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Dream dates were difficult to find. Eve Pemberton should know. She'd tried. Boy, had she tried.
With an exasperated sigh, she prodded at the gilt-edged, gold-embossed, ludicrously expensive wedding invitation propped in the middle of her desk.
It didn't budge, folded on its crisp columbine cardboard edges, immovable, rigid, taunting her with its stand-up stiffness.
She knew what she had to do.
She just didn't want to do it.
Taking a deep breath, she swept the invitation aside and flipped open her laptop. Now was as good a time as any to continue her quest to find her dream date.
'This is business,' she muttered, her fingers flying over the familiar keys as she skimmed a few new search engines before finding what she was looking for.
Here goes nothing.
Squinting at the screen, covered in tacky ruby hearts, she stabbed at the enter key, hoping this wouldn't take too long. She had a million things on her to-do list today, starting with chasing recalcitrant subcontractors for one of the corporate marquees at the Australian Tennis Open to ensuring it was all systems go for an event kicking off the AFL season at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
She loved her job as events coordinator and would much rather be scoping out Aussie Rules footballers than finding her dream date via a dating agency on the Internet but she had to do this.
She had no choice.
The first profile flickered to life on the screen and her tense shoulders relaxed a tad. Not bad. Nice face, nice smile, just… nice. Pity she didn't want nice. She wanted drop dead gorgeous.
While her fingers clattered and she viewed close on twenty-five guys, her hopes sank. There wasn't a stand out among them, not the kind of guy she needed to impress the bridal babes—her friends Linda, Carol and Mattie—with. She'd been single at every wedding within their social circle for too long and she'd had enough. Throw in the hoo-ha associated with being a bridesmaid, the only unattached bridesmaid at each wedding, and she really needed to pull this off.
Though they never said anything, she'd caught their pitying glances, their frantic scanning of the guests for a suitable 'fix-up' at each wedding, or worse, the occasional 'accidental' introduction to a long-lost second cousin.
She may as well arrive at every matrimonial shindig with the words 'dateless desperado' tattooed on her forehead.
Not this time. Mattie, the last of her single friends to tie the knot, was always extra-sensitive to her moods and she'd be damned if she spoiled her friend's day, inadvertently, by turning up alone.
Just one last wedding to attend, one last bridesmaid dress fitting… The thought perked her up for a moment and she renewed her search with vigour, reluctant to admit defeat when the fiftieth bland profile blurred before her.
All these guys sounded the same: searching for friendship with a view to a relationship, likes walking on the beach, enjoys cosy dinners.
Well, she didn't need friendship or a relationship or any of that other stuff, thank you very much. She was an industrious businesswoman who needed a date, nothing more, nothing less. She used the Net all the time for work, so finding a date via this medium should've been a cinch, right?
She'd already been on five dates—five excruciatingly boring, painful, blah dates—and nothing. Not a dream date among the shoddy lot.
This was her last shot, the last online dating agency she hadn't tried and, right now, her chances weren't looking crash hot.
With a disgusted snort, she pushed back from her desk, rubbed the bridge of her nose, when a grainy photo in the corner of the news home page caught her eye.
She clicked on the icon to bring up the story, her breath instantly catching as the photo sprang to life, filling half her screen with twinkling blue eyes, a charismatic smile and a cheeky dimple which lent the striking face a boyish charm.
She'd wanted drop dead gorgeous.
She'd got her wish.
Only problem was, Bryce Gibson knew exactly how hot he was and, worse, knew exactly how he affected her.
Determinedly ignoring the adorable dimple she remembered all too well, she speed-read the article.
'"New headhunted hotshot advertising exec arrives in Melbourne from Sydney…needs to prove himself…expecting big things…" yada, yada, yada…' she mumbled under her breath, finding her gaze unwittingly drawn to the picture again.
Oh, yeah, Bryce Gibson hadn't changed a bit. Still too confident, too charismatic, too… everything.
He'd had charm to burn, and she'd faked immunity. Until Tony's twenty-first, the night that had changed everything.
She stared at his picture, remembering her brother's coming of age party, her coming of age night.
That night had been the catalyst for where she was today: new look, new confidence, new personality.
She should thank Bryce: for flirting, for teasing, for making her feel like a woman for the first time in her life. Or she should kick him for what came after. After that almost-kiss…
Either way, she'd love Mr Overconfident to see her now…
Eve sat bolt upright and snatched her hand off the mouse as if she'd been burned.
Bad idea. A very bad idea.
You need a date. A 'sexiest guy on the planet' date. The type of date to show your friends you're fine, you can hook a hot guy; you just choose not to.
Yeah, but this is Bryce cool-McCool Gibson we're talking about. Remember him? The guy who teased me? Who turned on that legendary charm until I blushed? The guy who went out of his way to pay me attention when I didn't want it, then, when I did, froze me out?
Yeah, but that was then. This is now. Wouldn't you like to show him how far you've come? Where's your pride?
But he'll think I'm some kind of desperado, asking him out on a date. Or, worse, that I still like him. And, besides, using a dating agency was all about business. A no-frills, no-expectation date.
And your point is? Why can't Bryce be about business?
Telling her voice of reason to be quiet, Eve shook her head and glared at Bryce's picture.
He fitted her date criteria in every way: attractive, successful, charming, the type of guy to turn heads, the type of guy who would prove once and for all to her friends she could pull a date like him, she just chose not to because of her career.
Drumming her fingers on the desk, Eve knew she had no choice. The guys she'd dated so far were below par and this last dating agency's potentials were a no-go, while she had the perfect date staring her in the face.
Her belly trembled as her fingers inched towards the phone, barely touching the receiver before she snatched them back.
She couldn't do it.
No matter how far she'd come, she couldn't just pick up the phone and ask him to be her date.
It was ludicrous.
It was crazy.
And the longer she stared at those deep indigo eyes, those tempting lips, remembering how close they'd once been to hers, it was a foregone conclusion.
They'd shared a spark, a hint of something she'd never dreamed possible that special night and, while it may have ended badly, there was nothing like a trip down memory lane to give a girl a confidence injection.
She'd used what had happened as a catalyst and had reinvented herself after that night.
Wouldn't it be great to show him how far she'd come, a kind of in your face, Gibson, this is what you missed out on?
But it was more than that and therein lay the problem. She may be wary but she'd be a fool to believe she'd be totally immune to him, even after eight years. Girls like her never fully got over guys like him.
No matter how many designer dresses or trendy haircuts or killer shoes she had, no matter how many events she presided over like a queen, no matter how many bookings she had for the next year, there was that small, insecure part of her that hoped he wouldn't take one look at her and walk, like he had at the end of that night.
Rules, she needed rules. Clear-cut, don't-mess-with-her-head rules. Rules that would give her heart a resounding whack if she contemplated, even for a second, anything other than using him as a stopgap date for the wedding functions.
Eve's French-manicured fingernails absentmindedly tapped a stack of documents in front of her as she debated the wisdom of cold-calling a guy she'd once liked and asking him to be her date for a specified period of time.
Wisdom? More like insanity, but, as her gaze drifted over the documents, all perfectly logical and precise, and back to Bryce's picture, she knew she could do this.
She was a successful businesswoman, used to following processes and procedures to the nth degree. And that was exactly what dating Bryce for the next month would be—a process to get what she wanted: her friends convinced she was okay and a stress-free wedding for Mattie.
She could do this.
Ignoring a zoo's worth of butterflies in her stomach, she focused on that taunting wedding invitation and reached for the phone with a shaky hand.
No time like the present to see if hotshot Bryce with his hypnotising eyes and magnetic smile would come to the party—literally.
'Nice view, huh?'
Bryce turned away from his office window towards his colleague Davin; the Melbourne cityscape was great, but decidedly less glamorous than the million dollar Sydney harbour views he'd given up when he'd taken on his new role here at Ballyhoo Advertising Agency.
No big deal; he'd cope without the view, considering the scope of this opportunity. Ballyhoo was big in the advertising world, real big, and he couldn't wait to get stuck into this new challenge.
'Not bad. Though I won't be spending much time staring out the window with all this to keep me busy.'
He gestured to the tower of manuals Human Resources had dumped on his desk, making a mental note to start sifting through them and prioritising ASAP. He needed a jump-start here, needed to stay one step ahead.
'Have you met with Sol yet?'
Bryce shook his head, dropped into his executive leather chair. 'He's in Auckland for the day, said we'd touch base when he got back.'
Davin propped himself on the desk, opened his mouth as if to say something before shutting it again.
His uneasiness increased as Davin fiddled with the pen holder, didn't quite meet his eye.
'You know we're the number one ad agency in Melbourne, right?'
Oh, yeah, he knew. Solomon Perlman, CEO of Ballyhoo, had extolled the agency's virtues at length when he'd headhunted him for the position. He'd been blown away by the company's mission statement, reeled in by the lure of new challenges, and Sol had rammed home his offer with a salary package that would make the Prime Minister blink.
Working for a company as big as Ballyhoo would send his career into the stratosphere, something he'd worked towards for the last few years, something he deserved after the hard yards he'd put in.
'Yeah, Sol might've mentioned the "premier agency" thing a time or two. What's your point?'
Davin squirmed slightly, his expression shifting between furtive and ingratiating, setting his smarm radar on high alert.
'We're number one because Sol only goes for the big contracts. He won't tolerate anything less.'
'I already know all this.'
'Rumour has it you've been brought in as some kind of proposed shake-up. Sol knows the clients you courted in Sydney; he wants the same results here, pronto.'
'Takes months to build up contacts in this industry. Sol knows that.'
'Just telling you how it is. Sol expects results and he's not a patient man.'
'And you're telling me this because?'
The avaricious gleam in Davin's beady eyes told him exactly why his new colleague was acting so buddy-buddy before he said a word.
'We're on the same team now.'
So when he brought in the big bucks, Davin would bask in the glory too. He'd seen his type in Sydney, had worked alongside hangers-on, the slack employees only too eager to ride the coat-tails of a go-getter.
'Speaking of teams, a bunch of us are heading out for drinks tonight. You in?'
The last thing he felt like was socialising with guys like Davin but he needed to scope out his co-workers, get a feel for how things worked around here and the quickest way was over a beer.
'We usually head around the corner to the Elephant and Wheelbarrow around six.'
'Later.' Davin raised a hand as he sauntered out of the office, a smug grin on his podgy face.
Relaxing into his chair, Bryce linked fingers and stretched forwards, wishing he could dispel Davin's words as useless drivel. But he couldn't. Ballyhoo was top of the advertising heap and he'd just signed on as the newest executive. Sol would expect results, fast.
What if he couldn't deliver?
Doubt unfurled like a poisonous python, uncoiling, stretching and threatening to strangle his hard-fought confidence.
Failure didn't sit well with him. Never had.
Dropping his hands, he swivelled on his chair to stare out the window, hating the flicker of unease creeping through the deepest, darkest part of him—the doubting part, the part he'd conquered a long time ago with every successful deal he'd clinched.
The phone rang and he grabbed it, annoyed he'd let one iota of his old doubts creep in today, on what should be the start of another giant leap up the career ladder for him.
'Bryce Gibson speaking.'
'Bryce, it's Eve Pemberton. Tony's sister.'
He didn't need clarification. He knew who Eve Pemberton was. What he wanted to know was what she'd done to her voice. She'd never sounded this mellow as a teenager. Then again, she'd barely spoken back then. Until that night he'd rather forget.
'Hey, Eve, how are you? Long time, no hear.'
'I'm fine, thanks.'
She paused and his curiosity ratcheted up. What would mild-mannered Eve want with him, especially after how things had ended between them?
As if reading his thoughts, she hurried on. 'I have a business proposition for you. Are you free to meet me for a drink after work?'
Actually, I'm busy…'
The words died on his lips as he caught the softest sigh on the other end of the line. If he didn't know better, he would say she sounded disappointed. Why? Apart from Tony, who he hadn't seen since he'd moved to New York eight years ago, they had nothing in common.
'The geek', some of the kids had called her behind her back, exactly why he'd gone out of his way to talk to her. He knew what it was like being the odd one out, even if he'd done his damnedest at the time to make sure nobody knew it.
'What about tomorrow?'
If he'd barely caught her disappointed sigh, there was no mistaking the hint of desperation audible in her dulcet tone.
Cool, quiet, aloof Eve Pemberton desperate? As if.
'Business proposition, huh?'
He deliberately lowered his voice, insinuating a different type of proposition, and almost laughed out loud at her sharp intake of breath.
Eve wasn't a woman he should flirt with. He'd tried it once; look how that had turned out.