Some men should never wear a shirt, Emma Montgomery decided as she watched Nathan Barrett shoot baskets on the sports court behind his house. The man was poetry in motion—a Shakespearian sonnet, a love poem by Keats.
He spun toward her, and her gaze skittered down his muscled chest again.
Or maybe a really naughty limerick.
Yep, he was a handsome devil alright.
“You wait here,” Leigh Barrett said from the passenger seat of Emma’s compact car. “I need to talk to Nathan for a second.”
Now that didn’t sound good. Not good at all. Emma pulled her gaze away from Nathan and looked at his sister.
“You assured me that everything was set,” Emma pointed out.
Leigh bobbed her head, her short black hair brushing against her chin. “It is set, so stop worrying.”
Not in the least reassured, Emma asked, “Nathan knows I’m coming, right?”
Again, the head bob. “You bet.”
“And he agreed that I could have the technical writing job?”
“Yep, that, too.”
Still unable to shake the feeling that she’d stepped off the side of a mountain and was about to take one heck of a plunge, Emma pressed on. “And he did agree that I could use his garage apartment this summer, right?”
“Everything is fine.” Leigh shoved open the door to the car. “You’re such a worrier, Emma. No wonder you live on antacids. You need to relax. Take a few deep breaths. Find your center.”
“You know. The child within. Your feminine side.” With a grin, she added, “Feng shui yourself.”
Emma laughed and felt the tension level inside her slip down a notch or two. She should have known when push came to shove, Leigh wouldn’t let her down. She knew how much Emma needed this summer job.
“I promise to relax if you’re certain everything is fine.”
Leigh rolled her eyes. “Say it slowly with me: Ev...er...y thi...ng is fi...ne.”
Emma smiled. “Everything is fine.”
Leigh glanced at her brother, then back at Emma. “Very good. Now give me a head start. I just need to clarify one tiny detail with Nathan, then we can get you moved into the garage apartment.”
There was something in the way Leigh said the words “one tiny detail” that made the feeling of dread rush right back into Emma’s stomach and settle down for a long stay. Something was rotten in Denmark, or rather in Honey, Texas. This small town might call itself the “sweetest town in Texas,” but right now, she had the distinct feeling that everything wasn’t “sweet.”
Emma didn’t want to ask. Not at all. Intuitively, she knew she wasn’t going to like the answer. But she had to know, so squinting in an attempt to lessen the expected blow, she asked, “What detail do you need to clarify with Nathan?”
“Oh, nothing special,” Leigh said. “I just need to mention a few things.” She swung her legs out of the car, then said in a rush, “Like that you’re going to work for him at his software company for the summer while you live in the apartment over his garage. No biggie.”
Emma’s mouth dropped open, but before she could say a word, Leigh sprinted away from the car. No biggie? This was a really big biggie. Nathan Barrett knew absolutely nothing about her plans.
Good grief. Fumbling in her purse, Emma tugged out her roll of antacids and tossed a couple into her mouth. The familiar chalky taste brought her a tiny degree of comfort.
“You can do this,” she muttered, willing the butterflies—no, make that condors—thrashing around in her stomach to chill. “You can handle this.”
Even though she only half believed herself, she climbed out of her car. Leigh was already on the basketball court, talking with her brother.
“Darn her,” Emma muttered, slamming her car door. She should have known better than to trust her summer plans to Leigh Barrett. Leigh was funny and full of life and great to be around, but she was also kooky, and crazy, and often unreliable.
The last character trait was the one Emma should have focused on when Leigh had brought up this idea about coming to Honey. She should have checked and double-checked these plans like a bride planning a flawless wedding.
But she hadn’t questioned a thing.
“You coward,” she muttered to herself as she reached the outer corner of the sports court. She hadn’t questioned Leigh simply because her friend had promised the solution to all her problems. Leigh had assured Emma that her brother needed a technical writer for the summer and that the pay would be great. And when Emma had mentioned she’d need a place to stay, Leigh had had the answer to that one, too. Nathan had a nice apartment over his three-car garage.
What could be better? She’d be able to work on her dissertation in the evenings after she came home from Barrett Software. And she’d pick up some nice change to pay the never-ending college bills.
What a dummy. She might as well tattoo the word sap on her forehead. Just because she’d wanted this job to work out wasn’t an excuse not to check her facts before leaving Austin and driving to Honey with Leigh. Her super-organized father would be appalled that she hadn’t verified the plans.
At the moment, jobless and homeless, she was pretty appalled, too.
As she approached Leigh and her brother, she heard Leigh hastily explaining the situation while Nathan frowned. The man wasn’t pleased. That much was obvious. He glanced in Emma’s direction, then walked over and grabbed a T-shirt off a bench and pulled it on.
“It’s no big deal,” Leigh was saying as Emma drew even with them.
“It’s a very big deal,” Nathan shot back. He turned and looked at Emma. “Hello.”
Wow. Nathan was even better-looking close up. Every female hormone in Emma’s body sat up and took notice, and for the briefest of moments, Emma forgot her jobless/homeless problem and simply enjoyed looking at him.
“Nathan, this is my friend, Emma Montgomery,” Leigh said. “Emma, this is Nathan, who will help me out, or I’ll tell all of his secrets.”
Nathan glanced at his sister. “What secrets? I don’t have any secrets.”
Leigh snorted, an unladylike sound that oddly fit her personality. “Oh, please, sell it to someone who’s never met you. I know all the good things. Like that you cried for an hour the first time a girl kissed you—”
Nathan frowned. “I was six.”
“Or the time when you had a crush on Lindsey Franklin, so you kept calling her up, but when she’d answer, you’d hang up—”
“I was eleven.”
Leigh put her hands on her hips and said, “Best of all, how about the time in high school when MaryLou Delacourte’s parents thought she was at a slumber party when actually she was with you, and you two were—”
“Stop.” Nathan tipped his head and looked at Emma, humor gleaming in his amazing blue eyes. Despite being annoyed at his sister, there was a healthy dose of brotherly love obvious in his treatment of Leigh. He might not be happy with what she’d done, but he was being an exceptionally good sport about it. “Do you have any objections to being a material witness to a crime?”
Emma laughed. “Under the circumstances, I completely understand.”
“Ha ha. Like you’d ever do anything to me.” Leigh leaned up and gave her brother a loud, smacking kiss on his cheek. “Jeez, you’re sweaty.”
“I was shooting hoops and not expecting company,” he said. His gaze returned to Emma. “Sorry.”
“I’m the one who’s sorry. I had no idea this wasn’t arranged.” She frowned at Leigh. “I was under the impression you knew all about the plans. I guess I should head on back to Austin.”
“Nathan Eric Barrett, how rude can you be?” Leigh scolded. “Look what you did.”
“What I did? I haven’t done anything to anyone,” he said calmly. “Go inside, Leigh. I want to talk to Emma alone.”
“But if I’m not here—”
“Go inside,” Nathan repeated.
Finally, muttering and fussing the whole way, Leigh headed across the sports court and disappeared inside the large brick house.
Left alone with Nathan, Emma tried to keep her gaze firmly tacked on his face. Boy oh boy, it wasn’t easy. His T-shirt hugged his muscles, but since she hated it when men talked to her chest, she imagined Nathan would hate it if she had a conversation with his pecs.
“So, if I’m following this, Leigh told you I had a job opening for a technical writer at Barrett Software,” Nathan said.
Emma nodded, hoping against hope that at least a little bit of Leigh’s story had been true. She crossed her fingers. “Do you?”
His expression was kind. “I’m sorry, no.”
“Oh.” She swallowed past the nervous lump in her throat and struggled to maintain control. Breathe, Emma. Breathe.
She fumbled in her pocket, searching for her antacids, then remembered they were in her purse. That was okay. She could handle this. Sure, there weren’t a lot of really great jobs lying around that would only last the summer. And sure, she’d been counting on this job to help pay off some bills. But she could manage. She hadn’t made it all the way to the doctoral program at the University of Texas without becoming a pro at dealing with problems. This was only a setback. A big setback, granted, but one she could handle.
“I see,” she managed to say when Nathan continued to give her a sympathetic look.
“I understand that Leigh also promised you could live in the apartment above my garage.” This time it was a statement, not a question.
The feeling of dread she’d been experiencing now took on monumental proportions. “Let me guess, you don’t have an apartment over your garage, either.”
“Yes, I do.”
She nodded. “Of course you—you do?” Blinking, she tried to decide what that meant. Could this possibly be a tiny streak of good luck struggling to shine through the dark cloud?
“Yes, but it’s my storage room, filled with old junk. Not really suitable to live in at the moment.” Ah, heck. Emma blew out an exasperated breath. Great. Just great No job. No place to live. Talk about with friends like Leigh, who needed enemies.
“Well, that’s that. I guess I’d better go. Thank you for your time,” she said.
Nathan grinned. “You give up too easily.” He tossed her the basketball, which she just managed to catch. “Do you play?”
She looked at the ball in her hands. “What?”
With a shrug, she turned, assessed her shot, and neatly sunk the ball. When she turned back to look at Nathan, he nodded.
“I played in high school,” she told him. “Look, why don’t I say goodbye to Leigh and head back—”
“Wait.” Nathan wandered over and picked up the basketball. He dribbled it as he came back over to stand next to her. She tried, really she did, to keep from staring at him, but how much was a woman supposed to resist? The man was gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous, and despite the disappointment flooding through her at the moment, she wasn’t dead.
“Do you know why I sent Leigh inside?” he asked, a roguish gleam in his eyes.
Emma considered the possibilities, finally settling on the most obvious. “Because you were afraid you’d do something terrible to her if you didn’t?”
He chuckled, the sound warm and rich and electrifying as it danced across Emma’s skin. This man was like fudge ripple ice cream. Much, much too tempting.
“I sent Leigh inside so she could sweat for a little while. Even without looking, I know she’s watching us through the kitchen window, wondering what we’re talking about.”
Emma glanced toward the house and caught a glimpse of Leigh peering through the window before she disappeared. “You’re right. She’s there.”
Nathan smiled. “I know. See, she’s about ninety-nine percent sure I’ll save her. I always have in the past. But there’s that one percent of uncertainty, the tiniest fragment of doubt, that’s making her climb the walls. I figure the least I can do is make her squirm for a few minutes before I save her.”
Emma snagged on to what he’d said. He’d save Leigh? Did that mean she would get a job and a place to stay after all? Was it too soon to yell yahoo and dance around with joy?
She studied Nathan and tried not to let her optimism run away with her, but she couldn’t help asking, “Are you saying you do have a job?”
“A couple. Neither of them is for a technical writer, though.” His gaze skimmed her casual outfit of jean shorts and a green T-shirt, then nodded toward the basketball. “Want to try to make that shot again?”
At this point, Emma would do just about anything to get a job. She didn’t have time to waste going back to Austin and seeing if she could scrounge up something at the university. “Sure.”
He tossed her the ball, and she sunk it.
“You’re good.” For a second, he studied her, and Emma’s pulse rate picked up. As much as she’d like to attribute the metabolic change to being nervous, she knew that was bunk. Her heart was racing because she was attracted to Nathan. Very attracted.
“Tell me about yourself,” Nathan said.
This was hardly the place she would have picked for an interview, but at this point, she was willing to be interviewed in the middle of Interstate 20 if it meant she could get a job.
“I’m working on my doctorate in English at the University of Texas,” she told him.
“That’s where you met Leigh.”
“Yes.” She glanced toward the house, then added, “And up until a few minutes ago, we were great friends.”
Nathan laughed again, and Emma had to admit, that was a sound she could get used to without any trouble. “It’s not that bad. Things will work out. My brothers and I are used to doing damage control when necessary to pull Leigh out of the fire.”
“That doesn’t upset you?”
Nathan snagged the ball again and easily made a shot. “Don’t get me wrong. I don’t approve of Leigh’s methods. But she’s just that way. Always has been. It’s part of her personality...part of her charm.”
“Being devious and conniving?”
His grin was devilish. “Yes. You’ll get used to it.”
Emma sincerely doubted that. “Does that devious streak run in your family?”
Nathan’s smile was oh-so enticing. “Me? I’m completely harmless.”
Yeah, right, and she could wrestle crocodiles.
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