“No. No way. Absolutely not. Not in a million fucking years.”
I glare at sweet little Eliza Banks as she plants one hand on her hips and blinks up at me with big brown doe-eyes that could melt the paint off my Tesla. Flashing those long lashes might have other guys scrambling to give her anything she wants, but the approach is useless with me. It didn’t work when we were kids, and it sure as hell isn’t going to work now.
It’s probably going to work.
“Come on, Braxton. Help a girl out, already.”
I stare at my best friend’s kid sister as we stand in the near empty parking lot, halfway between my office complex and my car. I can hardly believe what she’s asking me to do, or how tempted I am to say yes. I’d left work tonight, beyond ready to relax this long weekend. The only things on my agenda are a few games of basketball with the guys, a midnight sail in the San Francisco Bay and a drink at my favorite Irish pub with my best bud, Derek—aka Eliza’s brother—when he gets home Sunday. The last thing I expected was getting accosted by Eliza before I could reach my car. What she’s asking me to do is so ludicrous, so asinine I’d have to be insane to agree. Which begs the question: why am I so goddamn close to saying yes. I must be out of my fucking mind.
Keep it together, Braxton.
Summoning all my willpower, a tactic born out of necessity after setting eyes on Eliza when we were teens and being warned to steer clear of her by her brother, I ask, “What part of no didn’t you get, Lizard?”
She swats at a mosquito, annoyance flashing in her gorgeous eyes as she looks up at me. “Will you for God’s sake stop calling me that? I’m not sixteen anymore.”
I’m well aware of that. At sixteen she was a cute girl with freckles spilling from her nose to her cheeks, and I had a huge crush on her. But now, at twenty-six, she’s all grown up, and sporting a sexy body full of lush curves and sweet valleys that I’d love to get my hands on…my mouth all over.
But she was hands off when we were young, and she’s hands off now. I made a vow to her brother—my goddamn best friend—never to touch her, and I don’t break my promises. I can’t blame Derek for not wanting a guy with a reputation like mine touching his kid sister. If I had a little sister, I wouldn’t let Derek touch her either. That guy has reached out and touched more women than Hallmark. Yet I’m the one making the headlines. San Francisco’s Most Eligible Bachelor. But fuck, how am I to say no to those seductive lips and pleading eyes. And when her fucking chest heaves from frustration…Christ.
“No,” I say flatly, and grab a fistful of hair as I plot the fastest path to my car. The sooner I get away from her the better. I make a move to go, but she steps in front of me and digs her heels in.
“Braxxxx…” she pleads. The space between us sparks with tension, warning me to get the hell out of there before I do all the dirty things racing around inside my brain, things that would shock a nice girl like Eliza.
“Ask someone else.” Fuck, my voice sounds like I’ve just eaten a bucket of gravel.
“It can’t be anyone else.” She moves closer and tugs on my lapels, clinging to me like I’m her lifeline. I watch the early evening sun light up the golden flecks in her eyes. Bad move. “It has to be you.”
Shit, damn and hell! I’m this close to caving and being one of those guys.
Her knuckles brush my chest, and it takes every bit of strength I possess not to back her up, press her against the wall of my office tower and kiss the living fuck out of her. “Why, Eliza?” I grumble, losing patience, mostly with myself, as her scent fills my head. I take advantage of the situation and pull in a deep breath of her. Bad move number two. “Why does it have to be me?”
“Because you’re smart, successful, a self-made millionaire and one of the hottest…” She freezes for a second, like she said too much, then continues with, “I mean you’re not bad to look at.”
I arch a brow. “Hottest?”
Her cheeks turn the prettiest shade of pink. I don’t think I’ve seen her blush before. “Uh…hottest jobs,” she explains.
Is that what she was really going to say? I don’t think so, and let’s be honest—it makes me feel way better than it should that she thinks I’m hot, but no way in hell will I let her know that—or take advantage of it. Instead, I say, “You think being CEO of New Tech Industries is a hot job?”
“Yeah, starting a tech company from your dorm room and turning into one of the world’s most successful project management businesses is hot.”
“Was that a compliment, Lizard?” I ask, purposely using her nickname to remind me this is my best friend’s sister, and that she’s never once complimented me over the years. She doesn’t even like me, and I can’t say as I blame her for that. “Trying to soften me up so I’ll agree.”
She lifts her chin. “No. Just stating a true fact.”
“You’ve done all right too, you know,” I step back a bit, putting enough space between us to get her scent out of my head. “Snatched up by Exact Inc. straight out of Stanford and now, as QA Engineer, you’re advancing the ‘art and science’ of hiring for other businesses. I’m just sorry they got to you first.” Her mouth drops open as she blinks up at me. “You might want to close your mouth, Eliza. Before you eat that fly buzzing around us.”
“But…wait, what did you just say?”
“I’m always looking for top talent.”
“You think…” She goes quiet for a second, glancing away. I can almost see the wheels turning behind her eyes, and then she frowns and shakes her head. “Wait, we’re getting off track here. Will you do it, Brax?” she asks, steering us back onto the topic at hand. “Will you help your best friend’s sister out?”
“Jesus, Eliza.” I clench down on my jaw as a gust of wind whips through the parking lot, sending loose strands of chestnut hair across her face. I curl my fingers and resist the urge to tug them away. Or better yet, drag her to me.
She huffs out her annoyance. “For crying out loud, Brax, I’m not asking to marry you, or anything ridiculous like that.”
Marrying me would be ridiculous?
“I just need you to pretend to be my…” she makes a frustrated gesture with her hands. “…significant other for a couple days. How hard could that be?”
Hard. Really fucking hard.
She glances upward and almost—not quite, but almost—rolls her eyes. “Just pretend you’re really into me.”
“Yeah, to get another guy to notice you.” I shove my hands into my pockets, click my molars together. I don’t think I like that. In fact, I know I don’t. I’ll worry about why that is later, but for now…“Do you have any idea how insane that sounds?”
She shrugs, and averts her eyes, but I catch that familiar sadness before she looks away. That sorrow takes me back in time, to when we were teens and she was always overlooked by all the guys. Jesus fucking Christ. Does she not have any idea that she was a swan then, and is a swan today? Any asshole who can’t see that doesn’t deserve her attention. No, she needs to be with a guy who will worship her, show her how beautiful she is, inside and out.
Of course, back in the day, I didn’t help matters either. I was nice to her at first, worshiped the fucking ground she walked on really, and she took that as interest—rightfully so. One night, I was hanging at her place waiting for Derek to get home from soccer practice. She was at the table struggling with a math problem. Since I was always good in math, I sat down to help her. Our legs touched beneath the table, sparking enough electricity to light up the neighborhood in a blackout…for a week straight. She felt it every bit as much as I did, which was why she acted on impulse and leaned in and kissed me.
I laughed at her. The courage that must have taken for her to do that, and I fucking laughed at her, feeding into her belief that she was an ugly duckling. I was a stupid fucking kid, and I was crazy about her, yet I couldn’t let anyone know it, especially her. So after that, I started calling her Lizard, and teasing her relentlessly. I needed her to hate me, otherwise I would have taken her to my bed and shown her just how much I wanted her.
“Brax,” she says again, quietly. “This is important to me.”
Every fucking bone inside my body softens. Yeah, okay, okay. I get it. I owe her one, but pretending to be her boyfriend, and not being able to exercise those boyfriend privileges is a special kind of torture reserved for Hell—exactly where I’ll be going I agree to this ask for boyfriend privileges.
“Shouldn’t you ask someone you don’t hate?” I shoot back, a last-ditch effort.
“Probably, but you’re perfect for the role.”
I exhale a heavy breath. “What exactly is it that you want me to do?” I hold up a hand when her face lights up. “And that doesn’t mean I’m agreeing to this.”
Who the fuck am I kidding? It means I’m agreeing.
She folds her hands in front of herself, a smile turning up the corners of her perfect mouth, because yeah, she knows it means I’m agreeing, too. The pleasure on her face, the triumph dancing in her eyes, fucks me over. Goddammit, I love that look on her, can think of another, more pleasurable way, of putting it there.
“We just have to pretend. Maybe a few touches here and there. A kiss too, possibly.” She crinkles her nose. “Although I’m not really sure it will come to that. At least I hope not.”
“We’ll set rules and boundaries. You won’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Hey, we can even write up a contract, to keep this deal professional.”
“Professional boyfriend? You make it sound sordid.”
“No, no. I didn’t mean that.”
“What did you mean?”
“Look, I just mean behind closed doors we can go back to hating each other. In front of everyone we pretend we’re lovers. Then, after we get Jason to notice me, we can have a fight about something, and I’ll break it off.”
We stand there looking at each other for a long moment, a staring contest like when we were kids. She always won those, too. I used to cave just to get a grin from her. “Fine, Eliza, I’ll do it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going be happy about it.”
She crinkles her nose. “You have to at least pretend to be happy about it if we want this to work.”
“Is this guy worth it?” I ask. I’d actually like to punch him in the face for not noticing the amazing woman standing before me. Then again, there’s a good chance I’ll punch him in the face if he does.
Oh, yeah, this ruse is going to work out just fine.
“He is. I really like him.”
“Does he know that?”
“No, we work on the same floor, but I’m not on his radar. He’s a software engineer,” she says, like that explains everything. “You know how those guys are?” she adds with a laugh.
“No, I don’t.”
“Always have their head down, lost is some code.”
I arch one brow. “You do know I’m a software engineer too, right?”
“Yeah, right…I…uh, didn’t mean that in a bad way.”
“Is that another compliment?”
“Just stating a fact.”
“You seem to be stating a lot of facts today.” The sound of footsteps approaching gains my attention, and I nod to two employees headed to their cars. I wait until they’re out of earshot before saying, “And you think if he sees you with me, he’ll finally notice you?”
“What I think is, if I show up at my boss’s estate for our annual team building weekend…” She pokes me in the chest and waggles her brows. Jesus, I wish she’d quit touching me all ready. “…with San Francisco’s Most Eligible Bachelor at my side, and he’s acting like he’s totally into me, well, that’s going to get a lot of heads bobbing.”
Especially the one between my legs.
“I’ll make it worth your while,” she says, and my cock stands up to hear more. The little bastard has his own ideas on what he’d like her to do. “I don’t expect you to do this without getting something in return.”
“Tit for tat, huh?” She has one hundred percent of my attention now. “And what exactly do you plan to give me in return?”
“What do you give a millionaire who has everything?” She taps her chin, and purses her lips.
My head spins with possible scenarios.
“Wait, I know.” Her eyes go wide. “How about I get you a date with Valerie? You remember Valerie, don’t you?”
Que the screeching breaks as my lecherous imagination skids to a halt. “Your best friend, Valerie?” I say dryly. Why wouldn’t I remember her? The two were practically joined at the hip growing up, and now both work in different departments at Exact Inc.
“You two seem to really hit it off at Becca’s wedding last month.” She nudges me. Enough with the touches, for Christ’s sake. “You couldn’t keep your eyes off her.”
A sound catches in my throat, and I feign a cough. It wasn’t Valerie I was staring at, it was Eliza, looking gorgeous, elegant and poised as she stood up for her friend in a curve-hugging, bridesmaid dress. I’d never seen her look more stunning.
“I can get my own dates.”
“Well that’s true.” She crinkles her nose again. “What do you want then?” Before I can answer, and possibly get slapped, her phone pings. “How about you think about it, and let me know later.” She fishes her phone from her purse. “It’s Valerie. You sure you don’t want that date? She’ll be at the retreat this weekend. I can talk to her about it.”
“Okay, I have to take this.” She slides her fingers across the phone, and says, “I’ll text you the directions to my boss’s place. We can meet there later tonight. He’s expecting everyone around nine.”
I step into her, and her breath catches as my eyes lock on hers, holding her captive. “I’ll pick you up, Eliza. What kind of boyfriend do you think I am, anyway?”
“I…uh…just didn’t want to put you out.”
I cup her elbow, drag her to me. “Oh, you’re putting me out. Let’s make that perfectly clear. You’re putting me out big time. But if I’m going to pretend that we’re a couple for the weekend, you can’t expect me to treat you any differently than I would a real girlfriend.”
She laughs, but it has a nervous undertone. “I know what you do with your girlfriends. The whole world does. Your antics make newspaper headlines.”
I dip my head, lock eyes with her. “Good, then we’re on the same page.”