“Hey, it’s Manda,” the voice whispered. “Did he call?”
“No . . . hold on.” Ashley Mason padded to her bedroom door and eased it shut. Turning, she perched on
the edge of the bed. “He just IM’d me. I’m meeting him tomorrow night.”
“The Night Owl. He says he knows a guy who can get us in.”
“Are you excited?”
“Nervous and excited. I can’t believe I’m going out with the quarterback from Nelson.”
“What’re you going to tell your mom?”
“What we talked about . . . that I’m coming over to your house to study. She won’t care. She’s working late again anyway.”
“What’re you going to wear?”
“That green skirt and top I bought Saturday.”
“You think he’ll believe you about your age?”
“People are always telling me I look older than I am.”
“Yeah, but you told him you were sixteen. You won’t even be fourteen till December.”
“He won’t notice. He–”
“Damn. Ashley, I gotta go. My dad’s coming up the stairs and I’m supposed to be asleep.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow in class.”
Closing her cellphone, Ashley fell back onto the bed as excited shock tingled inside her. She had a date with a ju nior, but not just any ju nior. The star quarterback at Nelson High School. Everyone knew him.
And he wanted to go out with her.
She’d found him on a fluke. Out of boredom a couple of weeks ago, she’d been browsing a teen chat room and started up a conversation with QB1201. After chatting a few minutes, she asked him what his handle meant and that’s when she’d learned he was the quarterback at Nelson High. She had played it cool, all the time absolutely thrilled to be talking to one of the most pop u lar boys in the city.
Ryan Davidson was written up in the newspaper every week as doing something spectacular on the field the Friday night before. She’d seen his picture numerous times. He was tall, with blond, curly hair and dimples in both cheeks. Last weekend, when her mom had thrown the paper away, she’d pulled it out of the garbage and cut his picture out. She now had the beginnings of a photo album she was going to devote fully to Ryan.
Every night, after her mom went to bed, Ashley went online and spent hours chatting with him. Last night, when he’d asked her to meet him, she’d panicked and shut the computer down. To night, she’d just gotten online when he’d IM’d her, asking if she was mad.
This might be her only chance to actually date a hunk like Ryan Davidson. Reluctantly she agreed to meet him, positive she could make herself look sixteen. What she’d told Manda was true. People were constantly telling her she looked a lot older. She’d have no trouble convincing Ryan. Last week, she’d emailed him a picture taken a few months back. After he got it, he’d told her how pretty she was and hadn’t said a word about her age. She knew she could pull this off.
With a sigh of pure plea sure, Ashley closed her eyes and imagined how Ryan would grin at her when they met. Just wait till all the kids heard about it at school. They’d be talking about her all year.
Excitement curled in her stomach, giving her a warm, cozy glow. Tomorrow she was going to meet her dream man.
“I found the man I want to marry.”
This announcement received mixed reactions from the three women sitting at the table with Samara Lyons. Rachel just rolled her eyes, Allie ignored the comment because of the cute guy at the bar making eyes at her, and Julie, the newest member of their Thursday night margarita- fest, leaned toward her eagerly.
“Where’d you meet him? What’s his name? Have you been dating–”
“Wait . . . hold up,” Rachel interrupted as she raised her hand to signal their server. “Let’s call for another round and then Samara will explain to you. With your psychologist degree, you can tell us the name of Samara’s mental illness.”
Samara grinned and stuck her tongue out at her best friend since the first grade. Rachel, the cynic, as she fondly called her, didn’t believe in “happily ever afters.” Samara, on the other hand, knew they existed. She’d seen them firsthand. Having parents who’d been happily married for over thirty- five years, not to mention five very happy brothers and sisters- in- law, reinforced her beliefs.
Rachel referred to Samara as Pollyanna for what she called her amazing belief in the goodness of humanity when all evidence showed the exact opposite. Samara never argued with that statement, because it was true. She did believe in the basic goodness of people and so far, with only a few exceptions, she’d never been proven wrong.
“Okay, girl.” Rachel took a sip of her frozen concoction, licked the salt from her mouth, and leaned forward. “Who is it this week?”
Being humored didn’t bother Samara in the least.
“Did you see that new foaming bath commercial where the husband runs a hot bubble bath for his wife and then takes the kids to the park while she has the house to herself?”
“He’s the one.”
Only Julie looked startled by this statement. “Do you know the man in the commercial?”
Looking satisfied with how the conversation was going, Rachel settled back into her chair with an amused, knowing expression.
“No, I don’t know him. He’s just the guy I’d like to marry.”
Ignoring Rachel’s smug grin, Samara attempted to explain her philosophy. “I have the ideal man in my head. I’ve just never met him. But sometimes, I’ll see a guy on tele vi sion or read about him and I recognize a certain characteristic I want in my future Mr. Right.” Julie nodded. “Actually, that’s a very healthy attitude.” Rachel stared at Julie. “You gotta be kiddin’ me. Don’t encourage her lunacy. Heal it!”
“No, really. It is healthy.” Julie waved a hand at the crowded bar in Mama Maria’s. “Look at all these people, searching for that one special person they think they want to spend their life with, and most of them have no clue what they’re looking for. At least Samara has a good idea what she does and doesn’t want.” Taking a long, icy swallow of her drink, Samara couldn’t help but be glad that at least someone thought knowing what she was looking for was a good idea. She also knew what she didn’t want, having learned that the hard way. She took another sip, refusing to give the humiliating memory any more thought.
The sound of sizzling fajitas headed their way caught her attention. Her stomach rumbled with a welcoming growl as the spicy aroma hit her senses. Samara looked around in anticipation. Behind the waiter, to her left, her gaze was caught and held by the tall, looming figure in the corner. A man she’d gladly walk barefoot across the country to avoid. Her stomach backflipped and spiraled downward. What was he doing here? And why did he have the expression of a hungry tiger on his too- perfect face? He sure as hell hadn’t looked that way the last time she’d seen him.
Refusing to acknowledge him, Samara turned away. There were a thousand reasons he might be here, none of them to do with her. He’d made it painfully clear he wanted nothing to do with her and she had every intention of showing him she felt the same way. Now, if only her pounding heart and adrenaline- drenched bloodstream would cooperate. Despite herself, she dared another peek. Dammit, he was still staring.
Noah McCall hadn’t been able to keep his eyes off Samara since he’d walked into the bar. Some people glowed with purity and light. Samara did that more than most. His jaw clenched at the reason he was here. She already hated him, and he doubted his request for help would make her like him any more.
The decision to come here hadn’t been easy. Coming anywhere close to the South always set up a burning in his gut that would take him days to dispel. The air was different here. Thick and warm, it had character, life. Sucking at you, pulling you down. The warm, cloy ing sweetness made him want to gag.
Noah threw off his disquiet and shut down the memories. This wasn’t about him. Never would be again. This was about doing the right thing, no matter the cost.
Straightening from his slouch against the wall, he sauntered slowly toward the beauty glowering at him. More than aware it would rile her even more, he plastered on his most cocky smile. And Samara had enough reason to be angry for a lifetime. A year ago, he turned down the sweet, sexy offer of her beautiful body. He knew enough about human nature to know that kind of slight wasn’t something one quickly recovered from.
Fiery sparks shot from ice-blue eyes, making them appear even more glacial. A genuine smile kicked up his lips. Feisty, spirited, and sexy as hell . . . Samara Lyons was just what he was looking for. Perfect for the job in every way.
Myriad emotions flashed across her expressive face, none of them friendly. Good. She would need that anger to fuel what he was going to ask of her. He’d channel the anger in the right direction. Until then, he’d just enjoy the show.
She did what he expected. After giving him a glare of pure loathing hatred, she turned her back on him. Her spine so stiff, it looked as though it would crack at the slightest touch. Testing the theory, his index finger lightly brushed the nape of her neck . . . a tender, fragrant spot his mouth watered to taste.
Jerking around, the glare grew hotter and Noah couldn’t hold back his laugh.
“What do you want?” Her tone indicated that what ever it was, he shouldn’t plan on getting it.
“I need to talk to you. Let’s go.”
“Excuse me? Just who the hell do you think you are?”
Ignoring the wide- eyed gazes of the three women sitting at the table with her, Noah leaned down and whispered in her ear, “I need you.”
Samara jerked away from him and, starting at his feet, gave him a scathing full- bodied once- over. Bringing her gaze back to his face, her voice dripped with disdain, “I’ve got nothing you want.”
Something tugged at his heart . . . the one he knew he didn’t have. He’d hurt and humiliated this woman and she still stung a year later. If he had a conscience, he’d leave and find someone else. Since that didn’t exist and he needed her cooperation, he did the next best thing. Saluting her with a small wave of his hand, he retreated into the shadows. Having others around when he talked with her wasn’t optimum anyway. He’d allow her this small reprieve.
Samara watched Noah back away and disappear out the door. Fury and hurt waltzed like dancing buffaloes throughout her body. Why should seeing him again bother her? He meant nothing to her other than a humiliating moment she’d sworn had been erased from her memories. How dare he come and stir them up again. Noah McCall, devil- handsome and arrogant as sin, could piss her off faster than anyone she’d ever met.
“Good heavens, Sam,” Rachel said. “You going to just sit there and stare into space or are you going to tell us who ‘Mr. Tall, Dark, and Please- Jump- My- Bones Sexy’ was?”
Samara dragged herself back from the dark memory and looked at the stupefied faces of her friends.
“Just someone I’d rather forget.”
“Forget a man who looks like that? No way.” This from Allie, who’d even stopped flirting with the cute guy at the bar to weigh in on the sexiness of Noah McCall.
Samara gave an emphatic shake of her head. “Looks aren’t everything.”
Allie flashed a wicked grin. “No, but they sure don’t hurt.”
While the girls continued chatting, Samara retreated back to her thoughts. What could Noah want to talk to her about? The last time she saw him, she’d been lying on the bed with the room whirling around her. Noah had just carried her to bed, kissed her on her forehead, and walked out the door.
Samara had wished more than once that she’d either had too much to drink so she wouldn’t remember her humiliation, or that she hadn’t had anything to drink at all. Unfortunately she’d been sober enough to remember Noah’s refusal and just drunk enough to have issued the invitation in the first place.
In Paris for the wedding, she thought she had accepted and resigned herself to the fact that the man she planned to marry, Jordan Montgomery, was in love with another woman. She told herself she was happy for them. Jordan and Eden had suffered enough and deserved every happiness. But that was before Eden walked in the room for the ceremony and Samara saw Jordan’s face. The tiny crack in her heart became a gaping crevice. Never had she seen a more honest, naked look of adoration.
After the wedding, they’d all gone to a small restaurant to celebrate. Since she, Noah, and a friend of Eden’s were the only guests, the party broke up quickly. The happy couple headed to their honeymoon and Dr. Arnot, Eden’s friend, said goodbye and left. Barely saying a word, Noah had disappeared abruptly, leaving Samara alone at the table.
The first time she met Noah, she’d been instantly attracted to him . . . until he opened his mouth. Within seconds, the man had her fuming. He’d been arrogant, cocky, and evasive and those were just his good characteristics. She’d gone to him for help and he’d practically laughed in her face.
Samara was used to people, especially men, being nice to her. At just a little over five feet tall, with a slight build, creamy magnolia complexion, and large, ice-blue eyes, most men tended to treat her as a fragile doll. It wasn’t something she encouraged or took advantage of, just something she was accustomed to having. With five older brothers, she’d been taught how to take care of herself, but that didn’t stop men from feeling as though they needed to protect her.
Noah McCall hadn’t even acted as though he knew she was a woman. He’d refused to give her information on Eden for Jordan, laughed at her temper, and then had practically thrown her out of his office. So why had she found herself sitting alone at the table, fantasizing about him? Were those broad shoulders really as strong as they looked? Was his short ebony hair as soft and silky as it seemed? Did his deliciously sensuous mouth taste of the wine they’d had with dinner?
Physically, Noah McCall was the most perfectlooking man she’d ever seen. Tall, muscular, with a swarthy complexion and the deepest, darkest brown eyes she could ever imagine. The kind of eyes a woman could lose her soul in, lose herself.