Tate Grayson drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, barely resisting the urge to curse. He prided himself on having an easygoing attitude, but after moving maybe a quarter mile in forty-five minutes, even his masterful patience had just about deserted him.
He dropped his head against the headrest and sighed. He lived in Dallas. Traffic delays were nothing new, and there was nothing he could do about it. He needed to chill.
Too bad his SUV was a freaking sauna. The air-conditioning was turned up to arctic blast, but it was still no match for the scorching Texas sun. Or his frustration with his parents, who’d called right before he left his place. His parents, who’d combined for five marriages, were going for lucky number six.
With each other this time.
“Aren’t you happy for us?” his mom had asked, her giddiness practically leaping through the phone.
Happy for them?
Yeah, right. Since he was a kid, he’d watched them make a mockery of marriage in their quest to find that all-consuming love delusional singers were always wailing about. No, he wasn’t happy. Not even close.
Damn. That was enough thinking about that.
His eyes flicked to the clock on the dashboard. Provided traffic started moving soon, he should get to work on time. Only two blocks to go. He needed to be patient.
The song on the radio wasn’t helping his nerves though. He loved hip hop as much as the next guy, but if he heard one more song auto-tuned to cover up the artist’s vocal shortcomings, he was going to lose it.
And didn’t that make him sound like a grumpy, old man?
He cringed as the artist “hit” another note.
Screw it. He pressed a button on the radio panel, changing the station to WTLK, the premier talk radio station in Dallas. A woman’s voice, thankfully not auto-tuned to within an inch of its life, greeted him.
He’d never admit it to anyone, but he occasionally tuned in to Noelle Knows, Dr. Noelle Butler’s show. Not for her opinions, which were typical if-your-man-loved-you, he’d-be-willing-to-do-whatever-you-ask, love-conquers-all mumbo jumbo. He wasn’t a relationship guy. He liked to keep his liaisons free and easy, but he had to admit it was a pleasure listening to her voice, which was smooth as caramel with a hint of smoke. Sexy. The kind he liked to hear whispering in his ear while he made love to its owner.
Too bad he’d met her in real life. Many times. The reality didn’t live up to the hype.
Noelle was a certified pain in his ass. She thought she knew everything. He was pretty sure she lived to frown her never-ending disapproval at him. She was the one who needed to chill. Shirts always buttoned up to her neck even in the middle of a heat wave. Never a hair out of place. But whatever. He didn’t care about her. He just wanted her voice to distract him from the fact that he knew the beat-up red pickup truck in front of him had thirty-two dents in its bumper and tailgate. Because he’d counted them. Twice.
“…sports aren’t that important.”
Wait. What did she say? Was she crazy? He jerked the volume dial to the right.
“If your needs aren’t being met, tell your husband that sacrificing everything for a game isn’t what’s best for your family.”
“But he loves sports.” The female caller sounded uncertain and frustrated. “He says I should accept his hobby and stop nagging him.”
“Nagging?” Noelle replied. “Ridiculous. This is what I know. It’s not your fault, Kelly. Let me guess. He comes home from work, plops down on the couch, turns on the TV, and watches ESPN for the next five hours. Sports aren’t that important, certainly not enough to take precedence over everything else in his life.”
Tate glared at the radio. What did Noelle know about sports? Probably nothing, and yet she felt qualified to give advice on the matter. He knew firsthand how important sports were. Growing up with parents who’d treated marriage like a game and hadn’t give much thought to making their only child’s life stable, sports had offered the steadiness he craved.
Feeling a day’s worth of frustration boiling over, he wrenched his cell phone from his right hip pocket and stabbed at the 1.
“WTLK, how can I help you?”
Good. Matt had answered. The phone screener thought Tate was the coolest thing since the iPad.
“Hey, man, it’s Tate. I want to talk to Noelle.”
“Umm…I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Come on,” Tate cajoled. “I need to talk to her. I’ll owe you one. Give her a fake name.”
Matt sighed. “Okay.”
Tate turned down the radio to avoid the earsplitting feedback that would occur when Noelle came on the line.
“Let’s go to Mark from Dallas. He wanted to weigh in on the last call. So, Mark, what do you think?” Noelle asked in his ear.
“Actually, it’s Tate Grayson,” he answered, working to keep his voice calm. She’d be more likely to see his point if he didn’t loudly hammer home his arguments like he wanted to do. “I heard you talking about how unimportant sports are, and you couldn’t be more wrong. Sports teach leadership, teamwork, hard work, and dedication. You’re not doing your caller any favors by dismissing sports and telling her what she wants to hear.”
“I never tell my listeners what they want to hear. I tell them what they need to hear, Mr. Grayson,” Noelle replied.
Her controlled tone only pissed him off even more. “She didn’t need to hear what you said since you were wrong,” he said through clenched teeth.
“I’m sorry you feel that way. This might come as a surprise to you, but everyone doesn’t live and breathe sports. Some of us find them mind-numbingly dull and a complete waste of time. Which they are in this case. Thank you for calling.”
He stared at his phone, his mouth hanging open in equal doses of shock and anger. Had she really hung up on him?
A car horn blared. Tate jerked his head up. The truck that had been a foot in front of him for the past fifty minutes was now at least twenty feet ahead. He tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and pressed his foot on the gas. He had to get to work. Setting Dr. Noelle straight would have to wait till later.
“For those of you interested in sports, The Tate Grayson Show is coming up at the top of the hour. This is what I know. I’ve enjoyed the last three hours. Thanks for spending them with me. I’m Noelle Butler. Talk to you tomorrow.”
When she heard her show’s peppy jingle in her ear, Noelle stood and yanked her headphones off, wincing when they snagged a strand of her hair. One more thing she could blame on Tate Grayson. She smoothed her hair back into place and glared at Matt through the window separating the studio from the phone screening room. The turncoat simply shrugged.
A muffled snicker reached her from across the studio. She turned to the left where her producer and best friend, Caitlin, sat. “What’s so funny?”
“The look on your face when Tate identified himself. I didn’t realize eyes could roll that fast.”
“Yeah, well. I can’t believe he called in.” She held up a hand. “Actually, you know what? Yes, I can. That loudmouth is always doing something impulsive. At least I kept my cool.”
Caitlin shot her a look. “You hung up on him.”
Ignoring the pang of guilt that tried to wiggle its way into her heart, Noelle busied herself by tidying her stack of show notes. “I did not. I ended the call at the appropriate time, that’s all. He can talk about how sports cure all of society’s ails during his own show.”
“Tsk, tsk. Sarcasm kills, you know,” Caitlin said.
Noelle pressed a hand to her chest and opened her eyes wide. “Who, me? I’m innocent of all charges.”
She met Caitlin’s eyes and burst into laughter, tension melting out of her shoulders. She welcomed the release. Ending her show on a contentious note wasn’t how she wanted to finish the day. Regardless, she stood by what she’d said. Sports weren’t the be all, end all like Tate believed. They were fine, but too much of anything could be a problem. She knew firsthand, unfortunately. Noelle bent down for her tote. “We’re set for tomorrow, right?”
“Yes. The same meeting we hold every morning at nine,” Caitlin said.
Noelle rose and returned her producer’s rueful smile. “I know I’m crazy. I can’t help that I like everything to be orderly.”
“I know. That’s why I love you.”
“I love you, too, even if you’re laughing at me.”
“That’s what friends are for.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s go.” Noelle stuffed her notes in the tote and followed Caitlin out of the studio and down the hall.
“I know you’ll be working tonight, but be sure to take a break at eight,” Caitlin said.
“Duh. I have to watch The Real Housewives.”
“Strictly for research purposes,” they both said solemnly before turning to each other and laughing.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Caitlin said, stopping at the bathroom door. “I need to make a pit stop.”
“Okay.” Noelle continued on her way. She reached the elevator and pressed the down button. While she waited, her mind turned to the next day’s show. She’d read an article in American Psychologist about couples only staying married for their children’s sakes she wanted to discuss. Noelle frowned. Speaking of marriage, she hoped her caller Kelly could resolve her issues with her husband.
A few seconds later, the elevator bell dinged and the doors slid open. She took an automatic step forward, only to run smack-dab into someone rushing out. The impact sent her stumbling back. Muscular arms wrapped around her waist, preventing her from falling on her butt. Her nose buried in a hard chest, she was enveloped in a circle of masculinity by someone who smelled delicious, a wonderful mix of pine and soap. A whisper of awareness curled in her stomach.
“Sorry,” they said simultaneously.
Noelle froze. She knew that velvety-smooth voice. It belonged to her last caller of the day. Tate stepped back as quickly as she did. An arrogant grin graced his face, one that unfortunately matched his voice in excellence. Twinkling, rich amber eyes that said he was always having a good time. Full lips, the bottom one plumper. A firm, rounded jaw. Chestnut-colored skin.
“Can’t keep your hands off me, can you, Doctor?”
Please. Noelle rolled her eyes. She peered at her watch, then shifted her gaze to him. “Wow, you’re early. You’ve got two whole minutes before your show starts. Way to be responsible.”
His grin disappeared. “Shit.” He took off, sprinting down the hall.
She shook her head and entered the empty elevator. She was sure it wasn’t the first time he’d been late and probably wouldn’t be the last. But he wasn’t her priority. Making Noelle Knows the premier relationship/love advice talk show in the Dallas/Fort Worth area was.
The elevator deposited her in the building lobby, and she made her way outside to her brand-new hybrid sedan. It wasn’t fancy schmancy like Tate’s showy, gas-hog SUV parked in the next space, but she loved it. The heavenly new-car smell hit her as soon as she slid in. Settling in the seat, she turned on the radio. Of course, because she was a loyal employee if nothing else, WTLK poured from the speakers.
“Welcome to The Tate Grayson Show.” Tate didn’t sound winded at all. Hmmph. “I’m Tate…”
“The Great,” his sidekick, Bobby Matthews, chimed in.
“Grayson,” Tate finished the sentence.
“Tate ‘The Late,’” Noelle muttered. Tate and Bobby went through that whole charade each time they returned from a commercial break.
“We have a great show lined up for you today,” Tate continued. “As the Cowboys get ready to head to training camp, we’ll discuss whether or not they’re Super Bowl contenders. Speaking of playoffs, what about the Texas Rangers? They’ve played well the first half of the season, but can they win a tough division and make the postseason? I want to hear what you have to say.”
“Tate, we have breaking news,” Bobby said.
“We all knew Daryl Rhodes was getting divorced. Now we know why. Photos of a man who appears to be Daryl and two women, neither his wife, caught in a delicate situation were leaked and are all over the gossip sites.”
Her hand hovering over the dial, Noelle waited to see how Tate would respond. Would he steer the conversation back to what athletes were doing on the field, or would he turn into a gossip hound?
“You know how I feel about athletes getting married, Bobby.”
Question answered. Curious about his oh-so-expert opinion on the matter, Noelle let her hand fall away.
“Rhodes shouldn’t have gotten married. No athletes should. No man should. Why give up all that freedom? Nothing can come of it but heartache or a boring existence. Who wants to live that way with nothing new or exciting on the horizon?”
Was he crazy? What did he know about relationships? As far as she knew, he’d never been serious about a woman. Their office gossip pool was deep. If Tate Grayson had a girlfriend, it would take a millisecond for the news to make a splash across the station.
Before she could blink, Noelle reached into her purse, pulled out her phone, and dialed. “Matt, it’s Noelle. Put me through.”
Crap. What was she doing? She never did anything that wasn’t well thought out. Not anymore at least.
“Seems relationship guru Dr. Noelle Butler has called in to offer her opinion on a sports-related topic,” Tate drawled in her ear.
Double crap. Too late to hang up now. Not that she would after that greeting.
She gripped the phone tighter. “It stopped being a sports-related topic when you started bad-mouthing marriage. Relationships, and by extension, marriage are the bedrocks of our society. People making a commitment to love, honor, and respect each other make us who we are.”
“I call ’em like I see ’em, Dr. Noelle.”
He was calling her that to tick her off. He knew she preferred to be called by her first name only in order to foster a closer, more personal relationship with her listeners. She never wanted them to feel like she thought she was better or above them in any way. She was even more ticked off that his transparent ploy was working.
“How many times have we seen professional athletes get caught cheating?” he continued. “What about our next-door neighbors or coworkers who don’t know what discreet means? We’d all be better off if we stayed single.”
“No, we wouldn’t,” she shot back. “Studies prove that married people are happier than single people.”
“This is what I know.” Again poking at her by using her signature phrase. Again ticking her off. “The world is full of beautiful women willing to have fun, and I see no reason to limit myself to just one for the rest of my life.”
“What about love?” Noelle asked through gritted teeth.
“What’s love got to do with it?” he asked in a falsely upbeat tone. “Thanks for calling.”
Noelle sputtered. That know-it-all had hung up on her. Her thumb raced across the phone screen, redialing the station. How dare he hang up on her? How dare he utter such nonsense when he had all those listeners who hung on his every word? How dare he be so irresponsible?
Oh, God. What was she doing? Noelle halted her dialing and raised a shaking hand to her forehead. She was on the verge of losing control. She never lost control. What did she care if she couldn’t convince that Neanderthal of the error of his ways? Her listeners were way more enlightened. Those were the people she cared about.
Very carefully, she returned the phone to her purse and turned her attention to leaving the parking lot and going home to prepare for the next day’s show. Which, if there was any justice in the word, wouldn’t include a phone call from the annoying Tate Grayson.
Tate smiled as he stepped into WTLK’s program director’s office.
“Hey, Sandy,” he said to the assistant at the front desk. “I’m here bright and early, like you asked. Is Deb ready for me?”
Sandy offered up a friendly smile. “Hi, Tate. Yeah, you can go in. They’re already in there.”
They? There’d been no indication in their earlier conversation that this would be a staff meeting. He knocked on the door and stepped inside at the “come in.” He stopped short when he spied the attendees. Deborah Sanchez sat behind her desk, which wasn’t a surprise. The woman sitting in one of the two chairs in front of the desk was, however. Dr. Noelle Butler.
Perplexed, he looked to his boss. “Hi.”
Deb tucked a strand of curly brown hair behind an ear. “Tate, I’m glad you could join us. Have a seat.”
He settled in the chair. Noelle’s perfume, a light mixture underlined by lavender, drifted toward him. The same one he’d inhaled when they’d run into each other outside the elevator. It was blatantly sensual…and disconcerting given her standoffish nature. He nodded at her.
“Tate,” she answered in that touch-me voice.
His eyes drifted down. She wore a skirt, which wasn’t unusual, but the fact that he got a glimpse of thigh was. Her crossed legs had hiked up the hem, revealing firm, smooth skin the color of his favorite mocha latte. Who woulda thunk it?
Noelle followed the direction of his gaze, sent him a disgusted look, and tugged the skirt down.
He grinned and turned to his boss. What could he say? He was a man and would look at exposed flesh, even if it belonged to the uptight Dr. Noelle. “What’s up, Deb?”
The program director cocked her head to the side. “Yesterday at 2:50, I was listening to Noelle Knows because that’s my job, and what did I hear? The host of the show following hers calling in.”
Was he in trouble for that? No way, right? Tate slouched in the leather chair and crossed his right foot over his left knee.
“Then I heard you two sparring. I was amused, so I let it go. But then, not ten minutes later, listening to The Tate Grayson Show, what did I hear? Noelle calling in, and you two going at it again. Now what was I to think?”
Tate glanced to his left and caught the uncertainty in Noelle’s gray eyes, a feeling he now shared. He straightened and gave Deb his trademarked, self-assured smile. The one that said he didn’t have a care in the world, that all was well. The same one he’d perfected as a kid when his world was collapsing on him and people kept sending him poor-little-rich-boy looks.
Deb’s somber expression remained unchanged. “I thought you two had lost your minds. My most popular hosts going at it? But then…” She smiled, causing Tate’s nervousness to ratchet up another level. “I logged on to the station’s Facebook page. People were talking about those exchanges. Even better, someone uploaded the audio clips to YouTube.”
Deb rested her forearms on the desk and leaned forward, her brown eyes now gleaming. “It got me thinking.”
Tate caught Noelle’s gaze again, this time in a rare moment of commiseration. They’d both been victims of Deb’s ideas more than once.
“You both bring something unique to the table, which is why I hired you. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before. It’s genius. All the time we’ve wasted.”
“Think of what?” Noelle asked.
Tate bit back a smile. Deb was notorious for going off on a tangent and all of the station employees had a tacit agreement to steer her back on track.
“Having you two cohost a show.”