You need to learn the rules, fast!
Sarah’s brother Adam has been
educating her best friend Lane in the
arts of the Kama Sutra for weeks,
all in the pursuit of Lane’s real target,
David Bennet. So when Sarah finds herself
alone with David at an exhibition, weeping over her
own terrible dating history, they strike up a conversation.
A budding artist, he wants to paint her, so she agrees in return for a guarantee that he’ll find her a relationship that can last more than three weeks (her rather dismal personal best).
She reassures herself that she isn’t betraying Lane. After all, Sarah wants marriage and 2.4 kids, and David has made it more than clear he will never want that. Plus he’s going to sleep with Lane any day now. Isn’t he?
of America RITA Awards Long Contemporary Romance
… but not six days! Six miserly, measly, paltry, pitiful—
Uh-oh . Fist against mouth. Hold … hold … hooold … aaand … whew! Under control. She was not going to give in to those hideous sobs again, even if she had to stuff her fist down her throat to throttle them.
Not that it mattered if she bawled herself into a snot-laden seizure, since there was nobody here to witness it. Well, nobody except the bespectacled bronze head on the shelf to her right, and ‘Clarence Donleavy’— his name, according to the plaque affixed to his wooden base—wasn’t going to be tattling.
In fact, Clarence was regarding her with unwavering apathy, which Sarah decided was the perfect look to carry her out of the storeroom and back to civilization. She swivelled the wheeled footstool she was perched on so she could face him, contorted her face into what she hoped was a matching expression, realized a more scientific approach would be to actually look at herself while she did it, and reached into the evening bag on her lap for her compact.
But it was her phone that her fingers closed around and lifted out.
Perhaps she should check the message. To see if she’d misinterpreted. Because she might have, mightn’t she?
She brought up the text, read the words …
And her breath eased out like a slowly deflating balloon. Nope. No misinterpretation possible.
Liam had dumped her. At the six-day mark—a new low, even by her plummeting standards.
‘ It’s a curse, you know,’ she explained to Clarence. ‘I can’t get Lane and Erica to believe me, but I’m definitely afflicted by some sort of anti-love hex. And it’s so unfair, when I try. So. Hard!’ She stamped her foot for emphasis, which proved a little too violent an action for the footstool, which would have shot out backwards from under her if she hadn’t caught it with a lightning-fast shoe-plant.
And wouldn’t that ice tonight’s cake, to tumble onto the unforgiving concrete floor and knock herself out? Who knew how long it would take for someone to come looking for her?
Or maybe, the way her life was going, no one.
‘Not my big, bold brother Adam, that’s for sure,’ she told Clarence, with a snort of disgust. ‘He’s too busy whipping himself into a jealous rage over Lane flirting with the hot banker guy with dimples. And certainly not Lane, who I’m starting to think is too obtuse to notice anything. I’m telling you, Clarence, never set your friend up with your brother for any reason whatsoever, not even to save them from their own insanity, unless you enjoy watching train wrecks.’
She was in the mood for another foot stamp, but decided not to tempt fate with the surprisingly agile footstool. The thought of gasping her last breath, unconscious among a collection of mounted body parts while everyone else in the building was hobnobbing with flesh and blood humans, was too depressing. Instead, she was going to find a bathroom, fix the sodden mess that was her face, and return to the party in the art gallery.
Where, for all she knew, the man of her dreams might be waiting for a newly single Sarah Quinn to find him. And even if the man of her dreams wasn’t out there waiting for her, at least she’d be on hand to stage an intervention should Adam decide to attack the hot banker guy with dimples in a Gladiator meets Walking Dead frenzy.
But first, she’d send a masterfully crafted text to Liam and close that demoralizing chapter of the book of her life.
Depositing her evening bag on the floor beside her, she ran feather-light fingertips over her phone keypad, ruminating over word arrangements. She wanted to sound philosophical, but not stoic. She wanted to express wistfulness but not dejection. She wanted to insinuate that although dumping a girl by text was lily-livered, she was nevertheless relieved. That she agreed it was time for the two of them to call it quits; that she’d been on the verge of severing their connection herself; that he’d beaten her to it by mere seconds.
‘Clearly what I need most is italics,’ she said, and laughed as she caught Clarence’s eye. He seemed to be telling her to stop boring him and get on with it.
‘Okay, okay!’ she said, and bent her head over her phone to start tapping.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful mess—
‘Well, blow me!’
Sarah’s fingers stilled. Had Clarence offered up that ‘Well, blow me’ in a hallucinatory moment?
Nope, one glance confirmed he was supremely uninterested in being blown by her or anyone else.
Which had to mean the ‘Well, blow me’ had come from a human. A male human she’d been too preoccupied to hear entering her sanctuary. A male human who was now taking an audible breath in, then out.
‘This is more like it,’ the male human said softly, presumably to the room at large, since he could have no way of knowing he wasn’t alone.
Sarah considered doing the sensible thing and walking out of her hiding place with a cheery ‘Hello there’ until she remembered the tear-stained state of her face. Nobody—as in nobody, let alone a guy who, for all she knew, may turn out to be single and ready for a relationship—would be seeing her until she’d visited the bathroom.
Mystery Man, meanwhile, was on the move, his shoes making a tapping noise on the concrete, which meant they had those steel toe tips on the soles that Sarah equated with quality footwear.
Tap, tap, tap. Coming closer.
Sarah’s heart leapt into her throat. She tried to swallow it back down, but it stayed wedged there like a football with a pulse. She waited, listening for where he was heading, hoping he didn’t have a sculpture fetish that would bring him her way, wondering if she could manage to soundlessly extract her compact from her evening bag and check exactly how bad the face situation was …
He’d reached the row next to her. The one with the paintings. Tap, tap, tap, as he entered it.
Sarah’s heart slowly returned to its usual position as a solution to her problem presented itself: wait him out. No guy was going to stay in a storeroom looking at paintings when he could be drinking champagne at a party. She’d give him five minutes, max, to come to his senses.
Sarah heard him slide a painting out. There was a pause. Then the painting was slid back in. It happened again. Again. And it kept happening. Painting out, pause, in, as the little clicks of his toe taps on the floor marked his progress up the row. Five minutes passed. Ten. Occasionally, the pause was punctuated by a low murmur. ‘Brilliant.’ ‘Those colours!’ ‘Is that … yes, it’s gouache, but it looks so …’ ‘How did he do …?’ ‘Ah, it’s been smeared off.’
Okay, the guy appeared to be as much of an art tragic as Adam, which meant—face it, Sarah—he wasn’t going to leave until he’d checked out every swirl of paint in the place. After which he’d probably wander her way in search of other treasures.
The plan to wait him out, therefore, had to be abandoned, leaving only one option: sneak out while he’s too engrossed to notice.
Sarah looked down at her smack-you-in-the-head chartreuse cocktail frock with its generous scatter of spangles. Then up at the glaring overhead fluorescent bulbs—not what you’d call mood lighting. She doubted she’d make it past the end of the aisle he was in without sending a shaft of searing luminosity to at least a corner of one of his eyeballs, no matter how stealthily she moved or how distracted he was.
On the other hand, so what if he caught a glimpse of a chartreuse spangle? She wasn’t doing anything wrong! No more wrong than what he was doing himself, sneaking into a space signposted Staff Only. She didn’t have to explain herself. She could sail out the door, face strategically averted, giving him the metaphorical finger if he dared to try and stop her.
Still, it would be preferable if she were not caught; how embarrassing, after she’d let so much time elapse! It wasn’t like she could pretend she hadn’t heard him, or she’d been taking a quick nap, or she’d only just that second been beamed down from an alien spacecraft.
Step one, therefore, bearing in mind how the intruder’s steel toe tips clacked on the floor, was to remove her similarly audible ice-pick heels. She slipped her feet, one at a time, out of her gold stilettos, then paused to listen. All she could hear was the whisper of canvases being shifted, interspersed with those murmurs of appreciation.
So far, so good.
She bent down for her shoes and felt her dress pull threateningly across her hips. Don’t tear, please don’t … ah, good! She straightened, shoes in one hand, phone in the other, and paused again. The oohing and cooing in the next row continued. Excellent. She took three silent steps, only to remember—duh!—her evening bag. She looked back, saw it where she’d placed it, on the floor beside the footstool.
Keeping her eyes trained on the end of the row, she edged backwards and adjusted her stance as she considered how best to get her bag while having both hands occupied. Care-ful-ly. She braced her phone hand on the footstool, only to feel another dangerous pull across her hips. This was not going to work. She moved fractionally and the footstool castors gave a little squeak. Uh-oh. Footstool moving. Footstool rolling. Footstooooool—
‘Oof.’ The sound huffed out of her as she landed facedown on the floor. And then she just lay there. One hand still clutched her shoes. The other was stretched out as if reaching for her phone, which had clattered along the floor and slid to a stop at around the halfway mark.
For one long moment, nothing happened.
Had the guy, by some miracle, been too engrossed to hear anything? Cautiously, Sarah pushed up onto her knees … and that’s when she heard those blasted steel toe tips.
So he’d not only heard her, he was on his way to find her, too. Not hurrying, just heading slowly down his aisle, turning at the end, coming towards hers. Stopping.
And there they were. His shoes. Black leather. Perfectly laced, perfectly polished. Nonchalantly classy. Could a pair of shoes look at ease? Because his did. Just hanging out at the end of the aisle asking ‘What’s up?’ in their silent, shoe-like way.
Her eyes moved up, over dark charcoal pants, immaculately fitted suit jacket, tie in red and purple. Red and purple, red and pur-oh.
She’d seen that tie. She knew that tie. Her eyes kept moving along their upward trajectory anyway, because they couldn’t seem to stop. Chiselled, clean-shaven jaw. Slightly hollowed cheeks with the—gulp—dimples.
Hot banker guy.
The man Lane said was so legendary a bed partner, women were lining up for a taste of any body part he cared to offer for their delectation. The man Lane intended to seduce. The man who was, therefore, Adam’s enemy—and by extension, Sarah’s enemy.
‘It’s Sarah, right? Sarah Quinn?’ he asked, and smiled his I’m-so-charming dimpled smile. ‘Lane’s friend? I’m David Bennett. From the bank. Lane’s colleague. We met out in the gallery.’
As though David Bennett didn’t know that every woman at the party knew exactly who he was! The moment Sarah had been introduced to him, his classical good looks, elegantly lean frame, perfect hair and those dimples had walloped her over the head and she’d despaired. How was Adam supposed to compete with a guy who not only looked like that, but was also intelligent, debonair, charismatic, and had the impudence to be friendly, as well, despite Adam glowering at him like the Prince of Darkness?
‘Yes, I remember you,’ Sarah said, and tried her best to inject some hostility into it for her brother’s sake.
But her attempt must have been unconvincing, because David Bennett dared to smoulder as he started towards her, scooping up her phone without breaking stride. ‘And here you are on your knees, waiting for me. Nice.’