“Blind dates are for losers.” Julie Marone pinched the phone with her shoulder and used both hands to scrape the papers on her desk into a tidy pile. “You really think I’m a loser?”
“Not a loser, exactly.” Amelia’s inflection kept her options open.
Julie snorted a laugh. “Gee, thanks, sis. Tell me how you reallyfeel.”
“You know what I mean. You’ve been out of circulation for three years. You have to start somewhere.”
“Sure, but did it have to be at the bottom of the barrel?”
“Peter’s a nice guy!” Amelia protested.
“Absolutely,” Julie said agreeably. “So devoted to dear old Mom that he still lives in her basement.”
Amelia let out a here-we-go-again groan. “He’s an optometrist, for crying out loud. I assumed he’d have his own place.”
Julie started on the old saying about what happens when youassume, but Amelia cut her off. “Yeah, yeah. Ass. You. Me. Got it. Anyway, Leo,” – tonight’s date – “is a definite step up. I checked with his sister,” – Amelia’s hair stylist – “and she said he’s got a house in Natick. His practice is thriving.”
“So why’s he going on a blind date?”
“His divorce just came through.”
Julie groaned. Recently divorced men fell into two categories. “Shopping for a replacement or still simmering with resentment?”
“Come on, Jules, give him a chance.”
Julie sighed. Slid the stack of papers into a folder markedWestin/Anderson and added it to her briefcase for tomorrow’s closing. “Just tell me where to meet him.”
“On Hanover Street at seven. He made reservations at a place on Prince.”
“Well, in that case.” Dinner in Boston’s North End almost made it worthwhile. Julie was always up for good Italian. “How will I recognize him? Tall, dark and handsome?” A girl could hope.
“Dark . . . but . . . not tall. Wearing a red scarf.”
Amelia cleared her throat. “I caught one of his commercials the other night. He’s got a nice smile.”
“Whoa, wait. Commercials? What kind of lawyer is he?”
“Personal injury.” Amelia dropped it like a turd. Then said, “Oh, look, Ray’s here. Gotta go,” and hung up.
Putting two and two together, Julie groaned. Leo could only be the ubiquitous Leo “I feel your” Payne, whose commercials saturated late-night television, promising Boston’s sleepless that he would not quituntil they got every penny they deserved – minus his 1/3, of course.
“How did I get into this?” she murmured.
For three years, since David died, she’d tried explaining to her sister that her career, her rigorous training schedule – she really woulddo the marathon this year – and their sprawling Italian-American family kept her too busy for a man. And Amelia, even though she didn’t buy it, had respected Julie’s wishes.
The catalyst, Julie knew, was Amelia’s own upcoming Christmas Eve wedding. She wanted Julie – her maid of honor – to bring a date. A real date, not her gay friend Dan. Amelia loved Dan like a brother, but he was single too, always up for hanging out, and he made it too easy for Julie to duck the dating game.
So Amelia had lined up three eligible men and informed Julie that if she didn’t give them a chance, then their mother – a confirmed cougar with not-great taste in men – would bring a wedding date for her.
Recognizing a train wreck when she saw one coming, Julie had given in and agreed to date all three. So far they were shaping up even worse than expected.
Jan appeared in the doorway. “J-Julie?” Her usually pale cheeks were pink. Her tiny bosom heaved. “Oh Julie. You’ll never believe . . . the most . . . I mean . . . .”
“Take a breath, Jan.” Julie did that thing where she pointed two fingers at Jan’s eyes, then back at her own. “Focus.”
Jan sucked air through her nose, let it out with a wheeze. “Okay, we just had a walk-in. From Austin.” She wheezed again. “He’sgorgeous. And that drawl . . . .” Wheeze.
Julie nodded encouragingly. It never helped to rush Jan.
“He said . . .” Jan fanned herself, for real. She was actually perspiring. “He said someone in the ER told him about you.”
That sounded ominous.
Julie glanced at her watch. 5:45, too late to deal with mysterious strangers. If she left now, she’d just have time to get home and change into something more casual for her date.
“Ask him to come back tomorrow,” she said. “I don’t have time—”
“He just wants a minute.” Jan wiped her palms on her grey pleated skirt. At twenty-five, she dressed like Julie’s Gram, but inside she was stuck at sixteen, helpless in the face of a handsome man. “I-I’m sorry. I couldn’t say no.”
Julie blew out a sigh, wondered – again – why she’d hired her silly cousin in the first place. Because family was family, that’s why.
“Fine. Send him in.”
Ten seconds later, six-foot-two of Texan filled her door. Tawny hair, caramel eyes, tanned cheekbones.
Her own sixteen-year-old heart went pitty pat.
He crossed the room, swallowed up her hand in his big palm, and said in a ridiculous drawl, “Cody Brown. I appreciate you seeing me, Miz Marone.”
“Call me Julie,” she managed to reply. Her hand felt naked when he released it, like she’d pulled off a warm glove on a cold winter day.
No wonder Jan had gone to pieces. He was tall, the way an oak tree’s tall. Lean, the way a cougar’s lean.
She gestured, and he took a seat, his beat-up leather jacket falling open over an indigo shirt with pearl snaps and a belt buckle the size of Texas. When he crossed one cowboy-booted ankle over the other snug-jeaned knee, spurs jangled in her head.
Her mouth went dry.
She picked up her pen, clicked it off and on, off and on. “So, you’re new to Boston?”
Cody Brown unfurled a slow, eye-crinkling smile. “What gave me away?”
She huffed out a laugh. “Okay, that was dumb.”
God, she was as bad as Jan.
He waved a hand. “Not at all,” he drawled, “you were just being polite.” The December wind had stirred up his hair. The fingers he raked through it did nothing to tame it. “You’re right, I’m brand new to Boston. Just got here last week, and been working every day since I touched down.”
“I see,” she said, staring at his stubble, the way it shadowed his jaw. She made herself look down at the yellow pad on her desk. “Are you looking for a house? A condo?”
“I’m thinking condo.”
She made a note. “Your wife agrees?”
“I’m not married.”
She glanced up. “Engaged?”
He shook his head. “No girlfriend either. Or boyfriend, for that matter.” He broke into that smile again.
She set her pen on the desk. “Who referred you to me?”
“Marianne Wells. Said you found her dream house.”
Julie remembered her, a nurse at Mass General. “Yes, I found a house for her. For her and her husband.” She put an apology in her smile. “That’s what I do. I match couples with houses.”
Cody tilted his head. “Just couples? How come?”
“It’s my specialty.”
He nodded agreeably. “Okay. But how come?”
She shifted impatiently. “Because it is.” And that’s all the explanation you’re getting. “Now, Mr. Brown—”
“It’s Cody to my friends.” He smiled. “Most of my enemies, too.”
She wished he’d holster that smile. It lit up the room, exposing how drab her office was. Tasteful, of course – ecru walls, framed prints, gold upholstery. But bland. She hadn’t noticed just how bland until he walked in and started smiling all over it.
She clicked her pen.
His smile widened and a dimple appeared, for God’s sake.
Then he spread his hands. His big, warm hands. “Julie,” he said in that slow, Texas drawl. “Can’t you make an exception for me?”
She tried to say no, to resist his pull. But he held her gaze, tugging her irresistibly toward blue skies and sunshine.
Her breath gave a hitch, her stomach a dip.
And her heart, her frozen heart, thumped at last.
* * *
Cody’d thought he was too damn tired for sex, but from his first glimpse of Julie Marone – moss green eyes, chestnut hair, slim runner’s body – he’d been picturing her out of that business suit and spread across his bed, wearing a lacy pushup bra and not another damn thing.
Then her breath caught, a sexy little hiccup, and he was halfway hard before he knew what hit him.
Damn it. He didn’t need to get laid half as much as he needed a place to live. After seven straight overnights in the Mass General ER – and an eighth that would begin in just a few hours – he was finally due to get some time off. Four days, to be exact, which gave him exactly that long to find a condo, sign the papers and write the damn check.
But Julie wasn’t cooperating. Not only did she have his cock in an uproar, she wasn’t inclined to hunt up a condo for him. She kept feeding him a line about couples, like she was some kind of karmic matchmaker or something.
Seriously, what kind of realtor gave a shit who she sold to? A house was a house; a condo was a condo. Money was money. Right?
Whatever. She was hot for him too, and even if he wasn’t in a position to do anything about it right at the moment, he wasn’t above using it to get what he wanted.
Deliberately, in a move that had yet to fail him, he put his palm to his chest, rubbed it back and forth slowly.
Her eyes dropped to follow the movement.
He let her think about it.
Then, shamelessly, he worked his drawl. “I’d sure be grateful if you’d help me out. I been staying next door at the Plaza – and don’t get me wrong, it’s swanky, for sure – but I need my own place so I can bring Betsy on east with me.”
Her eyes snapped up. “I thought you didn’t have a girlfriend.”
“Betsy’s my dog. Part coon hound, part Chihuahua.” He did the smile again. “She’ll like you. You both got that feisty thing going on.”
Her brow knitted, and he bit his cheek to hold back a laugh. She probably wasn’t sure how to feel about being compared to his dog. He could tell her it was a compliment – Betsy was the only woman who’d never disappointed him – but he didn’t want her to get cocky.
What he wanted was for her to forget her cockamamie rule about couples and find him a condo in the next four days. That meant keeping her interested in him. So he played his strongest card, the one that worked with all the ladies. Worked too well in fact. But he wasn’t going to argue with that now.
“The problem’s my schedule,” he went on, spreading his palms. “Me being a doctor and all.”
He waited for her to rip her clothes off.
For five longs seconds, she stared straight into his eyes. Then she opened a drawer and took out a business card, set it on the desk in front of him.
He dropped his eyes. Brian Murphy – Century 21.
What the fuck?
“Murph’s a friend of mine,” she said, her voice cool and flat. “I’m sure he can help you.” She snapped her briefcase shut.
Cody couldn’t believe it. The doctor thing always made women go crazy. So crazy that they stopped seeing Cody Brown the man and saw only Cody Brown, MD, their ticket to a McMansion in the burbs and vacations in Cabo.
But this chick was the opposite of attracted. She’d gone downright frosty.
He was in uncharted territory.
Desperate, he went into full seduction mode, hit her with the eye-lock sexy-smile combo, playing it out in super slow-mo.
First he caught her eyes. Held them. Let a long, silent moment slide by like a river of molasses.
Then slowly, leisurely, as if he had all night to get it done, he curved his lips. First one side. Then the other.
He deepened his drawl. “I want you, Julie.”
She clicked her pen.
“Give me one day,” he crooned. “Just tomorrow, that’s all.”
Click click. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather rent first? Check out the neighborhoods?”
He shook his head. “I’m not picky. Someplace close to Mass General will do me fine, where I can take Betsy for a run.”
She hesitated, obviously wrestling with some inner demon.
He put his money on the horny realtor.
“Beacon Hill could work,” she said at last.
Not a smidgen of smugness seeped into his voice. “That where the Old North Church is? One if by land, two if by sea?”
She smiled, finally, a pretty sight. “No, that’s in the North End. You could look there too, especially if you’re a fan of Italian food. The restaurants are amazing.”
He stood up. So did she. She was taller than he expected, which meant she had long legs.
He liked long legs.
“Let’s go try one out,” he said like it was only natural. “I’m sick of room service.”
She looked startled. “Oh. Um. Thanks, but I have a date.” She gave a nervous laugh. “A blind date, actually. And a closing in the morning.”
“Seriously?” he blurted.
Her eyebrows shot up.
He did damage control. “A closing in the morning? I shouldn’t be surprised. You must have lots of those.” He nodded, sagely. Wondered why in the hell a looker like her had a blind date.
One of her brows came down, but she arched the other like she was assessing his intellect, wondering if he was actually smart enough to be a doctor. Then she lifted her briefcase and came around the desk, herding him through the door. “I can give you tomorrow afternoon. I’ll line up a few places and we’ll get started around one.”
“Sure. Let me give you my number.” Maybe she’d get lonely, give him a booty call.
“Give it to Jan,” she said, sticking a fork in his fantasy.
In the outer office, Jan looked like a Munchkin behind her oversized desk. “Take Dr. Brown’s number,” said Julie, on a march to the door. “Then go home. I’ll check in after the closing.” And she was gone.
“Well hell,” Cody muttered. She’d blown him off. What about the eye-lock sexy-smile combo? He was sure that’d put her in heat.
He turned to Jan. A new sparkle lit her eyes.
“You’re a doctor?” she said.
He let out a sigh.