FOUR CHRISTMAS MATCHMAKERS
Allison Meadows stepped away from the festive evergreen garland and home-crafted wreath she'd just placed on the front door of her Laramie, Texas, cottage. Both perfectly accentuated the gabled portico roof, her pale rose brick porch floor, stately white columns and sage green door. She shook her head and let out a low satisfied sigh. There was nothing as fun as decorating for Christmas!
"Are you talking to me or admiring your handiwork?"
Allison hadn't heard her "guest" approach, but she did not have to turn around to know whom that low sexy voice belonged to—Cade Lockhart. Inveterate charmer. And onetime love of her life.turned giant pain in the tuchus. Mostly because he likely kept telling himself that after everything that had happened between them, they could still be friends.
Glad she had finished her latest blog post, she switched off the video camera that had been recording her work. Turned around. And squared off with the former star pitcher for the Texas Wranglers pro baseball team.
She was well used to his six-foot-three frame. Tall men in Texas were a dime a dozen. The short mussed sable-brown hair, mesmerizing espresso eyes and intractable jaw were a little harder to disregard. As were his sensual lips. After all, she knew how he kissed. Touched. And did a whole host of other things. Hence, as their gazes locked, she felt her heart take a telltale leap. Although she couldn't help reminding herself there was no reason a wicked sense of humor, warm seductive smile and solid male muscle should be such a turn-on.
"Who or what was I talking about?" she echoed, picking up the threads of the conversation. Though, technically speaking, he was right. Gorgeous fit. She lifted her chin. "What do you think?"
He grinned at her deadpan tone. "A little of both."
Refusing to be drawn in by the inherent mischief in his gaze, she smiled sweetly. Not about to admit she'd always thought he was incredibly gorgeous, too. "Then you'd be wrong," she corrected archly.
His gaze drifted over her face, lingered on her lips, before returning to her eyes. "I don't think so."
This was not an argument she was going to win.
Her heart racing, Allison gathered the hammer and nails she'd left on the rail and put them back into the toolbox at her feet. She snapped the lid shut, then turned back to face him. "I thought we agreed we were going to do everything we could to avoid running into each other now that we are both living back in Laramie..." Although she didn't expect him to stay in his hometown for long. Just until his unpopularity in Dallas completely died down. And people forgot about the disappointing end to the Texas Wranglers' season.
He scrubbed a hand underneath his handsome jaw. "Actually, as I recall, that was your dictum, not mine."
"Necessary, in any case."
"Not in my opinion," he said flatly.
And here they went again...
He stepped closer, persisting, "All I did was try to send some interior design business your way when you were first starting out."
Allison swallowed around the parched feeling in her throat. "By having me decorate the house you were buying back in Dallas without letting me know the owner was you?"
He straightened, squaring his broad shoulders. "I had my reasons for doing that."
"Can't wait to hear them."
He squinted, displeased. "Okay, well, first, I figured you'd reject my request if I asked."
Sharing in his obvious exasperation, Allison glared right back at him. "You would have been right about that," she said stonily, then pulled her cell phone from her pocket to see if the work email she'd been expecting had come in yet. To her disappointment, it hadn't. "I would have turned you down flat."
Victorious to have been proven right about that much, he braced his hands on his waist and continued, "Second, I was warned by my business manager that the subcontractor charges would likely be a whole lot higher if it were known that the property being renovated would soon belong to the rookie pitcher for the Texas Wranglers. Because it would be assumed, as beneficiary of a new multi-million-dollar contract, that I would not know how to handle my money. And would go around spending like a drunken sailor."
She took in his nondescript charcoal gray running clothes and expensive sneakers. "So to prove otherwise, you hired a rookie designer who also happened to be dirt cheap by celebrity standards."
His broad shoulders flexed. "Is that what your ire is about?" He speared her with his gaze. "You think I didn't pay you enough for your work?"
"No." He had paid her plenty through his accountant. More than she had hoped to get. Which for reasons she couldn't quite fathom, still rankled even more.
"Then.?" he prodded, wanting the rest of her explanation.
Trying not to recall how taut and warm his muscled body felt after a run, she ignored everything else he had done to hurt her, albeit unintentionally, in his unrelenting drive for success. Admitting in abject embarrassment, "I thought I was doing a house for the bachelor CEO of CBL Enterprises."
"And you were," he explained patiently, pacing back and forth on her wide front porch, "because that was me." He paused, his back to a pillar.
Her temper flaring, Allison remained beneath the high gabled roof, and sputtered angrily, "Except I didn't know it was you until a reporter from the style section of the Dallas newspaper asked me how I landed the gig and if it had anything to do with the fact we had dated all through high school and college."
Then, she recalled in consternation, the female journalist had gone on to imply a romantic reconciliation just might be in the works.
When she had known, deep in her gut, that such an occurrence would never happen. Not after the way he had neglected her at the end of their relationship.
Well used to such invasions of privacy, Cade pushed away from the pillar and offered a maddeningly affable shrug. "You could have just declined to answer. Or pushed the conversation to something a lot more interesting."
"And made matters worse?" Allison scoffed.
He scowled in exasperation. "I don't know what you're complaining about. The gig got you a write-up in the paper and a lot of attention."
And a lot of work, she thought. Initially, mostly from baseball fans who wanted to ask her about Cade, and what he was really like. But that was not the point. She stepped closer to him. "I was humiliated and embarrassed to be caught unaware."
He towered over her. "And I told you at the time I was sorry about that." He reminded her of the multiple phone messages he had left—all of which had gone unanswered. His voice turned unexpectedly penitent. "It was never my intention to make you feel foolish."
At the time, Allison had been too hurt and angry to respond to anything he'd had to convey. She had simply wanted them to never speak again. But now that eight years had passed, she had to know.
"Then what was your intention?" she asked.
Easy, Cade thought. To share in my good fortune. And begin to make up for the way I treated you the entire last year or so we were together. The birthdays and anniversaries he'd forgotten. The dates he'd canceled so he could get in a little more practice. The calls and texts he'd made that had been so brief and hurried they'd practically been nonexistent. She'd been a saint whereas he'd been the world's worst boyfriend. It was no surprise she had finally seen the light and broken up with him. No surprise he'd regretted it ever since.
Not that she was interested in letting him find a way back to her.
Trying to figure out how much—if anything—to say about all that, he let his gaze roam over her. Her five-foot-seven-inch height and slender frame always left him wanting to step in to protect her. As usual these days, she was more dressed up than was warranted for a weekday afternoon. Her plaid knee-length kilt a bit retro. But sexy nonetheless. Black tights encased her showgirl-worthy legs. A dark green turtleneck sweater cloaked her luscious breasts and brought out the vibrant hue of her long-lashed eyes. But it was her pretty face, pert nose, stubborn chin and kissably soft lips that most haunted his dreams.
Dreams that had only gotten hotter and more frequent the last three months.
"I was trying to help you," he said.
Indignant color flooded her high-sculpted cheeks. "I didn't need your help." As always, when in a temper, she tossed her shoulder-length dark brown hair.
He lifted both hands in abject surrender. "I know that now."
She clamped her lips together tightly. Appearing as if it were taking every ounce of self-control she had not to haul off and slug him. "Good."
Man. She was still really ticked off at him. That meant she still had to harbor some feelings for him, right? He held her eyes for a long moment, giving her all the respect she was due. "Your blog is incredibly successful," he said admiringly. "And getting more so every day. All the women I know read it."
Still glaring at him furiously, she huffed. "But not you."
The truth was, he never missed a post. But figuring she would think he was insincerely kissing up to her if he admitted to being her biggest cheerleader, he merely shrugged.
"The Cottage Site isn't really my thing," he fibbed, deliberately getting the name wrong—just to get under her skin—and keep her there talking to him a little while longer.
His facetious mistake had the desired effect. She pushed the words through tightly gritted teeth. "The name is My Cottage Life."
They were standing on the porch of said cottage. Talking, well.arguing.more than they had in years.
"So, if that's all..." she said dismissively.
Cade sobered. They really had gotten sidetracked. "Actually, it's not."
Of course, it wasn't all, Allison thought. Cade was an expert at delaying her. Keeping the attention on himself. Especially now that he was out of the limelight.
"I wanted to talk to you about this weekend," he continued, even more seriously.
She held up a hand, ready to decline whatever he had in mind. "I'm babysitting for the Bailey quadruplets while their parents are in Switzerland."
"I know. Shawn mentioned it." Intuitive dark brown eyes lassoed hers. "He said you are refusing to bring in extra help and he's concerned."
Allison turned her gaze to the wintry gray clouds looming on the horizon. It wasn't supposed to storm this evening, but it still looked like it might. "I've already talked to Sarabeth about the situation. She isn't concerned."
Cade inched closer, inundating her with his soap and man scent. "The thing is, I offered to help out, too."
She could barely look at him and not wonder what it would be like to kiss him again. Just as an experiment, of course. To find out if her outrageously hot memories of the two of them were wildly exaggerated, too?
Allison rubbed at the tension gathering in her temples and drew a long bolstering breath. Regarding him from beneath her lashes, she asked, "Since when do you babysit four-year-olds? Never mind four at once!"
"Since I heard you planned to go it alone."
Wishing she didn't enjoy spending time with him quite so much, even under these ridiculously aggravating circumstances, she picked up her toolbox, looked him in the eye and flashed him a confident smile. There was no way she was going to amuse him while he was temporarily at loose ends, trying to figure out his next move only to have him break her heart all over again. Once had been enough!
"Well, un-volunteer," she snapped.
She watched his cocky grin disappear.
Tamping down the fast beat of her heart, she went on in a low quelling tone, "I mean it, Cade. I do not need or want your help with babysitting the quadruplets or anything else!" Leaving him alone to contemplate that, she walked inside the house, shutting the door behind her.