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"I NEED A REAL MAN," Isabel Santos decided. She shot a bleary look across the table at her best friend, then squinted to take in the rest of the cozy Italian restaurant. Although she andAudra were still seated, there were a few couples on the dance floor, swaying to the soft rock music.
At half past eleven in the evening, the only men left were a pair of waiters who were obviously into each other, a teenaged busboy and the cook. Considering the pasta had been overdone, Isabel crossed him off her potential list.
"I have to admit, a man would have been a more imaginative birthday gift than the nightie I gave you," her friend mused, snagging Isabel's attention back from her useless hunk-search. "But I wasn't sure what size you were in the market for."
Isabel snickered. "It's not the size that matters, it's the quality," she insisted, careful to enunciate her words through the fog of wine curling through her head. She really should have quit at one glass, but she'd been so bummed over being dumped, turning another year older and discovering she was as desirable as a dried-up prune, she'd ordered a second. Then a third. "I need a real man. A hot, sexy man. The kind that makes a girl squirm, but doesn't require conversation and pampering. You know, a stud."
Audra Walker-Martinez, Isabel's oldest friend, was probably the only person in the world who she'd feel comfortable saying that to. Then again, Audra was an expert on hot, sexy men.
"I'm all for you taking on a hot guy, especially now that you've dumped that pansy boy you were dating. But maybe we should wait until you're"
"I didn't dump Lance. He dumped me." Isabel sneered, her voice rising as she warmed to thesubject.
"He was lousy in bed. But no matter how many times I tell myself it's no loss, I still feel like I got ripped off. I'm twenty-six, Audra. The years I should have spent exploring my sexuality, living out my wild fantasies, they've passed me by. I can't afford to wait any longer."
Cringing, her face going flame-red at the cook's disapproving stare and the grins of the waiters, Isabel stopped her rant to suck in a deep breath.
Audra lifted one brow and pursed her lips. "I had been about to suggest we wait till you were sober to make a man plan, but hey, we can start now."
Man plan? Isabel giggled at the absurd idea, then her laughter fell away. Well why not? Before taking on any new venture, the first thing she did was sit down and make a plan. Business plans, life plans, weight-loss plans. Damned if most of them hadn't all worked. So why wouldn't a man plan?
"I want the ultimate fantasy plan," she mused as she hauled her suede hobo bag up to the table and started digging through it. "Something with a limited time frame, you know? I mean, I have such a tight schedule trying to get the new store up and running, I can't have a bunch of distractions right now."
Isabel found her ever-present notepad, flipped to a clean page, and chose a penred for passion, of course.
"Okay, first step is to define the goal. Sex is a little too broad, don't ya think?" Isabel tapped the pen against her bottom lip. "Hot sex is better, but still not right. What d'ya think? Fling? Affair? Boy toy? Bootie call?"
She glanced up to see Audra grimace. "What?"
"Nothing," Audra denied. At Isabel's pointed look, she shrugged. "It's just well, this isn't you. I mean, the plan part, that's all you. Goal setting, control, you've got a firm handle on those. But to make a plan specifically targeted at snagging you some emotionless, string-free, temporary sex? That's the wine talking."
"Nope." Isabel shook her head so hard, her curls flew.
"I had a fling once. I can totally do it again."
"That fling was a failure, remember? The liar was married and didn't tell you. You were a mess for months afterward."
Isabel wrinkled her nose and tried to shrug like it hadn't mattered. She had been a mess. Not heartbroken, although she'd felt like she should be. But angry and betrayed. The worst of the anger had been aimed at herself, though. She'd given into the romance of being swept off her feet by a sexy guy. She'd been so enamored with all her romantic notions, she'd ignored the warning signs. Separated. And she'd found out from his wife, who thought they were trying to work things out.
The worst part? The jerk had never seen anything wrong with lying to her. To him, as long as he and his wife had different addresses, he was free to do whatever he wanted. It didn't matter that Isabel's idea of free was completely different.
But that had been two years ago, before she'd discovered the power of control. A weekend goal seminar had taught her all about it. Since control was already one of Isabel's favorite things, the seminar had been like finding heaven. All the tools she needed to shift from being a woman who doodled plans and wishes with minimal success to a take-charge business entrepreneur with a solid business plan and a firm handle on her life's direction.
So why not apply the same principles in order to get a rocking sex life?
All she had to do was make this man plan and stick to it. As long as she did that, life couldn't fall apart on her again. Now that she thought about it, that must've been the problem with her relationships in the past, especially with Lance. No plan, no goal. She'd just floated along, letting the guy set the tone for the relationship. Oh, sure, she'd hoped he'd be the one. But hoping wasn't planning. It just went to show, the one area of her life she'd left to fate was her love life, and fate kicked her in the ass.
Nope. Outlining her exact wants and needs, then setting specific goals worked pretty well for everything else. She just had to apply it here, to her love life. Or, she corrected with a naughty little smile, what she'd soon make her love life.
"I want hot sex," she insisted, now that she'd made up her mind. The busboy, clearing glasses from a neighboring table, shot them a startled look. Audra gave him a wink. He blushed and scurried away before Isabel could order another glass of wine.
Isabel rolled her eyes. Audra winked and made guys runto and away from her. Isabel still hadn't quite figured out how to get a guy's undivided attention or what she'd do with it once she had it.
As usual, watching Audra made her painfully aware whenever possible.
Not that she had self-esteem issues, really. She knew was pretty, if in a cutesy way with her shoulder-length, dark curls. Audra, on the other hand, wore her short and spiky, the midnight-black tipped in magenta.
Their outer personalities were just as different. Audra being all edgy and wild, where Isabel was known as a good girl.
Inside they were more alike that most people would believe. Not only in their insecurities, but in their drive to more for themselves than they'd had as kids living door to each other. Audra'd created a career for herself as a lingerie designer, and Isabel who had started florist career in her parents' shop was on the brink of kicking off the next phase of her career plan with an innovative new florist shop. Finally, something completely her own, a venture that would prove to she was a success.
And now she'd apply that planning savvy to the dismal emptiness that was her love life. Between excitement and the wine, it was all Isabel could do not to clap her hands together in excitement. This man plan was going to rock.
"C'mon, quit scaring little boys," she insisted. "Help me here. Consider it my birthday gift."
"I gave you a silk nightgown," Audra reminded her, as she slid the notebook and pen out of Isabel's hands.
"Yeah, but the rest of the gift can be a guy to wear the nightgown for. Your designs deserve an audience, right? Help me get one."
A small, sober voice in Isabel's head pointed out that she sounded desperate and needy. It wasn't like she was a troll with no prospects. But she knew she was the kind of gal who drew in nice guys. The ones who paid more attention to their stock portfolio and cholesterol levels than they did to mind-blowing physical satisfaction.
Take Lance, for instance. Oh, he was fine on the surface. Good-looking, smart and ambitious. But sex with him was like eating Chinese food. She'd been fulfilled in the moment, but a half hour later she'd felt unsatisfied and puzzled as to why.
"Okay, consider this my gift to you, part two," Audra agreed. She sketched a few words on the page. "Let's start with the basics. You want hot sex. What turns you on? What're your fantasies?"
"Rules first. Before I get to the sex, I need the guidelines firmly established," Isabel insisted.
Never one for rules, Audra just rolled her eyes. But she wrote the numbers one through three on the page anyhow.
"Too many rules just get in the way. This is it, all you get." She tapped the pen on the page, then raised a brow, as if to ask well?
"Okay, number oneI'm in control. I want to call the shots in this relationship instead of being the one following along like an enthusiastic puppy."
Audra nodded and wrote that down. "Number twoonce you're committed to the plan, you can't second-guess yourself," Audra declared. "It's all or nothing. I know you, if you start second-guessing, you'll back out before you even get started."
"Fine," Isabel agreed with a huff. She thought, then poked at the paper. "Number threeno silly ideas about falling in love. It's just sex. Wild, insanely passionate sex."
"That's a given," Audra argued. "Why waste a rule on that?"
"Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything," Isabel said, only half-lying, "but I think with the right guy, if the sex is so excellent and wonderful, it'd be easy to fool yourself into believing it's all romantic. Like love-at-first-kiss."
Audra rolled her eyes, but wrote it down anyway. "Okay, let's get to the fantasies."
"I said I wanted a hot, sexy man," Isabel reminded her meticulously.
"A hot sexy man isn't gonna do you any good if he's not pushing the right buttons. Any dork can be the hottest sex you've ever had if he's tapping into your fantasy."
Isabel considered, then dismissed that theory. She wanted a hot sexy man, not a talented dork. The fantasy angle had potential though.
"How do I make a fantasy list?"
"Think of the hottest guy you've ever seen. Real life, movie, whatever. What guy out there, just by thinking about him, gets you hot?"
She didn't even have to consider it. All she had to do was close her eyes and a face flashed into her mind. Unruly dark hair, vivid green eyes and a body to die for. The hottest, sexiest, guy she'd ever met.
"From the grin on your face, you've got someone in mind?"
"Oh, yeah. Remember Dante Luciano?"
"Nice," Audra said, her tone both appreciative and amused. "Dante was trouble, through and through. He was so bad, he made me look like a goody-goody."
Which was saying a lot, since back then Audra had one of the wildest reps to ever hit the local high school.
"His father's my contractor, you know?" Isabel said. When her parents had retired earlier that year, they'd sold the family florist shop and adjoining apartment. Then they'd given her the money to fund her new location. A darling Victorian located on the main street of Santa Vera. The small, tourist haven in Northern California was a few miles from her hometown of Auburn. Close enough to keep some of the existing customer base, far enough away to feel like she was finally striking out on her own.
"Didn't you have to talk to him or something at a party back when we were kids?" Audra frowned, obviously trying to remember.
Isabel just shrugged. She'd never discussed that that night with Audra. At first, because she'd been grounded for three months and hadn't been allowed to go out of the house or to make any phone calls. Later, because she hadn't wanted to hear how bad or how far out of her reach Dante was.
"It's a good thing you didn't hook up with Dante, then," Audra said with a laugh. "He and his dad had major issues. I remember a few times he ended up staying at our place after his old man kicked him out."
Twirling one long black curl around her finger, Isabel frowned. She'd never been jealous of Audra's reputation or lifestyle before. But she'd always been curious.
"Did you and Dante ever, you know " Audra gave her trademark wicked grin and winked. When Isabel frowned, she laughed and shook her head. "Nah, we never did more than flirt. Dante was a couple years ahead of us, remember. He was tight with my brother, Drew. By the time I was up to his standards, he'd left town."
Before Isabel could do more than wonder at the relief surging through her, Audra tapped the notepad with the pen. "Okay, keep your fantasy guy in mind and let your imagination soar. Let's come up a few hot fantasies for him to fulfill."
Isabel eyed her friend, then the notepad. She turned around and called out to the waiter, "Another glass of wine, please."