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Super-sexy romance with a dash of humor

Excerpt: Madly

CHAPTER ONE

A man walked into the bar.

He wore a suit and tie, and he was dripping wet.

He looked like the type who didn’t dishevel himself all that often—one of those New York City business types whose polish always made Allie feel aware of her general rumpledness. But this man had lost his polish. She could only see a bit of its faded shine in the way he carried his body, and in the dissatisfied creases at the corners of his mouth.

Frowny mouth aside, he wasn’t a bad-looking man. He was tall, with expensive-seeming close-cropped hair of an indeterminate color. Easy to look at. The kind of man who could be flirted with and bring roses to your cheeks. It had been a while for Allie, but she could still spot second-date material. He was doing that sort of middle-distance halfway squint people adopted when they entered a basement bar and wanted to take a look around without actually meeting anyone’s eyes.

The problem was, Allie wanted him to meet her eyes.

The problem was, additionally, that Mr. Second-Date Material wasn’t here to be her first date. Possibly he was looking for his real first date somewhere in the bar. It didn’t matter. Whoever Ms. First Date was, Allie needed this guy to look at her more than Ms. First Date did.

“Psst!” She rose a bit from her chair in the corner. “Hey!”

He continued his slow survey of the room, taking in the crowded bar, the bartender, the tables along one side. No doubt appreciating the Packers-themed decorations, the televisions tuned to ESPN-2, the signed black-and-white headshots arranged between mirrors behind the tables.

Pulvermacher’s was a cool bar, she’d give him that. But if the dude skimmed his eyes right past her one more time she was going to brain him with a beer stein.

She rose all the way to standing and tried to beckon him without seeming like she was beckoning. “Hey! Wet guy! Over here!”

It was a tricky thing, whisper-shouting. Not a move she’d ever had any reason to master. At the bars back home in Wisconsin, she just shouted.

Tonight, though, she had two excellent reasons not to attract attention—both of them seated at the far end of the bar. Or they had been, and presumably still would be once she managed to maneuver this guy out of the way.

She didn’t want to think what would happen if she lost them.

Don’t think. That was her motto on this particular adventure.

But the wet businessman had materialized in the precise exact wrong spot for her not-thinking plan to keep working for her, and now he’d taken his phone out. He was going to stand there all night. He would never move, and she would die.

A woman laughed. The laugh made it necessary for Allie to see what was going on at the bar.

She didn’t want to. She needed to.

“Hey, guy with the phone?” Allie pitched her voice a little louder this time—a calculated risk.

He looked up, squinting.

“Yes! You. I’m talking to you.”

He swiveled, and she gave him a frantic, low wave.

“Hi. Could you come over here for a sec?”

He did. Just like that.

Sadly, it turned out he was, if anything, more impossible to see through close up than he had been from eight feet away.

“May I help you with something?”

He had an accent—British or Australian, maybe—which made his offer sound extra surreal. Like it was coming from a villain, or maybe a spy. A real spy, instead of a fake spy like her, with her rain-frizzed hair and extra-long midwestern vowels, hiding in the corner of a New York City bar that was trying to be real Wisconsin even though men walking into it with British accents and suits definitely meant this was fake Wisconsin.

Allie made bad decisions when she felt uncomfortable. Her mom taking off right before her thirtieth wedding anniversary had made her super uncomfortable.

Which explained, in a roundabout way, why she was skulking in a trench coat on a Sunday night at the back corner table of Wisconsin-cum-Greenwich Village rather than, say, consulting with her sister, May, or her father, or her best friend Elvira, who had pointed out this bad-decision tendency of Allie’s in the first place.

Not that it was news to her. Bad decisions were just in her. She’d been the tantrum-throwing toddler, the first kindergartener to get suspended for fighting on the playground in the history of her elementary school, the middle-schooler who ran away all the way to Milwaukee and had to be retrieved with the help of police, the college student who hated her French professor so much she stopped going to class and ended up failing and tanking her GPA, and, to top it all off, the bride who canceled her wedding on the day of and cost her parents and her fiancé’s parents and her guests thousands in nonrefundable deposits.

May never even got a detention.

Don’t think about what Elvira would say, she reminded herself. Or May. For sure don’t think about May. Just fix this mess. Whatever it takes.

Fix This Mess had been her motto yesterday afternoon, when she’d figured out her mom was gone and her dad didn’t know where she’d taken off to or when she’d be back.

“It would help me out a lot if you’d let me buy you a drink,” she suggested.

“Why?” Water beaded on the shoulders of his suit jacket. His expression sat somewhere between perplexed and unflappable.

“I feel like we should.”

This brought something like a smile to his lips—not quite there, but almost. “Give me a good reason.”

At the bar, Allie’s mother laughed again. “You did not,” she said with slurred delight. “You did not!” Then a barstool scraped the floor, and she said, “I need to visit the ladies’.”

Shit.

Shit shit shit. Also, shit.

The route to the bathroom would take her mother right past her, which meant her only hope of avoiding detection was the Englishman and/or Australian standing right in front of her. But his body wouldn’t block Allie from her mother’s view—not from all the angles she’d have on Allie’s corner table as she walked by.

He needed to sit.

Allie felt mad—giddy and stupid and off her rocker. But she’d blown past her moment of decision a ways back, either when she illegally logged into her mom’s credit card account to snoop through her statements or else when Allie blew off her work, lied to her dad, and charged a last-minute plane fare from Milwaukee to Newark to her own credit card.

Either way. She didn’t have room for scruples or sensibility or whatever it was that held ordinary people back. Not anymore. She’d shoved all her chips across the table on a bluff. Her only option was to keep bluffing.

The man wanted one good reason to sit down with her. She briefly considered batting her eyelashes, but past attempts had mostly led to people asking her if she had something in her eye. Instead, she put both hands on the table, leaned forward, and said, with utter honesty, “Because you never know when the person you meet at a bar might turn out to be the most interesting thing to happen to you in all your life.”

It was true, too. Any life could turn on a dime. Hers had. Twice.

This might be the third time.

When he didn’t reply right away, she tugged at his sleeve. “Come on. What have you got to lose?”

He glanced at the phone still in his hand, thumbed it to sleep, and said, “Nothing, actually.”

Then he lowered himself into the chair next to her, slid his phone into his pocket, and stuck out his hand. “Winston Chamberlain.”

Allie glanced behind him. Her mother was fifteen feet away, six sheets to the wind, fumbling in her purse.

She extended her own hand. “I’m Allie Fredericks, and I need your help.”

He blinked. A real spy might have leaned forward and given her a conspiratorial smile, which would have conveniently removed the social discomfort of convincing a strange man to cover her while she extracted her mother from a bar and kidnapped her back to Wisconsin so she could make daisy-shaped butter mints for her anniversary party and pretend none of this had ever happened.

Allie didn’t have the luxury of caring that this man did not have the face of Harrison Ford wryly accepting a caper. Her mom had finished with her purse, taken three steps, and stopped to ask the bartender something.

“Listen, I know this is going to sound kind of crazy, but if you can just kind of bear with me, I think you’ll eventually decide it’s the good kind of crazy.”

“There’s a good kind of crazy?”

“If there’s not, people have been lying to me all my life.”

He leaned back, arms crossed. “I assume you have a proposal for me.”

She didn’t have a proposal. Why was he being so British and ridiculous? She had, like, twelve seconds to save her own ass.

“Sure. Are you ready to hear it?”

He waved his hand, a businessman’s conference room gesture. Oh my God. Dork. “Proceed.”

“Okay. So the thing is, there are two people down there at the end of the bar, and I followed them here. Any second now the woman is going to walk past this table to the bathroom. You have to make sure she doesn’t see me.”

Allie waited a beat. He lifted one eyebrow.

That was it.

Possibly he had some tiny bit of Harrison Ford in there.

“No questions so far?”

He spun his hand at her again. “Carry on.”

“Cool. So what I’m going to need you to do is lean in real close so I’m concealed behind your, um—like, so I’m sort of underneath you? And then if you could pretend to kiss me.”

One downside to letting her mouth run the show was that it said the most insane things, and then her brain had to hear them.

“Or, you know, whatever. If you don’t want to.”

She glanced at the bar. Her mother was coming. Allie grabbed Winston by his wet lapels and pulled him into her body. “I’ll owe you big-time.”

And then things got real weird.

He shifted, braced a hand on the table beside her, and suddenly he was right there—his dark eyes and his damp face and his warm breath, his body blocking out the light, the edge of the table pressing hard into her body.

“Like this?” He pitched his voice low. Three inches hummed between his lips and hers.

Maybe less than three inches.

“A little closer.” She couldn’t help it. Her mouth was too interested, and it had to know if he would do this, too.

He didn’t kiss her. But his lips and hers occupied the same space, and when he asked, “Like this?” a second time, she wasn’t sure if she heard him with her ears or with telepathy.

Or maybe in the sudden thrumming heat of his chest pressing into her breasts.

This was so stupid. And awkward.

And wrong-hot.

“Yeah. That’s perfect.”

His mouth was unfamiliar in a way she’d completely forgotten about.

“Do you do this often?” he asked.

“Which part?”

That made his eyes crinkle in a way that was caper-interested. Her upper lip brushed against a part of his mouth that her tongue flicked out to test.

His teeth.

She’d licked his teeth.

Oh, God.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“For what?”

“I’m not sure where to begin.”

He smiled. “I think she’s gone past now.”

Allie straightened, and he moved off her, settling gracefully into his seat and abandoning her to deal with the cool air he left behind and the terrible flush creeping up her neck.

She’d licked his teeth. Mata Hari could probably transfer a priceless ruby from her mouth to that of the enemy with a fly-adjusting soul kiss, and she had licked a stranger’s teeth like a squirmy puppy.

“Wow.” She polished off her rum and Coke in three deep gulps. “That was kind of epic.” She glanced at his face, but it wasn’t the sort of face she knew how to read. It wasn’t a Wisconsin face, like her dad’s, affable and mournful at the same time, or even a New York face, like May’s boyfriend, Ben, who looked like a guy falsely accused of something on Law and Order. This guy’s face was mostly inscrutable, and maybe a little amused, or possibly his face wasn’t even thinking of how it was that a strange woman had just cleaned his teeth. Possibly it was thinking about gold cuff links and mutual funds.

The only thing she could think of to say was, “Whoo.”

He laced his fingers together on his lap. “Big-time,” he said . . . contemplatively? “I wonder what you meant by that?”

The hair on the back of Allie’s neck stood up. “I guess I was thinking, you know. I could buy you a drink?”

“Is that what constitutes owing someone ‘big-time’ to you?”

“Do you have an alternate proposal?”

“I’ll need to give it some thought.” He smiled again. “In the meantime, I’ll accept the drink.”

“What do you want?”

“Whiskey, neat.”

“Any particular kind?”

“I’m not fussy. But make it a double.”

Allie rose, glanced down the bar, and then dropped back into her chair. “The thing is, I can’t get you a drink.”

“That does present a problem.”

“Only because she’s going to come back from the bathroom in a minute,” Allie explained. “If I go to the bar, she’ll see me, but if you go to the bar, she’ll also see me, which just leaves waving our arms in the air to get the bartender’s attention, and then the guy she’s with will turn around and look.”

Which absolutely couldn’t happen for a number of reasons, chief among them that the guy her mother was with was almost certainly the man whose genetic material made up exactly half of her DNA.

Another thought she didn’t have the luxury of dwelling on. Don’t think. Just fix it.

“You’re trapped,” he observed.

“I’ve been nursing that drink for like an hour.”

He crossed his legs and straightened the seams of his trousers. “May I make an observation?”

“Sure.”

“It seems you’re not terribly good at this spying business.”

“That’s fair.”

“What I’m wondering is, why not just walk over there”—he pointed past her to the passage between the bar and the back room, where a pinball machine stood—“and watch from a safer position? You’d be able to stand in the shadows just there”—he twirled his index finger in a lazy circle—“while I’d have the opportunity in a quiet moment to request the bartender’s attention and order myself a drink.”

“But—”

His finger rose to vertical, requiring her to pause.

“And then, if you like, I could watch the couple at the bar and report on their behavior, and you’d be at no risk of detection.”

Her mouth opened, but she made it close for three seconds so her brain could catch up.

It was an excellent plan. Impressively insane, but in a convincing, rational sort of way.

“You’d do that for me?”

“I’ve nothing else on the agenda at the moment. And as you said, you never know. This might be the most interesting thing that ever happens to me.”

She was really starting to like this guy. “What did you say your name was again?”

“Winston.”

“Winston. I don’t meet a lot of Winstons.”

“I don’t meet a lot of spies. Tell me something—”

But before he could finish, she heard her mother’s heels approaching, and she dove at Winston’s face.

“This again?”

She wound her arms around his neck. He moved over her, his damp knee against her stocking-clad skin, his features in crystalline focus.

He was really very handsome.

“Probably this isn’t how you normally meet girls,” she said.

“Not usually, no.”

He shifted. His weight pressed briefly into her thigh, and she broke out in goose bumps all over.

“It could be worse, though,” she pointed out. “I could be the bad kind of crazy.”

His laugh sent a thrill straight through her, and just for a moment it seemed possible—probable, even—that everything would work out okay.

It had to.

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