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Mitch glanced at his watch. 9:10. He'd made an appointment with Ms. Lowell's receptionist to meet at 9:30. So he was a little early. Big deal. He wanted this article researched and written ASAP. The sooner he finished with "Community Happenings", the sooner he could return to real writing, even if it was just sports. For now. The sooner John would mention him to Russ Kendrick.
He jumped out of his truck, locking it behind him with a beep. A Perfect Match was nestled in a newer part of Santa Clarita, which had cropped up during the last decade. The office sat in a strip mall, situated between an uptown day spa and a restaurant that billed itself as The Brunchery, whatever that was.
Welcome to a new world of romance and relationships, the window's poster read, above people making middle-school goo-goo eyes at one another. He groaned. Since John insisted on assigning him fluff, why couldn't the man have given him something simple, like the upcoming holiday bazaar?
The late November wind sliced through the morning air. Mitch lifted the collar of his leather jacket around his ears and dashed into A Perfect Match. The receptionist's chair sat empty.
"Hello? Anyone here?"
No reply. Odd. But maybe in a good way. If no one was here, maybe he could sneak around a bit, get a little scoop, see if he could find out what kind of business Juliette Lowell ran.
Mitch ventured past the reception area and took about a dozen steps down the hallway. He peeked into the first opening on his left. Nothing but a photocopier, a fax machine and a half-empty coffee pot.
Had everyone left? Maybe they'd gone to The Brunchery.
Scowling, hewandered farther down the hall, past a series of framed wedding pictures, presumably of various clients. He peered at Sarah and Lucas, June 17, 2006. They looked pretty normal. So did Jessica and Matthew, married March 3, 2007. He shrugged. Looks could be deceiving.
A streak of light beaming through a three-inch crack in the last door caught his attention. Ms. Lowell's office? He prowled another few steps to the open door at the end of the hall. Leaning against the frame, he peered inside.
His first sight was of a blonde on all fours with a truly beautiful ass in the air. Her shapely rear end, sheathed in a pencil-slim red skirt, outlined the alluring curve of her waist and hips. Spectacular. Man, what he wouldn't love to do to a naked woman with her curves in that tempting position...
Lengths of golden hair hung over her shoulders, flowing almost to her hands. From the posterior view anyway, she was definitely worth looking at.
"Ugh! This is the second time in a week," she muttered, combing the carpet beside her desk, clearly searching for something. "Thank God it's Friday."
Out of the corner of his eye, Mitch noticed a flicker of something less than a foot from her knee. Hunching down, he retrieved the item. The back to an earring. Its loss could be devastating, according to his sister. Maybe rescuing this damsel from her distress would score him some points.
"Is this what you're looking for?" he asked, holding the little gold back in his palm.
With a startled shriek, she whipped her gaze toward him, hand plastered to her chest.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to scare you." He thrust the earring back closer to her, his eyes glued to her face.
For a moment, Mitch couldn't breathe. The mass of golden hair she'd swept away from her face with a clip accentuated the classical beauty of her high cheekbones and the full lips she'd tinted a sheer, sexy red.
She glanced at the object in his palm, then reached for the small gold item. Her short nails at the tips of her long fingers were painted red, too. "Thank you."
For a brief moment, Mitch thought about dressing her in red. Lace--and nothing else.
"I--I didn't hear you come in."
Everything about her made his lust flame red.
He grinned. "I kind of got that impression, Miss..."
"Juliette Lowell." She refastened her earring with the back he'd returned to her, then rose to her seemingly average height, and held out her hand.
With shock waves running through his body, he shook it. This was Juliette Lowell, the scam artist? He barely held in a wolf whistle. She was the most gorgeous con he'd ever seen, with blue-green eyes and honey-colored skin. If she was Louise Cannon's idea of interesting, he'd call his boss's wife Loose Cannon a little less often.
"I don't usually greet people on the floor." She blushed sweetly, wearing a wry smile.
Perky yet vulnerable; she made it an interesting combination. Since he'd gotten a mouth-watering view of her backside, he couldn't help stealing a discreet glance at her front. Oh, hell. The drool-worthy sights continued. Her luscious breasts were covered by a sheer white blouse.
He swallowed. "I don't usually sneak up on people in their office."
"My receptionist is out sick. Do you have an appointment?"
"Sort of, but I'm a little early." Mitch withdrew a business card from his shirt pocket. "I'm Mitch MacKinnon, from The Santa Clarita Signal."
Oh, hell. It was him. Showtime...
Juliette took his card and glanced at it. Mitchell E. MacKinnon. A gorgeous stranger who, right now anyway, had a whole lot of power over her business.
With a nod, she sat behind her desk. Professional, she reminded herself. No gawking at those mile-wide shoulders.
"I'm glad you could make it. Have a seat. Coffee?"
"No, thanks. I try to avoid the stuff."
"You're a brave soul." She took another sip from her cup. "I'm really excited by this interview. So, what would you like to know?"
He lowered himself into the chair directly across and took out a small scratch pad and a pencil from his pocket. "Let's start with the basics. How long have you been in business?"
Juliette tried to pay attention to Mitch's question. But her mind wandered off. Lord, he was good-looking. She'd been expecting an Ed Asner-type, salty, older. Instead, she got a hunk who bulged in all the right places under his black T-shirt, with dark, disheveled hair, and a pair of killer dimples. And his jeans clung nicely, faded in places she shouldn't be contemplating since she'd only met the guy two minutes ago.
"Ms. Lowell?" he prompted. "Do you need me to repeat the question?"
He'd caught her staring. Oh, how humiliating. Why didn't she just jump in his lap? "I've been in business officially for three years. I started because I discovered in college that I had a knack for matchmaking."
He scribbled a few notes. "Where did you go to school?"
The black spikes of his lashes surrounded piercing dark eyes. Heaven help her; he even had sleek eyebrows. "Cal Berkeley. I majored in psychology."
"So why did you get away from psychology to become a professional matchmaker?"
The same question her father had asked. "As I said, I discovered I had a talent for knowing when people belonged together." She folded her shaking hands together. "After school, I just decided to combine my education and my ability."
He jotted a few more notes. "Are you using the same method you did at Berkeley?"
Concentrate. Focus on his questions, not staring into his stunning, suck-you-in, chocolate eyes.
She cleared her throat. "For the most part, yes. Of course, I'm on a much larger scale now. And my process is a little more formal than it used to be, but I still get to know to all my clients individually."
"How many do you have?"
She smiled, trying to appear calm. Not an easy feat with labored breathing. "As of last Friday, I have one thousand, one hundred two. That's down two from the week before. They got married."
He noted that. "In your promotional materials and on your Web site, you advertise your service as one-of-a-kind. Why?"
"Personal attention. The other is method. I combine my gut instinct with a personality inventory, an astrological chart and--"
"Astrology?" he interrupted in disbelief.
"It's more helpful than you might think."
"It's incredibly unscientific."
"So is dating, Mr. MacKinnon."
"But there must be something more ... organized, more proven."
She cleared her throat. "I understand your misgivings. Some of my clients had the same doubts at first. The truth is, every good matchmaker has her own method and a good intuition."
He thrust his pad onto the corner of her desk. "But these people are desperate, and you're offering them astrology and intuition."
"Often, that's just what they want, since their own instincts are unsuccessful. I also give them a handwriting analysis. After the personal interview, I add a few observations of my own, input the information into the computer program I had specially written, and out pops a list of possibilities."
His grunt mocked her. "What kind of success rate can that hodgepodge possibly produce?"
Wonderful. Her gorgeous reporter, the one who could really send her business soaring, was a huge disbeliever. Just her luck. "Currently, it's sixty-two percent."
He picked up his pad and wrote again. "Since you use such ... unusual methods, don't you worry about lawsuits?"
Gritting her teeth, Juliette inhaled a deep breath. Just like her father, Mitch was a doubter in anything he couldn't see, hear, taste, smell or touch. If it wasn't tangible, it didn't exist. "The vast majority of my clients are quite satisfied."
"But for those who aren't?"
He was cocky, so sure her service was hoopla. Well, if he wanted tangible, she would give it to him. "No one has attempted to sue me to date. In fact, I'd be happy to arrange a time for you to meet with my newest newlyweds. Their happiness will speak for A Perfect Match better than I can."
End of interview, at least as far as she was concerned. What more could she say at the moment that would convince him? Nothing. Words weren't nearly as concrete as newlyweds.
Juliette rose and paused by his chair, arms crossed. Mitch only settled against the back of his chair with his lips curled up, as if suppressing a smile of victory.
"You're not very anxious to talk to me, Ms. Lowell."
"On the contrary, I'm eager to talk to a reporter, but not one who has prejudged my concept before the interview is finished."
His deprecating laugh was almost as irritating as dismissive attitude. "You have to admit your methods seem a little bizarre."
"Only to your type," she shot back.
His raised brows told Juliette she had his full attention again. "And what type is that?"
"Oh--" she tossed a casual hand through the air, "--an extravert with a strong sensing tendency. You're obviously a thinking type without a lot of boundaries. I'd guess you're an ESTP."
"And that aura you give off, that air of cockiness ... Are you a Scorpio by chance?"
Mitch's frown hovered between confusion and disbelief. "Yeah."
She nodded, a smile hovering on her lips. "You're not from California, are you?"
He paused. "No. Indiana."
"That partially explains your rejection of all but the tried and true. The rest is in personality and upbringing." She sat on the edge of the desk, enjoying the dramatic effect of her pause. Mitch hung on her every movement. "You're primarily a sports writer, I heard. I'll bet you were a jock with aspirations."
He scowled. "I'm interviewing you. Can we get back to it?"
"Touchy subject, is it?"
He scanned his notes. "Are you married?"
She paused. "Not at the moment."
His head popped up, gaze challenging. "If you're so good at predicting chemistry between men and women, why doesn't Juliette have a Romeo?"
She held her tongue. She didn't owe Mr. Concrete an explanation about Andrew, her seemingly ideal mate, and why she hadn't yet responded to his proposal. How could she tell Mitch what she couldn't even explain to herself?
"Your article is about my business. Do you have anything else along that line you'd like to cover?"
He smiled faintly. "Not right now, but I'd like to meet your newlyweds."
"Fine. I'll arrange a meeting for tomorrow, if possible." Juliette drifted toward her office door.
Mitch followed suit. "Just give me a call."
When he reached for her hand, Juliette took it with reluctance. Noting that nothing in their handshake was unbusinesslike, yet that same head-to-toe tingle that plagued her on their first such contact swarmed her again.
As he backtracked down the hall, she followed. His dark hair touched the bottom of his collar with a slight curl. The span of his wide shoulders, encased in black leather, filled her vision. She had no doubt he worked out diligently and often. Her eyes gravitated to the worn seat of his jeans clinging to his well-formed behind.
She was leering like a teenager. What was the matter with her?
Nothing. There was nothing wrong with simple attraction between a healthy man and woman. It happened every day, to thousands of people. This feeling didn't mean there was anything wrong with her relationship with Andrew.
But why Mitch MacKinnon? He was a cocky jerk with hang-ups about anything not tangible. She'd bet he had never even meditated.
"Thank you for your time." The line sounded as phony as "What's your sign?"
"My pleasure," she said, trying to maintain a smile.
Mitch MacKinnon was a know-it-all. Definitely not for her. So why was her matchmaking intuition on alert? She had this tingling certainty often--around clients. But she'd never experienced this sensation in a relationship of her own. What did that mean?
Maybe nothing. Did it have to mean something? Maybe it was the stormy weather, a full moon or just too many hormones.
She knew one way to cinch it. "Mr. MacKinnon, do you believe in love and commitment? In putting down roots and raising a family?"
At the door, he turned. His gaze travelled a leisurely path down her body. Juliette felt the burn of his gaze all over. Oh, he was thorough ... and apparently interested in her, too. Why did that fact make her heart pound? Awareness of him, his obvious maleness evident in his seemingly-casual stance, his body language and scent, assailed her--things she never noticed about Andrew. She swallowed a knot of tension.
"I've never been in love myself." He shrugged. "It makes me wonder if love is just something people talk themselves into because they don't want to be alone. As for putting down roots ... I'd rather see the world."
Juliette released her breath. She and Mitch MacKinnon hardly belonged on the same planet, much less the same relationship. Proving that ought to make her happy, right? Of course.
She had Andrew's proposal to concentrate on. She had to decide, had to figure out why she just couldn't say yes to the man who had so sweetly professed his love and offered her the hometown dreams of her childhood.
She cleared her throat. "Feel free to call me if you have any questions after you've interviewed the Grahams."
"Who? Oh, the newlyweds." He nodded, studying her one last time, his dark eyes lingering. "I'll be in touch."