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Megan Roarke hated shopping.
Her older sister often teased that there was something defective in Megan's double-X chromosome that she balked at going to the mall. Of course, Megan couldn't expect her to understand. Ashley was "the beautiful one"—the one who looked good in anything and drew glances of admiration wherever she went.
Megan, on the other hand, had always been referred to as "the smart one." She'd started to read when she was three years old and had spent most of the next twenty years with her nose in a book. She read everything she could get her hands on—from fantastical stories about magical lands to biographies of world leaders to technical manuals. Books were her bridges to so many different places, knowledge was the key that opened new worlds—and a whole lot of other clichés that hid the real truth: she'd been a painfully shy and socially inept child who found refuge from the harsh realities of life between the covers of a book.
And through her reading, she'd learned that the childhood labels attached to herself and her sister did both of them a disservice. While Ashley was undeniably beautiful, she was also a smart and savvy woman; and though Megan accepted that there would always be people who were intimidated by her high IQ, she knew her intelligence wasn't the sum total of her character.
Still, she didn't bother to try and dispel the stereotypical image people inevitably formed when they learned that she was a scientist, because she was a lab geek. She loved her work, and she would much rather spend time with formulas than people. Not that she disliked people, exactly. She just didn't understand them.Elemental properties were consistent and chemical reactions were predictable. Human beings, on the other hand, always seemed inconsistent and unpredictable.
Ashley claimed that was what made people so interesting, and she would know. Not only had Megan's sister enjoyed an active social life before she'd met the man who was now her fiancé, she taught first grade at a local school and absolutely thrived in the environment of incessant noise and unending chaos that was created by twenty six-year-olds in a classroom.
But it was the recent engagement that was the cause of Megan's dreaded trip to the Pinehurst Shopping Center. Apparently it wasn't enough that Trevor had put a ring on Ashley's finger, now they were having a party to celebrate the event.
"Nothing fancy," Ashley had assured her. "Just drinks and hors d'oeuvres with family and some close friends."
Of course, Megan knew her sister's definition of "nothing fancy" was drastically different from her own and that even drinks and hors d'oeuvres required something a little more formal than comfy faded jeans and her favorite "Go Green" T-shirt—especially since their mother had become involved in the planning.
The sky had turned dark by the time Megan pulled into a vacant parking space and the first drops of rain were starting to fall as she dashed across the lot.
The mall was busier than she would have expected for a Friday afternoon, and she found herself hesitating inside the entrance.
She'd always been a little uncomfortable in crowds, always feeling as if everyone was looking at her. It wasn't just an irrational feeling but a ridiculous one, because the reality was that no one ever noticed her. Megan didn't stand out in a crowd of one, but she still had to force herself to take a deep breath before she could step forward.
For a lot of years, she'd simply avoided crowds rather than fight against the panicky feelings they stirred inside. But over the past few years, she'd made an effort to overcome this fear, and had mostly done so. She rarely felt afraid anymore, just awkward and uncomfortable.
A strand of hair had come loose from her ponytail and she tucked it behind her ear as she studied the mall directory, looking for Chaundra's Boutique.
"I asked Anne-Marie to set aside the cutest little dress that I know will look fabulous on you," Ashley had told her.
Nothing had ever looked fabulous on Megan's shapeless frame, but she hadn't disputed her sister's statement. There was no changing Ashley's mind once it was made up and if she wanted her to buy this dress, Megan would buy the dress. It was certainly an easier solution than having to pick something out on her own.
She headed through the maze of halls toward the boutique. Thirteen minutes later—three of which were taken up with a phone call from Ashley, who wanted to make sure Megan hadn't forgotten to stop at the mall and then, when she realized her sister was in the boutique, convinced her to let Anne-Marie pick out some jewelry to go with the dress—she was on her way back out again. A relatively quick and painless shopping experience, Megan thought gratefully, as she retraced her steps toward the exit.
An opinion that quickly changed when she stood at the doors and stared out at the rain pounding down on the pavement. With a sigh, she folded the dress bag over her arm and pushed open the door. She was halfway to her car when she realized her keys weren't in her pocket—and totally drenched by the time she turned around again.
She tracked her keys down in Chaundra's Boutique, by the register where she'd set them down to answer her sister's call. She thanked the perpetually smiling Anne-Marie again and left the store, wondering how anyone could be so perky all the time, thanking her lucky stars that she worked in the lab where smiling was optional.
Then she turned the corner and walked into a brick wall.
Okay, so it only felt like a brick wall, Megan acknowledged. What it was, in reality, was a man's chest.
She berated herself for her clumsiness as she lifted her gaze and prepared to apologize. But the words stuck in her throat when she pushed her soggy bangs away from her face and recognized the man standing in front of her.
The younger son of the CEO of Richmond Pharmaceuticals. The man whose mere presence always made her pulse race and her knees quiver.
The first time she'd met him, on her first day of work at the R.P. lab, she'd nearly melted in a puddle at his feet just because he shook her hand. The man was seriously hot—and Megan had been seriously smitten. Not that she would ever admit it, of course. In fact, she went out of her way to avoid him whenever possible because she didn't want him to know that her heart beat a little bit faster whenever he was near. And she didn't want to acknowledge—even to herself—that she was shallow enough to be attracted to a hard body and sexy smile, especially considering her past experience with his type.
On the other hand, no one she'd ever known quite measured up to Gage Richmond. He had thick, light brown hair that curled just above the collar of his shirt, stunning golden brown eyes surrounded by unbelievably long lashes, a strong square jaw and a temptingly shaped mouth. And then there was his body—a long and lean six feet two inches of delicious and delectable male.
"Sorry about that," he said, holding out the keys that had slipped from her grasp when they'd collided.
"My fault," she managed to reply, looking away again and desperately hoping that he wouldn't recognize her.
"No, it was mine. I wasn't paying attention to where I was going." Then he destroyed her meager hope by saying, "It's Megan, right?"
She nodded, a little surprised that he'd remembered. Men like Gage Richmond didn't usually notice women like her, despite the fact that she'd worked for his father's company for almost three years.
"I guess it's really raining out there now," he said.
"I wouldn't know," she said. "I generally just drench myself before coming out in public because I like the wet look."
Ashley had often said her tendency to hide her fears and insecurities behind sarcasm was going to get her in trouble someday and, even as the words spilled out of Megan's mouth, she wished she could yank them back.
But Gage only grinned. "I'd say it's a good look for you except that you're shivering."
"The price women pay to be fashionable."
"How about a cup of coffee to warm you up?"
Gage Richmond was asking her to have coffee with him? Megan couldn't believe it.
"Or don't you drink coffee?" he prompted.
"No," she said. "I mean, yes. I do drink coffee. But I'm not drinking coffee now. I mean, I don't want any coffee. I want to go home."
Megan could hear the words tumbling out of her mouth, but didn't seem able to stop them. If they'd been in California, she could hope that the ground would open up and swallow her whole. But in Pine-hurst, New York, earthquakes were extremely rare, so she was forced to live with the humiliating knowledge that she'd made a complete fool of herself in front of her boss's son.
But Gage either didn't notice or didn't care that she was rambling almost incoherently, because he asked, "Is there anything I can say that would talk you into hanging around for another half an hour or so?"
"Why do you want me to hang around?" she asked bluntly.
He lifted one broad shoulder in a half shrug. "I'm kind of stuck trying to figure out a birthday present and I would really appreciate a woman's input."
"A birthday present?"
"For my seven-year-old niece," he clarified.
"I don't know a lot about kids," she told him.
"Yeah, but you probably know more than me. Please?" It wasn't the word so much as the silent entreaty in those golden brown eyes. And if there was a woman alive who could say "no" to such a plea—and Gage's reputation led her to believe that there wasn't—she'd have to be a stronger woman than Megan because, even while her mind was scrambling for a reason to refuse, she was nodding her head.
Between his four nieces, Gage had garnered a lot of experience in gift buying over the past several years, most of it successful. But he always seemed to strike out where Lucy was concerned.
His youngest niece was a mystery to him. With the other girls, at least when they were younger, he could usually go into any store and pick up the newest and hottest toy. Of course, Gracie was almost a teenager now, so gift certificates to her favorite clothing stores were an obvious solution. The twins, Eryn and Allie, were close to the double digits and though they had little in common aside from their golden hair and green eyes, were both easily pleased. But Lucy, on the verge of her seventh birthday, continued to baffle him.
She was quiet—which maybe wasn't so unusual considering that she was the youngest of four sisters—and very intense. Whatever she did, she did with 100 percent of her attention on the task, whether that task was reading a book, building a LEGO sculpture or kicking a soccer ball. He'd never known anyone—especially not a child—with such focus.
But the first time he'd met Megan Roarke, he'd been struck by the uncanny sense that he'd just been introduced to the woman his youngest niece would be twenty years in the future. It was more than that they were both blue-eyed blondes—it was the quiet intelligence that shone in their eyes and the concentrated intensity with which they applied themselves to a challenge. So he figured it had to be some kind of sign that he'd arrived at the mall to search for a birthday gift and he'd found the research scientist instead.
He led the way to the toy store and she followed. He knew she wasn't the type to talk unless she had something to say and he didn't mind the silence. It was a pleasant change from frivolous conversation, although he did wonder why she didn't seem to want to talk to and flirt with him, as most women—and particularly those who knew him as the boss's youngest and only unmarried son—were inclined to do.
He pondered this thought as he negotiated through the maze of promotional displays and sale items toward the back section of the store. Then he wondered why he was pondering. So what if Megan wasn't interested in him? He wasn't interested in her, either. She was far too staid, too serious, not at all the type of woman he usually dated.
Of course, he hadn't dated much at all in the past year and he wasn't looking for a date now. He was just looking for help in picking out a birthday gift for his niece.
Megan's eyes widened as she turned down an aisle that was stacked floor to ceiling with pink packages of various shapes and sizes.
"This is where I generally start," he told her. "Usually as long as it's something new and in a big box, Eryn and Allie are happy."
"Then why do you need my help?"
"Because it's Lucy's birthday."
"How many nieces do you have?"
"Four," he answered. "Lucy, who's going to be seven, is the youngest, the twins—Eryn and Allie—are almost ten and Gracie is twelve."
"I really don't know a lot about kids," Megan said again.
"But you have an advantage over me in that you were once a seven-year-old girl yourself."
"A very long time ago."
He didn't believe it was so very long ago. In fact, considering that she'd completed her master's degree in biochemistry at Columbia University just shortly before she'd started working at Richmond Pharmaceuticals, he would bet she couldn't be more than twenty-eight.
She looked younger, though. Both younger and prettier than he'd expected. Certainly prettier than any woman hiding in a lab should be, even with the thick-framed glasses. She wore little if any makeup, but her features didn't need much artificial enhancement, and the ponytail she habitually wore emphasized the creamy complexion of her skin.
But there was a sweetness about her, too. A gentle innocence that was somehow both intriguing and intimidating. In any event, she was definitely too sweet for a guy like him.
Maybe that was why, prior to their paths crossing unexpectedly tonight, he'd barely given a second thought to Megan Roarke. In fact, he'd never thought about her at all except in relation to her work in the lab.
But their chance meeting—revealing unexpected evidence of her dry sense of humor—had snagged his attention. Or maybe it was the garment bag that had piqued his interest.
His mother bought a lot of her clothes from Chaundra's Boutique, and it surprised him to learn that Megan shopped at the exclusive women's store, too.
She seemed more like the type to buy what she needed from Lab Coats 'R' Us, and it made him wonder exactly what was in the bag draped over her arm.
But he forced his attention away from the woman and to the task at hand.