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STRONG and SEXY
By JILL SHALVIS
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2008 Jill Shalvis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneShe'd promised herself she'd do this. No running, no avoiding, just face it head-on and get it done. But as Dani Peterson bent for her broken-off heel, she felt her resolve slip.
Running like hell would have been so much easier.
All she'd asked of herself was to get through this with a shred of dignity, but that would be a little tough now, wouldn't it, while minus a heel.
Ah, well. Her family already believed her a little off, why not just go ahead and prove it by looking the part.
But then came the voice.
The low, husky male voice asking, "Are you okay?"
She sighed as she eyed her offending heel. "That depends."
On whether or not she could find room in her budget to replace the shoes. "Nothing. I'm fine. Thanks." Blowing a strand of hair from her mouth, she glanced over just as he crouched at her side.
And felt the most ridiculous schoolgirl urge to blush and stammer. Because wow.
He smiled at her. And although everything about him-his confidence, his clothes, his ease-all projected old money and class-not to mention a sophistication she couldn't have faked on her best day-he wasn't GQ perfect.
No, nothing as easy to shrug off as GQ perfect.
Instead, his hair had been finger combed at best, the sun-streaked wheat strands shoved back off his face, where it fell in unruly waves to his collar. His mouth was wide, quirked in a half smile that revealed a single heart-stopping dimple on the left side, the same side as the scar that slashed his eyebrow in half over a set of golden eyes with laugh lines at the corners.
He apparently smiled, and often.
His nose had been broken at least once, the bump only adding more character to a face that already had it in spades. He was bigger than her last boyfriend, but truthfully it had been so long she could hardly remember if she'd had to go up on tiptoe to kiss him. She'd definitely have to get up on tiptoe for this guy, and why she was even thinking such a thing was ridiculous.
"I'm fine," she repeated, hoping that by saying so multiple times she could make it true. "Really. Just fine." Uh-huh, and now she sounded like an idiot as well as looked like one. "So fine ..."
God. She rambled when she was nervous, and she was very nervous now. "Super fine." Shut up, shut up.
With a smile, he put his hand on her arm. It was a big hand, warm and strong, much like the rest of him. He had to bend because he was well over six feet, and while she was noticing that, she couldn't fail to continue to notice the rest. He definitely had a build to go with the height, an athletic one, not a gym-made one, the kind that under normal circumstances would have made her swallow her own tongue.
But since she'd embarrassed herself enough already, she told herself no tongue swallowing, and to make sure of it, avoided looking directly into his face. It should help the problem of finding his ... maleness so utterly unsettling and intimidating.
Movements easy and fluid, he pulled her to her feet, still touching her in a way that woke things within her, things that had been dormant for a long, long time. Yes, he was attractive, but also astonishingly, remarkably ... male.
And as if all that wasn't potent enough, he looked right into her face, and whoa baby, those golden eyes were full, deep, and direct in a way that said he could read her all the way to the bone.
If that was the case, she was in big trouble.
Around them, the party was noisy, festive with holiday cheer and decorations, complete with sprigs of mistletoe. It was crowded with happy revelers-everything that she usually avoided. Mostly, she'd rather have a root canal without the benefit of good meds than dress up and make nice with rich, spoiled people, but she'd used that excuse last time.
So here she was, being physically supported by one of them, no less. Since she barely came to his shoulder, she had to balance on her one heel for some desperately needed height.
He smiled, and while maybe he wasn't exactly GQ material, he'd certainly dressed for the cover, wearing gorgeously cut black pants and a soft-looking whiskey-colored shirt that matched his eyes, clothes that had clearly been made for his long, leanly muscled body.
They were not in the same tax bracket. Not even close.
"Let me find you a place to sit," he said. "It's too nice an evening to be rushing around."
She sensed he didn't do a lot of rushing. There was something relaxed and laid-back about him.
And gorgeous. Let's not forget gorgeous. "I'm good, thanks."
"Would you like a drink?"
After which he'd likely vanish as quickly as he could. It was nothing personal, she knew. She just wasn't the sort of woman to keep a man like this interested for long, though she spared a second to wish that for once she could act like her mother's daughter. That for once she could simply go after whatever she wanted.
Because what she wanted was a chance beneath the mistletoe, if only for a moment ... "So why aren't you out there having fun? Drinking or dancing, or ..." As was its habit, her tongue ran away from her brain. "Or making the most of that mistletoe?"
His eyes lit with good humor, and that dimple flashed. "Maybe I don't have someone to make the most of it with." He glanced out at the party, and behind his back she smacked herself in the head. Making the most of that mistletoe? Had she really said that?
When he looked at her again, she forced a smile.
"So, about that drink."
"Yes, thanks. Anything," she said, allowing his escape.
But not hers. She was doing this. No matter what. She was going to forget about Perfect Stranger Guy and make nice here if it killed her, no matter how much she really hated these silly get-togethers her mother was always having thrown in her own honor. Tonight, it was to celebrate her latest catch, her fourth-or was it her fifth?-fiancé, and Sandra had insisted her daughter be present.
Well, here Dani was, even though she actually could be having her own celebration because she'd finally gotten promoted today, from mammal keeper to head mammal keeper. Yay her. But her celebratory carton of ice cream would have to wait, and with Perfect Stranger Guy heading to the bar for her drink, she limped through the lobby to make her appearance.
The building was new, all steel and glass, with a wall of windows looking out onto the tarmac, lined with million-dollar jets. Beyond that, an incredible view of the LA nighttime skyline. The place belonged to Sky High Air, a luxury jet service to the stinking rich, and these days her mother was indeed as stinking rich as they came, a far cry from the trailer park they'd started out in.
As Dani hobbled along, trying to look like she fit in, she took in more than her fair share of curious glances. Yeah yeah, so she didn't have a spare pair of Choos in her trunk and her hair was out of control, so what. She was here to support her mother, not to have a bad high-school flashback.
But just like high school, the few guys who glanced her way looked right through her like ... like she was a nobody.
Nice to know that she was still registered so high on the desirable scale.
Okay, maybe the shoes and hair mattered, at least to these people, who'd probably never had a bad hair day in their collective pampered life. Feeling more than a little off her axis, and a whole lot clumsy and unattractive, she forged ahead. She could do this. She could smile and make merry, and as a reward, later, she'd plow through that carton of Ben & Jerry's.
Determined. That's what her epitaph would read. Ahead of her, her mother appeared out of a circle of people, moving with all the elegance and grace that she hadn't passed on to Dani. As one of the most wealthy, powerful women in the area, Sandra Peterson had a reputation to uphold, and she knew it. After all, she'd married up the ladder, several times, trading husbands for upward rungs as she'd gone.
Well, Dani had gotten that determination from somewhere.
As usual, Sandra's dark hair had been carefully coiffed, and unlike Dani's, remained firmly in place, framing a gorgeous, well-preserved face. The smile seemed real enough, which surprised Dani, considering Sandra had been telling people her daughter was just a little crazy-her mother's way of accepting their differences in lifestyle.
Her mother was flanked by her stepsiblings from a previous marriage to some Italian count. Tony and Eliza were in their twenties, both dressed to the hilt, with noses tilted to nosebleed heights. Since they'd inherited God only knew how much from their father and rarely spoke to mere mortals including, maybe especially including, Dani, she looked at her mother first. "Hello, Mother."
"Darling." And to her surprise, Dani received an air kiss in the region of each of her cheeks.
Tony and Eliza smiled, though Dani could only call it such because they bared their teeth. Maybe their purse strings were too tight, choking them. Or maybe they really disliked her as much as she imagined they did. Most likely it was lingering concern over their trust funds, which were so huge they couldn't have spent all their money in their lifetimes. Or in their children's lifetimes.
Or their children's children's lifetimes ...
Once, a year back or so, Dani had suggested the two unemployed socialites go into philanthropy. They'd stared at her blankly, mouths open so wide Dani had practically seen the hamsters running on their wheels inside their brains.
Give away money? they'd asked in horror, having never once in their lives been strapped for cash. Why would they give money away ...?
When their father had gotten cancer and had revealed he planned on leaving Dani a share of his estate, people had been shocked. But then he'd died without finalizing his new will. The probate court had given everyone eighteen months to make a claim against the estate, something Dani had never even considered doing. She made her own way in the world, always had. But until the eighteen months were up, people were waiting for her to make a move, whispering about her, thinking she was odd to say the least for not wanting the money.
When she greeted her stepsiblings, their lips barely curved, not a single laugh line or wrinkle in evidence, making them a walking Don't ad for Botox.
Meanwhile, Sandra was giving Dani and her appearance the eagle eye. "Go ahead, Mother. Have your say."
"I wasn't sure you'd come, seeing as you hate me these days."
"I don't hate you."
"Soon as I got rich, you disowned me."
If that wasn't a twisting of the facts to suit the woman. But then again, her mother was the master of twisting things to suit herself. "I simply asked you to stop controlling me with your newfound money. And then you reacted by disowning me."
"Controlling you with my money?" Sandra shook her head and sipped her champagne. "Honestly."
"That was honesty."
"Okay, yes, fine. I'm guilty. I admit it. For you, my daughter, I wanted the right clothes, the right college, the right job-"
"There's nothing wrong with my clothes-"
Her mother sniffed. "That dress is at least four years old. Not to mention off the rack."
Five years old, but who was counting. She was just grateful to still fit in it. "And Cal Poly was a great college."
"Please. With your grades, you should have gone to Harvard."
"They didn't have a zoology program."
"Yes. And I know how important it is for you to play with your elephants."
Ah, there it was. Dani pinched the bridge of her nose and drew a deep breath. She was a mammal keeper. Head mammal keeper now, which still meant a pathetic salary but she didn't care. She was doing what she loved, what she'd always dreamed of, and she wouldn't apologize. "Look, have a great evening. I think I'll just go." And for once she was going to make an exit on her own terms. Turning, she ran smack into a solid brick wall.
Or the chest of a man.
He was holding two drinks, or had been holding, along with a sort of lazy wicked smile that spoke of a confidence such as she'd never experienced, and as she plowed into him, the champagne flew out of the expensive-looking flutes and right on her, splashing down the front of her off-the-rack, five-year-old little black dress.
Her mother gasped.
Dani's Perfect Stranger Guy swore and began to apologize, setting down the flutes, gesturing to a waiting server for assistance, but she backed away.
She didn't need assistance. She needed a lobotomy for thinking she could come here and even partially fit in. Waving good-bye to her mother, nodding to the man she could happily look at forever but hoped to never see again, she moved away, more carefully this time, searching for her most direct escape route.
The iced champagne down her front made breathing difficult. Or maybe that was just humiliation choking her. Pulling her soaked dress away from her torso, she grabbed her own flute from a passing server and tossed it down the hatch as she hobbled on. There. Maybe that would help bolster her spirits.
And maybe Santa would really visit this year.
Just ahead, in front of the coat check where she'd left her coat, two women glanced at her, then back at each other, exchanging a look.
It didn't matter what the Paris Hilton clones thought, she told herself. She was far more than anyone here saw. She knew it, and repeating it to herself, she passed them by without stopping to get her coat, forcing her head high, smile in place. It wouldn't have fooled the mammals she trained, and it wouldn't have fooled a single one of her friends, but it would fool people here in the Land of Fake Smiles.
At the front doors, her fake smile faded as she stumbled to a halt.
It was raining. Not just raining, but pouring, huge buckets of water falling out of the sky, hitting the pavement with such velocity the drops bounced back up again, nearly to her knees.
Damn it, and she'd forgotten to get her coat.
Turning back, she took in the party. People were dancing, talking, laughing, in general having a good time. There were several couples nearby, beneath various sprigs of mistletoe, kissing. Another couple about to kiss ...
She sighed. Just once, she wanted to be beneath the damn mistletoe, just long enough to boost her flailing confidence. Perfect Stranger Guy came to mind, but no doubt he had women lining up holding mistletoe over his head, their pulses racing, panties already wet.
With another sigh, she moved back to the coat check.
"He's the hottest man here."
This from one of the Paris Hiltons as the woman eyed no other than Dani's Perfect Stranger Guy.
"You're going to have to fight me for him," Paris Hilton Number Two said.
"From what I hear, he's ready, able, and willing. Why don't we just share him?"
Okay, ew. Dani moved down a hallway, thinking she'd just find a ladies' room to give herself a pep talk, and then, hopefully, the coat check would be clear. She opened the first door she came to, which turned out to be an office. A rather lush office, with candles strewn across a huge glimmering black desk, and behind it, a gorgeous man in the desk chair wearing a Santa hat. Perfect, really. Except he was clearly already taken, presumably by the beautiful woman in the Mrs. Santa hat, straddling him.
"Noah," the beautiful woman said with a gasp. "You didn't lock the door."
"Sorry, I thought you did."
"Excuse me," Dani whispered, trying not to notice that the man's hands were up the woman's skirt, and Ms. Claus's hands were ... oh boy.
"My fault." Dani shut the door and winced, even as a little part of her yearned. What she'd give to be in the lap of a man who couldn't keep his hands off her. Shaking her head at herself, she kept going.
The next door wasn't a bathroom, but a storage closet. A big one, the shelves filled with office supplies, organized and neat.
And then suddenly there was a hand at the small of her back as a big, tall male form squeezed in behind her.
"Hey yourself." Flicking on the light, he shut the door, then leaned back against it, flashing that lazy, wicked boy smile.
Perfect Stranger Guy.
Chapter TwoDani gaped at him, the man who'd seen her graceless entrance to the party, who'd witnessed her social skills, all none of them. "What are you doing?"
"You looked like you could use a moment alone."
"Yes, but I'm not alone," she said pointedly.
Her happy spots stood up and tap-danced, but her brain beat them back down.
Then he stepped closer, and her happy spots won the battle. All around her, the closet seemed to shrink. The shelves closed in, the light dimmed, and she couldn't see anything but this man looking at her, smiling easily, relaxed, laid-back.
Excerpted from STRONG and SEXY by JILL SHALVIS Copyright © 2008 by Jill Shalvis. Excerpted by permission.
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