Better as a Memory by Marilyn Baxter
Atlanta image consultant Victoria Sharpe is about to give a makeover to the man who broke her heart in college, and a do-over to a love that always should have been.
Looking at her potential client, Atlanta image consultant Victoria Sharpe is convinced the job will be a cross between What Not to Wear and Man vs. Wild. She’d love to turn down the offer, but refusing it—not to mention the referrals it could generate—just might break the bank. Yet, agreeing to make over this man’s image might also break her heart. Again.
Max Brown will tolerate anything to gain access to his trust fund. Returning to work in the family business, even submitting to his mother’s demands to trade his comfortable flannel for Armani is worthwhile if he can get the money necessary to start a camp for at-risk boys. But then he sees he’ll be working with Victoria Sharpe, his college girlfriend, the one who got away. Or, really, the one he left. The impression he makes here will be the most important of his life, and the person most as risk is himself.
Why had she accepted this job? And why did she continue to let Max get to her? With any other client, she’d lay out the program and stand her ground at any signs of resistance. So what made Max any different?
Maybe the fact they’d spent a couple of years sharing each other’s beds? Or the fact she knew every inch of his lean, muscular body just as he knew every inch of hers? Or that he looked like a cool drink of water on a hot day—especially to a woman who’d been in a sexual desert for too many years.
How was she going to break it to Max that the third session of her image makeover program also included a facial and manicure? If he resisted shaving his beard, she knew for certain he’d want no part of a manicure. Maybe she’d just spring it on him once they got to Zachary’s, the upscale men’s salon where she referred her clients. Surely he wouldn’t make a scene in the middle of downtown? Or would he?
“So, a shave and a haircut, and then what? Getting my legs waxed?”
Oh yeah. She definitely wasn’t mentioning the manicure just yet.
“We’ll have a session where I show you how to take the pieces we’ve bought and mix and match to create different looks.”
“Different looks? This is beginning to sound suspiciously girly.”
Was he really this obtuse? Or was he simply trying to annoy her? She could make a reasonable argument for either based on their past history. But their history was just that—history. And now she had a job to do—a job that would pay the rent and with any luck, lead to more clients of the same stature as Brown Industries.
She inhaled a calming breath and chose her words carefully. “What I mean is you need different clothing for different events, and if you shop wisely, you can make items serve double duty.”
A broad grin split his face. “I get it. You mean like buying silk boxers so you can wear them as underwear and sleep in them too.”
Damn him, but he was goading her deliberately. No way this man could be doing anything but his level best to make her lose her cool and spin out of control like a Category Five hurricane. So perhaps if she played along, he’d see she was unflappable and stop with the games.
“Precisely, Max. See? This image thing isn’t so hard after all, is it?”
“Do you still sleep in tee-shirts and bikini panties like you used to? I kind of liked that sort of double duty.”
Without missing a beat, Victoria continued with her presentation, determined not to let Max’s off-topic interruptions get the best of her. “The fourth session also includes a lesson on effective packing for a business trip. I’ve seen businessmen pack for a week abroad with one small carry-on suitcase.”
“And session five? What is that, Victoria?”
“That’s business etiquette and communication. I’ll tell you some of the secrets for winning over your customers and keeping them happy.”
“Is that what you’re doing with me now? Winning me over and keeping me happy?”
“I always practice what I teach,” she said, smiling while she dug her fingernails into her palms. She was cool and collected on the outside—or at least she hoped that was the image she portrayed. But on the inside, she regretted ever getting involved with Max Brown again. As annoying as he’d been, his good looks and easygoing manner reminded her of their days together when they’d had few worries and lots of time to spend together enjoying each other’s company.
Max could see her reflection in the mirror behind her, see her fisting her hands under the table. He had achieved what he set out to do: unnerve her and get her off balance. So why did he not enjoy it more? Where was the thrill of victory?
“We need to go to the house now to begin step one.” Victoria dropped her pen into her briefcase and shut the folder.
“I don’t live with the family. I have a loft not far from here. We can take a taxi there unless you brought your car and want to drive.”
“A taxi is fine,” she lied, not wanting to be any closer to him than necessary. But he was the client. “I just need to see what is in your closet that might be useful.”
“It’s all useful.”
“I supposed what you’re wearing now is very useful if you’re trapping wild animals or clomping along a mountain trail.” Her tone was clipped and tight.
Max leaned back and propped his foot on the edge of the table. “I guarantee these shoes cost as much as those fancy-ass boots of yours. And if you think a good fleece jacket isn’t useful, you should try surviving alone on a mountainside in December without one.”
He knew he was being obstinate. But if it riled her up and made her sigh like she used to after they’d made love, he’d be as stubborn as possible. And oh hell, he really didn’t need to think about Victoria and sex.
“I meant useful for your position here at Brown Industries.” Victoria released a long sigh, and Max felt his groin tighten.
Damn, maybe baiting her wasn’t such a good idea after all. And now he had to take her to his small living quarters where she would see the sofa first and then the king-size bed as soon as she walked through the front door. He had been in a rush that morning and had left the bed unmade. But that didn’t worry him as much as the pair of black silk boxers he’d left on the floor of his closet.
She made polite conversation during the fifteen-minute taxi ride, and Max didn’t bother to apologize for not straightening things up as he unlocked the door and shoved it open. He let Victoria enter before him, showing her he did have a few manners under his belt. Besides, the more he mentioned the mess, the more she was bound to notice things—like the socks under the coffee table and the coffee mugs piled high in the sink. Maybe he could kick the boxers out of the way before she—
“Is your closet back this way?” she inquired, her boot heels tapping against the tile floor leading to the back of the loft.
So much for that plan.
He followed and then heard a gasp when she opened the closet doors and saw the rows of fleece, flannel and corduroy. He seemed to remember her wearing her share of denim in college, but back then, they were only trying to get through their classes and get back to his apartment or hers so they could study and then fall into bed together. Once he’d dropped out and headed west, he had to dress for the elements, not to meet someone’s standards of style.
She, on the other hand, worked in a business where looks mattered. He studied her from behind and took in the curve of her hips and the way her dress skimmed that curve. Her hair, which she’d worn pulled back in a ponytail in college, barely reached her shoulders. And the heels she wore all the time brought her nearly eye level with him.
“You certainly are set for the next trip through the Donner Pass,” she said. One corner of her mouth turned up ever so slightly.
“Come along with me and I promise I won’t eat you up,” he replied without thinking of the double meaning his words might have. “I’ll protect you.” He grunted and pounded his fists against his chest.
“If you think you’re getting out of our shopping trip by sweet-talking me, think again, wild man.”
“Sweet-talking? Me?” The easy banter between them felt good. It felt right. Just like it had before he’d decided he couldn’t live in Tripp’s shadow anymore. “That wasn’t sweet talk, but I can turn it on if you like.”
I could turn you on, too, just like you’ve done to me. The rogue thought sped through his mind.
Just then, Victoria knelt, and when she rose, his underwear hung from her index finger.
“I see you weren’t joking about black silk boxers.” She swung them back and forth like a red cape in front of a bull.
He grabbed her hand to still it and took the garment from her. “Sweetheart, I never joke about anything black or silk.”
She drew in a sharp breath, stepped back and stumbled. Her chestnut eyes widened and Max could almost see his reflection in her dilated pupils. She looked as scared as a rabbit cornered by a wolf. And at that moment, Max certainly felt like a big, bad one. He steadied her and when he felt her familiar shape beneath his hands, he pulled her into his arms, then pivoted and backed her against the closet wall.
“This isn’t a good idea, Max. Our relationship is business.” Her voice was a throaty whisper.
“Right.” He took her chin between his thumb and index finger and tilted her face upward. “Strictly business,” he repeated as he brushed his knuckles against her cheek, then down to that sweet spot at the base of her neck he always loved to kiss. “Don’t tell me you don’t feel something between us.”
“I don’t. Give up, Max. There’s no chance I’m going to fall for your charms again.”
“Ahhh.” He drew out the word thoughtfully. “So you admit it. I’m charming.”
She huffed out an exasperated breath. “You know what I mean.”
“You’re not tempted at all?” He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and let his finger trail along the lobe.
She swallowed hard. “No.”
“Not a little? Not curious to see if we still have the same zing we had between us in college?”
“Not a chance.”
He lowered his head and brushed his mouth against hers.
Victoria remained motionless as he nibbled her bottom lip, then zeroed straight in on that sweet spot.
“Do you remember how you liked this, Victoria?” He slid his hand up her body and cupped her breast through her dress, teasing the nipple with his thumb. “And this?” he asked as the other hand, wrapped in black silk, slipped under her dress and up her thigh. His body reacted to her as if they’d never been apart, and he cradled his erection in the juncture of her thighs.
She drew in a shaky breath and seemed to gather strength from it. “I’ve forgotten. Just like I’ve forgotten that the man I thought loved me sent me a good-bye email instead of having the decency to tell me in person.”
Her frank summary of his actions was like a slap across the face. He released his hold on her and took a step backward.
“I think it’s safe to say you need to purchase a complete business wardrobe from the ground up.” She smoothed down her dress and shifted right back into business mode. “Have your secretary call my office and schedule a day to do it. I can let myself out and call a taxi while you deal with…” She waved her hand in the direction of his crotch as he willed his blood to re-route itself to his brain.
And then she was gone, the front door clicking shut behind her. Max slammed his fist against the wall and cursed the world for putting him back in the path of the only woman who had ever made him consider settling down. He realized his life had fast forwarded from focused to chaos, and he could pinpoint the exact moment when it happened: when he had seen Victoria holding those damned black boxers.
He had never loved another woman like he’d loved Victoria. But he had known things would never work between them and had left before he did something stupid like propose. He still had no room for a woman in his life—at least not for the long haul. But seeing Victoria again had dislodged some of the ice in his soul. He just needed to convince his body to stop reacting to her in such visceral ways.
She might think he wasn’t decent because he sent his good-byes via cyberspace, but he knew he’d done the right thing. He was better as a bad memory than as someone who would ruin her life.
In 2001, Marilyn discovered romance novels quite by accident, which led to a renewed interest in writing. She’s had over forty stories published in the confessions and romance magazines and taught a class in how to effectively write for this genre. She is a member of Romance Writers of America and her local RWA chapter, Heart of Dixie Romance Writers. Her involvement on the local and national levels has combined to give her a great love of the romance genre and to develop friendships that span the globe.
In addition to reading and writing, Marilyn loves to knit simple things, cook in the crockpot and garden in a few pots on her patio. Her motto is “Have passport, will travel,” and she recently added Ireland and Wales to the list of 32 states and 21 foreign countries she has visited.
A native of North Carolina, she came to Huntsville, Alabama by way of Frankfurt, Germany. She has lived there longer than anywhere else and calls it home. After raising two great sons, she loves to dote on her two granddaughters. And somewhere amidst all the above, she fits in a day job as an administrative assistant for a boutique law firm.
Sneak Peeks are our way of helping readers find new books and authors and get previews. Please share and/or comment! Thank you!