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Step one: Find a perfect man.
Ordinarily, Piper Scott wouldn't be distracted by a pair of blue eyes, no matter how attractively they crinkled, or a strong, manly jaw, no matter how chiseledexcept these eyes were squinting and the jaw was definitely gritting. In pain.
Moments earlier, Piper had arrived at the entrance to the offices of OMG, the Online Media Group, at the same time as the owner of the crinkly blue eyes and the chiseled jaw.
"I'll get it," he'd said, and leaned around her to open the front door.
"Thanks," she'd replied, because her cell had just buzzed and at that moment she was grabbing at her purse to check the caller ID. Only then her purse had slipped down her arm and tangled with the strap of the tote bag she carried on the same arm. When she'd heaved them back in place, a jacket in the dry cleaner's bag slung over her other shoulder had slithered off its hanger and fallen to the leaf-strewn concrete in front of the door. As she bent to retrieve the jacket, the tote bag fell forward and made contact with the leg of the owner of the blue eyes and chiseled jaw.
Slight contact. A little bump. And now he was acting as though she'd bashed him with a load of books or something. The big baby.
She'd automatically apologized, one of those quick, social "I'm sorrys" that didn't seem adequate in the face of that grimace.
"I'm really sorry," she added now.
"It's okay." He gave her a game smile.
Piper eyed him, trying to read his expression. Was she missing something? She glanced down and discovered his hand clenched around his thigh.
White knuckles, expensive jeans. The jeans had the careful whiskering that always reminded Piper of those lines in the comic books meant to emphasize something. "Look! Wow!" In this case, it was the crotch area, which, she noted, did not need emphasizing.
When Piper became aware that she was standing on a public street in downtown Austin eyeing a stranger's crotchtruly not like hershe jerked her eyes upward. "I didn't realize I hit you that hard. There's not that much in my bag."
"You didn't." He straightened. Somewhat. "Something hard got me in the rightor wrongplace."
"I don't have Oh. It must have been the flatiron."
He looked questioningly.
"A hair styling thingie."
"Ah." He raised his hand and went for the door again. Piper heard the tiny, hard breath he sucked between his teeth.
Oh, please. He was being so transparent. She knew what was coming next. He'd hit on her. So to speak. Anyway, they'd walk in together and she'd apologize again because he was so obviously suffering and then he'd say, "If you really want to make it up to me, have coffee with me." Or "Let me buy you a drink." Or even "You can buy me a drink." Probably not "You can kiss it and make it better," a line mostly used by guys who weren't as good-looking. And only the ones who hadn't been pepper sprayed after saying it.
As they walked across the foyer's hardwood floor, Piper waited for him to make his move. He'd better hurry. The foyer wasn't that big. It didn't need to be, since OMG only published digitally and the writers were scattered all over the country. Even Piper didn't come here all that often and she lived nearby.
The headquarters of the online conglomerate was in a small, former residential dorm near the University of Texas campus and still had the living/dining/kitchen layout, which OMG used as the downstairs conference space. The offices were upstairs.
The area downstairs was empty now, but in less than half an hour, the OMG quarterly meeting would begin and Piper would be sitting at the table providing support to Dancie, her former college roommate and technically her OMG boss, but first and foremost her friend. Her best friend. The friend who'd been there when Piper needed a friend. Now Dancie needed her, even if she wouldn't admit it.
But in the meantime, Mr. Blue Eyes was limping. Limping. Fine. Might as well get this over with and let him down easy.
Pasting on a semi-smile, Piper looked toward the man at her side. Only he wasn't at her side. He, without a backward look, flirtatious or otherwise, was making his way to the elevator.
She hesitated, one foot on the steps, and watched as he reached for the call button. Then he waited, not even glancing over to see if she was still there.
So he wasn't going to hit on her? Well, that was lowering. Or, worse, was he avoiding her because he thought she was going to hitmetaphorically this timeon him?
Piper honestly didn't know and that was rare, because Piper knew men. Everything about them. It was her business to know. As Piper Scott, The Dating Doc, she'd counseled countless men and womenmostly womenon dating strategies. She was known for her exit interviews, a frank discussion of why the date hadn't worked. After interviewing a thousand menactually, a thousand and thirteen menshe'd written The Piper Plan: How to Land Your Perfect Man.
Unfortunately, after interviewing those thousand men, Piper felt that there was nothing more to learn about the human male. Men had ceased to surprise her. They bored her.
Take the blue-eyed limper: he was the kind of handsome that appealed to women of all ages. He had arresting good looksa shock of black hair and heavy black brows that contrasted with brilliantly blue eyes. She assumed he had a great smile, although she hadn't seen much of it. He even looked vaguely familiar, but most men did these days.
The point was, she knew his type, grid square alphaalpha, the confident, popular, leader type, normally not a type attracted to her.
And clearly not this time, either. She was surprised to feel a flicker of disappointment.
Piper noticed that he'd pressed the button for the basement, which meant he was going to the man cave where the Guys of Texas webzine, helmed by her friend Dancie's twin, Travis, had its office. He was probably a friend of Travis's. They were the same confident, good-looking, women-magnet type of male.
But using the elevator for one flight down? Piper climbed the stairs wondering if the limp had been genuine after all, since it clearly wasn't a ploy to gain her sympathy prior to asking her out. Or maybe he was avoiding her. Or married. Or whatever.
What really concerned her was that she didn't know. What a horrible time to lose her touch at sizing up men. She needed to be confident going into today's meeting.
Because this, this was the meeting where Dancie should be named an equal partner with her father and brothersomething that should have been done in the beginning.
And Piper was going to do everything in her power to make it happen.
Then, she and Dancie would be even.
Mark could hear the cables and machinery as the tiny elevator moved in the shaft.
Hurry. His leg throbbed and he was aware that he hadn't heard the woman's footsteps continue up the stairs.
Yeah, he'd overdone the physical therapy yesterday, but he'd wanted to prove to Travisand himselfthat he was a hundred percent. The last thing he needed was to draw attention to his leg.
She was watching him so he knew he hadn't covered his pain as effectively as he'd hoped. The fact that she'd arrived in time for the meeting meant she probably wrote for OMG, too. Probably for Travis's sister, since she was headed upstairs.
Hurry, he urged the elevator again as cogs chugged and drew the box from whatever floor it had been parked at. He shifted all his weight off his leg, preparing to lurch inside as soon as the doors opened.
Go upstairs, he mentally urged the woman. She'd probably recognized him and that was why she was hesitating. Maybe she was a fan. Or, please no, a student in one of his journalism classes, the one in the lecture hall. Maybe she was about to approach him and try to carry on a conversation. Sweat beaded his upper lip and he knew from hours staring at himself in the mirrored walls of the Austin Physical Therapy Center that his face was a grayish-green. That gray-green color told him he was pushing himself to his limit and beyond. If he wasn't gray with pain, he wasn't working hard enough.
But a different set of muscles were screaming this time. Had she dislocated his knee or something when she'd hit him?
Something. Definitely something. The elevator arrived.
Mark forced himself to step forward as though nothing was wrong and propelled his body to the back of the tiny compartment where he grabbed on to the bar. His leg quivered and nearly buckled.
He suspected he was going to have to take a pain pill, something he'd wanted to avoid. He needed a clear head for this meeting. Not only did he have to demonstrate that he was ready to return to the field, he had to convince Travis's father to send him back to the Texas-Mexico border. Maybe not as his first assignment after his involuntary layoff, but soon. He had a story to finish and a smuggler to expose. And a promise to be kept.
The elevator doors shuddered closed and Mark gingerly explored the area above his knee, his fingers finding the depression where he'd lost a hunk of muscle and flesh. No, he wouldn't be playing a game of three-man basketball anytime soon.
On the slow descent, the pain receded, at least enough for Mark to limp into the Guys of Texas man cave.
There were usually a half dozen or so guys hanging around, thinkin' about guy stuff. Doin' guy stuff. Writing about guy stuff. Thinkin' about women from a guy's point of view: how to get them and what to do with them when you get them, how long and how many times you could do it, and any tips and tricks to share with fellow guys so you could keep doing it.
It would drive him nuts if he had to do that every day, but it was obviously popular. Travis Pollard had turned a simple online campus blog into a megamoneymaker for OMG.
The Guys of Texas published Mark's behind-the-scenes commentary as he researched in-depth foreign exposes for the news division of OMG. His column was all about the glamour. The adventure. The danger. The excitement. The women.
Yes, Mark was Fantasy Guy. He exhaled. At least it paid the bills.
Mark hung his jacket on a set of longhorns and headed toward the coffee bar.
"Mark!" Travis jogged toward him and Mark realized he'd thought Mark might not show today. "Marko!"
Travis knuckle-bumped him. "My man! The man. Uberguy"
Travis stuck his hand into his pocket. "Glad you're back."
"I got that."
"Really glad you're back."
"I got that, too."
"Yeah." Travis rubbed at the top of his nose. "Missed your columns these last couple of quarters. Teaching college courses and recovering from a gunshot wound isn't as popular as actually getting shot."
Mark studied the fancy machine at the coffee bar. It was new. "I was also stabbedmaybe you shouldn't have edited that out."
"Hey, man. It was in the same leg. Nobody would have believed it." Travis was completely serious. "But you're back now," Travis said as Mark pushed a combination of buttons that yielded a small cup of very black coffee with a thin layer of tan foam. "My sister has been kicking my behind in revenue."
"What's she got?"
Travis waved him to a chair. "A dating columnist. You know how women are. So right now, she's got a lot of women running up the page stats. But when you're on your game, we get the guys and the gals." Travis mock-punched Mark in the jaw. "Good thing they cut your leg and not your face."
Mark gazed at him, his expression carefully blank.
"'Cause that face is your meal ticket," Travis continued.
"Because talent counts for nothing, right?" Mark asked.
"No, because there are a lot of talented people and there are a lot of good-looking people. There are even a lot of talented, good-looking people. But there aren't a lot of lookers who are willing to work it. They don't have to. You work it. I don't know what drives you and I don't want to know. I'm just glad you do what you do."
Travis was no slouch in the work/talent/looks department, either. However, he hadn't made eye contact very often during their conversationwhich had been more Travis rambling than a conversation. And now, he'd started bouncing a tennis ball against the wall, repeatedly hitting the same smudged spot. Mark had interviewed enough people to know Travis was holding something back, and that something was going to affect Mark and his return to work.
"What aren't you telling me?" he asked.
Travis stopped bouncing the ball and gazed directly at Mark. "Dancie's Women's Guide numbers are better than the Guys of Texas, even with you. Maybe not you being rescued after being captured, but better than normal you."
All Mark wanted was to get back to normal. Normal was following his subject for days on end, immersing himself in whatever culture he found himself. Normal was not facing hundreds of starry-eyed journalism students three times a week. Normal was not evaluating every conversation and every word of every conversation with dozens of beautiful young women lest he inadvertently encourage romantic fantasies. Okay, maybe there was a little normal there. "So your sister has found something as popular as my column. How exactly am I supposed to take that?"
"You aren't. That's why I wasn't telling you, but you asked."
"It's what I do."
"And I hope you'll be doing it for a long time."
"So do I." There was still an undercurrent of tension in the conversation.
Travis cleared his throat and shifted. "And you shouldn't worry about today's quarterly."
Mark hadn't. Until now.
"I just thought it wouldn't hurt to have you here in person to remind my dad of how much of an asset you are."
"So it isn't usual for a contributor to come to these meetings."
"Well, I mean, writers do sometimes." Travis shifted again and finally got to his feet and walked to the ordinary drip coffeemaker next to the fancy machine. "Like if they're new and going to be major or there's going to be changes. Coffee?" He held up the pot after mumbling the last.
Mark shook his head. "Changes that concern me?"
Travis poured two mugs anyway. "I don't know, and that's the truth. It depends on Dancie. She's kinda in the driver's seat for the first time and, to be honest, I don't know what kind of a driver she is."