Jared’s breath caught, held. The pencil in his hands dropped to the floor, rolled across the hardwood surface. Sheryl Crow sang about a broken heart on the jukebox, Sam said something about the quality of the coffee, and the tequila toting couple went on fighting, but Jared didn’t pay attention. He pushed his glasses up his nose, refocused, and made two hundred percent sure.
Yes, it was Callie.
She’d just walked into the bar and upset his perfectly ordered, perfectly balanced life.
He had the advantage of watching her while her eyes adjusted to the dim interior. He studied her, noting the difference nine years had made. It could have been nine days for all his heart noticed.
She’d cut her hair, and now the dark blond locks curled around her ears, framed her face, teased at her cheeks. But she still had the same delicate, fine boned face, wide green eyes, and those lips
Bright crimson lipstick danced across her lips, lips that had always seemed to beg him to kiss them, mesmerized him whenever she talked. He watched her approach, his gaze sweeping over her still lithe curves, outlined in jeans and a bright turquoise top, then returning to her face, to her mouth, and something tightened in his gut.
And Jared Townsend, who never did anything without a reason, a plan, completely forgot why he was here.
# # #
“Jared? Jared Townsend? Is that you? Oh… Wow.” She inhaled, her breasts rising with the action, along with Jared’s internal temperature. “My goodness. What a…a shock.” Callie stopped in front of him, clutching a large box to her chest, her mouth shaped in an O of surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“Uh…” His brain fired, sputtered, fired again. “Research.”
She smiled. “Let me guess. You’re trying to determine the best beer for forgetting a broken heart?”
“Coors,” Sam put in. “Best in sh-sh-show.” Then he sent the two of them a wave and headed off to the restrooms.
Jared glanced down at his icy mug. Beer hadn’t helped him get over the broken heart he’d suffered after her, but he kept that ancient history buried, didn’t talk about it or drag it out.
Only a masochist dug up a skeleton like that. But damned if his body didn’t start playing archaeologist all the same, resurrecting old feelings…and a lot more. There was nothing analytical, statistical or sensible about it. There never had been, not when it came to Callie.
Still, he reminded himself, she had hurt himand hurt him badly. If he was smart, he’d simply greet her as an old acquaintance and leave it at that.
“I’m here for work,” he told her. “Really. Even if it doesn’t look it.”
Her smile widened. “It doesn’t, except for the clipboard, which is so…you.” She shrugged, laughed a little, then started to move away. “Well, it was nice to see you again, Jared.”
Clipboard was so him? Well, damn it, maybe it was, but once upon a time she’d thought of him in a very different way.
Yeah, and how well had that ended up?
He shut off his inner voice. No matter what had happened in the past, a part of Jared wanted Callie to see he had grown and changed. Become a different man. One who wasn’t the nerdy professor she had so cavalierly left behind.
A man who couldcontrary to his plan five seconds agohave a conversation with her and be completely unaffected.
Cool with it, even.
“Callie.” She pivoted back. “Are you meeting someone here tonight?”
In the space of time it took her to answer, Jared’s heartbeat doubled. He caught his breath, waiting. And not because it would make a damned bit of difference to the sheets on his clipboard.
Tonight, he’d stepped into unfamiliar liquor-infused territory to analyze couples, to take that data, feed it into a computer, then hand the information over to Wiley Games so they could use it to develop the next generation of couple-oriented games and products. Not exactly the high end research Jared had set out to be doing after he’d received his doctoral degree, but the work at Wiley Games paid the bills and kept him in spreadsheets.
Either way, if there was one particular half of a couple he didn’t want to add to his sheaf of papers, it was Callie Phillips.
“No, I’m not meeting anyone, not tonight,” she said.
Not an answer that gave him any indication of her status. Single? Attached? No ring adorned her left hand ring finger, so she wasn’t married or engaged. What happened? Where was Tony?
…Jared waved the bartender over to them. “A margarita, on the rocks, with salt.”
Callie smiled. “You remembered?”
“I did.” He remembered a lot more than just her favorite drink, but he kept that to himself. Jared reminded himself that he and Callie had broken up for a reasonand staying broken up had been in their best interests.
She took the seat, brushing by him as she did. He inhaled, and with the breath came the light sweet floral scent of her perfume. “Thanks,” she said, when the bartender laid the drink before her.
“No problem, Callie.” O’Malley gave Jared another arched brow, this time one of appreciation that the “geek” had a beautiful woman sitting beside him. Jared tapped the clipboard and grinned. “Nothing’s sexier than statistics.”
“If you say so, buddy,” the bartender said, then headed down to the fighting couple at the other end, who were working on their second set of tequila shots before gearing up for Round Two.
“What kind of research are you doing?” Callie asked.
“Counting the number of beautiful women who come into a bar alone. I’m up to one. I think I should quit while I’m ahead.” He grinned. “Actually, it’s a questionnaire of sorts for couples. A research project for the company I’m working for.”
“It’s actually a lot more exciting once you feed all the information into a computer and start manipulating the data, using it to run statistical probabilities and forecasts. And if I get lucky, hopefully I come up with enough data to create some real, hard evidence to bring to a peer-reviewed journal. Something more respectable than the basis of the next ‘Twenty Tantalizing Bedroom Teasers.’”
“’Bedroom Teasers?’” Callie chuckled, then raised a dubious brow. “This from the man who dressed up as a biker on Halloween in college? What happened to the leather jacket? The boots? The chaps?”
“Probably shoved in a closet somewhere. I’m strictly a suit and tie guy now. No more of that crazy open road, living by the seat of my pants talk.”
His brief, one-night foray into that different persona had been a bad idea. He’d thought that by slipping on a black jacket, climbing on a Harley, he could get Callie to notice him in a way she never had in high school. She hadfor a heartbeatuntil Tony had stolen her back again, leaving Jared with an extra helmet and a lot of regrets.
No more. He wouldn’t journey that road again.
“Pity.” Callie took a sip of her drink.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She shrugged. “You were a lot of fun when you were a…well, not exactly a bad boy, but a bad-ish boy.”
“You make me sound like a five-year-old who wouldn’t obey his bedtime.”
“If I remember correctly, there wasn’t much trouble getting you to bed.” Then Callie’s face colored and she directed her attention to her drink again.
Jared remembered too. Remembered too well. One nighta night he’d never forgotten, but she had begged him to never mention again, so that she could marry Tony, with a clear conscience.
TonyJared’s former best friend. Tonythe man who had stood between them both and been everything Jared wasn’t.
And everything Callie wanted.
The memory sucker-punched Jared in the gut and he had to swallow hard before he could breathe again. He’d let Callie go, left college, leaving them behind without a second glance, because he’d thought she was better off
Had she been? Had he made the right choice?
Hell yes, he had. She would have never been happy with Jaredshe’d made that clear. Jared thought that after nine years that last night with Callie wouldn’t still sting, would have become some distant memory, fog on his past’s horizon.
But nothing about Callie Phillips was foggy in his mind. And he’d be fooling himself if he thought otherwise.