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SAM KIRK SAT BACK on his haunches and surveyed his handiwork. Not bad, even if he did say so himself. Smiling, he pushed himself to his feet and rubbed his hands on his jeans to clean the chalk dust off his fingers. The smile turned into an out-and-out grin as he admired the full result of his labors from a bird's-eye viewpoint.
Outlined on the navy industrial carpet in front of him was a classic crime-scene body outline depicting a form sprawled halfway across his business-partner-cum-best-friend's office. To add to the CSI look, he'd rifled through her filing cabinet, pulled a few books off her bookshelf and left all her desk drawers open. Highly satisfied with himself, he retreated to the doorway and began unrolling the police tape he'd wheedled from his mate in the force. Fixing one end to the doorframe, he stretched the tape to the opposite side and stuck it in place.
"Delaney is going to flip when she sees this," their receptionist, Debbie, said from behind him.
"I know. It's going to be great," Sam said with relish. Debbie shot him a look designed to let him know she thought he was weird. She'd only been with their extreme sports magazine, X-Pro, for a month, so she wasn't up to speed yet on the office dynamic. When she'd been around a little longer, she'd understand that playing practical jokes on each other was just how he and Delaney operated. Every year when she went on holidays, he came up with some outrageous stunt to surprise her when she returned.
One year, it had been cajoling their printer to bind a single copy of the latest edition of the magazine inside out, then just casually leaving it on Delaney's desk on her first day back. She'd gone ballistic when she found it, and it had taken him twenty minutes to convince her that the full 60,000 editions of the magazine hadn't been mailed out to their subscribers in the same condition. Then there was the time he'd glued all her stationary accessories to her desk. Stapler, hole punch, computer mouse. Hell, he'd even stuck her wheelie chair to the carpet. Remembering the bewildered look on her face still brought a smile to his lips.
Stuffing the debris from his scene-setting into a carrier bag, Sam eyed his gathered staff of five.
"Remember, serious faces. She'll only buy this if no one laughs," he warned them.
"Sam, man, you're so deluded. She's going to know it was you the moment she sees it," their layout artist, Rudy, said.
"But she can't be sure. All I'm looking for is a moment of doubt," Sam said.
Checking his watch, he crossed to his office and looked out the window to see if Delaney had arrived yet. Her parking space was still empty, and he frowned. She lived in the apartment beneath him, and he hadn't heard her come home last night. But, he reminded himself, he didn't always hear her door open and close, and her car had definitely been in the space allocated to her apartment when he left early this morning, keen to get in and prepare his little surprise.
It wasn't like her to be late, especially on the first day back after two weeks off. Normally she was champing at the bit to get back in to it. That was one of the great things about owning their own business. Work wasn't a burden or a drag—it was something they enjoyed, even if sometimes it could be stressful or boring.
He was about to call her on her cell phone when he caught himself. Feeling a little foolish, he dropped into the chair behind his desk. He was carrying on like a dog who'd been locked inside all day, waiting for his master to come home. Delaney had only been away two weeks, but the truth was, he'd missed her like crazy.
His gaze fell on the photo occupying the one clear space on his desk. Two teenagers filled the frame—one a tall, chestnut-haired lout, the other a slim, brown-haired girl who was sporting a shiny black eye. Both wore Lycra rash vests and baggy board shorts, and their faces were tanned from long days at the beach. The boy was grinning hugely, his arm slung around the girl's shoulders, and the girl was looking furious and grumpy and determined. The picture had been taken when they were both sixteen, the summer he'd taught Delaney how to surf. She'd scored the black eye on the first day when her board flipped and clocked her in the face. She hadn't even cried, he remembered—just took a moment to get her breath before she started paddling again.
That was the thing with Delaney—when she wanted something, she bloody well went for it, both barrels blazing. Perhaps it was why they'd hit it off the moment her family moved onto his street when he was just twelve years old. The moving vans had barely started disgorging their contents before a scrappy, skinny girl had gravitated to the game of cricket he and his buddies had been playing in the street. She'd waited until the ball came her way before catching it deftly and asking if she could join in. The other neighborhood kids hadn't wanted to let her play, but she'd offered them a deal—if she could bowl them out, she was in. If not, she'd walk away without another word. She'd bowled a blindingly fast bouncer that almost took one kid's arm off before it hit the wicket, and all the others had hastily passed on their turns to bat, readily conceding that she could play.
It had been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one that had survived every test thrown at it, from his insanely jealous girlfriend when he was in his early twenties, to the stress of starting a fledgling magazine on the smell of an oily rag. Delaney was the one constant in his life, the only person who got him—his jokes, his silences, his need to sometimes just get away and surf or skate or travel. Hell, she even shared the same address, since they'd bought warehouse apartments in the same building. She didn't constantly ask him what he was thinking or how he was feeling. She didn't need reassurance twenty times a day that she was an important part of his life. And she didn't play games and sulk if she didn't get her own way.
As though some all-knowing feminist deity had read his thoughts and decided to punish him, the phone on his desk buzzed.
"Sam, there's a Coco here to see you," Debbie said. Sam groaned. "Could you tell her that—" he began to cajole, but Debbie cut him off.
"No, I couldn't. Delaney said when she hired me that under no circumstances was I to ever make excuses for you to one of your girlfriends. It's in my contract," Debbie said brightly.
Before he could counter this argument, the line went dead. A moment later, a wave of cloying floral scent preceded Coco as she minced her way to his office doorway.
"Hiya, bub," she said in her signature baby voice.
Sam barely controlled a cringe. How had he ever found that voice sexy? His eyes dropped to Coco's two best assets, clearly defined by the skin-tight white tank top she was wearing.
Right. Now he remembered.
Sadly, however, the sight of her generous D cups no longer sparked an ounce of interest from Little Sam, the man in charge of social activities. Perhaps it was the squeaky voice. Or the fact that Coco had a highly manicured white poodle that he'd caught her kissing on the mouth recently. Or the way she had of calling him bub. Or maybe it was all of the above, combined with the fact that he'd yet to have a single conversation with her that hadn't included the words "When I do a photo spread for your magazine." She seemed to think he was the man who was going to launch her modeling career, despite the fact that he'd told her over and over again that XPro wasn't that kind of publication. He'd been trying to ease his way out of their casual three-week relationship for the past few days, only returning every second call and manufacturing overtime at work to keep his nights unavailable. So far, so good—until now.
"Hey," he said, trying to inject a note of welcome into his voice. He might be a feckless love rat—as Delaney had told him many a time—but he wasn't a cruel, feckless love rat.
"Hey, yourself. I was just in the neighborhood, and I thought I would drop in and see if you were free for lunch." Coco pouted.
Sam frowned and flicked a glance at his watch. "Um, it's ten in the morning, Coco," he said.
"So? You're the boss, aren't you?" she said, eyes busy scanning the front covers of X-Pro that covered one of his office walls. Her wide blue eyes darted from image to image with increasing rapidity, taking in the skate boarders, snow boarders, BMX bike riders and surfers who had graced the magazine's cover over the past year.
"Is this the only magazine you publish?" she asked incredulously, the baby voice miraculously disappearing.
"Yep. Extreme sports, like I said," Sam said.
"Triple X, you said," Coco corrected him, eyes narrowing sharply.
Sam snorted his amusement. "X-Pro, Coco. I'm no Hugh Hefner.Although I wouldn't mind a visit to the Bunny Palace."
"But I thought..." Coco said, clearly disappointed.
"Like I said the other night—" the night he'd picked her up and she'd practically tongue-kissed her dog goodbye "—I'm more than happy to hook you up with a photographer friend of mine. I'm sure he could help you with your, um, ambitions."
Sam held his breath as Coco frowned, obviously thinking things over. Slowly.
"Can you call him now?" she asked after a looooonnng pause.
Sam smiled. "Sure I can. Hell, he might even be free for lunch," he added.
Without wasting another precious second of Coco's time, he reached for the phone. That was the thing Delaney didn't understand about his love life, Sam mused as he dialed. She thought he left a trail of brokenhearted women in his wake, but all the women he went out with were tailor-made for the kind of no-strings fun he specialized in.
As he waited for his photographer buddy to pick up, he registered that Delaney still hadn't shown up for work. Where the hell was she, anyway?
DELANEY MICHAELS sat in her parked car, staring blankly out the windshield. If she drove around the corner, she'd see the bright aqua street sign that announced the offices of Mirk Publications in the inner-city Melbourne district of Fitzroy. She'd find her reserved parking spot, along with an office full of people waiting for her return from holidays.
And, of course, Sam.
The thought of facing Sam was what had made her pull over nearly half an hour ago. She'd been doing really well until then, staying focused on her end goal, reminding herself over and over that she'd made the right decision—the only decision. And then she had flashed forward to how his face would look when she told him, the confused, hurt, baffled expression he would get in his eyes. That was when she'd had to swerve to the curb and take half a dozen deep, calming breaths to stop the panic tightening her chest.
She didn't think she could do this.
She had to do this.
Or she might as well sign up for the old spinsters club now and avoid the rush when she was sixty and grey and still ridiculously, besottedly, pathetically in love with Sam Kirk.
Gritting her teeth, Delaney scrunched her eyes shut and made an angry, frustrated growling sound in the back of her throat. She had been over and over and over this decision. The better part of the last week of her holiday had been spent facing the sad truth of her life and formulating a plan to change things. She wasn't a coward. She had never backed away from a challenge in her life. And she wouldn't back away from this. It was just...hard.
When a woman had been in love with the same handsome, ne'er-do-well, charming, funny, sensitive, generous, incorrigible rogue for the better part of her life, it was probably only natural for her to feel a little...shaky about how she was going to cope once she'd pruned him out of her world. But that was all it was—stage fright, pre-match jitters. Nothing would stop her from going through with her plan, because there was too much at stake.
If she hadn't decided to go on vacation with her sister's family, she might have let a few more years slip away before she made the vital break. Watching her sister's life from a prime, courtside seat, she'd had a cosmic revelation. She wanted a family. She wanted a husband and kids. She wanted snotty noses and tears for no reason and snuggling in bed with small, warm bodies. And she was never going to get any of it while she was in love with Sam.
How was she ever supposed to find someone she liked enough to marry while Sam filled her whole world? Even the fact that she thought in terms of liking someone, not loving them, was testament to how long Sam had been her everything.