The Girl Most Likely
By Donna Alward
No one wants to take a risk on The Girl Most Likely To Have Fun…except the one person in the world she’d rather not ask.
Katie Buick dreams of opening her own niche restaurant, but finding a financial backer for a reformed party girl is proving impossible. Until she makes a final desperate plea to Ric Emerson, former geek and high school friend turned successful businessman. Too bad they haven’t spoken since she humiliated him before their prom. The last thing she expects is for him to say yes, or for him to have made such a complete transformation from old friend to heartthrob. But she learned the hard way that nothing good comes from mixing business with pleasure.
Ric knows Katie’s idea is brilliant, and with his business acumen and her work ethic, they’re sure to be a success. Building the business brings Ric and Katie closer together. Chemistry still simmers between them, blurring the lines between personal and professional despite their best intentions. Ric trusts Katie to make their business a success, but can he trust her with his heart a second time?
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A slow song came on the radio, and when Ric smiled at her, Katie’s resolve faltered. Don’t ask me to dance, she prayed.
He held out a hand and she didn’t know what to do. Her hesitation must have been obvious because Ric looked at her meaningfully and cajoled, “It’s just a dance, Katie. We’ve done it before.”
Of course. At the country club. They’d been teenagers and two out of a handful of young people there. Occasionally, they’d be pressed into dancing. It hadn’t been unpleasant. But Ric hadn’t raised her temperature then, not as he did now.
She put her hand in his and her body shivered as he took her into his arms. He pressed his hand against her waist, drawing her closer as they circled the floor with tiny steps. Beat by beat, all her resolve melted until she leaned into him and rested her head lightly on his right shoulder. He brought their hands in so they touched his chest, and she felt the erratic beating of his heart against her fingers. His body was warm and hard, and for the first time in years, Katie felt secure in another’s arms, like she was cherished and protected.
There was a knock at the door and she sighed. What in the world was someone doing here now? Looking out the Judas hole she saw Ric standing there in his ever-present dark suit. She slid the chain back from the door and opened it.
“Hi,” she said, holding the edge of the door with her right hand.
“Hi yourself. Sorry I missed today. We had an accident on the site and I had to be there. Brought you a present, though.” He was all charm and goodwill as he smiled down at her and her annoyance melted away. Briefly, she resented the fact that he could do that to her with only a smile.
“Come in,” she offered, but it came out with little warmth.
“You look exhausted. How did it go?” He stepped into the dining area and put a bottle of champagne on the table as well as a plastic bag.
“We were busy. Really busy,” she added and couldn’t help but give a little laugh of wonder. “I’m beat, but we did okay. The place was packed at lunch.”
“Congratulations. I knew you could do it.”
“Not without your backing.” She folded her hands in front of her. He would show up while she looked a fright. Oh well. She was too tired to be overly concerned about her appearance.
Ric stepped forward, close enough she smelled his expensive cologne. Close enough she could reach out and touch him.
“All you needed was money and a little direction. All the hard work, the vision, was you, Katie.” He tucked a piece of hair behind her ear and her pulse leaped as his fingers grazed her neck.
“I knew I could do it, but I’d hear all the voices of people telling me I was crazy and I’d start doubting.”
“Of course you did. You’re human.” He dropped his hand and put it in his pocket. “But you carried on, followed through.”
His gaze delved deeply into hers as he offered her the one thing she desperately needed.
“I’m proud of you, Katie.”
Tears stung her eyes and she looked down. Not once had someone given her those words, such unqualified validation. Her throat swelled and she didn’t trust herself to speak.
“Was that patronizing? I didn’t mean it to be. I am proud of you. It takes a lot to rise above your insecurities and build something from the beginning.”
She cleared her throat. “Like you did?”
He smiled then, and the warmth of it snuggled around her.
“I’m glad you noticed. I admire your determination. I know it’s not easy. But I didn’t mean to make you cry.” He tilted up her chin with a finger.
“It’s okay,” she replied, taking a deep breath and shaking off his hand, showing him she was fine. “I got a little emotional. I’m tired and it’s been a long day. You run on adrenaline so long and then when it’s gone, you sort of lose it.”
“I should have realized.” He stepped away, gesturing lamely at the table. “I brought champagne and fruit, thinking we could celebrate, but you’re clearly not in the mood for it.”
The thought of kicking back with some high-quality bubbly and Ric had a certain appeal. But Katie was sure that after a glass or two, she’d do something stupid like let down her guard and, at the very least, kiss him again, or let him touch her the way he’d started to the other night.
“Thanks for understanding. Right now all I want is a bath and bed.”
Liar, her inner voice taunted. Her cheeks colored as her innocent words took on an intimate meaning. His eyes pinned her for a long moment and she tucked her fingers into her palms to keep from reaching out to him.
“Why don’t you sit down, and let me take care of everything,” he suggested. He took her arms and pushed her down on to the sofa again. “Relax and give me ten minutes.”
She narrowed her eyes, suspicious. “What are you up to?”
“I left you to shoulder the burden of opening day. Now I’m being a good business partner and trying to make up for it.”
He disappeared into the bathroom and seconds later, she heard water running and a cupboard door opening and closing. The sound of the water filling the tub had a rhythmic quality and her eyes grew heavy as she listened.
Ric came back to the living room and looked around for a moment.
“Nice flowers,” he commented, looking at a bouquet of red roses on the table.
“From Dad and Mom. They sent them today as a congratulations.”
“May I?” He hovered his fingers over a few scarlet blossoms and Katie nodded, wary. What was he going to do with roses?
Sleepy, she burrowed into the cushions and dozed, dimly aware of Ric rummaging through her kitchen. It seemed like only seconds later when he gently shook her shoulder.
“Katie,” he murmured, and she opened her eyes.
He was leaning over her and desire pierced her. She fought the urge to grab the end of his tie and pull him down on top of her where he belonged.
Instead, he straightened and held out a hand. “Your bath awaits.”
Her heart began to pound as she took his hand and let him lead her down the hall. What had he done in her tiny bathroom? And was he seducing her? It was hard to tell with Ric…he was all long looks and light touches. With all the desire snapping between them like sparks, she wasn’t sure what he wanted or expected tonight. She wasn’t sure what she wanted or expected, either.
Katie turned the corner into the bathroom and caught her breath.
Three thick candles sat on the dark-green vanity, their flickering light reflected in the mirror. The calming scent of her lavender bath salts wafted on the moist air and she saw rose petals floating on the water. Her white clothes hamper was pulled close to the edge of the tub, an empty glass and small plate of strawberries and grapes arranged on its top. While her mouth hung open, Ric stepped ahead, undid the wrapper at the top of the bottle and deftly popped the cork. He filled the single glass half-full and put the bottle on the floor beside the hamper.
Turning, he met her wide-eyed gaze and she wondered frantically what came next—what she wanted to happen or what she knew should happen.
He took one step, then another, and a third that took him to her side. “Get some rest,” he whispered, reaching out to squeeze her forearm and dropping the merest hint of a kiss on her cheek.
He left her there in the bathroom, alone with the warm scents and dusky stillness. Still shocked, she heard the front door shut behind him and she let out a gigantic breath.
He’d done all this for her, expecting nothing in return. Wasn’t that a novel thing, now? A half smile curved her lips. Rose petals and champagne and candles. She peeled off her camisole top and slid out of her pajama pants. Dipping one toe in the water, she watched the circles move away from her foot, making the petals rise and fall on the tiny waves. She got all the way in and reached for the champagne, sampled a strawberry.
And wished she were a stronger woman. Because God help her, she was wishing Ric had never walked out that door tonight, and that wasn’t good.
While bestselling author Donna Alward was busy studying Austen, Eliot and Shakespeare, she was also losing herself in the breathtaking stories created by romance novelists like LaVyrle Spencer, Judith McNaught, and Nora Roberts. Several years after completing her degree she decided to write a romance of her own and it was true love! Five years and ten manuscripts later she sold her first book and launched a new career. While her heartwarming stories of love, hope, and homecoming have been translated into several languages, hit bestseller lists and won awards, her very favorite thing is when she hears from happy readers.
Donna lives on Canada’s east coast with her family which includes a husband, a couple of kids, a senior dog and two crazy cats. When she’s not writing she enjoys reading (of course!), knitting, gardening, cooking…and is a Masterpiece Theater addict. You can visit her on the web at www.DonnaAlward.com and join her mailing list at www.DonnaAlward.com/newsletter .