An Offer He Cant Refuse - By Christie Ridgway

Chapter One
"Begin the Beguine"

Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra Story in Music (1946)

Tea Caruso had once been very, very bad. During a morning spent closeted in the perfume-saturated powder room of Mr. and Mrs. William Duncan's Spanish-Italian-Renaissance-inspired Palm Springs home, discussing Baby Jesus and the Holy Mother, she wondered if today was the day she started paying for it. Toward noon, she emerged from the clouds - both heavenly and olfactory - with a Chanel No. 5 hangover and fingernail creases in her palms as deep as the Duncans' quarter-mile lap pool.

Standing on the pillowed-limestone terrace outside, she allowed herself a sixty-second pause for fresh air, yet still managed to multitask the moment by completing a quick appearance-check as well. Even someone with less artistic training than Tea would know that her Mediterranean coloring and generous curves were made for low necklines and gypsy shades, but her Mandarin-collared, dove-gray linen dress was devised to button-up, smooth-out, tuck away. Though she could never feel completely innocent, she preferred to at least look that way.

The reflection in her hand-mirror presented no jarring surprises. The sun leant an apricot cast to her olive skin. Tilted brown eyes, a slightly patrician nose, cheekbones and jawline now defined after years of counting calories instead of chowing down on cookies. Assured that her buttons were tight, her mascara unsmudged, and her hair still controlled in its long, dark sweep, she snapped the compact shut. Then, setting off in the direction of her car, she swapped mirror for cell phone and speed-dialed her interior design firm, Inner Life.

"She's still insisting on Him," she told her assistant when she answered. "Find out who can hand-paint a Rembrandt-styled Infant Jesus in the bottom of a porcelain sink."

Continuing her forward march, she checked her watch. "Any messages? I have lunch with my sisters up next."

"Nikki O'Neal phoned and mentioned a redo of her dining room," her assistant replied. "Something about a mural depicting the Ascension."

The Ascension?

Tea's steps faltered, slowed. "No," she groaned. "That means Mrs. D. has spilled her plans. Now we'll be hearing from every one of her group at Our Lady of Mink."

A segment of Tea's client list - members of the St. Brigit's Guild at the posh Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church - cultivated their competitive spirits as well as their Holy Spirit during their weekly meetings. One woman would share a new idea for home decor, prompting the next to take the same theme to even greater - more ostentatious - heights.

Three years before it had been everything vineyard, then sea life turned all the rage, and now... good God.

'The Ascension?" Tea muttered. "These women must be out of their minds."

But could she really blame them? Palm Springs, Califor-nia, had a grand tradition of the grandiose, after all. Walt Disney had owned a home here. Elvis. Liberace.

It was just that when she'd opened her business, filled with high artistic aspirations and a zealous determination to make over the notorious Caruso name, she hadn't foreseen the pitfalls. Like how the ceaseless influx of rent and utility bills and the unsteady-trickle-and-occasional-torrent that was her cash flow meant she couldn't be picky when it came to choosing design jobs.

Like how that could result in gaining woeful renown as designer of all things overdone. She groaned again.

"Oh, and Tea..." Her assistant's voice rose in an expectant lilt. "His Huskiness called."

Her stomach lurched, pity party forgotten. "What? Who?"

"Johnny Magee."

Of course, Johnny Magee. Her assistant referred to the man they'd never met by an ever-expanding lexicon of nicknames that ranged from the overrated to the out-and-out ridiculous. To Tea, he was simply her One Chance, her Answered Prayers, her Belief in Miracles.

"Why didn't you forward it to my cell?" she demanded, her footsteps regaining speed. Between assistants and electronics, not once had she exchanged information with him voice-to-voice.

"And miss out on having the Love Machine rumble in my ear? No way. His 'hello' makes me horny. Besides, you don't like interruptions when meeting with a client."

Unless it was him! Sure, if she bagged Johnny Magee's project and their contact progressed beyond fax and e-mail, then the man would most likely prove a major disappointment. But from the instant she'd read "generous budget" and "complete redesign in mid-century modern" on his first communication, she'd decided theirs was the perfect relationship.

"I swear," her assistant continued with all the fervor of a former Catholic schoolgirl, "just the word 'bedroom' in that raspy voice of his makes me dream of dark nights, dark passion, and dark