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By Candy Halliday
Warner ForeverCopyright © 2005 Candy Viers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnnie Long could trace her problems with men back to her first high school dance. Billy Ray Smith begged her to put her sweet lips where her sweet lips didn't want to go. Annie gagged at the thought, and vomited bright red punch all over the white leather interior of his rich daddy's brand-new Cadillac.
Even for a naïve sixteen-year-old with a weak stomach, that should have been Annie's first clue that more often than not relationships basically do suck. But instead of heeding that warning, Annie bravely continued lily pad hopping her way through life, fully convinced she would eventually find a prince among the usual suspects milling around in society's frog-filled pond.
Hop. Hop. Hop. Zip past successful entrepreneur Ben, who claimed he was a leg man instead of a boob man-Annie's mile long legs really were her best feature. Dirty liar Ben dumped her at twenty-two for a waitress from Hooters with fake boobs the size of Annie's beloved state of Georgia.
Zoom past independent moviemaker Dan, whom Annie met at the popular Atlanta Film Festival when she was twenty-four. Slightly perverted Dan dumped Annie when she refused to star in his upcoming documentary Women Making Love to Women.
And skip past handsome pharmaceutical salesman Ron altogether. Amazingly, idiot Ron somehow got it into his hypochondria-impaired mind that some evasive mineral in Annie's twenty-six-year-old saliva was responsible for his excruciating migraine headaches.
It wasn't until promising young advertising executive Dave came along when she was twenty-nine that Annie thought she'd finally found her Mr. Potential. Dave claimed he loved Annie's small perky breasts just as much as he loved her long silky legs. He had no apparent lesbian sex fantasies as far as she could tell. And he didn't even mind swapping saliva on a regular basis.
Dave, in fact, was the reason Annie was humming happily to herself during Thank-God-It's-Friday early morning rush hour. Black lace teddy. Candles galore. Dom Perignon and Russian caviar. She ticked the items off in her mind, ignoring the downtown Atlanta traffic that was a total bitch as usual.
Music? The red light caught her, giving her a minute to ponder. Dave was a huge jazz fan, Annie knew that. But jazz really didn't fit the mood she had in mind. She'd have to give it more thought when she reached her office. Go with something more Motown maybe. Something slow and sexy.
A pushy SUV the size of a tank cut her off, which usually catapulted Annie close to the road-rage edge. She didn't even honk her horn. Clean sheets. Fresh towels. The new Hilfiger terry cloth robe as a surprise gift for Dave. She smiled. He would complain she was spoiling him, of course. Tell her she shouldn't spend her hard-earned money on him. But he'd love it. She knew he would.
Finally, she inched her way to the Bank of America Plaza-not as tall as buildings in Chicago and New York City, but a skyscraper nonetheless with fifty-five stories of prime office space. She parked her vintage 1975 Volkswagen convertible in the underground parking garage, unconcerned that her bright purple bug looked like a giant Easter egg sitting between a shiny Lexus and a sporty BMW. Trendy had never been at the top of her to be list.
Still thinking about the special night she'd carefully planned for Dave, Annie reached the parking garage elevator with a cheerful smile. "Have you ever seen such a glorious June morning?"
She'd made the comment to no one in particular as she and fifteen other people crammed themselves into the elevator. But a heavyset man standing beside her mopped his moist brow with a handkerchief, looked over at her, and said, "It's the Prozac, right? That's the only explanation for anyone calling seventy-two degrees at eight a.m. a glorious June morning."
Annie ignored him. Everyone else laughed.
She hopped off the elevator on the thirty-second floor and entered the offices of Paragon Technology, one of the nation's major interactive software developers and second to none in the video game industry. Today Annie didn't even give in to that crestfallen I'll-never-be-anything-but-the-token-female-of-the-creative-department feeling.
After a month long business trip to San Francisco, Dave was finally coming home.
Nothing was going to rain on Annie's parade today. "Wow. Annie. You look wonderful." Annie smiled appreciatively.
Kathy Welborn, her only true gal-pal at Paragon, was pretty and blonde. A dead ringer for Helen Hunt, most people said, but Annie thought Kathy was prettier. Like most receptionists, Kathy always had the inside scoop on everyone in the company. In other words, a good friend to have.
Annie made an exaggerated curtsy in front of Kathy's desk. "I thank you. The academy thanks you. My mother thanks you."
And yes, she had gone a bit overboard today. The Anna Sui floral sundress fit her like a second skin. And her sexy Manolo sandals had a price tag that still made her shudder. She'd bought the shoes partly because they matched the periwinkle blue flowers in the dress perfectly. But mainly she'd bought them because she wanted to see what all the Manolo Blahnik hype was about. Sadly, three hundred and fifty dollars poorer she still hadn't figured it out.
She'd even managed to restrain her stringy mop rather neatly in a poofy strawberry blonde swoop on top of her head. And she'd applied a little makeup, which she rarely ever wore. Because today, dammit, called for one of those sundress, Manolos, and makeup kind of moods. "You really do look great, Annie," Kathy said. "What time did you say you were picking Dave up from the airport this afternoon?"
"Four o'clock sharp," Annie said, beaming. "And does the poor guy have any idea about the deliciously sinful agenda you have planned for him the entire weekend?"
"Not a clue," Annie said with a wink. She headed off down the hallway to the large corner office reserved for the creative department, complete with a coveted window and a breathtaking view of the city of Atlanta. For once, she was the first one to arrive.
Annie stopped at her desk, which had Nerdette on her nameplate. She had just stuffed her purse into the desk's bottom drawer when Collin Adair rushed into the office, two large paper cups deftly clasped in each manicured hand.
He came to a screeching halt the second he saw her. And the first words out of Collin's mouth were, "Well, aren't you a sight for my queer eye. You look fabulous, Annie. Absolutely fabulous."
Annie twirled around for inspection, pleased. Any compliment coming from Mr. Buff-to-the-Cuff (one of Collin's favorite expressions) was one Annie didn't take lightly. The man had a designer-filled closet himself that would make a grown woman weep. The double-box pleat tan Geneva pants, pale yellow Cacella silk shirt, and the Pelagio linen oxford shoes he was wearing today were Collin's idea of "casual" wear. He tossed his Brad Pittish dirty-blond locks back away from his forehead and looked her up and down again with eyes ten times bluer than any color-enhanced contacts could make them. "If Dave doesn't throw you down and ravish you the second he steps off that plane, the man's a complete buffoon."
Annie laughed. "No, I'm the buffoon. For letting you talk me into blowing an entire week's salary on Dave's homecoming dinner." She shook her head and sighed, thinking about the catastrophe that used to be her checking account. "I still can't believe I paid eighty-five dollars for a teaspoon of caviar."
"And your idea of Domino's pizza or Chinese take-out was better?"
Annie stuck her tongue out at him. "I'm not that clueless when it comes to entertaining."
Collin raised an eyebrow to challenge her statement. "Here," he said, thrusting one of the steaming cups in her direction. "You can't risk having too much blood in your caffeine system today. I brought you a transfusion." When Annie took the cup, he said, "This is Latte Land's early-morning special. Triple-mocha latte. Fully leaded.
A dash of cherry flavor. And with yummy cinnamon sprinkles amidst a rich whipped cream topping." He tapped his cup against hers. "Here's to homecomings. And then to multiple comings and comings, and ..." Annie rolled her eyes. "Forget caffeine. What I need is a Valium smoothie." She held a shaking hand out as proof.
Collin shook his know-it-all head. "Wrong again, sweetums. Excitement masked as anxiety does incredible things to the libido. A little anxiety will give you the energy and stamina you need later in the bedroom." Annie groaned.
Collin leaned against his desk-his nameplate boasting Queer Nerd since he had been responsible for the silly titles. "Listen, lovey," he said. "Forget the nervous jitters. Just clear your mind and focus on nothing but how wonderful it's going to be after you pick Dave up at the airport. You're going to spirit him away to your apartment for a scrumptious five-star meal, already prepared exclusively by moi." He polished his nails proudly against his expensive silk shirt. "And then you're going to render that boy senseless with a multimega lovefest he'll never forget."
Annie managed a weak smile. "You're right. You've helped me plan everything perfectly." "Right down to the designer condoms waiting on his pillow," Collin chirped.
"I know," Annie said. "I'm just nervous. Dave and I haven't seen each other in four long weeks. There's also the blasted time difference. And Dave's e-mails are strictly one-liners. Plus-"
"Stop it." Collin took Annie gently by the shoulders and forced her to look at him. "Now. Stand up straight. And take one long, deep, cleansing breath to calm yourself."
Annie only made it as far as standing up straight before Kathy's voice rang through the intercom. "Haz-Matt's on line one. And he wants to talk to you, Annie."
Annie automatically glanced across the room. The vacant desk hogging the window in the place of authority had Neanderthal Nerd on the nameplate for obvious reasons. "Haz-Matt" was the head of the creative department, Matt Abbington. The nickname, like his nameplate, was self-explanatory. Matt's tall, dark, and deadly good looks could be hazardous to a woman's better judgment, not to mention her heart.
Annie looked back at the blinking line and frowned. She'd had her own lapse in judgment where Matt was concerned shortly after she'd first joined Paragon a year earlier. It wasn't something she was proud of. It was just one of those situations where the beauty of the moment had been strictly in the eye of the beer holder, for lack of a better explanation. To date, they'd both had the good sense to pretend that night never happened. "You'd better answer that, Annie."
Annie glanced in Collin's direction. He looked anxious, playing the role of peacemaker as usual for his old college roommate. It was no secret that Matt had taken Collin right up the corporate ladder with him after designing a successful video sports game that immediately made him Paragon's wonder boy extraordinaire.
Gratitude and a close friendship kept Collin in check. But for her part, Annie was growing tired of Matt expecting his creative team to continually take a backseat to his own brilliance. Lately she and Matt had been clashing at every turn. Especially since no one had the power to jerk her chain faster than Matt Abbington.
Rattle. Rattle. Rattle. Clang. Clang. Clang.
"Annie. Pick up the phone. You know Matt hates to be kept waiting."
"I know," Annie said, staring at the blinking line. But, dammit, he was going to ruin her good mood. Annie knew he would. Matt always did.
For the first time during her glorious June morning, Annie sensed black clouds slowly gathering above her head.
If Matt hated anything, it was being left on "ignore." Annie knew it. Collin knew it. So where the hell were they?
They had their heads together oohing and aahing over some fashion magazine, most likely. Or discussing what they were going to wear to the next big function on their social calendar.
Well, screw that. He needed to talk to Annie and he needed to talk to her now.
He disconnected the call and hit speed dial. "It's Matt again, Kathy," he said the second the receptionist answered. "Do I suddenly need a special password to get someone to answer the phone in my own department?" He groaned when the shut-up-and-wait music kicked in.
Matt shook his head disgustedly. He deserved a gold medal for putting up with Collin and with Annie. In fact, most of the time he felt like he was living one long PMS nightmare. He, of course, was always the bad guy because he had no interest whatsoever in getting in touch with his feminine side.
Like that was going to happen in this lifetime. Besides, Collin and Annie were the ones who always seemed miserable with their ultra-feminine selves. Not him. Annie, for instance, had been moping around for weeks over dick head Dave, with whom she was supposedly having a "meaningful" relationship. As opposed to the meaningless overnight relationship she'd had with him.
Sure, he'd been sore at first when Annie pretended their night together never happened. As her boss, he could have used his authority to get back at her. He hadn't done that, at least not intentionally. In fact, Annie had actually done both of them a huge favor by giving him the brush-off. She was looking for happily-ever-after. He wasn't looking, period.
Now, he never let himself dwell on that near disaster. Just as he refused to dwell on Annie's little-girl grin and her body made for sin. Or her down-her-back reddish gold hair that was sexy as hell. Or those saucer-size eyes so blue a man could get lost in them. He'd had one weak moment, that was all. Miss Meaningful Relationship was strictly off-limits. Because the last thing this homeboy wanted was any type of relationship.
Relationship. Even the word made him queasy. Mainly because he just didn't get it.
Women claimed they wanted to be treated as equals. They demanded equal billing in the boardroom and in the bedroom. They even insisted they wanted carefree single lives and successful careers first, and families later. But was that enough? Nope. They just had to pull out the old relationship trump card that quickly pushed going out and having a great time together into the No-win Zone. For a guy, that is.
Because the rules constantly changed. Call a woman up during the day just to say hello, and you could guarantee she'd be (a) hurt, (b) confused, or (c) just mad as hell (take your pick) because you didn't call her the evening before to say goodnight. Take her to an outdoor concert on Saturday, then brace yourself for the (a) whining, (b) crying, or (c) screaming fit (again, take your pick) she'd wage on Sunday because you wanted to play golf and she assumed you would want to (a) drop by her parents' house for lunch, (b) walk through the mall looking into jewelry store windows, or (c) just spend some quality time alone with her (you get the idea).
Excerpted from Dream Guy by Candy Halliday Copyright © 2005 by Candy Viers. Excerpted by permission.
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