Okay, pretending her sexy boss is her boyfriend is more like a huge white lie. But electrician Leah Santino will take the risk. If her parents think she has someone, they won't go back to smothering her, and they can all be a family again.
Problem is, Jacob McKnight isn't just her bosshe's her friend. And faking a relationship when the Santinos come to visit means those sparks she's always tried to ignore are hotter than ever. This thing between them is starting to feel real, but Leah has a very good reason to stay independent. Unless that's one lie that's outlived its purpose
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Leah Santino hated the little red dress she was wearing. It was uncomfortable, way too bright and made men she had no interest in approach her. Since she was at a work party and couldn't tell them to take a long walk off a short pier, but instead had to smile and politely decline their advances, she was on considerable edge.
Of course, the dress also made Jacob McKnight stare. Which she shouldn't like but totally did. Just because it was inappropriate to have a crush on her boss and friend didn't mean she was immune to his staring.
"See! I told you you'd wear it more than once." Grace McKnight greeted her with a big grin. "Perfect color for a holiday party."
"I'm burning it the second I get home," Leah muttered. The last thing she needed was Jacob's sister, who just happened to be her best friend, reading into any staring. It would do Leah good to burn the dress.
Of course, she wouldn't actually do that. This holiday party for MC Restorations' clients wasn't the last time she'd be forced to dress up this year. Jacob had a smaller New Year's Eve gathering prepared, and she was darn well going to get her money's worth out of this dress. "Lighter fluid, matches, the whole bit."
Grace rolled her eyes. Grace was one of the few people who really knew her. Could read the dry humor and didn't find it offensive or annoying. Basically, Grace and her MC coworkers. Her family? Not so much.
Leah shifted uncomfortably. Speaking of her family. She was running out of time. She scanned the room for Jacob.
For the millionth time she tried to talk herself out of asking for this favor. There was no way he'd go for lying, not to mention having Jacob, of all people, pretend to be her boyfriend was dangerous business.
Then Leah thought of Mom and Dad and Marc finally coming to visit for Christmas. Of her whole family being with her over the holiday. It would be the first time in a long time, but only if she made her little white lie a truth.
Leah pressed a hand to her nauseated stomach. She had screwed things up royally. Again. Jacob was her only hope.
Grace nudged her. "Are you okay? You look a little pale. You didn't eat the mushroom appetizer, did you? It had walnuts on it."
Leah shook her head. "No. I won't be going into anaphylactic shock." At least not from walnuts.
"So, what gives?"
Leah's eyes finally landed on Jacob. He was wearing a black suit and smiling with perfect white teeth. His dark brown hair was that casual mussed look, which she was 90 percent sure he worked very hard to achieve. He was currently sporting about a week's worth of facial hair, which she sadly and pathetically kept track of.
She hated herself for the little inward sigh. Hated that she thought he was perfect.
Because Jacob McKnight was so not perfect.
"Earth to Leah?"
Leah forced a smile and looked at Grace. "Sorry. I've got a lot on my mind. Uh, my parents are coming to visit for Christmas. My brother, too."
"That's great. You don't talk about them much, but I can't wait to meet them."
Leah's smile faded. "Yeah. Sure." She didn't mention that not talking about them was on purpose. Didn't mention that for years she hadn't even spoken to them, let alone invited them for visits. This new relationship was tenuous.
Tenuous enough she was going to have to ask Jacob for something totally insane. And it meant enough to check some of her pride at the door.
In other words, it meant everything.
"I need a drink. You want one?"
"Kyle's getting me one." Grace touched her arm. "You sure you're okay?"
Leah waved her off. "Fantastic." She moved toward the bar and away from Grace, smiling at clients along the way.
For five years she'd poured her life into MC Restorations as their electrician. For just as long she had ignored any and all attraction to Jacob. He was her boss, kind of, but he'd also become her friend and then his sister had become her best friend this year and nothing about being attracted to him or halfway in love with him was acceptable, sensible or smart.
For the past ten years, Leah's life had been all about being sensible and smart. Some sad attempt to make up for all the ways she'd been anything but as a teenager.
The bartender handed her the glass of wine she'd ordered and, after making sure no one was looking, she downed it all in one gulp. She wished she could drink the whole damn bottle, but that wasn't an option.
Leah touched the scar over her heart through the fabric of her high-collared dress. Not one person in this room knew about it, and she wanted to keep it that way. It would be hard with her parents around, but she would try.
There were a lot of secrets to juggle. Too many, really, but it was the only way to get what she wanted. Keeping her scar and where it came from under wraps meant Leah could live her life how she chose, without anyone hovering or worrying. Letting her parents believe Jacob was her boyfriend was going to give her the same thing and get her her family back.
A few little secrets. A few little lies. What could be the harm?
Jacob had seen Leah wear that red dress only twice now, but he hated it. Hated every last inch of the bright, clingy fabric that was bound and determined to scream at him that Leah was a woman. A hot woman.
It was so much easier to ignore in her usual getup. Flannel shirts or ratty T-shirts, baggy jeans, work boots. Not that he didn't notice her then, too. It was just way easier to pretend he didn't when she wasn't a bright red dot of fantasy right before his eyes.
She was coming his way, so Jacob looked for an escape route while reminding himself of all the ways Leah was off-limits.
She was his employee, his friend, and she could be downright mean. She was as tall as him in heels, which meant she was too tall. And her swearing was way more creative than his.
She hated the Cubs. Which was, by far, the worst strike against her.
He was only thinking about her that way because he still had four weeks left of his self-imposed six-month women sabbatical, and just about anything had him dreaming about the next time he'd have sex.
Not that he was ever going to think about Leah and sex in the same sentence.
Okay, it was too late for that. But a guy could pretend, couldn't he?
"Hey, can I talk to you?"
Jacob offered his best version of a smile under the circumstances. "Sure. What's up?" He wasn't going to look her in the eye for fear she might see something unacceptable there, but then he found himself glancing at her breasts.
Yeah, eyes. Way better choice.
"Um, can we do it in private?"
Not a good idea. Not when he'd apparently regressed to being a teenager and "do it" made him think of sex.
It was just the sabbatical. The get-yourself-together sabbatical. No women. No relationships. No sex. He was figuring himself out.
Five months in, and he still had no idea what was wrong with him. Why he was attracted to women who inevitably broke up with him for a wide variety of reasons he couldn't make any sense of.
"Right. Private. Uh, now?"
She nodded and for the first time he realized she looked nervous. She was chewing on her bottom lip and kept clasping and unclasping her hands. Which was so unlike Leah he actually got worried enough to forget about the other stuff.
She nodded, heading for the stairs. Jacob followed, keeping his eyes on the oak of the staircase. The planks of wood he'd refurbished himself, this house being MC's first restoration project.
He smiled. It had been his dream to bring new life to old homes since he'd had to watch his grandparents' falling-apart house be demolished, and now he got to do that every day. Bring life to old. Save memories. Thinking about that never failed to bring him satisfaction.
Then he stepped into his office, Leah in that stupid short dress showing off long, toned legs, standing in the center of his room. All satisfaction faded into discomfort.
"So, what's so important?" Jacob focused on the ornate wood trim in the room. Trim it had taken him months to bring back to its former glory. If he focused on that, he wouldn't have to think about how the makeup Leah was wearing made her blue-green eyes even more noticeable than usual.
"My, um, family. They're coming to visit for a week over Christmas."
Jacob let out a breath of relief. He didn't know why he was relieved, but whatever this was was about her family. So innocuous. No big deal. "That's great. I know you've had your problems. That's really great. You need time off? You didn't need the buildup and the nerves. Of course you can"
"That's not why I wanted to talk to you."
"Oh." The relief disappeared. He leaned against his desk, tapping his fingers on the smooth, glossy wood.
"Um, so, this is going to sound crazy, but hear me out. Actually, it doesn't just sound crazy. It is crazy. Nuts. Totally cuckoo."
She paced the bright patterned rug in front of his desk, in front of him. Jacob focused on the pattern of black and gray. Anything was better than red.
"But I have to ask. Only choice." Her voice was low enough he wondered if she was talking to herself more than to him.
She stopped pacing, took a deep breath, which caused his eyes to wander to her chest until he mentally reprimanded himself.
"My parents are old-fashioned. Really old-fashioned. You know, think a woman needs a man to be safe and happy and all that."
Jacob snorted. No wonder she didn't get along with her family. That was about the opposite of everything essentially Leah. She was fiercely independent and took shit from no one.
She was not someone he worried about being safe. Or at all in need of a man.
"So, you know, I haven't always been on speaking terms with them, but we've been trying. Trying to get back to being a family and the past year has been good. Really good."
She started pacing again, her heels faint thuds against the rug. "So, to keep that going, to keep them from annoying the hell out of me by insinuating I can't take care of myself, I told them I had a boyfriend."
Jacob was trying hard to follow what this had to do with him. Maybe she wanted him to corroborate her story if she brought her parents around. But why the secrecy and the uncharacteristic nerves?
"The thing is Okay." She stopped pacing, took a deep breath and let it out. "I kind of told them you were my boyfriend."
"Uh, say what?" He'd heard wrong. Or something.
"I know. I know. It's totally insane, and please don't read anything into it. It's just I'm around you every day. I know everything about you. I couldn't get caught up in a lie because it'd all be the truth. Except for the us-being-together part."
"You don't know everything about me."
She waved the sentence away as if it was an inconsequential bug. "Please. You're an open book."
He frowned, not at all liking the assessment. Besides, if she knew everything about him she'd know he was attracted to her. She obviously didn't or she wouldn't be walking around his office in a short dress and heels. So, there.
"The thing is, I can't tell them it was a lie, because then things will go to shit again. They'll be mad about the lying and I'll lose it with my mom about the man thing and " She shook her head, looked at the ceiling as if she couldn't believe what was happening.
He couldn't believe what was happening, either, but he wasn't the one pretending she was his girlfriend.
"I know it probably doesn't make sense to you, but if you, as my friend, could do me this one favor and pretend, just for a few meals, that we're more than friends I would owe you so big. So big. Anything. Anything."
He couldn't think of a time when Leah had ever seemed this vulnerable. Usually she was guns blazing, no one was getting in her way. She was tough as nails and didn't ask for help unless it was absolutely necessary.
He'd always admired that about her.
The fact that she was asking, almost pleading, must mean it was absolutely necessary. "Okay."
"I Okay? Just like that? Okay?" Her voice was all baffled edginess.
Jacob shrugged. When it came to favors for friends, he'd never been any good at saying no. Besides, he excelled at charming parents. What was a few dinners with Leah and her family? She'd had plenty of dinners with his. All he had to do was pretend to be a boyfriend.
How hard could it be? Long as he kept his hands to himself, easy.
"Not up to anything kinky, are you?"
She scowled, all hints of vulnerability disappearing into that I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass glint in her eye. "No."
"Then sure. Why not?"
"What are you going to make me do to make it up to you?" she asked skeptically.
He grinned and rubbed his hands together. "Hmm. I will have to think about that one. So many options."
The scowl deepened until her eyebrows all but touched each other. "Damn it, Jacob."
"Hey, now, I'm doing you a big favor. So, there are going to be a few rules."
"Yeah, like what?" She crossed her arms over her chest. Jacob found himself wishing her dress had a lower neckline.
He shook that thought away. "Like, for starters, you can't be all prickly and pissed off with me. If I'm your boyfriend, you're in love with me, right? Women in love aren't prickly."
"I'm always prickly. And you like to bring it out in me." She dropped her arms at her sides. "You're really going to do this?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
He couldn't read her expression. Not even a little bit.
"Thank you." The words were heartfelt and it knocked some of the teasing out of him. The Leah he knew didn't do heartfelt.
"You're welcome. Just let me know when. Don't have to kiss you, do I?"
She screwed up her face. "God, I hope not."
He didn't care for her answer, but kept the easy smile on his face. "Good. Probably be like kissing my sister." Yeah, not by a long shot.
Leah kicked her heels off the second her door was open. They landed with a thud in a pile of other shoes and clothes in her entryway. Some magazines and junk mail littered the floor, too. She was really going to need to clean up before her family arrived.
She could have had them stay in a hotel, but she knew how much Mom and Dad hated hotels. Or, more accurately, the expense of them.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I LOVED this book. I repeat, I loved this book. I read the ebook, but I'm going to buy a print version so I quickly jump to my favorite parts again and again. Too Friendly To Date is full of snarky humor and lines that had me laughing loudly. Yet, it's also full of all those warm, mushy feelings that I look for in a romance novel. Leah was an unconventional heroine. And I adored her. I kind of want my daughter to grow up and be her. The plot is about family and healing and dealing with the bitter unfairness life sometimes gives us. It is about Christmas. It's about finding family and making family and loving the family that God gave you even when they drive you nuts. It's about how being vulnerable doesn't mean being weak. And love. Love that hurts and love that heals. I know that description is very vague. But I really, really don't want to give anything away. This was a delightful book. You should read it.