Read an Excerpt from To Win Her Heart

Originally published in 2004 under the title What a Girl Wants (Mother, Please! anthology)


SOME THINGS WERE never meant for a daughter to see. April Ashton was fairly certain that watching her mother stride into her father’s company Christmas party on the arm of a man clearly half her age was one of them. The bright red, skintight, sequin-covered dress Claire Ashton was wearing would have embarrassed April enough—it had a neckline that plunged almost to her navel. But her mother was also flaunting a companion who looked barely twenty-five and had the body of a Chippendale dancer.

What was Claire thinking? Pushing her tortoiseshell glasses up to the bridge of her nose, April straightened her own simple black calf-length dress and backed into a corner while she searched the crowded ballroom for her father. Walt Ashton might have launched her mother’s midlife crisis, but he was not a subtle man and he wasn’t going to take this well. As the owner of Ashton Automotive, he was too accustomed to being in charge. He’d built his L.A.-based company with his own two hands. Now, nearly twenty-seven years later, it was one of the most successful chains of auto-parts stores in the western United States.

A hush rolled through the room. Evidently everyone was beginning to recognize the woman in red. It had taken them a few seconds; April understood why. Claire hardly resembled the woman she used to be. Since April’s mother and father had split up four months ago, her mother had lost thirty-five pounds, bleached her hair platinum-blond, acquired a tan even though it was winter, and cast aside her matronly wardrobe for…well, for something better suited to an actress on Sex and the City.

Not that April considered herself a fashion expert. She’d long known her brain was her best asset and didn’t bother much with fancy clothes or beauty aids. She’d never possessed the kind of curves that would turn a man’s head. Which was just as well. She’d learned that few men had egos that could tolerate dating a woman with an IQ above 160. Even the gold diggers her father warned her about had never materialized. She’d gone out with some of the physicists where she worked, but nothing romantic had ever developed. She and the men she dated invariably fell to discussing theories and models, and soon became nothing more than mutually respectful peers.

Suddenly, Rita Schmidt, from Accounting, who was standing not far away, seemed to notice the whispering that had replaced the initial hush. Craning her head, she stood on tiptoe to see what was happening. “Hey, isn’t that…”

Les Burrows, at Rita’s elbow, followed her gaze. “Oh, my God—that’s the boss’s wife!”

This comment elicited a whole storm of response from others in the same group.

“You mean his ex-wife….”

“They’re not divorced yet….”

“Believe me, that’s a mere technicality….”

“It’s no secret that Mr. Ashton’s been diddling his massage therapist for the past six months.”

A few chuckles resounded at the diddling comment, and April briefly considered slipping out the back. She didn’t know what was happening to her parents, why her father had strayed after so many years. But she had a lot of work to do at the lab and didn’t want to be here. Parties weren’t her thing. Give her a good book on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, challenge her to a heated debate on quantum physics, but please don’t ask her to dance….

She couldn’t leave, though. She’d promised her father she’d stay for the entire evening. He’d told her that Keith Bodine, the local plant manager, was looking forward to seeing her; she didn’t return Keith’s interest, but her father hoped someday she would. Besides, April was the only one who could keep some semblance of peace between her parents.

Sometimes she hated being an only child.

“I guess we’re going to be treated to another family fight,” someone else in the crowd whispered loudly, obviously unaware that April was standing so close.

April leaned to the left in time to see her father turn his head in her mother’s direction—at which point his eyes nearly popped out of his head. His girlfriend, Regina Parks, stood beside him, but that didn’t seem to matter. His face darkened to an unhealthy shade of maroon, and he started tearing through the crowd as if he’d strangle his estranged wife.

April abandoned the safety of her dark corner and intercepted her father before he could reach Claire and her muscle-bound date.

“Dad! Wait!” Bringing him to a stop by clutching his arm, she continued to hold on to him, just in case getting his hands around Claire’s neck had really occurred to him. Since her mother had moved in with her several weeks ago, violence had certainly crossed April’s mind once or twice. Like yesterday, when she’d come home to her small house at Redondo Beach to find that her mother had rearranged all her furniture.

Her father looked at her, but April wasn’t sure he saw her. He was too intent on yanking free, muttering, “How dare she!”

April struggled to retain her hold. “Hang on, Dad. You two have been going through a lot of changes lately,” she said, trying to stave off the worst of his anger. “You’ve barely started divorce proceedings. She’ll settle down soon.” At least April hoped she would. Her mother’s recent talk about getting breast implants wasn’t a good sign, but April was trying to be optimistic. “Let’s not make a scene, okay, Daddy?”

“Not make a scene?” he bellowed. Everyone within twenty feet turned to stare. “She’s already made a scene! My God, there’s not a man here who isn’t stepping on his tongue! Who invited her, anyway?”

“She owns half the company, remember?” April said softly.

“Like hell she does!”

Walt’s booming voice finally reached Claire. As she glanced their way, a hurt expression flitted through her eyes. But she blinked, raised her chin and pulled her young date onto the dance floor.

April’s father watched with a menacing scowl. “Whether or not she owns part of my company isn’t decided yet,” he said. “I’ve got ways to avoid that. Look how she’s behaving! I won’t risk some gigolo like…like that someday staking claim to Ashton Automotive.”

In April’s opinion, her father hadn’t behaved much better lately. He’d chosen someone a little closer to his own age to date. Commendable. And his barrel chest was, thankfully, well covered. Also commendable. But as her mother was so fond of pointing out, he was the one who’d had the affair that started the whole thing.

Regina, the woman who’d tempted her father away, smiled patiently at April while patting her father’s other arm. “Calm down, Wally Woo,” she said. “You know you have to be careful about your blood pressure. I’m going to have a heck of a time working the stress out of your poor muscles tonight.”

Wally Woo? Judging by Regina’s tone, she was offering much more than a standard massage. April grimaced as a mental picture she did not want to see flashed across her mind, and she thought longingly of her lab and the clear logic and predictability of all that prevailed there.

“She’s making a fool out of me,” her father replied. “She—”

April never found out what he was going to say next because a tall man approached, effectively interrupting his tirade. April immediately recognized the newcomer. Quincy “Gunner” Stevens was a famous race-car driver who’d retired from NASCAR, at the top of his game, just a year or so earlier. She’d met him once before, at a charity auction.

“You made it.” His anger temporarily forgotten, her father stuck out his hand and rigorously pumped Gunner’s.

Gunner offered the poster-perfect smile April had seen on everything from cereal boxes to motor oil commercials. “Looks like a great party. I’m happy to be here,” he said, but April could tell he didn’t mean a word of it. His body language screamed bored.

Her father drew them all off to one side, and everyone else slowly went back to mingling and chatting, although April noticed several people still throwing covert, disbelieving glances at her mother.

“This is my, um, good friend, Regina Parks,” Walt said, turning to Regina, who smiled and nodded. “And my daughter, April.”

April didn’t bother pointing out that they’d met before. She knew someone as famous as Gunner probably wouldn’t remember.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, immediately proving her right. As he shook April’s hand, his fingers were strong and warm but, like three years ago, he looked straight through her.

His nod to courtesy over, he immediately turned back to her father. “So, will you have time to meet with me tomorrow, as we discussed?”

“You’re certainly ambitious,” her father said, chuckling. “But this is a party. Eat. Talk. Dance.

At the suggestion that he dance, her father gave April a little shove. She jerked back to avoid colliding with Gunner and finally got his full attention. But only long enough for him to steady her with a hand to the elbow.

“April here is a quantum physicist,” her father announced proudly.

“A what?” Gunner regarded her lazily over the top of his glass as he took a drink. His eyes, April noticed, were as blue-green as the ocean, just the way they appeared on television. But his lashes were quite a bit lighter than she remembered and were tipped with blonde, like his hair. Obviously the gods had smiled on him far more generously than on most men. Not only was he a skilled driver, he was at least five foot eleven and movie-star handsome.

From the rumors that had always circulated about Gunner, and the tabloid photos of him with a variety of women, all of them blond and absolutely perfect, April figured he must possess the complete “famous, shallow, womanizer” mentality. For a moment, she pitied those women not wise enough to see through him. No doubt Gunner Stevens had broken his share of hearts.

“Let’s not talk about what I do, Father,” she said. “We wouldn’t want to bore your guest.”

Gunner slowly lowered his drink, and his eyes narrowed as he recognized something missing in her tone—probably the hero-worship he was used to hearing. “Actually, I’m quite interested—April is it?”

“It has little practical application to racing,” she said, fairly certain that a man like Gunner couldn’t truly be interested in anything that didn’t feature him as the main topic.

“So, are you going to be joining us for the company vacation after Christmas, Gunner?” her father asked, oblivious to April’s instant dislike, his mind moving on quickly, as it always did.

Gunner’s eyes remained riveted on April’s face, but he spoke to her father. “I’m afraid not. I have business to attend to back East.”

Her father’s lips turned down. “That’s too bad.”

“Are you thinking of using Mr. Stevens for a commercial spot, Dad?” April asked, forgetting Gunner and focusing on her father.

“Actually, I’m thinking of retiring,” he said. “And Gunner’s made me an offer on the business.”

“What?” April couldn’t believe her ears. Her father had long begged her to work for him so she could take over when he retired, but her heart wasn’t in selling car parts. She wanted to further the work of Danish physicist Lene Vestergaard Hau and figure out how to slow the speed of light to ten miles per hour using the Bose-Einstein condensate. But that didn’t mean she wanted to see Ashton Automotive go to someone else.

Walt swiveled his head in the direction they’d last seen her mother. “I won’t watch what I built go to the dogs,” he said. “I’d rather sell out. But I won’t turn my company over to just anyone, either.”

This last statement had been spoken for Gunner’s benefit, April knew. Her father was fiercely protective of both his company and everyone who worked for him.

“You don’t want to sell Ashton Automotive, Dad,” she said. “I—”

“April, would you care to dance?” Gunner interrupted.

Surprised, April glanced over at him before returning her attention to her father. “No, thank you. Dad, listen to me—”

“I shouldn’t have started with business talk,” Gunner cut in again. His sensuous mouth formed a charming smile. “We could be having fun.”

Her father returned the smile, took Gunner’s empty glass and gave it to Regina. “Exactly. Gunner’s right. Don’t you worry about anything, April. You two dance and have a good time. Nothing’s going to happen for a while.” He put her hand in Gunner’s as if his was the last word on the subject. And before she could object, April found herself in the arms of one of the most famous race-car drivers in the world.

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