Trying to move on from a disastrous engagement, Sophie Morgan needs a date for her best friend's wedding--and fast! And what quicker way to find a man than speed dating? Only it's bar manager Dan Halliday who catches Sophie's eye.
Dan can't resist helping a damsel in distress, so he offers her a deal--a few shifts in the bar in exchange for the date--no strings attached. But when pretence leads to passion, they both get more than they bargained for. And it's too late to have any secrets between them.
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Harlequin Enterprises, Limited
June 01, 2012
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Excerpt from Secrets and Speed Dating by Leah Ashton
The Sophie Project (Project Manager: S. Morgan)
Task One: Find a boyfriend
'Just so you know, I can't have children.'
Sophie Morgan watched her date's expression morph from a twinkly-eyed grin to slack-jawed surprise at her calmly delivered statement. She took a sip of her vanilla martini and met his wide eyes as she continued. 'I really can't. It wouldn't matter if I "stopped trying" or "went on a holiday" or "just relaxed".' She shrugged. 'It just won't happen.'
Her date had barely blinked, so she gestured vaguely at her flat stomach. 'Things down there just don't function properly... reproductively speaking, of course. I mean, I can have sex. That's all normal.'
The poor guy spluttered into his beer. 'Ah, isn't this conversation a bit. .premature? We've known each other five minutes.'
He was being literal. A moment later the high-pitched chime of a small silver bell silenced the room.
The hostess of the speed dating evening--a depressingly stunning modeltype who Sophie was sure would never need to attend such an event herself--waited until all eyes were on her. Unlike Sophie, her hostess looked completely at ease in the fiber-modern bar, with its black granite floor, chrome and glass furniture and leather couches. Back in Sydney, this type of place had been Sophie's domain. But now, in Perth, with her old life three thousand kilometres away, she felt like an impostor.
'Okay, gentlemen, time to say goodbye and move on to your next date.'
Her date still look dazed, so she tried to explain quickly, hopeful that she didn't sound like a completely unbalanced lunatic. She did know blurting out her infertility wasn't exactly normal behaviour. 'Look, everyone here wants a relationship, right?'
He nodded. In fact, this speed dating event was specifically for people seeking long-term relationships.
'So, when most people picture a relationship, they want the whole package deal--wife and kids. With me, that's not possible. I just thought it was only fair you should know.'
He shook his head. 'Not everyone wants that. I don't know if I want kids.'
Sophie smiled, but shrugged. 'I still think it's better to be up-front, get it out in the open. What you want now can change a heck of a lot in the future.'
People changed their minds. She knew that far too well.
Her date smiled at her. Reassuringly, he now looked more bemused than ready to run screaming away from her--that twinkle was even back in his eyes. 'Who knows about the future?' he asked as he stood. 'Why not let a new relationship just flow? Why worry about it now?'
She watched him sit down at the neighbouring table, his attention already on his next date. She envied his naivety. The ability to live a relationship in the moment, to pretend that all you needed was each other. But Sophie wouldn't do that again. She couldn't.
Not that she didn't want the fairytale happy ending. She did. She'd love to grow old with her perfect man--whatever that meant. Definitely someone who didn't want kids. And really didn't--although she really had no clue how she could unequivocally determine that. Maybe someone who'd already had his children? Or was older? Not that she really went for much older men.
She took another sip of her cocktail, a humourless smile quirking her lips. Clearly she didn't know what she wanted. She just knew that she wasn't about to waste her time--or risk her heart--on some guy who would dump her once he knew what she couldn't give him. Getting it all out up-front was definitely a good idea. An excellent idea, even.
Still, when she'd flipped over her date card she quickly circled 'No' beside her last date's name. As she had for the four dates before him, and probably would for the remaining five.
No. She needed to--had to--think positive.
She wasn't ready to admit that speed dating was a mistake. After all, it was the first task on her list. If she couldn't do this, what chance did the rest of her project have?
And if she knew that dropping her bombshell was abnormal behaviour, she certainly knew that the very existence of her project tipped her over the edge into...well...a little bit nutty. Knew it--but was determined to carry on regardless.
After the amorphous, directionless mess of the past six months she needed a goal--needed a plan.
Reaching into the handbag hanging on the back of her chair, she ran her finger along the sharply folded edges of the piece of paper that had led her here this evening.
A single piece of paper. Flimsy--it could so easily be crumpled and thrown away. But she wouldn't be doing that. Instead, it gave her focus. Just as when she'd sat down at her laptop and methodically put the document together. Soothing lists of tasks and deliverable dates--familiar in their structure and yet so different in their type and intent from the project plans she was used to. For this time Sophie Morgan, Project Manager, was not implementing a major software upgrade, or rolling out new hardware, or coordinating a change management program.
No, this time the project was her life. Her new life.
Sophie took a deep breath. Straightened her shoulders.
It didn't matter that she didn't know who or what would make her circle 'Yes'. She just owed herself--and her remaining dates--her full attention, and at least the tiniest smidgen of hope. No premature circling of 'No'.
And definitely--definitely--still disclosing her...uh...situation.
So far the reaction to her announcement had been almost comically consistent, except for the beer-spluttering of her last date. That had been new--but then so had her rather graphic description. She grinned at the memory. She probably shouldn't have done that, even if her more than slightly sick sense of humour had always helped her deal with her problems, infertility or otherwise. She figured that was healthier than the total denial of her mid-teens to early twenties: I never wanted kids, anyway. They're just snotty alien spew-makers. Yuk!
Her next date settled into his seat. Middling height, with bright red hair, he beamed at her, and she couldn't help her grin becoming a smile.
'Hi,' he said, obviously about to launch into a well-practised line. 'Why on earth would a stunningly beautiful woman like yourself need to go speed dating?'
But she laughed anyway, determined to enjoy the next four and a half minutes.
And then she'd let him know.
After his third or fourth surreptitious glance, Dan Halliday decided to just give in and look. Something about the woman who'd stayed long after the other speed daters had left kept drawing his attention. Unsurprisingly, the appeal of polishing wine glasses or counting the night's takings really couldn't compete with the beautiful woman propping up his bar.
She was twisted slightly on her seat, so she could stare out of the window that ran the length of the Subiaco Wine Bar. He had the feeling she wasn't people-watching, though, as the one time he'd asked if she wanted another drink he'd felt as if he was interrupting, that she'd been lost in her own little world. He'd left her alone since then--surreptitious glances excluded.
If she had been watching she would have seen the constant stream of cars and the packed cafe tables of a few hours earlier transition into a rowdier, typical Friday night club crowd. The cafes and restaurants that spilled onto the busy city street were now mostly closed, and only the late-night pubs and clubs remained open. His bar needed to close too, and she was the last customer.
Her hair was long, dark blonde, and swept back off her face in a ponytail--which he liked. He'd never understood women who hid behind curtains of hair. This way he had an unrestricted view of her profile: pale, creamy skin with a touch of colour at her cheeks, a long, slightly pointed nose and a chin that hinted at a stubborn streak.
He couldn't tell her height, seated as she was, but he'd guess she was tall. She wore a deep red silky blouse that skimmed the swell of her breasts, and he could just see her crumpled, obviously forgotten speed dating name-tag stuck beside the V of pale skin her top revealed. But he was too far away to read it.
And then she turned her head and locked her gaze with his. 'Are you closed? Do you want me to go?'
Even from where he stood, a few metres away, he was caught momentarily by the intense colour of her eyes. They were blue--but unlike his own boring plain blue, hers were darker. Richer. More expressive.
He gave himself a mental shake. Dan Halliday philosophising over the colour of a woman's eyes? Really?
Dan cleared his throat. 'Yes to the first question, but no to the second. You're welcome to stay and finish your drink.'
'You sure? I must have been here for...' she glanced at her watch .. almost three hours, and I've only had half of my cocktail. You could be waiting a while.'
He put down the glass he'd been not polishing while he'd stared--leered, maybe, Dan?--and walked to her end of the bar. 'Really, I don't mind. I'll tell you what--how about I give you a fresh cocktail on the house and you can get back to that serious contemplation you looked to be doing while I finish up?'
She shook her head. 'Thank you, but no. I'm sure you don't want me staring out of the window like a zombie any longer. I'll go.'
'So it's all figured out, then?'
Her brow furrowed. 'What is?'
'Whatever it was you were contemplating--it's all sorted? Done and dusted?'
She laughed, but it was a brittle sound. 'No. Not sorted.' She sighed. 'But, trust me, one more cocktail is not going to sort out the total mess of my life.'
Dan knew he should just let her leave. That right about now all his instinctive confirmed bachelor alarm bells should be ringing. This was a woman who had just attended a speed dating evening and had a self-confessed messy life. That was one alarm bell for 'wants a relationship' and another for 'has baggage'. The noise should be deafening.
Instead, he reached for a fresh martini glass, and didn't bother analysing why he didn't want her to go. 'Stay. Stare like a zombie all you like.'
A moment passed. Then another. But eventually she smiled, and nodded. 'Thank you.'
His gaze flicked to her name tag.
A deep aversion to her mother's inevitable requirement for a blow-by-blow account of her speed dating 'adventure', as her mum insisted on calling it, was the reason Sophie had lingered at the bar. At least that was the original reason. But hours had passed since she'd sent a 'Don't wait up' text message, fully aware she was only delaying the inquisition, and still she didn't go home.
At some point she'd stopped making up stories about the diners she could see through the bar's window. She'd stopped imagining which couples were on a first date, who was out for dinner for their birthday, or who was a tourist. The stories were a habit she'd fallen into over the past few months--an effective distraction from actually thinking. It was far easier to analyse and deconstruct a stranger's life than her own. Even her ill-fated plan had been all about striding forward. She hadn't been brave enough to look back.
But tonight she'd let her eyes unfocus, her vision blur, and for the first time in what felt like for ever had let the jumble of memories in.
Rick's new girlfriend.
Rick's new pregnant girlfriend.
Lost in thought--in contemplation, she supposed, like the bartender had said--she hadn't noticed the other customers leaving. And somehow--remarkably, really--she hadn't noticed the fact her bartender was drop dead gorgeous.
She'd felt him watching her, but had expected a 'finish your drink and leave' type of glare when she'd looked up. He'd surprised her. He hadn't been glaring--not even close. There'd been undeniable interest in his hooded gaze.
She lifted the fresh martini to her lips and studied him over the rim of the cocktail glass as he methodically counted money from the till. He stood with his hip resting casually against the stainless steel counter, his long legs clad in darkest grey jeans and the breadth of his shoulders emphasised by his fitted black shirt. The sleeves were rolled up, revealing rich olive skin and arms that looked strong--as if he did a lot more than just pour drinks with them.
With his short cropped black hair and sky-blue eyes he was far more handsome than any of her speed dates that evening. Of course it hadn't been her dates' looks, intelligence, charm or even their reaction to her unsolicited medical announcement that had been the problem.
She twisted in her chair so she faced the window again, her back to the bartender. She watched a gaggle of young women spill, laughing, out of a restaurant across the road. Hmm-- Maybe they were on a hen's night? Or maybe they worked together and were having particularly enthusiastic Friday night drinks?
No. Focus. Her free drink was for contemplation, not daydreaming.
Okay. The problem was that she'd been wrong. She just wasn't ready for a relationship.
Her bruised heart didn't care that she had a perfectly scheduled five-week plan practically burning a hole in her handbag. It turned out that, no matter how hard she tried, she wasn't able to self-impose a 'get over it' or 'move on' deadline.
So, sexy bartender or not, she'd take his offer at face value: continue her zombie-like staring out of the window, finish her drink, then leave.
'How's that contemplation going?'
Sophie jumped, surprised to hear him so close. She looked over her shoulder to see him wiping down the bar.
'Fine, thanks! Plus I've nearly finished my drink, so I'm almost out of your hair.' She held up her near-empty glass in demonstration, then turned back to her window.
'Anything you want to talk about?'
She spun around in her seat at that, ignoring the concerned look in his eyes. 'Nope!'
She gulped the rest of her martini and plonked the empty glass down a little too hard on the bar's polished surface.
The bartender raised his eyebrows. 'I've owned this bar for ten years. Trust me, I know when someone needs to talk.'
Sophie slid off the barstool, slung her handbag over her shoulder and headed for the exit. The click of her heels echoed in the near-empty room. A cleaner swept near the door, but he paused to open it for her.
She wasn't sure what she'd expected. That he'd follow her? Tell her to stop?
The fact that he did neither, and that of course he wouldn't--she was a total stranger!--made her pause.
She couldn't unload to her mother and sister. They were too quick to interject, to judge. Too desperate to give her a solution when all she wanted was someone to listen.
The temptation to talk to the bartender--a man who didn't know her, whom she was unlikely to see again--was too strong to ignore.