Excerpt from Lucky in Love
Claire Bennett glanced at the high-tech watch strapped to her wrist and repressed a groan. Touted as the best smart watch on the market, the darn thing cost a fortune and promised to manage her hectic schedule with ease. But she was a single mom with a full-time career. Not even the sharpest of cutting-edge technology could totally subdue her schedule.
The tension flowing through her solidified into a tight knot between her shoulder blades. She prided herself on efficiency and hated running late—especially tonight. Talk about amping up the strain of an already crappy situation.
Forcing a smile, Claire reminded herself to consider tonight nothing more than a business meeting. She hurried into the small bar a few miles outside of the lakeside town of Silver Bay, Wisconsin and scanned the room for single men. Or to be precise, one single man—one, lucky, single man.
Three booths in, she spotted a middle-aged guy with brown hair, faded jean shorts, a Packer’s muscle shirt, and a saggy tattoo of a … She tipped her head and squinted for a closer inspection. Recognition dropped her stomach. A cheesehead. The man had permanently imprinted a giant cheesehead on his bicep.
Brown hair, Packer’s shirt, and left-arm tattoo—those were the three identifiers her good friend Deb Saunders had given her. This guy must be Lucky.
Oh, lucky her.
Claire blew out a breath long enough to inflate her kids’ favorite pool toy. She should have refused to meet Deb’s cousin as soon as she heard his ridiculous name. But after a month-long covert—and totally unproductive—search for a fake boyfriend on her own, Claire needed help. Of course, she’d sworn Deb to secrecy before asking for assistance. A fake boyfriend that everyone knew was fake would be as useful as an uncharged smartphone.
After hearing her dilemma, Deb had immediately suggested her cousin Lucky, whom she called mature. While a desirable trait for a fake boyfriend, Claire had been thinking Lucky would be a George Clooney mature rather than a Larry the Cable Guy mature.
“Hey, honey,” her prospective fake boyfriend yelled to a passing waitress, “I need another refill.” He shook a glass full of ice at the young girl. “And keep ’em coming, doll. I’ll be here for hours.”
The last of Claire’s mustered smile drained away as she watched Lucky the Cable Guy pour ice into his mouth and start chomping. His bulging belly bounced against the edge of the table. Little shards of ice flew from his open mouth with each enthusiastic crunch.
She glanced over her shoulder at the door and contemplated slinking out of the bar before he noticed her. But the thought of her impending public humiliation did a grand job of raising her blood pressure, planting her feet, and steeling her resolve. She had a bachelorette auction to get out of, damn it. Like it or not, Lucky the Cable Guy looked to be her best way out.
Claire tried to be optimistic. Maybe he was really nice. Sure, his attire suggested demolition derby rather than blind date—or business date to be more accurate—but Deb had assured her of his sweetness.
Time to woman-up.
She strode toward Lucky’s table. A step away from him—and from a night of likely talking about the Pack while suppressing cringes and dodging flying ice chips—she felt the air shift and a flutter warm her skin.
On instinct, she turned her head and locked eyes with a good-looking guy staring at her from a few tables away. He seemed vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t imagine meeting someone that attractive and not remembering him. A snug-fitting Green Bay pullover covered wide shoulders and well-defined arms. Thick, tousled dark-brown hair framed a face any men’s fitness magazine would be proud to display.
But no tattoo. Or at least, she couldn’t tell if he had one since the pullover covered his left bicep.
Head cocked to the side, he studied her with a curious expression and a slight, mischievous upturn of his full lips. His brilliant blue eyes were full of both good-natured humor and—okay, she might be imagining it—a sensual, spellbinding scrutiny that said he could see straight to her soul and liked everything he saw.
Whoa. Where had that come from? She clenched her jaw and drew in a breath. She was here to negotiate a business deal. Nothing more.
And the first order of business was figuring out which Lucky might be her intended date for the evening: Lucky the Cable Guy or Lucky the Male Paragon?
They both had brown hair, and each was wearing a Packers shirt. One Lucky had a visible tattoo on his bicep. Long sleeves covered the other Lucky’s arms, making it impossible to tell if he had a tattoo or not.
Why hadn’t she asked Deb for a more definite way to ID the guy? But, come on, who would’ve thought somebody named Lucky would be that difficult to spot? Lesson learned. Next time Claire arranged a meeting to proposition a stranger in a bar, she’d establish a more thorough identification system well in advance.
“Hindsight,” she muttered to herself, eyeing her two options.
Lucky the Cable Guy shook more ice into his mouth and started scratching his rounded belly when he noticed her looking at him. “Hey, doll,” he said, holding eye contact for approximately one second before he locked in on her chest. “Name’s Earl.” He licked his lips. “Have a seat, and I’ll buy ya a drink.”
Earl, not Lucky. Claire leaned down until her eyes were again in his line of sight. “I can’t tell if you meant that offer for me or my breasts.”
He snorted a laugh. “Both of ya are welcome to join me.”
“Sorry, Earl, I can’t tonight.” She straightened to her full height and muttered, “I’ve got a problem to solve.”
Lucky the Male Paragon quirked an eyebrow at her, and a grin tugged at the corners of his lips. A disorienting jolt of female awareness shot through her. Could this gorgeous guy actually be Deb’s cousin?
Claire squared her shoulders. Only one way to find out. Holding his gaze, she moved forward. Known for being cool under pressure, she oversaw multimillion-dollar deals on a daily basis. She could negotiate one small personal transaction.
He rose to his feet. And then he smiled … and the earth tilted on its axis, bowing to the perfection of his dimple-framed, high-wattage, hypnotic smile.
Holy smokes. Her step faltered, and she actually felt short of breath. Get a grip, she silently ordered. Then resisting an eye roll, she sucked in air to help focus her oxygen-deprived brain.
She stopped directly in front of him and tipped her head back to maintain eye contact. He must be about six inches taller than her, which would put him a little over six feet. He looked younger than she’d expected from Deb’s description, but so what if he looked young? She’d always looked young for her age as well.
She cleared her throat and smiled wide. “Are you … Lucky?”
Ethan DuBois flashed another smile at the classy blonde in the sleek blue dress. As a recently retired professional soccer player, he’d been hit on by countless women in countless ways. He thought he’d heard all the lines before, but this one was new. He always appreciated originality.
“Absolutely,” he answered, more than happy to play along. He’d noticed her the moment she stepped through the door. Her wide, expressive eyes and sweet smile said girl-next-door. Her lean curves and long legs were more femme-fatale. The intriguing mix was enough to make any guy take notice.
“I’m Claire.” She inclined her head toward his table. “Can I join you for a drink while we talk?”
Her words were forward—her demeanor, tentative. The contradiction turned intriguing into intoxicating.
He grinned and gestured to the empty seat across from his. As soon as they sat down, the waitress returned to the table to take their drink order. Claire gave the girl her full attention as she placed her order. Extending the simple gesture of respect went a long way in Ethan’s book.
When the waitress left to get his unexpected date an iced tea and another beer for him, Claire turned to study him with the most vibrant eyes he’d ever seen. They were blue and green and golden and intently locked on him.
He’d had his share of women eyeball him, but she wasn’t stripping him down or trying to appear sultry and seductive. Instead, her appraisal suggested she was searching deeper, beyond the exterior many recognized but few tried to look beneath.
“I hear you’re new in town.”
“Arrived a few days ago.” Ethan wondered what else she’d heard about him.
“Huh.” She tilted her head to the side, her thick blond hair sliding temptingly over one shoulder. “I thought you’d been here a couple of months. No matter.” She gave her head a quick shake. “Hope you don’t mind if I cut to the chase and discuss the terms of my proposition.”
Ethan blinked. He opened his mouth but had no frigging clue what to say. Thankfully, the waitress returned with their drinks, giving him a moment to wrap his head around Claire’s bombshell.
Becoming a professional soccer player at eighteen had forced him to grow up quickly. He’d been surrounded by guys older—and usually wiser—than him about soccer and about life. He’d watched, listened, learned. And now, at the age of twenty-nine, he felt much older than his years—especially with his body reminding him daily of the wear and tear he’d put it through playing the sport he loved.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this frigging naive. Proposition? Damn, how had he read her so wrong? He’d never paid for sex in his life and sure as hell wasn’t starting now.
But for some reason, he sat back in the booth, waiting. The server left, and Claire glanced around the room as if making sure no undercover cops were close enough to hear what was likely to be her very interesting—if illegal—proposition. He cocked an eyebrow at her, expecting her to name her price.
Instead, her brow crinkled, and she ran her tongue across her lower lip.
He stared at the full, soft flesh. Heat warmed his blood. She was smooth; he’d give her that. He’d better be careful or he’d be reconsidering his moral stance against paying for sex.
“I need a boyfriend until mid-October,” she blurted. “I’m willing to pay you two thousand dollars to play the part.” She paused, toying with the heart-shaped silver pendant around her neck. “But you can’t tell anyone we aren’t actually dating. And, of course, you won’t be able to date anyone else during our relationship. I need for us to look exclusive.”
If Ethan had been surprised before, he was dumbstruck now.
Claire wasn’t selling.
She was buying.