Merry and Bright
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“Shalvis makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me sigh with pure pleasure.” —Susan Andersen Finding Mr. Right Brilliant chemist Maggie Bell has a knack for choosing Mr. Wrong, and with yet another lonely Christmas looming, she decides it’s time to alter the equation—and seek out someone who seems totally wrong for her. Eureka! The heart is a genius . . . Bah Handsome! Behind on her bills, B&B owner Hope receives an unlikely guest—stranded solicitor Danny, who’s been threatening to put her out of business. Funny how the holidays can bring people together no matter how much they resist . . . Ms. Humbug Born rebel or overgrown man child, Matt is the kind of man no woman can tame—until an unexpected encounter with his nemesis, Cami, at the office holiday party proves there’s an exception to every rule . . .
Release date: September 24, 2019
Print pages: 320
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Merry and Bright
Take him in.
As the guy in charge of earthquake retrofitting her office building, he usually carried a roll of architectural plans in one hand and a radio in his other as he dealt with his men, looking confident—not to mention smoking-hot—and every day she thought the same thing.
She actually knew him, at least vaguely. Not that he’d remember, but twelve years ago they’d gone to high school together for one semester. Back then, she’d been a bookworm and a true science geek, and little had changed. Jacob Wahler had been the basketball star, a tough kid, though kind enough to be the only guy on his team to ever bother to smile at her. Twice she’d helped him with his chemistry homework, and then there’d been that one time he’d asked her to shut the door—when she’d walked in on him in a dark classroom with his hands down the jeans of a cheerleader.
God, she’d hated high school.
Twelve years, and she’d not ever looked back, but she was looking now. Jacob had gotten a little taller, and had filled out that long rangy body, which now appeared to be rock hard and clearly honed from the physicality of his job. And then there was everything from the neck up, which packed just as much sexual heat as the rest of him. Dark hair curling just past his collar, even darker eyes, olive skin, and a quick smile capable of melting Greenland faster than global warming.
But no matter how gorgeous, she reminded herself that guys like him weren’t her fantasy, and never had been. She was a cerebral woman, and she went for cerebral men.
It was her thing.
Unfortunately her thing wasn’t working so well. Somehow her Mr. Right always turned into Mr. Wrong, but she had other issues to worry about, such as her job.
She was lead chemist at Data Tech, a company run by two brothers, scientists who together employed other scientists on the cutting edge of technology. Tim and Scott West funded individual projects and innovative inventions that they deemed impressive and viable.
She planned on being both impressive and viable. In light of that goal, she’d been working on a skin care technology that acted as a drug delivery for cancer prevention treatments and gene repair agents. The idea wasn’t new, it was actually in the preliminary experimental stages at many labs across the world, but no one had been consistently successful, not yet. She was close to it though, possibly within the next year or so—if Data Tech continued to fund her.
Tim and Scott had a lot to gain in her success, as they would claim the fame and fortune from it. Maggie didn’t care about that, what she cared about was revolutionizing the delivery of drugs to the bloodstream. Every time she thought about it and the possibilities—treating skin cancer, for example, a method which could have saved her own mother—she felt so hopeful about the future, about saving lives, that she could hardly stand it.
What this meant, what it had meant for two long years, was work, work, and more work, and little-tono social life—hence drooling after Jacob Wahler, aka Sexy Contractor Guy. Today alone she’d been in her lab since eight A.M., and as it was six P.M. now, her eyes were a little blurry. She knew she needed to call it a day and go home to the empty condo she’d bought last year.
Unbelievably, here it was again, a week before Christmas and she’d scarcely noticed the festive decorations all around her, much less even pulled out her own boxed tree and Christmas stocking for Santa. And really, what could Santa possibly bring her anyway?
A man . . .
That thought came out of nowhere but it was true. She wanted a man for Christmas. She realized it was sexist and anti-feminist, and set women back decades but she didn’t care. She was a chemist, a woman with a brain who knew how to use it, and she was using it now to wish for a man.
Tonight she’d settle for a man-made orgasm . . .
Wow, she was more tired than she’d thought, and she slipped out of her lab coat, flipped off the lights in the lab, and headed into her connecting office. There she shut her laptop and slid it into her briefcase. She was going to go home, find her Christmas decorations, and get festive. Maybe sip some eggnog and try to figure out how to get un-alone. She walked out of her office and into the construction zone as she headed toward the elevators and told herself in the grand scheme of things, she was fine. Fine.
Okay, that was a few too many fines, but she really was.
“Hey, Mags.” Scott West, boss number one, poked his head out of his office, having to peer around a ladder. He was very cute, which usually made her dizzy if she looked at him too long. He wore a white lab coat over his expensive Hugo Boss shirt and pants, looking like a very expensive Doogie Howser. He was a nice catch, and they’d gone out once several weeks back, and that had been really nice, too. But then he’d gone traveling, and she’d been buried in her lab testing and reporting on the results, and . . . and they’d not gotten together again.
“Did you get a look at the showroom today?” he asked.
The showroom was on the lobby floor, filled with all the inventions Data Tech had funded, like the rainmaker that harvested water from the air, a motorized pool lounger, a human exoskeleton that could carry heavy loads over long distances, snorkel radio gear, lightbulb sheets, and any of a hundred other wild and crazy things.
“There’s a new exhibit,” he told her. “Floating furniture made with matching sets of repelling magnets. The couch can support up to two thousand pounds, can you believe it? How cool is that, a floating couch?”
“Very,” she said, wondering who would want a floating couch.
He smiled. “I’m putting one in my office. They’re carrying it up now. Want to stick around and see?”
Was he gearing up to finally ask her out again? Unlike Jacob, Scott was her type. She knew this. He was cerebral, brilliant really, and extremely into science, which made him perfect.
“Hey.” This from boss number two, who poked his head out of his office, right next to his brother’s.
They were identical twins. Crazily competitive twins, with Tim into robotics and Scott into molecular bionics. They ran Data Tech as a legacy to their father, while each doing their damnedest to one up the other, at work, at play, in any way they could.
Tim tossed a glass vial to Maggie. Her latest formula, which she’d given him a few days ago. “It’s beautiful,” he told her. “But we’ve added a secret ingredient. Let us know what you think.”
She held the vial up to the light but didn’t see any change. “What is it?”
“Tim,” Scott said, suddenly looking unhappy. “I—”
“Just something to smooth the formula,” Tim said over Scott. “It’s a secret until you let us know if you like it.”
“I’ll try it out tonight.” She’d been running test groups on the drug delivery formula using Vitamin B3 and other essential oils as the drug of choice. So far, she’d been inconsistently successful, but she would get there.
“Tim.” Scott sent his brother a long look. “I thought we—you know I wanted to . . .”
“Spit it out, bro.”
But Scott appeared to have lost his words, and just glanced at his brother.
“Lethologica,” Maggie said. “The state of not being able to find the word you want.” She patted Scott’s arm. “Don’t worry, it happens to me all the time, it’ll pass.”
Scott blinked and she smiled, but he didn’t return it. “I’ll test it for you,” he said instead, reaching for the vial. “No need for you to have to.”
“Oh, no, that’s okay. I don’t mind at all.”
“She doesn’t mind,” Tim said to Scott. “Let it go. ’Night, Maggie.”
Maggie looked at Scott, who clearly wasn’t going to ask her out now. “ ’Night.”
“Maggie.” Scott eyed the vial. “I really think—”
“ ’Night,” Tim repeated, putting a hand over his twin’s face and pushing him back into his office. “Don’t have too much fun tonight, Maggie.”
Okay, they were acting strange. But who was she to judge? As for having fun, ha. After a lifetime of being the nerd, of going to Stanford three years ahead of her peers, of completing college before anyone her age had even begun, she’d gotten damn good at not having fun.
And wasn’t that just the problem.
Turning, she walked to the elevator. She could see Jacob and his crew at work, just down the hall. He stood on a ladder, pulling a hammer out of his tool belt, reaching far above him to a ceiling tile, that long, hard body all stretched taut . . .
The elevator dinged and she stepped into it, craning her neck, not to see all the pretty decorations, but to catch the last view of Jacob’s tush as the doors slid shut. Was Scott’s butt that cute? Since he always wore a white lab coat, she couldn’t say.
Outside, she drew in a breath of the cool L.A. evening air and headed to her car as her cell phone rang. It was her sister Janie, a UCLA professor who did not have the geek gene. Nope, Janie had somehow snagged a normal life for herself. She’d married and brought two beautiful kids into the world, and was determined to make sure Maggie did the same.
“Hey, Mags.” Janie’s mouth was clearly full. “Sorry, chocolate stuck in my teeth.”
“Don’t tell me you’re still eating leftover Halloween candy.”
“A Baby Ruth bar. Sinful, I’m telling you. Why do you think they call it a Baby Ruth? Why not a Baby Jane or something?”
“It was supposedly named for Grover Cleveland’s baby daughter.”
“Your brain works in the oddest ways.”
“Uh-huh. And do you also know if you’re coming for Christmas Eve?”
“Bringing the pumpkin pie.”
“Spending the night?”
“Wouldn’t want to miss Santa.”
A lie, and they both knew it. Maggie just didn’t want to be alone in her condo on Christmas morning. “What am I supposed to get you for Christmas, by the way? You already have everything you could want.”
“You could bring a date.”
When Maggie laughed, Janie sighed. “Well, you could try. Your Mr. Right is just right around the corner, I know it.”
“Yes, but which corner?” Maggie stopped beside her sensible Toyota and searched for her keys, blowing out an irritated breath when she realized she was completely blocked in by Tim’s not sensible Porsche. “Dammit.” She whirled back to the building. “I have to go kill my boss.”
“Invite someone from work,” Janie said. “Not the boss you’re going to kill, but the other one.”
“I want him to ask me out. But my Mr. Rights all seem gun shy.”
“Then invite a Mr. Wrong.”
“You mean purposely go out with someone who isn’t right for me?”
“Honey, you’ve gone two years without sex. What do you have to lose by changing tactics? I mean, honest to God, your good parts are going to wither from nonuse.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do, just take off my clothes and have wild sex with the first guy I come across?”
“Yes,” Janie said. “The first wrong guy, the one you wouldn’t normally go out with.”
“You want me to have sex with Mr. Wrong.”
“Use a condom.”
Maggie laughed. “You can’t be serious.”
“Seriously serious. You need to go for the first Mr. Wrong to cross your path—as long as he’s not an ax murderer or rapist,” she qualified. “And probably he should have a job and love his mother. That can be my Christmas present—you having sex with Mr. Wrong. Promise me.”
Since that was as unlikely to happen as having sex with a Mr. Right, Maggie laughed as she walked back into the building. Back on the sixth floor, she dodged through the obstacle course of construction equipment. The construction crew was desperately trying to finish before Christmas, and apparently they were working late tonight. Still on the phone with her sister, she ducked under a ladder, over a cord, and then around a huge stack of unused drywall, catching her shoulder on the sharp edge. She heard the rip of her coat and sighed as she dropped her briefcase to look. “Dammit.”
“What?” Janie asked. “Mr. Wrong?”
“No! Jeez. Hold on.” She bent for her briefcase, just as someone beat her to it, scooping up the loose change that had spilled out.
“Thanks—” Maggie lifted her head and froze at the wide chest in her vision.
A chest that once upon a time she’d dreamed about in chemistry. She took the coins from Jacob’s big, work-roughened palm, her nerves suddenly crackling as well as all the good spots Janie had mentioned, which meant that they hadn’t withered up, at least not yet. “Three quarters, four dimes, and four pennies,” she said. “$1.19.”
“That’s fast math.”
Yes, her brain always sped up when she was anxious. Plus, there was the other thing. She was also a little revved up. Sexually speaking. Which was Janie’s fault, she decided, for putting the idea of hot sex in her head in the first place. “A dollar and nineteen cents is the largest amount of money in coins you can have and still not be able to make change for a dollar.”
He blinked, then nodded. “That’s . . . inter--esting.”
“It’s fact.” Oh, God. Shut up.
“Who’s that?” Janie whispered in her ear. “Who are you talking to? A man? It’s got to be a man because you’re spouting off useless trivia like you do when you’re nervous. Oh! He’s your Mr. Wrong, isn’t he? Ask him to have hot sex with you! ”
“Hush,” Maggie said, and Jacob blinked again. Oh, God. “Not you.” She stood, and he did the same, giving her a quick peek of him close up and personal. His scuffed work boots, the mile-long legs and lean hips, covered in Levi’s, all faded and stressed white in all the right places, of which there appeared to be a tantalizing many. God bless denim . . . “Thanks, Jacob.”
At his surprise, she nodded. “Yeah, we know each other, or used to. Chem 101, your junior year at South Pasadena High. Before you moved to New Orleans.”
“Maggie Bell?” His eyes warmed. “I remember now. You came up directly from eighth grade, right? You saved my ass that year.”
“Jacob . . .” Janie whispered in her ear. “I don’t remember a Jacob. Is he cute?”
Yeah, he was cute. Cute like a wild cheetah. As in look but don’t touch. And while she stood there, still enjoying his jeans—what was with her?—her mouth ran loose. “Until you and your crew started retrofitting the building, the dress code around here was pretty much limited to white lab coats.”
His mouth quirked. “I can’t climb ladders in a white lab coat.”
“No, no it’s okay.” So okay. “I get tired of looking at all that white anyway. So it’s good that you’re not.” Oh, just shut up already! “Wearing one,” she added weakly.
“You should probably not talk anymore,” Janie said, ever so helpfully over the phone.
Maggie bit her lip to keep it shut. He was so close, so big. And she felt a little like a doe caught in the headlights.
“You tore your coat,” he said, and fingered the hole.
At his touch, her body tightened, and her mouth opened again. “It’s okay. I tend to do things like this a lot.”
“Run into drywall?”
“Run into stuff, period.” Someone had opened a window, and the evening breeze came in, as well as the sounds from the street six floors below. Traffic, an airplane, a sudden blare of a horn so loud she jumped.
“Just a car,” he said.
“In the tone of an F.”
“All car horns are in the chord of F.”
He did that eyebrow arch thing again.
“Jesus, Mags. Stop talking!” Janie demanded in her ear.
“Okay, I’ve really got to go.”
“Wait!” Janie yelled. “Ask him out first, you promised! You have to do him, and get him to do you—”
Maggie slapped her phone shut before Jacob could hear her crazy sister. Yes, he was Mr. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But what was she supposed to do, say Hey, how do you feel about me jumping your bones? Probably she should start with a dinner invite and work her way up to the jumping bones part. Yeah, that was it, that was how normal women did these things. Okay. She took both a big breath and a small step backward for distance, but Jacob curled his fingers into the front of her jacket and caught her up against him.
Not that she was complaining, but... “Um—”
He gestured to the bucket of nails she’d nearly stepped in, and she winced. His body, plastered to hers, was as hard as it appeared. And warm. Very, very warm. “Thanks.”
“Maybe you should just stand real still,” he suggested, and let go of her.
“Yes, except I don’t stand still very well. I only do still when I’m lying down.”
He arched a brow, those deep chocolate brown eyes lighting up with amusement to go with the heat still there, making her realize the double entendre she’d just said. “You know what I mean.”
He just smiled, and turned his head toward a crew member who came up to him with a McDonald’s bag.
“Burgers on the run.” Jacob took the food. “Thanks.”
Maggie’s mouth once again ran away from her brain. “There’re one hundred seventy-. . .
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