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"How did you ever talk me into this?" Candy asked Ellie as they crossed the last few yards to Matt's beach house. "Mixing work and play is like chasing a tequila shot with a piÃ±a coladaguaranteed puke-fest."
"Trust me," Ellie said. "It'll be fine."
"And this thing weighs a ton." She shifted the antique laptop she'd borrowed from the SyncUp IT department to her other shoulder and wiggled her toes in her sandals to relieve the irritation of grinding sand. The beach was meant for bare feet, not shoes, for God's sake.
"You should have swiped Sara's computer so she'd have no excuse not to be in a bikini this minute," Ellie said.
"I can't believe she sneaked that little printer into her bag."
"Fighting your nature is not easy," Ellie said.
"No kidding." That was as clear to Candy as the Malibu sky overhead, where no cloud troubled the computer onto the nearest porch, grab a tiki drink and frolic in the foam. "This will work," Ellie said again, squeezing Candy's upper arm. "I know it will."
Candy blinked against the sunlight glancing off the sparkling water. It was all so temptingthe gently swooshing waves, the kids shrieking as they dashed into the water, the spectacular hunks jogging bytan and muscular and ready to play.
But this was no time for Candy's inner girl-gone-wild to lift her pale face to the sun. She had a mission, dammit, and her future at SyncUp hung in the balance.
On the other hand, she'd worn her yellow bikini beneath the white capris and white blouse she'd knotted at her waist, and her straw beach bag held a towel, sunscreen and flip-flopsjust in case she squeezed in some beach time. She was prepared toseize whatever pleasure she could out of this trip.
She fished her cell phone out of the tight pocket of her capris to be sure it was on loud ring. Sara was due to fake a work call after they reached Matt's place.
A big dog wearing a red bandanna galloped up and snuffled Candy's hand, then back-stepped away, inviting her to toss somethingher phone?
"Wish I could, Bucko," she said, "but I need it." With a little yelp, the dog galloped off in search of someone who understood what the beach was for. Candy sighed. Maybe later she'd catch up with the cheerful guy. For now, she stood at the bottom of Matt's stairs.
"Ready to dazzle my brother with your work ethic?" Ellie asked.
Candy rubbed the top of her nose. "Yep. All raw from the grindstone." "Showtime, then." Ellie started upward.
Candy grabbed her arm. "No ad-libbing, now. No hints, no winks, no nudges. Matt and I will never be a notch on your matchmaker's belt."
"Whatever you say." Ellie's cheerful concession was too easy, Candy knew, vowing to watch her friend closely.
Ellie bounded up the stairs and Candy followed, her heart pounding as loudly in her ears as Ellie's knock.
When Matt opened the door, Candy's heart took a header into her stomach. The way it had before that mortifying kiss gone wrong, when she'd landed on her backlegs in the air, tiger thong on display, dignity out the window.
"Hello," Matt said to Ellie, then caught sight of her.
"And Candy?" His eyes grabbed her, a piercing blue, even through his glasses. When Matt looked at her, he really looked. As though she were a tangled computer code he must decipher or die.
Read me, baby, she wanted to say. Read me all night long.
His intense focus appealed to her. Also, his calm restraint, beneath which he was probably hotter than hot. Like the mild-mannered alter ego of the all-powerful man of steel.
Steel hmm. The thought of his steeliest part made her insides melt like a frozen daiquiri in the sun.
Stop that. Work, not play. "In the flesh," she said. Flesh? Did you have to say flesh? She rushed on. "When Ellie told me you'd be here, I was relieved someone would understand how to work on vacation." She patted the laptop. Something tinkled and dropped inside the bag. Nothing vital, she hoped.
"You're working? On vacation?" The emphasis on you're wounded her, but Matt blinked. He didn't seem to have intended to insult her. She knew him to be a straightforward guy who stuck to the facts. He wasn't into the nuances of diplomacy.
"I practically had to drag her here," Ellie said. "She wanted to cancel because of her project."
"What project?" He gave Candy another shot of his blue zingers.
"I'm working on something for Ledger Lite." The accounting software was one of SyncUp's bread-andbutter products. Version 2.0 was set for beta testing and she'd had a great idea she hoped would impress him.
"Would you consider taking a look at what I've got?"
His eyes dipped to her breasts, then up, as if she'd invited him to peek at her attributes. Heat rushed through her, but she rattled breathlessly onward. "I wouldn't bother you, but it's crucial before the beta launches, so I thought why not?"
She turned to see that the beach dog had dropped a red Frisbee at her feet and now quivered with excitement, expecting her to throw it.
"Your dog?" Matt asked with a wry half-smile.
"No, but we've met." The dog recognized her as a kindred spirit, no doubt. She bent for the Frisbee, but
"Flight of the Bumblebee" played from her pocket, so she held up a finger to signify business before pleasure and dug for her cell.
The dog moaned in an agony of disappointment. Her pocket was so tight that when she got the phone out, it slipped to the porch. The retriever grabbed it and bounded away.
Crap. Candy set the computer on the porch, kicked off her sandals and dashed after the dog. Matt had already headed off. So much for her professional impression.
Seconds later, they were playing keep-away with the nimble canine, feinting and lunging and missing, until Candy finally jumped onto its furry middle and held the dog still so Matt could pry the phone from its jaws.
After Candy let him go, the dog jumped up and down, eager for another toss of the expensive chew toy.
Matt helped Candy up. The warmth of his hand zinged through her, the way it had when he'd boosted her to her feet after the thong flash. He wiped the phone with the bottom of his oxford shirt, giving her a droolworthy glimpse of a muscular belly. Hmm. Earnest, gallant and buff.
He handed her the cleaned-up phone. "Great tackle." "Great teamwork," she said, pressing home her point about her work skills.
The dog whined piteously for attention. "Easy, boy." Matt patted him, then crouched to read the tag dangling from the middle of the dog's bandanna. "Looks like your name is Radar, huh?" He scrubbed the top of the dog's head with his knuckles.
Candy lowered herself to pet the dog, too, meeting Matt's eyes over its back. She felt trapped in his gaze even after Radar lost interest in them and galloped off.
Matt leaned closer, fingers outstretched. She had the crazy thought that he wanted to kiss her again, which couldn't be true. But electricity blew through her all the same, making her feel swoony and weak.
Mid-reach, Matt's fingers stilled. "You have some, uh, sand." He brushed his own cheek to show her where.
"Oh. Right." She smoothed away the grains. That night, she'd mistaken Matt's swipe at a dab of pricklypear margarita for a smooch attempt. No wonder she'd gotten confused, what with all the heat crackling between them. Except maybe that had been the big black speaker on the stand beside them, which Matt dislodged when Candy moved in to make the kiss easier.
He caught the speaker, but missed Candy, who toppled off her platform sandals into thong-baring infamy.
"You got it," Matt said now, smiling. She imagined tugging off his glasses, then stripping to the skin to go at it like sex-starved beach trash.
Bad, bad Candy. She sighed, smiled and stood to call Sara back, praying dog drool hadn't gummed her phone's works.
Sara answered immediately. "What happened?" "My phone got away from me," she said, shooting a smile at Matt. "Sorry."
"Okay, so I'm your colleague calling with the stats you needed. Seventy-five percent, three point two, two to one ratio blah, blah, et cetera, et cetera."
With Matt staring at her it was tough to fake a business tone, but Candy did her best. "Thanks much. I'll grab that e-mail ASAP. Great." She clicked off and slid the phone into her pocket. "Some numbers I need.
Can I download e-mail inside your place? Maybe show you my ideas while I'm at it?"
"I guess. Sure." He looked baffled by the suggestion, but he headed toward the porch, where Ellie beamed down at them. You look so cute together.
"We're going to work now," Candy said, telling Ellie with her eyes it was time to scoot.
"Sure. I'll just check Matt's supplies and then you can get to it."
"My sister, the mother hen," Matt said, sounding affectionately exasperated. He winked at Candy and it went right through her like sexy lightning. Oh, she was weak.
"I have food," he called to Ellie, following her inside, where she flung open cupboards and yanked open the fridge, clucking like the hen Matt had compared her to.
"HoHos, Cheetos, Dr. Pepper and beer? You call that food?"
"Sounds good to me," Candy said with a shrug. More than once she and Matt had vied for the last sack of Cheetos or package of HoHos in the SyncUp snack machines. They shared junk food preferences if nothing else.
"Did you remember sunscreen?" Ellie asked, hands on hips. When Matt shrugged, she sighed. "I'll pick up some. Along with some healthy food."
"I can feed myself, Ellie." He paused. "There's no point arguing, is there?"
"Not really, no."
"Do what you must then." He sighed, but he was smiling. Obviously, Matt had plenty of experience with his sister's nurturing ways. Candy liked the rapport between them.
Setting her ancient laptop beside Matt's razor-thin model already open to e-mail, Candy noticed the neat spread of folders beside it, proving that Matt was a master at working vacations. He was already at it and they'd all barely arrived.
"But what about entertaining yourself?" Ellie said.
"You're not going to sit here all week at the computer. You work too hard. Both of you. Especially you, Candy."
Liar, liar, pants on fire. But Candy loved Ellie for overacting on her behalf.
Ellie snatched a flyer from behind a magnet on the refrigerator and carried it to where Candy and Matt stood at the table. "Look at all these Sin on the Beach festival events." She handed Matt the flyer and lowered her voice. "No moping now. There are other fish in the sea." She was obviously referring to the breakup with Ice Princess Jane.
"I'll be fine, Ellie," Matt said. "Don't worry about me."
"Then I guess my work here is done." Ellie gave a pointed look at Candy, then hip-swayed to the door. Because Matt had moved to the kitchen, Candy was able to shoot her a quick thumbs-up as she left.
"Can I get you something to drink?" he called from the open refrigerator. "A beer?"
"Water is fine, since I'm working and all." Was that overkill? Maybe. She sighed.
She couldn't help thinking how great it would be to just kick back in this cozy bungalow with a beer and Matt and those blue-sky eyes of his. But that was the old Candy. The new one had a vital task to achieve.
She shifted her laptop and it knocked one of Matt's files to the floor, fanning paper across the white tiles.
The first doc she retrieved was a PQ2 report with Matt's name on a label at the top. Also attached to it was a pink Post-It note in the bold script of their CEO, Scott Bayer. See me re: changes!
Matt arrived with her glass of water and his beer. She handed him the report form. "You took the PQ2?" "Scott required all the managers to take it." "What changes is he talking about? In the test?" Matt gave a humorless laugh. "No. In the managers. He wants us to address the weaknesses the test revealed."
"What weaknesses could you possibly have?" she teased.
"Exactly." He grinned his great half smile. "According to the PQ2, I'm low on sociability." He sat next to her.
"Do I strike you as antisocial, Candy?" He looked at her so directly her heart tightened in her chest. "Be honest."
"You don't chit-chat. You're pretty direct. I'd say you're more nonsocial than actually antisocial."
"Nonsocial. Yeah. I like that. I guess I don't get the function of small talk. Make your point and move on. Why waste time?"
"But informal talk eases tension, makes people feel comfortablesafe to take risks. A little back-and-forth about the weekend, the Suns game or the nephew's bar mitzvah greases the wheel of ideas, gets people psyched to tackle tough issues."
He paused, pondering her words, she could tell. She'd never dug up a rationale for what seemed so obvious to her. "I suppose that makes sense," Matt mused. "The proximate issue is that Scott expects me to score some clients at the convention. It's next month, so I've got to get better at backslapping and schmoozing right away."
"Sounds like fun."
He smiled. "To you, sure." He gave her that look that made her wiring crackle. "But I'm not you."
No, wait. The crackling was coming from her borrowed laptop, which was grinding to life with agonizing slowness and enough noise that Candy expected some of Ellie's espresso to drip out.
"For what it's worth, the PQ2 got me wrong, too," Candy said.
"It made me seem like I don't take work seriously."
"You? No! How could that be?" His eyes twinkled at her. "Maybe because of the time you brought in all those cans of Silly String and made a mess in the lab?"
"Everyone was getting cranky. We needed a break. And it cleaned up easy."
"Or how about when you spiked the Halloween punch?"
"Come on. It was a party. I warned Valerie first."
"She was pregnant, right?" He nodded. "Your costume was interesting."