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"There's nothing worse than having the hots for a sexy guy, and then finding out he has the personality of a turnip."
Lucille Vandenbergknown to her friends and family as Lulu, which wasn't great, but was certainly better than Lucilledidn't try to keep the disappointment out of her voice as she griped to her friends, Viv and Amelia. Honestly, a guy who looked as good as the man holding the guitar at the crowded bar should have boatloads of brains and charm to go with his amazing body. But this one? Ugh. She'd had more scintillating conversations with her houseplants.
"Sorry he turned out to be a disappointment," said Amelia, her pretty, gentle face full of commiseration and support.
Viv wasn't as comforting. "If the turnip's hung like a porn star, you can handle a root vegetable, Lulu. I mean, it's not as if you want a life partner here."
Lulu wasn't convinced, mainly because, once again, she'd set herself up for disappointment. For the past month, since she'd moved to Washington, D.C., she'd been on the lookout for an interesting guy to help break her long romantic dry streak. For what seemed like forever, she had been so focused on getting through grad school, and then on her internship in Rwanda, and then on her new job with a local NGO. She hadn't allowed herself a single date in ages. Of course, that also could have been because her last serious relationship had been with someone who'd been so self-absorbed and career-focused, he hadn't even known her middle name, her favorite color, or much of anything else about her a year after they'd been together.
But now she needed sex. Badly. Needed to have it with somebody who would make her forget she hadn't had it for so long
or at least make her believe the wait had really been worthwhile. She could deal with him not caring about her middle name or favorite colors, at least for one night.
"I just wanted to meet somebody nice, sexy and smart, and have a welcome-to-Washington adventure," she mused.
And when she'd come into this Dupont Circle bar earlier in the week and met the super-hot guitar player, she'd thought she might have found the perfect person with whom to do it.
But when they'd talked tonight, he'd turned out to be as adventurous as a trip to the dentist. Not even a trip for a filling, or a root canal, just a plain old check-up. Yawn. The monosyllabic conversation they'd shared when she arrived tonight had crushed her fantasies completely.
"Who cares about his IQ?" Viv added. "It's his looks and size that matter."
"Maybe to you," said Amelia, her tone a bit disapproving.
Really, the two former college roommates couldn't be more dissimilar, and Lulu wondered how they'd survived. They were like Oscar and Felix, only female. One was sexually conservative while the other was a bit of a slut. A definite odd couple.
"I wish I could be as brutally shallow as you, Viv," Lulu said. "But I need conversation to go with the pecs and schlong."
Viv grinned, impossible to insult. She was the queen of mean. "Fine, forget him. But don't give up. The night is young."
Maybe. But she didn't want merely smarts, she also wanted a guy who was honest and direct, who didn't play games with his intentions. Someone who knew what he wanted and went after it
not a wishy-washy dude who couldn't even speak unless the subject was his favorite band.
Why the hell was it so hard to find somebody like that?
Amelia raised her voice to be heard over the crowd, which was growing louder with every costumed body that crammed into the trendy bar. "There will be lots of guys here tonight. You'll find somebody better."
"I doubt it."
"Have another drink. They'll all start to look better after three of those things," said Viv, gesturing toward Lulu's glass.
Lulu was already feeling the effects of two. Unfortunately, they were making her more choosy, not less. "I'm not the one-night-stand-with-a-stranger type."
Viv raised a brow and gestured toward the guitarist.
"He wasn't a stranger," Lulu insisted. "I sorta knew him."
"You exchanged five words with him before tonight," Viv said with a smirk. "But I knew his name."
"Only his last one."
"Yeah, what's up with that?"
Viv shrugged. "Schaefer's all mysterious about his first name. I bet it's something stupid like Fred or Homer or Ralph."
Amelia, smiling sweetly, said, "Maybe he's just trying to keep some things private, since he's in the spotlight."
Perhaps. But she suspected the broodiness and first-name mystery were intended to heighten interest in an otherwise pretty uninteresting guy. It had certainly worked on her, at least until she'd heard him say more than "Got a request?"
Sighing, she swirled her Devil's Brewthe drink on special for tonight's big Halloween bashand sipped it. She was careful not to splash any of the red liquid onto the half-mask that covered her face from mid-forehead down to the tip of her nose. Lulu had gone to a lot of trouble with this costume, having fully intended to look as sexy and wicked as she could in hopes of stirring some naughty thoughts in the guitarist. She was a witch, but her green mask wasn't the least bit scaryno long nose or warts. She'd gone instead for a Mardi Gras type facial covering, with sequins and cat-shaped eye openings. Beneath her pointy hat, her hair was curled and teased, wild and untamed. She'd also sprayed a coating of glittery red hair-spray onto it, making herself even more unrecognizable.
Schaefer had noticed. She'd seen appreciation and heat in his eyes. His brain might be all vegetable, but his body apparently had some blood flowing through its roots. Er, veins.
That probably would have been enough for most sex-starved twenty-six-year-old women. Maybe it would have been enough for grad-school Lulu. But she'd changed since she'd returned from her internship in Rwanda. Working in a country filled with people who had so little, and then for a nonprofit group that gave microloans to similar, desperately-hopeful populations, would do that to a person.
She supposed she really had grown up. But that didn't mean she didn't still have the desire to go out and cut loose, if only to escape the sadness and deprivation she often witnessed in her job. But not with a turnip.
"Whoa, striptease at eleven o'clock," Viv said, her dark eyes widening.
"Wow, I thought this place was more upscale than that. Maybe we should go someplace else before then," said Amelia, sounding a little shocked.
"I wasn't talking about the time, Miss Literal." Viv pointed. "I mean at my eleven o'clock."
Lulu and Amelia both turned, peering through the crowd, trying to see what had caught Viv's attention. At first, Lulu merely spied a sea of devils, vampires, sexy nurses and construction workers. Then she spotted a figure standing alone near the dance floor, facing away from her. And she simply couldn't look away.
The guy had donned a white sheet for the event, going for the age-old ghost outfit that had gone out of style before Lulu was in elementary school. But even a single sheet was apparently too much. As if he'd felt he'd done his holiday duty by appearing in a requisite costume for a little while, he'd begun to pull the sheet up to remove it. He'd already revealed long legs covered in soft, loose-fitting jeans that draped across powerful, muscular thighs. Not to mention an utterly delish male ass lovingly cupped by that faded denim.
As he stretched his arms up, he caught the bottom hem of his shirt, which was now rising with the sheetperhaps by design, but more likely by accident. Whatever the reason, she, Viv, Amelia and, she noted, every woman around them, watched him with avid attention as he bared smooth, supple skin, golden and slick with sweat from the hot, crowded bar. His jeans hung low on lean hips; his waist was slim, every inch of him hard.
Lulu reached blindly for her drink, sipping, but she didn't take her eyes off the ghost. The sheet and shirt went higheroh, God, that back. It rippled with muscle, every bit of him powerful and sexy. In that body, strength wasn't just implied, it was promised, and though she wasn't a petite woman, she suddenly felt very feminine and fragile in comparison.
Catching a glimpse of ink on the back of his shoulder, she waited for more of it to be revealed. She held her breath, dying to see the broad shoulders and bare, flexing arms.
Unfortunately, he appeared to realize he'd been putting on a show. The man yanked the shirt back into place with one hand, and whipped the sheet the rest of the way off with the other. She almost heard a universal sigh of disappointment from every double-Y chromosome in the joint.
"A blond," Amelia said with a pleased little sigh.
"I like blonds," Viv purred.
Lulu never had before, but she was definitely seeing the appeal. "I'm quickly developing an appreciation for them."
Viv tried to stake her claim. "If he has a face to go with the rest of the package, I'll be poisoning your drinks so I can get to him first."
Lulu waited, sending mental signals for the guy to turn around so she could judge if the front was as amazing as the back. He didn't accommodate her fully, but he did glance toward the guitarist, nodding hello to Schaefer. Lulu got just a brief glimpse of his profile, but it was enough to make her gasp in shock.
Lurching from her chair, she said, "It can't be."
"Can't be who?" asked Amelia.
Viv frowned. "A guy who looks like that is named Jazz?"
"Chaz," Lulu insisted, shaking the confusion out of her head and slowly lowering herself back down as her two friends eyed her curiously. "No, I'm wrong. I have to be. No way is that Chaz Browning."
"Hmm," Amelia mused, "that name sounds familiar."
"He's a journalistsome of his stuff has been in Time magazine and now I think he works for the Associated Press, or maybe Reuters," Lulu said, still trying to get the crazy thought that the Chaz she'd known as a kid could possibly have grown up to be the stud she'd just been ogling.
"Who are we talking about, the guy over there?" asked Viv.
"No, it's just a resemblance." She sipped again, willing her heart to stop thudding. "Chaz Browning was a boy from my hometown in western Maryland, literally the boy next door. Our parents are best friends, but we always tormented each other."
Well, mostly she'd tormented him. She smiled, thinking how silly she'd been to equate Chaz Browning with the red-hot dude across the bar.
"I've barely seen him since he graduated from high school nine years ago. But our families are still close. My mother told his mother that I was moving here, and he emailed me with info about his Realtor. That's how I got my apartment."
"And Chaz is definitely not Mr. Sexy Ghost?" Viv said, still focused on the handsome stranger, now ringed by a trio of costumed women. Lulu frowned, seeing the way they leaned against him, brushing body parts against his thick arms and strong legs.
None of your business, she reminded herself, turning in her chair to face her friend, and not the walking sexsicle.
"No way. Chaz was a total nerd. Skinny, awkward."
He definitely didn't have tons of muscles or an ass that could make a wolf-whistler of a nun. Sweet, quiet Chaz had as much in common with ghost-guy as Brad Pitt did with Elmer Fudd.
"Well, Mr. Ghost is definitely not a wimp," Viv said.
Chaz hadn't been a wimp, either, exactly. Memories flashed through her mind and she felt the same pang of guilt she always felt when she remembered the boy she'd known. She'd harassed him mercilesslylike the time Chaz had gone up onto the roof of the garage to retrieve a football. She'd waited until he was up there, and had then taken the ladder away. Chaz, not wanting to admit defeat to a mere girl, had jumped, landing hard enough on the ground that he fell and cracked his tailbone.
Her mom had accused Lulu of picking on Chaz only because she had a crush on him. She'd denied it, though she'd always thought he was kind of cute when he blushed. Which was often.
Suddenly, Viv's eyes went even rounder, and her mouth fell open. "Oh, my God, the front half is even better than the rear."
Lulu spun around on her seat again, wanting a better look. The hot stranger had turned toward them. She saw his face, noted the featuresthe green eyes with laugh lines beside them, the dimple in one cheek, the small cleft in his chin.
Confusion raced through her. The square, slightly grizzled jaw did not compute, nor did the wide, oh-so-kissable mouth, the flashing green eyes, the utter, rugged handsomeness of the man.
yet very familiar indeed.
"No way," she mumbled. "It just can't be."
She stared and stared. And gradually, the truth forced its way into her consciousness.
She might not recognize the body, but she knew that face, that smile, that dimple. She could no longer deny that the sexy ghost was, indeed, Chaz, the boy-next-door. The one she'd tormented, the one who'd ignored her until she'd been as rotten as possible to get his attention, the one she'd hoped to meet again here in D.C. if only so she could make up for being such a little snot when they were kids. But she needed to work up to it and wasn't prepared to start tonight. Unfortunately the mask probably didn't hide enough of her face that he wouldn't recognize her.
It was like some kind of morality play or Aesop's fable. She'd been the mean girl to a rather forgettable boy, and Chaz Browning had grown up to be the hottest, most unforgettable man she'd ever laid eyes on.
"It's him. It's really him."
"Your old friend?" asked Amelia.
"Something like that." Friend wasn't the word she'd use.
"He's totally checking you out."
Lulu shook off her shock and paid attention again, realizing that Viv was right. Chaz was eyeing her, a smile tugging at the corners of that incredible mouth. So maybe he had a short memory and didn't recall that he had reason to hate her guts. Or maybe he'd just grown up and looked back at their childhood days through a softer lens, as she had.
She gave him a bright, sunny smile back, shoving away her sexual interest, forcing herself to remember this was an old frenemy. No way did she want him to know she'd been drooling over him.
He started to come over, probably to say hello, ask how she was settling in to city life, maybe make small talk about the old days. She glanced away, focusing on her drink, running her fingertips over the condensation on the glass, feigning a nonchalance she definitely did not feel.
"Hi," a man's voice said a moment later. It was Chaz's voice, with many years' worth of maturity added on. He stood behind her, and she felt the warmth of his big, broad body.
Willing her cheeks not to pinken and her voice not to quiver, she glanced up at him. "Hi, yourself."
"Same to you."
He gestured toward her glass. "I'd offer to buy you a drink, but it seems you're full-up. How's the special?"
"Remember the taste of kids' cherry-flavored cough syrup?"
"That tasted better."
"Think I'll stick to beer."
"Good choice," she said. "I like your costume."
He glanced down at his loose cotton T-shirt and those wickedly worn jeans. "Guy next door?"
Huh. Funny. "I meant the ghost. Why'd you take it off?"
"I'm not so great with scissors. I cut the eye holes too small and couldn't see where the hell I was going."
She laughed. Chaz had never had much hand-eye coordination. But she'd bet he could do some utterly amazing things with those hands now, and the heavily-lashed green eyes were enough to make a girl melt.
"Still a fan of the homemade costume, huh?"
"My mother would kill me if I got a store-bought one."
Yeah. She remembered. Their moms had coordinated outfits every holiday, though they couldn't always please everybody. One year, when she'd wanted to be Sailor Moon, she'd had to go as a stupid Power Ranger instead because it was Chaz's favorite show. She'd even had to be the yellow ranger, since his spoiled sister had called dibs on the pink one.
She'd repaid him by stealing every one of the chocolate bars from his trickor-treat bag and replacing them with raisins.
Lord, she'd been such a little terror.