Clark surveyed his sister's backyard, filled with bouncy castles, vibrant balloons of all shapes and sizes, and about twenty screaming five-year-olds and their parents. He loved his nephew, but attending his birthday party was his idea of a nightmare. A sticky, superhero-themed nightmare. He and Jeannie stood near the white wooden fences away from the front lines, sipping some sickly sweet punch.
"Maggie sure knows how to throw a party." Jeannie projected her voice to be heard over the children.
"It's like a zoo here," Clark muttered, rubbing the back of his neck. "But thanks. I'll let her know you were impressed."
"So this is your idea of a big favor?" She cocked her head and studied his face. "For me to come to your nephew's birthday party with you?"
"You have no idea how nefarious Maggie is. I'm almost certain she plans on setting me up with Billy's kindergarten teacher today."
"What?" A frown marred Jeannie's forehead. "I mean, are you ready to start dating again? I know she's worried about you, but setting you up seems a bit pushy."
"I guess being pushy is an older sister's prerogative. But you're right. I'm not ready to start dating anyone." He cleared his throat and leaned in closer to Jeannie so he could speak quietly. "I need you to pretend to be my girlfriend so Maggie will back off."
"I can't lie to your sister," she said, drawing back from him.
"We won't outright lie to her. Just fawn over me a bit, and give her the impression that we're together."
"And…there is the real favor." Jeannie shook her head. "So you want me to act like we're dating but not say that we're dating?"
"Right." It sounded ridiculous when she put it that way, but that was exactly what he needed.
"A bet is a bet. I got you," she said.
"Thank God. You're my hero."
She rolled her eyes then linked her fingers through his. Good. She was already getting into character. The problem was his body burned from the simple touch. Could he pretend to be hers for a couple hours without losing his mind? His desire to kiss her was becoming unbearable. When she looked at him through lowered lashes, he saw the answering desire in her eyes. He couldn't look away and the air between them swirled with awareness.
Jeannie broke the spell, releasing his hand and turning to watch the children playing in the bouncy castle. Only then did he notice the familiar knot of guilt in his stomach. Weren't his newfound feelings toward Jeannie exactly the kind of thing Catherine had been so worried about?
"So how did your date with Mrs. Sanders go?" Jeannie asked as though she'd suddenly remembered the bachelor auction.
"She's a lovely woman." He pushed away his dark thoughts. "I really enjoyed her company."
"Really?" She turned back to him with a delighted smile. "What did you guys talk about?"
"Mostly about her grandchildren. And every time I held the door open and pulled out her chair, she would mention how her late husband had been a gentleman, too. She even sniffled a little when I gave her a bouquet at the end of the night, saying how her husband used to surprise her with flowers."
"Oh, my gosh. That's too sweet."
"Yeah. Thanks for auctioning me off to such a nice lady."
"You're very welcome. In fact, I should invite you back next year."
"In your dreams, Lim," Clark said with a bark of laughter.
The magician at the party was actually decent, so they joined the kids to watch her performance. Once she wrapped it up, the crowd dispersed to peruse the buffet Maggie had laid out.
"Uh, oh. Two o'clock," Jeannie said out of the corner of her mouth.
His dear sister was hurrying toward them with a young blond woman by her side. He put his lips close to Jeannie's ear and whispered, "Lights. Camera. Action."
She placed her hand on his chest, and laughed as though he'd told her a hilarious joke. The warmth of her breath on his cheek and the heat of her hand on his body made a shiver run through him. Once he acknowledged his desire for her, it refused to be quieted. Would it help their scheme to kiss her in front of a crowd?
Before he could act on his mad impulse, Maggie and her friend came to a stop in front of them. His sister quickly shifted her gaze from him to Jeannie, having witnessed their interaction.
"Jeannie, thank you so much for coming," she said.
"I'm so glad to be here and it's wonderful to see you. It's been a while."
"Yes, it's been quite a while." She looked at them again with narrowed eyes then shook her head. "Oh, how rude of me. Emily, this is my brother, Clark, and his friend Jeannie. Clark and Jeannie, this is Emily, Billy's kindergarten teacher."
"It's nice to meet you, Emily," Jeannie said, linking her arm through Clark's. "If Billy is anything like his uncle, I bet he keeps you on your toes."
"He sure does. Billy is such a smart kid. He asks such good questions," Emily said with a fond smile. "So how long have you guys known each other?"
"Since we were smart-mouthed kids in college," Clark said, running the back of his fingers down Jeannie's silken cheek.
"It must be so nice to be with someone who knows you so well," Emily observed with a wistful sigh, glancing around the party. "Oh, no. Some of the little guests are arguing. I should go check on them. It was nice meeting you both."
"But Emily…" Maggie didn't finish her sentence because Emily was already walking away. After giving him a look, his sister rushed to catch up to her.
"She is so sweet. I hope you're not having second thoughts," Jeannie said, her eyes following Emily. "Because she one hundred percent bought our act. Actually, that was a little too easy."
"Well, it doesn't take much to convince people that I'm taken when I have such a beautiful woman on my arm."
"Since when do you think I'm beautiful?"
"Since the very first time I met you," he confessed. A lovely blush reddened her cheeks, and he brushed his knuckles down her cheek again even though they didn't have an audience anymore.
It was true. She'd stolen his breath the first time he met her, but he'd quickly squashed the attraction because he was seeing someone at the time. That relationship ended within months but Jeannie was with her now ex-husband by the time he was free. But now she was free, too.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to weird you out," he said, taking his hand away. But to his surprise, Jeannie grabbed his hand and pressed her cheek against it.
"I'm not weirded out," she whispered.
He looked at her in surprise, but her thick eyelashes hid her expression from him. Did she mean what he thought she meant? His stomach lurched with excitement and his blood rushed south. His body certainly liked the idea, but did he? He was still torn by the argument he'd had with Catherine the night she died. The argument about Jeannie. Was he being unfaithful to his wife's memory?
Without conscious thought, he'd lowered his head so his mouth was mere inches from Jeannie's. He wanted to kiss her. Needed to. Her eyes slid shut, and Clark was a second away from closing the space between their lips. But then he caught his sister staring intensely at them.
He changed course and planted a soft, lingering kiss on Jeannie's forehead. When she glanced up at him—was that disappointment in her eyes?—he said, "There was a flaw to my plan. Now Maggie is going to get on my case about what's going on between us. She's watching us like a hawk."
She released his hand then leaned her head against his shoulder. The easy affection didn't feel feigned.
"What the hell is happening to us?" he asked, pulling her closer.
"I'm not sure, but our lips keep wanting to meet." She laughed softly. "But our friendship…it sustained me since college. It was so hard not having you by my side the last two years. I don't want to risk that happening again."
"I'm so sorry for pushing you away. I…wasn't myself after Catherine died. And now there's more at risk than our friendship. Your professional reputation might be ruined if word gets out that you're involved with a donor." He ran his hand down her hair. "How can I put you at risk? Think about everything you've accomplished in the last couple years."
"I know, Clark. I know all that. But I don't know if I can stop."
"Jeannie…" He wasn't sure how to continue.
"Are you surprised that this is happening?"
"No." When they met again as single adults, it was inevitable that their attraction would rise to the surface.
"Should we do something about it?" She raised her head with desire simmering in her eyes.
"Like what?" he asked, not at all sure what he wanted to do.
"Like surrender to it." She trailed her hand down to where his heart pounded madly.
"I—I can't talk about this right now." He turned his head away, because he couldn't look at her a second longer without crushing his lips against hers. He coughed into his fist and said,
"Thank you again for coming with me."
"No need to thank me," she said quietly, lifting her head off his shoulder. He missed her warmth the moment she pulled away. "You won the bet fair and square."
He wanted to kick himself for his cowardly move. To his relief, it was time for cake, which marked the official end of the party. Tendrils of smoke still wafted from the candles Billy had blown out when Clark placed his hand on Jeannie's back.
"I think I've adequately performed my duties as an uncle. Let's get out of here," he said quietly.
After saying goodbye to the birthday boy and his sister, Clark led Jeannie to his car and opened the door for her. Once he was settled into the driver's seat, he maneuvered onto the road and headed for the freeway to take her back to her place.
The confines of the car intensified her alluring scent, and he had difficulty focusing on the road knowing he only had to stretch out his arm to touch her. Even though Jeannie gazed serenely out the window, her fingers tapped on her thigh as though she was keeping tempo with a frantic melody.
The sexual tension between them grew steadily until the air-conditioned car felt like a sweltering sauna. Thankfully, he pulled up to the front of her condo sooner than he'd expected. Los Angeles traffic had mercy on him.
He idled the engine and turned toward her. He should offer to walk her to her door, but he didn't think he would be able to leave her there. His guilt and uncertainty held him back and made him grow distant, even as his body screamed to have her.
"I'll see you later, Jeannie," he said, his voice rough with desire despite himself.
"Stop trying to shut me out. We need to talk." She reached across and placed her hand on top of his, sending scorching heat in all directions of his body.
She placed an index finger over his mouth.
"Take me up upstairs, Clark."
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