THE TWIN PROPOSAL
“You want us to be roommates?” Mackenzie Lockhart echoed in shock, transferring a pink-and-white Guess What the Stork Just Delivered? sign from her garage into the back of her pickup truck, while Bliss, her Bernese mountain dog, watched from inside the vehicle.
His expensive charcoal suit his only defense against the chilly March evening, Griff Montgomery headed over to assist her. As always, the ruggedly handsome Fort Worth attorney had stayed late at work. And, as always, he had volunteered to help Mackenzie with a delivery and setup when she found herself unexpectedly shorthanded.
He came closer, inundating her with his brisk, sandalwood and leather scent. Then, loosening his tie another notch, he flashed her a slow, disarming smile as he pushed back the edges of his jacket with his big hands, revealing a sinewy chest and taut, muscular abs. His six-foot-four-inch frame dwarfed her five feet seven inches. “Why not?” He let his gaze drift curiously over her face. “You know moving in together makes sense…”
Actually, Mackenzie thought, drawing an uneven breath, it did and it didn’t.
Their almost twenty-year friendship had become complicated enough when she had become Griff’s plus-one at all his law firm functions. And while she didn’t mind accompanying him to work events so he wouldn’t have to scrounge up an actual date—something he swore he did not have the time or inclination to do—she did mind how his colleagues were beginning to view their constant companionship.
But with a delivery of one of her Special Occasion Signs pending, that was a discussion for another time.
She motioned for Griff to get in and climbed behind the wheel. Unable to help but note how his long legs and broad-shouldered frame filled up the roomy interior of her Ford F-150, she turned on the ignition and paused to look at his profile. Alone, none of his features were that remarkable. The same could be said for his short, cropped chestnut brown hair. But together, with his strong brow, intent amber eyes, straight nose, square jaw and firm masculine lips, she found the man to be heart-stoppingly attractive.
Not that he had ever noticed her in a similar way. From the time they had first met, when she had been ten, and Griff fourteen, he had taken on the role of a protective older brother slash friend. Nothing more. Nothing less. Which was why—despite her initial wild crush on him—it was a good thing she had never allowed herself to think of Griff in any other way, either.
And yet for a moment, as his suggestion hung in the air between them, Mackenzie lost herself in the compelling seductiveness of his gaze.
But she couldn’t go there. Couldn’t let herself wish for the impossible, any more than she had been able to let herself wish for her parents to still be alive, after they died when she was just a child.
Sometimes things just were what they were. You had to accept that. Move on.
Griff lifted a brow in silent inquiry, as he continued to await her reply.
She swallowed around the sudden dryness of her throat. Friends. We’re just friends. “We talked about this the last time I lost a rental,” she reminded him. Mackenzie had brushed it off then for a very good reason. She didn’t want to get her hopes up that things might change, only to end up with crushed expectations and a broken heart in the end. After all, she’d had one failed engagement. Did she really want another embarrassment?
He nodded, his lips tightening at the memory. “Exactly. The previous three times you leased a house, you fixed the property up to such a degree that the owners decided to put them on the market at year’s end, which then left you and Bliss homeless, and scrambling to find another rental.”
Mackenzie shrugged and put the truck in reverse, backing out of the driveway. She knew she could avoid this hassle by doing what he had and purchase a place. As Griff had pointed out on more than one occasion, she had the credit history to qualify for a mortgage and money for a down payment squirreled away. But something always held her back. “I don’t mind moving every year.” It kept her from getting tied down to any one place or getting too attached. Or financially stuck in the same city as Griff if the unimaginable happened and he did eventually marry and settle down here.
She sighed. Watching him find happiness with another woman had been hard enough the previous two times, even when she had known the relationships were flawed and would never last.
But she couldn’t imagine how painful it would be for her if his relationship with someone else were exactly right.
Griff shook his head at her in mute disapproval. “Well, you should mind having to move that often.” For him, a stable home address meant a stable life.
Mackenzie paused at the stop sign and checked the directions. “Just because you’ve lived in the same downtown loft since you graduated from law school doesn’t mean everyone else should do the same. I like change. I like turning something ugly into something attractive. And then,” she said, smiling victoriously before he could interrupt, “there is the way I’m able to negotiate drastically reduced rents in exchange for all the updates I make, which in turn gives me more money to spend on expanding Special Occasion Signs.”
The business that was her baby, and the key to her stability. Or at least as much as she realistically expected to find in this life.
“I understand the need for as much financial security as possible,” Griff said soothingly.
Like her, he’d been orphaned as a child and had ended up alone in the foster care system.
Yet, unlike her, he had never been adopted.
So now, while she and her seven siblings had Carol and Robert Lockhart as parents, as well as a big extended family of in-laws and nieces and nephews that they could depend on, Griff still had no one.
Except for her. Oh, and Bliss too, since he loved her big ole pup as much as she did. And Joe Carson, his beloved mentor slash managing partner, who worked with him at the big successful law firm in downtown Fort Worth. Not to mention Joe’s incredibly kind wife, Alice...
“But comfort should play into it, too,” Griff continued, breaking into her thoughts.
Mackenzie envisioned his spacious abode. Although she and Bliss hung out there when her and Griff’s busy schedules aligned, which wasn’t as often as she would have liked, she still couldn’t imagine living in the midst of all that concrete and brick. She needed a front porch and sunshine. Grass. Shady tree-lined streets. And, of course, a workshop for SOS…
“Besides, where would I make my signs if I didn’t have a garage and backyard? Bliss and I can’t live in your loft.” She parked in front of the home where she’d be displaying the celebratory announcement. At 11:00 p.m., the windows were dark. The residential street quiet. Lit only by the corner streetlamp, and the full moon shining in the velvety black Texas sky above.
She got out quietly. Griff followed suit, while Bliss sat patiently in the truck, watching and waiting.
He met her at the tailgate, which he unlatched and let down. “That’s just it.” His low, gruff voice radiated through her body. “I won’t be there, either.” He reached into the bed to pull the pieces of the sign forward. “I’m going to be renting a home for the next year while my entire building and my condo unit undergo major renovation.”
Griff paused to hand her the bundle of stakes that would hold the signage in place. It was his turn to regard her with a triumphant smile. “So I figured as long as I’m looking for a place and you’re looking for a place…” He hefted the large plywood pieces onto the ground. “Why not save some money and rent together? Especially since I found one with a large fenced-in yard, a two-car garage and an adjacent carriage house that would make a perfect studio for you.”
They walked side by side across the grass. It wasn’t the first time she had leaned on her best friend, or helped him out, either. Yet it felt different tonight. As if they were on the precipice of something more. Which was crazy since he had never shown the slightest bit of romantic interest in her. She set down the bundle of long metal stakes. “Does it take large dogs?”
“Yep.” He handed her the first plywood section. “The backyard is big and shady. Bliss would love it.” Mackenzie positioned the Guess What the Stork Just Delivered? cutout, center-right, on the front lawn. Then placed the big pink-and-white Stork with a diaper-wrapped baby in its beak, in the middle. After that, she set about arranging the It’s a Girl! sign. Several moments passed before she finally stepped back to regard the three sections critically, to ensure they were where she wanted them. Imagining the new parents’ surprise and delight when they arrived home from the hospital the next afternoon, she smiled with satisfaction, then turned back to Griff. “So what’s the monthly fee?”
He told her.
Mackenzie calculated silently. “So, nearly twice what I’m paying now,” she said unhappily. Griff threaded the long metal stakes through the holders on the back of the painted plywood cutouts. Then pushed them into the ground to secure them. “Except I’d be paying half of that. So it would end up being the same for you, and a little less for me.”
Satisfied all was well, Mackenzie took a photo of the announcement, texted it to the grandparent who had ordered it for the happy couple, then walked with Griff back to her truck, where Bliss continued to wait. She reached into the back seat to stroke her pet’s silky head. “When is this place available?”
“Immediately,” he replied.
Well, that would help, Mackenzie thought. Although she had never minded moving, she hated worrying about where she and Bliss were going to live next.
Affable as ever, Griff continued, “The tenant moved out yesterday. I’ve got the lockbox code. It’s only about ten minutes from here. We can look at it right now if you want.”
She was tempted. Yet bitter experience had taught her not to be reckless. Especially in matters of the heart. She climbed back behind the wheel. “How did you find out about it?”
Griff relaxed in the passenger seat beside her. “It’s owned by one of my law firm’s clients.” His gaze shifted over her before returning to her eyes. “So, what do you say?” he asked. “Are you in?”
Mackenzie hesitated. “I’ll look at it.” But only because it could be hard to find a rental with a fenced backyard that would allow pets. Especially on such short notice.
They started with the most important part—the backyard, because Griff knew if that didn’t work for Bliss, Mackenzie would have no interest in seeing the rest.
Fortunately, the entire half-acre property was lit with motion-detector lights. So they were able to snap a leash on her collar, get Bliss out of the truck and take her straight inside the fence.
The Bernese mountain dog stayed close to Mackenzie’s side, stopping at the edge of the brick patio, gazing around. The backyard was spacious, the interior of the six-foot wood privacy fence rimmed with overgrown landscape shrubbery, some with flowers. What kind, Griff didn’t know.
Not that it mattered to him.
He was just happy to see a sturdy hammock strung between the big live oak and pecan trees, and the expanse of thick green grass.
And adjacent to the main home, the long narrow carriage house. Which would make a perfect workspace for Mackenzie. But at the moment, she seemed focused on the domestic side of things.
“It’s got a covered patio for my outdoor furniture.” Mackenzie pointed out the place where the cushion glider and matching chairs would go.
Griff watched Bliss tilt her head back to look up at her owner. He could have sworn the dog was smiling, as she rubbed her furry head across Mackenzie’s thigh. She knelt to take her pet’s beautiful face in her hands.
Mackenzie had gotten Bliss as an eight-week-old puppy. In the two years since, they had formed a tight, unshakable bond. One Griff envied. “What do you think, girl? Want to look around?” She unsnapped the leash from her collar and gestured broadly. “You can go explore.”
Tail wagging, Bliss set off.
Mackenzie turned back to him.
As always, he was amazed how pulled together she could still manage to look after what had been a very long day. Mackenzie’s fair skin was flawless, her high, sculpted cheeks flushed pink, her long-lashed, sea-blue eyes alert. His gaze drifted upward, lingering over her wavy butterscotch blond hair, which was held away from her face with pretty gold clips. She was dressed in a long-sleeved white T-shirt, and a medium blue fleece bearing her business logo. Lower, dark rinse jeans hugged her slender waist and hips. Comfortable shearling-lined boots encased her feet.
“So,” Mackenzie murmured softly, tilting her face up to his. “What is really going on here? Why do you suddenly want a roommate after spending the last decade on your own?”
Good question. One he wasn’t sure he wanted to answer.
“And why are you interested in living in a residential area of Fort Worth instead of downtown? When I know there have to be plenty of other city apartments to rent.”
“So what gives?” Mackenzie persisted.
He could see she was not going to relent unless he told her the truth. And since he really did want this to work… “I figured as long as I have to make a change, I might as well make a real change.”
Bliss buried her face in fragrant white blossoms, sniffing intensely.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie kept her eyes on his. “In what sense?”
“I’m tired of trading one concrete jungle for another at the end of every day.” Able to see she wasn’t quite buying it, he shrugged, confessing, “I thought it might be fun to have a yard to kick back in, instead of a community rooftop.” The way a lot of his coworkers did.
“And?” she prodded, guessing there was more.
He grinned, not too proud to admit, “And spend more time hanging out with my two best friends.”
Understanding she was being talked about, Bliss trotted over to him and pressed up against his leg. He glanced down fondly and petted her head.
Affection gleaming in her pretty sea-blue eyes, Mackenzie surveyed them both. “You still want a dog, don’t you?”
Aware he’d been talking about taking the leap for a couple of years now, Griff met her steady, empathetic gaze. “Yeah, but it’s not practical, given how much I’m at work. But I could help you with Bliss when I am home. Walk her. Play ball with her. Cuddle on the sofa…”
She paused to let his words settle around her. “So it’s really my dog you want to bunk with.”
Her droll tone lit an answering fire in him. “Now Mack, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” he teased.
She sighed and sent a glance heavenward, seeming, to his relief, more amused than annoyed. “I would. But don’t worry.” She patted his biceps amiably. “I’m not offended. I’d choose Bliss over you, too.”
He chuckled. “Ha-ha.”
She pushed her lips into a mischievous moue that was more kissable than she realized.
Not about to go there, especially if they were going to be living together, he forced himself to be businesslike again. “Want to look around inside first? Or check out the carriage house slash studio?”
She turned serious. “The interior of the home.”
He went around front to open up the lockbox, then let her and Bliss in through the back door, switching on overhead lamps as he went.
Mackenzie frowned in disapproval. It was easy to see why. “This is kind of a wreck,” she said, as they waded through the trash-littered floors.
Too late, he realized he should have waited another day or two to bring her to see the place. He squinted at Mackenzie and soothed her with a commiserating smile. “Yeah, I know.” When he stepped near enough, he caught a whiff of her orange blossom fragrance. “Did I mention the last tenants were evicted?”
“With good reason, it would appear.” She snapped the leash back on Bliss and kept her from nosing through a fast food bag.
“A junk hauler is coming in tomorrow to clear all this out.” Griff walked with her through the downstairs. “And then it’s going to be professionally cleaned.”
“I’ll just pretend that’s already been done then.”
She studied the traditional floor plan. The rooms were laid out just as they had been when it had been built in the early seventies. Foyer, formal living and dining room in the front of the house. Kitchen, tiny breakfast nook, laundry–mud room and cozy little family room with fireplace at the rear.
And the “pièce de résistance”?
The ugly-carpeted staircase in the foyer.
Sensing she needed more persuading, Griff said, “We can make whatever changes we want. As with your previous leases, the labor is on us, but the materials can be deducted from the monthly rent as long as we have receipts.”
Mackenzie regarded their surroundings with an artist’s eye. “Do we have to get permission on the colors and so on?”
“He trusts us.”
She lifted her eyebrows. “Just like that?”
“Well…I might have showed him some photos of your previous rentals, once you were done with them.”
“Ah. So he’s looking for a bargain renovation.”
Griff chuckled, thinking maybe this change was exactly what he needed. To keep him from feeling so bored and restless. One thing was for sure: sharing space with Mackenzie and Bliss would never be dull. He shrugged. “Actually, it’s a married couple who relocated to Montana. And, as far as good deals go, aren’t we looking for the same thing?”
Their eyes met and held, the energy between them crackling with undefined emotion. “What’s upstairs?”
He had no frigging idea. He eased a hand beneath her elbow. “Let’s go and see.”
They mounted the stairs to the second floor of the Georgian, Bliss sticking close to their sides. The master bedroom was to the left. Mackenzie poked her head in. “No en-suite bath,” she noted, her gaze roving the outdated wallpaper.
“But plenty of closet space,” Griff pointed out. One walk in, another with shelves and shoe racks.
“True.” Mackenzie smiled.
“And there is a master bathroom right next door to that,” he added.
“Except you have to go out into the upstairs hallway to access it.”
A few steps maybe. “Too far to walk?” he teased.
She frowned. “I was thinking about privacy.”
The thought of her in various states of undress was more intriguing than it should have been. Determined to keep them strictly pals, he snapped his fingers in feigned disappointment. “No walking around naked, then.”
“Ha! You wish!” She slanted him a look, letting him know once again she was not in the least bit attracted to him. Which was good. Being physically drawn to each other would have ruined their friendship. And made it impossible for him to remain a self-appointed big brother in her life.
Mackenzie drew a bolstering breath that lifted the soft feminine curves of her breasts, and walked on down the hall. There was another full bath and a bedroom to the left, two bedrooms to the right. The one closest to the master was by far the largest. “We could both have a bedroom, and a bath, and an office upstairs,” he pointed out.
Her lips curved upward in a tantalizing smile. Clearly, she liked that idea. “Which one were you thinking of taking?”
He nodded toward the one in the middle of the home. “I would leave you the master—being the gentleman that I am.”
With a huff, Bliss lay down in the center of the hall.
“You wouldn’t want to flip for it?” she asked.
No. he wanted her to be happy. And two closets would make her happy. “Nope,” he said. “Besides, you’ll need the extra floor space for your yoga.”
Her chin jerked up. “Actually, I haven’t done that in quite a while.”
Really? You couldn’t tell that by looking at her. Her slender body was as lithe and fit as ever.
“No time,” she said. “But you still run,” she recollected.
Aware he was hoping to get Bliss to do that with him sometimes, he nodded. “It’s the best way to work off stress.” And he had a lot of that with his work as a property lawyer who specialized in eminent domain cases. His gaze moved over her silky-soft lips before returning to focus on the tumult in her eyes. “Want to see the carriage house?”
They walked across the backyard patio, and the patch of weeds and grass, to the long narrow building. “How large is it?”
“Six hundred square feet.”
He opened the door on a large single room that was dusty and filled with crap. She propped her hands on her hips. “What’s all this?”
“Stuff from previous renters. It can all go tomorrow when the junk haulers come.”
She looked around, considering. “It has a tiny bathroom and shower.”
While she saw that as a plus, he did not. He poked his head into the miniscule room, too, beside hers. “Can one person even stand in that?”
She turned her head sideways, sizing him up. They were close enough to kiss. Had they been into that. “Maybe not someone with broad shoulders who is also over six feet three inches tall,” she said.
He chuckled. They eased out of the room and back into their own personal space. She wet her lips, still thinking. “There’s also room for a fridge, another sink and a hot plate, too.”
He hoped she wasn’t suggesting she live out here? The idea was for them to be pals, under the same roof, not simply sharing a yard. Tamping down his emotions, he asked casually, “You want to cook out here?”
She shrugged, her feisty independence wrapping around her like an invisible force field. “If I’m super busy, sure. Besides, it’s not like the appliances over there—” Mackenzie pointed to the main house “—were all that great. I mean, I haven’t seen olive green appliances and orange wallpaper anywhere since photos from the 1980s.”
“I’ll work on that,” Griff promised. How hard could it be to take off wallpaper anyway? They could also hire someone to do it.
She turned to study him, the same critical way she had just been looking over their surroundings. “You really want this to work, don’t you?” she asked.
He nodded. Figuring as long as they were being honest…. “But you’re wary. Why?”
Worry clouding her expression, she admitted thickly, “Probably because of what happened the last and only other time I lived with a guy.”
“Skip,” she corrected.
“You were going to marry him.”
“Until I realized the only thing he really wanted was a maid and a personal assistant.” She sobered. “I don’t ever want to be in that position again. Where I feel like what I can do for someone means more to them than I do.”
Griff clenched his jaw. He had wanted to punch out her ex then; the feeling was the same now. Where had the jerk gotten off, treating her that way? he wondered furiously.
Determined to keep her from focusing on past hurt, he pointed out dryly, “Well, you’ll be safe here, Mack. Because I would never ask you to pick up my dry cleaning. Or shine my shoes.”
She tilted her head, as if to say, I know that. “Stop joking. I’m serious. If we do this, we have to be like ships that pass in the night. I mean, no coordinating our daily schedules or planning meals around each other. We just go on like normal, and if we happen to be hungry at the same time and want to order pizza, we can, but we don’t have to do everything together if we don’t want to.”
“Gee. Sugarcoat it, why don’t you, Mack?”
“You know what I mean,” she insisted.
He sobered too, aware that no guy had gotten past the barricades around her heart in quite a while. Although he wasn’t sure why that should bother him so much. It wasn’t as if he were trying to make a move on her. “I promise. But can we also agree that…ah…we won’t engage in any romantic dalliances around each other?” The thought of finding her with another guy was like a punch to the solar plexus. “Because that would be uncomfortable.”
She exhaled in relief. “Agreed.” She lifted a delicate palm. “If we want to hook up with someone we’ll have to go elsewhere.”
He nodded and shoved his hands in the pockets of his suit pants. “Not that you’ll have to worry about that anytime soon when it comes to me.”
Her answering smile was quick and sexy. “Still haven’t found anyone else you want to date,” she said.
“Nope.” He zeroed in on her long-lashed blue eyes, figuring as long as she knew his status he should know hers. “You?”
She shook her head. “Too busy.”
That was good, he thought. They had enough on their agendas for the moment, managing their mutual moves, and setting up space together. “Back to this place… We’ve got forty-eight hours before they list it on the rental market. So, if we want it, we need to let them know, put down a deposit and sign a lease by tomorrow.”
“What do you think, Bliss?” she asked, while her mountain dog wagged her tail between them. The canine’s happiness was clear. “I want it,” she said firmly, looking Griff in the eye.
Masculine satisfaction roared through him. “So do I,” he admitted gruffly. Grinning, they bumped fists and triumphantly held each other’s glance. “Looks like we’re going to be roommates after all,” he said.