FBI agent Max Carter lives his life by a strict set of rules
Related collections and offers
Read an Excerpt
He had been trained to lie, to manipulate a situation to his advantage. But now, thanks to his loving but sometimes too involved mother, Max Carter — grown man, functioning human being, and damn good FBI Agent — needed to find a fake girlfriend for the holidays.
Max dragged himself up the steps to his building. The doorman held the door open for him with a friendly smile. "Evening, Mr. Carter. Did you enjoy your Thanksgiving?"
Ten-day-old turkey warmed over probably had a better holiday than he did, but Charlie was one of those genuinely nice guys, so Max swallowed a sarcastic response and limited himself to a white lie. "I did. Thanks."
He ducked into the building without reciprocating the question. The doorman tended to chat, and all Max wanted was to fall into bed for a week.
Make that five weeks, he mentally tacked on as he was confronted by a massive Christmas tree in the center of the elegant building lobby, its flocked branches bedecked in reds and silvers with glittering white lights. The monstrosity was real, filling the space with the sharp scent of pine.
Max stalked past the offending tree and stabbed the button for the elevator. The doors opened with a welcome whoosh.
He had nothing against Christmas in general, just Christmas this year. Maybe he'd come down with the flu between now and the big day. Nothing bad enough to land his ass in the hospital, but a bout of walking pneumonia, or maybe bronchitis, would work. Something that laid him up without killing him would be preferable. Then he could avoid the holiday with his family.
You know it's bad when you're debating which disease will help you the most.
He thumped his head against the wall. Why the hell had he blurted out, in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, that he had a girlfriend?
His reflection stared back at him accusingly from the perfectly polished mirror inside the elevator as holly, jolly Christmas music piped over the speakers. Max only heard the sounds of the nails in his coffin. His mother was going to kill him when she figured out he'd lied, and his sisters would hold the hammer.
He shook his head. He knew exactly why he'd said what he had. Sheer fucking desperation and the need to shut down the constant matchmaking foisted on him at every family event.
All he'd accomplished was making things worse. His family — large, boisterous, kind, and constantly with their noses buried directly in everyone else's business — had concluded years ago that a woman would "cure" his iron-fisted control on life.
Case in point, Thanksgiving.
On Thursday, he'd walked into his parents' house — all warm and cozy and filled with the smells of a fully loaded turkey dinner — only to come face to face with a curvy blonde who was no relation whatsoever.
The woman had smiled. "Hi."
Max was sure she was perfectly nice, but he could scent a trap laid by his family a million miles away.
"Nice to meet you," he'd said. Or something along those lines. What he'd wanted to say was, "Are you on the menu, too?" but his family's machinations weren't her fault. With effort, he kept his thoughts to himself and ducked into the kitchen where his mother hovered over the stove.
Beside her stood his youngest sister and two other women he didn't know. Turned out his mother invited not one, but three, of his sister's single friends to dinner. She'd claimed altruistic reasons, not wanting the "poor dears" to be alone at the holiday. Yeah, right. She clearly held on to hope that he'd find a happily ever after ... over a romantic platter of turkey carcass, no less.
Max didn't want or need a relationship. He preferred to keep things ... uncomplicated. He stuck to women who played in the same sandbox and understood that his "happily ever afters" followed three simple rules:
Rule One: One night only.
Rule Two: No sleeping over. Too messy.
Rule Three: No personal information exchanged.
Even he could acknowledge he was too rigid to successfully maneuver a lasting relationship. He told himself he didn't want one, even if he envied the easy devotion between his own parents, or even between his best friend, Drew, and his new girlfriend, Cassie ... but that wasn't an option for Max. The rules kept things operational.
However, the speculative looks in the eyes of all the women in that house were not simple or uncomplicated. He'd pictured himself laid out with the Thanksgiving feast like a roast pig with an apple in his mouth. Even the blonde, gorgeous and witty as she was, held zero appeal. Any woman who offered to feed him from her own fork was not for him.
After several hours of polite chitchat peppered with flirtatious looks and expectant watchfulness from his mother as well as his aunts and sisters, he did the most out of character thing he'd ever done.
With a mouth full of pumpkin pie, he announced he had a girlfriend.
To which, after choking around her initial shock, his mother replied, "That's wonderful! We'll set a place for her at Christmas, then."
His mother's powers of deduction would do Sherlock Holmes proud. He'd semi- expected her to stand up from the dinner table, point an accusing finger at him, and shout, "Liar."
Instead she'd done something far worse and called his bluff.
"Fuck," he grumbled. The word had become his mantra over the last three days while he avoided questions about his fictitious girlfriend and tried to work a way out of the mess he'd landed himself in.
The elevator reached his floor with a ping, and the doors whooshed back open. Lost in thought, he slowly made his way down the long, curving hallway, tastefully decorated with hardwood flooring, pale gray walls, and framed black and white prints. The space was softly illuminated by the evening light filtering through windows at the end of each hall in a way he usually found soothing. Not tonight, though.
Rolling his shoulders to relieve the tension in his neck, he blew out a long breath. What he needed right now was a good long run on the treadmill down in the gym, but he needed to unpack first. He'd go later, at his usual time.
The thought of slipping back into his normal routine after a week of chaos already had the knot in his stomach loosening up.
His life was exactly how he wanted it. He went to work. He had exactly four cups of coffee throughout the day as he investigated white-collar criminals. He came home. He ordered takeout from one of the dozen restaurants in the neighborhood. They knew exactly what he wanted when he called because he didn't deviate. When insomnia inevitably struck, he'd go to the building's gym and work out alone. Add in regular workouts with Drew four days a week, along with beers with friends over a good game or a night of poker, and he had the perfect setup. No wife needed.
The long drive home had produced a pitiful list of ideas. I'll either have to fabricate a breakup before Christmas — which was guaranteed to bring more potential love matches out of his mother's woodwork — or I'm going to have to produce a real, live girlfriend.
There were women he could approach, ladies who he'd shared a bed with but nothing else, but that produced its own set of complications. Or he could just pick up a new woman ... only he was getting bored with the revolving door of his sex life. Not that he planned to change it any time soon. Casual sex with women who got the rules was better than no sex at all. Besides, introducing one of them to his family would break his personal rule of no information exchanged, so that was out.
The beginnings of a headache pinched behind his eyes.
While there might be any number of undercover agents he could tap for the job, the years of jokes that would generate at work shoved that option right off the table.
Maybe someone separate from his team? The receptionist at the field office was nice. Slender and pretty in a girl-next-door kind of way, perfect for deceiving matchmaking mamas. She had never indicated any interest in him, which could work. Maybe he could ask her out for a drink and hope ... what? She'd pretend to be his girlfriend long enough to get his adoring, misguided mother off his back, then return to being a passing "hello" as he badged in and out of the building each day?
No. He shoved the key in his door, missed, and had to try again. Asking out a colleague, even one he didn't interact with much, violated every dating rule he had. Whoever he got needed to stay separate. Impersonal. Neutral.
He was going to have to find an unknown, and fast.
Maybe an actress? They were a dime a dozen in this city. Couldn't be that hard, could it?
With a click that sounded loud in the blessed silence of his building, he finally managed to unlock his unhelpful door, but paused in the entryway when he heard the strangest squeaking sound.
Max cocked his head and listened. After a silent wait, a noise that sounded like a whimper echoed from a few doors down.
The door in question opened a crack, then swung wider, and a woman wearing a neon pink hoodie and blue yoga pants crept out into the hallway. Her hair, long and dark, hung in a thick braid over one shoulder.
His neighbor was a blonde, so who was this?
Interest aroused both by the decidedly luscious curves on display, thanks to the skin-tight clothes, as much as by her odd behavior, Max stepped farther into his apartment, out of sight, and waited, watching.
After carefully closing the door behind her with a barely audible click, the woman tiptoed down the hall toward where he stood. His interest cranked up a notch as he got a better look at her face — wide brown eyes, high cheekbones, honey-tinted skin, and lush lips.
Wow. A bolt of awareness shot through his curiosity. He stepped out in the hall, intending to introduce himself.
But as soon as she spotted him, she skidded to a halt and froze in place, guilt written all over her face in a passable imitation of a five-year-old who hoped that if she stayed still enough and closed her eyes, the monster under the bed wouldn't get her. Even her dark-chocolate eyes stilled as she stared back without blinking.
The bulge concealed inside her hoodie, however, had other plans.
Why, hello there tall, dark, and ...
Those were Gina's first thoughts, swiftly followed by, Oh, no.Not the guy from 42B!
Of course he'd be the one to catch her red-handed. After Sabrina's warnings that 42B was on the uptight side, Gina had been avoiding him since she arrived — and she'd been successful, too. Until now.
He was regarding her with a little too much curiosity. Or, more accurately, staring at the squirming bundle she'd tried to hide under her jacket.
Damn it all to hell and back.
All she'd wanted to do was buy her younger brother a dog for Christmas. Mateo had been begging for one all year, and Gina doubted their mother — sweet and caring, but self-absorbed in a ditsy kind of way — had even noticed. On Gina's way back to the apartment she was currently housesitting for her best friend, she might have dropped by the shelter, just to have a peek. She hadn't expected to fall in love with the ball of fur.
The shelter workers' best guess was the three-year-old dog was a mix of Chihuahua and Terrier. All she knew was the scruffy guy was adorable in a goofy way with a floppy ear, a half-curly tail, and markings like a tuxedo. Sweet and snugly, he'd burrowed into her as soon as she picked him up. This dog was definitely the one.
She'd adopted him, then and there. No way was someone else getting their hands on her brother's dog. However, that decision led to a plethora of problems.
The first problem was the fact that Christmas was still a month off — way too early to give Mateo his gift.
Her second problem was her living situation. She'd taken over the lease for Sabrina's swanky apartment while her BFF was overseas on business for a few months. But the building had a strict No Pets policy. No fish, no hamsters, and definitely no dogs. If they caught her with a dog in the apartment, Sabrina would lose her lease for sure.
But how hard could it be to hide such a small dog? That's what she'd told herself when she left the shelter earlier that afternoon, anyway. She hadn't counted on how often she had to sneak him out to pee because he ignored the puppy pads she'd bought. Still, she'd managed fine all day. Total cake walk.
Except for the big problem now blocking her path to the elevator — Maxwell Carter, 42B in the flesh.
"Practicing for a role birthing an alien?" he asked, nodding toward the wiggling bulge under her hoodie.
Despite her predicament, a frisson of awareness slid through her. Oh, that voice, deep and seductive. 42B might be uptight, but he also happened to be arresting — deep blue eyes framed within a starkly handsome face, strong jaw with a cleft in the chin covered in dark stubble, and an aura of control that had a pull all its own. She had the strangest urge to loosen his tie and ruffle his hair, just to muss the perfection a bit and make him more human.
His curiosity shifted to a suspicious frown. She'd waited too long to answer.
"Just heading downstairs for a walk." She hitched her hip and attempted to act casual. Maybe he'd look the other way?
"Uh-huh." He wasn't buying it. "That might be hard to do with a dog under your hoodie."
Just then, the bundle in her arms gave a particularly vigorous squirm and she lost her grip. The dog tumbled to the ground with a thump and a yip. Then the previously calm animal sprinted down the hall, between Hottie McSmart-Ass's legs and into his apartment.
"Hey!" he shouted, dashing after the dog.
"Wait!" Gina called, racing after them both.
At least she had the forethought to close the door behind her to keep the dog from dashing back out into the hallway. Unfortunately, any points she earned with that move were wiped out by the chaos going on inside.
She put her hands over her mouth. "Sorry. Oh jeez —"
42B, dressed in tailored pants and a black button-down — with a tie no less, on a Saturday — ran in circles around his couch as her dog evaded his every attempt to catch him, yipping excitedly at each close call. Unfortunately, several items already lay on the floor, apparently knocked off tables and shelves in the chase.
Please don't let anything expensive be broken.
"Forget sorry. Just catch him," Max ordered.
But the dog decided that would be a terrific time to squeeze under the couch.
"I'll try from the other side," she called.
She threw herself on the hardwood floor and took up position at the end of the couch, opposite from Max.
"Who are you?" Max demanded from his hands and knees as he leaned over to look underneath.
He wanted an introduction now? "My name is Gina Castillo." She leaned over as well, providing her credentials from under the couch. Trying to catch the little animal's attention, she patted the floor. "Here, boy."
"I don't come on command, usually," came a dry voice from the other side.
She held in a snort. "I was calling the dog."
He sat up to address her over the top of the couch. "Why were you sneaking out of Sabrina Lane's apartment in the middle of the night with a dog in your sweatshirt?"
Gina also sat up. "It's only eleven." New York never slept, so that wasn't a crazy time to be awake, in her experience. "And I'm staying at her place."
Max shook his head. "If Sabrina wanted to punish me for turning her down, she didn't need to send you and Fido."
Was he really that full of himself? "Wow. I'm surprised you don't need a bigger apartment to house that ego."
He had the temerity to raise a single eyebrow in the most condescending way. "Hey, she's the one who asked me out."
Never let it be said a Castillo didn't defend their friends — not even from stomach-clenchingly hot men in suits and pristinely clean apartments. "I'm pretty sure you didn't register as more than a blip on her radar."
Rather than respond to her snark, an almost comical flash of horror passed over his face. "Oh shit ... I didn't realize."
"What?" What was his deal now?
"Are you and Sabrina a ... er ... a couple? Sorry —"
Gina shot up a hand, shutting down the apology he'd started, but couldn't hold in the laughter that bubbled out. Gay was his go-to if a woman didn't want him? "Not that it's any of your business" — she shook her head — "but I'm straight. Sabrina is a friend. And I'm pretty sure she's over your ... turning her down, since she's never mentioned it."
He crossed his arms, not even seeming bothered. "Fine. Then if the dog isn't my personal punishment, I should point out they're against the rules."
Excerpted from "The Attraction Equation"
Copyright © 2017 Kadie Scott.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.