Carly Phillips

Hot Item

The third book in the Hot Zone series, 2006

To everyone at Harlequin-

Donna Hayes, Randall Toye, Dianne Moggy, Katherine Orr, Marleah Stout and Tracy Farrell for believing in me. And a special thank-you to Brenda Chin for pushing me harder and making me better (I hope!) with each book.


YANK MORGAN LEANED back in his favorite chair and puffed on a Monte Cristo cigar. Damn, life was good. At least, as good as it could be with his three nieces sick with colds and too quiet for his peace of mind. He’d been caring for the girls since their parents died in a plane crash a little over a year ago and he’d done his best to maintain normalcy for them and for himself. Hence, his weekly poker night with the guys.

“Hey, Morgan. You folding or what?” Curly asked.

“Depends on your hand.”

Curly glanced at his cards and rubbed his hand over his bald head, a sure sign the man’s hand sucked. “What the hell. I’m in.”

“Me, too.” Spencer Atkins, Yank’s friend and business rival, tossed his bet onto the pile of chips in the center of the table and pulled a long drag of his cigar.

“Better not inhale,” a small female voice warned.

Yank frowned and turned to the doorway. His middle niece, Sophie, stood in her flannel nightgown and glared, arms folded across her chest.

“You’re supposed to be resting,” Yank said.

She shrugged. “My nose is stuffed. I want Lola,” she said, speaking of his assistant and one-time lover, not that any of the girls knew that last part. Lola was the only female influence the girls had.

Yank didn’t discourage their relationship. But the woman complicated his life to no end and reminded him of their once-hot affair. He had his hands full with three little women. He didn’t need a fourth female making demands on his time and forcing him to give up the important things. Things like cigars and poker.

“Can I call her, Uncle Yank? Please?” Sophie asked.

“Yeah, can she call her?” Spencer asked, laughing. “As if you’d say no. It’s no hardship having that beautiful woman around twenty-four/seven, is it, Morgan?”

Yank scowled. “Take some aspirin instead,” he told his niece.

“Aspirin’s no good for children. There’s a new study out that shows it can cause something called Reye’s syndrome. Lola would know that,” Sophie said in an accusing tone.

He groaned. “You wanna call her, call her. Just make sure she knows I’m tied up with the boys.”

Sophie rolled her eyes. “She knows. Everyone knows Tuesday night’s poker night.” Sophie ran over and kissed his cheek. “Thanks, Uncle Yank. I promise not to bother you again.”

He hugged the little girl tight. “You never bother me.”

She clasped her hands behind her back. “You mean that?” she asked in a serious voice, one too old for her eleven years.

Losing parents did that to kids, Yank had learned. Annabelle, the oldest, had taken over the mother role whenever Lola wasn’t around, bossing her sisters and making sure everyone behaved. Micki, the youngest, tagged along with him everywhere he went, never giving him time or space to breathe, obviously afraid if she did, he’d run away and never return. And Sophie lost herself in books as if she could escape into another world. But she also used the knowledge she learned to try to control everyone and everything around her.

Yank figured she thought if she orchestrated life, she wouldn’t lose people around her the way she lost her parents. When had he turned into a damn shrink? he wondered. “Go,” he said softly. “The sooner you call Lola, the sooner you’ll get some sleep.”

She nodded. “Okay.” She ran out of the room and he heard her chattering on the phone from the kitchen.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “Let’s get back to business.”

Spencer lifted his glass and took a sip of the whiskey Yank kept in the bar. “Son of a bitch. I’m out.” With a scowl, he folded his hand. “I’ll just have a smoke and watch Yank take the rest of you suckers for all you’re worth.”

A few hands later, Spencer reached for his cigar, then narrowed his gaze when he came up empty-handed. “Winning’s not enough for you, Morgan? You have to stoop to stealing stogies for fun?”

Yank tossed his cards onto the table. “I take offense to the implication. I’m winnin’ fair and square. And I didn’t take your damn cigar. Maybe you’re getting old and you forgot whether or not you lit one.”

Curly rose to his feet. “Come on, boys. We don’t need to fight amongst ourselves. Spence here can have my cigar. If my wife smells it on me she’ll douse me with kerosene and light a match.” He glanced down. “Hey, wait a second…”

Yank winced. “Yours is gone, too?” he asked, a sneaking suspicion dawning.

The other man nodded.

“Mel?” Yank turned to the fourth man.

“Mine’s gone, too.”

Yank groaned. “Sophia Francesca Jordan!” he bellowed. “Get in here now.”

“You don’t have to yell, Uncle Yank. I’m right here.” Sophie’s voice sounded from beneath the card table.

The little sneak. How had she gotten underneath there without them noticing? he wondered.

She tried to stand too soon and bumped her head. “Ouch!” Finally she stood in front of him, guilt written all over her little face. Her cheeks were pink and her blue eyes too wide and innocent.

“Give the boys back their cigars,” Yank demanded.

Her eyes filled with tears. “But…”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t take them. What else would you be doing sneaking ’round under there?”

She shook her head. “I wasn’t going to say that.”

“What were you going to say?” Spencer asked in a surprisingly kind voice considering he’d nearly strung Yank up alive for stealing his cigar. Faced with the midget culprit, his tone gentled as it always did around Sophie. He had a soft spot for the middle kid.

Sophie clasped her hands behind her long flannel nightgown. “The Surgeon General says smoking’s bad for your health. It’ll turn your lungs black and clog your arties.”

“Arteries, doofus,” Annabelle said, walking in from the doorway. “Sorry, Uncle Yank. I fell asleep and forgot to watch her. It won’t happen again.” She grabbed her sister’s hand and pulled, trying to drag her from the room.

“Stop,” Sophie whined. “I’m right and they all know it.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’re guys and guys smoke,” the third Musketeer chimed in, surprising them all by walking in from the kitchen. In her hand, Micki held the ashtray with all the men’s cigars.

“Hey, it took a long time for me to collect those without them noticing,” Sophie said.

“But they weren’t yours to take.” Annabelle walked around the room, handing each man a used cigar.

In all likelihood nobody got the right smoke and Yank cringed. “I think it’s time to call it a night.”

“If Lola had come, none of this would have happened,” Annabelle said. “She’d have kept Sophie busy in the

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