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By Tori Carrington
Harlequin EnterprisesCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSection I: Change is good ... Real good
Aw, hell, what was it about her?
Michael Romero absently rubbed the back of his neck with his palm and eyed where Kyra White sat two tables away at the Tampa, Florida bar and grill frequented by employees of neighborhood businesses, including the architectural firm where he and Kyra both worked. Aside from being co-workers - he was one of four partners while she did the bookkeeping - they were best friends. A relationship that had been cemented when she'd first hired on at Fisher, Palmieri, Romero, and Tanner four years ago. The first week on the job, she'd made a number of nervous mistakes and his partners had wanted to let her go. Instead, Michael had realized where the problem lay - her fear that she wouldn't live up to the job - and had befriended her. No big sacrifice. She'd turned out to be one hell of a bookkeeper. And the status of their relationship quickly escalated to them becoming best friends and led him to where he was right now. Essentially lusting after a woman who was off-limits to him.
Well, maybe "lusting" wasn't the word. But there was something about Kyra that jumped up and nipped him on the butt whenever he wasn't looking. Scratch that. Whenever he was looking at her, while she didn't have a clue about thedirection of his thoughts. A strange kind of gravitational pull that made it virtually impossible to think about anything or anyone else.
Of course it didn't help that Kyra was sitting with the latest in a long line of short-term boyfriends, guys who would rate high on anyone's moron scale. His gaze skimmed over Kyra's long, shiny chestnut-brown hair, her oval green eyes, her clean, girl-next-store features, and her slender form beneath a long, loose-fitting khaki skirt and boxy white blouse. Funny, he never much thought about her in sexual terms whenever they were face-to-face, trying out a new restaurant, playing on the firm's softball team, or watching the latest video. Then she was his best friend, full of enthusiasm and challenging ideas, ready to laugh at his lamest jokes, constantly carping about his poor diet and his need for a woman deserving of him.
At times such as these, however, Michael wondered if the guy she was with knew how lucky he was that he could press his mouth against her soft pink one. Fan open her blouse to expose her elegant throat. And then, Michael pondered whether any of Kyra's boyfriends had a clue how to handle a woman like her. Touch her in just the right way. Stroke her slick heat until her breath came in quick gasps and her body tensed in climax.
Aw, hell. Michael stared at jerk number - Hell, he'd lost count over the past four years, stopping at somewhere around number ten, though he suspected there had been a few more since then. Thirteen. He'd label this one Thirteen just because it felt right. Aside from being a very smug, up-and-coming attorney, Craig Holsom was attractive and he knew it. Kyra had been dating him for three weeks. A record even by her standards. Holsom's gaze wandered to a passing waitress, making no secret of his interest in the girl's generous physical assets. Michael stared down to his lap, where he was scratching his palm, and realized he was filled with the sudden urge to knock the grin straight from Holsom's face.
He grimaced, then took a long chug of his beer. He should have gone home instead of dropping by Lolita's for a brew with Kyra. Especially since he knew Kyra was meeting Craig. He was incapable of saying more than a semicordial hello to any of her dates before begging off with one excuse or another to settle at another table. Tonight's excuse had been a nonexistent date that was supposed to meet him there. It had become nonexistent as of two hours ago, when Jennifer Polasky had called him at work and told him she had to work late and was turning down his dinner invitation. She'd wanted a rain check, but Michael wasn't that interested and told her he'd call to reschedule sometime next week. He didn't bother to write a note to himself because he knew he wouldn't be contacting her.
Michael's mind ventured back to the object of his gaze. He'd already figured out that some of what he felt for Kyra stemmed from his need to protect her. He took great satisfaction in knowing that he knew her better than any other person alive - her sister Alannah aside - including all of the men she dated put together. He admired her strength when she'd told him she'd grown up in a two-room shack in a small town outside Memphis, Tennessee. He was equally as appalled when he'd learned she'd been working since she was ten, baby-sitting, pet walking, newspaper delivering, then graduating to fast-food joints so that she and her older sister Alannah could eke out a living after their parents had died. And he was even strangely proud that he'd been able to help her help herself when she'd flubbed up a receivables report and was almost dismissed from her job at the firm. Now she practically ran the place, keeping everything and everyone in line, proving to be the glue that held them all together when things got rough.
She was a breath of fresh air to a man who had grown up in a confused family environment. And she was a harsh taskmaster who refused to let him feel sorry for himself.
"Remember ... things could always be worse," was one of her trademark sayings.
And she was living proof that they, indeed, could be. But why she continued to prove the point by dating men who didn't have a clue about her true worth ceaselessly mystified him. Whenever he brought it up, she laughed, waved her slender hand, and told him that she was attracted to whichever guy she was attracted to, simple as that.
And Michael had been there to help pick her up whenever one of the jerks dumped her, as they all eventually did.
Kyra's face turned suddenly ashen. It was only then that Michael realized he'd been staring at her nonstop. He looked at Holsom, the way he held his hands, palms up, the elevated state of his brows as if explaining something Kyra wasn't equipped to handle.
Michael's fingers tightened on his beer bottle as Kyra reached out and rested a hand on Holsom's sleeve. Michael wished he hadn't sat so far away. If he were closer, he'd be able to listen in on what they were saying. Then again, he didn't have to hear the words to translate their meaning.
"I ... don't understand," was written all over Kyra's pretty face.
Holsom plucked her hand from his forearm and put it down in front of her, then patted it patronizingly. The bottle in Michael's hand nearly shattered. "It's over," Jerk Number Thirteen mouthed.
Here we go again. Michael started to get up from the table. It was getting a little old, this playing the knight-in-shining-armor bit. Especially since he never earned the princess's traditional gratitude.
Kyra urgently said something to Holsom and he coiled back, staggering to his own feet.
Double uh-oh. Michael forced himself to leave his beer where it sat on the table and began to make his way toward his best friend.
But he was afraid he was too late. "Oh, yeah?" Holsom said, his face turning an unappealing shade of purple. "Well you're about as lively in bed as a dead fish."
Excerpted from Skin Deep by Tori Carrington Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.