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Little White Lie
By Christine Bell, Riley Murphy, Kerri-Leigh Grady
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Christine Bell and Riley Murphy
All rights reserved.
Leah Latrelle stared down at the phone in her hand and tried to swallow the panic threatening to choke her. They were coming to town? Oh. My. God. If not for the tinny, faraway sound of her sister's voice over the line jarring her out of her shock, she may have dropped the receiver. Instead she whipped it back up to her ear, praying she'd heard wrong.
"Leah? Are you still there?"
"Yeah. Yup, I'm here." Deep, slow breaths.
"So we'll see you tonight, then?" Cassandra asked, her voice an octave just below a squeal.
No mistaking that excitement. "Tonight? Ab-absolutely. Wouldn't miss it."
"Great! We can't wait to meet your guy. That's all Mom and Dad have been talking about for the past week."
A minute later Leah said her good-byes and plunked the phone into its cradle. "Damn. Damn, damn." Impulsively, she picked up the receiver and slammed it back down. Hard. "Damn." There was no other way to slice it. She'd made a major miscalculation, prompting an ill-advised fib that mushroomed into a whopper of a lie, and now she was about to get busted. What had she been thinking?
She sighed. She knew exactly what she'd been thinking. That she wanted her parents to stop worrying about her. It seemed more and more that they'd spend the bulk of their Sunday phone calls asking if she was all right, if she was too lonely without them, and if she finally had a serious boyfriend in the wings.
So she made one up. A fiancé, no less. She even gave him a dog, for God's sake. Petey the French bulldog.
She slouched forward and laid her head on the cool cherrywood desk. This was really happening. Holy Hanna. She was screwed.
Double screwed. She groaned because she didn't want him to see her like this, certain the words "I effed up big time" were written all over her face. But here he was. She lifted her head and tried to appear sane.
Mick Kilpatrick stood in the doorway of her office, all six-foot-two inches of him looking totally put together, as usual. His coal black hair was still slightly damp from his post-workout shower, and his blue eyes drilled into her, seeing far too much — also as usual.
She tamped down the thrill that zipped through her, wishing to God the heady shivers of awareness weren't so acute. What the hell was wrong with her lately? There was too much Mick and not enough office space, now that they'd partnered up in this cozy lease to handle their collective high-end residential real estate clients. That was the problem. Correction. That was more like the fallout because the actual problem was her clandestine crushing over him when all he wanted was to be friends and colleagues.
Think business, she reminded herself as she had a thousand times in the past two years. That cue probably would have worked if his shoulders weren't so broad and his hips so narrow. God he smelled great even at this distance. She breathed in deeply. His kind of perfect physique got her thinking of those Calvin Klein man-in-boxers billboard ads that shadowed some of the seedier hotels downtown. Hell, she'd move in to one of them if she got to wake up to a two-story-tall shot of him staring down at her every morning.
Never going to happen.
She heard the mental taunt, blinked, and attempted to redirect her dirty thoughts. Think business partnership, which precludes any romantic entanglements between you ... no matter what.
It had been far easier to get her head around that when Mick was at a distance. Four office suites between them, at a time when he'd been totally focused on his son first and his clients second. But now it was different. He was different. Maybe he wanted to make sure he kept up his part of the required teamwork, or maybe because Luke was getting older, he had the time. Either way it spelled trouble for her because he was hanging around the office, even when he didn't need to, and being way more social than he used to be. It was both confounding and distracting. And just two more things she had to add to her growing list of concerns about him and her increasing lust for him.
"Hey." He came in but didn't bother to close the door. Why would he? It was only the two of them now. Yay. "What's going on? Don't tell me that we lost Shaw's listing."
She blew out a breath. "Of course not. I nailed the appointment. But, um." She looked away. "Yeah, no worries. I'm good."
She hated when he said her name like that. Slowly, in two drawn out syllables. It sounded hot, sexy, and got her raring for bed when bed was the last place he'd want to take her. Steeling herself, she raked a hand through her hair. Mick wasn't her usual type. He shouldn't be burning up erotic territory in her fantasy land. The fact that he was had her completely stumped. Now, if he had the soul of a poet and the bank account of a college student? She'd be less mystified. Broke but artistic losers were right up her alley. The alley that had thus far led to the road of perpetual singledom.
She made a half-assed attempt at a smile and waited for him to take a seat. "Really, I'm fine. It's no big deal. How are you this morning?"
"Don't bullshit a bullshitter. I know something's up. The last time I saw that expression on your face was when the Canellos's fried all that octopus and expected you to eat some of it." He leaned back in the chair, draped his arms over the bolsters, and banged the sides in alternate beats like a drum, then suddenly stopped. "Come on, spill it. Maybe I can help."
Of all the people in the world, Mick was the last person she wanted to tell her humiliating story to, but at this point, she didn't have a whole lot of options. Unless she came up with a solution, she was screwed, and there was no one better at brainstorming than Mick.
"Come on." He tilted his head and waited for her to open up. He was so relaxed. So confident. So Mick that she couldn't help herself.
"I messed up."
"Naturally," he said, inclining his head.
And right there was the draw and the drawback of being attracted to a smart guy like him. She glared, hoping her look was nasty enough to wither his soul. "This is serious. You know how I told you my dad was diagnosed with COPD last year?"
He leaned forward in his chair, concern marring his brow. "Is he okay?"
"Yeah. But ..."
"But? That's why they bought that place in Arizona, right? To spend the cooler months?"
"Exactly. Well, they've been out there for a while now and love it. He's feeling great, and I think they want to make it a full time move, but they're afraid to leave me here alone. Then Cassandra made it worse when she up and moved to Minneapolis with her fiancé last month —"
He got comfortable again and grinned, "I remember. The bad architect with the lazy eye."
She winced. "I may have said that." She fell back into the cushion of her chair and grumbled, "Yeah, I said it. I was being cranky."
"You've been cranky a lot lately."
She swiveled back and forth, trying to ease some of the tension, but when his words registered she stopped and stared at him. Nice of him to say. Little did he realize her mood was on account of a recent rash of sleepless nights spent thinking about him. "Okay, already. He's a good guy. I just got sick of hearing them gush about him. But now with my sister in her new house, and our parents in Arizona, the folks are even more worried. They're on a fixed income, and I know the only reason they're keeping the apartment here is because of me."
"What? Why? Are you planning on moving into it when your lease is up?"
She gave him the dead-eye. "I'm single. Enough said."
"You're twenty-six years old, you have your own place and a good career. Who cares if you're single? They should just take the plunge."
She did a double take before she answered because she definitely cared about being single. Thank god he didn't know that. "Yeah, well, they're worry warts. When I'm sixty I'm still going to be adhering to a curfew when I'm at their place, only then I'll probably be sneaking back into the house with my kids in tow."
He chuckled and shook his head. "Are you going to get to the point?"
Eyeing him, she tapped her index finger against the desk, trying to decide if she should give him the Reader's Digest version or Tolstoy's rendition. One look at him made her settle on a combo.
"All righty. A few months ago, Mom asked about my holiday plans, and I told her there was no way I could fly out to Phoenix because I had too much going on here. She was upset and started talking about how people shouldn't spend the holidays alone and how family was the most important thing. Not two days later, she called to say that maybe it was too hot for them in Phoenix anyway, and that they were thinking of coming back to Chicago and making the condo in Phoenix a vacation home." She couldn't continue to look at him, so she turned away and whispered, "I feel like they're only doing that because they think I'm lonely. They're worried about me."
It wasn't so much the words as it was his tone that wrapped around her like an invisible hug. Blinking back the sudden rush of tears, she stared at her clasped hands. She hadn't felt this miserable since she'd first learned of her dad's diagnosis.
"I know it's bad. I don't know what happened, Mick. It just came out. I told her that I wasn't working, it was just that I had other plans." She reluctantly met his gaze. "With my boyfriend."
"Ah." He nodded as if he felt her pain, but his eyes twinkled, which made her face warm.
"Anyway, one lie fed another, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, me and ah ..."
"Me and Mi-Michael," she tried to recover from that telling admission by wiggling her fingers in air quotes around the fictitious name, "started to get serious. Things got a little out of hand and we, um, got engaged last week." Her cheeks burned even hotter, but she refused to look away.
"Congratulations." He straightened and when his white teeth flashed in a big grin, she forced herself to roll her eyes. She was feeling anything but cavalier at the moment.
"Yeah, yeah. Thanks. They were thrilled, believe me. And that was the problem. As soon as I told her, Mom started talking about how their lease here is up in January, so why not pull the trigger and close that chapter of their lives? To make a long story short, since 'Michael' and I can't go to them for the holidays and they have to get the last of their stuff from the apartment, they've decided to come to me ... er, I mean, us." She squeezed her eyes closed and let her forehead fall to the desk with a thunk. "Tonight."
Mick let out a long, low whistle. "Wow."
That three letter word sounded like "Stick the fork in, you're done." And she was. She knew it.
"Was there nothing you could say to talk them out of it?"
"I tried. Believe me. But nothing short of a meningitis outbreak was going to stop them." She turned her face to the side so that her cheek rested against the desktop. "I'm going to have to fess up, and that will totally ruin their Christmas. Now, instead of worrying that I can't land a husband, they'll think I'm a pathological liar and want to check me into some twelve step program. Truthfully?" She angled her head so she could see him. "I'm guessing they're going to change their minds, renew their lease, and move back here once I come clean. I know if my daughter was certifiable, I'd want to be close by to let her out of her straitjacket once in a while."
His eyes twinkled brighter, practically brimming with mirth.
She so wanted to disappear into the desk. "Don't you dare laugh. This isn't funny."
"All right, shh. Let me think." He closed his eyes, steepling his fingers under his chin as he often did when in thought. She should have been happy that he was mulling the situation over, but all she could do was inwardly sigh. Lately he'd been sporting a five o'clock shadow mid-morning and the edgy sight did odd things to her insides. Any second the light bulb moment was going to happen, and he'd look at her and say something brilliant like he usually did. But after a full thirty seconds of gut churning silence, hope faded. Another thirty seconds, and the panic hit full force.
She sat up abruptly and whisked the hair off her face, pushing back her chair. "Nope. I'm not going to risk telling them. I'm going to try the meningitis thing." She tapped out some words on the keyboard in front of her, running a search for symptoms on Virtual MD.
"Leah." His silky baritone flowed over her like honey, and her hands stilled.
"What?" The reedy sound of her voice confirmed she'd gone off the deep end for sure.
"You know that's not going to work. Let's try to think rationally."
A hysterical laugh rose in her throat. If he knew how hard she was trying to keep it together right now, he wouldn't have chosen that moment to wink at her. She contained her heart flutters and countered, "Rationally? Oh, no. That ship sailed right about the time I announced my engagement."
"Then I will think rationally for you." He stood and held out a hand as a slow smile spread across his handsome face. "Hi. I'm Michael, but everyone calls me Mick. Pleasure to meet you."
* * *
As Mick waited for her to catch on, every instinct screamed for him to pull his hand back. They'd kept things platonic for the two years they'd worked together at Malack & Bean. Admittedly, it had become more difficult over the last two months, since they'd started their own real estate firm, and the tight quarters had made it harder. Yet so far, he'd managed, in spite of his baser instincts, by doubling his workouts and learning to recite the Greek alphabet backward to keep his hands off her.
He wasn't looking for a relationship. Navigating the mine field of a painful divorce and split custody for the past couple years was hard on him, but it had been even harder on Luke. In order to focus on his son and spend as much time with him as possible when he had him, he'd decided his love life would have to wait. Initially, he thought a year would be a reasonable amount of time, but a year had come and gone. Then two. And now, when he thought of Luke and how hard he had taken the separation? Even today seemed too soon.
But this wasn't just any woman. This was Leah. Shit, getting this close to her ... pretending to be her man? That was akin to getting too close to the sun. Don't do it. But as desperate hope bloomed on her face, he couldn't bring himself to retreat. She needed him, and damn if he didn't like the feeling.
As understanding dawned, she squealed with joy and leapt to her feet. He thought she was going to come at him, so he braced for impact. But then she held back, chewing on her luscious bottom lip for a long moment before her shoulders slumped. "I am so tempted, Mick. Really I am. But I can't ask that of you. It's smack in the middle of the holiday season. They'll be here for the whole week. Surely you have better things to do than help me with this crazy scheme. Like spend time with your son."
"You didn't ask. I offered. And to be honest, I don't have anything pressing until after New Year's Day. I had Luke for Thanksgiving, so Sheila gets him until the first except for an afternoon shopping trip tomorrow for some last minute gifts. My week is wide open. Plus, I kind of like the idea of you owing me one." He smiled inwardly, mentally thumbing through the list of things he could ask of her in return. There were plenty of potentials, but the one he really wanted? Maybe he'd demand she let him kiss that spot on her neck he couldn't stop thinking about ...
"I'm not sure about that," she said. "If I know you, you'll have me doing all your broker duties next month. Or worse. Your open houses."
The speculative way she eyed him got his blood pumping. He'd seen that look before. The one that said, "Hmm ... this could be fun." Damn, it was the last time he'd seen that look from her that had been a turning point for him. Innocent enough? Yes, so maybe if he hadn't agreed to be paired with her in that three-legged race at the office Memorial Day picnic, he wouldn't be stalking her like a starved lion looking for prey these days.
It had been another one of her "I need your help" moments when she wanted to beat Joe Mallack and win the stupid Magic 8 Ball prize. And when Mick had leaned forward for his "by-the-nose photo finish," carrying her over the line for the win, he hadn't expected her uninhibited reaction when he'd let her go. Because she'd jumped right back into his arms, wrapped herself around him for a hug, and kissed his neck. Through the heat, sweat and pulse pounding beneath his skin, the touch of those soft lips against him had ignited a need so strong that he'd actually stumbled.
Kicker was? The bone-deep sexual pull toward her that day was only half of it. She'd barely gotten her hands wrapped around her trophy when Luke had taken a shine to it. Then she hadn't hesitated. After their hard-won battle, she'd handed the 8 Ball over to his son before she'd plopped down in the grass and sat with him for a good hour swapping zany questions to ask the globe.
He couldn't get the visual out of his head.
"So." She continued to study him. "You're going to help me, just like that?
Excerpted from Little White Lie by Christine Bell, Riley Murphy, Kerri-Leigh Grady. Copyright © 2013 Christine Bell and Riley Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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