The stranger’s green eyes widened. “You’re Miriam? Oh. So sorry about the misunderstanding.” For a millisecond, his puzzled frown not only lingered, it deepened. But then he replaced it with a polished smile. His arm snapped up at the elbow, suddenly bent and extended toward me so that we could shake hands. “Dylan Kincaid, here to get you ready for public appearances.”
He was professional enough not to say what I’m sure all three of us were thinking: And, Lord, do we have work to do.
Homey comfort foods definitely have their place, but are they enough to satisfy you? Rich, exotic pleasures are more accessible than you think.
LIKE A PANICKED GENERAL trying to rally the troops, I gathered my thoughts. I needed everyone to report for duty now. “Mr. Kincaid, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
I braced myself for the handshake, vowing not to dissolve at his touch. His palm was warm, but not soft, and his fingers wrapped purposefully around my hand. Can I be your love slave? Amanda was right, I did need a man.
“I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow,” I managed to choke out, awarding myself points for remembering to let go of him.
He smiled apologetically. “I hope I’m not inconveniencing you by arriving early. My previous job ended sooner than expected, and Joan mentioned you were a bit nervous about the promotional events.”
His eyes warmed affectionately when he mentioned my editor, and suddenly I wondered what she’d meant when she’d said she “knew him.”
“I stopped by your house,” he continued, “thinking that if you weren’t home I could check in to the hotel and then try your restaurant, but a neighbor told me you’d be here.”
I nodded. That would be Mrs. Asher, widowed busy-body who would no doubt quiz me about the handsome stranger later. “Spicy Seas is closed on Tuesdays, so I was keeping my friend company.” That sounded better than admitting I’d shown up here needing reassurance that my book wasn’t porn. “This is Amanda White.”
“Very nice to meet you,” she said in a voice that stopped just shy of a purr. At my sidelong glance, she cleared her throat. “But I guess I should be getting back to work.”
I’d been so intent on Dylan, I honestly couldn’t have said whether or not the first customer or two had trickled in now that the door was open. I waggled my fingers in a half wave at Amanda as she left us alone. Something about Dylan…
“I’m sorry, but have we met?” I asked.
My question may have sounded like an excuse for further staring on the pretext of trying to place him, but there really was something hauntingly familiar about him. The further staring was just a bonus.
He shook his head, the godlike aura of confidence dimming for a moment, as if my question had made him uneasy. “No, I haven’t had the pleasure.”
Even though I was sure he was right, the undeniable sense of déjà vu remained. Oh, well. Maybe any sane woman would have experienced this I-know-you-from-my-dreams spark.
“Why don’t we sit at one of the tables?” I invited. “We can talk about the tour schedule and what I need to do to prepare.”
“A sound plan.”
I told him I was just going to grab myself a soft drink before joining him. Declining a drink of his own, he stepped up into the railed-off side section that ran alongside a small dance floor. Watching Dylan drop his leather jacket over the back of a curved café-style wooden chair, instead of looking where I was going, I nearly collided with Todd as he circled the room to distribute the napkin holders and stacks of cardboard coasters.
When I reached the bar, I discovered I wasn’t the only one who had trouble tearing her gaze from the newcomer.
“I can’t believe your luck!” Amanda said. “Putting yourself in his hands for a few weeks? Mmm. When you said your image consultant was a man, I was expecting…”
“What?” I hadn’t given him much thought, too worried about what he’d think of me. Although, the word consultant had conjured vague images of a suit—maybe someone with wire-rim glasses who didn’t smile much. Instead, I got a honey of a man with deep green eyes that crinkled at the corners in tiny, sexy laugh lines when he smiled.
Amanda shrugged. “Well, how many men are renowned for doing makeovers on women? I think I pictured someone a little more Queer Eye for the Publicity Shy.”
“Amanda! What a stereotype.” Although, except for relying on further stereotypes, we had no way of knowing what his preference was. I pushed the thought aside, currently unable to bear the notion of Dylan Kincaid off-limits to women. “Guys can be fashion conscious and trendy. Trevor, for instance…”
Then again, I sincerely hoped Dylan Kincaid was nothing like the ex who had punted me from his heart and, given time and opportunity, possibly his restaurant. “Never mind. Just give me a diet soda before he wonders what I’m doing over here.”
I carried my drink to the table, at half my usual pace because all I needed to truly impress the guy was to trip and spill soda all over myself. Was Amanda right about this being a makeover? I hoped Dylan’s advisory capacity would be more akin to a Toastmaster’s tutoring, getting me ready for public speaking. The prospect of his prescribing heavy cosmetics and high heels made my stomach drop.
My expression must have conveyed my uneasiness, because he smiled as I sat across from him. “Don’t worry.”
“Is this where you assure me you don’t bite?” I asked, lifting my glass to my mouth.
“Actually, I do,” he drawled in a wicked tone. “It just doesn’t hurt.”
I choked on the soft drink, coughing as the unique sensation of carbonated bubbles stung the inside of my nose.
“My apologies,” Dylan said, his gaze sheepish. “I didn’t mean to alarm you, it was just a demonstration.”
“Of the inherent dangers in carbonated beverages?”
He laughed. “Of the kind of attitude you’ll want. I haven’t read your book yet—Joan’s expressing a copy to me—but I’ve discussed with her the content and tone. What you’ll need to project is a flippant, sassy magnetism.”
Uh-huh. No wonder he’d thought Amanda was the author.
“Um, Dylan…maybe you’ve noticed how I don’t exactly radiate a come-hither persona?”
“That’s what Hargrave is paying me for.”
It was going to be big hair and oral sex with strawberries all over again, I just knew it. “You know more about PR than I do, but isn’t promotion more successful when the subject is herself?”
That’s what you always hear: be yourself. Unless “yourself” was me.
“But you will be,” he said. “You wrote the book, right? So it’s in there. I’ll simply help you bring it to the surface a bit.”
A bit? I had the feeling it would be more like raising the Titanic.
I CANNOT DO THIS. Even as I thought it, I called myself a coward. This was my family. Not a den of serial killers.
But standing on my parents’ creaky wraparound porch Wednesday night, I found myself physically unable to press the doorbell. Partly because balancing the cardboard box of hardcover books was no easy task, but mostly because handing over the first copy would feel a lot like walking naked into a crowded room. I tried to focus on the positive, reminding myself that my family’s seeing the book in private surroundings might tone down some of the fuss they were bound to make in stores.
Originally, I’d scheduled my leave of absence to begin today