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It all started three days before Thanksgiving with a silly magazine quiz.
Paige Kettleman and her best friend and business partner, Carter Bravo, sat in the plush Denver offices of Leery International Drilling. They were waiting to meet with president and CEO Deacon Leery, who had already commissioned five big-ticket custom-redesigned cars from their company, Bravo Custom Cars.
Carter was getting fidgety. He spent most of his working life in old jeans and T-shirts, with his head stuck under the hood of one of his soon-to-be beautiful custom creations. He'd never enjoyed taking meetings.
But Deacon was a major customer. And Deacon liked Carter to come to his gorgeous office and listen to him ramble on about classic cars for a while before getting around to the dream ride he wanted Carter to build for him next. As far as Deacon was concerned, Paige didn't really even need to be there. But she ran the business end of Bravo Custom Cars. She always went along to visit Deacon for that special moment when they started talking money.
Carter had already taken off his sport coat and tossed it across the back of his chair. Now he sat forward, elbows on his spread knees. He braced his square jaw on his big fist and tapped his booted foot impatiently.
Paige watched him and tried not to grin.
He sent her a quick, challenging glance. "So what? I hate sitting around. That's a crime?"
She stifled a chuckle. "Who said a word about crimes?"
He grunted. "Smug. You know you are. Sitting there all cool and calm in your preppy little suit, tap-tap-tapping on your tablet."
She gave him a bland smile. "I'm sure it won't be long now."
He grumbled something. She wisely did not ask him what. And then he grabbed one of the glossy magazines from the low table in front of them. Hitching one boot across the other knee, he slumped back in his chair and began thumbing through it.
She returned her attention to her tablet and her email correspondence with Kelly Cobb, the Realtor they'd hired a few weeks before. Bravo Custom Cars was looking to expand. Electric cars were the future, and Carter wanted to start building custom electric cars along with the gas hogs most of his clients favored.
Carter and Paige had their eye on a new location. They'd made one offer and been turned down. The owner had rocks in his head. Nobody else in town wanted that property. The building and large fenced concrete yard had been sitting on an ugly stretch of Arrowhead Drive on the outskirts of their hometown for over a year with a big For Sale sign on the gate. Paige and Carter were waiting for the seller to get real and lower his asking price a little before they tried again.
Carter nudged her with his elbow. "You got a pen?" She took one from her black leather tote and handed it over. "Thanks. You listening?"
"Good. Because you'll love this. 'Is he really your best friend or are you secretly in love with him?' It's a quiz and you need to take it."
She zipped off the email to the Realtor. "No, I don't."
"Yeah, you do. It's all about us."
Paige reached over and snagged the corner of the magazine so she could get a look at the front of it. "Girl Code? You're reading Girl Code?"
"I'm broadening my horizons, trying to understand women better. Everyone says I need to."
She stifled a snort and pointed at the other magazines on the low table. "There's a Car and Driver right there."
His broad shoulders lifted in a dismissive shrug. "I've read that one. First question. 'Do you compare all your dates to him?' You know you do. So that's a yes." He scratched at the page with the pen she'd foolishly given him.
"It's obvious you don't even need me here," she wryly observed.
He actually had the nerve to smirk. "You're right, I don't. I know all the answers. Because, face it, I know you better than you know youwhich proves I know a thing or two about women, after all."
"So then shut up," she muttered out of the corner of her mouth. "Take the damn thing silently if you just have to go there." A text popped up from Mona, who ran their front office. Mona was closing up for the night. Paige sighed and replied Still @ Leery's. C U 2morrow.
And Carter went right on to the next question. "'Can you tell him anything without feeling at all uncomfortable?' Oh, hell to the yes." He scratched on the page again.
"That's not fair. You have no idea the things I don't tell you." There weren't a lot of them, to be strictly honest. But he didn't need to know that right now.
"Oh, come on. You tell me everything, Paige. That's how you are with me. Constant oversharing. A thought pops in your head and I'm the only one there? Comes right out your mouth." She elbowed him. Hard. He snickered, leaned away from her so she couldn't do it again and asked, "'Do you care about his happiness more than you do the happiness of your other friends?'" Another snicker as he checked the answer. "'Do you think about drunk-texting him every other weekend?' I'm going with yes for that, too, because if you were drunk, you know it would be me you drunk-texted."
Best to just ignore him, she decided. So she didor at least she pretended to.
And he kept right on, asking the questions and answering them for her. There were twenty in all.
When he finally answered the last one, he announced, "You scored twenty out of twenty. Hate to break it to you, Paige. But you're desperately in love with me."
She considered taking off one of her high-heeled shoes and bopping him on the head with it. But if she hit him once, she would only want to hit him again.
He tossed the magazine back on the table. "I gotta ask."
"No, you don't."
"Why does every woman I meet just have to fall in love with me?" he went on as though she hadn't spoken. "I don't get it."
She scoffed, "You're not the only one."
"Wait a minute, hold on. We both know you get it. We just found out you're hopelessly in love with me like all the rest of them, remember? So, what is it that you adore about me?"
"Not a thing."
"I think we need to make a list."
He was wearing that smile now. The one that drove all the women right out of their pantiesexcept for her. As his best friend, Paige reminded herself, she was totally immune to that smile. And he was still talking. "Yes. Definitely. Let's make a list."
"Let's not and say we did."
He started ticking off his supposed lady-killing qualities. "Okay, I'll admit it. I'm better looking than most. And I have a great personality. I'm a god in bednot that you would know that. And I'm well off, but come on. Half the time, I'm covered in axle grease." He gave her one of those looks, serious and teasing, both at the same time. "Paige."
"We both know I'm not really all that."
"You think I'm going to argue with you and tell you you're wonderful and not to run yourself down? Ha. Think again."
He spread his arms wide and she had to jerk back in her chair to keep from getting smacked in the chest with a rock-hard forearm. "Why can't someone explain it to me? What is this thing I have?"
Before Paige could manufacture a suitably quelling reply, the receptionist said pleasantly, "Mr. Leery will see you now."
So they got up and entered the inner sanctum where another plum project was waiting for them.
An hour later, they shook hands with Deacon Leery and wished him a happy Thanksgiving. It had gone well. Carter was excited about acquiring and redesigning his next four-wheeled masterpiece. Paige felt pleased with the deal she'd struck. A satisfying transaction in every way.
Except for that damn quiz. For some reason, she couldn't stop thinking about it.
Ridiculous. Why even worry about it? It was nothing but fluff. Silly, meaningless fluff.
"You're quiet," Carter said about midway through the hour-and-a-half drive back to their hometown of Justice Creek.
She made a sleepy noise, closed her eyes and leaned against the passenger-side window, hoping he'd assume she must be napping and leave her alone.
It worked. But Paige was not napping. Far from it. Her brain was packed to bursting with that absurd Girl Code quiz.
Let it go, she told herself. It's no big deal. Forget about it.
But she couldn't forget. It was stuck in her mind and it wouldn't go away. It was like the avalanche that killed her parents, a snowball rolling downhill, quickly gaining speed and mass until it buried everyone and everything in its path.
They weren't even her answers, she reminded herself. They were Carter's.
But unfortunately, his answers were the ones that she would have given. And for a silly, meaningless magazine quiz, well, they were kind of good questions, she had to admit.
They were telling questions.
And that was why she couldn't put it out of her mind. Carter had answered the questions just as she would have. And that meant she couldn't stop thinking that it might actually be true, that she'd gone and fallen secretly in love with her best friend.
And now just look at her, with that totally unacceptable secret loose and wreaking havoc in her mind and heart.
The only good news?
Nobody else knew. Not even Carter. He had no clue. She was dead certain of that. Thank God. He'd only been messing with her, taking that ridiculous quiz for her. He had no idea what he'd done.
The next morning, when he stopped by the house to walk the dogs and then fix breakfast for her and him and her younger sister, Dawn, he seemed totally oblivious. And then at work that day, he mostly stayed in the shop and she managed to stick to the office, so he had no chance to notice if she acted strange and preoccupied.
Mona, who worked side by side with her, caught on, though. "You okay, Paige? You seem kind of far away."
"Christmas on my mind, I guess," Paige outright lied. "And you know, it's kind of quiet today. We should get out the decorations, get them up. You think?"
Mona loved Christmas. She zipped right out to the shed by the back gate and hauled the boxes of decorations up front to the office. They spent a couple of hours setting up the fake tree and tacking sparkly garland on every available surface. Mona already had her old iPod loaded up with Christmas favorites. She stuck it in the dock at the end of the service counter. Holiday tunes filled the air. Mona hummed along under her breath, thrilled to have the office full of Christmas and no longer worrying about what might be bugging Paige.
Wednesday morning when Paige followed the tempting smells of frying bacon and perfectly brewed coffee downstairs, she found the dogsher beagle, Biscuit, and Carter's hound, Sallysprawled contentedly on the kitchen floor after their morning walk.
Carter stood at the stove. He had his back to her. She hesitated in the doorway in her flannel pj's and plaid robe and watched him cooking up the bacon nice and slow.
He liked to come over before she and Dawn got up, especially lately, since he'd broken up with his last girlfriend, Sherry Leland. Lately, Carter ended up at Paige and Dawn's a lot of the time. He would take Biscuit out with Sally, then let himself back in and start breakfast.
And even when he had a girlfriend, Carter still found time to walk Paige's dog and brew her morning coffee two or three days a week. Most Sunday nights, he came over for dinner and stayed on to play video games or stream a movie.
That he spent so much time at the Kettlemans' always bugged his girlfriends eventually. They didn't really like that his best friend was a woman and his business partner. They also didn't like that his best friend's teenage sister was kind of a cross between a daughter and a little sister to him. Paige got why it bugged them. She wouldn't like it, either, if her special guy spent most of his working life and half his free time with another woman. Paige used to suggest to him that maybe he should focus more on the girlfriend of the hour and not so much on hanging with her and Dawn.
He wouldn't listen. He said he liked being with her and Dawn, and if his girlfriend was jealous, she needed to get over that.
Paige always felt kind of sorry for Carter's girlfriends. Somehow they all fell so hard for him. And the deeper they fell, the more he pulled away from them. And the more he pulled away, the more upset they got. There would be scenes. Carter hated scenes, mostly because his childhood had been one long, dramatic scene.
His mother, Willow Mooney, had loved his father, Franklin Bravo, to distraction. Franklin was already married when he met Willow. But Frank Bravo didn't let a little thing like a wife get in his way. He set Willow up in a house on the south side of town. Willow kicked Frank out of that house on a regular basis. But she always took him back, remaining his mistress for over two decades, giving Frank five children while he was still married to his first wife, Sondra, who gave him four.
Yeah. Falling for Carter? Not a wise move.
This can't really be happening, Paige thought for about the fiftieth time since Monday and that awful, terrible, silly, pointless quiz. This can't be happening to me.
But if it wasn't, then why was she lurking in the doorway to the kitchen, staring longingly at Carter's broad, thick shoulders and fine, tight butt?
It just made her feel sad. Beyond sad. Carter's shoulders and butt had never mattered in the least to her before Monday. Why should they mean so much now?
He sent her a quick smile over one of those far-too-fine shoulders of his. "Coffee's ready."
As if she didn't know. Carter was a great cook. And he had a way with coffee. She would know a Carter-brewed cup of coffee blindfolded. All it took was one sniff. Heaven in a cup.
"Thanks." She shuffled over and filled a mug with the hot, wonderful brew. And then she stood there, leaning against the counter, sipping it slowly, her heart breaking at the hopeless absurdity of it all as Carter cracked eggs into her mother's favorite cast-iron pan.
Carter woke on Thanksgiving morning to the sound of his cell ringing. He stuck out a hand, snared the damn thing off the nightstand and squinted at the display. It was 5:49 and his mother was calling.
When had Willow Mooney Bravo ever climbed out of bed before six in the morning? Never, that he could remember. Even when he and his brothers and sisters were small they knew not to bother Ma too early in the morning. She tended to throw things if you messed with her beauty sleep.
His sweet redbone coonhound, Sally, lifted her floppy-eared head from the foot of the bed and blinked at him questioningly.
"Hell if I know," he said to the dog, and put the phone to his ear. "Ma? What's going on? Did somebody die?"
"Happy Thanksgiving, darling. Everything is fine and no one has died. But I know you're an early riser and I wanted to catch you before you left the house. I want a private word with youtoday, I hope. I'm leaving for Palm Springs tomorrow and I'm not sure when I'll be back." Since his father had died four years ago, you could hardly catch his mother at home. She traveled the world, flitting from one luxury destination to the next. "I wonder if you could drop by for a drink before you join the rest of the family at Clara's."
His half sister Clara Bravo Ames had invited the whole family to her house that afternoon for a big Thanksgiving dinner. Paige and Dawn were coming, too. "Won't you be at Clara's?"
"It was sweet of Clara to include me, but no. Big family gatherings exhaust me and I have an early flight tomorrow morningand besides, I want to speak with you alone."
He didn't really like the sound of that. "About what?"
"Darling. Honestly. Don't be so suspicious. I'll explain everything when we talk."