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The Bachelor's Dare
By Shirley Jump
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneClaire Richards ran her hand along the sleek exterior, the smooth metal gliding beneath her palm. If only men were this well-equipped. And this useful.
Her fingers slipped down the glossy surface, up and over the body ridges. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Now all she had to do was win the forty-five-foot-long beast. She'd worry about wrangling it down the highway later.
The shadow of the massive cream-and-burgundy Deluxe Motor Homes RV dwarfed Claire, even though she was five-foot-nine. The house on wheels had plenty of space for the bedroom, kitchen and living room, the sign advertised. Perfect, she repeated. A house and a getaway car all in one. She needed both - and the sooner the better. She'd made a promise and didn't have a lot of time left to keep it. Not nearly enough time.
But getting out of Mercy, Middle-of-Nowhere, Indiana, was about more than keeping a promise. No matter what, Claire was going to make the new start she needed. She'd given notice at the beauty shop, tucked most of her belongings into storage, and scraped up enough savings to fund her move. When Claire Richards leapt off a cliff, she did it without hesitation and without a safety net.
In the back of her mind, a tiny doubt whispered that changing her life was about more than physical distance. Claire quickly pushed the thought away.
The RV was her ticket to a new life in California and to the only family she had left. She gave the motor home a final pat, then crossed to the registration table.
"Is this where I sign up for a chance to win the RV?"
A cheerleader from Mercy High turned a clipboard toward Claire and handed her a pen. The girl had dark, bouncy hair and a thousand-watt smile that must have cost three dollars a watt at the orthodontist's. She wore a blueand-white uniform and white sneakers. Change her hair to blond and she could have been Claire at that age.
"There's, like, a million people signed up and only, like, the first twenty get on." The girl gestured toward a board of rules. The number 20 shouted back at Claire, bold and big. "The contest starts Sunday. Try to be, like, early, and bring all your stuff." The cheerleader dipped her head and started filing her nails.
For a fleeting second, Claire felt like grabbing the girl's hand and telling her not to forgo a college education, not to put her faith in some silly boy who would end up working in the steel mill because his father worked there and jobs were inherited along with the family cowlick. She wanted to tell Go-Team-Go Gidget to get out of Mercy while she still had a chance. Or she'd find herself at twenty-eight, still single, stuck in this town and desperate enough to sign up for the September "Survive and Drive" contest at the mall.
Hoping for the opportunity to win back the freedom and hope she'd had in abundance at eighteen.
That word jarred Claire back to reality. When had she gone from being a "miss" to a "ma'am"? Had there been some road sign she'd missed? You are now entering middle age. It's all downhill from here.
"Ma'am?" The girl said again. Her emery board stilled. "Did you, like, want to sign up?"
"Yes, yes." Claire scribbled her name on the sheet, then handed it to the girl. She circled the RV again, working on a strategy. There would be nearly two dozen people fighting for the vehicle. She'd better start humming the theme song to Rocky. She'd need to prepare for a long haul inside this house on wheels, competing with a bunch of strangers, or worse, people she actually knew.
"I wouldn't mind being stuck inside an RV with a beauty like you," said a deep voice Claire recognized.
Mark Dole, brother to Nate, Jack, Luke and Katie. A man Claire knew too well. The Doles had been neighbors of Claire's nearly all her life. Ever since they'd been kids, Mark and Claire had fought and played like brother and sister. One day, they'd be friends making sand castles and the next, they'd be slinging mud balls at one other. Two hot-tempered people who brought out the worst in each other.
Claire turned around. "Hi, Mark."
He had the same slightly wavy hair she remembered, dark brown with a hint of golden highlights, like some sun god. He was athletic, muscular but not bulky, and had been blessed with brilliant blue eyes that seemed to bore right through a girl. Mark Dole was the closest thing Mercy had to a Calvin Klein cover model. A man like him - gorgeous and full of pickup lines - should come with a warning label.
"Claire! I didn't know that was you. I thought -" She saw him cut off the sentence before he said something stupid such as he'd mistaken her for someone he stood a chance with.
That would never happen. Once, Claire's best friend Jenny, who was dating Nate Dole, had thought it would be fun to double with Claire and Mark. The results had been disastrous. The boy who'd dipped her ponytail in blue tempera paint in third grade hadn't become boyfriend material. They'd clashed on everything from the movie choice to the popcorn tub size. They'd ended up with their own buckets, sitting on the far flanks of Jenny and Nate.
"What are you doing here?" Claire asked.
"I'm signing up for the competition. I'm going to outlast all the other poor suckers and win this baby for myself." He gave the hull a self-assured pat.
He was the epitome of all the men she'd vowed to avoid. Men full of sweet lines and sexy words, but lacking considerably in substance and permanence. Men who wouldn't just break her heart - they'd feed the pieces to a shredder.
One of Claire's close friends, Leanne Hartford, had learned that firsthand after dating Mark for two months, falling half in love with him, and then being unceremoniously dumped just before the senior prom. Claire had never forgotten - nor forgiven - Mark's insensitive end to the relationship.
Claire forced herself not to gag. "Poor suckers?"
"Well, the other people who signed up. There's probably only a few anyway."
"Try closer to, like, a million." She did her best to mimic the cheerleader. "Only the first twenty get on." She pointed out the sign.
He blinked. "That many?"
"A contest like this is a major deal in Mercy. Plus, it's a chance at a free ride out of small-town life. You'd have to be nuts not to gamble on it." Claire had done more than take a chance, but she didn't tell Mark.
He considered that a moment, then looked at her. Those cobalt eyes had probably made a lot of women's hearts beat faster, but Claire was not impressed. Eyes were eyes, even if they were an almost electric color. "What about you?"
"My name's already on the list."
"Oh." He nodded, then flicked a thumb at the RV.
"So, you think you can outlast me?"
"I know I can."
"Want to bet?"
"Sure. Twenty bucks says I win this thing."
"Sounds fair." He grinned. "I bet you're out of there on the first day."
She let out a chuff of disbelief. "You won't last the first night. Remember, you'll be sharing a bathroom and a mirror."
He clutched his heart. "Oooh, that's low. You wound me, Claire."
Excerpted from The Bachelor's Dare by Shirley Jump Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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