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If the world was a fair place the perfect solution to Miller Jacobs's unprecedented crisis would walk through the double-glazed doors of the hip Sydney watering hole she was in, wearing a nice suit and sporting an even nicer personality.
Unlike the self-important banker currently sitting at the small wooden table opposite her who probably should have stopped drinking at least two hours ago.
'So, sexy lady, what is this favour you need from me?'
Miller tried not to cringe at the man's inebriated state and turned to her close friend, Ruby Clarkson, with a smile that said, How could you possibly think this loser would be in any way suitable as my fake boyfriend this coming weekend?
Ruby arched a brow in apology and then did what only a truly beautiful woman could dodazzled the banker with a megawatt smile and told him to take a hike. Not literally, of course. Chances were she'd have to work with him at some point in the future.
Miller breathed a sigh of relief as, without argument, he swaggered towards the packed, dimly lit bar and disappeared from view.
'Don't say it,' Ruby warned. 'On paper he seemed perfect.' 'On paper most men seem perfect,' Miller said glumly. 'It's only when you get to know them that the trouble starts.' 'That's morose. Even for you.'
Miller's eyebrows shot up. She had good reason to be feeling morose. She had just wasted an hour she didn't have, drinking white wine she wouldn't even cook with, and was no further towards solving her problem than she'd been yesterday. A problem that had started when she'd lied to her boss about having a boyfriend who would love to come away for a business weekend and keep a very important and very arrogant potential client in check.
TJ Lyons was overweight, overbearing and obnoxious, and had taken her 'not interested' signs as some sort of personal challenge. Apparently he had told Dexter, her boss, that he believed Miller's cool, professional image was hiding a hot-blooded woman just begging to be set free and he was determined to add her to his stable of 'fillies'.
Miller shuddered as she recalled overhearing him use that particular phrase.
The man was a chauvinistic bore and wore an Akubra hat as if he was Australia's answer to JR Ewing. But he had her rattled. And when TJ had challenged her to 'bring your hub-bie' to his fiftieth birthday celebration, where she would also present her final business proposal, Miller had smiled sweetly and said that would be lovely.
Which meant she now needed a man by tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps she'd been a little hasty in giving Mr Inebriated the flick.
Ruby rested her chin in her hand. 'There's got to be someone else.'
'Why don't I just say he's sick?'
'Your boss is already suss on you. And even if he wasn't, if you give your fake boyfriend a fake illness, you still have to deal with your amorous client all weekend.'
Miller pulled a face. 'Don't mistake TJ's intentions as amorous. They're more licentious in nature.'
'Maybe so, but I'm sure Dexter's are amorous.'
Ruby was convinced Miller's boss was interested in her, but Miller didn't see it.
'Separated. And you know he's keen on you. That's one of the reasons you lied about having a boyfriend.'
Miller let her head fall back on her neck and made a tortured sound through her teeth.
'I was coming off the back of a week of sixteen-hour days and I was exhausted. I might have had an emotional reaction to the whole thing.'
'Emotional? You? Heaven forbid.' Ruby shivered dramatically.
It was a standing joke between them that Ruby wore her heart on her sleeve and Miller kept hers stashed in one of the many shoeboxes in her closet.
'I was after sympathy, not sarcasm,' Miller grumped.
'But Dexter did offer to go as your "protector", did he not?' Ruby probed.
Miller sighed. 'A little weird, I grant you, but we knew each other at uni. I think he was just being nice, given TJ's drunken pronouncements to him the week before.'
Ruby did her famous eye roll. 'Regardless, you faked having a boyfriend and now you have to produce one.'
'I'll give him pneumonia.'
'Miller, TJ Lyons is a business powerhouse with a shocking reputation and Dexter is an alpha male wannabe. And you've worked too hard to let either one of them decide your future. If you go away this weekend and TJ makes a move on you his wife will have a fit and you'll be reading the unemployment pages for the next twelve months. I've seen it happen before. Men of TJ Lyons's ilk are never pinned for sexual harassment the way they should be.'
Ruby took a breath and Miller thanked God that she needed air. She was one of the best discrimination lawyers in the country and when she ranted Miller took note. She had a point.
Miller had put in six hard years at the Oracle Consulting Group, which had become like a second home to her. Or maybe it was her home, given how much time she spent there! If she won TJ's multi-million-dollar account she'd be sure to be made partner in the next sweepthe realisation of a long-held dream and one her mother had encouraged for a long time.
'TJ hasn't actually harassed me, Rubes,' she reminded her friend.
'At your last meeting he said he'd hire Oracle in a flash if you "played nice".'
Miller blew out a breath. 'Okay, okay. I have a plan.'
Ruby raised her eyebrows. 'Let's hear it.'
'I'll hire an escort. Look at this.' The idea had come to her while Ruby had been ranting and she turned her smartphone so Ruby could see the screen. 'Madame Chloe. She says she offers discreet, professional, sensitive gentlemen to meet the needs of the modern-day heterosexual woman.'
'Let me see that.' Ruby took the phone. 'Oh, my God. That guy would seriously have sex with you.'
Miller looked over Ruby's shoulder at the incredibly buffed male on the screen.
'And they cater to fantasies!' Ruby continued.
'I don't want him to have sex with me,' Miller yelped, slightly exasperated. The last thing she needed was sex, or her hormones, to derail her from her goal at the eleventh hour. Her mother had let that happen and look where it had got herbroke and unhappy.
'You can have a policeman, a pilot, an accountanturgh, seen enough of them. Oh, and this one.' Ruby giggled and lowered her voice. 'Rough but clean tradesman. Or, waita sports jock.'
Miller shuddered. What intelligent woman would ever fantasise over a sports jock?
'Ruby!' Miller laughed as she took the phone back. 'Be serious. This is my future we're talking about. I need a decent guy who is polite and can follow my lead. Someone who blends in.'
'Hmmm ' Ruby grinned at one of the profile photos. 'He looks like he would blend in at an all-night gay bar.'
Miller scowled. 'Not helping.' She clicked on a few more. 'They all look the same,' she said despairingly.
'Tanned, buff and hot-to-trot,' Ruby agreed. 'Where do they get these guys?'
Miller shook her head at Ruby's obvious enjoyment. Then she saw the price tag associated with one of the men. 'Good God, I hope that's for a month.'
'Forget the escort,' Ruby instructed. 'Most of these guys probably can't string a sentence together beyond "Is that it?" and "How hard do you want it?"' Not exactly convincing boyfriend material for an up-and-coming partner in the fastest growing management consultancy firm in Australia.'
'Then I'm cooked.'
Ruby's eyes scanned the meagre post-work crowd, and Miller thought about the sales report she still had to get through before bed that night; she was still unable to completely fathom the predicament she was in.
'Bird flu?' she suggested, smoothing her eyebrows into place as she racked her brain for a solution.
'No one will believe he has bird flu.'
'I meant me.' She sighed.
'Wait. What about him?'
'Who?' Miller glanced at her phone and saw only a blank screen.
'Cute guy at the bar. Three o'clock.'
Miller rolled her eyes. 'Five years of university, six years in a professional career and we're still using hushed military terms when stalking guys.'
Ruby laughed. 'It's been ages since we stalked a guy.'
'And, please God, let it be ages again,' Miller pleaded, glancing ever so casually in the direction Ruby indicated.
She got an impression of a tall man leaning against the edge of the curved wooden bar, one foot raised on the polished foot pole, his knee protruding from the hole in his torn jeans. Her eyes travelled upwards over long, lean legs and an even leaner waist to a broad chest covered by a worn T-shirt with a provocative slogan plastered on the front in red block letters. Her lips curled in distaste at its message and she moved on to wide shoulders, a jaw that looked as if it could have used a shave three days ago, a strong blade of a nose, mussed over long chocolate-brown hair andoh, Lorddeep-set light-coloured eyes that were staring right back at her.
His gaze was sleepy, almost indolent, and Miller's heart took off. Her breath stalled in her lungs and her face felt bitingly hot. Flustered by her physical reaction, she instantly dropped her eyes as if she was a small child who had just been caught stealing a cookie. Her senses felt muddled and off-centreand she'd only been looking at the man for five seconds. Maybe ten.
Ignoring the fact that she felt as if he was still watching her, she turned to Ruby. 'He's got holes in his jeans and a T-shirt that says "My pace or yours?" How many glasses of this crap wine have you had?'
Ruby paused, glancing briefly back at the bar. 'Not himalthough he does fill that T-shirt out like a god. I'm talking about the suit he's talking to.'
Miller turned her gaze to the suit she hadn't noticed. Similar-coloured hair, square, clean-shaven jaw, nice nose, great suit. Yes, thankfully he did look more her type.
'Oh, I think I know him!' Ruby exclaimed.
'You know Ripped Jeans?'
'No.' Ruby shook her head, openly smiling in the direction Miller dared not turn back to. 'The hotshot in the suit beside him. Sam someone. I'm pretty sure he's a lawyer out of our L.A. office. And he's just the type you need.'
Miller glanced back and noticed that tall, dark and dishevelled was no longer watching her, but still some inner instinct told her to run. Fast.
'No!' She dismissed the idea outright. 'I draw the line at picking up a stranger in a bareven if you do think you know him. Let me just go to the bathroom and then we can share a taxi home. And stop looking at those guys. They'll think we want to be picked up.'
Miller scowled. 'Believe me, by the look of the one who needs to become reacquainted with a razor all it would take is a look and he'd have you horizontal in seconds.'
Ruby eyed her curiously. 'That's exactly what makes him so delicious.'
'Not to me.' Miller headed for the bathroom, feeling slightly better now that she had decided to call it a night. Her problem still hovered over her like a dark cloud, but she was too tired to give it any more brainpower tonight.
'Would you stop looking at those women? We are not here to pick up,' Tino Ventura growled at his brother.
'Seems to me it might solve your problem about what to do with yourself this weekend.'
Tino snorted. 'The day I need my baby brother to sort entertainment for me is the day you can put me in a body bag.'
Sam didn't laugh, and Tino silently berated his choice of words.
'So how's the car shaping up?' Sam asked. Tino grunted. 'The chassis still needs work and the balancing sucks.'
'Will it be ready by Sunday?'
The concern in his brother's voice set Tino's teeth on edge. He was so over everyone worrying about this next race as if it was to be his lastand okay, there were a couple of nasty coincidences that made for entertaining journalism, but they weren't signs, for God's sake.
'It'll be ready.'
'And the knee?'
Coming off the back of a long day studying engine data and time trials in his new car, Tino was too tired to humour his brother with shop-talk.
'This catch-up drink was going a lot better before you started peppering me with work questions.'
He could do without the reminder of how his stellar racing year had started to fall apart lately. All he needed was to win this next race and he'd have the naysayers who politely suggested that he would never be as good as his father off his back.
Not that he dwelt on their opinion.
But he'd still be happy to prove them wrong once and for all, and equalling his father's number of championship titles in the very race that had taken his life seventeen years earlier ought to do just that.
'If it were me I'd be nervous, that's all,' Sam persisted.
Maybe Tino would be too, if he stopped to think about how he felt. But emotions got you killed in his business, and he'd locked his away a long time ago. 'Which is why you're a cottonwool lawyer in a four-thousand-dollar suit.'
Tino tilted his beer bottle to his lips. 'You need to get your money back, junior.'
Sam snorted. 'You ought to talk. I think you bought that T-shirt in high school.'
'Hey, don't knock the lucky shirt.' Tino chuckled, much happier to be sparring with his little brother than dissecting his current career issues.
He knew his younger brother was spooked about all the problems he'd been having that so eerily echoed his father's lead-up to a date with eternity. Everyone in his family was. Which was why he was staying the hell away from Melbourne until Monday, when the countdown towards race day began.
'Excuse me, but do I know you?'
Tino glanced at the blonde who had been eyeballing them for the last ten minutes, pleasantly surprised to find her focus on his little brother instead of himself.
Well, hell, that was a first. He knew Sam would get mileage out of it for the next decade if he could.
He turned to see where her cute friend was but she seemed to have disappeared.
'Not that I know of,' Sam replied to the stunner beside him, barely managing to keep his tongue in his mouth. 'I'm Sam Ventura and this is my brother Valentino.'
Tino stared at his brother. No one called him Valentino except their mother.
Switch your brain on, Samuel.
'I do know you!' she declared confidently. 'You're at Clayton Smythecorporate litigation, L.A. office. Am I right?' 'You are at that.' Sam smiled.
'Ruby Clarksondiscrimination law, Sydney office.' She held out her hand. 'Please tell me you're in town this weekend and as free as a bird.'
Tino willed Sam not to blow his cool. The blonde had a sensational smile and a nice rack, but she was a little too bold for his tastes. His brother, however, he could see was already halfway to her bedroom.
Some sixth sense made him turn, and his eyes alighted on the friend in the black suit with the provocative red trim at the hem. She glanced at her empty table and her mouth fell open when she scanned the room and located her friend.
Then her eyes cut to his and her mouth snapped closed with frosty precision. Tino saw her spine straighten and grinned when she glanced at the door as if she was about to bolt through it. His eyes drifted over her again. If she'd bothered to smile, and he hadn't just ended a short liaison with a woman who had lied about understanding the term 'casual sex', she was exactly his type. Polished, poised and pertall over. Pert nose, pert breasts and a pert ass. And he liked the way she moved too. Graceful. Purposeful.