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Bargain in Bronze
By Natalie Anderson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Natalie Anderson
All rights reserved.
No one could concentrate on dicing a million dried apricots in a place like this. Libby Harris sure couldn't. Instead she gazed around the immaculate kitchen and laughed — again. She was here because he loved her muesli so much he'd begged her to come to his home and make him some specially. Could the day get any better?
Frankly, after the last three weeks, she'd take all the joy from this she could. Even if no one else ever knew — even if she never made another batch again — at least she was helping someone one last time. And not just anyone either.
She glanced at Apricot Mountain and decided it would still be there in a few minutes — a quick peek about wouldn't offend, right?
She all but skipped as she gave in to the urge to explore. The next room gave visual confirmation that it was indeed his apartment. Most others would use it as a living room, but here it was stripped bare of carpet. On top of the long, polished floorboards sat three rowing machines, a weights machine, a treadmill, a stationary bike, and a few other scary bits of equipment that she didn't recognize but was sure would be pure torture to use. He could charge money at the door and offer it as a private training facility. If he succeeded in his goal at the Games, people would pay squillions just to see him — he'd be the most wanted, highest-paid speaker on the after dinner circuit. But he wasn't in it for the money, she understood that. And looking at this apartment, it was obvious he didn't need the money.
The floor to ceiling windows offered an amazing view over the park. She crossed the floor and opened one of them, stepping out onto the narrow railed balcony — recent events had cemented a need for her to have an alternate escape route. The warm air breezed over her skin and she heard the gentle "pop pop" of tennis balls bouncing off rackets.
London in summer — strawberries, Pimms, strolls in the park — for that half-second she forgot her troubles and lived in the light, happy moment.
Beyond the park, the ultimate goal was visible. That wide ribbon of water curved through the city, flanked on either bank by beautiful buildings, both old and new. And adorning the scene everywhere were the signs, the bunting, the symbols of anticipation. Sporting glory would be just up the river. She breathed in deep, gazing out in adoration at the view. Brilliant, sear-your-eyeballs sunlight glinted off the windows of the buildings that stretched for miles. It was beautiful and no matter what her future held, she loved this city.
"Who are you?"
Libby jumped, spinning so fast she nearly ended up over the balcony. She quickly regained her balance, stepping into the room and staring in the direction of the booming, male voice. Blinded by the dazzling sunlight, she couldn't see him clearly. But she knew from the size of silhouette, the guy striding towards her wasn't national lightweight rowing favorite, Tom Barnes.
She dragged a breath into crunched lungs. "Who are you?"
"No, that was my question." He kept walking, heavy-footed, assured. "I'm supposed to be here."
"So am I." She lifted her chin, defiantly sending out some attitude despite her mad blinking as she tried to restore sight.
"If you're legit, what's with the knife?" He came to a halt, sarcasm incarnate.
Startled, Libby clenched her fist — and felt the handle. OMG, she'd forgotten she had the small knife with her. How embarrassing. And he thought she was going to — what — threaten him? No way. Had he not noticed she was about a quarter of his size?
"You shouldn't carry a weapon, especially as shakily as that. You'll only be overpowered and have it used against you." He lectured like he was addressing a bunch of school kids before they hit an after-prom party.
The unwanted advice tweaked her nerves but she also relaxed. He could hardly be a threat with that paternalistic tone. Well, she was no child, and while she might not have muscles, she had a mouth. "What makes you think you could get it off me?"
"Size and strength," he answered easily, still a giant shadow, his features indeterminate because of the black spots dancing in front of her as her eyes took too long to adjust to the relative dimness of the room.
"Maybe I have speed," she countered with faux confidence. "Maybe I grew up in a circus troupe and I'm an amazing knife thrower. Maybe you should be really worried right now because I have incredibly accurate aim." "I'd say that would be incredible." More than a hint of laughter lightened his response. "Tell you what, I promise not to hurt you, if you promise not to hurt me. Deal?"
Libby didn't have much choice — as quick as her mouth could be, her brain wasn't giving her any more ammo.
"What is it you're after, anyway?" he asked. "The most valuable thing in here is the rowing machine on the left, but I can't see you lifting that easily."
She supposed she might look like a burglar in her skinny black jeans, slim-fit black tee, black canvas sneakers, and tight, efficient ponytail that kept her hair out of her face and away from her food prep.
"You're in my home," he said firmly. "Why?"
She shook her head. "This isn't your place."
"No?" he asked unbelievingly. "Then whose is it?"
Finally, after her five-hundredth blink, full Technicolor was restored.
Oh hell. She knew who he was. She'd seen his picture in the paper when Tom had won the European champs only a few months ago. There'd been a picture of Tom with his siblings — the pretty, petite younger sister and the older brother. The drop dead gorgeous older brother that Libby and her workmates had all taken a second, third, and fourth look at. Rowing star Tom Barnes might be cute and heroic, but his big brother was all hunk and most definitely wicked looking.
Jack Barnes. She even remembered his name.
Yeah, her retinas burned more now than when she'd been sun-struck mere seconds ago. He was the most gorgeous thing outside of air-brushed men's underwear ad fakery. His coloring was sharp — dark hair and piercing blue eyes compared to the boyish Tom's light brown tones and warm hazel eyes. Jack was taller, harder, sharper featured, and the cynical suspicion in his eyes just added to that aura of edge. And right now, with his brows pulled together and his narrowed gaze riveted on her, he simply looked dangerous.
"He invited me here," she said in a breathy rush. Tom had been so enthusiastic when she'd said yes, he'd pumped a fist in the air. It didn't seem like his brother was about to do the same.
"I can imagine he did," Jack Barnes answered with a dry drawl. "But I can't imagine he'd want you to walk around the place with a knife drawn. Doesn't seem like his style."
Heat swarmed from her belly to every extremity. It was hardly a knife, and to be busted snooping? By him of all gorgeous people? "I'm working in the kitchen. I just came in here to —"
"I thought I heard a noise," she invented, running her hand down the side of her jeans. "Must have been you."
"You're quite good at making up stories." He took a leisurely step closer but something in his stance still spelled aggression. "Are you a reporter? One prepared to do anything for a scoop?"
"How did you get in?"
"With a key. I —"
"And the alarm code."
"Yes, I —"
"Tom gave them to you?"
She gave up on speech and simply nodded. It was impossible to answer in more detail given the way he kept rapping out the questions. He was worse than the hideous insurance agent she'd dealt with — letting her have nothing but "yes" or "no" options.
His expression hardened, along with every muscle in his body. The air crackled around him. "You're meeting him here? Are you —"
"I'm just preparing the muesli for him, then I'm leaving the key on the table and walking out." She talked long and loud and right over the top of him.
There was a pause. Had she finally silenced him?
He blinked. "You're preparing the what for him?"
"Muesli?" he repeated.
"Yes," she answered loftily, pleased she'd thrown him. "I make the muesli he likes."
Jack Barnes threw back his head and laughed. Watching him, Libby's pulse zipped to a punishing pace. What with the shock of being frightened by a stranger, followed by the surprise of him being so completely stunning, it was a wonder her heart hadn't stopped all together. Weak hearts were in the family — both literally and emotionally — but Libby was determined to take care of hers. She mentally counted backward from ten and told herself he really wasn't that gorgeous and she wasn't going to pay any attention to the gleam in his eyes and the infectiousness of that low, rumbling laugh. She heard another mangled repeat of "muesli" in that offensive, disbelieving tone. Rolling her eyes, she waited for him to get over it.
"Are you the team dietician?" He finally sobered enough to speak, but he still wore half of a grin.
If only he'd stayed all cynical ice-man. Him smiling made it hard for her brain to retain operational status. She shook her head.
"Didn't think so." Now his smile vanished. "What's your name?"
"Libby Harris." She pulled it together and answered firmly. "And yours?"
She wasn't going to give him an ego trip by admitting she already knew who he was.
"Jack Barnes. I'm Tom's older brother and this is my apartment."
Of course it was. Libby shrank inside, hopelessly fighting the heat invading her face. She must look like a cherry tomato. "But Tom lives here."
"When he's in town, yes." His answer was shorn of any lingering amusement.
Why hadn't Tom explained it was his big, bad brother's apartment he was sending her to? And why had she so cheekily looked around?
But it was too late now, all she could do was get the job done and leave. And okay maybe she ought to apologize for snooping. But she really didn't want to — the guy seemed to feel superior enough already. "Well, if you don't mind, I need to get back to what I was doing."
Head held high, she walked across the floor — carefully leaving a four-foot firebreak between them. He turned and walked behind her. Now she felt so self-conscious it was a wonder she didn't fall over her own feet. It was too unfair of him to be that hot in his faded jeans and white T-shirt. And did he have to watch her so super close all the time — like she was some world-threatening virus on a microscope slide?
"Actually, Libby Harris," he murmured with toe-curling, intimate softness. "I'm afraid I do mind."CHAPTER 2
Jack Barnes slowly followed his unwanted guest into the kitchen, reluctant amusement fighting bitter disappointment. Her glossy, dark hair hung in a long ponytail and her figure would be girlishly slim if it weren't for the glorious curves rounding out her T-shirt. He could see exactly why Tom had invited her over to "make muesli."
"Sorry Mr. Barnes, but your brother asked me to do something for him and I'm not leaving here until I've done it."
Also unbelievable was the cuteness of her defiant smile as she took up position behind the countertop, already working that ridiculously small knife on the chopping board.
He cursed under his breath. His brother had always been impetuous and frankly, too obsessive. He couldn't blame him in this case though. Jack absolutely understood the attraction. For the first time in their lives, he was hot for the woman his brother wanted.
Too bad for both of them. Because Jack wasn't going to stand by and watch Tom derail again — not this month. He had to get rid of her. But she had bags scattered over the bench between them — rolled oats, hazelnuts, a tall bottle of maple syrup ... Yeah, her whole healthy eating act was cute and she was so luscious, Tom would probably eat cardboard and crushed bricks to earn her favor.
Nowadays Jack no longer noticed what Tom ate. The guy was healthy and fit and had been in training so long he knew exactly what he could and couldn't have. He was on some superstrict plan and Jack trusted his brother to manage that on his own. He trusted him on other things less — like women.
His brows lifted as he read the price sticker on the back of the bottle of maple syrup. In the early days their food bills had been astronomical and it had been a huge struggle to make all the payments. Fortunately, the scrimp-and-save days were gone, though Jack was still sensible. To this day he had a fund going so his younger brother and sister would never know what it was to worry about how the next grocery bill was going to be paid.
"What's so special about your muesli?" Apart from the outrageous price of that syrup.
She deftly sliced through three of the dark dried apricots. "Maybe you need to ask Tom."
Damn good idea. He'd be asking Tom a few other pertinent questions as well. Right on time his phone chimed — Tom.
"Jack, I've got a woman coming." Tom said the second Jack answered. "Don't let her leave."
"Libby Harris," Jack confirmed. Pretty name, even prettier face. As for her cocoa-colored eyes and her stop-the-traffic curves ...
"She's there already? Brilliant." Tom spoke quickly, clearly distracted. "She's absolutely amazing."
Jack's temper spiked — it was exactly as he'd suspected.
"Don't let her leave before I get back," Tom said — practically breathless.
Actually now Jack would make doubly sure she was gone before Tom returned. His kid brother had gotten back from a training camp only this morning — what the hell was he thinking?
"It's really, really important Jack. Understand?"
He understood all right. Tom had the bit between his teeth — the raging lust. And Jack couldn't blame him. She was beautiful. Not Tom's usual bikini-babe, party diva type — maybe his kid brother had finally grown up some. But it still wasn't the right time. Couldn't he wait this one last month?
From the desperation in Tom's voice Jack knew there was no way Tom was waiting or that he'd asked her here just for muesli. His brother was about to go over-board again mere weeks out from the biggest event of his career. Well, Jack wasn't going to let it happen. Not this time.
"I'll sort it for you," Jack smiled as he spoke, hoping Tom wouldn't hear the anger riding inside.
Jack rang off, even more annoyed by the audible relief in Tom's answer. He scowled at the mess of ingredients on the bench and then across to the woman who'd no doubt heard most of that conversation. "Seems your muesli is really important." He grimaced. Given the mess already, he supposed he should let her make it — seemed she was halfway there already. But then she could leave. "How long does it take to make?"
"A couple of hours. I need to toast some things separately and then combine them." She banged the knife down rapidly — machine-gun style.
"You need to do it more quickly than that." Jack knew Tom had gone straight into another training session and would be at least three hours but he wasn't taking any chances.
"Why?" More chopping, even faster.
Jack decided to be honest. "I don't want you here when Tom gets back."
Her eyes widened and the knife hovered above the all-but-pulped fruit.
"I don't want you distracting him," he clarified.
"Distract —" she broke off and cleared her throat. "I wouldn't distract him."
Jack kept looking at her and waited for the penny to drop. She was smart, it didn't take long.
"But I wouldn't. I'm ... I'm ... I'm not his type," she choked, color flooding her face — her astonishment both visual and audible. "That's not why ..." she trailed off.
She knew Tom's type? Which meant she knew more than a bit about Tom — about his "distraction" a couple of years ago? Yeah, she wasn't as innocent as she was making out. The embarrassed look was pretty Oscar-worthy though.
"Maybe he's matured," Jack murmured.
"Okay." She abandoned the chopping altogether and pointed the small knife in his direction. "You think he's 'matured' and yet you think he's chasing me only weeks out from the biggest race of his life?" She shook her head. "That doesn't make sense."
Excerpted from Bargain in Bronze by Natalie Anderson. Copyright © 2015 Natalie Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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