Excerpt - The Reluctant Beauty
Book 4: Once Upon A Romance Series
“Jiminy Cricket, that can’t be him!” Peg Newbury huddled behind the potted plants along the half wall dividing the foyer from the elegant restaurant.
“Move over. I can’t see,” Rico said, nudging her aside. “Which one? There’s three guys by themselves. What’s the description say?”
She cradled her ever present clipboard closer to her side, essentially hiding it from him. “I know it don’t say world-famous floss aficionado smack dab in the middle of a crowd.”
“Gross. What’s he digging for anyway?” He made a face and shivered. “How about that one—”
“Excuse me, madam, sir.” The prim and proper deep male voice interrupted their search.
Peg winced, crouched down lower, and pasted on a smile before she turned to him. His eyebrows were raised so high they nearly met his artificially engineered hairline.
“Toup,” Rico surmised.
“You sure?” Peg thought it was hair transplants; she could almost count the plugs even from here.
“Well?” The uniformed man, most likely the maître de, waited for them to answer his unspoken question. He reminded her of a penguin in that tad-too-tight-for-his-own-good white shirt and jacket.
“Yeah, now that I look more, you’re right, Rico. Definitely a toup.” There was movement in the restaurant area. Peg whipped around. “What about him? The guy, big glasses, soup just got delivered?”
“I’ll have to ask you to leave now?” His too-polite request was met with a loud snort from Rico.
“Oh no, Brutus, this gal’s got a date here.”
“If it were me, we’d be drinking champagne and having a blast already. No, silly, one of them.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder to the half-filled restaurant.
Peg didn’t have to face him to feel the way his gaze traveled along the length of her. “Go ahead and say it, buster. I dare you.”
“Madame.” He coughed a few times. “Looks…healthy.” He coughed again.
She and Rico turned to look at each other. Rico rolled his eyes. “Don’t pay attention to him.”
“Him and everyone else, right?” At six feet tall, Peg had little reason to wonder what the man meant. She’d gotten stares and snickers since she walked into her first day of middle school and towered over most of the teachers. Her growth spurt had come on sudden and strong. She’d been teased ever since.
She should be used to it by now. But, she wasn’t. Not by any means.
The maître de prompted her again. “Just point your…date out and I’ll escort you both to the table.”
“Moi? Joining them?” Rico quickly corrected the assumption. “I got my own date across town. I’m just here to make sure she finds him and goes through with it.”
There was a commotion at the door. The maître de turned to look. Peg snagged Rico’s hand and together they sneaked around the outside of the wall and to the opposite side of the restaurant.
“Holy, Batman and Robin, that was a close one,” she whispered loudly.
“You’re telling me?” He fluffed his hair. “Look.” He pointed to where they’d just been. “He’s looking for us.” The older man searched, scowling deeply.
“Duck! He’s looking this way.” Peg huddled down and Rico did the same. “You have to help me find this guy.”
“You don’t know his name, what he looks like, how tall, nothing. What do you know about him?” His voice held the same disgust her mind felt about the whole thing.
“He’s free the night I need him, that’s all.”
“Family night. Here in town at your place. In a week. Why in the world did you let it get this far anyway?”
Peg held up her index finger—“Work.”—and then the next one—“Work.”—until she’d held up each one and repeated the same word after each. “I couldn’t get away to see them, so they’re coming to me. Whether I like it or not.”
Her friend blew out a puff of air. “What in the world am I going to do with you?”
“Hopeless, huh?” she asked with a squeak in her voice as she stretched her neck to look at the diners once again.
“Try him.” Rico nudged her in the back.
“But he’s eating his soup already. Geez, don’t you’d think he’d wait for his date?”
Heavy footsteps approached. She turned to see the man bearing down on them; a bigger scowl snagged his eyebrows together, so it looked like a caterpillar sitting there.
“Go, Peg. Just try him out. Never know. But I gotta go.” Rico clamped his hand on her arm and practically dragged her up with him, and then he shoved her around the wall and into the dining area. “Tootles,” he called. “Remember, meet me back at my place in five hours to compare notes.”
The maître de hovered nearby. Peg figured he’d throw her out for sure if she backtracked her steps.
Standing there, all six foot tall now, diners began to turn and gawk. She clutched her clipboard a tad tighter and forced a smile. “Haven’t you ever seen the Jolly Green Giant’s daughter? Sprout couldn’t make it tonight, so I’m it.”
That got a few laughs, which put her slightly at ease.
Tell a joke and crack them up, before they lash out. That’s how she survived through school. And life till now.
The curly-haired man eating his pale green soup stared at her, his spoon halfway to his mouth. Behind his thick-rimmed glasses, his wide eyes blinked, reminding her of an owl.
Penguin, caterpillar, and an owl. This place was a regular zoo. Or the beginning of a bar joke…
She slid into the seat opposite his. “Hi. Name’s Peg. You must be my date.”
Still, he blinked.
“Not a big talker?” She shrugged. “Fine by me. Now.” She leaned closer, saying, “Here’s the deal. My folks, brother, and his preggers wife are coming next week to stay with me. I know, I know. I couldn’t stop them. Bullheaded when they want me to do something. Marriage? Hah! They’ve been harping on it for the last year now. It’s gotten worse since with my birthday around the corner and they think I should be wed and popping out babies in exactly one point eight years. Pop,” she shook her head, “sweet, kind, but a little obsessed with the numbers thing. He’s an economics professor.”
He still hadn’t moved his hand. She reached over and directed his hand to the table and the spoon back to his soup bowl.
“So,”—she stopped herself from saying Owl Eyes—“you game? Pretend you know me, pretend we date, and make it seem like we’re a couple. A day. Two tops. What do you say?”
Again, she witnessed the blank look.
An older woman appeared and stood at her elbow. “Who are you, may I ask?”
Peg looked at her, noticed the lady was well dressed with beautifully applied makeup, and her hair professionally colored champagne blonde. “Um…his date….potential date, that is?”
“A hooker?!” The woman’s voice rose. The other diners turned to watch.
The guy finally spoke. “Mother. You followed me?”
Heat slipped into the tops of Peg’s cheeks. She looked from him to the older, scowling woman, and then back to him again. Rising quickly, she said, “Look, lady, no offense, but you can have him all to yourself. My bad! No harm, no foul, okay?” Peg scampered away.
In the background, she heard the mother scold him and, contrite, he apologized. For all that was pure and holy, thank goodness that wasn’t the one Peg had been looking for. Phew! Close call.
With most eyes on her, Peg wove through tables of the many curious diners. One lone man held up his hand and waved her into the empty seat at his table.
“You? You’re my date?”
“If you want me to be, honey.”
She groaned out loud. This was not her night. Maybe the guy had gotten cold feet and didn’t show up. She glanced around for any man seated by himself at the surrounding tables. None. Floss guy had left. Owl eyes and Mommy Dearest were in a heated whispered exchange.
Beyond the diners, she glanced at the bar. There was one guy—really cute, too—at the end, looking out once in a while. Could that be him? Some woman came up to him. Like a plane going down in flames, her hopes died.
“Let me buy you a drink? What’ll you have? Gin and tonic? Marguerite? Slow screw up against the wall at sunrise?”
Peg blinked at the last one. “What a line, bub.”
He laughed. “It’s a drink.” By the way his dark hair was perfectly styled (better than hers, in fact), his teeth chemically whitened (because no one could naturally have teeth that white), and the beautiful tanned skin, perfectly sculpted features, Peg sensed the line was a fishing expedition.
“I don’t pick up guys in bars.” There, she set him straight.
“I’m having dinner. So technically, you wouldn’t be picking me up in a bar.”
“Same difference.” She sighed. Peg had less than a week to find someone. There had been no takers until tonight. Dating Material, the dating site she’d joined in a moment of weakness and at Rico’s insistence, hadn’t coughed up any decent candidates. She tried messaging Justanormalguy. He responded within minutes. Not a good sign. But, what else did she have going for her?
Looking down at her clipboard, she scratched out the user name. Back to square one. What could be so hard with getting one measly date?
“We could have fun, honey,” the guy across from her coaxed.
“You in sales?”
“How did you guess? Cars. Sleek. Chic. Expensive. I can take you for a spin.”
“Fritters and French fries, what in the world have I gotten myself into this time?” she muttered under her breath.
Austin Rhoades leaned back in the bar stool at the end of the fancy restaurant bar with its glass top, gleaming lights, and pale green colors. He watched people come and go. None of them were his half-sister. Did she stand him up?
He sipped his drink, a club soda. Looking up, he saw his reflection in the mirror behind the bar and did a double take. He laughed at himself. He didn’t even recognize the man staring back at him.
Shaking his head, he still hadn’t accepted the fact he’d cut off all his hair and shaved off the beard. For two, long grueling years he and his band, the Rhoadies, toured the world. He needed a change from night after night of performing in front of thousands of screaming women, day after day of traveling from one city to the next, the constant stream of partygoers and hangers-on, little sleep, bandmates in bad moods with growing egos, and even less time alone and to think.
Once they’d landed in New York, they’d scattered to different parts of the country to decompress. He didn’t have a home. Just one half-sister left in the world. He stopped in Dallas. Next, parts unknown where he’d be unknown, thus the first steps in shedding his easily recognizable image of long hair and facial hair.
Out of the spotlight. Finally.
Now he just had to keep it that way until he figured out his next move. He loved music, but hated everything that came with the fame. Can I have one without the other?
His phone rang. His half-sister’s name came up. “Hey, Ev. Running late?”
“Late can’t describe what I’m going through at the moment.” She sighed, but he could hear the smile in her voice.
“You’re happy. That’s what matters. So, rain check?”
“I need a favor.”
He groaned. What could it be? She never asked for much, but, right now, he wanted a quick visit and off to a quiet, laid-back spot. “Money? A new car?”
“One time, and I paid you back. No, nothing like that.”
Austin blew out a hot breath, eased back in his bar stool, and then glanced around the restaurant. “Okay, then what’s the favor?”
The stretch of silence should have clued him in. But the diner across the way caught his attention. She was tall when she’d walked across the room, model thin, nice neat curves where curves needed to be, and cute as all hell with that wavy, glossy caramel highlighted hair that seemed to tickle her neck and shoulders.
“Sis, you still there?” he asked absently as he continued to watch the lady jot something on a clipboard she held, grimace at something the guy she was with said, and then brush away his hand from her arm.
“I swear I wouldn’t ask you this… It’s for a friend. I sorta was going to meet you at the bar so I could keep an eye on her. First date thing.”
“Whoa! Back up. You picked this bar to meet me so you and, by default me, could monitor her, what, blind date?”
“Yep.” It came out in a small voice. “But I can’t make it. Rico had to leave her. And she’s all alone. Pretty please.”
“You want me to babysit?”
“Come on, Austin, I’d do the same for you.”
“Ev, I wouldn’t leave you alone with my rocker friends.”
“Okay, bad comparison.”
“I’m sure your friend will be fine.”
“She doesn’t date much, maybe not at all. She loves her job, works hard, day and night. Naïve, I guess you could say, when it comes to guys and what they’re after.”
He sighed, a gusty, throwing-in-the-towel heartfelt sigh. “I’ll check on her once and that’s it.”
“Oh, you are the best brother a girl could ever have.”
“Yeah, yeah, and you remember that, too. Now, tell me who she is.”
“Her name’s Peg. Tall, willow thin…”
His senses jerked awake and he swung around to look at the lady he’d noticed earlier. “Carries a clipboard?”
“You have seen her. Great. Thanks for keeping an eye on her for me. I have to go. Meet me for breakfast tomorrow. My treat.” She gave him the name and location of the place. He murmured, too preoccupied with this woman named Peg.
Even from here, she got his attention. Her face was animated and once in a while she threw the guy a disparaging look. She could handle the too-suave guy easily. Couldn’t she?
So why couldn’t he look away?
She must have sensed his staring; she glanced up and did a double take. Maybe she recognized him.
But he’d done everything he could to distance himself from the way he looked as a rocker. Clean-cut with a little scruff on his chin and cheeks was a long way from what he looked like on tour. Gone were the leather jacket, chains, and black boots. Jeans, cowboy boots, and simple buttoned-down shirt made him an average Joe today.
For the next several months, he was living a low-key life. No touring, no appearances, no spotlight. Especially no spotlight.
Still, she’d look, attempt to converse with the guy at her table, and then stare at Austin.
He shivered at the long looks.
The bartender drew his attention. “Want that apple martini?” He nodded to Evelyn’s favorite drink near his club soda.
“Yeah,” he murmured, distracted. “Sure.”
Suddenly, the woman named Peg shot up from the table and rushed in his direction. The guy jumped up and raced after her.
She darted across the restaurant floor, heading toward him. Her gaze, wide and fearful, caught his. Austin stood up automatically. She ran straight into his arms.
Clutching him, she whispered, “Pretend you know me.”
Except for the clipboard digging into him, he actually liked holding her. He was only a few inches taller than she was, but she was warm and smelled incredible—some combination of exotic flowers and tangy, tropical fruit, he suspected.
“Hey, what’s up?” the guy who followed her asked. “I thought we had something going on. Who’s this?”
“I’m her date,” Austin said, a little smugness sliding into his voice. “Isn’t that right, babe?”
Peg dropped the clipboard. It landed on his foot, and then clattered to the floor.
He winced. “Did you have to do that?”
“Sorry,” she mumbled. “Date, righto, yeah, that’s what he is.” She bent to pick up the clipboard at the same time he went to get it. They bumped foreheads. “Ouch!”
He rubbed the sore spot. “Wounded,” he said under his breath. “Twice in two seconds.”
The guy following her asked, “You sure about this?” He nodded to Austin. “I can afford this place. Looks like he’s some country bumpkin.”
“And you’re a great judge of character,” Austin said, biting the inside of his cheek. “I got the cows in the trailer out front. Wanna meet them?”
Peg’s face grew white and the guy scowled. Austin smiled and tucked Peg’s long body alongside his, wrapping his arm around her waist. He nuzzled her soft cheek. “Mmmm, nice,” he said.
She giggled. “That tickles.”
“That’s not the only place I’d like to tickle you.” It wasn’t a line. He really wanted to touch her more.
“I’m out of here,” the other guy said. Turning to Peg, he looked her up and down. “Not my type. Too tall and skinny.”
“And just perfect for me,” Austin pointed out.
With a snort of disgust, the guy turned and stormed out of the restaurant.
“Phew!” Peg pulled away. “Thanks, pal, you’re a lifesaver. That guy was giving me the creeps.”
Reluctantly, Austin let her go. “Have a drink with me.” His offer surprised them both.
Facing him again, he could see her gulp hard. She stared at him. Something kicked him in the gut when her beautiful chocolate-brown eyes gazed into his. He caught his breath.
She shook her head. “Nah, I couldn’t.”
“You owe me that much. At least sit with me and keep me company.”
Looking him over, she said, “You? You need company? For cripes’ sake, you’re a hottie.”
He laughed at that. The first real laugh he’d had in a very long time.
Peg swallowed again as he escorted her to a table in the bar. Did she have to say what she thought all the time? Geez, I called him a hottie. To his face. Well, he was, but still, she could have kept that to herself.
Sliding onto the half-round booth seat, she stopped at the middle. He drew in beside her, his knee skimmed hers. She quivered.
He placed a drink in front of her.
“What happened? Did your date stand you up, too?” She practically snorted at the thought.
“In a sense.”
She turned to him, meeting his pale blue eyes. The lump was back in her throat. His smile inched up the corner of his mouth. A very sexy mouth and even sexier smile. She breathed in, catching a whiff of his clean, fresh scent.
Turning back to the beverage and away from his intensely wicked stare, she focused on the drink. “I’ve never had this kind before.” She sipped it. The green apple flavor tickled her tongue. “Delish! Wanna try some?” She lifted her glass to him.
He waved it off. “Gave it up. Drinking, that is.” He held up his glass. “Non-alcoholic is all I’m having these days.”
“Not anymore.” He smiled widely and leaned back with one arm across the back of the booth and so very close to her. “No more overindulging for me. Drinks or otherwise.”
The way his shirt parted at the top, she could see a little of his chest. She took another sip and allowed her gaze to linger there and then dip her stare to his rock hard abs. Hot. Hot. Hot.
“What’s your name anyway?” she asked, feeling a slow warmth spread in her body. From him or the drink—she couldn’t decide which one was causing the sensation. Either way, she liked it.
“Austin,” he said easily enough, but there was something in the way he said it that made her think caution lurked around the corner. As an executive assistant, she’d dealt with people at King’s Department Store long enough to read them.
Peg stuck out her hand. “Well, Austin, I’m Peg Newbury. And hell’s bells, I gotta say you saved my behind back there. Thanks, buddy.”
When he shook her hand, she nearly yanked it back. Warm, strong, slightly callused, it engulfed hers. But the tingling from his touch whooshed right through her and to her toes in her size ten flats.
He sucked in a sharp breath. “Peg,” he said in a low voice that turned her to mush. “What’s a hottie like you doing picking up guys at a bar?”
Tugging her hand out of his, she dragged it through her hair, thinking it must be standing up on end right about now. “Funny, real funny, buster. No one’s ever mistaken me for a hot chick before and never will.”
Was he serious?
“You’ve got such great lines. You don’t need them, you know. Believe you me, you can cut the baloney with me.”
He chuckled. “No—what did you say?—baloney, Peg. Not my style. Just the truth.”
She snorted, and then went back to her drink. She smacked her lips when she was done. “Yummy. I’ve got to tell Rico about this.”
“My former best friend.” She huffed, crossed her arms over her chest, and leaned back. “He pushed me to do this thing. Online catching, fishing, whatever you want to call it. Dating, ha!”
Holding up her index finger, she poked him in his rock solid chest. “One date. That’s all. One measly date to show off in front of my family next week.” She threw up her hands. “He brings me here and tosses me to the wolves.”
“Show off?” he asked. She swore he cringed.
“Not like that. Not some spectacle or anything. Just to quiet down the restless natives, or relatives, is more like it. You know—take the scent off of my track so they stop harping about me not being married yet, ever, whatever.”
“Don’t you want to get married? Someday? Someway?”
“Me? Are you kidding? I’m the beanstalk all the kids made fun of. Why, I haven’t had a serious date in,” she counted on her fingers, “three years. Nah, I got my work. Love it. Not giving it up, either. And babies, no way—my friends have more than enough for me to spoil. Sister-in-law’s gonna have a little bambino in a couple of months. Nah, I’m good. Plus I wouldn’t want to inflict this on any offspring.” She waved a hand over her body.
Silence stretched. She grew uncomfortable. Why had she said so much? And to a stranger? Could she crawl under the table and right out the door now?
“You’re serious?” Skepticism clouded his words.
“Honest-to-goodness, cross my heart, serious as a heart attack,” she said.
“You’re wrong.” There was a stubborn edge to his tone that had her jerking to stare into his eyes.
Gulping hard, she shook her head.
He nodded. “Oh, yes you are. Believe you me, you are.” He’d used her saying back at her.
She brushed it off. “Thanks, pal, but I know the—”
“The hell you do,” he muttered, and then downed his drink. “Another round.” He plucked up her empty glass and his, and then made his way to the bar.
Peg stared at his wide shoulders and stiff back. Now, what had she said to get him ticked off like that?
Fiddling with her pencil, she tapped it on her clipboard. But she couldn’t take her eyes off of him. His hair, what was left of it, was a sandy brown, she guessed. She didn’t usually like the look, but on him, it was hot. And the scruff on his jaw made him look even hotter, if that were possible.
Standing at the bar waiting on the drinks, he turned, catching her.
“Caught, red-handed,” she said between her teeth as she pasted on a smile. She shrugged and wiggled her fingers in a wave to him.
He laughed and then winked at her.
Her insides tumbled.
What in the world was going on? She never acted like this. Not this schoolgirl crush stuff. No, not her, Peg, ever efficient, loved her job and never wanted to do anything else, Newbury. Beezus and sassafras, she needed to get out of here and away from him. Pronto!
As Austin held the drinks and walked back to the table, he couldn’t help but smile at her. What a breath of fresh air. He liked her funny sayings. He liked her unvarnished truth. He liked the way her wide, brown eyes revealed all her emotions.
What he didn’t like was his attraction to her.
That he could have done without.
He’d spent two long years touring the world with his band. Females of every color, shape, and size flashed him, threw themselves at him, tossed their thongs on stage at his feet, and was willing to sleep with him for a few hours. He hadn’t accepted. They didn’t understand the word no.
Even before he broke up with his last girlfriend months ago, very publicly in the press on her part, the women came in droves. Why couldn’t they accept he was a one-woman man? Why him?
He’d stayed clear, before and even after the break-up. Most of the guys in the band were on hand to soothe the groupies. Everyone knew what they bought into. No one got hurt.
And he’d shake his head and watch from the sidelines.
It was getting old. Fast.
Now, after all this time, he felt the tug of heat with his sister’s friend, of all people.
Peg hustled out of the booth and, clutching her clipboard, met him halfway. She held out her hand, and then realized his were holding the glasses, so she dropped hers. “Well, Austin, it’s been swell, pal. But I’ve got to skedaddle.” She tapped the board. “You know, a date to find.”
“Hold up, Peg. Is it just Peg or Margaret?” He wondered why he even bothered to ask. His interest in her disturbed him. Austin tried to convince himself it was because he promised Ev he’d do her a favor by looking out for Peg. Yeah, right!
“Peg. That’s it. Folks realized I was a square peg right from the get-go. I’m a giraffe compared to the rest of them. If I hadn’t have popped out of my mother, I swear I was adopted or bred by aliens.”
With laughter bubbling up, he realized he didn’t want the night to end just yet. “You can’t leave me holding these…”
Shrugging, she snatched the apple martini out of his hand and knocked it back in one swig. She smacked her lips. “Yummy! I’m off. Gotta meet up with Rico in,” she squinted, “four hours. Strategize.”
She shoved the glass back at him, and then breezed by him.
Austin stood dumbfounded, watching her walk away.
What the hell just happened?