Authors: Barbara Freethy
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
STEAL MY HEART
BACHELORS & BRIDESMAIDS (#2)
In the Bachelors and Bridesmaids series
Kiss Me Forever
STEAL MY HEART
Was there no escaping her high school nemesis, Michael Stafford? Liz Palmer had had her first run-in with the football hero when he'd tried to kiss her in high school, and she'd broken his nose. Now ten years later Michael is back in her life, vying for the same business account, and she is determined to win.
Liz's career is her life, but something has been missing all these years, and in her heart she knows it's Michael. With her friends falling in love, and yet another stint as a bridesmaid in her future, Liz wonders if there's a way to mix business and love...
Steal My Heart
© Copyright 2014 Barbara Freethy
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (v1)
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Table of Contents
Screams filled the air as the roller coaster paused at the top peak, allowing the occupants one shattering look at the death drop below. Then the cars went screeching over the edge, defying gravity and risking death. Liz Palmer let out a breath as she watched the speedy descent of the roller coaster called
Shoot The Moon
. She wasn't even on the ride, but she felt her stomach tie itself into a knot that didn't loosen until the frightening screams turned into shaky laughter and the wheels came to a grinding halt along the bottom platform.
She couldn't imagine wanting to ride something so terrifying. She preferred the solid ground beneath her feet, security and stability and things that she understood—not this land of make-believe and illusion. But none of that mattered. She'd come to Playworld for work, not for fun.
The amusement park had opened three months earlier on the outskirts of Sacramento, a ninety-minute drive from her home in San Francisco. Now that their initial launch was over, the Playworld Corporation was looking for a PR firm to come up with a strategic campaign to propel the park into the top tier of amusement parks around the world. She was planning on winning the multi-million dollar account for her company: Damien, Falks and Palmer.
Turning away from the ride, she headed toward the large castle in the center of the park that housed the executive offices. Her heels clicked against the pavement and as she made her way past rides, food concessions and gift shops, she felt decidedly overdressed in her dark gray skirt, cream-colored top and black heels.
She pulled open the sturdy door leading into the castle. Her shoes immediately sank into shaggy dark green carpet that reminded her of walking through grass.
As she made her way to the reception desk, she couldn't help noticing that the playful atmosphere of the amusement park extended to the offices. The walls were covered with impressionistic paintings that looked like dreams, nightmares or fantasies. The furniture was just as fanciful: oddly shaped tables carved out of wood, enormous chairs that would make anyone feel small and mirrors at every angle that seemed to magnify the entire experience. She was beginning to feel like she was in
Alice in Wonderland
A perky young receptionist dressed in something akin to a princess costume looked up with a cheerful smile as Liz approached the front desk.
"Can I help you?" the woman asked.
"I'm here to see Mr. Hayward. Liz Palmer from Damien, Falks and Palmer." She pushed her business card across the counter and offered her usual professional smile.
"He's in a meeting at the moment, but I'll let him know you're here. Why don't you have a seat? He should be free soon."
Liz nodded, walking over to one of the chairs with a wary expression. The seat resembled the lap of a friendly giant. There were sleeves on the arms of the chair and the back had a round, cheery face above a bulging chest. Shaking her head in amazement, she sat down, jerking abruptly to her feet when a buzzer sounded. The mouth of the giant opened, and he began to speak. "Hello. I'm Lawrence. Please take a seat. I want you to be comfortable."
Liz looked around the room, wondering if she was going completely crazy. The receptionist was tied up on the phone and didn't appear to be the least concerned with her. Bending down, she took a closer look at the face. Yes, there was a speaker and there were lines where the mouth had opened. She sighed. A talking chair—just what she needed. Maybe she'd just stand.
"Mr. Hayward is free," the receptionist said a moment later. "His office is through those double doors, down the hall, second door on the left."
"Thank you." Liz walked toward the doors, relieved to get down to business.
"Oh, one more thing," the receptionist called out after her. "Watch out for the quicksand. It's Mr. Hayward's idea of a joke. It's pretty clearly marked, but sometimes people miss it."
"Thanks for the tip." Liz walked cautiously into the hallway. It looked normal. The brown carpet appeared to be solid. Had the woman been kidding? Or was she missing something?
A door down the hall opened and a man stepped into the corridor. She was about to give him a brief, impersonal smile, but when her eyes met his, her heart stopped in shock. The man was tall, with light brown hair streaked with gold. His eyes were very blue, and his smile was not only filled with amusement, but was very, very familiar.
? What the hell was he doing here?
No answer came to mind, but it was definitely Michael. It had been nine years since she'd seen him at their high school graduation. His face was older now, his shoulders broader than she remembered, but the nose she had once broken was still a little crooked.
Why him? Why now? She needed to be on her game, and Michael had always been one to throw her off balance.
"Lizzie?" he questioned. "Is that really you?"
"Michael?" She took a few steps forward and the floor suddenly fell away. With a startled scream, she fell into a shallow pit.
Michael covered the distance between them in barely a second. "Are you all right?"
"What happened?" she asked in bewilderment. She was now surrounded by pillows, which thankfully had prevented an injury.
"You fell into the quicksand. Didn't they warn you out front?" Michael reached out a hand to help her back up. "The squares are shaded a darker brown here, and there's a sign on the wall, although you practically need a magnifying glass to see it."
She climbed out of the pit as gracefully as she could in a straight-fitting skirt. "Why do I get the feeling I just wandered into the fun house?"
His smile widened. "I don't know. Are you having fun?"
She didn't know how she felt. Her heart was racing, her palms were sweating, and she felt really warm.
"You've grown up nicely," Michael said, his gaze traveling down her body. "Still blond, but I think I miss the long, thick braid and the glasses that made you look so smart and intimidating."
She certainly looked better now than she had in high school, and there was a little part of her that liked the gleam of appreciation in his eyes. "Contacts and a new hair stylist," she said. "Time has been good to you, too." He definitely looked attractive in his dark jeans and light blue button-down shirt. "I have to admit I never thought I'd see you again."
"I recently came back to Northern California."
"Are you living here in Sacramento?"
"No, I have a place in Berkeley. What about you?"
"San Francisco. My parents are still down in Palo Alto, in our old neighborhood." She paused. "Your folks sold their house after we got out of high school, didn't they? I wondered what happened to them."
"They got divorced. My dad moved back east, first to Minneapolis, then Miami and more recently Denver. My mom ended up in Colorado. That house in Palo Alto was the one they owned the longest—five years."
"I didn't realize they'd divorced. Sorry."
He shrugged, then tilted his head, giving her a thoughtful look. "You don't happen to be in Public Relations, do you?"
"As a matter of fact, yes."
"Just like your father." He nodded. "I should have put the two together. But when Mr. Hayward mentioned Damien, Falks and Palmer, I assumed it was your dad."
"My father recently retired."
"So you work for his company now, and you're going after the Playworld account?"
She frowned, her stomach tightening again. "Yes. How did you know that?"
"I'm your competition."
"You're a football player," she said, shaking her head.
a football player." Shadows filled his gaze. "I wrecked my knee last year and had to reinvent myself."
"In Public Relations?" she asked in surprise and dismay. "Why?"
"My older sister Erica has a small firm and suggested I join forces with her. I didn't have a lot of other options, so I said yes."
"Well." She didn't know what else to say. She was still reeling from not only the fact that she was standing really close to him, but also because he appeared to once again be her competitor. "Playworld is a big account. If your firm is small, you won't be able to handle the business."
"I can handle anything," he said with his usual confidence. "And frankly, I think Playworld would prefer working with an imaginative, creative PR firm that didn't start in the dark ages."
"And I think Playworld would prefer working with a firm that knows how to run a huge campaign," she retorted.
He smiled. "This takes me back to high school when you and I were both running for student body president."
She didn't care for the reminder, especially since Michael had won. "This isn't high school, nor is it a game."
"Life is a game, Lizzie."
"Liz," she corrected. "And I'm sure you and I aren't the only competitors."
"No, but we're probably the top two."
"You have an ego that doesn't quit. My firm has been in business for forty years, Michael."
"I know. That's why I referenced the dark ages. But it doesn't matter how you start or how hard you play, it only matters how you finish."
"Is that a football metaphor?"
"It's a fact. And I'm glad your firm is my rival. I like to know my competition."
She shook her head against that assumption. "You don't know me. It's been nine years since we've seen each other. We've both changed."
"Probably. It will be interesting to see how we compete now that we're no longer teenagers."
Knowing that Michael Stafford was going to be her competition did not make her as happy as it apparently had made Michael. Past experience told her that whenever Michael was around, things usually didn't go the way she had planned. But this wasn't school anymore, this was business—and her job was on the line.
She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. "I'd better find Mr. Hayward. It was nice to see you again, Michael."
"I'm sure we'll be seeing more of each other."
She had the terrible feeling he was right.
* * *
As Liz disappeared into Charlie Hayward's office, Michael blew out an amazed breath.
Lizzie Palmer—what an unexpected surprise.
Over the years, he'd often wondered what had happened to his female nemesis, the only girl in school who had made him mad as hell and just as hot. There was no reason she should have gotten him that worked up. She wasn't his type at all. She wore thick glasses, pulled her hair back in a braid, and she'd had braces on her teeth for most of the four years they'd been in school together.
As the high school quarterback, he'd had his pick of the pretty, popular girls, but damn if he hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about pulling off Liz's glasses and kissing the hell out of her smart mouth. He had tried to kiss her once, and she'd hit him so hard she'd broken his nose.