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Flirting with Danger
By Claire Baxter, Stacy Abrams, Guillian Helm
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Claire Baxter
All rights reserved.
In a bedroom of a sprawling sandstone house in South Australia, Jasmine Mackinnon looked at the reflection of her friend and fellow bridesmaid, who was peering over her shoulder.
Sasha said, "You should wear that smoky eye shadow more often. It makes your eyes look enormous."
"I get plenty of smoke on my face when I'm on a call-out. I don't need to add more."
"No, not when you're at work, obviously," Sasha said as she straightened. "But you could make an effort when we go out."
Jasmine winced. "I do make an effort."
"Oh, I know. I didn't mean it like that." Sasha pulled an apologetic face. "Okay, maybe I did, but I was trying to be helpful. You're so pretty, but you don't make the most of what you have. Look, what I mean is that you might find your Mr. Right if you went for a more feminine look."
Marrying a man she loved, having babies, watching them grow up, staying together forever ... that was the fairy tale for most women, her friends included. But how often did it actually happen? The staying together forever bit, anyway.
Not very often, in Jasmine's experience. She hoped Leanne and Michael, today's bride and groom, would make it, but it wasn't a risk she was prepared to take for herself. Not unless she found a man she could trust completely, and they were few and far between.
Sighing, she said, "If I find a man to love me as I am, then great. But I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not."
Jasmine studied her reflection as the makeup artist blended blush beneath her cheekbones. Which made her look as if she actually had cheekbones. She'd bet that, given a choice between muscles and makeup on their women, most men would not choose muscles. But messing around with all those brushes and jars — it just wasn't her style. Any man she allowed into her life would have to want the real her no matter what she did or didn't slap on her face.
Sasha was on a roll now. "Okay, I can see your point, but first impressions are important, aren't they? You need to get past the first hurdle before you can really get to know someone. All I'm saying is, you might meet more men if you looked as if you cared what they thought of you. And you could be a bit more encouraging when men do try to talk to you. You could give them a chance. Like that poor man in the pub last week."
Jasmine swiveled the chair. "What man?"
"The one with the Johnny Depp jaw."
She screwed up her eyes. "Can't say I remember him."
"He came over to talk to us. To you, anyway."
"Oh! You mean when we were watching the game on the big screen?"
"I didn't notice his jaw; I was too busy paying attention to the football."
"Trust me, he was cute. And he tried to start a conversation with you."
Jasmine frowned. "Did he?"
"He asked you what you did for a living."
She nodded. "That's right. I remember."
"And what did you say?"
"Er ... female impersonator."
"My point exactly. No wonder he took off like he'd been spat out."
"The scores were level. It was a crucial point."
The door of the en-suite bathroom opened and Leanne, the bride, emerged, wrapped in a toweling robe, and, like Jasmine and Sasha, sporting large rollers in her hair. "What did I miss?"
"I was just telling Jasmine that she frightens men off when they try to talk to her."
Nodding, Leanne pulled up a chair. "Well, it's not really her fault that she intimidates them, is it? She's so ..."
"Capable," Sasha supplied.
"Hello. I'm still in the room." Jasmine frowned. "And since when was being capable a bad thing?"
"It's not, generally, but you don't give men a chance to be men around you."
"Oh, that's rubbish."
"No, it's true," Leanne said. "You're good at most things they'd consider men's stuff. Heck, you can probably bench press more than some of them. You even do a job that a lot of men wouldn't have the guts to do. You make them feel inadequate."
"And we love you for it," Sasha added. "You know that, don't you?"
Jasmine nodded. Her friendship with Leanne and Sasha went back as long as she could remember, and she'd never doubt their motives for a moment.
"We're just saying that it's going to be tough for you to find a man who's secure enough in his own masculinity to cope with all that."
"Unless you're smart, like me, and marry a firefighter," Leanne said with a smile.
"She's right," Sasha said. "And there are some good-looking guys in your station. What about Kane? He's cute."
"Cute like a puppy. He's younger than me."
"Not by much. All right, how about Aaron, then? Ooh, Aaron." Sasha fanned herself. "He has all the right credentials. Tall, dark, and —"
"Dangerous," Leanne interrupted. "Tall, dark, and dangerous. Strictly no strings, that's Aaron Parkes. He could charm the skin off a rice pudding, but he thinks having breakfast with a woman the morning after is long-term."
"Isn't that what makes him irresistible?" Sasha said. "You know, the thrill of being the one to hook him? Maybe he just hasn't found the right woman yet?"
"He's not looking," Jasmine said. "Trust me, he's happy the way he is. I should know; I have to listen to him bragging about his conquests at work. They're all the same, and they don't seem to care that he's only interested in one thing."
Leanne shook her head. "Forget about him. I wouldn't want to see Jasmine dating Aaron. It could only end in tears, and then we'd have to kill him"
"I have no intention of dating him," Jasmine said. She wouldn't dream of becoming a notch on Aaron's bedpost — if there was even any bedpost left to carve a notch in. "Anyway, there's no way I'd go out with a colleague at all. Not Aaron, not anybody. Workplace romances get messy, and in a job like ours, messy is the last thing we need. We have to be able to rely on each other in life-threatening situations — would you trust a colleague to save your life if his girlfriend was in danger as well?" She shook her head. "Of course you wouldn't. Plus, dating's not allowed. Not between people who work in the same team like Aaron and I do."
The makeup artist tapped her acrylic nails on the marble top of Leanne's dressing table. "Excuse me? I just need to do your lips, and then we're finished."
"Oh, right. Sorry," Jasmine said, turning the chair back to the mirror. She wouldn't let anyone else talk to her the way Sasha and Leanne did, but it was impossible to take offence when she knew that everything they said was with her best interests at heart. Besides, she'd been just as frank with both of them in the past for different reasons. She wouldn't expect anything less than brutal honesty from her closest friends. The young woman drew a red line outside her lips. "I take it you don't wear much makeup?"
"I don't bother with any of this." Jasmine waved at the products littering the dressing table. She was only submitting to all this girlie stuff because it was what Leanne wanted. After a tough time Leanne was finally happy and Jasmine wouldn't do anything to spoil her day. "Well, I'm going to fill inside the line with color to make your lips appear even fuller. This is what your friend means about making the most of what you have. You have good lips already, but when I'm done with them they'll look so sexy." She selected a fine brush from the range in her case.
Jasmine rolled her eyes toward Sasha.
"It's a lovely color," Sasha nodded with enthusiasm. "Really suits you."
"Yes," Leanne agreed. "It will look great with the dress. Now, listen, there is someone out there for you; I'm sure of it. The perfect men are waiting for both of you. I know it's hard to believe it sometimes." She smiled at Sasha, then turned back to look at Jasmine in the mirror. "I found my Mike when I'd given up looking."
"We know," Sasha said. "We were there, remember? And we couldn't be happier for you."
Leanne's eyes shone with tears.
"Don't!" Sasha passed her a tissue. "Mascara!"
"The thing is," Leanne went on after dabbing her eyes with a corner of the tissue, "I know you had a very bad experience with Craig, Jasmine, and you have to learn to trust all over again, but you'll only do that by taking a risk. It won't happen if you don't."
Maybe that's part of the problem, Jasmine thought. She was trained not to take risks. To weigh up the potential for getting hurt and choose the safest option, for herself and for others.
She appreciated her friends' concern, she really did. She didn't know what she would have done without them after Craig's betrayal, but she wasn't ready to take that risk. She preferred to stay safe — and that meant staying right away from dating men for the foreseeable future.
"My work here is done," the makeup artist said, packing away the tools of her trade. She glanced at the hairdresser, who'd returned to the room while they were talking. "They're all yours."
Jasmine stood in front of the full-length mirror in the corner of the room, stunned by the image she saw there. After helping Leanne into her ivory wedding gown, she and Sasha had finally climbed into their own dresses. The strapless crimson satin was close-fitting till it reached her knees, where it flared into a fishtail. She just hoped she'd be able to do it justice when she walked down the aisle. Between the dress and the high heels, she was well out of her comfort zone.
Sasha joined her at the mirror. "Gotta love designer lingerie. It works wonders, doesn't it?" She fiddled with her own bodice, then smiled. "You look fabulous. Your hair ... if I didn't know better, I'd think you'd had red highlights put in. They don't show when you scrape it back into a ponytail like you usually do."
Jasmine smiled back at Sasha. "She's a good hairdresser. You look fantastic too."
"Thanks. Not as good as you, though. You look beautiful." Sasha flapped a hand. "Not that you look ugly normally, just ... different."
Jasmine's eyes flicked back to the mirror. She did look very different from normal, and she knew most people would consider it a change for the better, but it gave her a sickly feeling in the pit of her stomach. Trouble was, she looked just like her mother.
She'd always denied the resemblance, which was easy to do because her mother had dressed like a movie star and worn more makeup than a model, while Jasmine had looked like a boy from choice. Even now, as an adult, she preferred her genderless firefighter's uniform to dressing up in the feminine clothes that Sasha and Leanne wore.
She might look like her mother's daughter when she was dressed like this, with her hair styled and face made up, but she'd made a conscious decision to be a different person. It was just the shock of seeing her mother's image looking back at her from the mirror that had shaken her. She would be fine as long as she didn't catch sight of her own reflection again throughout the day. She straightened her shoulders and joined her friends as they gathered their flowers.
As she made her way down the wide stone steps of Leanne's parents' house to its terraced garden, Jasmine had a 180-degree view of the Adelaide Hills. She could also see the gazebo at one end of the lawn where the marriage celebrant waited, along with the groom, Mike. Leading to them, a red carpet bisected dozens of white chairs to form an aisle.
Reminding herself to walk slowly and trying not to crush the stems of the white roses she carried in front of her, she made her way there alongside Sasha, while Leanne followed with her father. Jasmine spotted several of her crew among the faces that turned toward them. They'd be shocked to see her like this. She would talk to them later. For now, she focused on making it from one end of the aisle to the other without incident.
* * *
Aaron Parkes stood with some of the guys from his crew — the ones who also hadn't brought a date to the wedding — watching the flamboyant photographer organize the bride and her two bridesmaids into what looked like an uncomfortable pose.
"Blimey, Mac scrubs up well, doesn't she?" Dave tilted his champagne flute in the direction of Jasmine Mackinnon and the rest of the wedding party.
Kane gave a short laugh. "That doesn't come close, Dave. She's hot."
"Behave yourself," Dave said. "That's your colleague you're talking about."
"Come on, I'm only saying what we're all thinking. Right, Aaron?"
Aaron swallowed a mouthful of champagne. "Leave me out of it," he said. But he didn't disagree with Kane. Who'd have thought Mac would look this good in civvies?
It wasn't just the clothes, though, it was the whole eye-popping package. She'd transformed herself into a woman. Obviously, he'd always known she was female, but now, she was a woman. One with more curves than a racetrack.
He'd only ever seen her in uniform or work-out gear — and not the figure-hugging leggings and tops that most girls wore in public gyms. Baggy T-shirts and shorts were her standard. Still, it was a good thing she didn't dress like this at work or she'd start more fires than they could put out.
So, yeah, even hot was an understatement in his opinion, but he had no intention of speaking his thoughts out loud. He trusted Kane and Dave with his life, but he didn't trust them not to pass on his words to Mac, and he wasn't about to give her an advantage in their verbal sparring matches by letting her know she'd knocked his socks off. Their friendship worked so well because they were equals.
They could never be more than workmates even if they wanted to be — the Fire Service frowned on colleagues dating and neither of them would risk their jobs for the sake of a fling. The consequences would be too great. Dave took a sip from his glass and pulled a face. "I can't drink this stuff all afternoon. I'm going on a beer hunt. Who's coming?"
Aaron shook his head. "I'm going to find something to eat."
As Dave and Kane headed off to seek liquid gold, Aaron hesitated. The sight of Mac staring down the photographer made him grin. He knew that face — he'd been on the receiving end of that look many times. With a shake of his head, he left the photographer to learn for himself that Mac was not the obedient bridesmaid she might appear, and went in search of food.
* * *
"Excuse me, I'm looking for Mac. Have you seen her?"
Jasmine turned from the buffet table at the sound of Aaron's voice and tried not to react to the sight of him in a dark suit. He'd even shaved for the occasion and had his already short hair trimmed, too. Cripes, he looked like James Bond at his best. She wouldn't tell him so, or he'd assume it meant she fancied him. Which she definitely did not.
"I suppose you think you're funny?"
His twinkly gray-blue eyes widened theatrically. "Mac, I can hear your voice. Are you trapped in there under the pretty-woman costume?"
She punched his arm with her free hand. Not gently.
"Ouch. It is you. I should have known you'd be around the food."
"Don't worry, I'll leave some for you."
"I've already eaten."
"Hmm. Well, I'm starving. Being a bridesmaid is a tough job. It's hard work having your photo taken."
"Oh, of course it is." His eyes twinkled again. "Exhausting, I'm sure."
She paused with a chicken drumstick halfway to her mouth. "As if you'd know. Nobody would want to take your photo."
"Hey, it has happened." He grinned. "And all I had to do was lie there. But you're right, it was really hard."
"Oh, please." She coughed as a lump of chicken went down the wrong way. "I'm eating." And now she had the image of Aaron lying naked on a bed stuck in her head. Great.
Well, yes, it was great, actually.
"I could pat your back."
"Not if you value your hand," she snapped. "Speaking of broken bones, if that photographer had given me one more blasted order ... Feet together! Chin up! Who does he think he is?"
"The man who's paid to take the pictures."
"He's lucky he's still got a camera to do it with."
"O-kay. Photos all finished now?"
"Not quite. He's got the bride and groom up a gum tree. Leanne will kill him if her dress gets damaged." She brightened at the thought. "Here's hoping."
Aaron chuckled, then said, "Now that you mention dresses ... did Leanne choose fire-engine red for yours, or was it your own choice?"
"Leanne did, and beneath her ivory dress she's wearing red shoes. I think she would have worn a red dress too if she could have."
"Why didn't she? It's her wedding."
Jasmine snorted. "You don't know her mother."
"Would you let your mother dictate what color wedding dress you should wear?"
Excerpted from Flirting with Danger by Claire Baxter, Stacy Abrams, Guillian Helm. Copyright © 2013 Claire Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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