skin would burst. Right now, she wanted perfect Ben to feel as miserable as she did. "Whew. I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to go home without taking a shot at your balls, Ben."

"Jeez, Heidi." Quentin began to pace.

She laughed, feeling strangely as if she were careening out of control. Shrugging out of her long crocheted vest, she took her position, called her first shot and expertly sent the ball zooming into the pocket. The next sailed perfectly. As did the one following.

She sized up the table, visualized her next shot and made the biggest mistake of her life by taking her eyes off the ball. From beneath her lashes, she looked across the table at Ben who wasn't following the strategy of her game at all but was staring at the thin white T-shirt stretched over her chest. He had fire in his eyes.

The volcano erupted. Lava spewed, an inferno boiling up from the hell of a day she'd had. With a loud, "Arghhh," she slammed the cue to the felt, reached for her hem and jerked the T-shirt over her head.

"There! Is that better?" Two of the boys behind whooped and hollered; the third yelled a pained, "Shut the hell up!" The one facing her directly refused to look away from her eyes. She'd fix that.

"Wait." She went on, whipping off her bra before she changed her mind. "I wouldn't want you to strain your eyes or your imagination wondering how I compare to Maryann Stafford."

Ben's chest rose and fell in near breathless pants. His eyes were wild and bright when he looked over her head toward Quentin and the other two boys. A brow went up. He nodded. Heidi waited for an eternity Ben to say something, anything.

When he did, he didn't even speak to her but to the boys behind. "I'll take Heidi home. Quentin'll give y'all a ride."

"C'mon, Ben--"

"Practice is over." He didn't even let Randy finish his complaint. Ben's commanding tone was surprisingly calm. He rounded the end of the table, snagged Heidi's T-shirt from the floor and held it to her with a hand that trembled as he spoke to the others. "Leave the instruments. I'll bring them to band tomorrow."

Heidi grabbed the T-shirt and held it to her chest. Behind her she heard lowing moans and the shuffle of six overgrown feet on indoor outdoor carpeting. The longer it took Quentin to herd his reluctant cattle, the faster her rush of brazenness trickled away. God, she was going to vomit.

The game room door closed and the three of them were finally alone. She and Ben and her behavior. She'd taken off her shirt--still had it off, in fact--and he hadn't even looked. She couldn't decide whether to be humiliated or insulted or to sink to the floor behind the table and hide.

What she finally did was slip her shirt over her head and down, tugging the hem as low as it would go. Her vest was at her feet, her bra on the floor closer to Ben's. Definitely closing in on humiliation, she managed to retrieve both pieces of clothing, shrug into the vest and stuff the bra into the pocket of her jeans without once looking at his face.

She'd started disassembling her sax when he spoke. "Heidi, Maryann's lying."

Her nod acknowledged that she'd heard him, not that she believed him. She wasn't in the mood to believe him. All she wanted to do was start this day over from the blast of her alarm clock this morning.

"She didn't lose her top in the pool." He shuffled from one foot to the other. "Well, she lost it, but it wasn't like it was an accident or anything. You know Maryann."

"Not as well as you do, apparently." She locked the saxophone case and turned; she locked her jaw as well. It kept her chin from quivering. "You can take me home now."

Ben pushed back the hair from his forehead. "Dammit, Heidi. Nothing really happened."

"Really?" The burn in her stomach flared. "What does that mean, 'Nothing really happened.'? That nothing happened at all? That whatever happened didn't mean anything?" Her voice and temper rose in unison. "That everything's okay because we all know Maryann?"

"What do you want me to say?" he asked, standing with his arms crossed, the pool table squarely between them.

His defensiveness answered her question. She grabbed her sax and lifted her chin. "I don't want you to say anything. I want you to take me home."

"I'm not taking you home until you listen to me." He started forward.

She headed toward the door. "Fine. I'll walk."

He changed directions, rounding the table to head her off. "You can't walk."

"I have two legs. I most certainly can."

"That's not what I meant. It's too far." He'd reached the door now and blocked it with his body. "And it's not exactly the safest neighborhood to be walking through at night."

His lack of tact and consideration amazed her at times. She wondered if he'd taken lessons in holier-than-thou along with deportment. "I live in that neighborhood, Ben."

"Cripes, Heidi. Do you have to twist everything I say?" Broad hands gripped her shoulders, green eyes made a great show of caring. "I don't want anything to happen to you."

"Thanks for the concern. But I'd rather take care of myself. I can make sure nothing happens to me." She shrugged off his hold, took a step back while he crossed his arms and leaned back on the door. "You see, I'm not Maryann Stafford."

"You're still not walking home."

She shook her head. He was totally impossibly arrogant at times, but she didn't hate him any more. Never had hated him, in fact. What she felt deserved a deep and thorough and very private exploration, but not tonight. Not tonight. "I know you're used to getting your way, but it's not going to happen this time. Now, move please, so I can go."

He sidestepped, but left his hand on the doorknob. "If you don't want me to drive you, I'll ask my dad to take you."

"Uh, no thanks."

"Then I'll call you a cab."

Hysterical laughter bubbled up. She pressed shaky fingers to her forehead and sighed. "You and your money."

"What about my money?" he asked but he did finally open the door.

She didn't want to talk or explain or answer another single question. She was tired and she wanted to go home. That was all. "You know how it is. The rich get richer, the poor pay taxes." Then she tried to bite her tongue but the words had already rolled from the end. "And if there's anything left they might be able to afford tuition."

"What are you talking about?"

"Nothing, Ben. Just take me home." Head held high, she left the game room. Ben followed, slamming the door so hard the walls rattled.

His steps were heavy and close behind her, but she didn't move aside. And she swore no matter how much money she made in her lifetime, she would never hang a chandelier in a hallway.