Manhandling

Sami Lee

Chapter 1

Men Are Hunters

It’s okay to call a guy, ladies. We like that. It’s gutsy and shows us that you’re interested. But be careful not to become the pursuer in the relationship. Don’t call too often. Don’t pop in for a visit unless he specifically invites you. Men like to hunt. Let them come after you.

The refrain from Jake McCallum’s obnoxiously titled book, It’s Not Him—It’s You, danced in Libby Allison’s head, as irritating now as it had been when she’d first read it. Even more irritating considering the fact he’d forced her into doing exactly what his advice warned against. She was about to become a pop-in girl.

She would have loved it if the reclusive mechanic-turned-dating-guru had pursued her—for professional reasons. She would have been ecstatic if he’d even returned one of her calls, or agreed via email to set up an appointment at her office. But no, apparently that was too much trouble for the guy who liked to hunt. Jake McCallum had made it patently clear with his evasive tactics that he thought he didn’t need Libby or her services.

Well, that was just too bad. Peony Publishing had contracted Image Solutions—the business Libby had started with her friend Miranda Eastwood just over a year ago—to spruce up their latest debut author’s image before his upcoming book launch. A corporate client like Peony could generate the kind of word-of-mouth she and Miranda had been desperately hoping for. If they didn’t get more clients soon, the business might not make it. Given that they’d started the venture after they’d both been laid off from their salary-paying jobs due to economic circumstances, neither Libby nor Miranda relished the idea of putting themselves back on the job market.

Consulting the map she had open on her iPhone, Libby saw the street she was looking for and executed a swift right turn that elicited a honk from an oncoming sedan. Libby sent the driver an apologetic wave before returning her attention to the road ahead. The sign for Saul’s Automotive came into view and she found a parking space right out front.

A quick assessment in the rearview mirror told her the peach lip gloss she’d applied still sparkled and her blonde ponytail remained firmly in place, a miracle given the forty-minute drive to the outskirts of Brisbane in her sporty red convertible. Thank heaven for maximum-hold hair products.

Libby got out of the car and strode into the garage’s front office. No electronic beep went off when she opened the door. “Hello,” she called out. No one came. Glancing at her watch, Libby saw it was a little after five. Maybe the crew had already knocked off for the day. Not to be deterred that easily, Libby followed the muffled sound of male voices filtering into the office through a side door.

A round of raucous laughter drifted out from the bowels of the garage, covering the sound of Libby’s heels clicking on the grease-stained cement floor. She caught the tail end of a sentence, delivered with utterly masculine conceit. “Took a week for the scratches on my back to heal. So, Rodney, I wouldn’t knock a librarian until you’ve tried one.”

Another round of guffaws drowned out Libby’s harrumph of displeasure. Charming. Apparently, she’d walked in on an exaggerated tale of some man’s prowess in bed. In her experience, a woman was very unlikely to be whipped into such a frenzy by a man’s abilities that her ardor would cause him physical injury. Libby rolled her eyes. Men and their stories.

“I’d take his advice if I were you, Rod,” one of the men said. “He is the love doctor, dating guru to the masses, a legend in his own time.”

“You mean in his own mind,” another man snickered. He let out an anguished yowl as his comment earned him a hard punch on the shoulder.

Libby’s focus zeroed in on the man who’d delivered that punch, the librarian-loving dating guru. So this was the man she’d come looking for. Her initial assessment—based on her view of the back of his head—was that he badly needed a haircut. Fashionably styled long hair on a man was one thing. Recalcitrant curls that had been allowed to grow scruffy purely from inattention was quite another. From the back, Jake McCallum reminded her of a stray dog that hadn’t been properly clipped since pup-hood.

“Aw, don’t knock him. Somehow this chump hit the jackpot. Fame and fortune and lust-crazed women throwing themselves at him. That’s what Jake can look forward to. I wouldn’t mind being in his position at all.”

“Are you nuts? More likely the feminists are going to put a price on his head when they get a load of the chapter called—what is it, Jake? How to Keep Your Man from Straying Without Leashing Him?

“Oh, yeah.” Someone else laughed. “I think the crux of it is a blowjob is worth a hundred cooked dinners. No word of a lie, Jake. A guy can always order pizza, but he can’t always dial a—”

“Enough already,” Jake growled at the other men. “I don’t want to hear another word about that stupid book. I wish I’d never agreed to have the thing published.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. McCallum.”

Libby’s casual announcement had all four men swiveling toward her in surprise. The man to whom she’d directed her remark regarded her over one wide shoulder, his eyebrows raised.

He looked her up and down, a sweeping assessment that told her nothing about what he thought. At length, he drawled, “Honey, if you’re looking for your car, office hours are over for the day. Everything we’ve got left is up on a hoist or in pieces, so you’re all out of luck.”

“I’m not here about a car. I’m Libby Allison, from Image Solutions. I’ve been contracted by Peony Publishing to work with you. We’ve spoken on the phone. Several times.”

Taking a step forward, Libby stuck out her hand. Jake glanced at it. He took his time getting to his feet, unfurling his toned body inch by inch and turning to face her. Libby’s breath faltered, something about the way he moved making her picture what was underneath the old jeans and grubby grey T-shirt. There were muscles in that body, hard-worked ones. He gave the impression of vitality tightly leashed by a deceptively casual demeanor.

Her pulse gave a leap of awareness. Wow. He was kind of…magnetic might be the word. Scruffy as hell with an air of insolence that was bound to grate on her nerves in no time. All the same, he wasn’t bad to look at. Not at all.

“Miss Allison.” Jake McCallum lifted his hand to show her the grease-marked state of it, and Libby dropped her arm back to her side. “You look a lot different than I pictured.”

Libby forced herself to breathe normally, although the notion that he’d imagined her at all did odd things to her heart rate. “What did you expect?”

He smiled. “Someone bigger.”

Being barely five feet two, Libby had heard every short joke known to womankind. She didn’t feel like suffering through any today. “I’ve come to set up an appointment for you to meet with me and my partner at our office in Toowong.”

“You drove all the way out here to bug me about that again?”

Where did he get the nerve to act like the injured party here? “I wouldn’t have had to go to these lengths if you’d agreed to make an appointment over the phone.”

“I already told you, you’re wasting your time.”

“I’ll decide what’s a waste of my time or not. Your publisher wants you to have an image overhaul in time for your book launch and the host of interviews and public appearances they’ve set up. It seems clear to me you’re in dire need of one, Mr. McCallum. So, no, I don’t think this is a misuse of my time.”

“Well, frankly, I think it’s a waste of mine.” His voice now carried the thread of exasperation Libby recognized from their few fruitless telephone conversations. “I have no intention of having a makeover just to live up to some fabricated standard of what I’m supposed to wear or how I’m supposed to act. With me, you get what you see.”

“If people don’t like what they see, they won’t bother to move beyond appearances and get to know you—or in this case, your book.”

Jake folded his arms across his chest and regarded her with a curious tilt of his head. “Well, if that isn’t some of the most twisted logic I’ve ever heard.”

Fists moving to her hips, Libby retorted, “This from the man who wrote ‘Ladies, if want to reel in a fish, you have to use the right bait’.”

“Marlin,” Jake corrected, the turn of his lips hinting at chagrin. If it weren’t for the dim lighting in the garage, Libby might have believed the dark tinge in his cheeks was a blush. “I said reel in a marlin. Men are the fish in that analogy.”

“Oh, I got that. Men as fish,” Libby gave a delicate sniff, filling her nostrils with the scent of grease, old sweat and the salty pungency of prawn heads left to bake on the nearby boat ramp.

“What’s your point, Miss Allison?”

“My point is you seem perfectly happy to tell women how to dress, how to talk, heck, how to think in order to please a man. But you aren’t willing to come with me to buy one little suit, perhaps get a haircut—” she let her opinion about his shaggy, too-long-to-be-fashionable style be known with a sweep of her gaze, “—in order to promote your work in the best light possible.”

“Look, lady.” His expression softened a little with something she easily interpreted as condescension. “I’m sure you think you’ve done the right thing in coming here. I get it. Peony Publishing wants you to whip me into shape, make some kind of metrosexual out of me. Tell me, do I look like I could pass for a metrosexual to you?”

Libby smiled despite her irritation at his tone. “Not yet. But when I’m through with you, you won’t know yourself.”

“And that is exactly what I don’t want. So I think the best thing for you to do is head on back to your office and chalk me up as a lost cause.” Libby couldn’t contain a little squeal of outrage when he reached out and tapped her on the nose with his dirty, callused index finger. “Thanks for stopping by, chickadee.”

Libby stood, shock rooting her to the spot, and watched him return to the group. The three other men seated on upturned crates all darted their gazes away, pretending they hadn’t watched everything that had just unfolded.

How dare he tweak her nose and send her on her way, like some Girl Scout selling cookies he didn’t want to buy? Did he think she would run out of here like a scared rabbit?

Apparently, he did. Jake McCallum parked his butt and lifted his abandoned beer to his mouth as though she no longer mattered, while Libby remained where she was, fuming and ineffectual.

Well, ineffectual wasn’t good enough. Libby didn’t do ineffectual. Miranda was counting on her to get this right, to secure the future of Image Solutions. Libby was hardly going to let some boorish oaf of a man like Jake McCallum ruin everything because he didn’t feel like shopping, when it was obvious nobody needed the help of a fully stocked department store more than he did.

Her heels were clacking on the cement floor before words had formulated in her mind. But when she reached the group of men and opened her mouth, she found she had a lot to say.

*

You, Jake McCallum, are an arrogant, supercilious, bald-faced hypocrite.”

Jake had been called worse things by women over the years, but he’d never been reamed out with quite as much conviction.

He turned back to stare at Libby Allison. She was dressed in red and white from the polka dot silk scarf in her hair to the red suede ankle boots on her feet. Her polka dot blouse looked silky and too delicate for the interior of an auto shop, her narrow red skirt like something out of a 50’s sitcom. Her hair was a golden fountain sprouting from the top of her head and her face was…no denying it, pretty. Taut lines of frustration and anger narrowed her big blue eyes and thinned her shiny lips, but she was attractive all the same.

His Dad, Saul, would say Libby Allison was as cute as a button. Jake didn’t let the outrageous adorability of her exterior fool him. She might look like a pixie-faced movie starlet on the outside, but something told him the inside was all steamroller with a full tank of gas, ready to roll right over him.

A lot of maintenance, a girl like her. The highest kind. And in Jake’s opinion, upkeep was supposed to be for cars, not for women.

“Well, I guess you pegged me, chickadee.” Jake delivered the words with the laconic drawl that seemed to irk every woman he’d ever come across, taking some juvenile relish in the teasing rhyme. Anyone would think he was still in the school yard. With a sigh of resignation, he stood once more to face her. “You get paid for character assassinations too?”

“Assassinate? I wouldn’t need to touch your character to do it damage. Its wounds are self-inflicted. You’re not even willing to give this a chance, even though your publisher clearly instructed you to do so. Isn’t that disrespectful to the investment they’ve made in you?

Not for the first time, Jake rued the day he’d let his sister Angela talk him in to taking Peony Publishing up on their contract offer. This writing gig was not a new career he was launching. It’s Not Him—It’s You had been little more than a lark, a blog he’d started to blow off steam about his trials in the dating world. The blog had caused a minor online stir that had turned into a loyal following, and Jake had gone along for the ride, making each post more entertaining than the last. Sometimes he’d embellished his dating disasters for maximum effect. Sometimes, unfortunately, he hadn’t needed to. Angela had even shown him how to make money from advertising, and when Peony had come sniffing around, offering to compile his posts into a dating advice book, it had been Angela who’d insisted he do it.

So where was Angela now that the scary pixie lady wanted to go over him with a fine-tooth style comb? Jake would have loved to chew her out about the mess this book deal was starting to make of his previously uncomplicated life.

“Don’t you care if your book is a success?”

Jake took a thoughtful swig of his beer, pretending to mull over Libby’s question. Then he shrugged. “Nope.”

The pint-sized blonde appeared stunned. “That’s just crazy.”

Jake tilted his beer bottle at her. “In your opinion.”

“In everyone’s opinion.”

“Listen, I already have a job.” Jake gestured around the garage with his beer bottle. “I don’t really give a crap if the book makes a hundred bucks or a hundred thousand.”

Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He’d take the hundred thousand if it landed in his lap. Inject some cash flow into the garage, send his mum and dad on a nice long holiday. Not that Jake thought for a minute a print version of a bunch of blog posts was going to race out the door of every bookshop in the country.

“Your publisher obviously cares how the book does,” Libby pointed out. “Or they wouldn’t have sent me to make sure you’re capable of selling it.”

“Aw, Jeez,” Jake muttered testily. “What difference does it make what people think of me? It’s the product that matters, isn’t it?”

“You are the product, knucklehead.”

Her insult caused laughter to ripple through the guys. Even Rodney, the apprentice who always acted shit-scared of him, was laughing. This girl was doing a verbal takedown of him, and the guys who’d always respected him were getting their afternoon entertainment while she was at it. Enough was enough.

Jake took a step forward. To her credit, Libby didn’t even flinch. Jake pushed the moment of admiration aside and scowled. “You always insult your potential clients, Libby?”

Her lips curved triumphantly. “So you admit you’re my client.”

“I said potential. I still don’t see the necessity for all this. I own a suit. What if I promise to get it out of storage and dust it off for the book launch?”

“Dust it off!” She clucked her tongue in a thoroughly irritating manner. “I should think not. You need a complete re-style if you’re going to create the buzz you need to sell copies of your book.

He heard the air quotes around the word book and didn’t like it one bit. It was all right for him to call his own work a joke, but for some jumped-up shop assistant with an attitude to look down her nose—that was another situation altogether. “You don’t like the book.”

“I’m afraid I’ve only had time to skim the first few chapters of the advance copy Peony sent me,” she informed him while checking out her French manicure.

In other words, she’d paid only enough attention to support her already concrete opinions about what a jerk he was. She’d probably hated him the instant she read the book’s title. He could tell her he hadn’t picked it, that he’d never intended to tell women how they should behave in relationships and that fancy editing could put a whole different slant on things, but what was the point? She’d already formed her view, and from the stubborn set of her pointy little chin, he didn’t see it changing anytime soon.

This was yet another reason why he should never have taken his sister’s advice and accepted the book deal. He may not be the nicest bloke in the world, but he didn’t relish the possibility of being the most hated guy on the southern continent. For one thing, the notoriety was going to kill his social life.

Not that he’d had much of one lately.

What a lecture Libby Allison would give him if she knew that. A dating guru who was so sick of the game he’d voluntarily spent the season on the bench. He was relieved, at least for now, to be out of the cauldron of coffee dates, away from the potential minefield of casual sex. Lately, he’d stuck to work, beer and poker with the guys and spending nights alone in his apartment above the garage, listening to classic Radiohead until he fell asleep on the couch.

Shit. When put like that, his life sounded pathetic.

“Okay, you win.” Nothing like a little harsh self-reflection to make a guy get off his high horse. “I can try and do something this weekend.” He’d put in an appearance, let the girl pick out a couple of shirts and get it over with. He could manage that.

She pursed her lips. “I think we need more time.”

“I’m working. I can’t just leave.”

“Sure you can.”

Jake groaned at the familiar voice and the certain knowledge that Saul McCallum was going to take the side of the bouncy blonde. His father was always telling him to get out more, to get away from the garage. If Saul had had his way, Jake would never have left his other life in Sydney two and a half years ago to help him run the business in the first place.

Back then Saul had suffered a heart attack. As they both well knew, if Jake hadn’t come back when he did, his dad would have had to sell the business. Everything the old man had worked for gone in a puff of smoke, all because Jake wasn’t here to pick up the slack.

Jake had been determined not to let that happen, and Saul had never quite forgiven Jake for giving up his high-flying job in Sydney to come back here. Neither had he forgiven himself for needing Jake too.

“I’m Saul McCallum,” Jake heard his father tell Libby. “I own this place.”

“McCallum. You two are related?”

“Jakey’s my son.”

Jake winced at the childhood nickname.

“Of course he is. I see where he gets his looks.”

She thinks I’m good looking?

His father let out a pleased laugh at the chickadee’s clichéd charm. Jake rolled his eyes. He couldn’t believe he’d been fooled for even a nanosecond, or that he’d gotten a kernel of satisfaction from the possibility that Libby Allison thought he was attractive. She was only trying to ingratiate herself with Saul. Her view of Jake as a badly dressed grease monkey was fairly transparent. Clearly, he was not her type.

Jake tuned back into the conversation in time to hear his father officially granting him the next two days off so Libby could whip him into shape.

“Sounds painful,” Jake muttered, already dreading spending the next two days with the perky, fiery-tempered Libby Allison. Image consultant. What kind of job was that anyway?

“Don’t grouse, son,” Saul said. “You could do with a woman’s touch.”

Ain’t that the truth. He doubted his dad had meant the comment that way, but too many nights sleeping alone on the couch had obviously started to get to Jake. Sadly, he didn’t see his reawakened libido being satisfied anytime soon.

And certainly not by the petite, polka-dot-loving blonde he was stuck with for the next couple of days.

Chapter 2

Yes, I Am Wearing That

Don’t waste your time trying to change how your man dresses. Most men don’t give a rat’s ass what’s in fashion this season. And no matter what you put him in, he’s the same primal, testosterone driven animal underneath. You might as well embrace it.

At ten after nine the following day, Jake climbed the stairs to the headquarters of Image Solutions. Situated above an office offering tax returns done while you wait—how else should they be done?—and a pokey store touting vintage clothing—read: secondhand—the office space was understated, which surprised Jake. After meeting Libby, he had half suspected the walls to be painted bright pink and decorated with pictures of LOL cats. But the cream walls and standard black and gold lettering on the glass doors bespoke of a business that took itself seriously.

It wasn’t going to convince Jake to take anything about this situation to heart. He was doing this to get Libby Allison off his back, and to fulfill the promotional requirements of his publisher. A second read through of the contract he’d signed had reminded him he’d agreed to this kind of treatment, should Peony consider it necessary. Best thing to do was get it over with as quickly as possible.

“Mr. McCallum.”

A tall woman who was the physical opposite of Libby approached him as he loitered in the small waiting area. She wore a pair of black-framed glasses that accentuated the remoteness of cool-grey eyes and her black hair was smoothed into one of those immaculate chin-length styles that meant business. The edges looked like they could cut glass. Her pantsuit was black, her silk blouse bleached white. Jake guessed immediately that she had a wardrobe full of the dour-looking outfits—pantsuits aplenty in every color from navy to charcoal.

“One and the same.” Jake stuck out his hand—freshly washed and looking like new.

“Miranda Eastwood.” The woman took his proffered hand in her slender one. Her shake almost crushed Jake’s fingers. “I’m afraid Libby’s been held up a few moments. Would you like to take a seat while you wait?”

“Sure.”

Jake sat in one of the beige chairs placed beside a coffee table stacked with fashion magazines and copies of Business Review Weekly. He tried to temper his look of surprise when Miranda took a seat beside him. She crossed her legs and rested her pale, long-fingered hands on her knee, her body angled slightly toward his.

Her gaze rested upon him, coolly assessing. Her concentrated focus was unnerving. “So you’re an image consultant too?” Jake asked, annoyed that her silence had reduced him to inane small talk.

“That’s Libby’s department. I’m a training and development manager, mostly for corporate clients.”

That explained the Business Review Weekly subscription, but not how a stern woman like Miranda had ended up in business with someone like Libby.

Before Jake could ask about it, Miranda went on. “Are you aware that first impressions form eighty-two percent of a person’s long-term opinion of you?”

“Did you know that seven out of ten statistical quotes are made up on the spot?”

From the downward turn of Miranda’s lips, Jake guessed his little joke hadn’t gone over well. “I don’t mean to cause offense, but you, Mr. McCallum, do not make a good first impression.”

“Why would that cause offense?”

Miranda continued as though she hadn’t heard Jake’s droll remark. “For a start, your clothes are all wrong. But hopefully, Libby can help you with that.”

“She seems determined to try.”

“Wearing jeans and a T-shirt to a professional appointment makes you appear sloppy.”

Jake followed her glance down to his faded jeans and green T-shirt. Across the front of the shirt in white was a cartoon depiction of a man on his knees holding out a credit card to a standing woman. The caption below it read International Symbol for Marriage.

“Nothing wrong with what I’m wearing.” He afforded Miranda’s attire the once over. “Better than looking like a funeral director.”

Instead of the anger Jake expected to see, Miranda Eastwood’s expression remained impassive. In her eyes though, he could swear he detected a flicker of something that might resemble amusement in better lighting. “You’re going to be trouble,” she told him.

“That’s what all the girls say.”

A door behind them opened and Libby Allison stepped out. She wore her hair in a ponytail again, but today it stuck out from the right side of her head. Was that still called a ponytail or did it have a whole other name? Her dress was green and white and fit her like a glove in all the right places, flaring out a little around her knees.

Oh, man. Not that Jake didn’t like a slim-fit pair of jeans on a woman, but the way Libby poured herself into a dress about knocked his socks off. Too bad she hated him. Pursuing her might have been worth the romantic challenge.

“Jake, sorry to keep you waiting.”

She crossed the waiting room to stand in front of him. Jake felt himself shooting out of his chair, years of lecturing from his mother on the importance of gentlemanly conduct overriding his unfortunate inability to make a good first impression. “No problem.”

Libby’s blue irises had flecks of gold in them. It was an unusual enough color combination that Jake found himself staring into the silky-soft depths. She held his gaze, her pupils dilating almost imperceptibly. Whatever she’d done with her make-up made her lashes seem particularly exotic and lustrous.

Lustrous? Geez, Jake, you sound like a cosmetics commercial.

Miranda cleared her throat, making Libby start. She straightened her spine. “Shall we go? We can take my car. I can write off the parking costs.”

Before he could verbalize an agreement, Libby was striding out of the office, expecting him to follow. Jake watched her exit, his gaze lingering on the sway of her hips, the unexpected lushness of her behind in the fitted dress. He followed, if for no better reason than to keep her in his line of sight.

It was one of life’s cruel jokes that a woman with an ass like that could be a royal pain in his.

They descended the stairs in silence, coming out in a small underground parking garage. Jake recognized Libby’s older-style convertible from yesterday—a model that was more looks than substance. People usually bought cars that reflected something about their personality, didn’t they? That’s her, Jake. A lot of pretty upholstery but nothing interesting under the hood, so stop wondering what it would be like to take her for a test drive.

As Libby turned the car into the flow of traffic with a screech of tires, Jake asked, “So how did you and Morticia end up in business together?”

Libby flicked him a frowning glance. “Miranda is a really wonderful person once you get to know her.”

“I’ll take your word for it.” Wonderful person was not a phrase that leapt swiftly to mind when Jake pictured the intimidating woman he’d just met. “You and she don’t seem like two people who’d gel.”

“Because she reminds you of Morticia Adams and I’m more like…who?”

“That chick from the movie where she takes her Chihuahua to law school in a Prada handbag.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Jake wasn’t entirely sure he’d meant it as one, but Libby did have a particular kind of vivacious sexiness that wouldn’t be out of place in front of a camera. The way she dressed with her own brave sense of style, the effervescent aura that surrounded her—she was like a tropical bird whose purpose in life was to garner the attention and admiration of lesser species.

Too much trouble, Jake reminded himself, trying to resist the temptation to check out her legs now that her skirt had ridden farther up her thighs. Damn. Not so easy to disobey that particular urge. Thank God for dark sunglasses.

“Miranda and I met at university when we answered the same ad for accommodation in a share house with three guys. We bonded over our mutual annoyance that the toilet seat was perpetually in the upright position.”

Jake groaned. “Women have such a thing about that. Why don’t you just put it down again?”

“Why don’t you?”

He really didn’t know, so he steered the conversation away from that potential minefield. “How did you end up hanging out a shingle together?”

“We kept in touch after we graduated. I told you, Miranda is a good person once you get to know her. It’s just that men tend to be a little intimidated by her confidence.”

“Yeah,” Jake muttered. “That’s what it is.”

“Anyway, about a year and a half ago, we both unexpectedly found ourselves out of a job—the economic downturn and all that. We were commiserating over ice cream and tequila shots when the idea for Image Solutions was born. I didn’t think it would come to anything, but while I was sleeping the day away, regretting my decision to combine boysenberry ripple with Cuervo, Miranda was drafting a business plan.” Libby smiled, the expression full of pride. “She’s unstoppable.”

“Kind of like a cyborg.”

And she’s my friend.”

There was a distinct note of warning in Libby’s voice, and the message couldn’t be clearer—lay off Miranda. Jake accepted the censure as his due and made a zipping motion across his mouth, turning his fingers to indicate his lips were locked on the subject from now on. Libby rolled her eyes before returning her attention to the road—just in time to slam on the brakes to prevent rear-ending a late model SAAB.

Jake looked at her but she didn’t seem the least perturbed by the near incident. “Are we in any particular hurry?”

“No. You’re my only appointment for the day.” She seemed obscenely gleeful at the prospect of having him at her mercy for what could end up being all day. “Why?”

The traffic light changed to green and Libby accelerated with a roar, immediately changing lanes to go around the SAAB. She began tailgating some other unsuspecting motorist in a Peugeot.

If Jake had been Catholic, he might have crossed himself. Instead, he leaned back in the passenger seat and concentrated on the view of the Brisbane River passing by. All the better to avoid noticing the wealth of potential hazards on the road ahead of them.

“No reason,” he replied, sensibly refraining from taking aim at her dubious automobile handling skills. She was an erratic driver in a good mood. He didn’t want to know what she was like in a bad one.

* * * *

Four hours later, Libby’s enthusiasm for this project was flagging. She wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Jake McCallum was turning her off shopping.

“Just try it,” she urged for the umpteenth time that morning. She was afraid her jaw was going to set in a painful lock from the effort of clenching her teeth. “What could it hurt to put it on?”

Jake eyed the shirt as though he found it personally offensive. “It’s purple.”

“It’s lavender.” Honestly, the man must be color blind if he couldn’t tell the difference between purple and lavender.

“I don’t wear girly colors.”

“Just because you haven’t worn something before, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. I think it would look great with the charcoal suit. Not at all girly.” Libby held the shirt up against Jake’s chest, picturing the garment on. Girly—ha! Like Jake McCallum could be mistaken for anything other than one hundred percent testosterone-fueled, aggravating male.

“Is that right?” There was a different quality to Jake’s voice that made Libby glance up. Holding the shirt up to his chest had brought her too close to him. She could feel the heat of his body on her knuckles where they rested against his shoulder. There was firm muscle beneath that material. There was also a wealth of knowledge in the green depths of Jake’s eyes, as though he’d read in her face the awareness that suddenly gripped her body.

Libby took a purposeful step backward. It wasn’t the first time today a spark had arced between her and Jake. It had been happening at odd times since that moment in the office when she’d found herself unable to break eye contact with him. His eyes weren’t merely green, they were pure green, undiluted by any other color. Green like a rainforest or lush moss. And when he smiled, they glimmered and crinkled at the corners in a way that made a girl’s heart take notice.

Miranda had often accused Libby of being a magnet for losers—or fixer-uppers, as she referred to them. Men who required a little refurbishment before they became acceptable relationship material, men who were sexy and charming but who hadn’t quite grown up yet. Men who appealed to her innate need to nurture and care for things.

Men like Jake McCallum.

Perhaps she ought to get a cat. It might cure her of her penchant for picking up strays of the human male variety.

“Just try it on.” Her roiling thoughts made her voice flinty, but she was beyond caring. Cajoling and flattery had gotten her exactly nowhere with this man, which left her with few options besides outright bullying.

“All right, I’ll do it,” Jake groused. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch.”

“My panties are perfectly unbunched, thank you very much. Not that you’ll ever find out the condition of my underwear.”

“Testy, testy.”

The half smirk on his face told Libby he was intentionally provoking her and taking some satisfaction from watching her unravel. Libby narrowed her eyes. “You are an awful, awful man.”

“Aw, come on. I’m actually a good person once you get to know me.”

With a wink, he took the shirt and suit into the changing room and pulled the curtain across. Libby willed herself to get her anger in check. It was past lunch time and her tummy was rumbling, shortening her temper. But she couldn’t call it a day with Jake until she made some progress in the outfit department. They’d been in and out of menswear stores all morning, and they hadn’t yet managed to agree on anything.

Libby waited outside the booth, staring into space and formulating a plan of attack for the rest of the day. She wasn’t looking at anything particular, just…staring…at the change cubicle. There was a gap where the modesty curtain didn’t reach all the way to the edge. It wasn’t wide, but it gaped enough so she could see the mirror inside the space. In that mirror she saw an arm—a bare arm, then a naked chest as Jake hauled his T-shirt over his head and dropped it to the floor.

Oh. My.

She’d thought there was firm muscle beneath those clothes, but she hadn’t been prepared for a full frontal view of Jake’s chest. Nice, well-developed pectorals lightly dusted with soft-looking brown hair. Strong, muscular biceps. A trail of dark brown hair ran from his lower sternum to his navel, getting darker and thicker as it disappeared into the waistband of the trousers he’d already put on, the snap left undone so she could see the top of his grey underwear.

She was not going to look any farther down. She was not.

Well, okay. Maybe a peek.

He seemed to be built well there too, not that you could tell much through a pair of pants. Besides, size had never been a priority to Libby. Most of the guys she’d dated…

Her thoughts trailed off as the sensation of being watched began to raise hairs on her nape. Oh, no. Please, no. But when Libby reluctantly lifted her gaze, it connected in the mirror with Jake’s amused, all too knowing one.

She was sprung. She’d been checking out what he was packing below his waist and he knew it—and she knew he knew it. Libby couldn’t have been more embarrassed if he’d seen her half naked.

With a start, she whirled away, the action too hasty to project the casual dismissal she wanted it to. Her shoulder bag swung wide, connected with a rack of silk evening shirts and knocked several of them off. The designer garments sprawled out on the marble floor. Hastily, Libby dropped to her haunches and began to gather them up. This was not the kind of store where one could be cavalier with the products.

She sensed the saleswoman’s disapproving glance. “It’s okay. I’ve got them,” Libby assured her. Standing quickly, she started placing the shirts back on the rack. It was amazing how difficult it was to wrangle a coat hanger when you were flustered. It took her several tries to line up all the shirts the way they had been before.

If it wasn’t bad enough she’d been caught ogling the most annoying man in the known universe, she didn’t possess the sangfroid to be cool about it.

“You’re not exactly the most balanced individual, are you?”

Libby forced herself to meet Jake’s eyes even while she knew her face must be as red as a traffic light. “Everyone stumbles occasionally.”

“Uh-huh.” He didn’t sound like he believed a word of it. “So what do you think?”

Libby gaped. “What do I think of your…” She waved an arm helplessly and then abruptly stopped when she realized she was waving it in the general vicinity of his crotch.

Jake smiled, clearly amused by her discomfiture. “I meant what do you think of the suit?”

Yes, right. The suit she’d spent fifteen minutes convincing him to try on. She steeled herself to appear nothing but professional, even critical, as she ran her gaze over his appearance.

Wow. He’d been trying on clothes all morning and Libby had managed to remain relatively calm. But on the back of seeing him in the flesh, the last thing she was prepared for was how divine he looked in a suit.

“It’s, um…perfect.” At least he was perfect in it, even given the shaggy hairstyle and the sardonic lift of his brow. The jacket emphasized the breadth of his shoulders and tapered in to show off his narrow waist. The silk shirt was a classy touch, and not at all effeminate—at least not with Jake and all those toned muscles inside it. And the trousers… Well, they housed the rest of his assets.

At last, she mustered a coherent sentence. “It looks very good on you. I insist we get it.”

“Okay.”

His easy agreement was astonishing after a morning of dogged dissent. “Really?”

“Sure. You’re the expert.”

“To be clear, I’m talking about the shirt too.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll even get the shirt. It’s not like I’ll be wearing it around the guys anyway.”

No doubt there’d be plenty of girls he could show it off to instead. Libby was surprised at the ridiculous surge of jealousy. He could bed entire cheerleading squads—based on evidence he probably had—and it would be no concern of hers.

“Well, all right then. Why don’t you take it off and I’ll have the sales clerk box it up.”

“What—here?” Jake glanced at the saleswoman, who was momentarily distracted by another customer. “Are you sure? I wouldn’t want you to knock over anything else.”

“Oh, ha ha.”

Jake shucked the suit jacket and handed it to her, then proceeded to go to work on his shirt buttons. “I know you’re interested in the goods, chickadee, but can’t you wait until we go somewhere more private?”

“Shut up, Jake.”

“Somewhere like this?”

Suddenly, he grasped her wrist and tugged forward. Her body careened into his while he backed them both into the changing booth. His shoulders connected with the wall and Libby came flush up against his chest, her breath escaping with a shocked whoosh.

She was too stunned to move at first. Then Jake’s arms were around her and she couldn’t escape—she wasn’t sure if she wanted too. All that hard flesh and those strong arms holding her close… It wasn’t exactly unpleasant.

“Jake,” Libby whispered, dismayed to hear the catch in her voice. “What are you doing?”

“Checking under the hood,” he murmured, his eyes on her lips.

Before Libby could marshal any outrage, his face descended and his warm mouth captured hers. She let out a surprised whimper at the surge of pleasure that rose within. His lips were so soft, his approach so gentle. She hadn’t expected that. She would have pegged him for a forceful kisser, a man who took with a sense of entitlement and a fair amount of carelessness. But he cupped her cheek softly and brushed his mouth against hers, teasing them both until it was Libby in the end who clutched him tighter and demanded more.

With a groan, he gave in, taking the kiss deeper, making it fuller. His hand flexed on her back, drawing her closer to him as they explored each other’s tastes—coffee and cinnamon, man and woman. It all blended in one delicious concoction that was enough to curl Libby’s toes inside her wedge sandals.

It took far too long for Libby to come to her senses—time that Jake spent running his hands all over her back and kissing her as though she’d invited him to. Checking under the hood. His insulting comment came floating back, giving her the wherewithal to pull out of the kiss with a loud smacking of lips.

She glared at him, trying for disdain but fearing the panted breaths she emitted might lessen the impact. “So, are all my parts in working order?”

“I don’t know yet.” His small smile was lopsided and his voice was huskier than usual. The smoky sheen of desire in his eyes made Libby’s breath catch. “But it looks promising.”

He began to lower his head again and Libby felt herself weaken. Perhaps one more little taste—surely she was allowed that. She was a modern, independent woman, free to kiss any man she chose. It was only a kiss. Intoxicating, thrilling and surprisingly delicious, but still only a kiss. Maybe it wouldn’t do any harm.

His lips touched hers again, but this time, he wasn’t so placid. He urged her mouth open and swept his tongue inside to explore, a bold entry that shot heat to Libby’s erogenous zones. He cupped her butt and drew her against him. Something hard nudged her stomach, and Libby gasped into Jake’s mouth when she realized what it was. He was turned on. The knowledge of it turned her on—more—until there they both were, turned on and making out in a dressing room, like a couple of teenagers who couldn’t wait until they got somewhere more private.

The sound of someone clearing their throat put a stop to things. Libby wrenched her mouth out from under Jake’s and turned to see the sales woman glaring daggers at the both of them, the dressing room curtain clutched in her taut grip.

The woman raised one scornful eyebrow. One little facial twitch that had shame flushing through Libby. Oh, good grief, what am I doing? Kissing Jake McCallum. Kissing him. She didn’t even like him or anything he had to say.

Not that he’d said much while his mouth was otherwise occupied. Perhaps that’s what was so terrific about the kiss. It had stopped him from saying something offensive for five minutes.

Libby pushed against Jake’s chest, trying to ignore how good those muscles felt beneath her hands as she stepped away from him. His shirt buttons were undone, revealing all that male hotness she’d been pressing herself against. Dear God, look at him. It’s no wonder you responded, Libby. Perfectly understandable.

Understandable, maybe. Acceptable? Definitely not. Libby could kick herself, especially when she caught a glimpse of Jake’s expression. Cocky didn’t begin to cover it. He’d kissed her and she’d loved it, a reaction he hadn’t missed. If he’d been annoying before, now he was bound to be unbearable.

She was going to have to put him back in his place. Firmly. Or he’d probably insist she take him for a test drive in bed.

A shiver coursed through her. Libby ran her gaze involuntarily over Jake’s body again before forcing her eyes to meet those of the sales woman. She knew her face was flaming, but she smiled as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Explanations seemed redundant, anyway.

Libby lifted the jacket she still held, crushed now from being sandwiched between her body and Jake’s. “We’ll take this one please.”

Chapter 3

Anger And Sex

Men think women are hot when they’re angry. On an innate level, that’s probably why we enjoy needling you so much. Don’t let us get away with it. Give as good as you get. A really healthy argument can be the best kind of foreplay.

In retrospect, Jake had to admit kissing Libby was a bad idea. Not that he’d thought it through at all before he’d done it. But there she’d been in her slinky green and white dress, the annoyance furrowing her brow making her look so damn cute, and he’d lost his head for a second.

Libby ran up a tidy sum at the counter buying an assortment of ties and a couple of extra shirts to go with the suit—apparently Peony was footing the bill for all purchases by reimbursing Image Solutions. Then, with the saleswoman’s disapproving stare burning into their backs, they exited the store. Libby left like the place was on fire. From her staccato strides, Jake figured she’d recovered from her momentary descent into hedonism and was now berating the crap out of herself for how she’d responded to his kiss.

Like a woman full of fire and a sense of adventure. Damn. He was still semi-hard thinking about it. Libby Allison was a firecracker underneath that cute, slightly uptight exterior. What a massive turn on that was.

Jake followed Libby, catching up to her short strides with relative ease. “For the record, I don’t think whatever happened in there was entirely one-sided.”

“You mean when you yanked me into the dressing room, pulled me against you and kissed me?” She flashed him a look from narrowed eyes. “You think I wanted you to do that?”

Apparently, she was already over berating herself and had moved on to blaming him. Jake’s hackles stood to attention. “You did check me out while I was undressing. How do you expect a red-blooded man to respond to that?”

“I did not check you out. It was an involuntary eye spasm or something. Bare flesh draws the gaze no matter what, like an accident on the motorway. You know it won’t be pretty, but you can’t help but look.”

Ouch. The boost his ego had received from her enthusiastic response to his kiss deflated like a popped balloon. “You ought to know about that. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d caused a few road accidents yourself.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, you’re a sucky driver.”

Pursing her lips, she faced forward again. Jake felt lower than the low for snapping out his completely-unrelated-to-the-subject-at-hand opinion like that, but she had likened sighting his bare chest to stumbling upon a traffic accident. It kind of pissed him off.

“I don’t really care what you think of my driving. I just want this day to be over and I don’t—” she stopped walking and pointed a finger at his chest, “—I repeat, I do not want you to kiss me like that again.”

“Yeah? So how is it you like to be kissed, chickadee?” Jake knew he was taunting her, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. The flash of fury in her blue-gold eyes and the rapid rise and fall of her chest aroused him. The press of her index finger into his left pectoral, right over his heart, was almost as hot as a cigarette burn. Jesus, what was happening? She was royally ticked off and he still couldn’t get his blood to cool. “You only kiss after a decent meal and a ride home? You prefer a guy who waits to be invited? If so, you’ve got the wrong bloke.”

“That’s obvious. Have you ever heard of politeness? Gentility?”

“I’ve heard of them. I just don’t think women really want their men polite.”

“Oh my goodness. You are such a pig.” Libby threw back her head and half laughed, half groaned. The pose drew Jake’s attention to the pale flesh of her throat, and farther down to the enticing shadow of her cleavage.

Maybe she was right. Perhaps he was a pig.

Since she thought he was swine anyway, Jake figured he might as well go the whole hog, so to speak. He took a step forward, into her personal space, and lifted a finger to trace a line along her jawbone. Her skin was soft, and the delicate drift of her floral-scented perfume teased his nostrils. “Face it, honey. You liked that I didn’t ask. You liked that I took what I wanted instead of pussy-footing around.”

The crimson stain in her cheeks told Jake he was on the money, even though Libby would probably die before admitting it. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

Swallowing, she took a step back, away from him, and bumped into a rack of children’s clothes on display in front of the nearest shop. She scowled when Jake couldn’t hide his amusement. “Just don’t do it again.”

Jake held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Whatever you want. I won’t kiss you in any more dressing rooms. I swear.”

With a growl of frustration, Libby swung on her heel and headed off through the mall once more, all business again. “You’ll need something casual to wear as well.” Her words came out like bullets from a gun, as fast and precise as her footsteps. “Something for radio.”

“I need to dress for radio—are you kidding?”

Libby shot him a narrow-eyed glare. “The hosts will see you. Maybe take pictures and load them on the station’s Facebook page. It’s all good cross promotion.”

“Let me guess, your degree is in marketing.”

“Do I sense disapproval in your tone?”

“Nope. Merely making an observation.”

“Yeah, right.”

Jake thought about telling her the truth of his own background. That he’d earned a degree in strategic management and had worked as a consultant for a major firm for most of his early twenties, right up until he quit two and a half years ago at the age of twenty-seven. He knew about business and on some level did understand all the stuff she’d been reciting about image and cross promotion. He understood it, but he didn’t like it—not when applied to him. This was his life they were dealing with, not an ad campaign. He didn’t want all the hoopla surrounding the book to get out of control.

He pulled back on offering the explanations. For one thing, he didn’t owe her any. For another, it might lead him to talk about what made him quit the high life the way he did, and he hardly wanted to talk with Libby about his dad’s illness and his fiancé’s disloyalty.

Lastly, there was a remote chance his degree and business experience might impress Libby. He didn’t want to impress her that way. With his lips and hands, however…he wouldn’t mind making his impression on her with those. From that kiss in the change room, Jake figured they were off to a good start.

If only she didn’t hate him quite so much.

“Listen, Libby,” he began, injecting a conciliatory tone into his voice. “I probably owe you an apology.”

She arched a perfectly plucked brow at him. “Probably?”

“All right, I do. Kissing you the way I did was out of line.”

Her strides slowed and she half turned to face him. Her expression was cautiously suspicious, her words careful. “Okay. Apology accepted.”

“I should have waited until we’d finished shopping. I know this is technically your workplace, so that’s my bad.”

Her jaw actually dropped, a half laugh spilling from her throat. “You are incredible.”

“Aw, thanks, hon.” He winked. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

“I didn’t mean it as a compliment. Jeez.”

Jake stifled a chuckle. Man, she really was cute when she was steamed. “So what’s next? Casual clothes, right? I promise I’ll let you dress me, chickadee.”

And undress me if you like. Any time you want.

As though she read the unspoken words in his eyes, Libby’s cheeks flushed. She seemed to be holding her breath when she pointed to a nearby shopfront and spoke in slow, enunciated tones. “I’m going in there to see somebody. Wait here. Do not follow me. Do not ditch me. Just wait. Can you do that?”

Jake shrugged. “Sure. I’m easygoing.”

With another one of those half chuckles and a shake of her head, Libby turned and walked into what looked like some kind of salon. Making an appointment for a pedicure or something most likely. Libby looked like the type who enjoyed pedicures. Jake had noticed the purple polish on her toes. It made him wonder what it would be like to kiss each one of those toes. Was she ticklish?

Christ. He was fantasizing about her feet now. Weird, McCallum. Very weird.

* * * *

Libby exited Infinity Design after giving Armarnd Derulio, one of Brisbane’s top hair design experts, a head’s up about what he was going to face tomorrow when she bought Jake in for his appointment. She looked around, not immediately spotting Jake. Had he ditched her after all? She wouldn’t put it past him. He was the most aggravating, confounding man she’d ever met.

Who happened to also be a hell of a kisser.

She shook the thought off because it made her lips tingle with remembered heat and her brain feel like it was going to explode with frustration. Yes, she had responded to that kiss. It had been unexpected. She hadn’t had time to erect any defenses against his skilled lips and devilish tongue. Responding had been pure instinct. She could be forgiven for that, surely?

Maybe not. Maybe Jake’s intolerable arrogance about the whole thing was her punishment for giving in to purely physical delight. You’re not so bad yourself. Pfft.

At last, Libby saw Jake. He was waving at her from a table at a nearby coffee outlet, his grin both boyish and manly, a difficult combination to pull off. Pushing out a sigh, Libby headed over there, thinking that despite those wide shoulders, hard muscles and the shadow of stubble on his jaw, Jake McCallum was at least ninety-eight-percent boy. And the part that was man wasn’t one she was going to get acquainted with. It simply wouldn’t be smart.

He stood when she approached and the show of manners threw her. “I’m starved and I figured you might be too, so I ordered some sandwiches.”

Libby narrowed her eyes, trying to figure out what his agenda was. “You ordered for me?”

“You seem to be in a hurry, so I didn’t think you’d want to waste time. Toasted cheese is okay I hope?”

Ordinarily, Libby stuck with salads for lunch, but the very mention of a hot toasted sandwich oozing with melted cheese made her stomach roar in anticipation. “You should have let me pay.” Libby took the seat opposite Jake. “It’s a business expense for me.”

Jake rolled his eyes as he once again sat. “It’s a gesture, Libby. I was trying to do something nice. You’d better take it before my mood changes.”

“You were trying to be nice to me?”

“I am capable of that, you know. I’m not a complete Neanderthal.” He drew his brows down over his eyes in a pretty good imitation of early man. “Me big jerk. Me hunt food for you to seek forgiveness.”

Libby couldn’t help it. She laughed. Immediately, she sobered, determined not to let her defenses down so readily. That seemed very, very dangerous around Jake. “Well, I am hungry. It was a nice thought.”

“Careful. You almost relaxed there for a minute.”

He smiled and Libby had to fight not to respond in kind. He was attractive when he was being a grouchy pain in the ass. When he was grinning and being uncharacteristically self-deprecating, he was mesmerizing. Libby made a mental note not to stare at him too long.

“Honestly, though,” Jake went on. “I’ve been acting like a prick all morning, when all you’ve been trying to do is your job. I’m sorry, chickadee. It’s not you—it’s me.”

Libby laughed again. “Is that the title of the sequel?”

“Sequel?” He blinked. “There’s no sequel. I’m not a writer.”

“Well, there’s the small matter of you having written a book. That doesn’t make you a writer?”

“Nope. That was a weird accident.”

Libby raised her brows. “You accidently fell onto a computer keyboard, and a word document just happened to be open?”

“Hey look, she’s a smartass,” Jake remarked with a grin. “I like it.”

Someone at the counter called out Jake’s name and he hopped up to fetch their order, leaving Libby to wrestle with the odd rush of pleasure Jake’s joking admiration had engendered. He’d called her a smartass and her girly zones were pulsing in response. That was plain ridiculous.

Jake returned and set a plastic cup full of orange slush and her cheese sandwich in front of her. “I got you one of these mango frappe things too. I thought it seemed like your style.”

Libby was caught between being annoyed by his presumptuousness and being overjoyed at the sight of the fruity drink. She took a sip from the straw and sighed in pleasure. She loved these things, but sort of hated that Jake thought she was so predictable. In the end, manners won out. “Thank you. It’s delicious.”

He grinned, looking overtly pleased with himself. “Glad I finally did something right.”

He waited while she took a bite of her sandwich before tucking into his, and once again his civility surprised her. Maybe she’d hit a nerve with her accusation that he possessed no gentility. Between mouthfuls, Libby mused, “You realize this is what you should be like, don’t you?”

“How do you mean?”

“On your media tour. You need to show people this man, the man who can be courteous, modest and charming when he sets his mind to it.”

One dark brow lifted over a twinkling green eye. “Charming?”

He would focus on that. “I mean it. Women will buy your book if they see you as a reasonable, intelligent individual who cares about other people.”

They’d probably come to his book signings in droves, wearing low-cut tops and throwing him their phone number. Jake McCallum was good looking, funny, available and a damn good kisser. Once the spotlight swung around to focus on him, he wouldn’t stay available for long. The thought brought with it a little niggle of disappointment that Libby absolutely refused to acknowledge.

“I suppose.” Jake shrugged. “Could we talk about something else for a while?”

“Why the reluctance to talk about your book—this happy accident, as you call it?”

“I never said happy,” he groused. “I think the whole thing is stupid.”

Libby nibbled on another bite of her toasted sandwich. “How so? You wrote a book. Isn’t that kind of a big deal?”

Jake pushed out a sigh and leaned back in his chair. He hooked his hands behind his head, the pose stretching the cotton of his T-shirt across his chest. Libby took another quick gulp of her mango frappe. It was difficult to concentrate on how offensive the shirt’s invective on marriage was when it was plastered to his muscles like that.

At length, Jake explained. “When I started dating again—”

“Again?”

He looked none too pleased that she’d picked up on that. “I took a break.”

Libby sensed he was hedging with his response but didn’t press him for a more in-depth explanation. If he didn’t want to talk about it, she couldn’t make him. She wasn’t interested in Jake’s past love life anyway. “Go on.”

“When I got back into the dating scene, it seemed like every date I went on was a disaster from start to finish. I used to write my sister these emails about it—she was living up in Bundaberg at the time—and she encouraged me to start a blog. I guess she thought I was entertaining. She said I could be anonymous—I was JT Bachelor, in case you were wondering. Angela said I might even make a little money through advertising. So I did it for something to do, really. It was fun and people seemed to like it. I got a lot of comments and hits, the advertising revenue went up and up. It just sorta happened.”

“And you sent a publishing proposal to Peony?”

“They came to me actually. Got wind of the blog somehow and saw something in it, I guess.”

So his blog must have been really popular. Given the size of his ego—which had been in fine form a short while ago after that impudent kiss—Libby wondered why he was being so modest about his writing achievements. “Do you still have the blog?”

“Nah. As part of the deal, Peony took it over. One of their internet gurus uses it to promote the book.”

Libby made a mental note to check it out later, then she wondered why she should. You’re not interested in Jake, remember? Just making polite conversation here. “So that’s great, isn’t it? You’re a success.”

His brows hunkered down over his green eyes. “I already was a success. I’m a good mechanic, heir to the family business. I do all right.”

“I never said there was anything wrong with being a mechanic.”

His eyes narrowed. “Right.”

Libby suppressed a sigh of impatience. She hadn’t tried to disparage his job, merely point out that he’d achieved something as a writer. “Do you know what my mother does for a living? She’s a faith healer. She reads auras and heals back pain with crystals. I lived in hemp overalls until I was twelve years old. I only ever owned one pair of shoes at a time, and they usually had holes in them. If you think I’m a snob, you’re no judge of character and have no business judging women for the way they behave.”

After her little tirade, Libby took a vicious bite of her lunch and masticated it to death. She sensed Jake’s focus upon her and forced herself to meet his gaze. There was that expression again, the one that almost reminded her of approval. She really wished he’d stop staring at her like that. Libby hated the way she liked it so much.

“Okay. I’m sorry I thought you were a snob.” He leaned forward and picked up the second half of his sandwich. “So how about brothers and sisters—you have any?”

“It was only me and my mum.” Libby surprised herself by adding the next detail, the one she rarely revealed. “My dad left around the time I got difficult.”

“When was that?”

“About two and a half years of age. Apparently, I was quite willful and prone to temper.”

“You? Nah.”

His slow grin took the edge off the mockery. Those recalcitrant tingles chased themselves all through her body again. The man’s smile ought to be registered as a lethal weapon. “I won’t apologize for pushing you around. I’m only doing my job.”

“I know. And I’m going to let you do it from now on, I swear.” Jake crossed a finger over his heart to make his point. “I mean, all the better to get it over with, right?”

“Right.” Libby took the last bite of her sandwich and had to force herself to swallow over the sudden tightness in her throat. Of course he wanted to get this over with. He didn’t enjoy spending time with her any more than she liked having her morning wasted arguing with him. The sooner this job was finished, the sooner she would see the back of Jake McCallum and his chauvinistic attitude.

She pushed her plate aside, now regretting all that cheese. “Let’s keep moving. We’ll hit a few more places and call it a day.”

“Sounds good.”

They stood and stacked their plates and empty glasses. As they left the cafe, another couple made a beeline for their vacated table. Jake placed a hand on the small of Libby’s back in order to steer her around them. The closeness meant the warmth of his body reached out and curled around her like a sultry fog. It cocooned her against him and completely muddled her brain.

While they stood close, Jake leaned down to murmur in her ear, “For the record, no father worth anything leaves because his kid is spirited. He leaves because he’s weak and an asshole. That’s not your fault, Lib.”

Libby’s breath backed up in her throat. Jake didn’t move away from her even though the other couple had passed and there was no need for him to stand so close anymore. To her horror, his words and the insight they revealed made the backs of her eyes sting. She didn’t look up at him, afraid he might see her emotions too well. Instead, she cleared her throat. “I know that.”

He circled his hand on her back, the gesture one of comfort, not sexual titillation. The fact that Libby somehow managed to glean both from that brief touch confused the heck out of her.

“Good,” Jake said before at last stepping away. He gestured with his arm that she should precede him. There was that graciousness again, accompanied by that boyish, rascally grin. Another confounding combination. “Lead the way, chickadee.”

~

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