Mack Douglas wondered some days if Alexandra Kenner even knew he was a man.
She had never looked at Mack the way other women did. Virtually every woman Mack had ever known noticed he was made up of testosterone. Some flirted, some just smiled. Others made their interest quite clear by a shifting of cleavage, a bold invitation to dinner or an even bolder invitation to bed, but Alex
Alex saw him as a friend. The ugly, curse of death, F word.
Right now, she was swimming laps in his inground pool, her sleek body streaking back and forth in the bright sunshine, while she worked off a broken heart. Earlier that afternoon she’d told him all about how Edwardor the Evil One, as Mack had come to think of himhad turned out to be married. The bastard had been two-timing his wife and Alex.
Some men, Mack decided, just didn’t need to live. And Mack didn’t really need to hear the details either, not from Alex.
Especially not while she was wearing a bikini.
She flipped over, the water sluicing down her skin. He bit back a groan. Shifted from foot to foot. Kept his mouth shut about the effect she was having on him. Again.
He’d never told Alex how he felt. To her, he was just Mack. He always had been. They’d been friends forever, since he saved her from a bee in first grade and in turn, she’d given him something to look forward to every morning.
Alex had changed his life when she’d moved next door and become his friend, and he, she’d told him many times, had changed hers. For twenty-two years he’d also seen her as just that
Someone to tell his problems to. Another e-mail on his list to forward that one about the priest and the monkey that went into the bar. The first one he’d call when he scored Red Sox box seats, the last one he’d call at the end of a date when the woman had turned out to think she was the descendant of Marv the Martian.
Then, somewhere along the way, Mack had started to notice Alex. Notice the way she breathed. The scent of her perfume. The shape of her hips, her breasts.
And he stopped thinking of her in friendly terms.
It had been, however, a one-sided thought road. For a guy, there were days when that particular avenue was pure agony. Like today.
Alex stopped swimming. “Have you heard a single word I’ve said in the last ten minutes?”
“Of course,” he lied, watching her float on her back in the pool, her breasts poking up in the water, two very enticing flotation devices. Ever since she’d slipped into a swimsuit, his concentration had gone southand stayed south.
“Uh-huh. So what did I just say?”
“That all men are the scum of the earth. And Edward is king of the scum pond.”
Alex laughed. “Close enough.” She rolled over onto her stomach, swam across the pool, her strokes even and smooth. Then she hoisted herself out of his in-ground pool and Mack had to remember to breathe.
The water cascaded over her breasts, running like a waterfall down every inch of her luscious curves, shimmering along her tiny waist, the curve of her hips, as she climbed up the ladder, then onto the concrete. She swung her long brown hair to one side, squeezed the water out of it, completely unaware of what such a movement made the rest of her body do in that teeny tiny hot pink bikini.
Mack swallowed. Grabbed the beer beside him and knocked back half.
“Thanks, Mack,” Alex said, finally grabbing a towel and wrapping it around herself, taking away the best parts from his sight. “I needed that.”
I did, too.
With a sigh, he put the beer down. “My pool is open, anytime.”
“Despite the fact that you listen about as well as a fencepost,” she said, grinning, “I appreciate the invitation to come over today. I needed to get as far away from Edward as possible. And I always love your house. To find the best house on the corner, look for the one owned by the carpenter.”
“One of these days, you’ll let me build you one.”
“When I have a need for more than one bedroom.” She sat down on the lounge chair and he found himself starting to pray.
Take off the towel and lay back, go for a tan.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do after that whole thing with Edward,” Alex said. “What kind of guy proposes to a woman while he’s still married to someone else?”
“Well, he did say he was separated.” Mack figured he’d stand up for his kind, at least a little. Though a big part of him wanted to find Edward, rip the guy’s guts out and feed them to the nearest carnivorous animal.
“Separated is not divorced, Mack. You know that. Did you date other women when you were married?”
He winced. Why’d Alex have to bring that topic up? If there was one door to his past that Mack preferred to keep bolted shut, it was the one holding the memories of his short-lived marriage. “You know I didn’t cheat. I might have sucked at being a husband, but I never ran around on Samantha. And,” Mack said, drawing in a breath, “as Forrest Gump would say, that’s all I want to say about that.”
“Are you ever going to talk about it with me?”
“I thought we were best friends.”
“We are. Which is why I’ll keep my nightmares in my own bedroom.” He grinned. “No sense keeping you up at night pacing the halls in your fuzzy slippers, now is there?”
“Mack, that’s what friends are for. To be there and hear the good, the bad and the ugly.”
“Wanna have a sleepover and find out for sure?” Mack said. Only half kidding.
Alex rolled her eyes. “You are incorrigible.”
“Which is why I’m divorced. What’s Edward’s excuse?”
“Don’t ask me. Frankly, I think he was hedging his bets.” Alex’s face reddened with renewed anger. “He had the gall to tell me his wife thought they were ‘working things out.’ He still goes to counseling with her every Tuesday, for God’s sake. Yet, all this time he’s been living with me and just happened to forget to mention that he was married. You don’t just forget a wife.”
“You do if it’s convenient for getting you the next one. Sort of like keeping a spare tire in the back of your pick-up for emergencies.”
“I am not a spare tire.” Alex blew a lock of hair out of face with a gust and shot him a glare. “Why are men such jerks?”
That word got Mack’s attention. Reminded him that he had descended into the depths of jerk-dom by standing there, praying for Alex to take off the towel so that he could sneak a peek at her body again. Some friend that made him. He sank onto the lounge chair beside her, handing Alex a second, opened beer. “Because we have very tiny brains and we tend to keep them behind our zippers.”
Alex laughed. “Seriously.”
Mack shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s hard to think with this tiny brain.”
He wasn’t exaggerating, either, given that most of his thoughts right now were running down another track entirely, and being dictated by the brain behind his zipper. Clearly, given his past relationship record and present thought patterns, he shouldn’t be the spokesperson for the male population. He didn’t exactly make them look good.
Nor was he any better at commitment than Edward. At least Edward had stayed married. Ever since Mack’s single failed attemptwhich lasted only slightly longer than the average Hollywood marriageMack had steered clear of marriageas clear as one man could steer of the institution. He’d sooner put his head through a cross-cut shredder than repeat that mistake.
Alex sighed. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is meet one nice guy. Why is that so hard?”
“Why do you want to?” Mack said, leaning forward, propping his elbows on his knees. “I mean, aren’t you working hard on becoming reporter of the year over there at the City Times? Why bother adding in the complication of a relationship?”
He, for one, couldn’t imagine that kind of future, not in a million years. He’d learned his lessonthe bachelor life was the best one for him. No one to answer to, no one to wonder why he came home from work late. No one to question a damned thing he did, which was why he now stuck to the kind of relationship where he got in quick, got out quicker.
Even if lately all that had begun to feel as empty as a light beer. Was he missing out on some secret the rest of the world knew and he didn’t? Or was he just having some kind of weird male hormonal thing?
Probably a vitamin B deficiency. Yeah, that was it.
Alex put the beer aside. “How long have you known me, Mack?”
“And in all that time, did I ever have a normal family? Parents? A Golden Retriever? Hell, I couldn’t have paid Oliver Twist to change places with me as a little kid, at least until I went to live with my grandmother. Most kids dream of a pony for Christmas. Me, I just wanted…” Alex drew in a breath, looked away for a moment, making Mack’s chest tighten in sympathy, because he knew the moment that had changed Alex’s life, the day when everything went downhill. Then she straightened and became her sassy self again. “Well, who wants to be Oliver Twist anyway? Annie was the one who ended up with Daddy Warbucks.” She grinned.
“And the dog, don’t forget the dog.” At the mention of the three-letter word, Mack’s mutt, Chester, got to his feet and padded over to them, tongue lolling, tail wagging. His whole body shaking with include-me-in-this, too. The tan dog was a mess of breeds, long ears, a short tail, and a squat, barrel body.
Alex bent down and patted Chester. He looked up at her with complete adoration, his tail whipping like helicopter rotors. “Look at him. Anyone else would have called this dog a lost cause, but not you.”
“Are you saying my dog is ugly?”
“He’s not a Yorkie pup, let me put it that way.” Alex rubbed Chester’s ears and he let out a doggie groan. For the first time since he’d rescued Chester from behind a Dumpster on a construction site a year ago, Mack was jealous of his own dog. “But he’s cute.”
“Like his owner?”
Alex laughed. “Since when do you fish for compliments?”
Since he’d started wondering what Alex thought of him. Since Alex started paying more attention to his dog than him. “Hey, I’m a guy. My ego is always in a fragile state.”
Alex’s laughter deepened. “Nothing about you is fragile, Mack.” She scratched Chester under the chin and the dog flopped onto the ground, offering up his belly for the same manual adoration.
Mack swallowed hard. He would have started eating Alpo just to trade places with his dog. “Well, just having a dog doesn’t mean your life is on the right track.”
A dog hadn’t filled in all the gaps. Hadn’t helped quiet the continual craving in Mack’s gut for somethingwhat, he didn’t knowbut something he was missing. Like a platter that wasn’t on his personal buffet. He’d tried everything in his life to find that dish, but it hadn’t worked.
Maybe he just needed a vacation. A break from the mundaneness of work. Yeah. A couple weeks on a beach, and he’d get this…this sense of dissatisfaction out of his system. And maybe shed this constant want for what he couldn’t have, too.
Chester spied a squirrel in the yard and scrambled after it. Alex sat back and let out a sigh. “I have almost everything I ever wanted, career-wise, and what I don’t have, I can get myself. I can make that part of my life work like a watch, but when it comes to relationships, I’ve got two black thumbs. I’d just like something, or rather, someone, that’s normal in my life.”
“You’ve got me.”
She laughed. “You, my hulking friend, are far from normal.” Alex leaned back, turned her face up to meet the summer sun. “I’m serious. All these years, I’ve been dating, and it’s the same old story. Single woman in the city finding jerk number seven hundred and sixty two. I want a change. I want a man like me.”
Mack arched a brow. “Like you?”
“Someone who wants to cut through the crap of a relationship, be honest and maybe…I don’t know, settle down, at least for a little while. Except…” Alex paused.
“The whole idea of settling down scares the crap out of you?”
“Yeah.” She laughed. “I guess we’re two of a kind that way, aren’t we?”
“Absolutely. I wouldn’t come within a hundred yards of an altar again if you paid me.” He’d learned his lesson there. Should have been smart enough not to even attempt it in the first place. He wasn’t cut out for the stifling blanket of marriage, and had made Samantha’s life miserable.
He knew, because she’d told him. A thousand times. Then she’d slammed the door so hard it had cracked the jamb. The next time he’d seen her had been across the table in her attorney’s office.
“But I’m ready to take a chance now,” Alex said. “Be a grown-up.”
He laughed. “A grown-up? Now that sounds boring.”
“What’s boring is the dating rat race. I am so sick of it. I’m D-O-N-E. I want a solid, stable relationship.”
He mocked a yawn, teasing her. “How fun is that?”
“Is it so unusual to want a man who comes home when he says he will? Give me one dependable guy who doesn’t think honesty is a sexually transmitted disease, and I’ll be happy for the rest of my life.”
Mack thought about that for a second. In his current role as representative of the male population, he made all men look like hedonistic liars. Okay, so some of them were. Hell, he’d been known to have a few of those tendencies once in a while.
Maybe more than once in a while.
“So, what are you going to do if you find this needle in the X-Y haystack?” Mack asked.
Alex raised and dropped one bare shoulder. Mack’s hand curled tighter around his beer. The cold glass was no substitute for the warm skin a few feet away.
“Maybe,” she said. “I might even fall in love.”
He grinned. “I’d say you have the falling in love part down pat.”
She leaned over and smacked him. “Thanks a lot.”
When she moved like that, Mack had to grab his beer so he wouldn’t stare down her bikini top again. Why couldn’t Alex wear a one-piece, like other women? Why did that damned towel have to keep slipping?
She drew in a breath, raising her breasts. Up. Down. Up. Down. “What would you say if I told you I even considered getting married?”
He put a hand over his mouth, feigning shock. “I’d probably faint.”
“Well, I did. I know, I know, next to you, I’m one of the most commitment phobic people out there. But for a second there, when Edward proposed, it didn’t sound as scary as I thought it would. Until I found out he was married.” She wagged a finger in Mack’s direction. “Then I wanted to kill him.”
“Good thing you didn’t. It’s kind of hard to meet Mr. Right when you’re sitting on death row.”
She stuck out her tongue at him. Ten years ago, he’d have found that funny. Now it made him want her. Wanted to capture that tongue in his mouth, curl his own around hers. His groin tightened and his pulse began to thunder in his temples. Damn, he needed a datewith someone other than Alex.
“Edward may have been a jerk, but he made me think. Maybe it is time I grew up, settled down. Became a big girl. But no kids. That’s not me. Definitely not me.” A shadow fell over her face and she looked away. Mack’s heart broke for her all over again. He reached out a hand in Alex’s direction, but she was too far away for him to touch.
Always too far. Always drawing into herself, away from him, from everyone.
Oh, Alex, he thought, will you ever forgive yourself?
Then she straightened, and the shadow washed away, replaced by her normal sunny countenance. “But marriage sounds…nice,” she went on. “Like that one dessert I never tasted in the restaurant, but everyone tells me is really great.” A sweet, slow smile took over her face, a smile that socked him in the gut.
Holy mother of God. He needed to find a wayif only for his own peace of mindto get Alex out of sight. Then maybe he could forget her. Move on. Think about other women for a change. Women who didn’t want the kind of permanence Alex had just described. The kind that caused his throat to swell, his chest to constrict. No way was he going to voluntarily sign up for the kind of pain patrol his father and best friend were already walking. The kind of pain he’d already experienced. Only an idiot put his head in the guillotine twice.
But he also wasn’t going to keep on flogging himself with Alex’s presence, either. “What if, uh, what if I helped you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Helped you find a man. One who isn’t a jerk? Who actually has more than one brain cell and walks without dragging his knuckles on the ground?”
She laughed. “You mean you’d help me find my happy ending? Get this Cinderella a prince?”
He nodded. Told himself it would be a happy ending all around. Alex would finally be loved the way she deserved to be loved, and he’d stop wanting something he couldn’t have.
Because as much as he cared about Alexand if there was ever a person in his life he had cared about more than himself, it was Alexthere was one thing he refused to do.
Screw up their friendship.
All his life, Mack had protected Alex. Taken care of her. Drawn her under his bigger wing and sheltered her from the storms of middle school, bad prom dates, and most of all, the scars left by her childhood. He couldn’t go into a relationship with her now, knowing full well he’d never be able to give her what she wanted, needed and deserved.
Mack might be a cad, but he wasn’t one who would ever put his own baser needs ahead of Alex’s basic needs.
“You’d really do that?” she asked. “The man who once made a speecha very convincing speech, I might addto a roomful of beer-swilling buddies comparing marriage to Alcatraz, only without the perks of prison?”
“That was years ago.”
“Try six months, Mack.”
“I never said I was considering getting married again.” He shuddered. “I’m simply being a good friend.”
Alex snorted. “And what’s in it for you?”
“You’d quit bugging me, for one.”
“I don’t bug you.” She considered the statement. “Okay, maybe I do. I am here an awful lot.”
He tipped his beer her way. “Proves my point.” And every time she was at his house, in his pool, in his living room, the torture of her presence only became more agonizing. For five seconds today, he’d thought maybejust maybehe and Alex could give it a shot. Then she’d blown that plan out of the water with her announcement that she was looking to settle down. Get married.
If he’d been a betting man, he’d have laid twenty to one odds Alex would have been the last to fall to the marriage bug. But fall she had and he had no intentions of succumbing too.
Not even for Alex. He’d seen firsthand how promising forever and ever could explode and disintegrate into something far afield from what people imagined on their wedding day. He’d stick to himself, and his dog, thankyouverymuch, and avoid the unhappy ending. Why sign up for the inevitable?
He only prayed Alex would end up different. Because she was worth much better. She was worth a man who would love her without reservation. Without strings.
And then, he could finally quiet this fascination with her. Go back to being just friends. Because as much as he wanted Alex
He wanted her friendship far more.
“Why should I trust your taste in men?” Alex asked.
“What’s made your track record so good?”
He grinned. “Listen. I’m a guy. I think like a guy. Which means I can weed out the psychopaths, the sex fiends and the addicts looking for a mommy.”
“If you do that, you won’t have any friends left.” She gave him a teasing smile.
Mack’s chest tightened. He took another swig of beer. “I’ll find someone normal.” Someone boring. Someone who wouldn’t turn her on, make her into the sex kitten he suspected she could be
Okay, not going down the right mental path. Mack reined in his thoughts and tried again. “A man you can bring home to grandma and still enjoy waking up with every morning.”
Though the thought of Alex waking up with anyone else nearly made Mack crack his beer bottle in half. All the more reason to get her fixed up and fixed up fast.
She thought a minute, chewing on her bottom lip. Mack watched, fascinated, as her bright white teeth tugged on the crimson skin. Damn, it was hot out here. “All right. I’ll try it your way.” Alex turned her dazzling smile on him, the one that made it almost impossible for Mack to think straight. “If all works out, then I’ll get married and finally get out of your hair. And even better, I’ll finally stay out of your pool. After all, what are friends for, if not for setting you up?”
She grinned, then slipped off the towel and laid back on the lounge chair, totally oblivious to the effect she and that slim excuse for a swimsuit had on him.
Mack groaned inwardly and guzzled the rest of his beer. He shot to his feet. Alex was right. The best thing he could do was introduce her to a man who would marry her.
Alex was never going to see him as anything other than a friend, the guy she leaned on when things got tough, the one she confided in, the shoulder she cried on. For so long, he hadn’t minded filling that role, but now
Now, damn it, he did.
And at the same time, he needed her to do the same for him. What we have here, Douglas, is a hell of a conundrum.
“It’s a deal,” he said. “I’ll find a Mr. Perfect for you.”
Then he stripped off his shirt and dove headfirst into the deep end, trying to get away from her and the fantasies that bikini conjured up.
Trouble was, he suspected he was already way over his head with Alex.