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By Ann Roth
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAny minute they'd be here. Jittery as a cat stuck on a high, thin branch, Zoey Dare cast a last, nervous glance around the makeshift classroom she'd rented from the Elk Hills Community Center. Seven ugly but comfortable yellow-green armchairs were carefully arranged in a loose circle around her own straight-backed chair. The large, colorful, laminated Dare to Get It Right! poster she'd picked up at the printer's hung on the concrete-block wall where all the men could see it. Beneath the poster stood a scarred, brown conference table stocked with name tags, notepads, freshly sharpened pencils, a large metal coffee urn gurgling through the final steps of percolation and a plate of butter cookies.
Perfect. She was as ready as she would ever be.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the room, and her stomach growled a complaint. Absently she soothed a hand across her middle. She'd been so nervous about tonight, she hadn't been able to do more than pick at her dinner. Oh, please, let this class work out the way she'd dreamed it would.
The seven men who had signed up ranged in age from twenty-five to fifty. Some were professionals with advanced degrees and some had high school educations and blue-collar jobs. Regardless, they shared the same problem - they had no idea how to relate to women. Zoey shook her head at that sad thought. Well, that was about to change. If this course worked out the way she planned, in only five weeks those men would be educated and clued in, which would make them happier and healthier.
The women of Elk Hills, Washington, would reap the benefits. They'd tell their friends about the course. More men would sign up and graduate, and after those, still more, until the whole town was enlightened and happy. Zoey had visions of her successful course spreading throughout the country, and even the world. Thankful men and women everywhere would rejoice. Her friends would all find the mates they longed for and start families.
Not Zoey, though. After the fiasco with Michael, then dating for two frustrating years, she'd given up on love for the higher purpose of helping others. With that thought came a swift pang of longing, but she refused to indulge in self-pity.
Zoey squared her shoulders. She wasn't a psychotherapist for nothing. The satisfaction of helping others would soon fill up the emptiness, as it always did.
Down the hall the heavy front doors of the community center thudded open, and masculine voices filled the air. They're here. Zoey froze, and her hands knotted at her waist. What should she do now, stand at the door to greet them, or pretend to be busy with other things? Before she could decide, footsteps stopped at the door.
Forcing a smile past a flutter of nerves, she fluffed her hair, smoothed down her dress and headed forward to greet the first comers.
What in hell was he doing here? Cole Tyler grumbled to himself. It was a beautiful May evening and he could have been out on Puget Sound, testing his latest prototype racing boat. Instead he was sitting in a circle with six men he didn't know, all looking as wary and sorry to be here as he was. He wiped his palms on his jeans, shifted uneasily in his sagging chair and eyed Zoey Dare, the teacher. She was a slender twenty-something woman with a soft, soothing voice at odds with her tense, soldier-straight posture and short, no-nonsense haircut. She was okay looking, if you liked pale skin, black hair and big doe eyes. But that I'm-out-to-change-you expression on her face worried Cole.
Suddenly he wanted out of there. Only the bet he'd made with Gabe and Sam kept him in his seat. As a joke Cole's two best buddies had suckered him into signing up for the course, wagering he'd never make it through the whole six weeks. A ten-thousand-dollar sponsorship of his boat in next fall's Pacific Best Regatta was riding on that bet, and Cole intended to collect. He'd graduate if he had to tie himself down to do it.
Besides, he wasn't having much luck with the ladies recently, and he really needed to find the right one. Time was running out. Who knew, maybe Ms. Dare could help.
In an effort to relax he rolled his shoulders, then stretched his legs out in front of him and again studied his teacher. She was wearing one of those flowing, feminine dresses his sisters favored, with short little sleeves and tiny flowers all over. It was on the long side, stopping below her knees, and way too loose, but clingy enough to show him glimpses of the curves beneath. Her breasts were too small for his taste. Nice calves, though, from what he could see, slender and shapely.
He stopped his thoughts with a frown. None of those things mattered. What he needed was a woman he could settle down with.
Could Zoey Dare help him find his Ms. Right?
"Hey." The round-faced guy next to Cole nudged him.
Ed, his name tag read. He couldn't be more than twenty-five, poor sap. Had he been goaded into coming here as Cole had?
Ed jerked his chin toward Zoey, who was watching them both curiously, then lowered his voice to a loud whisper. "It's your turn."
"Right." Cole stroked his chin. Zoey had introduced herself and given her credentials as a psychotherapist in private practice. She'd then asked each man to introduce himself. And they were doing just that, docile as you please - Hank, Bruce, Andy, Steve, Frank and Ed. Now they were all looking at him. Including Zoey, her brows arched in expectation.
Oddly uncomfortable, Cole cleared his throat and shifted in his seat. "I'm Cole Tyler."
A beat of silence ticked by. Zoey leaned forward, her legs crossed demurely at the ankle, her lips slightly pursed. "And?" she prompted.
"I design and manufacture racing shells - shells are long, lightweight boats - for the Olympics and for various university racing crews across the country," he proudly stated.
"What else?" At Cole's blank look she added, "I assume you're here because, like everyone else, you want to change?"
Cole crossed his arms. No woman was going to change him! He'd tried that already, first back in college for Jenny, who had fits if he stayed late on campus or had a beer with his friends, and then years later for Susan, who insisted he drop his hobbies in favor of hers. Though he'd altered his behavior and tried his best to please, neither relationship had worked out. Now that he was thirty-four, soon to be thirty-five, he'd learned a thing or two. He was who he was. If a woman didn't like that, too bad.
Zoey was still waiting, so he snickered. "Am I looking to change? Not for you, honey."
He was gratified to see her blush. Not just her cheeks, but her entire face and neck. He liked that he'd rattled her. He grinned. "Why don't you tell us why you're here?"
Some of the men glanced uneasily at him, but a few nodded. Zoey stiffened as if she'd just had a pole rammed up her spine.
"I'm so glad you asked," she said in that soft, sweet voice. Her fingers toyed absently with the silver arching-cat pin fastened to her collar. "Many men are confused as to what women want. They need help, but outside of counseling, there's no place to get that help. Of course counseling is available, and if you feel you need therapy, I'd be happy to give you my card. I have an office downtown where I meet privately with clients. But many people don't want counseling, and so, men and women everywhere are suffering needlessly. That's why I designed and started this course."
Excerpted from Reforming Cole by Ann Roth Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.