Marrying Mister Perfect by Lizzie Shane

“How much do you love me?”

Miranda wedged the cell phone between her ear and shoulder, missing her Bluetooth like a phantom limb and wondering how many anti-cell phone laws she was breaking as she swung the oversized rental car into the narrow parking lot of Mel’s Place. “That depends,” she told her assistant. “Are you asking for a raise?”
Marrying Mister Perfect
Marrying Mister Perfect by Lizzie Shane
“No. but if you feel like showering me with gifts when you hear my news, I take Armani and Gucci,” Todd said, sounding smugly confident that whatever gossip he had was that good. Miranda steered the rental slowly through the lot, searching for a space wide enough for the behemoth of American machinery and its crappy turning radius. She spared a single longing thought for her mini-Cooper as she began the twenty-seven-point turn necessary to wedge the SUV into the only available space. “So what’s this news that’s going to inspire me to max out my credit card in your honor?” “After Damien Ross was arrested last night in Florida—” “Wait—what?” She slammed on the brakes and the SUV jerked to a stop so abruptly it rocked for a moment afterward. She twisted around to make sure she hadn’t grazed anything with the behemoth. Damien Ross. The astronaut who was supposed to star in the season shooting in three weeks. “What did he do?” “Drunk and disorderly, driving under the influence, speeding, reckless endangerment—you name it. So far each of the networks is leading with a different charge. How have you not seen the coverage? I thought you were in Chicago, not the dark side of the moon. Besides, Glen has sent out like fifteen emails about getting in front of the problem.” “My emails haven’t been syncing properly to my phone since I updated it, and my mother has a strict no television policy whenever I visit.” She cautiously resumed her park-and-wiggle routine, finally managing to get the behemoth into the narrow space. “So Damien’s out?” “Oh yeah,” Todd said with inappropriate relish—he did love drama, which was an advantage in their line of work. “Getting hammered and trying to break the land speed record in his Corvette isn’t exactly wholesome Mister Perfect behavior. Marketing is already stripping his name from all the press releases and getting ready to pimp our new guy.” “They can’t be thinking of using Javier.” Their back-up Mister Perfect had been in the tabloids nonstop for the last few months—most recently with a sexting scandal. Trading a drunk driver for a womanizer wasn’t going to improve the image of the show. “Glen suggested Albert.” Miranda groaned. “He can’t be serious. Albert is a sweetie, but he’s the most boring man on the planet. We can’t build a season around him.” But she had a feeling her boss was, indeed, serious. “He is serious,” Todd echoed her thoughts. “And that’s where my news comes in.” “The news that’s going to make me want to buy you expensive gifts.” “Glen is out.” Miranda’s heart almost stopped beating. It was lucky the car was already in park or she probably would have totaled it. “Say that again.” “The network guys are pissed. Ratings have been falling off, ad revenues are down, and now Glen is in damage control mode rather than using the publicity to pimp the new season. Glen doesn’t know it yet, but I have it on very good authority from the big guy’s executive assistant that Glen will be packing his desk before you get back from your little family weekend.” “Oh my God.” “Exactly. They’re going to need a new Glen.” Executive producer of Marrying Mister Perfect. Her freaking dream job. Holy shit. “And whoever lands them a new Mister Perfect to make this season of the show the hottest goddamn ticket on television…” “Has a pretty solid argument for taking over Glen’s job,” Todd finished for her. “Todd, I love you.” “Should I reschedule your flight home for this afternoon?” Miranda groaned. “Shit. No. If I leave before my brother’s wedding on Saturday, my mother will disown me.” She tapped a rapid pattern on the steering wheel, wishing she hadn’t made her mother that idiotic promise that she would leave her iPad in Los Angeles. “Do you still have that friend at Dancing with the Stars?” “Remy? Of course.” “Call him. See if they have any minor celebrities who didn’t make it onto their show who might be interested in some extra publicity this season. But it has to be someone with a squeaky clean reputation. Someone we can really sell as Mister Perfect. I’ll work my contacts from here and with any luck we’ll have someone ready to sign before my flight lands at Burbank on Sunday.” “We make our own luck,” Todd said, parroting one of her favorite sayings. “Damn right we do. Good work, Todd.” She disconnected the call, tempted to immediately start making calls, but a glance at the time showed she was already late for her lunch date. Crudly. It was tempting to cancel the lunch entirely and take the two hours her mother expected her to be gone to call everyone she knew in LA who might have a lead on a Mister Perfect candidate, but Louisa Tanner had been a good friend for too long. And it had been too long since they’d seen one another. Miranda hadn’t been back to the Forrest Park suburb of Chicago in over five years—not even for Christmas, as her mother loved to moan. Lou was the only one of her old high school friends who had kept up with her in that time, never seeming to mind when Miranda’s crazy schedule made her take months to reply to an email or return a phone call. Lou didn’t deserve to be stood up—even if the opportunity of a freaking lifetime had just been dropped in Miranda’s lap. So she hitched up her big girl panties and climbed out of the behemoth, heading into Mel’s Place—the diner that hadn’t changed so much as a plate since it had been their favorite high school hangout. Lou was waiting in the third booth on the left and Miranda was suddenly very glad she hadn’t canceled when her friend popped out of the booth with a wide grin and a squeal of delight. “Miranda-freaking-Pierce.” Miranda felt an answering dopey smile splitting her face and rushed forward. “Louisa-flipping-Tanner.” She threw her arms around her friend and they laughed, rocking back and forth, before separating and tumbling into either side of the booth. For the first time she really felt like she was home, sitting across from someone who didn’t want something from her—or secretly want her job—for the first time in ages. “I’m glad you finally stopped boycotting Forrest Park. What’s it been? Fifteen, sixteen years?” Lou teased, pale blue eyes sparkling. “Five. And yet you look exactly the same. Do you just not age? You could still pass for seventeen if you didn’t look so maternal.” Lou’s hair was still the same mousey shade halfway between blonde and brown, scraped back into a messy ponytail. She looked like she hadn’t put on an ounce in the eleven years since high school, but she still hadn’t learned how to dress for her body—the Mom Uniform of jeans and a light knit sweater hung off her body making her look more shapeless than she was. But her eyes gleamed and dimples flashed. She practically glowed with happiness. Lou Tanner was happy. The thought warmed something in Miranda. Proof that there was justice in the world. “Mommy-hood clearly agrees with you.” Lou flushed. “Oh, I’m not—“ The pubescent waiter appeared with their waters and Lou broke off her protest. They both ordered their high school usuals—chocolate chip pancakes and a strawberry shake for Miranda, Monte Cristo sandwich and a root beer for Lou. “Thank God you haven’t become one of those gluten-free-no-carb-no-fat-no-flavor Californians,” Lou said as the kid headed off to put in their order. Miranda flapped a hand casually. “Calories don’t count on vacation and since this is my first vacation in five years, I might as well live it up.” She grinned, leaning across the table. “So tell me all about you and Sexy Jack. When did you two finally stop pretending you were just friends and start playing house?” # Lou felt the blush start at her collarbones and creep toward her face, gaining intensity as it rose. By the time it hit her eyebrows, it had reached Def Con One and she knew her entire face would be purple. “We aren’t actually—that is we never actually—it isn’t—” She forced herself to stop babbling and spit it out. “We aren’t together like that. Still just friends. I’ve just been helping him out with his kids since his wife died.” Miranda’s face fell with comic speed. “You’re kidding. That was like four years ago, right? I thought, from your emails…” And Lou had let her think that. She’d let everyone she didn’t see in person think that she and Jack and the kids were one big happy family. The Facebook Illusion. It wasn’t her fault if they drew the wrong conclusion when they saw the Christmas card poses, right? “It wasn’t originally meant to be a long-term arrangement, but it really is the best thing for all of us. Jack doesn’t have to worry about hiring some stranger to look after Emma and TJ while he’s at the hospital and I have a free place to stay while I’m getting my Masters.” Though she hadn’t taken many classes lately—amazing how much time a four-year-old and a six-year-old could take up. But she loved her life—right up until she had to explain their situation to anyone on the outside. Then her purely platonic pseudo-nanny relationship with Jack always seemed somehow pathetic rather than ideal. Lou’s shoulders tensed defensively as she looked across the table at Miranda—who had shot out of town for USC at eighteen as if she was rocket-propelled and didn’t look like she understood the meaning of the phrase stuck-in-a-rut. Her once brown hair was now a stark platinum blonde, cut short and asymmetrically so it was all sharp, jagged angles and attitude—but somehow still accentuating the shape of her face and the slight upward slant of Miranda’s brown eyes. Her nails were short and black—just like her skirt. Dark, patterned leggings hugged her thighs and disappeared into snug knee-high black leather boots with heels that would’ve had Lou breaking an ankle in record time if she’d attempted to walk in them. Miranda’s top half was layered with a funky mix of shirts and light-weight sweaters and scarves in clashing colors that somehow managed to come together into a look that was terrifyingly sophisticated. As sophisticated as the knowing twinkle in the eyes that peered at Lou from behind thick, black-framed glasses—glasses Miranda wouldn’t have been caught dead in back in high school. But this wasn’t high school—even if Lou’s feeling of being hopelessly outclassed was eerily familiar. “I’m sure you’re amazing at it and you look super happy,” Miranda said. “I’m just surprised. I kind of figured you’d be a simultaneous translator for some fancy French diplomat by now. Or living in Milan or something. The way you always talked about Europe…” “I know.” Lou picked at a splotch of dried Go-Gurt on her cuff. “But I’m crazy about the kids. I can’t imagine leaving them now.” “Wait, so Dr. Hottie pays the bills, you stay home to look after the kids, and there’s absolutely no sex?” “Yep.” “Sounds a lot like marriage to me.” Lou rolled her eyes. “Har har.” “Seriously, though, hon, you seem like a kick-ass mommy type, and I was genuinely happy for you every time I read another sickeningly cute post—but that was when I thought the hot doctor was taking care of your needs on a nightly basis. A girl needs orgasms, Lou-Lou. Are you even dating?” “There’s more to life than sex.” “Spoken like a woman who’s never met a man who can rattle her blinds.” Miranda took a long sip of water, studying Lou over the rim of her glass. “You aren’t still hung up on Dr. Jack, are you? That isn’t why you’re…” “Of course not!” Lou’s blush reached critical levels. “God, that silly crush was a lifetime ago and it was nothing. A blip. I don’t know why I even told you about it. Thank God he never found out. Can you imagine? If he even dreamed I was ever interested in him like that? Our friendship is so important to both of us and introducing sex into the equation would ruin everything—” “You about done? Or do you want to keep protesting how little interest you have in Sexy Jack? Not that I would blame you. After I saw that picture you posted of him shirtless on the beach last month, I needed a freaking cigarette. Honey, I’d be more surprised if you weren’t lusting after him.” “We’re friends.” “With absolutely no benefits? You’re never tempted to jump on that? Because you live with the hottest man I’ve ever seen in real life. And that’s saying something. I work in television.” Lou lunged for the topic change with embarrassing desperation. “And how is life as a hotshot TV producer?” “Subtle transition,” Miranda said dryly. “But I’ll allow it because now we get to talk about me.” Her wry grin took the narcissism out of the comment. “Life in TV? I love it. It’s a constant competition. You kill yourself to get to the top. Then you kill whoever you must to stay there.” Lou sent her an arch look. “Murdered anyone lately?” “Not that they can pin on me. But this season is going to be even more cut-throat than usual. We just lost our Mister Perfect and now in the frenzy to replace him there’s blood in the water and we can all smell it.” “You make it sound like Jaws. I thought you were all lovey-dovey hearts-and-flowers.” “Honey, it’s about so much more than the romance. America wants a man they can fall in love with, a minimum of two women they can root for, at least one woman they can hate, a cat fight or two, buckets of tears, no less than three betrayals, an ambulance is always good for ratings and there still has to be that something else. That something new and unique that keeps it from feeling like the same show they’ve been watching for twelve seasons. I need a twist.” “How can it be new? It’s the oldest story in the world, isn’t it? Boy meets girl, falls in love, and they live happily ever after?” “Yes, couples have been falling in love on national television since the days of Adam and Eve.” Miranda flashed a self-deprecating grin and Lou laughed. The waiter appeared with their food and they were temporarily distracted by the orgy of deliciousness on the table. “I wish I could help you find your twist,” Lou said, dragging a fry through her mustard. “But I’m just a housewife who isn’t even a wife.” Miranda’s fork froze, suspended between her plate and her mouth, and a terrifying gleam entered her eyes. “What if I could help you with that?” Lou fought down a sense of dread. “What do you mean?” “What if I could free you up to see the world by finding Jack a new wife? Widowed heart surgeon with a heart of gold, abs of steel, and two of the cutest kids on the planet? I can work with that. Oh honey, can I ever.” “Oh no.” Lou put down her Monte Cristo before she choked on it. “No, no, no, no.” She could see why Miranda would want Jack for the next season of Marrying Mister Perfect. He was certified fantasy-bait. God knew he’d been Lou’s personal fantasy since they were fourteen, though she’d take that secret to her grave. Six-foot-two, with the body of an Olympic athlete. His thick brown hair had just the right amount of curl and a tendency toward sexy disarray—complete with a single lock that always fell over one eye when he was concentrating. A heart surgeon, a fabulous father, and an all around nice guy, Jack was the kind of man who helped little old ladies and held car doors. And then there was the piece de resistance—the eyes. Laser blue Paul Newman eyes edged by crinkly little laugh lines and filled with a constant twinkle. Those eyes were lethal to the female equilibrium. Lou knew that better than anyone. “He would never agree to it. He hates shows like that. No offense.” “None taken. I hate them too. Almost as much as I love them. But just think of it. Dr. McHottie with a ready-made family and a hole in his heart just waiting to be filled. I could market the hell out of him.” Miranda paused, swirling her straw through her shake as she eyed Lou. “Unless you still have a thing for him... I’d never cock-block one of my oldest, bestest friends.” A thing for him? Try a torch the size of the Statue of Liberty’s that she’d been carrying for the oblivious man for the last decade. “No, I’ve got no claim on him. But you’re nuts if you think you can make Jack your next Mr. Perfect. As flattered as I’m sure he would be, you’d never get him to agree to it.” The terrifying gleam got brighter and Miranda’s grin turned wicked. “Don’t challenge me, Lou. You know I’ve never heard a no I couldn’t turn into a yes.” Lou just smiled. She knew Miranda was determined, charismatic and persuasive as hell—you didn’t get to be a producer on the highest rated dating reality TV show at twenty-nine without all those traits—but no one knew Jack the way she did. “Trust me. He’ll never agree.” And thank God for that. She might have accepted that they were never going to be anything but friends, but the thought of Jack picking his new wife from a bevy of oh-so-eligible women on national television? Nightmare. Pure and simple. “So I have your blessing to talk to him about it? You’d be okay if Jack said yes?” “Go for it,” Lou said. Confident in her certainty that Jack would never in a million years say yes. Chapter Two “Absolutely not. No offense.” Jack rocked back in his chair, putting as much distance between himself and Miranda’s suggestion as possible. She just smiled. “None taken, but hear me out.” She’d cornered him in his office between surgeries. The room wasn’t large, but the force of her presence made it feel even smaller. “Look, I’m sorry, Miranda. I like you and you were always a good friend, but I’m not going to embarrass myself on national television just so you can get a promotion. You’ll have to find another monkey to dance for you.” He stood, hoping she would follow suit. She didn’t even blink. “But another monkey wouldn’t have your built-in marketing appeal,” she said with a smile, completely unmoved by his rejection. Jack wondered how hard it would be to bodily remove her from his office. She was small, but tenacious. Like a platinum blonde terrier. “Sit down, hot shot.” Miranda crossed her legs, settling in. “I’m not asking you to do it for me. I’m telling you to do it for Lou.” That got his attention. Jack sank back into his chair. “What does Lou have to do with this?” “You going to listen to me now?” He shot a look at the clock. “I have to prep for surgery in fifteen minutes. I’ll listen until then.” “Deal.” Her grin was shot through with triumph. As if his capitulation was a foregone conclusion. Miranda had never lacked for confidence. “When was the last time you went on a date?” He frowned. “I thought this was about Lou.” “It is. Humor me. When was your last date?” He glared at her. “I have two kids and a job that sucks up my life. When do you think?” “I’m guessing college.” “A few months,” he snapped. “A year maybe.” More like two. Or three. He seemed to remember the last time he went out with someone Emma was still in diapers. “And when was the last time Lou went out with someone?” He felt his face heating, though he couldn’t figure out why. “She can go on a date any time she wants. Stuff like that isn’t a priority for her.” “No. Of course not. What red-blooded female approaching her thirtieth birthday doesn’t want to spend all of her nights at home with someone else’s kids and someone else’s husband in an orgasm free zone?” “So because Lou and I are a little platonically codependent and in a dating rut, I should go on a reality dating show? Doesn’t that seem like a pretty big leap?” Miranda steepled her hands in her lap. “You’re a busy man. I get that, believe me. The career, the kids. You don’t have time to mess around dating girl after girl after girl, trying to decide when they’re committed enough to be introduced to your children only to discover they were only after your money and have to start all over again. Finding the right woman can take years of concentrated dating. I’m offering you the chance to meet twenty carefully vetted females—the cream of the American crop—” “All of whom just want their fifteen minutes of fame.” “Not the twenty. The original thirty Suitorettes will include ten who are backstabbing fame whores because hating them is what keeps audiences invested until they can fall in love with the front-runners—but those twenty will be pure Grade-A premium quality American female. You want a fellow doctor? How about an oncologist who put herself through med school modeling for Vogue? Maybe you’d rather someone more maternal? We have a kindergarten teacher with a Masters from Harvard in early childhood development. You want a heart of gold? I’ll give you a girl who started her first philanthropic organization when she was fifteen.” “I still don’t see what this has to do with Lou.” “Why do you think she sticks around, hot shot? Because you fulfill all her physical and emotional needs? Please. She stays because Lou loves you to bits and could never leave you in the lurch when you needed her. You’ve chained her to your stove with her affection for you and her too-good-for-her-own-good heart. And the only way to unlock those chains is to show her that you don’t need her to be your safety net anymore. You need a wife, Jack.” “I don’t want—” “Sex? Companionship? Love? Fine. You don’t want them. But what about what Lou wants? What she deserves? How is she ever going to find the man of her dreams if she’s busy being your stand-in, doing all the work without any of the benefits?” “We’ll work something out.” “Like you have been? Join Match.com maybe? Don’t let the inertia hit you in the ass on your way out, champ.” He ground his teeth. “Even if I needed a wife—and I’m not saying I do—national television? Jesus, Miranda. Are you kidding me?” Miranda lifted her hands placatingly. “Yes, it’s unconventional and yes, we package it for entertainment value, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work, for people who go into it for the right reasons. This process can genuinely lead to love, if you trust it. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Casey and Joe are deeply, nauseatingly happy together. The show is intense, but it’s efficient. Dating, courtship, romance, and happily ever after all distilled into eight weeks of filming. And yes, certain things about it will be for the benefit of the cameras only—but the emotions are real. The women are real. And if none of the girls are right for you, you put the check into a college fund for your kids and go back home, none the worse for the experience, but having sent Lou the message that you’re ready to move on and build your future—and she should do the same.” “I’m sorry, Miranda, but there’s a flaw in your do-it-for-Lou pitch. She wouldn’t want me to do anything that could harm the kids and plastering their faces on national television as some kind of bonus prize for the woman who gets me? There is no fucking way I would ever agree to that and neither would Lou.” “She might surprise you on that one. She already said she’d be down if you were. And when I said we were short a Mister Perfect she couldn’t stop singing your praises. Why would she do that if she didn’t want you to go?” She was watching him, her gaze penetrating. Jack squirmed. “You must have misunderstood.” Miranda shrugged. “Maybe. But Lou watches the show. She knows we’ve had single parents before and I think you’d be impressed by how well we handle the children. It’s never about exploiting them. Exploiting the girls, absolutely. Exploiting you, on occasion, yes, unfortunately that will be part of the promotional process. But never the kids. They’re very protected and we’d make sure you were able to see them frequently. Almost as often as you see them on a busy week here, most likely—only the work that takes you away from them will be having fun with beautiful women rather than poking through blood and gore with a scalpel.” “So I just quit my job here? All those years of medical school were fun and all, but why not just walk away from saving lives and go play on national television?” “I’ve already spoken to your head of surgery—nice guy—and he’s agreed to give you a two month leave of absence so you can film the show. The publicity of having one of this hospital’s doctors on national television is going to be good for charity fundraisers for the next decade. Just think of the endowments.” “You have an answer for everything, don’t you?” “I’m the producer, sweetie. That’s my job. Any other questions?” “Why me?” “Beyond your movie-star good looks and status as not just a gifted heart surgeon but a doting father?” Miranda paused, for the first time not plowing over him with words. “Honestly, for Lou. We may not see one another as often as I’d like, but she is a friend. One of my oldest and best. And that means something to me. When I saw her today, I couldn’t help think of high school and where we all thought we’d be by the time we were thirty. You were going to be hot shot surgeon—well done. I was going to be ruling Hollywood—and I’m on my way. And Lou was going to be in Europe or working for the U.N. or something equally foreign and exotic. I just hate to think that she’s given up on that because she’s too nice to walk away from a friend in need.” “I never asked her to stay—” “You didn’t have to.” Miranda leaned back in her chair. “Do you remember in high school, how she worked all year bagging groceries at Osco to save up for a trip backpacking across Europe after graduation? And then in May there was that flood and she gave almost her entire savings to help the families who had lost their homes instead of going? And then worked with Habitat for Humanity all summer rebuilding the houses?” “You’re saying I’m a house she feels like she needs to rebuild.” “I’m saying Lou has always put herself last and I don’t want my friend to give up on her happily ever after just because she’s too nice to go after it. So I’ll do what I can to help her get her Prince Charming.” “Then why not put her on the show?” “Because she isn’t a marketing gold mine, hot stuff. We both know she’s worth twelve of you, but in terms of what I can sell, you’re the star.” Jack pictured Lou, her face as familiar to him as the one he saw in the mirror every morning. Big faded blue eyes, round, dimpled cheeks, and her hair in its perennial ponytail. She was too sweet, too trusting to ever survive a reality dating show. He, on the other hand… The idea was appalling. Ridiculous. Out of the question. But was Miranda onto something? Had he been essentially keeping his best friend prisoner in his house, using her own kind heart against her? He knew Lou loved him—in the same purely non-sexual way he loved her. She loved his kids as if they were her own—but was that stopping her from having a family of her own? From finding the man she was supposed to marry? From running away to Europe like she’d always dreamed? Was he really hurting her? He’d thought they were happy. He’d thought French Fridays where Lou would speak to the children all day in French were just an attempt to jump-start their language education, not a desperate attempt for her to reclaim the life she’d given up for him. He knew he could be oblivious—his late wife had certainly accused him of if often enough—but it was a little embarrassing to have the truth handed to him by a woman who trafficked in illusions. Hell, maybe it was time he started dating. And encouraged Lou to do the same. But was that enough? If he was going to date—well, a reality TV show wasn’t how he would have picked to do it, but it would certainly make a statement to Lou that he was serious, wouldn’t it? They were both such creatures of habit it was possible that nothing else would shake them out of their comfortable rut. He’d been too happy with her to shake the status quo, but she deserved better. “I need to think about this.” Miranda’s eyes gleamed. “Don’t take too long. The universe doesn’t hand you an opportunity like this every day. Pre-taping starts in three weeks.” “If I say yes.” The producer just smiled. Chapter Three “Aunt Lou! I was a space pirate today!” A tiny body smashed into her legs. Lou caught her with one hand and automatically smoothed back Emma’s dark curls as she smiled down at the beaming face tipped up to hers. “That’s awesome, monkey. Now get your backpack and coat, okay? We’re late to get TJ.” Every street between Mel’s Place and Emma’s preschool was apparently under construction at the same time and the drive had taken three times as long as she’d expected. Emma bounded off to the cubby holes and Lou waved absently to the mom of one of Emma’s classmates, who was herding her own chattering four-year-old out the door. Lou had never really bonded with the other moms, but then she wasn’t really a mom, just a placeholder, so she supposed that made sense. “Mrs. Doyle?” Lou turned toward the sweet, high-pitched voice of one of the teaching assistants in Emma’s class, not bothering to correct the misnomer. “Miss Amber, how are you?” “I’m great. I just wanted to talk to you about Emma’s day?” The girl managed to make even the most straightforward statement into a question—and to stretch “day” out to three syllables. “Oh?” Lou tried not to cringe. The last time one of the teachers had pulled her aside when she came for pick-up, Emma had started a hair salon for the other kids using safety scissors and Elmer’s glue. “Is everything okay?” “Of course! You know how we like to encourage creativity and all varieties of play, but I believe you’re aware of our strict no violence policy?” Lou’s gaze flew over to where Emma was hopping on one foot, jamming the other into her sneaker without untying it first—an attempt which inevitably led to her tumbling to the floor in a giggling heap. “Emma was violent?” Miss Amber pursed her lips, radiating concern as hard as she could. “We caught her using her finger as weapon.” It must be a grave offense. It wasn’t even a question. “Like poking the other children?” “No…” Miss Amber leaned closer, lowering her voice and using her body to shield the action as she demonstrated with her own hand. “She made her hand into the shape of a gun and made pchew noises.” Space pirates. Of course they would have laser guns. Lou fought the urge to laugh—Miss Amber didn’t look like she considered this a laughing matter. Unfortunately, the intense depth of concern Miss Amber brought to the finger gun offense only made the situation more farcical to Lou. She fought to keep a straight face. “So she didn’t actually attempt to hurt any of the other children?” “She shot them.” “With her imaginary finger laser.” “Mrs. Doyle. We’re very clear with parents about the pacifism policy?” The questioning lilt was back. Lou tried not to snort at the image of Miss Amber introducing an impartial mediator into Emma’s space pirate battle. “And you want me to…?” “Have a word with Emma about appropriate play?” Lou bit her tongue on the urge to tell Miss Amber where she could shove her over-regulated, hyper-structured definition of appropriate play. The preschool had an amazing reputation, cost a small fortune, and had a two year waiting list. If Emma loved it and was already showing off her sums at the dinner table, Lou could swallow her simmering annoyance at the micro-managed play. It wasn’t her place to stick her nose in anyway. She was only the pseudo-mom. Emma smacked into her legs again—this time from the side since she was facing Miss Amber. “I’m ready!” she declared—shoes on wrong feet, windbreaker inside out. “Great!” Normally she might make an effort to get the shoes on the right feet, just so Emma didn’t wreck them quite so quickly, but today she felt particularly defiant of any attempts to turn the sweet baby into a perfect Stepford child. “We’ll definitely talk that over, Miss Amber. Thanks. Say goodbye to Miss Amber, Em.” Emma obediently caroled her goodbyes and Lou hustled her out to the parking lot. “Is Miss Amber mad?” Emma asked as Lou opened the car door for her to clamber into her booster seat. TJ had always been magnificently oblivious to adult overtones, but Emma missed nothing. “Not mad, but she didn’t like the space pirate game.” She reached across Emma with the seatbelt. “I’ll do it!” Emma screeched in her ear, grabbing the seatbelt to click herself in. Lou winced, mourning the loss of her hearing. “Volume, Em. And please and thank you wouldn’t hurt.” “Thank you,” Emma parroted sweetly as she secured the seatbelt and dug into her bag for her ride home wheat thins. Lou had long since given up on having a spotless car, but she drew the line at anything sticky or gooey. “No more space pirates?” Lou climbed in the front and put the car into gear, grimacing when she saw the time on the dashboard clock. They might just barely make it to TJ’s school in time but she was going to be at the back of the carpool line. “Space pirates and other games with lasers and guns are going to be at home only from now on.” Because Miss Amber is a play dictator. “Can we bake muffins tonight?” Lou had to appreciate the attention span of a four-year-old. “Not tonight, kiddo. The oven’s still on the fritz, remember?” A casualty of the last time the kids had played Mythbusters with an aerosol can duct taped to the oven rack. Maybe Miss Amber had a point with her More Rules approach. “But Aunt Lou! It’s my snack day tomorrow! I can’t bring store muffins!” Lou tightened her hands around the steering wheel and decided, right there in the mile-long turning lane into TJ’s elementary school, that she hated Emma’s preschool with the fire of a thousand suns. Each of the kids at the school was assigned a snack day once a month when their parents had the privilege of providing the afternoon snack for the entire class. Sweet, non-competitive Emma had never cared about the status differential between store-bought muffins and home-made until she started going to that supposedly excellent and progressive preschool. Now she was ready to throw a tantrum because her snack day would be marred by food that came wrapped in plastic. “The oven’s out of commission, Em. We’ll call Daddy and have him pick up something for your snack day, but it’s gonna come from the store. That’s just the way it is.” Emma began to sniffle loudly. Lou and Jack were going to have a talk about that school. Though really, what right did she have to even bring it up? That question had been taunting her ever since her lunch with Miranda. What was she doing here? Going through the motions of being the mom with none of the actual rights of one. Playing pretend. Only it wasn’t space pirates. It was wife and mother, and she’d bought into her own game. Bought into the lie she sold on Facebook with each careful omission. When the Focus slowly crept to the front of the line, TJ’s teacher waved and called out, “Hi, Mrs. Doyle!” releasing him to run over and climb in the back beside Emma. Mrs. Doyle. Again Lou didn’t bother to correct the misnomer. Why? Because it was easier to just let them call her Mrs. Doyle than to clarify that she was actually Ms. Tanner? The kids both called her Aunt Lou, but there were so many blended families these days she knew the teachers assumed she was a step-mom. And she let them think that. Why? Because she liked being called Mrs. Doyle? Because she liked believing her own lie? Facebook illusions of that perfect happy nuclear family and letting people in the neighborhood and at the kids’ schools call her Mrs. Doyle… How much of her life had become a game of pretend? Letting people believe she was the mommy. Letting people believe she was the wife. Letting herself believe it. When exactly had she started buying her own B.S? As Lou drove home, TJ grunted his usual monosyllabic response to her questions about how school was, and dove into his own bag for his ride home snack—both children acting like they’d been starved the entire time they were away from her. Emma’s preschool was only half-day, but she knew half of TJ’s lunch would still be inside his bag and he would devour it as soon as they got home. A new wife wouldn’t know that about him. She’d have to learn all the routines, all the rhythms of the Doyle household. Would Lou be expected to teach her? Not that there was likely to be a her. Jack wasn’t any more interested in dating than she was. He’d tried Match.com once, at the urging of some of his female coworkers, but it hadn’t lasted long. He’d come home from the dates early, not wanting to miss bedtime, and then stay up to talk with Lou about how awkward the dinners had been. And she would be secretly glad he hadn’t been able to leave those women fast enough to come home to her and the kids. There was probably a picture of the two of them beside codependent in the dictionary. When they got to the house, the kids plowed inside like a tsunami, leaving jackets, shoes and bags in their wake until she called after them to hang everything up properly—a reminder they seemed to require every single day, unless they wanted something. Would a new mommy know that perfectly hung jackets without badgering were a harbinger of a request for pizza for dinner or to go see the new Pixar movie? TJ was still devouring his PB&J at the kitchen table—they couldn’t have been home more than five minutes—when a knock came at the kitchen door. Lou yanked open the door and smiled at the curvy brunette hovering on the back porch. “Hey.” Kelly’s backyard was kitty-corner to theirs, with a worn strip of grass where members of both families regularly tromped between. Her twin boys were only six months younger than TJ, and all of the kids played well together. Kelly had saved Lou’s sanity more than once with well-timed play dates. Now she barreled in, twins in tow, her eyes glittering with the light of fresh gossip. “Omigosh, Lou. Please tell me you know who it is. I’m dying of curiosity and you have the inside scoop!” The children immediately formed a noisy knot and bolted out the still open kitchen door into the yard, TJ leaving the debris of his lunch on the table. Lou kicked out a chair at the table for Kelly, glancing at the seat before settling into her own, glad she’d remembered to clean the mashed Cheerios off it after breakfast. “What’s this gossip you want and why do you think I already know it?” she asked, absently packing away TJ’s leftovers, one eye on the kids in the backyard. “It’s all over the news. That astronaut who was supposed to be the next Mister Perfect? He was caught doing blow and drag racing through a school zone or some crazy shit and now the Mister Perfect blogs are going nuts wondering who the new Mister Perfect is going to be, and who do I know who’s having lunch with a real live Mister Perfect producer this very afternoon? Why, Louisa Tanner, of course. So dish, girl! Who’s it going to be? Is it that dog Javier?” “I have no idea—and before you go trying to pump me for more intel, I don’t think Miranda knows yet either.” “Well, crap,” Kelly grumbled. “And here I’ve been bragging about my inside source all day.” Lou shook her head with mock sympathy. “Pride goeth before a fall.” “Oh, don’t look so smug. Like you’ve never exaggerated online.” That one hit a little too close to home, considering all the pretend Mrs. Doyle-ing she’d been doing lately. “Wanna hear something crazy? Miranda is actually going to try to convince Jack to do it. Be Mister Perfect.” “You’re kidding. God, he’d be fabulous. Can you imagine?” Unfortunately, she could imagine. All too easily. Luckily, he’d never agree to it. Not in a million years. But maybe he should. Kelly frowned. “You okay? You look a little queasy.” Lou made a face and picked the safest topic. “I’m worried Emma’s preschool is going to turn her into a Forrest Park Stepford Yuppie Child. But it’s such a good school. How do I know I’m making the right choice by leaving her there?” “Oh, honey. You never know. We’re all just stumbling around in the dark. Welcome to parenting.” “But I’m not a parent.” And there it was. The real problem. “Who said that?” Kelly’s spine went stiff with indignation. “Did Jack say—?” “No. He wouldn’t. It’s just…” She glanced out the window, checking to make sure the kids were still on the other side of the yard. She liked this. Liked managing Emma and TJ’s periodic attempts to recreate Mythbusters episodes. Liked being the pseudo-mommy and pseudo-wife. But that didn’t make it real. “What happens if Jack falls in love tomorrow? What happens to me then? My whole life, just poof goes away and I don’t even have a right to say anything about it.” “Lou.” Kelly gazed at her, wide-eyed, and the smoke-detector beeped, warning of a failing battery. Lou glared at it. “That’s just what I need.” “You aren’t thinking of leaving, are you?” Kelly asked. “No, of course not. But… maybe Jack and I rely on one another a little too much, you know? Maybe this isn’t the best thing for us. In the long run.” She looked around the tiny kitchen she hated. They were planning a remodel. Both of them treating the kitchen as theirs rather than his in an act of collective denial. But who knew how long that would last? Would he wake up some day and remember that she didn’t really have a right to be here? “I guess I just wonder if we’re helping one another stay stuck here when we should be… I don’t know. Doing whatever normal single dads and single women do.” “Like go on Marrying Mister Perfect.” “Not necessarily that extreme.” But maybe it wasn’t the worst idea in the world. At least then she wouldn’t have to watch him falling in love with her replacement right in front of her. It would all happen far away and be presented to her as a done deal. And she’d have the entire time he was gone to get used to the idea. If he wanted to go. And if he wanted to take such drastic measures to leave her, that would say something in itself. The smoke detector beeped, like a shrill countdown timer on the life she’d built. Chapter Four “Miranda came to see me today.” He’d waited to bring it up until the kids were in bed and he was up on a step-ladder in the kitchen, replacing the smoke detector battery. Lou gazed up at his ass—it was right there at eye-level, how could she avoid it?—and covertly wiped the drool at the corner of her mouth. “Yeah, she told me she was going to.” He looked down and she busied herself unwrapping the packaging on the new battery so he wouldn’t catch her gawking at his ass. “So you know what she asked me.” “True love on national television?” He made a face. “Is there such a thing?” “Oh, I don’t know. There have been one or two success stories. I think it has more to do with how you go into it than the show itself. If you’re a genuine grounded guy who isn’t going to get swept away thinking with your penis, you might actually find the girl of your dreams.” “Miranda said something about how ten of them are there for ratings, but twenty would be there for me.” He plucked the battery off her palm, his fingertips brushing her skin, though of course he didn’t notice, and turned his attention back to the smoke detector. “It sounds like it’s insanely competitive to get on these things. And the women are all going to be adventurous, or they wouldn’t audition to be on the show.” “And drop-dead gorgeous.” Jack grinned down at her. “That doesn’t hurt.” There was something behind that smile, some tinge of excitement that made her stomach clench. Did he actually want to go? “So you’re considering it?” “No. Of course not.” He put in the new battery and fitted the cover back in place. “But you never know how you’re going to meet the people who change your life. Hell, Gillian was a blind date. Just because it’s a set-up for the entertainment of millions doesn’t mean it couldn’t have a nice side effect. And the experience would be wild.” He said no, but he really was considering it, talking himself into it. She’d never imagined he might actually want to do it. “But eight weeks away from the kids? No way. Even if we did arrange extra visits and lots of phone calls, it would be too hard on them. Not to mention you.” He climbed down the step ladder. “Unless you wanted me to do it.” “If I wanted you to?” “You’re here, taking care of my family when you could be living your own life.” This is my life. “If I did this, Lou, it would be for you.” “For me,” she echoed softly. He didn’t see it. He’d never seen it. And now… “Jack, are you unhappy?” “Are you?” he countered. She looked away. “I didn’t think I was unhappy before today. Now I honestly don’t know how I feel.” “Lou.” He tipped her chin up, coaxing her to meet his eyes. “Whether I go or not, we can’t keep going on as we are. It isn’t fair to anyone. Especially not to you. I hijacked your life four years ago and it’s past time I gave it back. Maybe something drastic is a good idea. Neither of us seem to be very good at dating. But if this isn’t how you want it to happen, just say the word and I won't even consider it.” Lou stared into those unfairly blue eyes. He was so close. Kissably close. If she went up on her toes and he dipped his head just a bit, their lips would touch. Her breath caught and tangled in her throat. Her eyes flicked down to his lips—lips she only thought about kissing one or two million times a day—then back up to his eyes. He was always so intent. So focused. In that moment, she was the single most important thing in his life. If she said the word, he would stay with her. He would walk away from the chance to meet the woman of his dreams, hand-picked by Hollywood’s finest. Everything she’d ever wanted was just a breath away. Just one kiss would change everything… But he wasn’t looking at her like he wanted to kiss her. Jack was looking at her as if the thought of kissing her had never once crossed his mind. And it probably hadn’t. He just didn’t think of her that way. He’d never offered her anything other than friendship. Affection? Undeniably. Wild, unbridled lust? Only in her dreams. He stood so close, and yet in a way he was more distant from her than he’d ever been. He didn’t want her. He never would. And eventually that knowledge would carve a hole in her soul that would be filled up with bitterness and regret. She was clinging to a man who would never love her back, so desperate to hold on to the illusion of their perfect domestic life that it never even occurred to her that it might need to change. Jack was right. They couldn’t go on like this anymore. He wasn’t hers. Neither of them had ever really set any boundaries and they’d grown into an odd not-quite-a-couple relationship over the last four years, but the facts remained the same. This wasn’t her house. The kids upstairs tucked into their beds weren’t her children. And Jack wasn’t her husband. He never would be. She had to face that reality. “Lou?” he asked, his gruff voice an abrasion against her senses. “What do you want?” She shivered, wanting him so badly she ached. Lou closed her eyes and held her breath for a moment, trying to hold onto this last moment before everything changed. Or maybe things were already irrevocably different. “You’re right.” Lou opened her eyes again, refusing to be a coward who couldn’t face her own choices. She met Jack’s eyes squarely. “We have to shake things up. You need to get back out there. Start dating.” The last word caught in her throat. She pulled away from Jack and crossed the kitchen, taking deep breaths until she no longer felt like the world was closing in on her. “I want you to be happy, Jack. You’re my best friend and you deserve all the happiness in the world.” “So do you.” He gave her a crooked smile and Lou’s heart turned over. She turned away, reminding herself that he wasn’t for her and never would be. To occupy her hands, she busied herself pulling out mugs and pouring the hot coffee she’d forgotten she started before they attacked the beeping smoke detector. She automatically poured cream in one and sugar in the other. She crossed back to the table, mugs in hand. He settled into his usual chair, shoving hers out with his foot. “Is that decaf?” Lou didn’t answer—it was pretty much a rhetorical question since they always had decaf after the kids were in bed. She just handed him his cup and dropped into her chair. The chairs in the living room were more comfortable, and they’d both agreed that they hated just about everything about the cramped little eat-in kitchen, but somehow they always ended up in here at the end of the day, sipping coffee while the kids slept upstairs. “You really want to do the show?” she asked softly. He shrugged, hiding his mouth behind the steaming mug. He inhaled deeply and made a rumbling noise of contentment before taking his first sip. A pang echoed in Lou’s heart. Soon, who knew when, but soon, someone else would be up late drinking decaf with Jack in the kitchen while the kids slept. Someone else would be listening to him make that sound. And that someone would get to kiss him just because she felt like it. “I wouldn’t be going in expecting to find the next love of my life,” he said. “But I know I’m not going to find her if I don’t do something to break us out of this routine…” Meaning he would never find her in Lou. She’d known that. She just hadn’t wanted to see it. “You should do it.” The words jumped out of Lou’s mouth, almost without her permission. “How many people get a chance like this?” “You really think so?” No. I want you to decide you’re really in love with me and the idea of leaving me even for a day is torture, but that isn’t going to happen, is it? “I’ll have help around here—between your parents, mine, and Kelly. But we should probably talk to the kids about it.” He nodded. “Right. So we’re really talking about this. We’re really considering it.” She swallowed and set down her coffee cup quickly before it fell from her numb fingers. “I guess we are.” # Jack looked down at the coffee cup in his hands, wondering how his life had taken such a bizarre turn in just a few hours. Yesterday everything had been pleasantly status quo and now—Christ, was he actually considering going on a reality television show? It did seem remarkably convenient. An eight-week turbo-relationship and it’d all be settled. The entire dating process condensed into one neat package. He’d have a new someone—though he felt odd whenever he thought too much about that part—and Lou would be free to do her own thing. Problem solved. And it was a problem. He’d been ignoring it because, well, if he was honest, he had a tendency toward tunnel-vision and ignored everything that wasn’t right in front of his nose, but now that Miranda had pointed it out, he couldn’t help but see it. It wasn’t just French Fridays. It was obvious now even in the DVDs lined up on Lou’s keeper shelf. Midnight in Paris. Roman Holiday. Sabrina. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. La Vie En Rose. Amelie. Even Ratatouille. Every one an escape to an exotic locale. She’d asked if he was unhappy, and the question seemed almost ludicrous. He had a great job and two amazing kids he couldn’t possibly love more. He lived with his best friend, who was a wonderful, patient mother figure. He wasn’t going to lie—some sex would be nice, but dating was complicated with two kids and Lou to consider. He wasn’t hungry to fall in love. His life was already full. But Lou deserved more. She deserved to be free to see the world like she’d always dreamed. Or if she decided not to, she deserved to be with someone who would love her to distraction. Someone she didn’t feel obligated to help out because he was a barely-functional single-dad widower. She deserved happiness. And if this would give that to her? He would do it without a single regret. He owed her that. So. Logistics. If this was really happening… Was he really considering this? “I guess we should talk to Miranda.” Chapter Five “Thank you so much for letting us take over your home, Miss Doyle. Cream?” Lou watched numbly as one of the countless TV people reached into her fridge and offered her a splash of her own cream. “It’s Tanner,” she corrected. She was turning over a new leaf. No more pretend—which was especially ironic with the reality television people descending on them. “I don’t take—” “Hey, lady, our volt-meter’s busted. How many amps can this outlet take?” A man who looked like an electrician waved a handheld electronic device in her direction—gaffer? Gripper? She thought his title started with a ‘g’ but she couldn’t be sure. No one introduced themselves by names, it seemed. They all threw out titles she didn’t understand instead—PA, segment producer, field producer. Fully half of them seemed to be producers of some kind. They swarmed the house, firing questions at her and tromping through the rooms with equipment, looking for the most “home-like atmosphere” to shoot the advance footage of Jack in his natural environment. Lou shook her head at the G man—grapher?—trying to get her bearings. “Amps?” “So it must be Dr. Doyle who takes cream. Got it.” The Cream Crewperson tapped something into her tablet with a stylus. “Amps, volts. I need to know how much power I can run through this outlet. I’m trying to protect your electrical system here, lady.” “We have circuit breakers. You flip the switches. That’s all I know.” The G crew guy gave her the you-are-such-a-moron-I’m-amazed-you-can-breathe-without-assistance look all the Hollywood people had been giving her for the last two days and heaved a dramatic sigh. “Fine. I’ll figure it out myself.” He had just stepped out of the kitchen when a plastically perky woman with unnaturally red hair appeared in the doorway. “Miss Doyle—” Lou bared her teeth in a smile that felt a little feral. “Tanner.” “Could you help us handle the children? We’re ready to shoot Dr. Doyle’s first fireside-confessional sequence and they’re disrupting the crew.” Good. Lou smothered that unhelpful sentiment and picked her way across the cables snaking through the kitchen doorway. It was hard not to be irritated with all the people intruding on their lives, poking around in their possessions and turning everything upside down. Especially knowing all of this was designed to package Jack as Mr. Perfect and take him away from her. The crew members were absolutely angelic toward Jack—fawning over him and constantly working to make sure he was in a good head space. They seemed to enjoy the kids and they weren’t precisely rude to Lou. They just didn’t seem to understand what her purpose was—and everyone on set had to have a purpose. And her house was now a set. The living room was cluttered by lights and cameras, but she immediately spotted Jack at the center of it all, perfectly lit and looking like a king in the armchair the producers had put in front of the fireplace. Lou didn’t recognize the throne-like chair, but she wasn’t surprised the show people had deemed their furniture not sufficiently “home-like” and brought in their own for the effect they were trying to create. It took her a bit longer to spot Emma and TJ amid the crew people swarming behind the cameras. When she did see them, Lou laughed out loud. Disruptive was putting it mildly. They were riding the primary cameraman like a pony. He didn’t seem to mind, but the redhead segment producer looked like she was one “giddy-up” away from strangling them both. Or whacking them with the tablet held clenched in her manicured hands. “Em. TJ,” she called them over, taking pity on the tablet wielding redhead. “Come sit on the couch with me. We can watch Daddy get interrogated.” “Yeah!” The kids immediately scrambled off their pony and climbed over the nearest crew member to bounce up on the couch. Lou plopped in between them and secured an arm around each one to keep them from escaping. A metal light stand partially blocked their view of their father, but otherwise they had the best seats in the house. Emma burrowed into her side, settling in, as TJ wriggled and bounced, too wired to sit still. The two of them had been remarkably receptive to the idea of their father going on the show—or perhaps not so remarkably since TJ had figured out almost immediately that California was where Disneyland was and they could trade in their father’s abandonment guilt for no less than three trips to the Magic Kingdom when they flew out to visit him. They were treating the arrival of the crew and the upheaval in their lives as a giant game—and why wouldn’t they? They were kids. They couldn’t visualize what it was going to be like without Jack in their day-to-day lives for eight weeks. Or how this would drastically change their lives when he got back. Lou, however, had no trouble visualizing. She couldn’t seem to stop. Miranda appeared, kneeling in front of the three of them with a warm smile and her own tablet tucked against her chest. “Lou, we really need Jack to be able to focus right now. Do you think you could take these two little monsters—” She winked at the kids, making Emma giggle. “—on an outing? Give us a few hours—” “No, let them stay,” Jack requested from the chair. All crew eyes turned to him and a little hush fell over the room as the king made his proclamation. “I’ll be more relaxed if they’re here.” Miranda glanced back and forth between Jack and the kids, her smile never faltering—and Lou realized what a good actress a reality television producer needed to be. Miranda gave a little nod and broadened her smile. “Good point, Jack. We want you as relaxed and natural as possible.” She turned back to the kids, putting on an over-exaggeratedly stern face. “But you two need to be absolutely quiet. Remember. Shh!” The kids giggled and mimed locking their lips and throwing away the key. Miranda winked at Lou and then straightened, turning the force of her personality back on Jack. “Jackson Doyle. Are you ready to fall in love?” Jack blinked, visibly startled. “Um. Yeah. Yeah, that’d be great.” “Excellent. So Jack—a few ground rules as we’re getting warmed up. Remember that all the questions I’m going to be asking are going to be edited out, so you need to repeat them in your answers. So when I ask you if you’re ready to fall in love, you say…” “I’m ready to fall in love,” Jack parroted obediently. “Perfect. But then you are Mr. Perfect, aren’t you?” Miranda grinned, somehow making the cheesy line work with her self-deprecating laugh. Lou watched her old friend, fascinated to see this side of her—blatantly manipulative, but somehow seeming less manipulative because she was being so obvious about it, and still getting exactly the results she was angling for. Had Miranda always had this skill? If not, how long had it taken her to build up this reality persona? Miranda quickly checked with the crew, getting thumbs up all around and turned to Jack, seating herself so she matched the camera’s eye level. “All right, Jack. Let’s start with an easy one. Tell us why you’re looking for love.” For a split second, an expression of deer-in-headlights horror flashed across Jack’s face. Lou bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud. This was going to be more interesting than she thought. Jack Doyle was about to talk about his feelings on national television. She only wished she had popcorn. # Four hours later, after dropping Emma and TJ off at Kelly’s for a play-date with the twins, Lou slipped in the back door and through the kitchen to peek into the living room. Poor Jack was still in that chair, suffering through the Interview that Would Not End. Lou had grabbed the kids and abandoned him after the first solid hour of “Remember, Jack, it’s never a show, it’s always an experience or a journey” and “Jack, honey, don’t talk about the process like it isn’t real life. This journey is about finding true love. It doesn’t get any more real than that” and “Jack, baby, don’t look at the crew. They aren’t here, okay?” Now Lou slipped silently into the living room and tucked herself behind a large, reflective screen one of the lighting people had put up near the bay windows. It was the perfect place to eavesdrop as Miranda coached Jack through the questions. Not that listening in on an interview being conducted in the middle of her living room counted as eavesdropping. She just didn’t particularly want to be the recipient of any more of the crew’s what-the-hell-is-your-purpose-here looks. Staying out of sight was much more appealing. Lou heard Jack clear his throat and tuned in to what he was saying into the microphones. “Gillian was… she was so alive. I think that’s part of why her death came as such a shock.” Lou went still behind the screen. She hadn’t heard Jack talk about Gillian’s death in years. “When Emma was born, there were complications. It wasn’t anyone’s fault.” Jack expelled a short breath. “I was a mess at first, laying guilt on myself—the brilliant surgeon who couldn’t save his own wife. I don’t know what I would have done without Lou. She was my sanity those first few weeks. She stepped in, took care of Em and TJ and most of the funeral stuff, and I let her. I know I relied on her too much, but I’d just started my internship. The hours were insane and Lou was amazing. She got me back on my feet. I can never repay that debt. I—” “Cut!” Miranda’s too-chipper voice blasted through Jack’s heartfelt confession like dynamite. “Let’s take ten, shall we? I think we could all use a break. Good stuff, Jack. Really great.” Lou wanted to scream. Why did Miranda have to interrupt him? She’d never heard him open up like that about that awful time right after Gillian died. And she had certainly never heard him talk about her that way. What had he been about to say next? Could he have feelings for her that ran deeper than friendship and gratitude? A pair of lowered voices on the other side of the screen where she was hiding startled her out of her musings. “Still can’t get him to cry on camera?” “I really thought playing the dead wife card would do it, but the man is made of stone. He’s barely even gotten misty and I’ve thrown everything I’ve got at him.” Lou identified the first voice as coming from the startlingly fashionable young man with an effeminate air who had been hovering near Miranda all afternoon. Todd. She wasn’t sure whether he was Miranda’s assistant or another of the ubiquitous producers. The other voice was definitely Miranda herself. “We’ll get him. Just keep at it. The viewers love tears.” Miranda hummed agreement. “He’s a natural. The screen tests were good, but today… are you seeing this? The material we’re getting is golden. Though he is talking about Lou a lot more than I expected. It seems like on every question we always end up winding around and talking about her.” “That’s what editing is for, darling,” Todd purred. “Sweet Lou is going to spend a lot of time on the cutting room floor.” “I’m more worried about the girls. If he’s talking about her in front of them constantly, they’re going to start to wonder if he’s really emotionally available.” Lou heard a staccato rattling sound—acrylic nails drumming against a tablet case. “Especially since they live together.” “It won’t just be the girls. She’s cute, in that wholesome Midwestern way. Viewers are going to wonder if there’s more to that relationship than just a live-in nanny,” Todd commented. Miranda hummed again—a sound Lou remembered from when she was thinking. “We might have to cut her out of the footage entirely.” Lou sucked in a breath. Of course they wanted to cut her out of her life. It wasn’t really her life, was it? Just a borrowed family. But to hear Miranda say it. Her supposed friend… “It wouldn’t be hard,” Miranda went on. “During the Meet the Family episodes, we can focus on the kids and how maternal the various candidates are.” “Or how maternal they aren’t.” Todd snickered. “Make sure he keeps in a couple of the worst mommy candidates until the family visit. The ratings will be great for sweeps. You know how the viewers love having someone to root against.” Miranda snorted. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem. Even for Sexy Jack. The hottest ones are almost always the most self-absorbed and they tend to last without any help from me. One of them is bound to be a train wreck with kids.” Lou held herself perfectly still behind the screen. She couldn’t reconcile Miranda her friend with the woman who spoke with mercenary glee about the ratings spike if Jack brought home someone who was a disaster with children. Did he know what he was getting himself into? It had all happened so fast, a whirlwind of psychological evaluations and screen tests and nondisclosure agreements. “Oh good, Jack, you’re back. Shall we get back to it?” Miranda’s heels clicked on the hardwood floors as she crossed to the fireplace. “Why don’t we talk about some of the qualities you’re looking for in a wife?” Lou couldn’t have moved then if she wanted to. She needed to hear this answer. That was the fifty million dollar question, wasn’t it? What was he looking for in a wife? A small part of her still hoped he would describe her—and realize he was describing her and leap up from the chair and declare that he couldn’t do the show because he was madly in love with her and had been for years without even realizing it. Yeah. It could totally happen. From her hiding place, she could see half of a monitor filled with Jack’s smiling face. He twinkled for the camera in a way that doubtless made Miranda giddy just thinking of the rating jump. “I’m looking for someone I can share life’s adventures with, whether that means skydiving in Tahiti or running into the kitchen with a fire extinguisher because my kids have tried out a new experiment in the oven.” He gave a low chuckle and Lou smiled softly to herself. She wasn’t much of a skydiver, but when it came to domestic adventures, she was a pro. “I’d like to find a woman who really wants to be a mother, not just someone who is willing to tolerate my kids. That’s crucial. She has to love Emma and TJ. There’s no negotiating on that point.” Lou’s stomach curdled as she thought of the show dragging the worst mommy candidates through the process until the home visit. She didn’t like the idea of Emma and TJ meeting any of the women, but it wasn’t her decision. Jack had signed them up for this, embracing the whole experience with his usual single-minded determination. Lou could choose not to sign the waiver to be included in the show, but she couldn’t keep Emma and TJ from being used for ratings. Another bitter reminder that they weren’t really hers to protect. “What attracts you to a woman?” Miranda prompted. “What attracts me?” Jack’s brow furrowed, as if he was reaching way back into his memory for the answer. “Energy. I’m definitely attracted to vivacious women.” Lou felt the hope that had been growing inside her at his earlier answers start to shrink. Gillian had been vivacious. Lou had always been quieter. People used words like reliable and nice to describe her. She’d never had Gillian’s bounce. Jack had loved that bounce. “Passionate, definitely. Driven.” Lou cringed. The part of her that went after her goals with passion and determination had gone dormant somewhere in the last four years of her stable, comfortable routine. She hadn’t dreamt of Paris and Prague in so long it almost felt like her ambition to see the world belonged to another person. Along with the passport she’d gotten years ago. The one that was about to expire without a single stamp in it while she was here, waiting for a kiss that was never going to come. “She has to be fearless and confident. There is something so sexy about a woman who will take a risk with her heart.” That had never been Lou. She wasn’t sexy—wholesome—and she didn’t take risks. That was why she was infatuated with the man she’d lived with for the last four years and he didn’t have a clue how she felt. Because she was a coward to the bone. Not that it would make any difference if he knew. Would it? What would happen if she told him? She’d always hesitated for fear it would ruin their friendship and she would lose him. But she was already losing him. Everything was changing. He was going to LA in just a few days to look for the love of his life, but maybe the one he was supposed to fall in love with was right here under his own roof. Didn’t he deserve to know the truth before he left? Maybe if he knew, he would stay. Maybe, just maybe, he secretly loved her too. Could those comments about being brave enough to take a risk with her heart have been meant for her? Could it have been a hint to wake her up and get her to tell him how she really felt? “Great, Jack, that’s just perfect!” Miranda’s voice intruded on Lou’s fantasy world and reality smacked down on her. Jack wasn’t giving her a hint. He didn’t even know she was hiding there. “We’ll stop there for the day and pick up tomorrow with some action footage.” “Action?” Jack asked. “Jogging, working out, saving lives at the hospital. Just some shots to give people an idea of your day-to-day life. Is there a beach near here we can shoot you jogging on? Do you have swim trunks you can wear? Have you ever waxed your chest?” Lou decided the time was ideal to sneak away before the crew dismantled her hiding place. She didn’t want to listen to Miranda’s plans to get Jack shirtless for the cameras. She slipped out of the room and up the stairs before anyone saw her, retreating to one of the few parts of the house that hadn’t been taken over—her room. The guest room was tiny, the double bed and armoire crammed together in the narrow room. Lou had never minded the lack of space before, but now it was just another reminder that she’d never been a permanent part of the household. This wasn’t her home. She was the guest, not the mommy. And definitely not the wife. Lou sank down onto the bed and put her head in her hands. She had to tell him. She would regret it for the rest of her life if she let him fly off to Los Angeles without telling him what she wanted. How badly she wanted him. She’d do it tonight. Before she lost her nerve. Just as soon as the TV crew cleared out. # “Crazy day, huh?” Jack stood at his bathroom sink, grimacing as he wiped TV make-up off his face. Lou leaned against the doorjamb, watching the play of muscles across his arms and shoulders as he scrubbed. “Get used to it. You’re going to have a lot more like this if you go to LA.” “When,” Jack muttered into the washcloth. “What?” He dropped the cloth and turned his head to meet her eyes. “When I go to LA. Three days, Lou. It’s not an if anymore.” She cast her gaze down to study the tiles on the floor. “No. I guess not.” The press release announcing him as the next Mister Perfect would go out the following morning. It was about to be very official. Last chance, Lou. The last crew member had finally left. The kids were still at Kelly’s, having begged to stay over for chicken taco night. Lou wasn’t going to have a better chance to talk to him than this. She gathered up her courage. She could do this. Now or never. Jack spoke before she could. “I knew before I agreed to this that some days were going to be bizarre.” He shrugged out of the shirt he’d splashed water on while cleaning off the make-up. “You take the bad with the good. That’s just part of the process.” He grinned at her, wadding up the shirt and tossing it in the general direction of the laundry hamper. It hit the side of the hamper and the cotton caught on the wicker for a second before it slithered down to join the pile of clothes heaped in a sloppy mound at the foot of the hamper. The man couldn’t pick up after himself to save his life. Lou tried not to overtly drool over his shirtless chest. She’d seen it before, too many times to count, but the sight never failed to hit her where it counted. “You don’t have to take the bad. You don’t have to go at all. There are simpler ways to date. You don’t have to go a thousand miles away to find a girl.” He didn’t have to leave his own house. Jack grabbed a worn grey T-shirt hanging over the rim of the hamper. “You’ve seen what happens when I try to date here.” He sniffed the shirt once before tugging it over his head. “Our life is too comfortable. I’m too happy in our routine. Work, the kids, you. I never have any reason to go out and meet someone. And neither do you. I have to go away or that will never change.” Lou knew exactly what she needed to say. I don’t want it to change. She loved their routine. She wanted him to be happy with their life. All she had to do was say I love you. Don’t go. She just had to open her mouth and let the words out. Easy. “Maybe you’re just dating the wrong women here,” she argued softly. Maybe if you went out with me… “Well, the women on the show will certainly be different. It’s like Miranda said. This show is just the wake-up call we need.” Spit it out, Lou. “I heard some of the producers worrying that the women would think that you and I were more than just friends,” she croaked. “I guess it is hard for most people to accept that a man and a woman can be friends with absolutely no sexual feelings between them. They’ll see as soon as they see us together.” His eyes met her reflection in the mirror, glinting with amusement. “Can you imagine anyone who knows us thinking we were a couple?” And Lou’s heart curled up and died. She could imagine. That was the problem. She had always been able to imagine. But he never had. She’d been playing at happily-ever-after and he’d been completely oblivious. If she told him she wanted him now, Christ, the embarrassment! She couldn’t play pretend anymore. She needed a real life. And she wasn’t going to get it with Mister Perfect living in the bedroom down the hall, feeding her fantasies. “I’m glad you’re going,” she said softly, frustration and hopelessness making the words the absolute truth. Maybe the show was all about ratings, but not all the women would be there for their fifteen minutes of fame. Maybe some of them would be looking for Mr. Perfect. Maybe one of them would be perfect for him. And she would finally be able to let go of the dream of him. Chapter Six “Miranda Pierce. Are you using your powers for good?” Miranda had answered her cell phone on autopilot without looking at the caller-ID and now an entirely inappropriate shiver of excitement worked its way down her spine. She set aside her tablet and stood from the desk in her room at the Evanston hotel that the production crew had been using as a base of operations, wanting to be on her feet for this conversation. “Bennett Lang. I haven’t heard your voice in a while.” An omission that had been entirely intentional. Her former mentor was too domineering and overpowering a presence—everyone around him couldn’t help but live in his shade and Miranda was bound and determined to find her own place in the sun. He was also too old for her and entirely too married for the way she felt about him—at least he had been until recently. Miranda had zero desire to be the other woman and even less interest in being that woman who slept her way to the top, so when her feelings toward the illustrious Bennett Lang had begun to veer in a less-than-platonic direction, she’d put as much distance between her and the King of Reality Television as possible. “I saw that Forbes article on you. The Ten Most Influential Men in Television. Very impressive.” It had also mentioned his divorce, but there was no way in hell Miranda was opening that can of worms. “It sounds like it might not be too long before you’re on a list like that of your own. But that’s no surprise. I always knew you were going to rise straight to the top,” he replied smoothly. “I hear there may be a promotion coming your way.” “You always did have good sources,” she purred. Damn, it was heady stuff, hearing him say he knew about her success. Not that she’d done it to impress him, but she still found her back arching like a cat who’d been stroked. “Is that really what you want to do?” he asked. “Run that show?” “It’s a stepping stone.” A successful run as executive producer of Marrying Mister Perfect would open doors for her, giving her the opportunity to create her own shows like Bennett did and oversee them from on high rather than getting in the dirt with the day-to-day production duties. “Are you in town now? We should have a drink. Discuss your career.” Another delicious shiver worked over her nerves. “We’re just starting another season. You know what shooting schedules are like. I’ll be living at work for the next two months.” Literally. Reality television didn’t have regular home-by-dinner hours. Most nights she’d be crashing in a spare room at the Marrying Mister Perfect mansion. “Are you sure you can’t make time for me?” There was something in his voice. Some lingering trace of the last time she’d seen him, before she’d left American Dance Star to take a field producer position on Marrying Mister Perfect. She’d been working late in one of the editing bays, going over the rehearsal footage, when he’d come down to see how she was getting along. It wasn’t the first time she’d realized she was attracted to him, but they’d never been alone, just the two of them, in a small editing bay that suddenly seemed much, much smaller. She hadn’t been certain he felt it, the sizzling chemistry that made it hard for her to breathe. He hadn’t been inappropriate with her, but she’d been hyper aware of his presence, of the scent of his aftershave as he’d leaned over her shoulder to point out a moment she’d missed. She’d also been acutely aware of the fact that they wouldn’t have been the first people to use the editing bays for something other than editing. The hours in reality television could be hell on relationships and more than a few workplace affairs sprang up during the late nights. Bennett had absently tapped his wedding ring on the back of her chair as he leaned over her toward the screen—and she’d known she had to get away from American Dance Star. She loved the show, but she’d known that if she stayed, she would end up lunging at her boss one night. It would be a nightmare if he rejected her in favor of his wife and even worse if he didn’t. She would always be his protégé, never his equal. And everyone in Tinseltown would look at her differently. Bennett’s little pet. So she’d left. Promising herself that she would keep her distance. Even when she’d read about his divorce she hadn’t contacted him, wanting to come to him as an equal or nothing. She wasn’t quite there yet. “I’m sorry. You know how it is.” She could feel the force of his personality pressing through the phone, see him raking a single long-fingered hand through his brown-beginning-to-silver hair. “I do. Take care, Miranda.” “And you, Bennett. I appreciate the call.” She hung up before her willpower evaporated. Tossing her phone onto the hotel bed so she wouldn’t have to look at it, she went back to the desk and pulled her tablet toward her, trying to focus on the notes she’d been making regarding Jack’s initial interviews. She needed to stay focused. Glen was officially out and Miranda was sending reports directly to the show’s uber-executive producer, Wallace. Wallace who wouldn’t hesitate to fire her rather than promote her if everything didn’t go off perfectly this season. Marrying Mister Perfect’s creator and head honcho, he was notoriously risk averse—hating the unexpected, which was why most of his shows were thinly veiled knock-offs of other successful shows. But Miranda was determined that Marrying Mister Perfect was not going to be just another dating show. This season was going to be different. Things were going well. The camera loved Jack to a disgusting degree. The Suitorettes were going to be delirious with joy when they laid eyes on him. And Lou… A little twinge of guilt threatened to rise. She’d had a feeling Lou still had feelings for Jack. She thought if she dangled Marrying Mister Perfect in front of them, perhaps it would serve as a catalyst to push their relationship in a new direction, but it was rapidly becoming apparent that while Lou had never gotten over her crush as thoroughly as she claimed, Jack was profoundly oblivious to her feelings for him. Miranda told herself she was doing a good thing. Lingering in romantic limbo for years on end wasn’t good for anyone. She was doing Lou a favor. At least this would be quick. Like ripping off a band-aid. She’d known that Lou was eavesdropping today. Nothing happened on her set that she wasn’t aware of. She hadn’t censored her words, perhaps because part of her still hoped Lou would be driven to some action or declaration… which she could then get on camera. She’d instructed the roving behind-the-scenes camera crew to get extra footage of Lou, making sure she caught her gazing at Jack. It might become useful to the storyline later in the season. The Suitorettes hadn’t even arrived yet and already she had jealousy and heartbreak in the making. Miranda scrolled through her notes, Bennett’s words rising up in her mind. Was she using her powers for good? Chapter Seven Lou leaned against Kelly’s sliding glass door, staring out at the back deck where Jack stood guard over the steaks, his chest puffed out with the masculine pride of manning a grill. Peter lazed on a deck chair with a cold beer and Lou kept Kelly company as she puttered in the kitchen. The kids pelted around the backyard in an inexplicably complicated version of tag while the sound from the pregame show they were all ignoring filtered in from the living room. Their Sunday afternoon ritual. The last one before Jack flew off to California. The last one ever? The TV crews had finally packed up and left and Jack himself was scheduled to leave on Tuesday. Less than forty-eight hours. The countdown had taken on an ominous edge. This is the end. “Marrying Mister Perfect. I still can’t believe he agreed to it,” Kelly said behind her. Lou forced herself to stop staring at Jack like he was going into a warzone—minefields of silicone and spandex—and took a chair at the breakfast bar as Kelly popped an apple streusel pie into the oven and set the timer. “You know how he is. Straightest path from point A to point B. It seemed like the most direct way to fix the problem.” “What problem? I had no idea you guys were having trouble.” “Not trouble, just our rut. The codependent pseudo-marriage thing. Typical Jack he was completely oblivious to it—if it isn’t the thing he’s focused on right this second, it’s like it doesn’t even exist for him—but as soon as he noticed it, he had to fix it. The TV show thing sort of fell in his lap at around the same time, and he thought it was a great way to force us to move on with our lives.” “Is he wrong?” Kelly reached for the “Mommy’s Special Lemonade” pitcher and poured two tall glasses of her modified lemon drop martinis. Lou accepted her glass from Kelly and took a long drink, tasting the tang of the lemons even as the vodka burned its way down her esophagus. She wanted him to be wrong. She wanted everything to stay just as it had been before… with one or two romantic changes that were never going to happen. “He’s not wrong.” She hated this feeling. Like this entire mess with the reality show was somehow her fault because she hadn’t been able to just be happy with the life she had. And now she wasn’t going to have it anymore, courtesy of Marrying Mister Perfect and their team of internationally renowned matchmakers. Kelly took the place Lou had occupied at the glass door, watching the action in the backyard. “You know, with his single-mindedness, Marrying Mister Perfect might be perfect for him. When he’s with one of the Suitorettes, he’ll be totally focused on her and not distracted by the other girls.” Lou sipped at her lemon drop, not wanting to admit he was sort of amazing at it so far. “What do your families think?” “His parents are…I guess guardedly supportive would be the best way to put it.” The Doctors Doyle had a complicated relationship. Doctor Doyle Senior had been openly disdainful of the idea of going on reality television until Jack had explained how he could use the exposure to benefit the hospital. Then he’d seemed almost grudgingly admiring of the balls it took to go on the show. Lou’s mother had been more direct. “My mom said, and I quote, ‘Thank God, Louisa. Now you can finally get on with your life.” “Tactful. What will you do? Go back to…” Kelly had been looking out the window, her eyes absently tracking the kids, but now she twisted to frown at Lou. “I don’t know what your job was. That makes me a terrible friend, doesn’t it? All I remember about the time you moved in was that the twins were starting to walk and refused to sleep at the same time so I’d become this zombie-mommy monster who never had enough hands—” “But still managed to make me insanely delicious deserts and stop by three times a week just to make sure we were doing okay.” Kelly had probably saved her sanity in those early months. Kelly blinked. “I did that? Huh.” Then her lips curled in her usual crooked smile. “When you put it that way, I sound pretty fabulous. You’re lucky to have me, you slacker.” Lou grinned. “Amen.” “So what did you do, pre-kids?” “I studied languages. I wanted to be a simultaneous translator—mostly because I wanted someone to pay me to fly to exotic locales. I was working as a French tutor and teaching English as a second language when Emma was born.” And Gillian had passed away and suddenly Jack had needed her. “I took a couple weeks off to help, just to get Jack through the funeral and help him find someone permanent.” “Long couple weeks.” Kelly’s bright eyes were unusually serious. “That was the year of the teacher strike.” Kelly shook her head, not comprehending. “But TJ and Emma would have been too young for school.” “They were. But all the kids who normally would have been in school were home. There was a run on qualified childcare. Daycare waiting lists were a hundred names long and a good nanny could name her price. I hadn’t been making that much at my teaching jobs and so I offered to play nanny for Jack for a while. It was never supposed to be permanent, but I fell completely in love with those kids. TJ was such a charmer and Emma was growing so fast.” And she’d been hopelessly in love with their father. “So are you going to go back to work? Now that you’ll be able to?” “I don’t know if I could. I’m so out of practice. And the idea of starting from scratch and pinching pennies for a room in a tiny apartment is pretty unappealing.” She’d been spoiled by this life. By not having to worry whether the bills would be paid. She felt like a divorcee who’d been out of the workforce for four years, but she wasn’t even going to get alimony. “I don’t know what I’ll do.” Which sounded too much like I don’t know who I am for comfort. She’d gotten so comfortable in this life. Lou knew she used to feel passionately about things other than the kids and Jack, things that were just about her, but now she couldn’t even remember what that passion felt like. “Do you ever feel like you’ve forgotten how to be the kind of person who chases her dreams?” “Truthfully? Not really. But I’m not a big dreamer. Give me a peaceful afternoon with a good book and I’m happy. But that doesn’t mean the way you feel is wrong.” “Yes, it is,” she insisted. “Because it’s all a lie. A giant game of freaking pretend and there’s no magic wand to wave to turn it into a real life.” Kelly frowned. “You lost me. Or I’m already drunk.” She eyed the glass in her hand. “This batch is a little strong, isn’t it?” Lou shrugged and took another drink. She could use strong today. The last few weeks had been hell on her emotions—a part of her almost wished Jack would go already so she could stop praying for a stay of execution. The sliding door whooshed open. “Lunch is served.” Jack stood in the opening, carrying a tray piled high with meat and wearing the expression of a conquering hero. Lou felt something tight in her chest loosen at the sight of him—and as soon as she realized it had, her stomach soured. That was who she was. The girl who silently adored Jack too much for her own good. The girl who pinned her entire future on the fantasy that someday he would love her back. Jack was right to do the show. She couldn’t be that girl anymore. # “The Challenges are character tests—do not keep the girls who fail or America will hate you, because you’re a shallow loser who doesn’t care about moral fiber.” Kelly made air quotes around moral fiber, nearly flinging her forkful of pie across the table in the process, and Jack suppressed a grin. She’d been giving him tips on how to succeed at Marrying Mister Perfect since he came inside after getting the kids settled on the child-sized backyard picnic table with their hotdogs. He knew he should be paying closer attention—he’d probably kill for this information in the next few weeks—but knowing it would be his last for a while, he just wanted to enjoy the normalcy of this afternoon. Kelly yammering, Peter tipped back in his chair nursing the same beer he’d been peeling the label on for the last hour, and Lou beside him smiling an absent thank you when she glanced around the table, looking for something, and he put the whipped cream canister into her hand without having to be asked. Lou’d been quiet all afternoon, but that might just have been a side effect of not being able to get a word in edgewise when Kelly got going. “Or, if you really want to keep a girl who fails a test, you have to make a really big deal about second chances and forgiveness and all that crap. And do it in a way that the producers can’t edit out.” Kelly made a face. “There are always some girls who are really horrid cows but beat all the challenges because they’ve watched the show a million times and know what to look for. It’s a shame you won’t be able to see the Suitorettes’ confessional footage. The things some of those girls will admit to on camera. Oi. Do not be one of those idiots, Jack. At all times, you must remember that everything you say can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.” “Yes, ma’am.” “You should be writing this down.” Kelly frowned. “You should write it down,” Jack suggested. “How to Beat Marrying Mister Perfect. Instant bestseller.” Kelly’s eyes lit. “I’ll make you a manual! Will you have email when you’re there?” “I don’t think so. It sounds like all contact with the outside world is pretty restricted.” Small fingers tapping on the glass of the sliding door forestalled whatever Kelly would have said next. Emma squeezed through the opening and padded over to stand at Lou’s side with mustard in her hair and her lower lip shoved out in a pout. “The boys are being mean.” “Boys are dumb,” Kelly announced without a second’s hesitation. “Hey,” Peter protested mildly. Kelly stuck her tongue out at her husband, causing Emma to giggle. Out of the corner of his eye Jack saw Lou suppressing a smile. It was a small moment, one of a million little memories of his girls he’d be missing while he was away. His chest tightened. Jack shoved his chair back from the table, opening his arms. “Come here, baby. You can help me finish my pie.” Daddy has to be on National television shirtless next week. “Really?” Emma didn’t have to be asked twice. She clambered up into his lap, bony elbows jabbing him in every possible soft tissue before she finally settled into place and dug into his pie. Jack looped his arms around her and rested his chin on top of her baby-fine hair. He glanced to his left and caught Lou watching them. Her expression was inscrutable—like she was so far down into her own mind none of what she was thinking could make it to the surface. He’d caught that expression on her face a lot lately. “Oh!” Kelly burst out suddenly. “The compatibility tests! When they reveal the results to you—I think that’s week four?—there’s always one girl who is like ninety-nine-point-nine percent compatible with you. Keep her. Even if there is no sizzle whatsoever. The ones who ended up picking their most compatible matches as the final winners are the only couples who make it past the first year.” “All two of them,” Peter snorted. “If anyone scores less than fifty percent compatibility, run, do not walk, away from that chick. The host—Josh Pendleton, so dreamy—always tries to talk Mr. Perfect into keeping one of them, and then she ends up having an on camera meltdown and turning into a stalker by week six. Those internationally renowned matchmakers they brag about know their stuff. Flaunt the compatibility tests at your peril.” “What’s a ‘patability test?” Emma piped up. “A test of how cuddle-able someone is.” Jack squeezed Emma until she giggled and squirmed. “See? We’re very compatible.” Kelly frowned absently, another bite of pie dangling precariously from her waving fork. “You know, they probably had to redo all the compatibility stuff, since you aren’t the guy they originally picked all these girls for. Do you know if they recast any of the women when the astronaut fell through?” Jack shrugged. “They don’t tell me anything. I’m just Mr. Perfect.” Saying it out loud sounded odd and he realized it was the first time he’d referred to himself that way. Other people had called him that, but to say it about himself felt… wrong. “This is so cool,” Kelly gushed as she bounced out of her chair and began clearing the desert plates, oblivious to his sudden discomfort. “I know Mr. Perfect!” The last few weeks as he’d fielded dozens of calls about the show, it had always felt like people were referring to someone else when they talked about Mr. Perfect. He’d been disconnected from the role he’d be playing, still Daddy to Emma and TJ, still Jack to Lou, still Dr. Doyle to everyone at the hospital. But starting now he would be Mr. Perfect to a few million people he’d never met. That would be him. Jesus. What was he getting himself into? Lou’s fingers rested softly on his wrist. “You okay?” she asked, the low question just carrying to his ears. And just like that he remembered why he was going. Not so he could stake a claim to fame, relive his bachelor days or “bang a bunch of hot women” as Peter had jokingly suggested earlier, but to give Lou a chance for the life she deserved. And, yeah, for himself too. He wasn’t a saint. This wasn’t entirely selfless. The show would finally give them both a chance at something that wasn’t temporary. A flicker of heady anticipation began to stir in his blood. He’d been all work and no play for a long time. It was impossible not to be excited by the idea of play being his work for the next two months. He rolled his hand beneath Lou’s and linked their fingers. “I think it just hit me,” he admitted, smiling wryly. Emma wiggled and resettled herself in his lap, her head tucked against his chest. Lou’s hand was warm in his, but her expression was still distant. Already a thousand miles away. “You’ll be great.” Chapter Eight “Emma! TJ! Come say goodbye. Your father has to catch his flight.” Jack handed his carry-on to the limo driver the show had sent and turned back, hovering in the doorway. He waited for the kids to run into his arms, but there was no sound of a thundering herd. Just a pair of voices shouting, “Bye, Dad!” from the living room. Lou smiled sympathetically and patted his arm. “You’ve never gone away for more than a day before,” she reminded him. “They don’t understand how long eight weeks is going to be. That doesn’t mean they won’t miss you. And we’ll see you a week from Saturday.” “I know.” It was probably easier this way than if they were crying and begging him to stay, but the blithe indifference still stung. These couple days he’d been trying to hold onto every second, pack away each memory, but that only seemed to make the time fly faster, the attempt to hold onto the moments like holding a fistful of water. Things had been odd with Lou, too. She’d been distant. Reserved. Normally the house echoed with shrieks of laughter, but lately things had been all too quiet. The mood subdued. Last night bath time was somber, story-time eerily silent. He would have written it off as the kids bracing for his absence, but he got the distinct impression they were picking up the mood from Lou. He’d known that she was the source of the life in his house, but it had never been drawn in more sharp relief than in the last couple days. Growing up, achievement had been held above all else for Jack. His parents had never really latched onto the whole parenting thing, though they’d liked the idea of a legacy. The fact that he would be a doctor was a foregone conclusion—though he was allowed to pick his specialty. He was just lucky it turned out he loved the career that had been chosen for him by the Doctors Doyle at birth. It hadn’t been a bad childhood. He hadn’t been unhappy, but his house had never been what he would have described as fun. Jack had wanted things to be different for his kids. And Lou had been a huge part of that. And now she was standing away from him, arms wrapped around her middle, holding herself in a way that was intensely self-contained, as if she was afraid to touch him. Communication had never really been his strong suit. He wasn’t really excellent at picking up on subtle emotional cues, but even he knew something was different. He didn’t want to go through this crazy TV-show thing without her on his side. Lou was his best friend. His anchor. He needed her. He didn’t feel ready for this, but he’d run out of time to gear himself up. In two days he would meet the women among whom the show’s producers hoped would be his perfect match. Until then, his time would be consumed by last minute wardrobe fittings and interviews. The adventure started now. Even though Jack had never been the type to balk in the face of a challenge, he stalled in the doorway, reluctant to leave. His life had fallen into such a comfortable, familiar routine these last four years and now every second of every day was going to be foreign and new. In theory, he still wanted this experience. In reality, he couldn’t make himself walk out the door. “Lou…” When she looked up at him, there was a flicker of something vulnerable in her eyes. There then gone. “If you change your mind about this, you can tell me anytime you want to pull the plug and it’s over. Just say the word.” She ducked her head. Wisps of her hair escaped from her ponytail and hung around her face. He could smell the faint, familiar whiff of her peach shampoo. “We’ll see you next weekend for the first visit. You’ll be so busy you won’t even miss us.” “It should be me giving you a pep talk. You’re the one who has to deal with the demolitionist children by yourself.” Lou laughed, the sound oddly forced. “Are you kidding? Between Kelly and the grandparents all begging to help out while you’re away, I’ll be lucky if I ever get to see the kids.” Hesitation still hovered in the air, along with that sense of distance. Jack caught her hand and Lou lifted startled eyes to his at the contact. “Have I told you how grateful I am for everything you’ve done for us? For everything you’ve done for me?” Lou blushed and tucked her chin down, embarrassed as ever by any hint of praise. “You never had to, Jack. I already know.” “I should still say it.” Lou smiled, but didn’t raise her eyes. “We don’t talk about stuff like that.” Jack frowned, realizing the truth in her words. They talked about the kids, about his work, about the broken washing machine or remodeling the kitchen. They talked about what movie to rent or which restaurant to go to. He knew she hated brussel sprouts and liked any movie set in a foreign locale. He knew how she felt about every detail of their day-to-day lives together, but they never talked about the mushy feelings stuff. In the short time since the show had come into their lives, they’d probably talked more about how they felt than they had in the last four years combined. It just never seemed to come up. He never said he was grateful, never told her how he would drown without her. And she never said she was trapped. But he knew she had to feel trapped. So he would go. Find Mrs. Perfect and bring her home to free the perfect friend currently imprisoned in his guest room. “Well, maybe we should talk about it,” he said when the silence stretched. “At least once or twice a year.” Lou laughed softly and finally looked up to meet his eyes. “I’ll put it on the calendar. You can tell me you appreciate me again in March.” Then her smile died. He knew they were both wondering if she would still be living with them in March. Everything could be different by then. Jack shook away the sense of melancholy that thought inspired. Everything should be different. Lou deserved her own Mr. Perfect. From the porch behind him, the limo driver cleared his throat. Jack grimaced. “I guess that’s my cue.” He turned to look down at her at the exact moment Lou leaned up to kiss his cheek. They bumped against one another and her lips landed against the corner of his mouth, startling them both. For a second neither moved, frozen in the awkwardness of the accidental almost-kiss. Her lips were soft and warm. Not that he’d expected them to be anything else—he’d just never given any thought to Lou’s lips. Now his eyes fell to them and he frowned. How had he gone all these years living with her and never once even thought of kissing Lou? She really did have a very pretty mouth, the full lower lip… Lou jerked back, flustered. “I…” “Right,” he mumbled, shoving a hand through his hair. Awareness sizzled through him, oddly fueled by her awkwardness. They were never awkward with one another. If anything, their curse was that they were too at ease, complacent even. That complacency was gone now. Tension crackled like static in the air between them. The curious urge to kiss her, really kiss her, hadn’t entirely gone away. Lou wet her lips. Jack tracked the movement with his eyes. “Well, have a nice flight!” she said, her voice a little too loud. Her sudden cheeriness jarred him out of the odd mood he’d fallen into. He blinked, taking a step away from her, out onto the porch. Where was his brain? He hadn’t actually been about to kiss Lou, had he? Lou, for Christ’s sake. “I’ll call every day,” he said, trying to get back on normal footing. Her false good cheer faded, her pale blue eyes softening. “We’ll miss you, Jack.” “I’ll miss you too.” He closed the distance he’d put between them. Catching her around the shoulders, he pulled her into a bear hug—just like buddies. All he had to do was add a little back thumping and they’d be bros. “You’re the best, Lou. What would I do without you?” he grunted against her peach-scented hair, squeezing her tight. Standing there, with the familiar comfort of Lou’s arms wrapped around his waist and her cheek pressed against his heart, the desire to just stay here and forget all about the show returned. When had he turned into such a homebody? When had Lou become such an essential part of each day? He couldn’t keep using her this way, relying on her for everything. He had already leaned on her too much. She was small, tucked against his front, the top of her head barely clearing his collarbone. Much too small to shoulder all the weight he had put on her over the last four years. “I’ve gotta go,” he said softly, though he didn’t loosen his hold on her until she slowly started to pull away. He released her by degrees, his hands sliding down her arms until only their fingers were linked. Lou looked up into his eyes, her eyes solemn. “Have fun,” she commanded soberly. Jack smiled. “Always.” You taught me how. He stepped off the porch, dragging his feet toward the limo. “Jack, wait!” Lou’s shout stopped him in his tracks. He turned as she ran down the porch steps, slipping a gold chain from her wrist as she ran. She grabbed his hand and turned it palm up between them, dropping her gold charm bracelet onto his palm and curling his fingers around it. “To remember us by.” “I could never forget you, Lou.” Her eyes flicked down to the pavers at their feet and there was something so sad in her smile it made his chest ache. “I hope that’s true.” # For a second there, he’d almost kissed her. Lou stood in the open doorway and watched the limo depart, watching the street long after it was gone. Some of the neighbors had come out to see their resident celebrity head off to Hollywood and Lou waved back when they called out greetings to her. The kids were inside, engrossed in some game one of the camera guys had taught them involving dares and shouting numbers. She wasn’t entirely sure of the rules, so they could probably figure out a way to use it to burn down the house and she should probably get back in there, but at the moment she couldn’t make her feet move. He was really gone. She’d made herself smile as he was leaving. It was for the best. She just kept telling herself that her still-beating heart wasn’t being ripped out of her chest. All for the best. She’d panicked when her attempt to kiss him on the cheek had almost hit his mouth. Would he think she was coming on to him? Would he have to let her down easy? Would he pity her for her feelings for him? Feelings he could never return? She’d been so relieved when he’d hugged her—a nice, normal hug. She’d tucked her cheek against his chest and looped her arms around his waist. For a second, standing there, hugging the man of her dreams, she’d stopped lying to herself with thoughts of for the best and I just want his happiness. Instead, she held on tight and listened for the sound of her heart breaking. You’re the best, Lou. What would I do without you? The words echoed, taunting. What would she do without him? She walked, zombielike to the kitchen, where all she could do was sit and wonder was if it would even be her kitchen in six months time. Who would be baking Emma’s muffins then? Two months filming, one month post-production, three months airing and then poof. The end of her life as she knew it. At least she’d have plenty of time to get used to the idea. To make plans. Get started on who she was going to be. She could start dating—even if the idea gave her heartburn. She’d tried eHarmony once, and even gone on a few dates, but they hadn’t been Jack. And they definitely hadn’t understood that she didn’t want to leave him. A guy didn’t want to start a relationship with a girl who already had a family and refused to leave it. Which was the exact same situation she’d be in for the next few months. Emma and TJ would need her more than ever while Jack was gone. And she wasn’t sure she was ready to date anyway. Maybe she should take some time away, get some distance—both figuratively and literally—before she tested out her heart. A few months in Europe didn’t sound like a bad idea. She had some savings, since Jack insisted on paying her a monthly stipend and all her living expenses were covered. She could afford the trip she’d always dreamed of taking—but she was afraid to even think of beginning to plan it. It seemed like every time she seriously thought about leaving, some disaster struck to keep her here. The floods in high school. Her mother’s cancer when she was supposed to be studying abroad—thank God in remission now. And then Gillian’s death when she’d had that job offer in Paris. She’d never told Jack about that job. It was long gone now. She wasn’t sure she knew how to be that person anymore anyway. Adventurous Lou—who always seemed to invite disaster when she tried to take an adventure. Though maybe this time the disaster had come first. She’d lost Jack. He was off to be Mister Perfect. Of course he was. Lou had known he was perfect from the second they met. The memory of the first time she saw Jack stood out in her mind like a scene from a movie—or a set-up for the TV show—crisper than real recollections should be. He’d walked into the Latin classroom with his girlfriend, laughing, arm-in-arm, and both of them radiating the same confidence and charm. From that first instant, Lou had seen they fit together, but she hadn’t envied them their picture perfection. She’d just wanted to study it, admire it like she would a particularly striking portrait. It was outside her world. He was going to be valedictorian, a year ahead of her in school, star of the soccer team—a sport that wouldn’t threaten a surgeon’s hands—and dating Dana Wright, the pretty, effervescent girl who starred in all the school shows. So of course he’d been out of bounds. He shouldn’t have noticed her at all, but Lou had helped with costumes on the school’s production of Grease and Dana was genuinely nice. The kind of girl who remembered people, made them feel special. She’d introduced Jack to Lou before rushing off to get to her own class on time. And he’d smiled. He’d stepped forward, out of their perfect two-some tableau, and extended his hand to her. He’d asked her what she was reading, probably more out of politeness than curiosity, but when she’d answered he hadn’t just nodded and wandered off. He’d probed deeper. And the more he asked, the less he seemed like a portrait to be studied and the more like a guy. A nice guy. By the time class started, Lou had resigned herself to having a silly crush on the glorious unattainable guy. The high school Latin class was small—only twelve students, and they often found themselves studying together. Lou was taking it to help her with her language classes and Jack because his father thought it would help him in Med School. They could have just been classmates, but somehow they’d become friends. Of course their relationship had instantly settled into a purely platonic place. He was taken, and he was completely uninterested in Lou on anything resembling a romantic level, but that just seemed to give her permission to relax around him. He dated Dana Wright and Lane Chang, but he confided in her. He’d gone to Northwestern the following year, enrolled in the combined bachelors/M.D. program there. He’d thrown himself into his studies, but thanks to email and Facebook, they never really lost touch—and she never really lost her crush. She’d been a senior at the University of Chicago, studying French, Chinese and Arabic when Jack had invited her for dinner out of the blue. She’d broken up with her one serious college boyfriend the previous year during the strain of her mom’s cancer treatment and though she’d told herself her school girl crush was long-since dead, it resurrected itself with a vengeance as she prepared for their dinner together. A thousand scenarios had played out in her head. She wasn’t expecting him to drop down on one knee or anything, but a little making out was definitely on the table. This was the moment when the nature of their relationship would change. She could feel it. Then she’d shown up at the restaurant and Jack hadn’t been alone. He’d never been very good at communication. He’d forgotten to mention that he wanted to have dinner with her so he could introduce her to his girlfriend. Gillian Elton-Weiss. She was a sorority girl from Northwestern, pretty in a flashy, undeniable way, whereas Lou had always thought her own appeal was more subtle. Or, you know, invisible. Jack had always wanted to be a doctor and Gillian came from a wealthy Chicago family that organized fund-raisers for half the private hospitals in the state. Match made in heaven. Lou hadn’t even been surprised when she heard three months later that Gillian had gotten knocked up and there was an emergency wedding planned. She might have cried a little the night before the wedding, but she’d smiled the next morning from the pews, beaming so hard she felt her face would split, trying to force herself to be happy for Jack. And then she hadn’t had to force herself. TJ was born and he was a tiny little miracle. Jack would meet her for brunch in the city sometimes, bringing the baby so Gillian could have a break, and Lou would fuss over him, adoring every tiny, squidgy inch. Somehow with TJ there, she hadn’t pined or envied. She’d become Jack’s pal, his confidant, and eventually his best friend again. When Gillian got pregnant again, she’d been genuinely happy for him—even as she listened to his fears about how he was ever going to pay off his med school loans and the mortgage on the house they’d just bought and put away for two college educations without asking his father for money because he refused to break down and ask for money. His life had seemed set. Then Gillian had died so suddenly, giving birth to Emma. Jack had needed her and Lou hadn’t thought twice. She moved in with him at first because she couldn’t imagine not helping him when he needed her. She had never meant to take Gillian’s place—she knew she couldn’t even if she wanted to. And she hadn’t wanted to. Gillian had been the life of the party, but Lou had always felt uncomfortable as the center of attention. They were so different and Lou had always been happy to be herself—even though she’d known it would mean she would never be Jack’s type. The man who fell for Gillian clearly wasn’t the man for Lou. But living with him, day to day, that initial crush had come back with a vengeance, sneaking up on her during quiet nights curled up in front of a movie or in the shared laughter at the dinner table. Lou had let herself forget that they didn’t have a real relationship. They weren’t married and she wasn’t Emma and TJ’s mom. Filling those roles every day, Lou had latched onto the illusion that they were a real family. That they were hers. Some days she even let herself think he might love her back, just a little. That life may have been an illusion, but it hurt to have it stripped away. Especially if it was only going to be replaced by another illusion constructed by reality television producers. But it was too late now. He was gone. And she was lost. Chapter Nine From the second Jack left Lou, reality stepped out of his life. A limo to the airport, a first class seat to Los Angeles, another limo picking him up and whisking him away (as much as anyone could be whisked in LA traffic) to a luxurious mansion on a hill overlooking the lights of the city—his home for the next six weeks. One of the ubiquitous producers met him at the door and rapidly introduced him to the house’s staff—butler, chef, and maid, all of whom would be strictly off-camera—before taking him on a tour that probably broke the land speed record. While they power-walked through the maze of rooms clearly designed for every possible entertainment—screening room, bowling alley, indoor and outdoor pools—the producer rattled off his schedule for the next few days. It didn’t sound like he would have a second to himself. Peppered in with the flood of planned activities, the producer seemed to delight in dropping hints about the Suitorettes who would start arriving the next day. Jack was under strict instructions not to sneak over to the adjacent Suitorette Mansion until after he had officially met each of the girls on camera—but the producer didn’t seem to have any hesitation about dropping hints about who he would be meeting. Apparently the show had scored quite a coup, landing one mildly famous model, a D-list actress, a former Miss America, and a popular romance author for this season. There were also, he was informed, two doctors, one lawyer, and a PR executive in the lot—just in case he preferred the businessy types. But if he wanted a more maternal sort, he didn’t have to worry. Among the initial thirty candidates were no less than four pre-school and kindergarten teachers—all cute as a button and quite lively—and two single mothers. But since he’d expressed an interest in adventure, the show’s producers had secured a few adrenaline junkies—including an extreme sports star. The more the producer gushed, the more Jack wondered what the hell he was doing here. As soon as the producer slipped out—with a final suggestion that he enjoy the hot tub, since tonight would be his last chance to enjoy it alone, wink, wink—Jack took the stairs two at a time up to his bedroom where the maid had already unpacked his things. He grabbed the phone off the nightstand and dialed his home number. As he listened to it ring, he remembered the time difference and hoped he wasn’t waking up the entire house. “Hello?” The sound of Lou’s voice sent a flood of relief through him. “Is it too late to call?” “Jack! I didn’t expect to hear from you tonight.” Her delight coursed through her line, bringing a smile to his face. She sounded as frazzled by the separation as he was. “It’s definitely not too late, though the kids are asleep.” “Good. It’s nice to know bedtime didn’t get thrown out the window the second I left town.” She gave a soft laugh and he reveled in the sound. “It’s all ice cream for dinner and jumping on the furniture around here without you,” she teased. “I miss all the good stuff,” he mock-grumbled, loving the easy banter, the removal of that distance that had plagued them for the last couple days. “I’m sure they have you on a strict no-ice-cream diet until after all the shirtless shots are in the can.” Jack laughed. He climbed onto the massive California King bed, stacked pillows and reclined against them, the phone pressed to his ear. “You aren’t far off,” he admitted. “There’s a private chef here to make sure I’m eating healthy. And a maid who hung up all my shirts.” Lou groaned. “That isn’t reality. Those poor girls are going to be suckered in by your spotless house. It’ll be quite a shock when they realize what a slob you are when you don’t have a maid picking up after you.” “Hey, I’m not a slob.” “Excuse me, but as someone who has never seen your bedroom floor without a layer of dirty laundry on it, I beg to differ.” “Laundry isn’t a mess. It’s clothes. Most of ‘em are clean.” “Just because you can’t smell it from across the room doesn’t make it clean.” Jack closed his eyes, soothed by the normalcy of their conversation. They could have been goading one another from opposite sides of the couch in his living room instead of half a country apart. It was exactly what he’d needed so he could feel at home. “So, other than the maid, anything newsworthy happening?” “The house is insane. Wait till you come visit. The kids are going to go nuts in the pool.” “I’ll make sure we pack the water wings.” He could hear the smile in her voice. Then, after a slight hesitation, she went on. “When do you meet the girls?” “Wednesday night. They’re flying in from all over the world.” “I was talking to Kelly today. She says you shouldn’t keep any of them around just because they kiss you on the first night. She says that’s a sure sign of a tramp who’s just using the show for publicity.” He laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind. Kelly’s the expert.” “She really is making you a Marrying Mr. Perfect instruction manual to help you pick a keeper. I’m under orders to bring a working draft with me when I come next weekend. And I’m supposed to relay instructions to you until then so you don’t pick a lemon.” “I could use all the help I can get.” Jack settled deeper into the pillow, closing his eyes and concentrating on the familiarity of her voice. “Just give me the game plan, coach.” They talked into the night, like they often did at home. All that was missing was their scarred kitchen table and a couple mugs of decaf. It didn’t even occur to him until he hung up the phone hours later that he had spent the first night of his new adventure trying to feel like he was still back home. # Jack stood in a beautiful stone courtyard, sweating in a three-piece-suit and viselike shoes. He yanked at his collar, trying to loosen the noose-like tie and a production assistant detached from the crewpeople clustered at the other side of the courtyard. She scurried over to him and jerked the tie back to quasi-asphyxiation tightness before pulling out a compact and dabbing at his temples with pancake make-up. “You’re sweating a lot,” she commented cheerfully. “Nerves?” “It’s eighty-five degrees and I’m wearing wool. Sweat is inevitable.” “It’s a wool blend, actually,” she corrected in the same irritatingly chipper tone. “Don’t worry. The Suitorette mansion is air-conditioned down to about fifty degrees so all the girls will be suitably perky and inclined to cuddle up to you. And the forecast says it’ll cool off by midnight, so by the time we’re back out here for the Elimination Ceremony you’ll be grateful for the jacket. And not to worry, we’ll have space heaters for the girls in the slinky dresses. It really slows production when we have to bring in the docs to treat for frostbite.” She grinned. Jack didn’t think she was kidding. He decided he wasn’t touching most of that statement and focused on the most ominous part. “This is going to last past midnight?” It was barely dusk. His feet were going to be bloody from these damn shoes within the hour. “First night’s always an all-nighter.” She gave his forehead sweat one last pat and tucked the pancake away. “If you’re feeling drowsy, we’ve got Red Bull by the bucket. Just give a wave and we’ll bring you one. We strongly advise against alcohol on the first night, at least for you. Though you can have one to calm your nerves if you need it. The girls will be drinking, of course, but we want our Mr. Perfect to have a clear head as much as possible tonight.” He’d worked his share of all-nighters at the hospital, but he had a feeling tonight was going to be more exhausting than his ER rotation. Miranda clacked across the courtyard, ubiquitous tablet in hand. “Sexy Jack! I think we’re about set inside. Are you ready to meet the girl of your dreams and begin the journey to your happily ever after?” “Absolutely.” Jack forced a smile and a degree of enthusiasm he couldn’t make himself feel. “Excellent!” Miranda beamed. She seemed genuinely happy today. High on the excitement of the show’s launch or maybe she’d crushed a third world country this morning on her quest to world domination. “I know we’ve been over this a million times and Josh will be going over everything with you step by step, but just to refresh, our host Josh Pendleton will greet you out here then escort you inside where each of the girls has been set up in a room that represents them in some way—musical girls will have a piano, that sort of thing. They get one minute—exactly sixty seconds, and we will be counting—to impress you and then it’s off to the next room. No dawdling, no matter how they tempt you!” she giggled. “This part of the show is all about first impressions. Like speeddating on steroids. Your job is just to live in the moment and enjoy yourself. And remember not to look at or refer to the cameras, okay? We’re going to be as unobtrusive as possible, with only one camera following you and a three-man set-up in the rooms with the girls. And don’t you worry, they’ll give you plenty of space.” Jack managed not to openly scoff at that. As if five feet of clearance was going to give him the opportunity for an intimate first meet. “I know it seems impossible now, but by next week you won’t even notice us.” She bounced in her heels—definitely high on something, or maybe it was just the thrill of the show. Miranda did love her job. “After the First Meets, we’ll collect all the girls together for the first challenge. They’ll think they have to write you a little time-capsule note that you will open together on the last date, if they make it that far, but really there won’t be enough capsules for everyone and it’s a chance to see how they handle that. And how they interact with one another since that will also be the first time the girls will be seeing one another. You should be able to observe a lot from the spy room we’ve set up for you.” Jack’s stomach turned a little at the idea of spying on his possible future wife, but he reminded himself that on this show nothing was ever private. “After that there will be a brief cocktail party, when all the girls get a chance to vie for your attention and then it’s on to the Elimination Ceremony. You’ll cut eight tonight. Don’t worry about names, we’ll help you if you forget. Just let yourself be in the moment. We’ve gathered thirty of the most extraordinary women in America for you, you lucky bastard.” Jack forced a smile, but he didn’t feel lucky. He felt trapped. He reached into his pocket and ran his thumb over the charm bracelet. Lou’s face rose in his mind, along with Emma’s, TJ’s and visions of home. What was he doing here? Before he could wave the white flag and call it all off, Miranda was striding away, off to conquer Rome and someone he couldn’t see was yelling, “Cue Josh!” The former game-show-host Josh Pendleton stepped out of the Suitorette mansion with his overly suave smile firmly in place. “Welcome to a new season of Marrying Mister Perfect!” he exclaimed, and Jack wasn’t sure whether the host was talking to him or the home audience. Pendleton launched into his spiel, strolling across the courtyard with a measured gait so he reached Jack’s side at the right moment in his speech. He ran through the agenda for the night for the cameras and Jack tried to remember to beam and look like Mr. Perfect rather than a deer in headlights. Everything seemed to be moving at light speed. Before he knew it he was being guided along a garden path along to the pool where the first Suitorette waited for him. Pendleton dropped back, waving him ahead, and Jack stepped through an archway and onto the tiki-torch lit pool deck. And standing in the middle of the flickering light, a golden vision posed with a sultry smile in place on her lush lips. Hello, Marilyn. Jack’s higher brain functions melted. Playmate curves were barely contained by the short, shimmery, spandex-tight dress. Suddenly Jack felt nervous for a whole new reason and his feet stalled. She didn’t seem to mind. She strolled toward him, full mouth open slightly, her heavily-shadowed eyes never leaving his as her platinum blonde hair swished around her hips. The smoky intensity of her gaze had him shifting nervously in his excruciating shoes. This woman was too gorgeous. Movie-star hot and focused like a laser beam on him. He felt like he’d been bodyslammed by her sheer sex appeal. What had he signed himself up for? She paused in front of him, licked her lips and smiled a slow, sensuous invitation of a smile. “Hello, Mister Perfect. I’m Katya.” Chapter Ten Lou was not waiting by the phone. She wasn’t. Just because it was Friday morning. The morning after Jack’s first meeting with his dream women. Just because she was desperately hoping he would call her and tell her they were all awful and he was coming home… She most certainly was not waiting by the phone. The kids were at school and Lou lingered in the kitchen—because she was washing the sticky oatmeal bowls from breakfast, of course. It had nothing to do with a need to remain within lunging distance of the landline. The cell phone was tucked into the back pocket of her jeans. She plunged her hands into the water, swirling the sponge around inside an already spotless bowl. It was that damn kiss. Their accidental goodbye kiss haunted her. Had she squandered an opportunity there? Should she have taken the chance to kiss him properly? Sure, Jack had never thought of her that way, but that didn’t necessarily mean he never would. Didn’t the best relationships grow out of friendships? People were always saying that. There had to be some truth in it. If she could just get him to stop thinking of her as Lou the buddy, Lou the friend, maybe she still had a chance. Provided he hadn’t already fallen head over heels at first sight with a supermodel he first laid eyes on last night. For all Lou knew he was in Vegas with Miss Perfect right this instant, getting married by Elvis in front of a row of cameras and a dozen giddy television executives. If only he would call… The house phone rang. Lou dove for it, splashing soapy water all over herself. “Jack?” she gasped breathlessly into the receiver. “He still hasn’t called?” The sound of Kelly’s voice sent Lou’s spirits plummeting. “Drat. I wanted all the gossip. He met them last night, didn’t he?” “That was the plan.” “You sound awful. Don’t worry. He’ll be great. He was born to be Mr. Perfect.” “I know.” Which did nothing to raise Lou’s spirits. There was nothing like being reminded the man was completely out of her league. “You wanna come over? I’m making double fudge brownies. Chocolate therapy.” Lou didn’t want to go anywhere until Jack called, but admitting that to Kelly wasn’t high on her wish list. Though Kelly was the expert on Marrying Mr. Perfect. Maybe she could help Lou figure out how to sabotage the show so Jack would have to come home and fall in love with her instead. Yeah. Like that was ever going to happen. “I don’t know, Kel—” The phone beeped against her ear. “Oh God, Kelly, that’s the call waiting! I’ve gotta go.” “Call me ba—” Lou hit the button to connect the new call, cutting Kelly off mid-word. “Hello?” “Lou.” Her knees turned to jelly and she sank down onto the nearest chair, melting into a puddle of relief. “Jack. How are you? You just missed the kids. They’ve already left for school.” After a slight hesitation, he said, “Yeah, I’m still getting used to the time zones.” He sounded wrecked. She glanced at the clock, quickly doing the math. “It’s gotta be seven fifteen in the morning there. Don’t tell me you haven’t been to sleep yet?” He groaned an affirmative. “Miranda wasn’t kidding when she said the hours were insane.” “You should get some sleep. I’m sorry you missed the kids, but I’ll tell them you called.” “No.” He grunted groggily. “I mean, yes, tell them I called, but I was hoping we could talk for a sec. Just you and me?” Her relief that he’d called morphed into something stronger, a pleasure that hummed through her heart. “Absolutely. Whatever you want.” Especially if he what he wanted was her. “How did it go last night?” Please let him say it was awful. Please, please, please. “It was… overwhelming. Definitely more of an assault to the senses than I was expecting.” Lou held her breath. What exactly did assault to the senses mean? Was that a good thing? A bad thing? “Oh?” “It’s insane. Thirty drop-dead gorgeous women vying for my attention, crawling all over one another and clearly willing to scratch one another’s eyes out for a chance to sit down next to me for five minutes.” Lou tried to read his voice without success. Was that exasperation or was he flattered by the attention? He just sounded exhausted. “I think there was a PA whose entire job was to make sure everyone had a fresh cocktail all night long and it went on for hours. We started at dusk and didn’t wrap photography until the sun was coming up.” Miranda had said the first night was a marathon, but that sounded like a nightmare. “The Elimination Ceremony was the worst.” This time she had no trouble reading his voice. Irritation twined around the tension in his words. “They’re rings, Lou. Did you know that? Actual rings. I give each girl a gold ring and ask her if she will accept it as a token that I would like her to continue on the journey toward marriage with me.” He groaned. “Half of them were tipsy by then, a few were flat out drunk, and they were all so nervous it was like I was calling out the names of the last few people to get on the lifeboats for the Titanic or something. I’d call out a name and she’d rush forward. Every single time I had to say the line and then Josh—that’s the host—would say, ‘You are still in the running for the final ring.’ It was creepily ritualistic. And we kept having to wait for them to set up shots and angles. I couldn’t remember half of their names, so one of the producers would run over between set-ups with a picture flip book and remind me who was who. It took forever. By the time I got to the last girl, four of the ones I hadn’t called were in tears. I thought this one girl was going to attack me with her stiletto if I didn’t call her name.” Lou muffled a giggle, feeling more giddy with every negative word he said about the show. “Did you?” He snorted. “God, no. She scared the crap out of me.” “So it was awful?” Lou asked, knowing she sounded a little too hopeful, but unable to help it. All he had to do was say yes and she would remind him he could always come home. No creepy ring ceremonies. No high-heeled attackers. Just the two of them living happily ever after. Even if it was just pretend… “Well, it wasn’t all bad. Some parts of it were actually pretty fun.” Those words made Lou feel like the foundations of her world were sliding precariously to the side. “Did you kiss any of them?” She couldn’t help the little catch in her voice. She just hoped he didn’t hear it. All night she’d lain awake, tortured by the thought of kisses. For every one time she’d thought of their awkward goodbye on the porch, there had been five times she’d visualized him locking lips with some hand-picked size two knockout. She’d pictured every possible variable—sweet kisses, steamy kisses, playful kisses and kisses with frenzied groping hands. Sometimes the girl in her head was a tall, svelte bleach blonde with a spray-on tan. Sometimes she was a Mediterranean beauty with dark flashing eyes and a lush figure. A Nubian goddess with sleek limbs and pillowy lips. The only constant was that she was a Perfect 10 and she was kissing Jack. And when she asked him if he’d kissed any of them, he hesitated. Shit. Lou closed her eyes and pressed a fist against her heart. “Jack?” “Only a couple,” he said slowly. “And I didn’t keep them just because they were forward.” Her heart thudded ominously against her fist. “So you kept them?” “Well, yeah, but I just really liked their confidence.” And I’m sure the fact that they had their tongues down your throat had nothing to do with it. “Kel says the first kissers are always in it for publicity. Are they wannabe actresses or something?” “One’s a lawyer.” “And the other? He hesitated again. Damn it. “Swimsuit model,” he admitted grudgingly. Lou felt ill. Physically ill. “Swimsuit model. I’m sure she’s just dying to move to the suburbs and live on a diet of mac n’ cheese and chicken tenders.” “She seemed very down to earth,” Jack said and Lou heard the lie in his voice. “And she isn’t the only one I kept. Another one, Kim, she’s a single mom, so she knows all about chicken tenders.” “Kim.” Lovely. Now he was calling them by name. Why did he have to give them names? That made them seem like real people. “Angela—she’s the lawyer—she just goes after what she wants. No holds barred. But Marcy…” Lou felt pressure start behind her eyes at the way he said that name. Like he was smitten already. She swallowed thickly. “Marcy?” “She’s not at all what I expected. Not that she isn’t gorgeous, but there’s no pretension in her. When I saw her, I thought she was going to be just like the others. This petite, very put together brunette with her hair in one of those bun things you wear sometimes when we go out to nice dinners.” “A chignon.” “Yeah, that. But then we started talking and, I don’t know, Marcy has this sort of self-deprecating thing going on. She’s a romance novelist, if you can believe it, but she’s the first one to joke about it when the other girls get all holier-than-thou about her writing ‘smut’. She says they’re just jealous that she has an unfair advantage because love is her day job.” His low chuckled rippled through the phone. Lou decided she hated Marcy. Where was a voodoo doll when you needed one? “I think you’d really like her, Lou. There’s just something about her. She’s so natural. I felt comfortable with her right from the get go. And she was amazing at diffusing the other girls’ drama—especially during the challenge. My night could really have been hell without her there.” Lou wrapped her arm around her abdomen and tucked her knees up to her chest, curling into a ball on the chair. He was supposed to be missing her. He was supposed to be fixated on how lost he was without her, not gushing over some self-deprecating, down-to-earth portrait of perfection who could de-drama any situation. “I really do think you’d love her, Lou.” And somehow, I really doubt that. “She sounds great.” Lou forced a note of cheery sincerity she didn’t feel into her voice. She had to get off the phone. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could pretend to be happy for him and Marcy. “You can tell me all about her when we visit this weekend, but you really should get some sleep, Jack. Miranda’s probably going to be demanding you do push-ups in a Speedo later and you need your beauty rest.” He gave a short laugh. “You’re right. You know, when I called I was this close to calling it quits and coming home, but you’ve made me feel a thousand times better. Thanks, Lou. You’re the best.” She bit her tongue on the urge to make a snide remark about how apparently Marcy was the best. “That’s what I’m here for.” Apparently. “Sweet dreams, Jack.” “Love you, Lou.” The connection clicked dead. And Lou’s heart stopped. He didn’t mean it like that. She knew he didn’t mean it like that. But had he ever said it before? Jack wasn’t much for confessing his feelings. She knew he loved her, just like she loved him—in a purely friends platonic way. Anything else was just wishful thinking. But he’d said it. He’d said it now. Why now? Lou replaced the receiver and sank back down onto the uncomfortable kitchen chairs. Her head felt like it weighed a million pounds. She dropped it onto her hands and groaned. Jack was infatuated with some goddess on the show. The producers would do everything they could to foster that infatuation and turn it into something more. Exotic locales, candlelit dinners, romantic getaways. Jack’s heart didn’t stand a chance under that kind of strategic assault. Lou couldn’t take much more of this emotional yo-yoing. For years she’d loved him with a quiet, steady heart, but in the last few weeks she felt like she was on a rollercoaster—up and down and inside out. She kept telling herself she was over him and it was for the best, but it just didn’t stick. She loved him, then she gave up on him loving her back, but hope kindled again at the slightest provocation, only to be smothered again—but it never totally died. That stupid hope was bulletproof. She needed advice. She needed reality to slap her in the face. Confession was good for the soul. And so was chocolate. Chapter Eleven “So let me see if I have this straight. You think you’re in love with Jack.” “Yes.” “In fact, you’ve always been in love with Jack, but now he’s a thousand miles away mooning over some Hollywood trollop and sucking face with a bunch of other size zero tramps, so you’ve decided next weekend in LA is the perfect time to unveil your hidden passion for him, even though you have no idea if he will reciprocate your feelings and cameras for a primetime television show are currently stalking his every move.” Lou’s stomach rolled. When Kelly put it like that, her plan sounded mildly psychotic. “Yes?” “Louisa Tanner, I have three words for you.” You’re out of your mind? No, that was more than three. “About damn time!” Kelly beamed at her. Lou leaned against the counter in Kelly’s designer kitchen while Kelly drizzled gooey ropes of fudge sauce over the sinful chocolate explosion that was her Double Fudge brownies. Lou groaned. “This is a terrible idea, isn’t it?” “Nonsense.” Finishing the fudge-drizzle with a flourish, Kelly shoved the thickly coated wooden spoon at Lou. “Here, lick this before you give yourself a nervous breakdown. Chocolate is the world’s best antidepressant.” “I’m not depressed.” “Whatever. Eat the fudge sauce. It’s a natural upper. It’ll keep you from freaking out when I tell you my plan.” Kelly smiled wickedly, her eyes lit with unholy glee. “I don’t need a plan. I’ve decided I’m not really in love with Jack. Never was. Must have been indigestion.” “Then I guess the thought of Jack sipping champagne in a Jacuzzi with some sexified Suitorette doesn’t bother you at all.” Lou felt nauseated. “That’s what I thought,” Kelly said smugly, correctly reading the expression on her face. Lou licked the fudge. She needed all the consolation she could get. “I feel like the first wife being replaced by a young, sexy mistress. I’m the mom. I’m practically the wife, but I never got to be the lover. And now I’m being evicted from my position as wife and mom and I don’t even have justification to protest. He can just yank my life right out from under me, take the kids, the house, and everything I’ve been for the last four years and hand it someone else and I can’t say a word. It’s not like I have any claim on them. He’s not my husband. They aren’t my kids.” “Yes, they are,” Kelly insisted staunchly. “You’re a better mom than half the biological incubators I know. And your life isn’t going anywhere. We aren’t going to let that happen.” “I don’t see a way to stop it.” “That’s because you’re overlooking The Plan. Trust Kelly, baby. I’ll take care of you.” “I can’t compete with a swimsuit model, Kel. No one can.” “You love him. And what’s more, he loves you. That’s a huge advantage right there. I know, I know, it’s just friend-love. For now. That’s what we need The Plan for. We have to get him to stop looking at you as a friend and start looking at you as a candidate for Mrs. Perfect.” “And how are we supposed to do that? Look at me.” Lou was wearing her standard uniform of jeans and a loose blouse that left everything to the imagination. Her hair was yanked back in a no-muss, no-fuss ponytail and she wasn’t wearing a drop of make-up. Her hips were too wide, her face too round, and her thighs were a crime against humanity. Hardly Suitorette material. Kelly waved away her objections. “You’ve got the framework, darling. You just aren’t staging your property to sell. Some highlights, a new cut, a dollop of L’Oreal and some of Victoria’s Secret puts you right on par with all those overblown Suitorette floozies.” “Did you just compare me to a house?” “It’s HGTV. It’s taken over my brain. But the principle still applies. You need a makeover to de-mom you. You’re great with the kids, but a man is never going to rip your clothes off if all he’s thinking about when he looks at you is his children.” “I’m going to be in LA with the children. I’m not sure how I’m going to keep Jack from thinking of them.” “The children have to sleep, don’t they? The nighttime is the right time, baby. And it’s not that you want him to neglect his duties as a father. You just want him to be a man first and a daddy second when he looks at you. And since he’s had four years to get in the habit of not thinking of you as a sex object, we need drastic measures to shake things up.” Lou fidgeted nervously. “I’m not sure I am a sex object, Kel. Even in college all my relationships were pretty tame.” “Every woman is a sex object with the right man, Lou-la-belle. We just need to unleash your inner vixen. We’ll start with wardrobe.” Kelly bounced on the balls of her feet. “I love a makeover shopping trip!” Just the thought of the mall made Lou cringe. “The kids are mayhem in department stores, Kel. We can’t—” “The kids are in school. No excuses.” Lou hesitated, drawn in by the idea in spite of herself. The thought of going shopping without the children was an aphrodisiac in itself. How long had it been since she went shopping for herself? Not just grabbing a fresh six-pack of panties at Target but actual shopping. An uninterrupted afternoon at the mall was a siren call she couldn’t resist. Especially if it meant she might have a shot at changing the way Jack looked at her. “I don’t know, Kel. How much good can a few clothes and a haircut really do?” Kelly flashed a feline smile. “Darling, don’t underestimate the master. You’re going to steal that show and I’m going to teach you how. By the time I get through with you, Marrying Mr. Perfect won’t know what hit them.” Chapter Twelve “Ally’s a great girl. When she told me she was afraid of heights in the helicopter and took my hand, it really made me think how important it is to have someone to rely on. Someone who has your back no matter what. That trust is definitely a quality I’m looking for in my wife.” Jack felt like a total jackass as he mumbled the rehearsed, heart-on-his-sleeve BS for the camera. It was hard not to be a complete narcissist after ten solid days of the world spinning around what he thought and felt. But for a world that catered to his every whim, it was dizzying how out of control he felt. Miranda tapped her tablet, bringing him back to the moment. Cameras. Lights. A confessional sequence to be used as B-roll during the airing of this morning’s dream date. If anyone was in control here, it was Miranda, not him. No matter how obvious her manipulations as she molded him into the shape of Mister Perfect, they were working. Even seeing how she pulled every string, he danced. The woman was good. “And the kiss?” Miranda prompted. “Would you say you have chemistry?” Jack shifted in the leather armchair, trying not to look as uncomfortable as he felt. He’d never been the type to brag about girls and it felt even more wrong to do it on national television—especially knowing that the women themselves would later have the chance to watch this. His chemistry with Ally was non-existent—she just felt so damn young. Not so much in years, but in life. He may only have a few years on her, but it felt like a lifetime of difference. He couldn’t begin to imagine her as a partner—but she’d come right out and asked him to kiss her and he hadn’t felt like there was any other option that wouldn’t embarrass her with the cameras bearing down on them. It had been tepid at best. And now he got to relive it for the home viewers. Fantastic. He didn’t want to hurt Ally any more than he wanted to lie. Optimistic but honest. That’s what Miranda kept telling him to be. “Ally is gorgeous. Who wouldn’t want to kiss her?” Miranda beamed, her eyes gleaming with awareness of his careful dodge. “That’s great, Jack. Perfect. We’ll cut there for the day.” His shoulders sagged with relief. That was the last of his Marrying Mister Perfect duties before Lou and the kids were scheduled to arrive. Finally he could get back to feeling like he was on terra firma. He needed a shot of normalcy. Even his sense of time was distorted. They were ten days in, but they’d already had three Elimination Ceremonies and were beginning to shoot the dates for the fourth episode. He was having trouble keeping track of the days of the week. Without the kids’ visit to look forward to, he didn’t know how he would have kept himself grounded. As the camera crew began packing up, Miranda strolled oh-so-casually over to where he sat and leaned against the bookcase that had been placed beside him for depth and atmosphere. She tipped her head to the side and gave him a reassuring smile. “You’re doing wonderfully, Jack. Just great. All the footage is looking positively gorgeous and the PR folks are reporting great buzz from the marketing campaign to promote you as Mister Perfect. The network executives are very pleased.” Anything to please the network execs. “I’m glad.” “We do have one teensy little concern, though. Just a tiny question and I want you to know that you can answer me with absolute honesty. Whatever you’re feeling, we want authenticity on this show above all else.” Jack eyed Miranda as he disentangled himself from the mic pack and handed it to the sound guy, wondering where the hell she was going with this. “Are you saying I’m not authentic?” “Oh, honey, no.” She laughed, as if the idea of him being fake was beyond ridiculous—which he supposed should be flattering. “No one could accuse you of that. It’s just that you seem a bit… how shall I put this? Emotionally constipated.” He choked. Miranda smiled soothingly. “We’re concerned that you might not be entering this process with your whole heart open.” “My whole heart?” What did that even mean? “Look, if you need me to do something else…” “It isn’t about what you’re doing, Jack. You’re doing beautifully. It’s about what you’re feeling. Or rather, what you don’t appear to be feeling.” “I’m not following you.” What was he supposed to be feeling? Confused? Awkward? If so, he was doing a bang up job. All other emotions were eluding him. “Jack.” Miranda crouched down beside his chair, though she didn’t touch him—not the touchy-feely sort, Miranda. “I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to answer truthfully. Even if you think the answer might be something I don’t want to hear.” “Okay.” “Are you still pining for your dead wife?” “What?” The cameras should have been rolling. They would have caught a comic-book look of surprise flashing across his face. “You think I’m pining?” Miranda patted the armchair—as if the upholstery needed consoling. “I know it’s hard for you to imagine anyone ever replacing her, but we need you to open your heart to this experience, Jack. You’re holding yourself back. I can tell. And what’s more, America will be able to tell.” She patted the chair again. “Open your heart, Jack. Really embrace this experience and be ready to let love in.” “I barely know these girls,” he protested. “I know,” Miranda quickly assured him. “And we aren’t asking you to love them now. Don’t get ahead of your emotions, Jack. I just want you to be open to this adventure. Be open, Jack.” Jack nodded warily, ready to say just about anything to get Miranda away from him. “I’ll be open.” “Excellent.” Miranda beamed at her star pupil and gave the armchair one last congratulatory pat. “America will love you, Jack. Just remember, it takes a real man to own up to his emotions.” She popped to her feet, and her smile turned fierce. “Be a man, Jack.” Jack watched Miranda stalk out of the room. Tension knotted every muscle in his body. He needed a dose of normalcy so badly he ached. Lou couldn’t get here fast enough. # Lou fidgeted in the back of the limo, running her fingers through her newly layered and highlighted hair for the seven millionth time. Emma and TJ bounced on the seat beside her, as excited by their first ever limo ride as they were by the thought of seeing their father again in just a few minutes. Lou would have been excited by the thought of seeing Jack too, if she weren’t three-quarters of the way to a nervous breakdown. She couldn’t believe she’d let Kelly talk her into this outfit. The stretchy fabric of the sundress had survived the four hour plane trip miraculously unwrinkled—and had earned her more than one speculative once-over from the businessmen in first class, even with two noisy kids in tow. It was snug and low cut without being indecent and the flared skirt swished flirtily around her thighs as she walked. Kelly had described it as “versatile enough for a date when you don’t know where you’ll be jet-setting off to and eye-catching enough to stand out in a group date.” Since Lou wasn’t actually going to be on the TV show, she didn’t see how any of that mattered, but Kelly insisted it was all about measuring up against her competition. Lou hated the idea that she was competing for Jack. She’d had him all to herself for so long, but now it seemed like she was destined to be just one of a throng of women professing to love him. But at least she had Kelly’s advice to guide her. The woman was downright Machiavellian when it came to romance. The limo rolled to a stop in the driveway of a jaw-dropping mansion. The kind of place she’d always pictured movie stars living in. And a man with movie star good looks was jogging down the front steps toward them, a broad grin on his face. Lou’s heart lurched. Damn, the man was something else. The kids dove for the doors as soon as the car stopped. “Dad!” they shouted as they leapt out of the vehicle and charged him. Lou followed more slowly, taking time to smooth her skirt, peek in the mirror to check her make-up, and fluff her hair one last time. This would be the first time Jack laid eyes on The New Lou and she felt as nervous as if she were arriving for a blind date. Lou stepped out of the limo, looked up, and there he was. Sweeping Emma and TJ up, one in each arm. The exhaustion from a four hour plane ride with two rambunctious children fell away like water sloughing off. The tension she’d built up, wondering how he was going to react to her new look, melted away after one look at him. Jack. She loved him in jeans or his scrubs, but the man was flat out devastating in a suit. Dark jacket, no tie, with the collar of his crisp white dress shirt open to the second button—he looked like he’d just come home from the Oscars and only bothered to tug off his bowtie. His brilliant eyes shone sapphire bright as he laughed with the kids, tucking Emma under one arm and dangling TJ over his other shoulder until he shrieked. Lou hovered, holding herself back. Kelly had given her strict instructions not to fall prostrate at his feet and profess her undying love. The Plan involved luring him into pursuing her and making him think the entire thing was his idea before any declaration of feelings. Seduction first, happily ever after later. Lou had doubted her ability to lure Jack into seducing her, but she hadn’t realized keeping her feelings to herself was going to be so hard. She was far too tempted to tell him everything. Then he looked up, seeming to realize she wasn’t there with the kids, crawling all over him. His gaze found her, lingering nervously by the limousine. Lou looked into that heart-stoppingly familiar blue gaze and, before she could remind herself of Kelly’s flirt-with-your-eyes-and-look-mysterious instructions, a wide smile broke across her face. # For a fraction of a second, when Jack saw the woman standing by the limousine, he thought one of the Suitorettes had snuck over from the mansion next door to sneak a peek at his kids. Then she smiled and realization slammed into him. “Lou,” he gasped. “Hello, Jack.” She strode toward him. The skirt of her leave-no-curve-unhugged dress shifted sensuously against her thighs as she walked. Jack’s mouth went dry. He may not be the most observant guy, but something was definitely different. Normally he would have hauled her into a hug and they would have all tripped into the house, an easy laughing reunion, but something about Lou stopped him. He hesitated, nervous around her for some inexplicable reason. As the kids slid down to the ground to hang off his arms, swinging on them like gates in a breeze, Jack stood awkwardly and studied Lou from head to toe. “New dress?” Lou smiled again, smoothing a hand over the fabric on her hip. “Kelly and I went shopping. Do you like it?” Like wasn’t exactly the word he would have used. He wasn’t sure there was a word for what he thought when he saw her in that figure-painting outfit. It sure as hell wasn’t her usual jeans. And he didn’t think her outfit was the only thing that was different. Everything seemed different. She seemed different. “You’re wearing your hair down.” She must be using a new shampoo or something. Her hair looked lighter, her eyes brighter. She fingered the blondish strands falling over her shoulders. “I wanted a change.” “Change is good,” he muttered, and then couldn’t think of a single word to say. All week he’d been a pro, charming the Suitorettes on cue, but now he was tongue-tied and tripping over himself. What was wrong with him? “Shall we go inside?” she asked, her words as hesitant as he felt. “Or do we need to grab the bags?” The normalcy of the comment about luggage finally snapped him out of his stupor. “No. No, they’ve got people to get the bags. Let’s go on in.” Emma and TJ cheered and dropped his arms to race toward the front door. Lou followed more slowly and Jack fell into step beside her, periodically glancing over at her, just checking to make sure nothing else had changed when he wasn’t looking. He was reminded, as they toured the house, of how he’d felt last week on the night when he first met the women—alert and intrigued. Which, considering it was Lou walking beside him, seemed a contradiction. She wasn’t intriguing. She was familiar. That was what made being with her so wonderful. They were easy together. He wasn’t supposed to be feeling this awkward awareness. They finished the tour of the lower level in the bowling alley. Lou hung back with him as the kids kicked off their shoes and raced around on the highly polished wood in their socks, sliding Risky Business style. “So how’s the process going?” Lou asked as they watched Emma and TJ hurling themselves down the lanes in the bowling alley like an indoor slip n’ slide. “It’s pretty good actually.” It was bizarre and confusing, but something stopped him from complaining about the show. Like it would be wrong to mention the women to Lou—which made no sense. He hadn’t hesitated to tell her about them the few times they’d managed to find time to talk on the phone in the last week. Be normal, Jack. This is Lou. He grimaced. “You had Angela pegged. The one who kissed me as soon as she saw me. She wasn’t here for the right reasons.” “The swimsuit model?” “No. The lawyer.” Lou smiled, a small secretive smile he wasn’t sure he’d ever seen before. How could she have changed so much in the last ten days? “So you kicked her to the curb, eh? And the swimsuit model?” “Katya.” Jack felt his cheekbones warm. “She’s still here.” Lou made a small tsking sound. He knew he was courting Kelly’s disapproval, but Katya made him feel important. She looked at him like he’d hung the moon—like he actually deserved to be Mr. Perfect. There was no denying it was heady stuff having a woman who looked like that looking at him the way she did. Lou propped her elbows against the wet bar behind her. The pose and that dress put everything on display and Jack had to remind himself he had no urge to ogle his best friend’s breasts. No matter how well they filled out that dress. She tipped her head to the side. “So you really think in six weeks you could propose to one of those women?” She had to ask the question he’d been trying to avoid asking himself for the last week, didn’t she? The idea of proposing to anyone in five weeks was flat out ludicrous, but he’d agreed to play along. “I don’t know. I definitely want to, you know, continue with the process.” When she looked askance at him, he shrugged. “That’s what Miranda keeps yapping at me when I don’t seem engaged in the moment. She’s all go with the process, Jack and don’t get ahead of your emotions, Jack. She seems to think it’s a foregone conclusion that I’m going to fall head over heels in love in the next month and a half.” “She probably thinks if she repeats it enough times, you’ll start believing it.” There was an edge to her voice he hadn’t expected. Was she mad at him? At Miranda? Or could that be jealousy? Jack mentally kicked himself. What was he thinking? Had he been totally brainwashed by the show? He was always reading voices and looking for ulterior motives now—and assuming everyone woman on the planet wanted him or wanted something from him. A week of trying to figure out which women were playing him and which were being played by the producers was messing with his brain. He’d even started thinking Lou had ulterior motives. “Can we talk about something other than the show?” he begged. “Anything else. I’d just like one day when we aren’t talking about the public circus my lovelife has become.” Lou was silent for a long moment. “Don’t you have a date to get to?” “Not until tomorrow morning. I’m base jumping with Piper in the morning and then I can have a late lunch with you and the kids before your flight and my evening at the symphony with Missy and Marcy.” Lou’s eyebrows flew up, telegraphing her shock. “You’re going to the symphony? Mr. Rolling-Stones-or-Nothing is actually going to sit through Beethoven? I’m gonna have to watch that episode to believe it.” He shrugged, but he felt a flush creeping up his neck. “It’s romantic.” Or so they told him. “It’s cliché.” “Lou.” Her name came out as a growl. “Fine. No more Marrying Mister Perfect talk. Would you like to hear about the wild and wonderful world of kitchen renovations instead?” “Yes, please.” Jack dragged over a bar stool and settled himself, relieved to be talking about something so normal as fixing up their pathetic excuse for a kitchen. “Did the second contractor actually come through with an estimate?” “He dropped it off yesterday and while it is more money, it’s also really gorgeous. I think you’re really going to like it.” From the way her eyes lit, he knew they’d be going for the second, more expensive estimate. “He says kitchen renos tend to get like a ninety percent return on your investment when you sell.” “Since when are we planning to sell?” Lou looked away, her eyes tracking the kids in their antics. “Emma, don’t hit your brother in the head with a bowling pin,” she called. He stood and shifted to stand next to her, laying his arm along the bar at her back, but she still avoided his eyes. “Lou? Why are we selling?” She spoke suddenly, rushing the words out, “What if she doesn’t live near you? What if you want to move to be closer to her? I just think you need to be considering resale value, that’s all.” Jack had thought about those questions, but he figured he’d deal with the problems if and when they arose. Honestly, he hadn’t really expected to fall head over heels in love with anyone, so he hadn’t wasted much time worrying about the aftermath of the show. Lou obviously had. Katya didn’t seem the type to want to live in the Chicago suburbs, but Marcy… There was no sense worrying about it now. “Let’s not borrow trouble, okay?” Normally he would have tugged on her ponytail and given her a smile, but today there was no pony tail, no easy smiles. He settled for catching her hand and squeezing it gently. “For today can it just be you and me and the kids? No show. No girls. No looming proposal deadlines. Just us.” Finally, Lou looked at him. Her eyes were shadowed, but she smiled gently. “Sure. I can do that.” Chapter Thirteen On Sunday morning, Lou woke in an enormous canopy bed, nearly falling off the edge to avoid the two children sprawled spread-eagle in the center. Neither Emma nor TJ had been able to sleep in the palatial rooms the show had assigned them. After their first attempt at bedtime failed, Jack and Lou relocated both of the kids to the same room, right next to hers, but Lou wasn’t surprised they’d both ended up crawling in with her in the middle of the night. Neither of them had ever slept well away from their own beds. Lou stroked the tangle of Emma’s baby-fine dark curls back from her forehead. Whose bed were they going to crawl into when Jack married his new wife? They’d gotten in the habit of going to her room, rather than his, because he was often on call at night. Would whoever Jack chose mind the invasion? Would the kids feel comfortable going to their new mommy for midnight cuddles to chase away the nightmares? And why did the thought of them running to someone else for comfort feel like such a betrayal? She wanted them to settle easily into their new life, didn’t she? She wanted their happiness with all her soul. She couldn’t be jealous of Jack’s new wife just because the kids might like her. Lou slipped out of bed, careful to tuck the covers back in around TJ and Emma where they sprawled in blissful oblivion. She trailed her fingers over the duvet, trying to engrave this moment into her memory. Who knew how many more mornings like this they would have before she was out of their lives? She just couldn’t imagine it. She couldn’t imagine not being the one who knew the right lunches to pack and the right way to make grilled PBJs. And she couldn’t imagine how any of those women in the house next door could possibly love these two kids a quarter as much as she did. She was their mother in everything except fact. Whenever she stopped to actually think about how much she loved them, it seemed like her heart had gotten a little bigger, with just a little more room for them, since the last time. Lou quickly dressed and brushed her teeth. Under Kelly’s orders, she took a few extra minutes to fuss with her hair and slap on a few make-up touches, thinking the entire time about how her life was suddenly slipping away. She felt so helpless. It all came down to Jack. Lou wasn’t sure she could wait for Kelly’s plan to work. Jack had seemed… different at first when they arrived the day before, but as the day went on, they’d fallen into their usual pattern and she had completely failed to seduce him. Talking, playing with the kids, pizza for dinner and then a movie in the massive screening room with all four of them piled haphazardly on the couch. Hardly the stuff passionate affairs were made of. Kelly had filled her head with tips about holding his gaze just a little too long, trailing her fingers along the neckline of her dress to draw his attention to her assets, and speaking soft and low to engender a sense of intimacy—but whenever Lou tried to implement the advice, she felt like an idiot. Kelly wanted her to unleash her inner sex goddess, but Lou still wasn’t sure she had one. And part of her resented the fact that she had to pretend to be someone else, someone sexier, in order to attract his attention. Why couldn’t she just be herself? Oh right, because he was never interested in you as you are. She just wasn’t confident that he would ever see her as a potential lover. If the makeover wasn’t going to change the way he saw her, she needed to tell him the truth. Maybe not the truth about how she felt about him, but at least the truth about how she didn’t want the kids and her home and the life they’d built together yanked out from under her. They had to be able to work something out. She had no idea what, but there had to be something. She didn’t know why it had to be all or nothing. Lou slipped quietly out of the room, leaving the kids sleeping, and went to look for their father. She heard heavy footsteps and hurried down the hall after them. “Jack?” She pulled up short as she came around the corner, seeing instead a massive crewman with a black headset and three walkie-talkies clipped to his belt. “He’s on a date,” the crewman reminded her. “You need something?” Of course. He was off jumping off cliffs to create a false sense of intimacy through near-death experiences. How could she have forgotten? Lou mentally scrambled for a plausible reason she would be looking for him. “Breakfast?” “Right. Chef’s over at the chick house doing omelets and stuff. Or there’s pastries and fruit and stuff on a buffet where craft services set up over on the east terrace.” There was no way in heaven or earth she was going to the women’s mansion for breakfast, no matter how gourmet the chef. The muffins and fruits sounded great, but she couldn’t leave the kids alone. “Is there any way we could have a plate brought up for me and the kids?” “Lady, this ain’t no hotel. We don’t do room service.” Great. Now the crew guy thought she was a diva—like he didn’t get enough of that from the “chicks.” She smiled her most non-diva smile. “I’m sorry. I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Lou, Jack’s, ah, sister-in-law.” She waited with a big smile plastered on her face until he grunted, “Dave.” Lou would count that grunt as a victory. No matter how small. “I don’t mean to be trouble, Dave. I just don’t want Emma and TJ to wake up in a strange house and not be able to find me.” The crew guy’s stop-being-a-pain-in-my-ass expression eased. “No problem. I gotta be up here to make sure none of the chicks sneak over to leave love notes while Dr. Jack’s out. You want I can keep an ear out for ‘em. I’ve got three of my own at home.” “Would you?” He actually gave her a reluctant smile. “Here, take one of these.” He unclipped a walkie and shoved it at her. “Keep it on channel five. We’re not using that one for crew chatter. I’ll call you if the kids need anything.” Lou took the walkie and squeezed his hand once before letting go. “Thank you, Dave. I won’t be long.” After the excitement of the day before and the restless night, the kids would probably sleep a while longer, but she hurried anyway, down the hallway and down the stairs. She got a little lost, going out the wrong door twice before she finally found a terrace occupied by a white tent and cafeteria tables groaning under the weight of food platters. She’d just fill a couple plates for her and the kids and they could have a floor picnic in the room when they woke up. Lou grabbed a couple plates, surprised to find they were china rather than paper, and began stacking them with pastries and melon slices. “Lou!” She looked up at the click of high heels on the terrace flagstones as Miranda swept forward and plucked and apple off the table. “I almost didn’t recognize you. You look fabulous!” Her gaze raked over Lou’s post-makeover outfit of a light fitted blouse and khaki shorts. It wasn’t glamour girl, but it was a long way from Mom Jeans. “I thought you’d be running the date with Jack.” Miranda rolled the apple between her hands. “Most of the actual dates are coordinated by field producers and segment producers. I like to be here where I can oversee everything. The only hands-on stuff I still do myself is the confessional footage. I love it.” “You seem to be good at it. I’ve never seen Jack open up like he does with you.” Miranda grinned. “It’s a gift. How are you enjoying your visit?” “This place is insane,” Lou said, indicating the epic view with a nod. “I think the kids aren’t even bummed that we couldn’t fit in Disneyland this trip because of all the entertainment options here.” Miranda grimaced. “Yeah, Jack mentioned he wanted to try to fit in Disneyland, but this week the schedule is just too tight. And we wouldn’t be able to bring the cameras into the park to get footage of them together anyway. Disney can be such dicks about that sort of thing.” “They’d still love to go, even if it isn’t filmed.” “Of course!” Miranda exclaimed. “And we’ll definitely try to make that work, but I think it may be better timing-wise if we put that off until we’re back here for the Finale Ceremony. Jack won’t have a full day off until then, but I’ll see if we can get some sort of multi-day passes to reward the kids when this is all over. And in the meantime, maybe we can grab some footage of everyone playing together in the pool. The reunion footage we caught yesterday was absolutely precious.” Lou felt her stomach plummet. “You were filming us?” “Honey, this is Marrying Mister Perfect. We film everything.” “I didn’t see any cameras.” “The whole mansion is wired for candid footage,” Miranda said cheerfully, as if she wasn’t destroying Lou’s comfort in the luxurious house. Her shoulders tightened with the knowledge that they could be watched even now. She’d known that Jack had signed up to have his privacy violated, but she hadn’t thought they would film her with him. She thought they had been alone yesterday—which just went to show they were never alone here. “Are there any places that aren’t wired?” she asked, using Miranda’s lingo. “Bathrooms. And the strictly crew areas like the basement. It’s the same in the Suitorette Mansion. Most of the girls get used to it in a hurry, though I think they’re always aware of it. Why else would they run to the bathrooms when they want to have a cry? Of course, they always forget that they’re still wired for sound and we can hear every word.” “That’s… disturbing.” “You mean creepy and stalkerish?” Miranda laughed. “Welcome to reality television. Jack seems to have adapted to it pretty well though. He’s a very straightforward guy. I think the people who keep the least distance between their public image and their private selves do the best on shows like these because they don’t have to worry about keeping up a deception.” “That sounds like Jack.” He was honest. Even with himself. What you saw was what you got. Lou wasn’t sure whether she was like that or not. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know what a show like this would reveal about her. Jack may not have secret passions, but Lou certainly did. For him, mostly. Miranda’s assistant appeared, handing her the tablet that was normally an extension of her arm. “Missy will be ready for her pre-date confessional in five. Would you like me to run it?” “No, I’ll do it myself,” Miranda said, then turned back to Lou. “Would you like to watch? Get a peek behind the scenes? Missy’s one of my favorites.” “Won’t she mind?” Miranda shook her head. “She’ll just think you’re another producer. None of the girls know who you are yet.” And why should they? Jack probably hadn’t even mentioned her. Part of her was tempted. Tempted to see one of the women vying for Jack’s heart. Especially a favorite. “I should check on the kids…” “Sweetie, we have people for that.” She waved to the plates Lou held. “I’ll have someone bring the kids down here and ride herd on them until we’re back.” The curiosity was going to kill her. Lou set down her partially filled plates, snagging a muffin off one to take with her. “Lead the way.” Miranda rattled off a series of instructions for Todd, tucked her tablet under her arm and guided her on a mazelike route through the mansion to a spot where the two properties—the Mister Perfect and Suitorette Mansions—connected. She waited until they were past the security guarding the boundary before she asked, still walking, “Lou, can I ask you a personal question?” The question sounded like it came from Miranda-the-friend rather than Miranda-the-producer, so Lou answered automatically. “Of course.” “Are you in love with Jack?” She tripped over her own feet. Twisting her head around wildly, she tried to spot any hidden cameras. Miranda drew to a stop beside her. “This is a dead zone,” Miranda explained, reading her frantic glancing at the bushes. “We’re past the security to keep the girls out of the Mister Perfect Mansion, but not yet to the security to keep the Suitorettes inside the camera range. Crew only here, so no cameras. And I’m not on a mic so you can speak freely.” Lou’s face flamed. “No. Of course not.” She didn’t know why she denied it. It was automatic after all these years, but it was more than that. Some instinct screamed at her not to tell Miranda. Especially not before she told Jack. She didn’t want to be just another Suitorette. “You’re sure? Because I may be a soulless reality TV hack, but you’re my friend and I don’t want you getting hurt.” “I won’t.” “Good.” Miranda smiled and started walking again through the grounds toward the other, larger mansion that housed the women. “So are you cockblocking him intentionally or inadvertently?” “What?” Lou stumbled again. “No offense. It just seems like you two have developed the kind of friendship that keeps either of you from developing strong emotional ties elsewhere. At least that’s my theory. Jack isn’t very open to love—and I know he’s a man and men aren’t always in touch with their emotions, but I’m trying to figure out how to help him find what he’s looking for—and that doesn’t mean just showing him beautiful girls. Often we also try to help people learn how to let their guard down and be vulnerable to others. How to really let love in.” “Right.” She had no idea what Miranda wanted from her. “And I figure you know him better than anyone, so you could help me figure out the best ways to get past his emotional guard.” Lou almost laughed. If she knew how to get past his emotional guard in a romantic sense, she’d have done it years ago. “He’s unguarded when he’s relaxed, when we’re just hanging out, but that isn’t exactly romantic.” Miranda sighed. “Oh well. It was worth asking.” She grinned. “Come on. Missy should be ready in Confessional Two.” # “Jack is such an amazing man,” the stunning brunette gushed enthusiastically. “I’ve been hurt by men who weren’t faithful in the past, but Jack…” Lou stood in the background, trying to stay out of the way, as a four-man camera and sound crew captured footage of Missy in preparation for her evening out with Jack. Something about the fervent, almost desperate way Missy said Jack’s name had disconcerted Lou as soon as she started speaking into the camera. She was almost obsessive in her intensity. As Missy waxed poetic about Jack’s amazing fidelity, Lou’s disquiet increased. The man was simultaneously dating thirteen women at last count and Missy thought he was a paragon of faithfulness? Just how disconnected with reality was she? “I feel very confident about getting the last ring. As our journey progresses, I think Jack is realizing which of us are here for the Right Reasons and which aren’t. I have so much love in me to give and I want so badly to be loved. He has to see that.” Missy started to get teary as she professed her enormous capacity for emotion. “I never expected, when I came here, to be falling in love, to be really, genuinely feeling the way I feel for this incredible man, but you just can’t control your heart.” Lou rolled her eyes. If she thought it would do any good, she would sit Missy the Gorgeous Doormat down and have a talk with her about how “genuine” the emotion she’d developed over the last week was in comparison to the emotion Lou had been developing over the last decade. Though maybe Lou was the one who was delusional. Jack was no more likely to return her feelings than he was to return Missy’s. “I just know he will see that I am here for him, for all the right reasons, and I feel more for him than any of the other girls.” Lou had heard enough. As Miranda stepped in and started asking pointed questions to guide quotes out of Missy, Lou slipped away, heading back up the flagstone path leading to the other property and the craft service tent. Missy had some hard life lessons to learn. First among them being that this competition wasn’t about who loved Jack the most, but who he wanted the most. If it had just been about loving him, Lou would have won hands down. It was that reciprocation element that was so tricky. No wonder these shows were so rarely successful at pairing couples up. That they were ever successful was a small miracle. Lou set off to track down the kids. Miranda had certainly given her a lot to think about. Chapter Fourteen When Jack arrived back at the mansion after his extreme date, he wanted nothing more than to find Lou and the kids and unwind for a couple hours before they had to go back home and he had to go to the symphony. He would have rather had four hours on a plane with two hyper children than two hours with Bach—or whoever it was who’d be assaulting his ears tonight. He jogged up the stairs, intent on grabbing a quick shower to rinse off the dirt and sweat from the base-jumping expedition. He heard splashing coming from the direction of the pool. It sounded like the kids were enjoying the house, at least. He’d wanted more time with them than just a thirty-six hour layover, but the producers had talked him out of keeping the kids longer. It was a simple matter to take a first-grader out of school for a week or two, but even if TJ and Emma were here, he wouldn’t be. A wine tasting in Napa, a ski weekend in Aspen—the destination dates only got more elaborate as the weeks wore on and even though there were fewer women, his time would be less and less his own. He couldn’t complain. This was exactly what he’d signed up for. He just hadn’t realized how much of a homebody he’d become over the last four years. He hadn’t lost the taste for new experiences and adventures, but nothing felt right without Lou and the kids around. Everything he saw, he wanted to show them and see how they reacted to it. After his shower, Jack yanked on swim trunks and a T-shirt, relieved to have a few more hours before he had to strangle himself in one of the designer suits the show had picked out for him. He slipped out into the hallway, pulling up short when he saw Miranda striding toward him with her ubiquitous tablet in hand. “Jack! Just the man I wanted to see.” She beamed a bright smile that made him intensely nervous. “I was just on my way to the pool to see the kids.” Please don’t stop me. Let me have just one afternoon of normalcy. “I won’t keep you. I was just going over the schedule for the next week and thinking about what we talked about yesterday. About being open to love?” “Uh-huh.” She smiled, undeterred by his unenthusiastic response. “I talked to Lou earlier and it’s occurred to me that while the whole purpose of this is to shake you out of your romantic rut, we may have inadvertently brought your rut with us.” “I have no idea what you’re saying.” “Lou.” He nodded. “Lou is here.” “Exactly. Lou is here and you’re relying on her, your emotional crutch, rather than opening yourself up to the possibility of finding someone else to rely on. Do you see what I mean?” Jack’s shoulders tightened. “My kids are coming to visit every weekend, Miranda. That was the deal. I’m not negotiating on that.” “No, of course I’m not arguing that. As long as we’re able to make it work with the schedule, we’re going to bring them out here. They’re fantastic. And the fact that you’re a great father is one of the primary reasons you were selected, so we could ask nothing less of you.” “Then what’s the problem?” he asked, impatient to get downstairs so he could see his kids and start being this epically great father they were billing him as. “Lou is your crutch.” “You said that already.” “So maybe next week when the children come to visit, we could have one of our producers fly with them and Lou could stay in Chicago. I’d hate to think that your reliance on her was undermining your romantic efforts here the way it has for the last four years.” “She isn’t undermining anything.” “Jack, I’m not attacking Lou. I adore her. But I have to think about what’s best for your romantic future and maybe it’s time to cut the umbilical.” “There is no umbilical.” Miranda smiled, flapping a hand. “Forget I said anything. I’m probably imagining things. But if she decides she wants a weekend without the children hanging off of her, remember we have staff who can travel with them.” “That won’t be necessary.” # The afternoon passed too quickly. He played with the kids in the pool until Emma was so exhausted she threw a screaming fit the likes of which she hadn’t thrown in years when they tried to get her out of the water. Lou had carried her off to the showers, muttering that at least she’d sleep well on the plane, leaving Jack to ride herd on TJ to get him into his own plane clothes. It felt like they’d only just arrived and soon they’d be leaving to go to the airport and he’d be off to wine and dine a pair of beautiful brunettes whose names were so similar the blooper reel was already full of him tripping over them. When Lou came back downstairs with Emma and the carry-on, she set the kids up at a table on the terrace with chicken tenders and an assortment of berries from craft services. Jack sat with the kids, listening to their cranky grumblings while she asked one of the producers if she could raid the screening room for DVDs for the portable player for the flight in case the kids didn’t immediately drop off when they got airborne. Instead of devouring the berries in a blitz attack like they normally would, both children sat zombielike at the table and automatically went through the motions of feeding themselves, eyes glazed. They might have played a little too hard today, but he’d wanted to pack the most into every second he had with them. Emma froze with a chicken tender halfway to her mouth, turning wide, concerned eyes toward him. “Daddy, where’s Fluff Muffin?” He hadn’t seen the raggedy blue puffball that was Emma’s go-to security blanket stuffed animal. They’d been slowly weaning her off taking it with her everywhere she went for the last year. “I thought you left her in Chicago.” Em’s lower lip began to tremble. “I want Fluff Muffin.” Seeing another meltdown looming, Jack quickly scraped back his chair. “I’ll ask Aunt Lou. She’ll know where Fluff Muffin is. Eat your chicken tenders.” Emma sniffled wetly, temporarily mollified, but ready to burst into tears should they be called for, and took the world’s smallest bite of chicken. He found Lou in the screening room, peering at the lowest shelf of DVDs on all fours. She wore jeans for the plane, but they weren’t like any jeans he’d ever seen her in. They looked new and snug, stretching taut over her ass as she bent to examine the bottom shelf. He froze in the doorway, arrested by the sight, suddenly tense. He cleared his throat around a strange thickness there. Lou gasped and came up on her knees, twisting around. Her face fell with relief when she saw him. “Jack. You startled me.” He started toward her to help her to her feet. Along with the jeans she wore some slinky plunging top—the kind he expected to see on the Suitorettes. It was distracting on Lou, fluttering and sliding against her skin as if the right breeze would give him a glimpse of something he shouldn’t want to see. But there was no breeze. “Expecting someone else? An illicit rendezvous with a cameraman or sound mixer?” His voice sounded oddly rough. “The gaffers are more my type,” she said dryly, taking his hand to come to her feet and putting her back against the shelves. “All that talk of amps and fill lights gets me all hot and bothered.” “I knew there was a reason you were so eager to visit.” Something about the words seemed to catch her out. She looked up at him with big, dark eyes and slowly wet her lip, lifting one hand to toy with the pendant that flirted with the cleavage revealed by that slippery slinky top. “Jack… I…” He cleared his throat again, the sound harsh in the air-conditioned hum of the media room. He was standing too close to her, but he couldn’t seem to move away. Even with the lights on, the windowless screening room was still dark and filled with shadows. Shadows and possibilities. He’d been kissed by five women in the last two weeks, but Lou’s was the only one he remembered with crystalline clarity. Perhaps because it was more tease than kiss, just a tantalizing taste of what could be. The possibilities… Temptation tugged at him. Would she mind? Just one harmless little kiss? “Emma’s asking for Fluff Muffin,” he said, reaching for a safe topic. “She left her in Chicago.” Jack nodded. “I thought so.” Then the silence fell again, wrapping them in that odd pocket of awareness. But awareness of what, he didn’t know. Lou was still looking at him, the eye-contact lingering until it became something else, something more. He propped his shoulder against the shelves beside her and Lou tucked her hands behind her, gazing up at him. The pose was naturally flirtatious, but she couldn’t be aware of how coy and inviting she looked. Lou didn’t flirt. That wasn’t her. But nonetheless there seemed to be a strange tension in the room. Did she feel it too? It had sprung up out of nowhere with just a flick of her lashes. “Find anything good?” he asked. He nodded toward the DVDs, but her face flamed as if the question were loaded with double meanings. “Some Pixar. We should be good on the plane.” She swallowed and he saw the resolve flicker in her eyes a moment before she spoke. “Jack, there’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.” She wet her lips again and he waited, letting the silence grow expectant. “I love you.” The words rushed out on an exhale. Jack nodded. “I love you too. I know I don’t say it much, but Miranda’s been all over me to be more upfront with my feelings.” “Yeah, I know, but that isn’t what I—” The intercom speaker above them crackled noisily to life. “Attention all staff. The Tanner-Doyle party will be departing for LAX in fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes. Thank you.” He looked up at the speaker and when he looked down again, Lou had averted her eyes. Jack straightened, only realizing how he’d been leaning down to her as he moved away. Lou wasn’t one of the Suitorettes. Lou was home and stability and friendship. One thing she could never be was temptation. He shoved his hands into his pocket, recalling Miranda’s words from earlier and wondering if there was any truth in what she’d said. Lou was his support system—both emotional and otherwise—that was true. But did he use her to avoid having to make connections with other people? Was she his shield against real emotion so he wouldn’t experience another loss like he had with Gillian? She was comfortable and safe—and at a safe distance. Or at least she had been until yesterday. Now things seemed to be changing, and he wasn’t sure he liked it. She was dressing different, acting differently, and he didn’t know what to make of all the changes. Before the show had come into their lives, she was sweet, comfortable Lou. He didn’t know who this new version was. But he knew he felt stripped raw and hyperaware around her. All the tension that had been in the room hadn’t dissipated, it had funneled into him, leaving him wound tight. He was on a hair trigger, but a hair trigger to what, he didn’t know. “Why are you dressing like that?” he heard himself saying as he put space between them, the words a little too harsh. “It isn’t you.” Lou’s face flushed with embarrassment. “I wanted to shake things up a little.” He hated himself for embarrassing her, but that only seemed to make him angrier. “Aren’t things shaken up enough already?” Everything was changing, and he was realizing how badly he hadn’t wanted things to change. “You’re supposed to be my one constant. Though maybe Miranda is right and you shouldn’t be. Maybe I’m not open to love when you’re around.” “I want you to be open to love with me,” she whispered. His body reacted in an entirely inappropriate way to the soft vulnerability in the words, urging him to move forward, take her in his arms, see if her lips were as soft as he remembered. “Maybe you shouldn’t come next week.” She sucked in a breath as if he’d hit her. “The kids want to come see you—” “And they will,” he said with forced calm. “But there’s really no reason you have to be the one to accompany them. Especially if we’re both letting you undermine what I’m doing here. I’m not blaming you. It’s as much my fault as yours.” “Who will look after the kids when you’re on your dates?” “They have child-care people on staff.” “And will those people care more about the kids or about how they can use them to boost the ratings of the show?” He glowered at her. “This was Miranda’s idea. Miranda is your friend.” “And she’s paid to make the show profitable. I know we want to trust her because we knew her in high school, but maybe you should be a little more cautious about doing whatever she tells you. Especially where the children are concerned.” “I would never let them do anything to hurt the children. I can’t believe you would think that of me.” “I know you wouldn’t on purpose, but they’re filming you the entire time you’re with them and you don’t know how they are going to use that footage or what kind of ripples this might have for them. Emma and TJ didn’t sign up to be exploited on national television. You did that for them.” “They aren’t being exploited.” Icy anger ran through his veins. “They’re barely going to be on the final program. I hardly see how a few shots of us playing together are going to emotionally scar them.” “You can’t control what ends up on the final program. You don’t know what may be said or done. You aren’t in charge here, Jack. No matter how much Miranda and her minions might try to convince you that you have all the power. You’re just a puppet with a pretty face.” He jerked a hand through his hair. “Wow. It’s nice to know you think so highly of me.” “It isn’t what I think of you. It’s the show. This isn’t about love or family or happy endings to Miranda. Frankly, I doubt very much it’s about love for ninety-nine percent of the people involved. It’s propaganda and emotional manipulation. They throw you into romantic situations and toss you off bridges to build a false sense of intimacy. It’s all contrived. They are using you, Jack, which is your call, so if you want to be used, that’s fine. But how can you let them use the kids?” “That isn’t really your call, is it?” Jack snapped. “You may not agree with my choice to allow them to be part of this experience, but they’re my kids. It’s my decision, not yours.” The word were out before he had any awareness that he was going to say them and then it was too late to take them back. Lou paled, her pale blue eyes filling with tears that didn’t fall as she looked at him with equal parts anger and hurt. “You asshole,” she whispered, snatching up the DVDs and starting to push past him. “Lou.” His hand shot out of its own accord, catching her upper arm. “Don’t touch me.” “There you are!” Miranda’s voice sliced through whatever Jack would have said to fuck up the situation even more. Her eyes flicked between the two of them, her brow wrinkling in concern. “Everything okay in here? We’ve got to get Lou and the kids off to the airport or they’re going to miss their flight.” “Everything’s fine,” Lou said, pulling at her arm in his grip. With Miranda watching, he forced himself to release her. Miranda beamed as if the room wasn’t crackling with wild surges of tension. “Chop, chop, you two. Planes wait for no man.” She spun on her heel and marched out, calling out “I’ve found them!” to the rest of the house. Lou was out of reach and through the door before Jack could do more than call after her. He cursed to himself and slapped on a smile for the kids, acting like everything was okay. Acting like he still had the first idea who he was and what he was doing here. Chapter Fifteen Lou sat in the limo, arms wrapped around her middle to hold the pieces of herself together as the children pushed their faces out of the open window and shouted Goodbyes and I-love-yous to their father, as if sheer volume equated to sincerity. She’d managed not to cry in front of the kids so far and she wasn’t going to start now. Even if Jack had said the one thing she’d thought he would never say. Even if he’d made her feel like an uninvited guest in her own life. He hadn’t apologized. Admittedly, she’d used the children as human shields to keep him at bay, never letting him close enough to say another private word to her, but it still stung that he’d let her leave with those words hanging between them. His kids. She wasn’t the mother. She had no say. Lou swallowed hard. It didn’t matter. She was okay. She was fine. She just needed to get a grip. She couldn’t cry in front of the kids. She just had to hold it together through a limo ride, airport security, a four hour plane ride, and the forty minute drive from the airport to the house. Then she could break down. No problem. Thank God for Pixar. Lou didn’t know how she’d remembered to pick up the DVDs she’d set aside when she stormed out of the screening room, but she was glad she had when both kids were whining and resisting sleep on the flight. She got out the portable DVD player, popped in The Incredibles, gave them each a pair of headphones and fifteen minutes later they were both out. She forced herself to wait another five minutes to sneak off to the airplane bathroom. Some turbulence bounced the plane a little as she was walking down the aisle and she looked back to make sure the kids were both still asleep before going the rest of the way. She wrapped her arms around herself in the aisle, waiting for the Vacancy light to change color, so she could have five minutes of her own for a nervous breakdown. When the lock finally clicked back, she went through the excuse-me dance in the tight aisle, do-si-do-ing around the other passenger to get to the cramped bathroom. She almost didn’t trust her reflection in the mirror. Even her make-up was still in place. No one would know the love of her life had just destroyed her as only he could. She closed her eyes—but those unfair Paul Newman blue eyes filled her mind’s eye, dark with anger, so she quickly opened them again. Her gaze caught on the new haircut and low scoop of her top. She still looked good—for all her emotional turmoil—maybe even a little sexy. For all the good it had done her. Things between her and Jack were worse after her attempt at a vixen makeover. So much for seduction. Who was she kidding? A mouse in vixen’s clothing was still depressingly mousey. A new haircut and new clothes didn’t make her brave. They just made her desperate. Though there had been a moment in the screening room when she was sure the lure-him-to-love plan was working. For a minute there she had been convinced he was going to kiss her. She’d told him she loved him, come so close to explaining that it was more than just friend-love… Then the intercom had broken the spell. The fates were aligned against her. And Lou wanted to maim the faceless intercom operator. Everything had fallen apart from there. She’d wanted to confess her love and whisk him away from the show before he got sucked in any deeper with the Suitorettes, before they brainwashed him into love. But it wasn’t meant to be. All of her frustration had welled up and she’d said things she probably shouldn’t have and he’d said things she’d never be able to unhear. And now she’d be gone all week. An entire week for the Suitorettes next door to work their wiles on him. And he was hardly going to be resisting their efforts. And she wasn’t even sure she wanted him to be. The way he’d spoken to her… he wasn’t her Jack anymore. If he ever had been. Perhaps she had been as bad as Missy, falling in love with a construct of her imagination, building the perfect man out of her dreams and pasting his image over Jack. Maybe this was all for the best. But why did for the best have to hurt so much? # Jack’s anger lasted until about five minutes after the limo had left with Lou and the kids in it. As soon as he simmered down, he immediately started regretting the words he’d thrown at her. By the time he was half-dressed for his romantic evening out, he was calling himself seven different kinds of scumbag idiot. He knew Lou, knew the best way to hurt her, and had gone for the throat in a knee-jerk reflex. The week’s stresses had piled up on him. He’d been defensive and stressed out since he got to LA. Lou’s visit was supposed to make him feel better, but it had only made him feel more off-kilter. More confused. She’d been so different and he’d felt even more twisted and tangled than ever. Then when Lou—the one person he could always count on to support him—attacked his choices, he’d lashed out without thinking. It was no excuse, but it was all the explanation he had. He needed to call Lou. He needed to apologize. But by now she’d be at the airport, juggling the kids’ carry-ons through security. She may have already turned off her cell. He wouldn’t be able to grovel for at least four more hours, so he might as well suffer through date night with as much appearance of pleasure as he could muster. Jack groaned as he knotted his tie. The last thing he wanted to do was spend the evening smiling for the cameras and wooing at the symphony. Marcy was easy to be with and Missy was sweet, in an overeager puppy kind of way, but the person he needed to be with right now was Lou. He needed to set things straight between them before the poisonous words he’d said could hurt her any more than they already had. “Jack?” Miranda’s voice cut through the door. “We’re ready for you, darling. I’ve got two gorgeous women and a private box at the symphony with your name on it.” Jack cringed. His name was also all over the contracts requiring him to play along or else he would have told Miranda where she could shove that private box. “I’m on my way.” The symphony was everything he thought it would be. Boring and boring, with a side of extreme boredom. Sweet, curly-haired Missy perched on the edge of her seat, as if that would help her receive the music better, with her eyes closed and her head swaying slightly with the dips and swells of the song. He glanced to his other side. Marcy leaned back in her chair, a small, amused smile curving her lips and her eyes locked on him. Also brunette, her hair was slightly lighter, slightly longer, and not as curly as it tumbled over shoulders left bare by her dress. “Having fun?” she whispered, with a sarcastic lift of one eyebrow. Her eyes twinkled like his boredom was a fabulous secret they shared. Jack gave her a half-hearted grin—which was about all the enthusiasm he could muster. “Are you?” Marcy tipped her head to one side, considering the question. “I am entertained,” she admitted. “Though the musicians can’t claim full responsibility for that. You, Mr. Perfect, are fascinating.” She didn’t say it the way the other girls did—gushing with manufactured adoration. She sounded more like he was a puzzle she hadn’t quite worked out yet. No love or hate—real or fake—clouded her tone. Just curiosity. Jack found himself leaning over the armrest toward her. “What’s so fascinating?” Her smile grew a little, as if by asking he had passed some test. She leaned closer until they were inches apart. Her eyes were green, he noticed. Somehow he’d just assumed they’d be brown. “You signed up for the show,” she whispered, “so clearly you want to be here. But right now, you look like you’re hoping a hole would open up in the floor and swallow you. And I don’t think it’s just because you hate the music. You keep tossing glares at the pro—” Marcy caught herself. They weren’t supposed to mention the behind-the-scenes folks. Ever. “I just meant you look like you want to escape the whole experience. So which is it? Happy camper or inmate digging his way out with a spoon?” Jack glanced at the cameraman hovering nearby to catch their intimate exchange. He could feel the segment producer’s gorgon stare on the back of his neck, but he didn’t turn to look at her. He took Marcy’s hand and smiled as he ran his thumb across the backs of her knuckles. “There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” he said, willing himself to mean the words. Marcy leaned closer. For a moment, he thought she was going to kiss him and he had to force himself not to flinch away, but she just pressed her cheek against his so her lips were directly next to his ear. “Liar,” she whispered, too low for the mics to catch. Jack felt a genuine smile curling his lips. He really liked Marcy. No games. No pretense. And she wouldn’t let him get away with a damn thing. Just like Lou. Jack’s smile faded. Had Lou and the kids landed yet? If he called her now, would she answer? The symphony felt like it had been playing forever, but it couldn’t have been more than an hour or two. They were probably still in the air. Or baggage claim. And then she would be driving. The traffic around O’Hare was a nightmare, even on a Sunday night. He shouldn’t distract her while she was driving, but could he afford to wait until she got home? His hand slipped into his pocket, stroking the links of the gold charm bracelet. “You’re gone again,” Marcy said, watching him from a distance of inches. “Where’d you go just now?” Jack sighed and gave up hiding it. He didn’t want to be here. “I need to talk to my kids. There’s something I forgot to say.” Marcy’s head tipped to the side in that considering way again. “I don’t think that’s all of it. You look… guilty.” “Did anyone ever tell you you’re too perceptive for your own good?” “All the time. Does that mean I’m right?” Jack glanced back toward the producer. She was frowning. Internally, he shrugged. What the hell. They could edit this part out. “It’s Lou. My friend who helps me take care of the kids. My best friend. I said something stupid to her this afternoon as they were leaving.” “Ah. And now you can’t sit still until you’ve made it right. That’s actually a pretty admirable trait—that you realize when you’ve fu— ahem, messed up and want to make it right. I know a lot of guys who would stand by their guns even knowing they’re in the wrong.” “I doubt they’d do that if they were quite this far in the wrong.” “Really screwed the pooch, did ya?” He winced. “You know, this isn’t making me feel better.” She grinned, unrepentant. “It’s not supposed to. You want to beat yourself up until you can make amends. I’m just helping.” “You’re all heart.” A mischievous smile quirked the corners of her mouth. “That’s what they tell me.” A little huff of indignation from his other side reminded them both that they weren’t alone—even if they didn’t count the camera crew that crowded the box. Jack wasn’t sure whether Missy was upset because they were talking during her transcendent musical experience or whether she was in a tiff because he was ignoring her to favor Marcy. At the moment, he didn’t particularly care. He just didn’t feel like playing the game. Marcy jabbed him with her elbow. “Put your arm around her,” she whispered low. “She’ll eat it up.” Jack looked at Marcy questioningly, but she was already turning back to the symphony, feigning sudden interest in the current concerto. Strange girl. He shifted in his chair, draping his arm along the back of Missy’s seat. Missy, who hadn’t budged from the tip of her chair all night, sighed happily and leaned back into the curve of his arm, proving she was definitely aware of her surroundings, no matter how entranced she seemed to be. Jack slanted a look at Marcy out of the corner of his eye and caught her repressing a wicked little smile. For a moment, the I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-but-I-am expression reminded him sharply of Lou. They were so much alike. Marcy even seemed to share Lou’s mild skepticism toward the entire process. He wondered if Marcy would be half as good a mom as Lou had been—before he’d essentially told her she had no right to have an opinion about his children. Dumbass. As the orchestra finished a number and the audience surged to their feet in applause, Jack came slowly out of his chair to join the fanfare, wondering for the first time if the only reason he liked Marcy so much was because she reminded him so strongly of Lou. Chapter Sixteen When Lou’s plane landed at O’Hare, there was a message on her phone. She didn’t listen to it. She set the phone to silent and herded two cranky, sleepy kids through the maze-like airport toward baggage claim, trying to remember where she’d parked the Focus. She didn’t check the phone again until she had the kids home, in their pajamas, brushing their teeth like zombies, already half asleep. When she flipped open the phone, it immediately lit up with four new messages. Four. All from Jack. Lou held her breath. That was good, wasn’t it? He still wanted to talk. He wouldn’t call five times if he just wanted to tell her to get the hell out of his house and drop the kids at their grandparents’ on her way. Would he? Lou herded Emma and TJ into their beds, the need to listen to her voicemail burning inside her. She would have broken the speed record for cover-tucking—forehead kiss, fast-forward through the lullaby, nightlight on, overhead light off—but just as she was pulling Emma’s door shut behind her, a soft voice piped up from the bed. “Aunt Lou?” Lou froze with her hand on the knob, her cell phone burning like a hot coal in her pocket. “Yes, baby?” “I miss Daddy.” Lou’s heart dropped. She’d been expecting this. Frankly, she was surprised Emma and TJ hadn’t felt their father’s absence sooner. Of course it would have to be now. When Lou was exhausted, frustrated, hurt and angry with Jack. When the last thing she wanted was to sing the long-distance praises of Emma’s daddy. Lou pushed the door back open, ignoring the siren call of the cell phone in her pocket, and moved to perch on the edge of Emma’s bed. “He misses you too, sugar.” She brushed the baby-fine hair off Emma’s forehead. “There’s nowhere he’d rather be than with you.” “Then how come he doesn’t come home?” Emma mumbled, burrowing down under the blankets until they covered everything from the nose down, Fluff Muffin peeking out beside her, pressed against her cheek. Heart-stopping blue eyes gazed out from her rounded baby face. Em had gotten Gillian’s dark hair, but the eyes were all Jack. “He has to stay for the show, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking of you every minute.” “Why does he have to do the show?” Trust Emma to ask the simplest unanswerable questions. “He…” Words failed her. What could she say? That Jack didn’t really have to do the show. Lou wasn’t even sure in her own mind about his motives anymore. If she had ever been. How could she explain it all to Emma? A reality TV show was never a need. “Is it to get a new mommy?” Her heart stuttered. Had Jack told Emma that? Lou couldn’t refute it. “Maybe. But not just any mommy will do for you guys, so he has to stay a while and make sure she’s the right one.” Uncertainty snaked through her thoughts. Was that the right thing to say? Dr. Spock didn’t exactly cover this part of parenting. Suddenly Lou wished for Jack, someone to talk to about the tricky parts, but his words from that afternoon haunted her. Had he just lashed out? She didn’t want to hold a grudge about words spoken in anger, but what if he’d really meant it? Had she hallucinated all the team parenting over the last four years? She’d had a lot of time to think on the plane ride home. Maybe too much. She was sure Jack hadn’t meant to hurt her with what he said in the screening room. His temper so rarely came out she sometimes forgot how he reacted when he felt cornered. And she hadn’t exactly been careful with her accusations. Not that her words were any excuse for making her feel like an imposter in her own life. She was going to make him beg before she forgave him for that crack about her not having any say in the kids’ lives. Provided he even wanted to beg. The show had some strange hold over him. Who knew what advice Miranda and the Suitorettes were feeding him? “Aunt Lou? Can we call Daddy to say good night?” Any other night Lou would have called Jack and had him sing an off-key lullaby to Emma, but tonight she didn’t know what kind of reception would meet her call. If they were going to have a fight, she wouldn’t let it be in front of Emma. So Lou made a stern face and tucked Emma in tighter. “Do we make phone calls after bedtime?” “No,” Emma grumbled, the covers slipping down just enough to reveal a pout. “Tell you what. We’ll call him as soon as you get home from school tomorrow. And the sooner you go to sleep, the sooner tomorrow will come. Okay?” Emma’s nod took her back under the covers, nearly to her eyebrows. Lou smoothed her curls one more time then shifted on the edge of the bed, getting ready to stand. A tentative whisper stopped her. “Aunt Lou?” “Yes, baby?” “Don’t you want to be the mommy anymore?” “Oh, baby.” Only Emma could shatter her heart so completely. “I will always love you and TJ. I will always want to be with you and look after you. I’m always going to be here for you, baby, no matter what. But… things are going to be different when Daddy gets home.” Everything would be different. She could only hope that Jack wouldn’t be completely changed. “Why different?” “Oh, sweetie.” Lou sighed. “Sometimes different is wonderful. You don’t ever have to be afraid of change, okay, Em? Daddy and I are always gonna love you and be here for you.” Just not together. The eerie ex-wife feeling was back again. All the heartache of a divorce with none of the visitation rights. Lou bent and pressed a kiss to Emma’s forehead, breathing in the scent of Johnson’s No More Tears. “Get some sleep, Emma-belle. Tomorrow’s a school day.” Having invoked the incontrovertible school night bedtime warning, Lou stood and slipped out of the room. She shut the bedroom door and rested her palm for a moment on the wood, closing her eyes. She’d never expected this process to be easy, but it was turning out to be even harder than she’d imagined. A mine field with the kids. And with Jack… the cell phone was an ominous weight in her pocket. Her feet felt heavy as she dragged them down the stairs. She curled up on the living room couch, suddenly afraid to hear what Jack had said. Holding her phone in her cupped palms, she stared at it like it might come to life and bite her. She had to listen to the messages eventually. But maybe not right this instant. She wasn’t sure she was ready to know how he felt when she had no idea how she did. Was she still angry? Could she forgive him? Could she still trust him? The message light on her phone blinked cheerfully. It had no idea how important those messages were. She felt like her whole life hung by a thread. She had to know. Lou pressed the button for her voicemail and closed her eyes. Please, please, please. First came the message from the plane. “Lou. It’s, uh, it’s me. Obviously. Look, I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have... It was a shitty thing to say, okay? And I’m sorry. Call me back.” The fear knotting her stomach eased. She’d been ninety-nine-point-nine percent sure he was apologizing, but that sliver of a chance that he wanted her out of his life had been enough to scare her senseless. Now she could breathe again. The second message must have come in while they were getting their bags. “Hey. The, uh, the flight status thing said you landed. So I thought I’d call. To apologize. In case my first message didn’t come through. I’m sorry. I’ll try back later.” The next three were more of the same. In the fourth one he mentioned trying the house. She figured she’d have another apology on the home machine. In each message, Jack sounded more dejected. More lost. She’d just finished listening to the last one when her phone vibrated. She had a new text. Lou hated text messages, especially the awful, abbreviated English people used to write them. She thought they were a lazy impersonal way to communicate. Jack had heard her complain about them a thousand times, but he was trying every possible way he had to get through to her. Lou’s heart felt tight in her chest. For once she didn’t hate getting a text. She pressed the button to view it. So sorry. I can’t stand fighting with you. Please take my call. -J The cell phone rang in her hand. She swallowed, inexplicably nervous, and hit the button to connect. “Hello?” “God, Lou. I’m so sorry.” Lou closed her eyes and sank deeper into the couch cushions. “It’s okay,” she said, ignoring the fact that she’d told herself she would make him beg. She just wanted to ease that panicked edge she heard in his voice. He was still her Jack. The show hadn’t completely stolen him. Yet. “I’m sorry too.” “No. I was the jerk. Don’t apologize.” “Jack,” she said, trying to make his name the usual laughing scold. It didn’t come out quite right, but he reacted as if it had. “Fine. Apologize if you want. But accept mine first. You’re the most important thing in Emma and TJ’s life, Lou. You’re their mom in every way that matters. I should never have tried to cut you out of the decisions about the show.” “I should have trusted that you wouldn’t let the producers exploit them,” she whispered. “Hey. Stop trying to horn in on my apology. This is my turn.” Lou smiled, relieved he’d managed to bring it back to their usual comfortable level. “Sorry. Go ahead.” “I was mostly done,” he admitted. “I’m a dickhead, you’re amazing, and I didn’t mean a word of it. Forgive me?” “Always. Even when you’re a dickhead.” Lou smiled against the phone, ignoring the tears of relief gathering in the corners of her eyes. God, she hated fighting with him. It felt like she’d ripped out a piece of her soul. “You’re better to me than I deserve,” he said. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she soothed, trying to keep things light. “It’s tough being Mister Perfect all the time.” “We both know I’m not.” Lou hesitated. It was the perfect opening. All she had to do was tell him he’d always be Mister Perfect to her. Finally tell him she loved him with more than just friendship. There it was. Opportunity knocking. But she couldn’t tell him on the heels of a fight. She didn’t want that to be how he remembered this moment. Nor how she remembered it. She wanted it to be perfect. Like a set-up on that damn show. Lou felt her shoulders tense. They never used to fight before the show. Not like this. Then a second realization hit and her stomach plummeted to her toes. They never used to fight before she started pushing to change their relationship. Before she became convinced she had to tell him she loved him. When they were just friends, they were fine. What if they couldn’t be lovers without ripping one another to shreds? What if that was the cause of all this tension and anger? They’d been happy before, hadn’t they? Kelly was sure of her game plan, but playing games with Jack’s heart didn’t sit right with Lou. Maybe they should just be friends. She couldn’t stop thinking about that girl in the interview this morning. Missy. So desperately looking for love. What if Missy was right for Jack and Lou was standing in the way of their happiness? What if she was wrong to try to make him love her instead? It seemed horribly selfish, all of a sudden. Had she even considered what would be best for him? Had she thought for a moment about what he might want in all this? She’d been so wrapped up in her own stupid fantasies, just like the girls on the show, the ones who wanted him without knowing him. Lou wanted him without knowing what he wanted. Was that just as bad? “Lou?” “I’m here.” Here and confused out of her mind. Where had her simple chaos-control life gone? When had it all become tangled feelings and unanswerable questions? Normally the person she would talk to about a problem was Jack, but they never talked about problems like this—even if he wasn’t right at the center of it all. Their usual problems were kitchen remodels and whether to confront the lawn boy about snitching a beer out of the fridge. This was a whole different category. “I should let you get some sleep,” Jack said, misinterpreting her long silence as exhaustion. “Will you come back next weekend?” “I don’t know, Jack,” she hedged. “Maybe I should stay home.” A long silence met that comment. Then, “Whatever you want.” Whatever she wanted. That was the trouble. She didn’t know what she wanted anymore. She’d been so certain she wanted him, but at what price? Their friendship? His happiness? What was the cost of what she wanted? Was she willing to pay it? “What do you want, Jack?” she asked softly. “Not about whether I should come or not, but from the show. I feel like we talk in these vague terms about you moving on and finding someone new and I’ve never really asked you what you’re looking for.” Miranda had asked him and she’d eavesdropped, but that wasn’t quite the same. “I’m not sure I know,” he admitted. “It was easy to talk about moving on in theory, but the reality—” He broke off with a laugh. “The reality is reality TV. But I have to wonder if Miranda has a point. About me not letting anyone in. Losing Gillian… you saw how it wrecked me. I threw myself into work and I might have even shut out the kids if not for the fact that you wouldn’t let me. So maybe I do have walls up so I never have to go through that again, but I’ll be damned if I know how to let them down. So I guess the short answer is I had no idea what I was looking for when I came here.” Lou held her breath. The show was certainly changing him in one way at least. She’d never heard him be so upfront about what he was thinking and feeling before. “Just another grandiose idea, I guess,” he went on. “And now… hell, I don’t know. I get the compatibility test results tomorrow. Maybe that will tell me something.” Lou couldn’t help wondering what the show’s team of fancy psychologists would say about her compatibility with Jack. “Kelly says the next big thing after the compatibility test is the lie detector in episode six,” Lou said. “She says when Josh Pendleton gives you the choice between looking at the results and making a gesture of trust by tearing them up, you should definitely look.” Jack hesitated for so long Lou looked at the phone to make sure she hadn’t lost the connection. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about the girls anymore,” he murmured. “It kind of feels like when I used to come home from those online dates and talk to you about them. And we both saw how that went. Maybe Miranda is right and I’m using you as a crutch, keeping the girls at a distance.” “Yeah.” And maybe I’m using my feelings for you as a security blanket so I don’t have to go out and risk my heart in a real relationship. “Maybe I should stay home next week. It could be a good thing. Give me a chance to figure out who I’ll be without you guys.” Jack made an agreeable noise and they hung up moments later with those last words swirling in her brain. Who was she without him? Chapter Seventeen Lou’s delight at having an entire weekend with no kids and no Jack lasted about fifteen seconds. Then it took all of her willpower not to run after Emma, TJ, and the chaperone the show had sent through airport security and jump on the plane with them. If this was her test run, to see how she’d do after the show was over and she was alone, so far she was failing. She called Kelly as she wandered back to the parking garage, but the twins had a soccer game, so a girls’ day was out. She scrolled through the numbers on her cell, jarred by the realization that every other number in there was a PTA pal or car-pool contact. They were friends through their kids. And all of them would be spending the weekends with their families. Which was exactly what Lou always did. Which was why she didn’t know a single, solitary person who had their Saturdays free. She couldn’t just wave her magic wand and go back to being a single girl with a single girl’s social life. Not that she’d ever thought it would be like that. She just hadn’t considered that this would involve building an entirely new social circle from the ground up. Lou climbed into the Focus and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. What to do? Her first instinct was to get the laundry done without the assistance of her two pyrotechnicians, and then go to the grocery without extra hands helping her fill the cart. Just another wild and fabulous weekend for the newly single girl. Or rather, the always single girl who suddenly had to act single. Maybe she’d go out tonight. She’d never been the pick-up bar kind of girl, but where else was she supposed to meet someone who could make her forget about Jack? As if anyone could. Just the thought of sitting in a dark bar by herself, awkwardly trying to come up with witty conversation with some stranger made her shudder. Okay, maybe not a bar. A movie. She could go to the movies by herself. She could see something that wasn’t animated. Something with lots of swearing and violence and sex, and she wouldn’t even have to wait until after the kids were in bed and keep the sound down low. Heck, she could go to an R rated matinee. Lou drove to the movie theatre by their house, feeling like a complete loser for being so excited by the idea of going to the movies. By herself. In the middle of a Saturday afternoon. Especially when she could be in California, lazing by a pool with a man objectively declared to be perfect and the two children she already missed. Lou stood in the lobby and stared up at the marquis, but it seemed like beside every title there was a reason not to go. Wouldn’t it be great to take the kids to that one? Or that is so Jack’s kind of movie. And sitting next to Kelly would make that one so much funnier. None of the shows were starting in the next hour, which could have been a sign or a convenient excuse, but either way Lou found herself back out in the parking lot, leaning against the Focus in the October drizzle, wondering how she was ever going to do this. Why hadn’t she ever felt this crushing loneliness four years ago? Had she just been too busy with working two jobs to ever feel isolated? A job. This was the perfect opportunity to look for work. She could actually print out resumes without getting grape jelly on them. But what did she even want to do? Lou climbed into her car. The thought of running away to Amsterdam or Brussels just made her wonder how many time zones away from Jack and the kids she would be. She wasn’t even sure she wanted the life of an interpreter anymore. She’d miss the mommy routine. But the idea of starting over, building a family with someone other than Jack, without Emma and TJ… She pulled out her cell phone and thumbed through her contacts, tapping the screen to connect the call. Voicemail picked up on the first ring—but then she’d known it would. The producers kept Jack’s cell phone for him, to control his access to the outside world. She’d known she wouldn’t get him and the kids, but she’d wanted to hear the sound of his voice on the recording and the abnormally long pause before the beep as he fumbled with the phone. The man could repair microscopic damage to hearts, his hands never wavering for a beat, but he was all thumbs when it came to his cell phone. When the beep finally squealed in her ear she left a quick message saying she just wanted to make sure the kids had arrived all right and check on their return flight time. Then she forced herself to hang up without saying Love you at the end. Little victories. “I am officially pathetic,” she told the dashboard. She could either mope about the life she was about to lose or she could get on with her freaking life. She started the car and pulled onto the freeway, headed toward the city. Forty minutes later, she walked up the steps past the sculpted lions that flanked the Art Institute, wondering how it was they lived less than an hour from the city and she’d never brought Emma and TJ down here. Saturday crowds filled the foyer as she bought her ticket. Shoulder to shoulder with art lovers and tourists, Lou walked past the Grand Staircase and through the gallery of Southeast Asian artifacts. She wove through the Asian shop, moving quickly now, guided by a five year old memory of where her favorite painting lived on these walls. She rounded a corner and there it was. Gustave Caillebotte. A rainy Parisian street scene. Lou’s feet stilled and she could feel her heart beating. The cobblestones glistened. The umbrellas shone wetly. It was grey and gloomy, but the European joie de vivre leapt from the canvas and dug into her soul. Romantic and lovely, the painting had always made her long to see the Parisian rain and it didn’t fail her now. She gazed at the vivid canvas and couldn’t escape the feeling that she had let herself down by distilling her entire life down to one word: caregiver. But that was her identity now and no matter how much she might have once longed for this, the passion and adventure of the wide world, she didn’t want to lose that piece of herself that she’d built over the last four years. She didn’t want to lose Emma and TJ and Jack. But that wasn’t a choice that was hers to make. That part of her life was already gone. It was only a matter of time. And it was time for her to start anew. # Jack threw Emma high into the air, catching her squealing, flailing form before she could splash down into the pool. She giggled and thumped him on the arm. “Again, Daddy! Again!” she demanded imperiously. She waved her water-wing covered arms, as if the wings could actually help her take flight. Jack grinned and flung her up again, enjoying that moment more than he had the entire last week combined. “Watch me, Dad!” TJ stood on the edge of the deep-end and bellowed, “Bombs away!” before cannon-balling into the pool. Jack watched alertly until TJ surfaced and began paddling toward where he stood in shallower water holding Emma. Lou was right—those swim lessons at the Y had been a stroke of genius. At the thought of Lou, some of Jack’s pleasure faded. Things were still off between them. Their conversations this last week had been brief and stilted, frustratingly polite. He missed her. And then he felt guilty for missing her. Like he wasn’t investing in the experience the way the producers all wanted. TJ hung from his shoulders, his teeth chattering. It was a brisk seventy-two today and the pool was unheated, but try telling two kids from northern Illinois that any sunny California day is too cold for swimming. “Can I go in the hot tub?” TJ asked. Jack shivered. “Absolutely.” Emma was looking a little blue around the lips too, so they all clambered out of the chilly pool and dripped their way over to the hot tub where it sat, recessed beneath a gazebo. At night, little twinkling lights built into the gazebo ceiling gave the illusion that you could actually see the stars from the heart of smoggy, light-polluted LA, but during the day, the gaps in the lattice roof let in checkerboard streams of sunlight. Jack, TJ and Emma sat on the edge, dangling their legs in the hot water. Jack immediately felt less like a popsicle and the kids looked distinctly less blue. They giggled when the jets tickled their feet and splashed one another with the warm water. It was quite a contrast to the last time he’d been in the Jacuzzi, when sweet, bright-eyed, supposedly-waiting-for-marriage Missy had tried to mount him in this very hot tub on their date two nights ago. Jack wasn’t a prude. Sure, he hadn’t exactly had the world’s most active sex life in the last four years, but that didn’t make him a eunuch. But even a healthy, red-blooded American man with a libido that needed no help from little blue pills had the right to a modicum of privacy. Not that he had anything against a little mild PDA, but everyone he knew was going to see the damn show. His mother was going to see it if he so much as copped a feel. He couldn’t stop thinking about his friends, family and coworkers being spectators on his lovelife, no matter how often Miranda told him to forget the cameras and go with the moment. Jack liked sex as much as the next guy, but he’d never been into exhibitionism. All it took was one stray thought of what he was doing showing up in prime time television to deflate any enthusiasm he might have had for the nubile and extremely enthusiastic Missy’s attempts to climb him. Though, if he was honest with himself, he doubted his heart would have been in it even if his lovelife hadn’t become a spectator sport. Missy was sweet and earnest to the point of discomfort, but her puppyish adoration wasn’t enough to sustain a real relationship after this journey was over. And it was pretty damn awkward being forced to fend her off without crushing her precarious self-esteem, especially with the cameras never more than a few feet away. There was another Elimination Ceremony tonight and Missy was definitely one of the two girls going home. For her own good. But that still left him with eight women the producers kept encouraging him to get physical with. Eight beautiful women, undeniably, but instead of feeling like the luckiest SOB on the planet, he felt more like the world’s most reluctant porn star. The women, on the other hand, seemed far from reluctant. They were always eager to make a connection and take their relationship to the next level. He’d kissed all but one of the remaining eight. He’d even gotten a little carried away with Katya the swimsuit model once, but he’d felt awkward about it immediately afterward. Almost guilty. As if he’d cheated. Though he wasn’t even entirely sure who he felt like he’d cheated on. Halfway through the process, he was pretty sure Marcy was the only one of the remaining girls he could potentially have a lasting relationship with—and the compatibility tests seemed to think they were a perfect match too—though the chemistry with Katya was electric enough to give him pause. Part of him wanted to send the other Suitorettes home and let the chips fall where they may, but the producers hyperventilated whenever he gave any overt sign of favoritism this early in the process. He had to jump through the hoops. He knew Missy was the next on the chopping block, but he had to wax poetic for the camera on all the ways she was unique and special and intriguing. Immediately before he sent her home. It was a royal pain in the ass. There were ways in which this experience was amazing—the dates were a string of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and he would never forget a single one of them—but he hadn’t expected to feel so guilty for tangling up the emotions of the women involved. He just wasn’t cut out for dating a bunch of women at once. Which was probably a good thing. “Daddy, do I really get to wear a princess dress when you get married?” Jack jolted out of his musings at those words spoken in his daughter’s sweet high voice. “Who told you I was getting married?” he asked, a little more sharply than he’d intended. The kids had met a few of the Suitorettes yesterday on a “play” date. He thought he’d been aware of everything that was said to them, but one of the girls could have slipped in a word somehow. If that was the case, Missy might get a stay of execution. No one was allowed to use his kids to try to get to him. “Sandy said,” Emma replied, innocently unaware of how her words affected him. “Sandy the craft service lady?” “Uh-huh.” He took a deep, relieved breath. Sandy talked nonstop without engaging her brain much. She probably hadn’t meant anything pointed by what she said. But he still had to do damage control with Em. “If I get married, you can wear whatever kind of dress you want. But before I marry anyone, we’re all gonna have to get to know her a lot more.” Emma nodded solemnly. Jack glanced over at TJ, who was uncharacteristically silent, staring at his feet as they scissored back and forth in the hot water. “Teej? Was there anyone you guys liked or didn’t like yesterday?” He couldn’t ignore the impact any new relationship he had was going to have on his kids. That was far more important than who he had chemistry with. TJ made a face, but didn’t look up. “Miranda’s bossy.” You can say that again. “I can safely promise that I will never marry Miranda.” He decided not to explain the difference between the Suitorettes and the producers. “Why don’t you marry Aunt Lou?” Emma piped up. Jack went still. “Uh…” Unbidden, an image of her in that clingy dress from last week popped into his head. Emma gazed him, her blue eyes wide and steady as she waited for an answer with the serious concentration only a four-year-old can muster. Jack wracked his brain for a response that would stand up to Emma’s brand of logic. “Um, well, Aunt Lou might not want to marry me, honey.” “Did you ask her?” Em asked, unblinking and intent. “Ah, no.” “How come?” Jack would rather have been fending off Missy’s overeager advances than facing his daughter, the preschool version of the Spanish Inquisition. How was he supposed to explain to a four-year-old that her aunt was the kindest, most giving person he’d ever met and if he proposed to her she might say yes out of a sense of obligation because she knew he and the kids needed her? It was the exact same reason she’d moved in with him, but it wasn’t reason enough for marriage. Lou deserved love. All-consuming love. And they were just friends. “Are you scared she’ll say no?” TJ asked, joining the interrogation. Jack pulled out the Dad Voice. The I-know-this-answer-because-I-am-an-adult-and-when-you-are-thirty-I-will-explain-it-to-you voice that never failed to quell Doyle family uprisings. “I don’t want Lou to feel like she has to say yes for the wrong reasons.” “That’s silly,” Emma declared. And she didn’t let the subject drop, proving the Dad Voice was not nearly as foolproof as he’d hoped. “People get married cuz of True Love, Dad. And fancy dresses. You should buy Aunt Lou a fancy dress.” “I’ll keep that in mind,” Jack deadpanned, trying not to show Emma his amusement at her evaluation of matrimony. Everything boiled down to True Love and princess dresses when you were four. The Gospel according to Disney. It wasn’t until much later in life—say, puberty—when things got more complicated. Marry Lou. Trust Emma to come up with something so elegant in its simplicity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as simple as all that. But those words dug into his brain, taking root. Why not marry Lou? Part of him almost wished it wasn’t impossible. # Lou felt confident declaring her weekend as a single girl an unqualified failure. After leaving the Art Institute, she’d spent the entire two days alone. Alone at the movies. Alone doing laundry. And now, alone at the grocery store, waiting in the longest line in the history of the universe. She’d never realized before how much alone sucked. Even growing up, she’d never had much time alone. The youngest of three, she’d shared a room with her sister until Katie moved away for college. To save money, Lou had lived at home with her folks until her senior year of college when she’d gotten a small place with three roommates. She’d always been saving up for her big Europe trip, so she’d stayed in the crowded little place after college. Until Emma was born, Gillian passed away, and everything changed. She hadn’t been alone a day since. Until now. She didn’t like it. Her mother would probably say she had to give it a chance to grow on her, but Lou would rather skip the growth and get her life back. She wanted the noisy kids who made her long for a five second stretch by herself, not the empty hours when she felt utterly adrift. She wanted the quiet companionship of late night talks with Jack after the kids were in bed, or just watching a TV show she professed not to like because he was addicted to it. Since he’d been in LA, Lou had found herself watching all of his shows, even though she could easily have changed the channel. Four years was a long time. Jack and the kids were ingrained in her life. How was she supposed to get over that? She wasn’t ready to dive into her new life yet. The kids were coming back tonight and she just wanted to enjoy the life she had for as long as she could hold onto it. The woman in front of her in the grocery store line shuffled forward a few inches and Lou followed suit. Boredom had her peeking in the stranger’s cart. Juice boxes, Hot Pockets, and Pop Tarts. Kid food. Lou looked at her own cart—heavily stocked with Mac n’ Cheese, PBJ makings, and a lifetime supply of granola bars that slip easily into a purse for those ubiquitous I’m hungry moments between meals. What would her cart look like in six months? Frozen dinners for one and a case of Bud Light to drown her sorrows? Lou’d never been much of a drinker, but she just might have to learn. Another shuffle, another few inches toward the Promised Land of the check stand. Lou leaned against her cart and eyed the tabloids. Another celebrity break-up. Another Five Tips to a Better Orgasm. Another Ten Tips to a Skinnier You. Then a small, grainy picture on the upper corner of one of the magazines caught her eye and stopped her heart. Jack. She couldn’t see his face very well, but she knew that profile. She knew those shoulders and the rumpled mess of his hair. The woman in the photo had long blonde hair, but other than that, the only real distinguishing feature were the enormous breasts all but falling out of her bodice as she leaned forward to lock lips with Jack. The caption read: TV’s Latest Mr. Perfect Picks New Mommy for his Kids. Lou couldn’t take her eyes off the photo. She’d known she would see things like this when the show aired, but she thought she had a few months to get used to the idea, to brace herself. There weren’t supposed to be any photos yet. This one was obviously unauthorized, probably taken with a telephoto from a mile away, but that didn’t make it any less real. Jack was kissing big breasted blondes—maybe even right this very second. At the sound of a throat clearing, Lou started, realizing she hadn’t moved up in the line in quite a while—there had been at least two shuffle-forwards and she hadn’t even noticed. The woman behind her cleared her throat again—a little more loudly—and Lou quickly shoved her cart forward, but not before the Hot Pocket & Pop Tart lady in front of her glanced back to see what the ruckus was. Mrs. Hot Pocket took one look at Lou’s face and her own screwed up with sympathy. “Oh, honey, are you all right?” She’d managed not to cry in front of the kids. Not once. She’d been holding it together, but the sympathy was all it took to open the floodgates. Fat tears began rolling down Lou’s cheeks unchecked. With a distant, rational part of her brain, she knew she was making a scene in the checkout line at her grocery store—which topped her list of mortifying things she must never do—but the tears just kept falling. She couldn’t find the words to explain why she was falling apart, so she just pointed to the tabloid. Mrs. Hot Pocket looked at the tabloid and a flicker of confusion clashed across her face. Then she looked in Lou’s cart, glanced pointedly at Lou’s ring finger and gave a single sharp nod. “They’re all bastards,” Mrs. Hot Pocket—or perhaps more accurately Ms. Hot Pocket—declared. Lou noticed her own ring finger was bare as she marched to Lou’s side and gave her arm a hard squeeze. “Don’t you let that bastard make you cry, whatever he did. I felt the same way, let me tell you. Every time I saw a damn magazine I couldn’t help thinking ‘If Jennifer Aniston can’t keep her man, what chance do the rest of us have?’ Am I right? Some big lipped home wrecker comes along and ruins everything. You just let it out, honey. But you let it out for you. He isn’t worth your tears.” Ms. Hot Pocket’s firm speech jostled Lou out of her pity-fest. A brusque, no-nonsense woman who looked to be in her forties, she had the bone-structure of a woman who had once stopped traffic, but her face carried the weight of exhaustion and a few extra pounds. Ms. Hot Pocket’s life had kicked her in the face and she’d just gotten tougher for it. What right did Lou have to feel sorry for herself? “I’m sorry,” Lou sniffled, rubbing away her tears with the cuff of her shirt. “I don’t usually do that.” “You’ve got the right to bawl your eyes out in the grocery if you want and nobody can stop you.” Ms. Hot Pocket shot a glare at the rest of the line, as if daring them to contradict her. No one made a peep. Lou’s cell phone chimed inside her purse. She flashed Ms. Hot Pocket a grateful smile, mumbled, “Excuse me,” and dove into the disorganized mess of her bag, fishing for the phone. She yanked it out and quickly jabbed the talk button before it could go to voicemail, not even bothering to check the caller ID. “Hello?” “Lou. It’s me.” Lou’s eyes flicked to the tabloid of their own volition at the sound of Jack’s voice. “I just put the kids and the chaperone on the flight back to you. The flight status thing says it’s going to be a half-hour early, so I wanted to let you know about the change in schedule.” “Oh, good. Thanks. Did they, um, did you have a nice visit with them?” She had a feeling this conversation would have been awkward even if every shopper who had just seen her have a nervous breakdown because of a tabloid weren’t hanging on her every word. “It was fun, yeah. Kinda cold for LA, but we spent all weekend in the pool anyway.” His voice hitched and he hesitated. Then, “We missed you, Lou. The exotic dates start this week and we’ll be in Peru next weekend, but the week after Miranda promised we’ll be back here for the kids’ visit and the Elimination Ceremony. Will you come with them then?” Sucking face on a tabloid or not, Lou couldn’t say no to the request. Her heart melted and the steel went out of her spine. “Yes, of course I’ll come.” She’d have enough weekends alone when this was all over. “Good.” Lou heard Miranda’s voice in the background demanding Jack get ready for the Elimination Ceremony. He muttered something distinctly uncomplimentary about her friend and said goodbye. Lou closed the phone and tucked it back into her purse, feeling like a hundred pounds had been lifted from her shoulders. Until she looked up and met the disapproving gaze of Ms. Hot Pocket. “Give him an inch and he’ll take your heart, sweetie. Don’t be stupid just because he can be charming.” “I’m not.” She wasn’t. Was she? “Mm-hmm,” Ms. Hot Pocket muttered, completely unimpressed. She’d reached the front of the line and began loading her items onto the conveyor belt, but she glanced back at Lou. “Just remember Sterling McCormick.” “Is that your ex?” “Honey, that’s my divorce lawyer. The best. You’re gonna need a barracuda. Especially if you go all mushy every time that asshole calls. Sterling McCormick. He’s worth every penny.” “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind,” Lou murmured. Ms. Hot Pocket humphed and turned back to her groceries. Lou took a deep breath and tried to get a hold of her mixed up emotions. She was too upset that Jack had been kissing someone else, too excited that he really did want her to come back next week, and too guilty for the fact that she felt like she’d disappointed Ms. Hot Pocket by not standing her ground. She was a mess. But in a couple hours the kids would be home and her usual routine would keep things on track until she saw Jack again. Anticipation swirled insider her. She couldn’t wait to see him again. Big-breasted blonde kisses notwithstanding. Chapter Eighteen Jack couldn’t wait to see Lou again. The last three weeks felt like a lifetime without her—especially the last six days. They’d entered the jet-setting portion of the show and the Suitorettes were really starting to get into it. Natalie had already declared herself in love with him and two others admitted that they were falling for him. He’d even found himself getting sucked into it a time or two as well. A few times there this week he’d actually felt like he was on a real date with a real woman—no cameras and no pretense. Usually with Marcy, but occasionally even with Katya. It just went to show that you could get used to anything. They were gorgeous and fascinating, sexy beyond belief and all they wanted was him. His sense of reality was definitely getting skewed. And because things were amping up with the show, with fewer, longer dates and more exotic travel, he’d only get Saturday with Lou and the kids this week to reestablish his link with the real world. Then he had one last date and an Elimination Ceremony at the mansion on Sunday before the show went on the road again for the Meet-the-Inlaws episode. Though on the plus side, the week after that all the girls came to Chicago to check out his place, which was intrusive, but it also meant sleeping in his own bed and talking to Lou and the kids as much as he wanted. No more producers demanding he get off the phone. No more long airplane rides for Lou and the kids. Just seven solid days of home sweet home. “Daddy!” Jack turned as two small bodies smashed against his legs. He bent and pressed a hand against each of their backs, but his gaze stayed trained on the door until Lou stepped across the threshold. It wasn’t until relief zinged through him that he realized how nervous he’d been that she might decide not to come again. She hesitated, biting her lower lip as she hovered in the entry. “Hi, Jack.” “Lou.” She looked amazing wearing another of those little stretchy dresses like the one she’d worn last time. Her hair was down around her shoulders again, curling around her face. Her pale blue eyes leapt out at him, meeting his. For a moment, something intangible stretched between them—a question or a hope, he didn’t know which—but then the kids must have sensed something with their Adult-Connection-Radar. They jumped up and down, each grabbing one of his hands with both of theirs as they demanded his attention. “Dad, can we go to the zoo today, can we?” “Can we please, Daddy?” Jack glanced at Lou with raised eyebrows. She shrugged and gave a slight nod—their I’m-okay-with-it-if-you-are signal. “The driver mentioned there’s a new baby tiger at the LA zoo. It’s not San Diego, or anything, but the kids really latched onto the idea.” “Yeah, Dad, we’re latched,” TJ declared, in his I’m-one-of-the-grown-ups voice. Jack ruffled his hair and grinned. “If we’re latched, I guess we’d better check out this baby tiger.” After the week he’d had, a day at the zoo with Emma, TJ and Lou sounded like heaven on earth. # Lou shifted Emma’s limp form in her arms as she followed Jack, who carried an equally boneless TJ, up the stairs. After their day running around like monkeys at the zoo and pigging out on dried-out burgers and stale fries at the zoo food court, the kids had immediately conked out on the drive home—almost before they made it out of the parking lot. It had been a great day—without a single mention of Marrying Mr. Perfect and not a camera in sight—but now Lou felt like she’d been run over with a steamroller. Every muscle she had was sore and she was weary down to her marrow. Kelly had sent her off with instructions to seduce the hell out of Jack as soon as the kids were asleep, but a hot shower to work the aches out of her muscles and a rendezvous with her fluffy pillow were the only things on Lou’s mind as they trudged to the top of the stairs and down the hall to the room where the kids usually slept. She and Jack were still being too careful with one another, dancing around and pretending they weren’t constantly tense around one another. He shouldered open the door and held it open with his foot until Lou carried Emma into the room. They silently changed the kids into pajamas and settled them into bed. There was nothing unusual about the bedtime ritual, but Lou was overly conscious of Jack through it all—the brush of his hand against hers when she handed him TJ’s pajama pants, the strength in his shoulders when he lifted the six-year-old to slide him under the covers, and the half-smile he shot her when their eyes met. Lou slipped out into the hallway and Jack quietly clicked the door shut behind them. Only minutes ago she’d been desperate to get some sleep, but now she lingered in the hallway, hoping Jack would give her an excuse to stay up with him, held silent by that strange tension. He laid his hand on her elbow and guided her down the hall away from the kids’ room. She didn’t know what to say, seemed to have forgotten how to talk to him, but he solved that problem by bringing up their one universally safe topic: Emma and TJ. “The zoo was a great idea. They really went nuts for that baby tiger.” “The chimpanzees were a real hit too.” Great. She’d been reduced to itemizing the animals at the zoo. “I must be getting old,” Jack grumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. “I used to be able to go nonstop and it didn’t faze me a bit. Now after one measly afternoon at the zoo, I ache all over.” Lou eyed the muscles shifting beneath Jack’s T-shirt as he worked the kinks out of his neck. “Oh yeah, you’re geriatric, all right. Mister Perfect, the nursing home edition.” Lou glanced around, suddenly realizing why the house felt so quiet. “Speaking of Mister Perfect. Where is everyone?” He grinned. “They’re taking the day off. Almost the entire crew got a free day today before we start traveling again. Even the house staff get a break, so I hope you weren’t expecting turn-down service.” They were alone. Completely alone. An inappropriate shiver of delight ran across Lou’s nerve endings. Not that anything would happen. Of course nothing would happen. Together, they paused in the hall outside her room. Lou wracked her brain for something to say, some way to prolong the evening. Why was she so terrible at this? She’d never been good at small talk. Lou’d never really felt it was such a terrible thing not to be chatty, but now she’d sell her soul for a conversation starter. Jack nodded toward the pool. “I’m going to take a soak in the hot tub before I call it a night. Care to join me?” Lou tried not to cut him off in her eagerness to agree. “Sure,” she said, going for nonchalance, as if wild horses could keep her away. “Meet you down there in ten?” “Perfect.” When Mister Perfect disappeared down the hall in search of his swim trunks, Lou ducked into her room, debating one of the single most important choices of her life to date: one piece or bikini? The one piece was a simple black racer-back suit that covered her from collarbones to hips. Jack had seen her in it before, every time they went to the Y with the kids, and it had never elicited an I-must-ravish-you-this-instant response. The bikini, on the other hand, was brand new, fire-engine red, and designed with the words va-va-voom in mind. Kelly had insisted Lou buy it as part of the original Ultimate Seduction plan, but when Lou fished the scarlet scraps out of her overnight bag, she couldn’t believe she’d let herself be talked into purchasing anything so overtly come-and-get-me. Could she really wear it? The black one hid all her faults. Lou kept herself in pretty good shape, but she was no swimsuit model. How was her amateur va-va-voom supposed to compete with someone who looked like a goddess for a living? The image of the busty blonde kissing Jack on the magazine rose in her mind and she tossed the red scraps back into the bag. He would think she was ridiculous if she tried to be sexy for him. Especially when he was surrounded by real sexy. Lou laid out the black one piece, but hesitated. Safe or bold? Maternal or sexual? If she put on the bikini, was she announcing to Jack and the world that she was more than a carpool chauffeur? If she went with the black, was she giving up on ever having Jack as anything more than a friend? Her wardrobe had never seemed more complicated. Lou closed her eyes and reached for her suit of choice. Now or never. # Jack groaned as he sank up to his neck in decadently hot water. He’d left the patio lights off, so the glittery lights atop the gazebo were the only illumination, providing a soft glowing oasis in the warm California night. Behind him, a bottle of champagne left by a forgetful crew member sat on the edge of the Jacuzzi. The ice chilling it had long since melted and the wine was undoubtedly lukewarm, but he wasn’t picky. A glass of anything alcoholic sounded pretty damn good right now. A great way to unwind after the long day. He let his eyes fall closed and dropped his head back against the lip of the hot tub. Bliss. He stayed like that, letting the warmth work into his muscles, until he heard the sound of the sliding door whooshing open. Jack opened his eyes. And nearly swallowed his tongue. Holy hell. Lou stepped out of the house and into the moonlight wearing a fragment of a scarlet bathing suit designed to incite dirty thoughts. Very dirty thoughts. And Jack was far from immune. He must have sex on the brain from the show, but he couldn’t help appreciating the view as she walked toward him. The mile-long legs, the smooth curve of her waist flaring out to her hips, and the full, perfect handful of her breasts straining against the ties holding them in place. She was a feast for the eyes. He’d never seen her wearing so little, or looking so edible. He felt like he’d never seen her at all. Blood already warmed by the water surged hotter. “Hey,” she said softly as she climbed the steps up to the hot tub. Her hands were flaring and clenching nervously at her sides. Jack felt something tight in his shoulders release at the sight of the fidgeting. It proved his no-frills Lou was still there beneath this sex goddess’s gleaming alabaster skin. This was Lou. Just Lou. Though there was no just about how she looked tonight. She sank slowly into the hot tub, giving a soft sigh as the water rose up around her. Jack loved that sound, the helpless pleasure of it, as if she couldn’t not make the noise. He’d heard it before—that was her chocolate moan—but never before had it triggered thoughts quite so sinful as it did now. “Mmm, this is heavenly,” she murmured. Jack needed to remember how to form words. He was never tongue tied around Lou. She’d start to wonder what was wrong with him if he didn’t get his act together. Alcohol. That would loosen the knots in his tongue. “Tepid champagne?” he asked as he reached behind him for the bottle and glasses. Lou laughed. “Of course. You make it sound so appetizing.” Jack pressed against the cork with his thumbs, wanting for some inexplicable reason to impress her with his champagne-opening prowess. The pressure released suddenly with an explosive pop, sending the cork rocketing across the gazebo. He was lucky he didn’t take her eye out. Champagne gushed out in a river of bubbles. The producers would probably have made him reshoot. Lou just laughed. Wading through the water to his side, she grabbed one of the glasses from him and tried to catch the bubbly spilling out the top of the bottle. “Are you sure the show won’t mind that you’re wasting good champagne on someone who isn’t a perfect Suitorette?” “Hey, you’re perfect to me.” The words popped out of his mouth before he realized what he was saying—or considered how she might take them. But now that they were out there, hanging between them, Jack waited to see how she would react. Lou’s mouth fell open, her stunned eyes locked on his. “I…” When no more syllables followed that one out of her mouth, Jack began to get nervous. Maybe it was the kids asking why he didn’t just marry Lou, maybe it was Miranda forcing him to assess his fucking feelings on an hourly basis, maybe it was being forced to date a bunch of women who couldn’t quite seem to compare to the one he’d left back home, but he’d started to wonder if all these years the reason why he’d never wanted to date anyone else was because he’d been suppressing feelings for Lou all along. But he’d vowed he wasn’t going to pressure or guilt her into anything ever again. If there was going to be anything between them, it had to be because she wanted it, not because, as he’d said to the kids, she was too nice to say no. But all it took was one look at her in that mouth-watering red bikini and his resolution went straight to hell. “Lou, I’ve been thinking—” His words broke her spellbound gaze. She jerked her chin down, focusing on the champagne. The eruption had slowed, but the flute she’d been using to catch it had overflowed onto the back of her wrist. “Oops!” She pulled the glass back and quickly retreated to the opposite side of the hot tub, turning her back on him. Well, shit. He filled the second glass and set the bottle on the lip of the Jacuzzi. “Cheers.” Lou turned back to clink her flute against his, but she wouldn’t meet his eyes. Smooth, Jack. Very smooth. He downed half his champagne in one swallow, trying to think of something, anything, he could say to get them back to normal. If there was such a thing as normal anymore. Lou sipped her champagne and sat down on the bench on the opposite side of the Jacuzzi, as far as she could get from him without leaving the water. She inclined her glass in his direction. “Not bad.” The champagne. Good. Nice, safe topic. “You should try it when it’s chilled. Nothing but the best for Marrying Mister Perfect.” The show did have its benefits. Fabulous house. Amazing experiences. The chance to sip champagne with Lou sitting a few feet away from him in a red string bikini… He sighed. “I have to say, there are days when I almost love being Mister Perfect.” “Of course you do. You have all the power.” There was a bite to her voice. Jack didn’t know what he’d just stepped into, but that was Lou’s my-patience-is-up-someone-is-getting-punished voice. He had never once heard it directed at him—or anyone above the age of six. “It’s not the power,” he began, but she cut him off before he could explain the drift of his thoughts. “You said it yourself. You have gorgeous women fighting for your attention twenty-four-seven and not one single person is saying no to you. That’s heady stuff, but it isn’t love. That isn’t a relationship, no matter how much they try to brainwash you into thinking it is. It’s a game designed to play with people’s emotions and you’re the one holding all the cards.” “Lou…” He tried to interject, but she talked right over him. Maybe he should just let her get it out of her system. She’d obviously been bothered by this since day one. She’d spoken against the show before, but this was her first all-out rant. He might as well let her purge it all. “They fawn all over you. They adore you, and you don’t have to do a damn thing! The producers picked you out as Mister Perfect, but from that moment on, your job was done. Every little romantic gesture is choreographed for you. Champagne chilled by the Jacuzzi—was that your idea? No. Of course not. Some producer thought it would be romantic. Why should you have to be thoughtful?” “Just because I didn’t do it doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have thought of it,” he said defensively. Though, to be honest, he’d never thought of leaving champagne chilling anywhere. A six pack of beer, maybe… “Oh, please, Jack. Sell it to someone who doesn’t know you better. I’m not buying.” She drained the last of her champagne. He reached out with the bottle to refill her flute then topped off his own. “I can be considerate.” “You’re extremely considerate. Usually.” She took another swallow of champagne. “Sure, fine, you’re a prince among men, Jack, but you aren’t the hearts and flowers type. You never were. Not even in your perfect marriage with perfect Gillian.” “I never said—” “You love it here. I get it. But just because you love the way being here makes you feel doesn’t mean you love these girls. And it sure as hell doesn’t make this a realistic basis for a marriage. Do you have any idea the success rates of these shows? Sure the ratings are fabulous, but of all the seasons they’ve had only one—one, Jack—has ended in a successful marriage. And they’ve only been married a year. Divorce might be right around the corner and even if they stick it out it’s a fluke. You’d have just as much likelihood of finding your perfect mate in some pick-up bar.” “I know.” Though he didn’t think he would have met Marcy in a bar. “You about done?” “I am.” She sipped her champagne, then proved her statement a lie. “I just don’t want to see you propose to one of these girls, buy into all this bullshit, only to come home and realize your relationship was based on a photo op. She isn’t going to be competing for your love anymore, Jack, and then what are you going to do?” “I guess I’ll just have to find another show with fawning females to feed my massive ego.” Lou had been leaning forward as she ranted. With that, she sat back suddenly, so her back was pressed to the opposite wall of the hot tub. “Sarcasm. Lovely. I’m trying to have a serious conversation—” “This isn’t a conversation,” he interrupted. “This is you being pissed at me for going on this show and finally saying something about it.” “What was I supposed to say? You were martyring yourself for me. Going on the show for me, because we were so pathetic and codependent we needed this.” “You practically talked me into it.” “I know! And I was an idiot. Do you think I don’t hate that I threw you into this viper pit?” “I came of my own volition.” “And now, what? You’re falling in love? This isn’t real, Jack. At best it’s courtship, infatuation—that perfect phase when your beloved has no faults and all you do is stay up all night dancing or sipping champagne in a Jacuzzi.” She waved her flute and he realized it was empty again. “Don’t knock sipping champagne in a Jacuzzi.” He caught the hand waving the flute and stilled it to refill her glass. “It isn’t love.” “Lou. I know that. For all the stupid things Miranda says, she’s right about one. It’s a process. It’s an experience. No one ever calls it a romance.” She looked down, studying the bubbles fizzing in her glass. “I just still don’t understand why you’re doing this. Why do you have to fly a thousand miles and make a spectacle of yourself on national television looking for love when everything—” She abruptly cut herself off. “Lou? When what?” Chapter Nineteen When everything you need is right in front of you. Lou frowned at the treacherous champagne that had nearly made her spill the embarrassing truth of her infatuation with Jack. She didn’t think she’d had that much, but those couple glasses had gone straight to her head. Her thoughts were swirling like a whirlpool, making her feel dizzy and off balance. It had to be the champagne’s fault. There was no other way she would have slipped and come so close to revealing her feelings. Not after the disaster of last time. It certainly wasn’t that she wanted Jack to know how she felt. It couldn’t be. “Lou?” “Nothing. I didn’t mean anything. I’m sorry. I don’t want to fight anymore.” “I don’t want to fight either, but I also don’t want you bottling everything up. You can always yell at me when I’m being an idiot. I know we tend to talk about schools and work and the day-to-day stuff more than the emotion stuff, but that doesn’t mean we can’t.” “We seem to always end up fighting when we try.” Probably because whenever they tried to talk about emotional stuff, Lou was spending half her energy trying to conceal her feelings from him. She hated that deception, the tension of always living right on the edge of discovery. “Let’s talk about something else.” She scrounged for a safe topic. The memory of that damned picture from the supermarket swam up in her mind. “You were in a tabloid last week,” she blurted out. Jack visibly flinched. “Damn. What did it say?” “I didn’t read it. The picture on the front was of you kissing a pretty blonde with a caption about auditioning new mommies.” He cringed. “It’ll blow over soon, right?” “I think you have several more months of hell in front of you, Mr. Perfect. The show hasn’t even aired yet. The worst is yet to come. Kelly says everyone harasses Mr. Perfect and the girls while it’s being aired because they all want to know who you picked.” “I didn’t think people really cared that much about reality TV.” “That’s because you live under a rock.” “Hey,” he protested defensively. “It’s not my fault you have no awareness of pop culture. Reality TV is huge, Jack. Like epic, gazillions of people watching it, huge. I bet one of the reasons the producers picked you is because you’re so clueless.” “Hey!” “It’s a compliment. You’re a doctor with two kids who does crossword puzzles in his spare time and makes me watch those awful CSI shows. There’s no reason why you should have known about reality TV. Though anyone with half a brain would have looked into it before they signed on the dotted line.” “I read the fine print. I just underestimated the scale of it.” He swallowed more champagne. “You know, even if I didn’t know what I was getting into, I might still sign that contract again, knowing what I know now. It has been an intense and bizarre experience, but I’m kind of glad I’m doing it.” Lou didn’t want to hear how glad he was he’d done it. The show was dismantling her life piece by piece and he would do it all over again. Lovely. “Just wait until it airs. That’s when the real insanity begins.” He grimaced. “When does it end?” “When you get married? Or maybe when you announce you’ve broken up with your fiancé. Or maybe never. I don’t know. Kelly’s the expert.” Lou tipped up her glass and found it empty again. Jack reached behind him for the bottle, angling it to see the little that was left. They’d nearly polished off the entire bottle. “It’s a crime to leave it. Gimme your glass and we’ll split the rest.” Lou stood and waded through the hip-deep water to Jack’s side. He wrapped his hand around hers, holding the flute steady so he could splash the last bit of bubbly into her glass. He set down the bottle and picked up his own refilled glass, still holding her hand. His hand slid down to her wrist and tugged gently until she sank onto the ledge beside him. “To the end of the insanity,” he murmured, clinking his glass against hers. Lou leaned her shoulder against Jack’s, sipping champagne. It was a gorgeous night. Fairy tale perfect. It wasn’t’ hard to see why Jack liked it here. All of the aches from the day had long since washed away. Her jealous raving aside, this had been a pretty fabulous day. It could almost have been one of Marrying Mr. Perfect’s dream dates. Jack had been attentive and considerate—without any producers there to coach him along. That familiar twinkle had lit his blue eyes, which crinkled around the edges when he laughed at TJ’s attempts to mimic a gibbon. What girl wouldn’t fall for that? If Lou had been a Suitorette on the show, she would have been a goner—even without knowing in advance what a great guy Jack was. She could just picture those laser-blue eyes locked steadily on hers as he drank in every word she said over a candlelight dinner. A string quartet would be playing in the background—or maybe, since it was Jack, an old Allman Brothers track. He would ask her to dance and they would sway slowly to the bluesy growl of the song, pressed so tight against one another she could feel his every heartbeat. His hands would press against her spine, pulling her even closer until she was molded against him… “It wasn’t perfect, you know.” The low rumble of his voice startled her out of her daydream. “Sorry?” “My marriage to Gillian. You said it was perfect. It wasn’t.” Lou would have blushed, but her face was already rosy from the hot tub. She’d said a lot of things she shouldn’t in the last half hour. Her head was starting to feel distinctly fizzy. She wasn’t sure of half the things that had traipsed out of her mouth without permission. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said—” “No. It’s what you think. I want to know what you think, Lou. No more censoring yourself so you can tell me what you think I want to hear, okay?” And what if she was censoring herself to tell herself what she wanted to hear? Did that honesty have to extend to owning up to her own desires? Lou swallowed the last of her liquid courage and set aside the empty flute. “Okay.” “No marriage is perfect. Not without effort, anyway.” He rolled his shoulders, rubbing again at the back of his neck. “Here. Let me.” Lou shoved his shoulder until he shifted to give her his back. She pressed her fingers against the muscle of his neck and he groaned. “Perfect. Just keep doing that.” She worked his neck, shoulders and upper back in silence for a few minutes, but now that he’d opened the topic of his marriage to Gillian, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She’d always had this idea in her head that Gillian and Jack had been one of the great love affairs of all time. She couldn’t compete with Juliet for Romeo’s attention. Even if Romeo had lived, he would have always loved Juliet more than any other woman in the world, wouldn’t he? She felt like she’d just been told Romeo really hadn’t been that into Juliet after all. She wasn’t sure whether to be excited that Romeo still had room in his heart for someone else, or depressed at having her illusions of the perfect love affair shattered. A question burned at the back of her throat. She had to ask it now. Who knew if this mood of comfortable confession would ever arise again? “So you and Gillian weren’t… happy?” “I don’t know,” he answered sincerely. “Sometimes we were. Sometimes we were euphoric, but on the whole… I don’t know. I loved her like crazy, but Gillian wasn’t exactly the easiest person to live with. You know how she was. The dramatics, the temper tantrums… Gillian was a force of nature, but compromise wasn’t exactly her strong suit, and she had almost no patience for kids, even when TJ was a baby. She got frustrated so easily.” Jack shook his head. “I don’t know how things would have turned out if not for… you know.” If she hadn’t died. Yes, Lou knew. She didn’t say anything, but it felt amazing to hear Jack talking about Gillian like she really was—not as the saint everyone had made up in their minds the second she passed away. She’d been vivacious and wild and fun, but she’d also been a royal pain in the ass. Everyone just carefully chose to forget that. It always made Lou feel guilty for remembering. Tears pricked the back of Lou’s eyes and she blinked them furiously away. She and Gillian had never really been close, but somehow hearing Jack acknowledging Gillian’s faults made her death seem more real and Lou’s throat closed. She was Emma and TJ’s mother—and she’d never really gotten a chance to know them. “The producers all want me to talk about Gillian. They think I’m looking for someone exactly like her. The truth is, even though Gillian was all passion and fire and energy, she was a demanding wife and completely unwilling to compromise. The day-to-day was always a challenge, but with you…” Lou held her breath. With her? “I think, on the whole, I’ve been happier these last four years. Through every crisis, I always know you’re going to be my rock. Steady and calm through it all.” Lou’s hands stilled. She should be ecstatic to hear him say that. Why did she feel like she’d just been kicked in the gut? Didn’t she want to be his rock? She pulled her hands off his shoulders. “Thanks.” Jack glanced over his shoulder, his blue eyes piercing at close range and seemed to realize she hadn’t just finished the massage. “Lou?” Champagne fizzled through her blood, giving her courage she didn’t know she had. “I don’t want to be a rock. I’m a person, Jack. I have feelings and…” Do it. Say it. She tipped her chin back to meet his eyes squarely. “And needs.” He turned to face her fully, never taking his eyes off hers. “I know you have feelings, Lou. I hope you never thought I took you for granted.” She shook her head. “It’s not your fault. It’s mine. I’ve been too undemanding.” He nodded, frowning slightly. “And I’ve taken advantage of that, but I’m not going to do it anymore. You just tell me what you need, Lou. I respect—” “Not respect. I don’t want respect.” No, that wasn’t right. The champagne was getting ahead of her. “I want more than respect.” Yeah, that sounded more like it. “I require passion,” she informed him. # “Boss? We might have a situation.” Miranda glanced up from the prospective travel schedules she’d been reviewing for next week’s Meet-the-In-Laws dates. They’d sent advance teams to all six hometowns, but only four of the girls would make it through tomorrow’s ceremony. Marcy was a lock and Katya seemed likely. She’d marked Natalie as a probably, but she had no idea which of the other three he was going to keep—and it was making scheduling a pain in the ass. If only Jack were slightly more obvious about his feelings—without being too obvious about his feelings, of course. Suspense was paramount. “Is one of the girls trying to sneak over the wall for some nookie?” she asked Todd as he hovered nervously in the doorway of the room she’d claimed as a temporary office in the basement of the Mister Perfect Mansion. “We still have one roving crew hanging around, right? Just get good footage on her attempt and send her back over the wall. We can’t have any stowaways while the kids are here.” “It isn’t that,” Todd said. “It’s Lou.” Miranda frowned. “Is she okay?” “I think you’d better see this.” Todd hesitated—since he was not a hesitant person, Miranda immediately stood, tucking her tablet under her arm. He led the way to the room that held the live feeds from all the surveillance cameras around the estate. Avery, the story producer who’d drawn the short straw and stayed behind when everyone else took the night off, sat monitoring the feeds, a shot of the Jacuzzi dominating the main screen. The angle was bad, but the picture was crystal clear. “Is that Lou and Jack?” Avery grinned. “Yep.” “Do you want me to break it up?” Todd asked. There wasn’t technically anything to break up. They were sitting very close to one another—intimately close. Close enough to get in trouble, but they seemed to just be talking. Very, very intently. “Did anything else happen?” “She was giving him a massage a second ago,” Avery answered. “And they killed that entire bottle of champagne.” Oh Lou. Never mix alcohol and a hot tub. Miranda studied the pair of them, an idea taking form. “Boss?” Todd prompted. “Do we have audio?” “Just the directionals from the surveillance cameras. Neither of them are mic’ed. We can get most of it, but we’ll have to subtitle the whole things for the home audience.” “Can you get me more angles?” “Nothing closer.” Avery flipped through a couple other shots. None of them perfect, but clear enough. Miranda nodded, watching. “Keep rolling.” Chapter Twenty “Passion,” Jack rumbled. Had Lou just said she required passion? It was the champagne. It had to be the champagne. God knew it felt like it had gone straight to his head. And his cock. But he couldn’t entirely blame the champagne for that. He’d been half-hard since she stepped onto the patio in that little red scrap of sin. But all this talk of needs and passion. That wasn’t Lou. That was the champagne talking. And the champagne wasn’t done. “I need heat and lust and chemistry,” the words were throaty and raw and his body reacted to the sound like a touch. She angled toward him, her eyes huge and hypnotically dark. “I want excitement and ertos--eroticism.” She stumbled a bit over the word and again he remembered the champagne. Don’t take advantage of the champagne, dumbass. But she was practically on top of him. She swayed and braced her hands on his shoulders. They felt cool against his overheated skin and he shuddered at the contact. “I demand a man who can’t keep his hands off me. Who sees me and has to have me no matter what logic or reason say. I want sex and—” Fuck. His resistance evaporated and his mouth captured hers, silencing her demands. The first touch of her lips was like taking a sledgehammer to the forehead. All the confusion of the last few weeks. All the frustration and the emotional tug-o-wars and the doubt, it all coalesced into an explosion inside him that rocked him down to his soul. It was Lou. How had he never seen that it was Lou he needed, Lou he—God, did he love her? It sure as hell felt like it as he wrapped his arms tight around her, pulling her into his lap. Lou came willingly, her long, sleek legs straddling his as her arms wound around his shoulders. She held on, kissing him for all she was worth. She tasted of champagne and sin. And he wanted more. He wanted all of her. “Lou.” # Jack was kissing her. Sweet Holy Hot Tubs, Jack was kissing her. This was no tentative, accidental brush of lips. This was a declaration of possession, a spiraling vortex of lust that sucked her straight into its center and spun her senses. She may not be a swimsuit model, but she could be a sex goddess too. Through the champagne filter, Lou’s world narrowed down until it was only Jack. Jack’s hands. Jack’s lips. Jack’s—oh my he was quite interested, wasn’t he? She couldn’t seem to hold onto more than one thought at a time—and that was fine because she only needed one, replaying itself: Yes. This was it. This was Jack. It was the fantasy and more. He wasn’t just passively accepting her kiss, he was demanding more, his tongue tangling with hers, his hands pressing her closer. Fire kindled between them, fueled by friction and need, her every nerve-ending aflame. “Jack,” she gasped, when he finally released her mouth to press a line of kisses along her jaw. He rumbled her name. She felt his fingers brush her back and realized he was tugging at the ties of her bikini. Another dizzy wave of heat swept through her. This is really happening. The ties gave way under his fingers, freeing her breasts. He slid both hands beneath the fabric of her top, cupping her breasts and flicking her nipples with his thumbs. Lou sucked in a sharp breath, her eyes falling closed. She rocked against him, feeling the hard evidence that he was right there with her, the pressure hitting exactly where she needed it and shoving her into mindlessness. It had been too long. She had been wanting this for too long. Every glance over the last four years had been foreplay. Now that history intensified every touch, sending electric pulses to her core. His mouth captured hers again, consuming. She couldn’t take much more. Please, just a little— “Aunt Lou?” Lou yelped and threw herself off Jack, ducking into the water up to her shoulders to cover herself. She fished frantically for her missing top. Jack frowned into the darkness of the pool patio, seeming utterly unfazed, as if she hadn’t just been astride him with his hands in places they most certainly should not have been. “Emma?” Lou’s fingers closed over the trailing strings of her top in the water. She yanked it toward her and hurriedly went about retying it as Jack rose to stand in the center of the hot tub—though he stayed in waist deep water to cover the incriminating bits. “Emma? Is that you, hon?” he called. They heard the slap of tiny feet on the tiles and then Emma appeared out of the shadows, Fluff Muffin dangling against her leg with her thumb corked in her mouth. “I had a bad dream,” she mumbled around the obstruction. “Oh, sweetie.” Her swimsuit situated, Lou climbed out of the Jacuzzi, whipped a towel around herself and crouched in front of Emma, somehow managing not to tip to the ground as the blood rushed from her head with all the sudden movement—damn champagne—and all without looking once in Jack’s direction. Do not look. “Do you want to tell me about it?” She stared into Emma’s wide blue eyes, so like her father’s, and tried desperately to think of anything other than what she’d just been doing with Emma’s father. Dear God, had she actually jumped Jack? In a Jacuzzi of all places? What had she been thinking? Oh right. She hadn’t. Her head still swam. “I was a baby monkey,” Emma explained and it took Lou a moment to remember she was supposed to be making Em’s bad dream all better. “Bad men took me away from my mommy monkey and put me in a zoo and were gonna feed me to the croc’dile.” Damn Peter Pan. Emma had been having nightmares starring crocodiles ever since she saw that movie. Lou had tried to steer them away from alligators and crocodiles at the zoo today, but Emma must have sensed them with her scary-reptile radar. “There are no crocodiles here,” she soothed, rubbing Emma’s arms in a slow, comforting motion. Emma had taken her thumb out to explain her dream, but now it popped back into her mouth. “Can I sleep in your bed?” she mumbled around it. For a second, the urge to glance over her shoulder at Jack nearly overwhelmed her. Only minutes ago she’d been certain the only person sharing her bed tonight was going to be a lot bigger than Emma. They’d gotten carried away so quickly. One second they’re sipping champagne, the next they’re kissing, and a heartbeat later she’d sell her soul for one night with him. How could things have gotten out of hand so fast? Her brain had gone walking—or rather spinning like a Tilt-a-Whirl, thanks to the champagne. How could she think she could sleep with Jack? Especially when he was still tangled up in the show. For all she knew he was halfway in love with one of these women he’d met here. They very carefully hadn’t talked about the other women today. Water splashed in the Jacuzzi behind her. “Emma, baby, wouldn’t you rather keep TJ company?” Jack’s deep voice made Lou shiver. They’d gotten carried away. Things had gotten out of hand. So far out of hand. She’d thrown herself at Jack and the show had primed him to catch women who threw themselves at him and go with the moment. How many times had she heard Miranda coaching him to do just that? How had Lou let it go so far? Emma thrust out her quivering lower lip. “Aunt Lou?” She wasn’t above using the four-year-old as a shield. “Of course you can sleep in my bed, sweetie. Let’s go get you tucked in.” “Lou.” That deep voice. “You’ll stay with me?” “Of course I’ll stay with you, baby.” “Lou.” Closer now. She wouldn’t look. “G’night, Jack. Sleep well.” Lou padded across the patio with Emma’s hand tucked trustingly into hers. She didn’t look back. # Jack watched Lou drip her way across the patio, holding her towel with one hand and Emma’s little fist with the other. Cock-blocked by his four-year-old daughter. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe they had been rushing things, but frustration made his entire body tight—especially one particularly painful part. He growled and raked a hand through his hair as the most important females in his life disappeared inside. Champagne still swirled in his bloodstream, making the urge to charge after her and pick up where they left off seem perfectly rational. But Emma needed her. A sliver of irritation worked its way under his skin at the realization that his daughter had gone to Lou for comfort rather than him—but why wouldn’t she? Lou was the only mother figure Emma had ever known and Jack had been away for weeks, mugging for the cameras for this fucking show. What the hell was he doing here? The only woman he wanted in his life was Lou. The four year fuse on his feelings for Lou had finally hit the detonator and he was all in with her. Or was that the champagne and the frustrated lust talking? Jack cursed and leapt into the pool, shuddering as he hit the frigid water. The icy pool did its job, cooling his head—both of them—but when he surfaced he was no closer to knowing how to get out of completing the show now that he’d realized the one woman he might really want was the one he had loved all along. Chapter Twenty-One Six gorgeous women stood in the warm glow of the courtyard, lined up like they were facing a firing squad. Which they were, in a way. Jack was the personal assassin of their romantic hopes and dreams. Four slim gold bands rested on a plush pillow on the pedestal at his side. The cameras captured every nervous glance, every hopeful smile and flirtatious grin. He felt the familiar stab of guilt that always accompanied the Elimination Ceremonies—only much more sharply now. He shouldn’t be here. Everything felt wrong. Lou had left without a word this morning while he was on his goddamn date, but he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her. The show’s producers kept telling him to search his feelings and look at the six remaining women as potential mates, but all his feelings were consumed with confusion over another woman. “Whenever you’re ready, Jack,” Josh intoned, heaping drama onto every syllable. Jack scanned the faces of the six beautiful woman he had never done anything to deserve. He felt like such a fake. Mr. Perfect. Why should they compete for his affections? What made him so special? Instead of making him feel like a prince among men, their attentions made him feel like a sham. He reached into his pocket, thumbing the charm bracelet. Lou would be home now. Where he should be. Jack shook his head and turned abruptly away from the firing squad line. “I can’t do this anymore.” He wasn’t sure who he was telling—the Suitorettes, Josh, Miranda—but he didn’t wait to find out how his announcement would be received. He strode out of the courtyard, up the path toward his own mansion. He heard Miranda frantically instructing the crew to “Keep rolling!” and heard footsteps as Josh Pendleton, former game-show host and fulltime television personality, chased him away from the ceremony. He stopped running when he got to his own patio, knowing he would have to have it out with the producers at some point. Probably on camera. “How ya feeling, buddy?” Pendleton asked in a falsely chummy tone as soon as the mobile camera crew caught up with them. “This is a hard night. A big decision day. Is the stress getting to you?” “I want out.” “Hey, let’s talk about this,” Pendleton said, channeling Miranda through his earpiece. “Knowing you’re going to be meeting the in-laws can be a real wake-up call. It really raises the stakes. It’s only natural that you would feel overwhelmed right now.” “I’m not overwhelmed. I shouldn’t be here. It’s wrong. I’m leading them on.” Pendleton paused, making it look pensive even though he was doubtless getting an earful from Miranda. “Jack,” he said finally. “Jack, buddy. This is your decision, man, but don’t rush into it without thinking things through. This kind of opportunity isn’t going to come around again. If you think there’s a chance you could love one of those six women, you would be throwing away everything you’ve built by leaving here tonight. I’d hate to see go home only to realize you’d made a terrible mistake, getting carried away in the emotional hot water of the situation.” Hot water. Miranda wasn’t subtle. He should have known she would know about the Jacuzzi interlude. “If you go home, thinking a woman feels one way about you, only to realize you were wrong and one of these six girls was really the love of your life, would you ever forgive yourself? Does it really harm anything to continue with the process, see where it takes you? If you get to the end and none of these girls are right for you, there is still a world of women out there, but you can never get this chance back. I’d hate to see you go home to a lonely, loveless life when you could have found love here.” Jack hesitated, the words lonely, loveless life echoing in his thoughts. Lou had run out without a word—would she have done that if she wanted to be with him? He’d come here to give her a chance at a life without him. What message would it send if he immediately went home, assuming she had fallen in love with him? Uncertainty muddied everything. And it didn’t help that champagne had muddied his memories of the night before. “Trust the process,” Pendleton intoned. Jack closed his eyes, dreading those rings. “I’m sorry.” Heels clicked across the pavers. “Josh, go back to the girls. We’ll be right behind you.” Miranda appeared on the patio, glowering, tablet in hand. With a flick of her wrists, the cameras melted away. “We’ll be right behind him?” Jack asked when they were alone—or as alone as anyone ever got in the Mansion. Miranda approached him. He flinched when she reached around him, but she was just flicking off the microphone pack clipped to his waist. “So you finally woke up and smelled the awesome-sauce that is Lou, huh?” “This doesn’t feel right anymore.” “That’s sweet. I assume you have five million dollars to burn when the network sues you for breach of contract?” His heart stuttered. “What?” “You have to complete the show, Jack. I can give you some leeway, but you signed on the dotted line and for the next few weeks you’re still mine. Which means no declaring your love—or even saying the word love to anyone. Anyone, Jack. Whether she’s a Suitorette or someone else. Those are the rules you agreed to. Lou might love you. She might not. I will tell you that I asked her outright multiple times before I got you involved in this if she had feelings for you and she said no.” Jack swallowed. He would have said no too back then. Did she feel differently now? He wished he could remember the night before more clearly. She’d said she wanted passion, but had she wanted it from him? She’d seemed to be enthusiastic about the kissing, but was that just the champagne and the moonlight? Had she run like that when Emma showed up because she needed an escape from the guy who was molesting her against her will? Fuck. If he could just talk to her… “You signed up for this,” Miranda said, unflinching. “You can’t back out now and you can’t tell her how you feel. But I might be able to help you.” “I’m guessing you have conditions.” “Of course. If you want to woo Lou, I can help you, but the same rules apply to Lou as to the other girls. You won’t be able to contact her except when we sanction it. You won’t be able to explain. She has to suffer through the same uncertainty all our girls do. Understand?” “Do I have a choice?” “Not unless you like scores of contract lawyers driving their fists up your ass.” “Lovely image.” “I try.” Miranda folded her hands around her tablet. “Now, why don’t you head on back to the girls, make a nice little speech about how the pressure and the emotional importance of these decisions is getting to you, and pick the final four?” She smiled sweetly. “And don’t forget to turn your mic back on.” Jack raked a hand through his hair. What choice did he have? “Yes, ma’am.” # “Omigod, he pulled the Jacuzzi move on you! That’s fantastic!” Sitting at Kelly’s kitchen table, Lou couldn’t work up her friend’s degree of enthusiasm for the near-miss seduction. Of course, Kelly wasn’t the one who had to suffer through the mother of all champagne hangovers the next morning with two fussy children on a four hour plane ride. “It’s such a classic Mr. Perfect tactic,” Kelly gushed. “A little champagne, a little hot water, and voila! Guaranteed nookie for the cameras. Works every time.” “There were no cameras.” Thank God. That was about the only thing that could have made her mortification complete. “I didn’t realize I’d had so much to drink. Sure, it was on a mostly empty stomach, but it’s not like we were lining up tequila shots.” Kelly nodded sagely. “Hot water. Opens the capillaries. It exaggerates the effect of the alcohol. That’s why hotels always have those signs about not drinking in the hot tub. Too easy to pass out and drown if you’re plastered. Massive liability.” “Marrying Mr. Perfect isn’t worried about liability?” “Well, there’s all the crew hanging around to fish the drunks out. And everyone has to sign waivers.” Lou felt ill, and it had nothing to do with the hangover that had worn off by the time she got home yesterday afternoon. She’d become a Marrying Mr. Perfect cliché. What had she been thinking? Reality television wasn’t the place to find out if they had a shot at something real. Nothing was real there. That night had turned into one giant regret—what she could remember of it through the alcohol blur anyway. Lou had taken Emma upstairs, realizing halfway up that she was being a total coward and fully intending to sneak back down after Em was out to clear the air with Jack, but when she lay down next to Emma, she passed out almost as soon as her head hit the pillow, thanks to the champagne. The next thing she remembered was a production assistant shaking her awake, shouting they were going to miss their flight. They’d made the flight, without a second to spare, and without so much as a goodbye wave from Jack who’d been whisked off on some urgent Marrying Mr. Perfect business. She hadn’t heard a word from him since. The silence probably didn’t mean anything. He had a ring ceremony the previous night and those could go late. With the time zones working against him, he wouldn’t have wanted to wake her or the kids. Today was the first of the Meet the In-laws dates. He’d be traveling and then spending all day with one of his lucky Suitorettes and wouldn’t have a second to spare for a quick call to let her know he hadn’t lost all respect for her because of the way she’d thrown herself all over him in the hot tub. Lou groaned and dropped her forehead onto the table. “How did this happen?” “You kissed him! Finally. Or he kissed you. Whatever. You kissed.” Kelly’s chipper voice showed just how immune to Lou’s depression she was. “I expect to be Matron of Honor, I’ll have you know.” Lou looked up, checking her best friend for visible signs of dementia. “Kelly. We aren’t getting married. At the moment, we aren’t even speaking.” “You aren’t not speaking. He just hasn’t called yet.” Kelly’s face took on the I-wrote-the-handbook expression she sometimes used when talking about Marrying Mister Perfect. “I’ve seen this a thousand times. He’s chosen his girl—by this time he’d be a moron not to have an idea which one he likes the best, and that one is obviously you—but he can’t tell anyone she’s his pick because of stupid contract stuff so he goes through the motions with the other girls, but really he’s dying inside waiting to see his special girl again.” She sighed, caught up in her own romantic fantasy. “I’m not one of his girls.” At least, she’d never planned on being one. She didn’t want to be just another Suitorette, desperate for any sign of his affection, but somewhere between the zoo and the hot tub, she’d been sucked into the game. “You’re right. You aren’t one of his girls. You’re the girl. Just wait, Lou. Trust Kelly. She’s knows these things.” “She also refers to herself in the third person. I never trust someone who refers to herself in the third person.” “Go ahead and mock me. We’ll see who has the last laugh when the finale airs.” Lou’s stomach clenched at the thought of watching Jack propose to another woman. She wouldn’t be laughing. Chapter Twenty-Two “So, Jack. You think you can fall in love with four women at once, do you?” Jack cringed. Was he ever getting sick of that question. Thank God this was the last time he’d have to face a protective papa who glowered at him and barked questions about how Jack was treating his baby girl. This week had been sheer, unadulterated hell. Four Meet the In-laws dates. Four families staring at him like he was an exhibit at the zoo. Four intimidating fathers glaring at him the exact same way he’d glare at any jerk who toyed with Emma’s heart. Four awkward interrogations about what it was like to “fall in love” with four women at the same time. It was four times as many times as any man should have to suffer through. And it didn’t help that they were right. He was leading their daughters on. He remembered meeting Lou’s parents for the first time. How easy they had made everything, how relaxed he’d been after the first five minutes. Her parents were so different from his own— with none of the obsession with competition and achievement. Their children were successful, but their love didn’t hinge on it. This week felt less like that meeting and more like his first week as an intern, just trying to keep his head above water and not kill anyone. Jack swallowed thickly, trying to come up with some BS answer that would satisfy the bearlike Mr. Henrickson without giving the producers fits. He was contractually forbidden from telling the truth—saying there was only one woman he was in love with, only one woman he could even imagine proposing to, if she even wanted him. And he hadn’t met her family this week. She wasn’t even officially a part of the show. He’d always loved Lou as a member of his family, and attraction had begun to creep around the edges of his awareness of her in recent months, but it wasn’t until the show, when the producers were bludgeoning him with their encouragement to talk about his feelings, that he realized he might be in love with her. As far as his heart was concerned, that night in the Jacuzzi had sealed his fate. All the pieces had fallen together—lust, companionship, admiration, adoration and need. The puzzle of his life, the mismatched pieces that never quite fit, had suddenly shifted and fallen perfectly into place. It had been Lou all along. And he was stuck here, paying court to a woman who deserved better. Her father had every right to be pissed. They’d spent the day in Marcy’s hometown of Murphysboro, Ohio, wandering through the cutest town square on the planet before heading to her parents’ house—a modernized farmhouse, complete with barn, though her parents were school teachers, not farmers. Jack and Marcy had held hands as they chatted with her mother and sisters. They’d played with her niece and nephews—and Marcy had proven again how good she was with kids. It had been idyllic and charming. Miranda was probably having seizures of joy. And all afternoon her father frowned disapprovingly over it all. This conversation had been building all day, finally erupting when her sisters departed and Marcy, Jack and her parents migrated inside for coffee and dessert. “Daddy, be nice.” Marcy came to his rescue, swatting her father gently on the knee and giving Jack an understanding smile. “It isn’t like the whole show was Jack’s idea.” “He agreed to go on it, didn’t he?” Mr. Henrickson challenged. “Foolish enough to do what you’re doing, girl, but I can’t think of any reason why a grown man would want to date four women at once unless he had no respect for the sanctity of marriage. You one of those polygamists, Jack?” “No, sir, Mr. Henrickson. I believe in monogamy and fidelity. Wholeheartedly.” “Well, you’ve got a funny way of showing it, dating a whole slew of women all at once.” “It’s not my goal to lead anyone on,” Jack vowed. “Least of all Marcy.” Guilt sent a flush creeping up his neck. He meant the words, but that was exactly what he was doing. Thanks to the fucking contracts. That night in the Jacuzzi with Lou had rocked his life like an earthquake. She was the one he wanted. The only one. He had no idea if he was ever going to have a shot at having her—the way she’d run off hadn’t exactly been a promising sign and he hadn’t been allowed to talk to her since. But he knew one thing for sure. He wasn’t in love with Marcy or Katya, or any of the others. He liked Marcy, he was attracted to Katya, but love? Heart-pounding, til-death-do-us-part love? Only one face came to mind. An achingly familiar face. “I don’t feel led on,” Marcy said firmly, bringing him back to the conversation. “I knew what I was getting into, Daddy, and I don’t regret it for a second.” The corners of Mr. Henrickson’s mouth turned down ominously. “You don’t regret it yet,” he growled. Marcy sighed. “Oh, Daddy.” “I’m not giving any man permission to marry you if he can’t make up his mind between you and three other girls. That isn’t happening.” Jack knew Marcy well enough by now to figure that statement wasn’t going to go over well. He glanced at the brunette and saw her jaw shifting like she was grinding her teeth. “I am not a possession to be handed out at your discretion,” she growled at her father. The muted Midwestern tinge to her accent grew more pronounced as her temper went higher. “The only permission a man needs to marry me is my own. And I haven’t said one way or the other whether I’d be giving it if Jack did ask. No offense intended, Jack.” “None taken.” He really did like Marcy. She was feisty and sweet by turns. Playful and funny as all hell. Maybe things would have been different on the show if he hadn’t been hopelessly in love with someone else before he signed up for it—even if he had been too blind to see his own feelings for what they were at the time. “I know you didn’t like my decision to do this show, but I’ll ask you to be civil to my guest,” she said to her father. Mr. Henrickson muttered something that sounded like, “Worse than your mother.” “I heard that, Frank Henrickson,” came a drawl from the vicinity of the kitchen where Mrs. Henrickson was slicing her famous pecan pie. Frank winced and turned to Jack with his teeth bared in a parody of a smile. “How have you enjoyed Murphysboro, Jack?” Jack seized the olive branch with both hands. “It’s a lovely town, Mr. Henrickson. I’m very grateful to Marcy for showing me around today.” “I’m surprised she remembered the way around herself,” Mr. Henrickson muttered. “Running around on the show for weeks at a time and forgetting everyone she left behind.” Marcy rolled her eyes and mouthed “I’m sorry” at Jack, but he had to admit, he didn’t mind Mr. Henrickson’s bark. He liked the older man, his fight and the obvious affection for his daughter. Jack could do worse than to marry into the Henrickson clan, if he hadn’t had his heart set on making ties with the Tanners. Jack smiled at Frank Henrickson, determined to enjoy the evening, end it quickly, and call Lou. Miranda had given him back his cell phone before he headed to the Henrickson house, telling him he was allowed one call as long as he kept his mic on. He might not be able to get things settled or talk about how they felt, but he had to at least hear Lou’s voice and try to get some hint how she was feeling. Had that kiss been as electric and life-changing for her as it had been for him? Why had she rushed off so quickly, almost using Emma as a barrier to keep him at bay? One horrible thought wouldn’t leave his mind. What if she thought that kiss had been a horrible mistake? What if she was still expecting him to bring home a replacement bride and free her to roam the world without him? He could easily go through to the end and not choose anyone and go home only to find that Lou wanted to leave because he’d made a pass at her in the Jacuzzi. They’d both been drinking. What if it had just been lust and now she regretted it? He needed to talk to her. # “I’m sorry about Daddy. I think he was playing it up for the cameras some. He isn’t usually quite such a bear. At least not so obviously.” Hand-in-hand, Jack and Marcy strode down the front walk of her parents’ house toward the cars waiting in a row on the narrow street. The cameraman in front of them backpedaled quickly to keep them in the shot while another crew trotted alongside. A third camera on a tripod at the edge of the lawn captured their progression from a wider angle. Just another day in the life of Mr. Perfect. “I liked him,” Jack said honestly. “He obviously loves you. What father wouldn’t worry about his daughter doing a show like this? There’s a lot of opportunity for heartache.” Marcy paused, tugging him to a stop with their joined hands. She glanced at the cameras hovering nearby and stepped closer, lowering her voice. The microphones would probably still catch their conversation, but it was all the privacy they were going to get. “Is your heart going to ache, Jack? I got the impression today you aren’t really in this anymore. Did something change?” The woman was too perceptive by half. “I…” What was he supposed to say? Could he admit it? Tell her about Lou? Marcy shook her head and raised her hand palm out in a stop sign. “You don’t have to tell me. If you like one of the other girls more than me, if you’ve developed genuine feelings for someone, I don’t want to stand in the way of that. I really like you, Jack. I might even be talked into falling in love with you if you wanted me to, but I don’t get the sense that you do. And if you…” She hesitated, searching for words, which was something Marcy so rarely did, he found himself paying even closer attention when she continued in a low, serious murmur. “If you know who you’re going to walk off into the sunset with now, and you want someone else to take along with you to the end who you won’t feel guilty leaving standing there… I’m just trying to tell you I won’t get my heart broken if I come in second.” For a minute, Jack said nothing. He wasn’t sure what he was contractually allowed to say. Marcy gave him a wry little smile. “I know you’re not allowed to tell me, one way or the other. And I know I’m supposed to be throwing myself at you with my heart wide open, but I get the impression that’s not what you want anymore. So maybe you could give me a sign?” Jack glanced at the cameras and mic booms hanging around them. “I really like you, Marcy,” he told her, projecting for the sound guys. “You’re very perceptive and understanding. I can definitely see us going a long way together.” Her smile lit her face, filled with so much relief he doubted she’d ever really been that interested in falling in love with him. It hadn’t even occurred to him that Marcy might be one of the girls who wasn’t there for the Right Reasons, but she certainly looked like she had her heart set on starring in Mister Perfect’s companion show, Romancing Miss Right next season. “I can’t tell you what a weight has just been lifted off my shoulders,” she gushed. “I’m happy to hear… how much you like me, Jack.” She pulled him into a hug and when they drew back, her smile had a mischievous, secretive edge. They both knew half that conversation would end up on the cutting room floor. The editors would make it look like they’d had an intense I-really-want-to-confess-my-love-but-I-can’t-yet moment together. The hug would be shown from an angle where it might be mistaken for a passionate kiss. She’d said a weight had been lifted and his own load had definitely been lightened. He felt so much better having a partner in crime. Someone who would wink at him during the Elimination Ceremony. Someone whose feelings he didn’t have to crush when it finally came time to say goodbye. Jack slung his arm around her shoulders and they walked together to the cars that would separate them for the night. Tomorrow they would meet back in LA for the Elimination Ceremony. The day after that, he would see Lou. But he couldn’t wait that long to talk to her. He needed to hear her voice. He needed to hear that she didn’t think kissing him in the hot tub was the single biggest mistake of her life. He felt like a teenager who’d just scored a date with his dream girl and expected to find out it was all a cruel hoax. As soon as Marcy was tucked into her car, he walked quickly back to the SUV that would carry him to the airport, pulling his cell phone out of his pocket as he walked. When the segment producer frowned, he flashed his devoted father smile. “Just wanna check in with the kids before it gets past their bedtime,” he explained. The producer gave a slight nod and Jack hit the speed dial. One ring. Two… “Hello?” She sounded breathless—and heavenly—like she’d just run in from outside to grab the phone. “Lou.” For a second all he managed to say was her name. Memories of the last time he’d seen her flooded his brain. That skimpy red bikini, the miles of smooth skin, the way her blondish hair curled at her nape from the humidity. His blood heated at just the thought. Man, he was a goner. “Jack. Uh, hi. Um… how was your week?” “Long. I missed you.” “We miss you too!” she exclaimed, her tone way too bright and way too fake. “Would you like to talk to the kids? They’re right here. TJ’s been dying to tell you about his friend Joey’s frog.” TJ had been wheedling for a pet for a long time. He kept a detailed list of which of his peers had animals they cared for to prove he was not, in fact, too young for the responsibility. That wasn’t what concerned Jack. What bothered him was the forced, stilted way Lou was fobbing him off on the kids. As if she couldn’t bear to talk to him for another second. His stomach clenched nervously. “Lou...” “Here’s TJ!” He heard a momentary fumbling and then his son’s voice piped through the line. “Hey, Dad. Did you know frogs are one of the easiest pets to care for? You can look it up. And Joey says his frog…” Jack listened with half an ear to his son’s sales pitch while the majority of his brain searched for explanations for Lou’s awkwardness. Explanations that did not involve her being mad at him for molesting her last weekend. TJ finally wound down and Jack promised they would discuss the intricacies of frogs again when he got home day after next. Emma was next, but her part of the conversation didn’t last long—she’d hadn’t really gotten the knack of phone conversations. When his daughter chirruped goodbye, he heard Lou again. “So, uh, nothing much to report here,” she said, exaggeratedly casual. “You had a good week then?” “Long,” he repeated. “I’ve been wanting to call you for days. I wanted to talk about—” “You sound like you’ve been really busy. Us too! You know how crazy it can get around here. And I know what an important week this is for you. Meeting all the in-laws.” “You can always call—” “No, no. I figured you would call when you were free. And you did! So there you go.” “Lou, we need to ta—” “I better get the kids to bed. School night and all. But I’ll see you soon, right? Just a couple days. TJ’s been wanting to go to the corn maze. Maybe you can take the kids with one of your Suitorettes when they come visit next week. Give the kids a chance to have fun with them, her, whoever. Right. Bedtime! Bye, Jack.” The call disconnected suddenly and Jack dropped the phone to his lap, dropping his head back against the SUV’s headrest. That had not gone well. Lou was cheery as all hell, but every bright and sunny word out of her mouth had increased his nerves. She hadn’t let him get a word in edgewise. She didn’t want to hear what he had to say about last weekend. Lou didn’t want to talk to him. That could only be a bad sign. Jack swore. Chapter Twenty-Three “I talked to Jack last night.” Kelly dropped the plates she’d been clearing into the sink so suddenly they would have shattered if they hadn’t been made of twin-proof material. She pivoted and pinned Lou with an eager gaze. “And? Did he say he loves you?” “No.” Kelly visibly deflated. “No?” Lou closed her eyes, reliving that awful phone call. She’d been half-longing for half-dreading Jack’s call all week. She’d almost considered not answering, but the kids had been home and wanting to talk to their dad and she hadn’t been able to deny them. If only that hadn’t meant that she had to talk to him. God, had it ever been awkward. “When he first called, he just said my name and then there was this long silence. Like he was waiting for me to apologize for jumping him last weekend or something.” “I’m sure that isn’t…” “Dead silence, Kel. No ‘I adore you’, no ‘I’m so glad we kissed.’ Nada.” Kelly rallied, quick to jump to the best conclusion. “Maybe he was nervous too.” “About what? That I’d reject him? He’s Mr. Perfect, for crying out loud! Who rejects Mr. Perfect?” “Jessica from Season Two.” “That was a rhetorical question, Kel. And Jack has never seen Season Two, so he can’t be worried about me pulling a Jessica.” “So what did you say?” Kelly asked. She abandoned all pretense of doing dishes and sat next to Lou at the table. Lou groaned. She’d been an idiot. An unqualified idiot. “I told him he should take the kids to the corn maze with one his perfect Suitorettes and that I didn’t have the right to expect calls from him. Or something like that.” Kelly’s face fell. “Oh, Lou. That’s awful. He’s going to think you don’t want him.” Lou steeled her jaw. “I’ve been thinking maybe that’s a good thing. We got carried away in the Jacuzzi and things happened that shouldn’t have happened. If we’re going to have a relationship, we have to go into it without our eyes open, not just because we’re both so drunk and horny we grab the first available body. We have to consider the kids. A relationship between us is bound to impact them. Especially if it doesn’t work out. If we don’t have the same vision for our future, if I think we’re happily ever after and he thinks we’re friends with benefits… I just can’t take that, Kelly, and I can’t do that to the kids. I need to know he’s really there for me, for the long haul, and not just because it’s convenient. I have to know that it’s real. And I can’t know that while he’s tangled up in that damn reality TV show.” To Lou’s surprise, Kelly nodded slowly. She’d expected her friend to be on the side of impulsive romance, but her expression was sober. “You’re right.” Hearing Kelly agree with her made Lou’s spine sag in defeat. She’d secretly hoped Kelly would talk her back into pursuing Jack. She wanted someone to tell her to do the irresponsible thing and go after what she wanted. But she just couldn’t justify it if Kelly, Ms. Romance-Conquers-All, agreed with her. Lou took a deep breath, trying—and failing—to convince herself that she hadn’t just lost out on the best thing that might ever have happened to her. “After Marrying Mr. Perfect is over…” And Jack is engaged to someone else… Tears pricked the back of her eyes. Lou sniffed them back. “After all this, if he’s free and interested, we’ll sit down and talk about it. We’ll be adult and rational. And if it isn’t meant to be—” The words caught in her throat. “Oh, honey,” Kelly murmured, scooting her chair closer so she could wrap her arms around Lou and give her a squeeze. “It’s gonna work out. Jack isn’t an idiot. He knows a good thing when he sees it. And you, Louisa Renee Tanner, are a very, very good thing.” Lou hugged Kelly back, telling herself she was crying because she was so lucky to have such an amazing best friend. She was getting pretty good at lying to herself. She almost believed it. # Jack realized his sense of reality had been screwed up beyond recognition when he didn’t even feel strange climbing out of a limo in front of his house and strolling up the walk slowly to allow the cameras on either side of him to keep pace. He wondered how long it would take his sense of reality to get back on track after all this was over. Only two weeks left. That thought comforted him as nothing else could. This week the girls would visit his house and meet his family—the kids, his parents, and Lou. Next week would be the two-day exotic destination dates, culminating in the finale where he picked between the final two. Then it was over. He headed home, never to see the girls again until the reunion show aired live at the end of the season. Free to live his life and figure out what was between him and Lou, once and for all. The front door opened when he set his foot on the first step of the porch. The kids must have been watching for him. Jack grinned and threw his arms open in time to catch TJ and Emma as they barreled out the door. “Daddy!” they squealed and the cameramen shuffled eagerly in circles, trying to get the best angle on the happy reunion. Lou’s earlier warning about exploiting the kids rose up in his mind. Was this bad for them? Had he failed to consider how this might impact them? Miranda had assured him they would be a minor part of the show. Nothing was demanded of them other than they be themselves. He couldn’t imagine a few minutes of screentime would really do them any harm, but Jack still cut the welcome-home hugs shorter than he normally would, ushering the kids inside. He didn’t see Lou immediately and wanted nothing more than to look for her, but the crew was already swarming in the door behind him, getting ready to set up for their first day of home life. The first of the girls wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow, but there was a lot of work to be done to wire the house the way they wanted it. Emma latched onto her favorite cameraman’s ankles while TJ ran to high-five the sound guy he’d bonded with in LA. Jack nodded to himself. They were fine. The show was a good experience for them. He was sure of it. Though he was less and less sure it was good for him. Or for Lou. He couldn’t help wondering, if she did have some feelings for him, if he had hurt her by going on Marrying Mr. Perfect. He’d thought he was doing the right thing—for her more than anyone, freeing her from the life he’d imposed on her when she moved in here—but now he wasn’t so sure. If only he could see her. Where the heck was she? He found her, twenty minutes later, upstairs in Emma’s room, putting away laundry. “What?” he said from the doorjamb, devouring her with his eyes. “Don’t I merit a welcome home?” God, she looked amazing. Snug jeans with a frayed hem, a T-shirt worn soft and thin by the years, and her blondish hair yanked high in a ponytail. The everyday familiarity of the outfit was made oddly erotic by the knowledge that the sultry woman in the red bikini was under there, waiting to get out. Her shoulders stiffened at his first words and she turned, wrinkling one of Emma’s shirts in the tight grip of her hands. “Jack.” She nodded in greeting, not moving an inch toward him. “Welcome home.” He arched his eyebrows, giving her a lazy smile. “That was pathetic.” He shoved away from the doorjamb and crossed the small room to her, noting the way her eyes widened slightly—was that alarm?—as he approached. “Now, do I get a real homecoming?” He hadn’t meant the words to sound suggestive. He hadn’t meant them to be a sensual challenge, but the way her breath caught, raising her breasts up like a feast for his eyes, said she heard the seductive undertones he couldn’t keep out of his voice. She met his eyes—hers were startled, perhaps wary, but not repulsed. She didn’t look like she was angry with him for taking advantage of her inebriation in the hot tub. She looked like she’d just been offered the biggest chocolate sundae of her life and was debating whether or not her hips could take the indulgence. She wet her lips and Jack knew—with a certainty and decisiveness he usually reserved for surgery—that he was going to kiss her. Now. He knew the taste of those lips now, the sweet promise of them. Everything else could be worked out later. This kiss couldn’t wait. Jack bent his head. Lou rose up on her toes, her eyelashes fluttering down to veil her hypnotic gray eyes. One more inch… “Jack, darling, if we can steal you for a minute…” Miranda’s voice instantly diffused the expectant charge in the room. Lou dropped back onto her heels with a thud then pivoted to shove Emma’s shirt into her dresser. Jack straightened reluctantly. “Lou!” Miranda said, seeming to notice her for the first time. “I was wondering where you were hiding.” She cleared her throat, shooting a meaningful glare at him. “Jack? Downstairs? We’d like a few fireside confessional moments—just a bit about how intimately you feel toward each of the girls right now… how difficult your decision is going to be… that kind of thing. If you would?” “I’ll be right there,” he said, hoping she would leave. “I know how hard it must be, not being able to tell the women how you really feel, but you know the rules.” “Right.” He hesitated. Lou had moved on to shoving Emma’s socks into a drawer. She refused to look at him. Jack hovered for a moment, hating the rules with every fiber of his being. He’d go quietly, but he lived here and so did Lou. They couldn’t watch him every second of every day and he had unfinished business with Louisa Tanner. “I’ll see you later, Lou.” “Mm-hmm,” she agreed without looking up. He exited the room in front of Miranda, who smacked him hard on the back of the head as soon as they were out of Lou’s sight. “Five million dollars, dumbass.” “I know,” he growled. “We’re wiring the kitchen with audio and video. You can talk to her in there, but there will be absolutely no protestations of eternal devotion. You can be exactly as forthcoming with her as you can with the other girls. Don’t think I didn’t notice that thing with Marcy. You’re lucky she’ll make an amazing Miss Right.” Jack smiled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Cute. Talk to Lou. Play with your kids. Stay in the public areas where the cameras can see you. And then you will go to the hotel suite and wait for Katya’s arrival tomorrow.” Jack stopped at the top of the stairs, turning to frown down at Miranda. “What hotel? I thought I got to spend the week with my family.” “Jack. I’m not an idiot. Either you go to a hotel or Lou does. Those are the rules.” “I hate the rules.” “Then I know the process is working,” Miranda said, smiling sweetly. “This has nothing to do with your process.” Miranda arched a brow. “Doesn’t it?” # By the time Jack managed to corner Lou in the kitchen, he was starting to wonder if being in debt to the network for the rest of his life wouldn’t be worth it just so he could kick all the reality television people out of his house once and for all. If not for the fact that he had Emma and TJ’s college educations to pay for, he might have given it some serious consideration. As it was, he was screwed. But at least he was home. Lou was making coffee. The kids were in bed. Jack’s chair screeched across the tile as he pulled it out from the table and dropped onto the harder-than-bricks seat. How many times had they talked about replacing the chairs? Buying cushions? Remodeling the kitchen? All that little domestic normalcy so he never had to own up to the fact that Lou was the emotional center of his entire world. Gillian had been that center and it had shattered him when she died. He hadn’t wanted to see that Lou had inched her way to the center of his heart, but there she was. And it would kill him to lose her now. If only he could tell her that. “It’s good to be home,” he said, trying to imbue his voice with extra weight so he would hear what he wanted to say beneath the words he could. “I wish I didn’t have to stay at that hotel tonight.” Lou handed him his coffee—prepared exactly the way he liked it—and sank into the opposite chair with her own, tucking one leg up on the chair as she always did. “Only a couple more weeks. The kids are really amped up about the three days in Disney Miranda arranged after the Finale.” She said the words without looking at him. If she would just meet his eyes he would know everything was going to be okay. He needed to see those pale blue eyes. Maybe if he just attacked the elephant in the room. “Lou, about the Jacuzzi—” “We don’t have to talk about that,” she said quickly, still not meeting his gaze. “We got carried away. All that champagne… You’re very attractive—what woman wouldn’t want Mister Perfect, right? We both know it was a mistake. Nothing more to say.” “I didn’t say it was a mistake,” he said, irrationally irritated. “I’m glad we kissed. I liked it.” That got her looking at him. Her jaw dropped like he’d told her he wanted to get a tattoo on his face. “I’d like to do it again,” he said into her stunned silence. She started shaking her head and couldn’t seem to stop. “Kissing is all well and good, but what about the kids?” He wanted to revisit the all well and good portion of the question, but he played along. “What about them?” “Have you considered how a fling between us would confuse the children?” “A fling.” He hadn’t been thinking about flings at all, but if that was where Lou’s head was… He set his coffee on the table, sliding it away from him, “Whatever you want to call it,” she went on. “Why do we have to define it?” Especially now when he couldn’t tell her what he really wanted. “Can’t we just see where it goes?” A few weeks, maybe an altar. “Are you high? Of course not. The children already want us to end up together. Can you imagine what Emma would have thought if she’d seen something the other night?” Okay, he did not want to think about his daughter walking in on him fooling around with Lou. That was a fair point. “We can be discreet—” “While you’re on national television? This can’t just be because you like it or it’s fun. Not with Emma and TJ involved. Emma already asked me why I couldn’t be the mommy.” “They both asked me why I didn’t marry you,” he admitted. “See? That’s exactly what I’m talking about. What if it doesn’t work out? How could it? Everything is so complicated right now. You’re being pulled in a dozen different directions and I don’t want… I’m not going to pull you, Jack.” She studied a worn spot in the hall rug, avoiding his eyes. “With that damn show here, everything is under a microscope and it’s all out of whack. How can you even really know what you want right now?” He felt like he was finally clear on what he wanted for the first time in years, but he knew Lou. He knew the way she would subvert what she wanted for whatever she felt was for the best. Was she denying herself what she wanted now? Or was she using all these—perfectly legitimate—excuses to tell him that she didn’t want him the way he now wanted her? “What do you want, Lou?” “It isn’t always about what we want.” “It’s never about what you want,” he said, a little more sharply than he’d intended. “You always put others above yourself. But maybe it should be about what you want for a change.” He wanted Lou, but he didn’t want her kissing him because she felt like she should because it would be best for the kids. He wanted her to want him, completely independent of the children, but nothing they did was independent of the children. She was right to remind him of that. When Emma had a bad dream, she went to Lou, not to him. If he and Lou did have a relationship and she left what would it do to Emma? Hell, what would it do to him? But she would never leave. That wasn’t Lou’s style. She would stay with him forever whether she wanted to or not. If she thought that was what was right. But he didn’t want the woman who thought she should be with him. He wanted one who couldn’t live without him. As he was beginning to think he couldn’t live without her. Jack reached across the table, capturing her hand and lacing their fingers together. “What do you want, Lou?” She pulled her fingers free. “I want you to find what you’re looking for on the show.” Jack barely stopped himself from cursing aloud. He’d been wrong. He’d read her wrong in the Jacuzzi. She hadn’t been coming onto him. She didn’t want him. He’d taken advantage and now she regretted it. She wanted him to find someone else so she could be free of him. Jack scraped back his chair. “I’m sorry about the other night. Too much champagne.” He cleared his throat roughly. “I should get back to the hotel. We have a long week ahead. My parents will be here tomorrow for the first of the In-Law sessions.” “I feel like I should clean something. I know how the Doctors Doyle love a sterile environment,” Lou said, trying for levity, but the joke fell flat. Neither of them felt much like laughing. He wanted to say something more, but he had no idea what he would have said even without the show’s rules hanging over him. The air between them was saturated with unspoken words. But in the end he just said good night and walked out, uncertain what he was supposed to do now. Falling in love with someone other than Lou in the next two weeks was utterly inconceivable, but he’d told her originally that he would do this for her, so she could walk away and have her own life. He owed her that. So he would try. # Lou stayed seated at the kitchen table until she heard the front door close behind Jack. At the distant click, she let out a shuddering breath and sagged down over the table, letting her head rest against the wood as tears came out of nowhere to fill her eyes. She’d done the right thing. She was sure of it. So why did she feel like she’d just made the biggest mistake of her life? Why was her entire body shaking with emotion? He was glad they’d kissed. It felt like such a short step from there to happily ever after. But it was a step through a minefield. They needed to tread carefully and keep the children’s happiness always in mind. He’d said he wanted to kiss her again, but he’d never said he wanted anything more from her. He’d said that the kids wanted them to get married, not that he wanted that—though it was too soon to be thinking along those lines anyway, wasn’t it? Unless she counted the last four years. And it was hard for her heart not to count the last four years. Lou sniffed back her tears and shoved herself to her feet, moving around the kitchen, looking for something to do with her hands, something to clean, but the crew had left everything spotless. Inconsiderate bastards. Didn’t they know she was having an emotional crisis and needed to scrub something? It felt like she’d lost him. Not that she’d ever had him, but this time the missed opportunity was her own stupid fault. See where it goes. It sure as hell wasn’t moonlight and roses, but she could have said yes. She could have taken his hand, gazed into his eyes, confessed that she’d like that. She’d said no. And tomorrow beautiful Katya arrived. The swimsuit model who never, ever told Jack no. Lou groaned and buried her face in her hands. Crap. What had she done? Chapter Twenty-Four If Jackson Doyle married Katya No-Last-Name the Swimsuit Model, Lou was going to kill him. Slowly. With red hot pincers and boiling oil and whatever other medieval methods she could dig up. Where was an iron maiden when you needed one? The first thing Lou noticed when Katya walked through the door were the gravity-defying orbs of silicon attached to her chest. Her shirt was thin, clingy, and the neckline dropped down nearly to her belly-button to display more cleavage than Lou had ever seen outside an NC-17 movie. Her legs were approximately three miles long and crammed into designer jeans so tight she could barely walk—or maybe that deficiency was caused by the four-and-a-half inch crimson stilettos she’d crammed onto her dainty feet. Platinum blonde hair hung in thick, glorious waves all the way to her hips. They had to be extensions, but the artificial hair still gave Lou’s wispy dishwater blonde ponytail an inferiority complex—new highlights and layers notwithstanding. Katya clutched her designer handbag with long, elegant fingers, tipped with claw-like acrylic nails painted such a dark, bloody red Lou imagined she may have just come from ripping the throats out of her enemies. Her features were vaguely Slavic, with wide ice-blue eyes and delicate bones, but the piece de resistance were the lips. Giant, poofy, Angelina Jolie, why-yes-I-will-take-an-extra-injection-of-collagen Lips, with a capital “L”. Sure, men thought lips like those were the sexiest thing on earth, but Lou couldn’t help but think Jack kissing those babies would be like making out with a grouper. Okay, Lou was jealous. Neon green sparks of envy flying off in every direction jealous. The woman was disgustingly gorgeous. Did she have to be so damn perfect? Katya stepped into the foyer and paused, angling her head and posing for the cameras as she pretended to search for Jack—who was standing right beside Lou in plain view of Katya and everyone else. When the Russian supermodel finally saw him, she squealed and clapped her hands. “Jackie-boy!” Lou wondered if the producers would edit it out if she vomited all over Katya. Then Katya, the gravitationally improbable, caught sight of the kids standing next to Jack and her squeals reached a new decibel normally reserved for canines and torture devices. “Oh, are these them? Aren’t they just the cutest you’ve ever seen?” Lou wasn’t sure who Katya was asking, but no one answered as she teetered forward with a determined smile on those insanely huge lips. Emma tucked herself behind her father’s leg, her eyes wide. Katya bent down, her gravitationally-resistant orbs swaying precariously close to not-safe-for-primetime exposure. “Aren’t you just precious?” she cooed at Emma, who shrank back a little more. She then turned her silicone cannons in TJ’s direction. “You must be JT! Aren’t you a handsome little man? You’re gonna be a heartbreaker just like your daddy, aren’t you?” TJ just looked at his father uncertainly, as if silently asking what planet Katya was from. Lou could have told him. Planet Hollywood. Or perhaps Planet Miami Beach. Jack smiled, for all the world as if he had no problem with Katya’s attire or the way she was scaring the bejeezus out of the children, and stepped forward to peck Katya on the cheek. “Welcome to Casa Doyle. I’ve got a great day planned. You’re gonna love it.” Katya batted her eyelashes at warp speed. “Oh, I know I’ll love it,” she simpered. “As long as we’re together.” Lou stomach turned. Jack could not have been taken in by this. Sure, it was like being hit on by Angelina Jolie’s tall, blonde, slightly-more-sexy sister, but still! How could he not see how fake she was? Then Katya leaned forward to return Jack’s peck, giving him a bird’s eye view straight down to her navel. Oh, yeah, that’s how. Jack gave a dazed smile. Lou somehow managed not to thump him upside the head on national television. She should get an Emmy for that alone. “Shall we get started?” he asked. Katya’s gaze flicked sideways to where Lou was standing, just slightly off to the side—the only family member she hadn’t greeted. “Are we all going?” Lou smiled, knowing the baring of teeth looked a little feral, but not nearly as good as Katya at manufacturing her expressions. “Oh, I thought I’d just tag along,” she said sweetly. “In case the kids get tired early.” Katya instantly brightened, megawatt radiance pouring off her. “Excellent!” She wrapped her talons around Jack’s biceps. “I can’t wait.” Then she seemed to realize she’d just said she hoped the children tired out so she quickly amended. “To see where we’re going! I just love surprises!” As they all headed out to pile into the cars along with multiple camera crews, Lou trailed behind, watching sweet Katya coo and paw at Jack. She kept angling herself and cocking her head and flicking her hair—constantly aware of which direction she was being shot from. Katya may love surprises, but Lou was willing to bet there was nothing she loved more than the limelight. Including Jack. After they popped the kids into the car, Jack turned to help Katya in, she tugged him back from the door. As Lou approached, she heard Katya purr, loud enough for the cameras—and half the block—to hear her, “I’ve missed you so, darling.” She speared her talons into Jack’s hair and yanked his head down for a grouper lip-lock. Lou’s mouth went dry, her insides turned to stone and her eyes burned. When Katya released him, Jack’s face was flushed. He cleared his throat roughly as he disentangled Katya’s hands from his person. “Let’s go.” Lou turned quickly away, ducking into one of the other cars before Jack turned and caught her gaping. She clenched her hands into fists in her lap, managing not to scream her frustration. An entire day watching the most gorgeous woman on the planet paw the man she loved and had stupidly told to date the bimbo. Oh, joy. # After Jack pried Katya off him, he looked up just in time to see Lou dive into the second car. Crap. Had she seen the kiss? He’d kept his mouth sealed shut and let Katya writhe and moan against him because it was easier than causing a scene by pushing her away, but he hadn’t realized Lou might be watching. How was he going to convince her without words that she was the one he really wanted if he made out with other women in front of her? He herded Katya into the SUV limo and climbed in after her, snagging the empty seat between the kids so Katya couldn’t maul him in front of them on the drive out to the country. The producers had loved it when he’d suggested the destination for today’s outing. Miranda’s eyes had lit with visions of sweeps week. One of the things Marrying Mr. Perfect did best was jarring people out of their comfort zone. Today’s destination was a test for Katya—one he was reasonably certain she would fail. He’d kept Katya around for so long for two reasons. One, she was distinctly easy on the eyes. And two, he was one hundred percent certain her emotions were not engaged in the slightest. Oh, sure, she would work up some crocodile tears when she was eliminated, but as long as he gave her plenty of camera time, she was happy. So he didn’t have to feel guilty about leading her on. Marcy and Katya were a lot easier to deal with than some of the other girls. The ones who wanted so badly for him to love them. They just made him feel like an ass. He hated being responsible for everyone’s happiness. The girls, the producers… hell, it even felt like the American public was counting on him for a good show. He couldn’t wait until the show was over and the only happiness he was responsible for was his own, his kids, and Lou. If she would have him. Their conversation in the kitchen last night replayed in his mind. He’d gone over it a dozen times, from a dozen angles, and he still didn’t know what to do. She was right about the kids. But he wasn’t convinced that she wasn’t doing the martyr thing by pushing him on the other women. If only there was a way to woo her without the children hanging around. And without the camera crews. Just the two of them. No show. No kids. No pressure. Just a chance to see if he what he thought was between them was really there. But would Lou want to even if they had the chance? He’d overheard her being interviewed this morning, gushing enthusiastically about how happy she is that he’s found all these extraordinary women and how she can’t wait to meet them and welcome them to the family. Part of him feared that she really wanted him to fall in love with someone else, but this was Lou and she sure as hell wasn’t going to come right out and tell him. Good Midwestern girls didn’t inflict their desires on others. But he wanted her desires. He wanted her. He still didn’t know when it had happened—maybe it had been there all along, lurking beneath everything he thought he wanted—but he loved Lou. And now that he’d finally figured it out, he wasn’t going to be stupid enough to let her slip through his fingers. Not if he could help it. And provided he could keep her from hating him forever after seeing him kissing Katya. He’d definitely have some damage control to do today. But maybe their destination would help. Jack felt a small, wicked smile curve his lips as he glanced over at Katya, who was powdering her nose and checking her make-up with her compact mirror. Today was certainly going to be interesting. # “Well,” Katya huffed, plucking a stalk of hay out of her hair. “That was… unique. I can honestly say I’ve never been on a hayride before.” Jack grinned to himself, feeling inexplicably smug. The day had gone exactly as he’d intended. And the expression on Katya’s face when they first arrived at the corn maze was priceless. She’d balked initially, but gotten over her initial protest when she realized she could get “lost” in the maze and force him to find her in some secluded corner. He’d found her all right, but he’d been holding Emma by one hand and TJ with the other so her plan of maze-seduction hadn’t panned out. Though he understood the sentiment. He’d been more tempted than he wanted to admit to sneak off and corner Lou. After the maze, they’d met up with his parents at a weenie roast and hayride. Katya had looked at the hotdogs like they were toxic, and hadn’t had much more appreciation for the hay. Jack’s parents had taken turns grilling Katya with questions about her past and what she wanted out of the show, which gave Jack the chance to settle down next to the fire to make s’mores with Lou and the kids. He’d been relieved to see Lou laughing as she licked marshmallow goo off her fingers. The pinched expression she’d worn when she first met Katya had eased and she’d been easy with him again for the first time since the infamous Jacuzzi incident. After the hayride, his mother had pulled him aside and informed him—in full view of the cameras—that he would have to be out of his ever-loving mind to marry that twit. Apparently the only thing Katya knew about him was that he was a doctor and she wanted to marry a doctor. His mother had not been impressed. He hadn’t been surprised. The producers had been in heaven. Now, he and Katya were alone in the limo—if you didn’t count the camera crew—headed to her hotel to drop her off. She’d been in a pissy mood since the corn maze and things hadn’t improved since. If she’d been a better sport about it, he might not have been tempted to tease her now. As it was… well, it was all in the name of ratings, right? It had nothing to do with the fact that he was mad at her for making Lou feel awkward this morning. “I’m so glad you had fun,” he said with false good cheer. “We try to go to the corn maze and hayride every year at least once. And then there’s the camping. I just can’t get enough camping.” The truth was, he hadn’t been camping in years. They just never had the time, but he did enjoy it, so it wasn’t a complete lie. An expression of bald horror flashed across Katya’s face before she managed to school her features. She must have sensed she’d lost ground today, because she suddenly leaned into him and gave him a syrupy smile. “Outdoorsy men are so sexy,” she purred. Jack looked down into her exaggeratedly sexy face and marveled that she had once made his insides knot with pure lust. She was gorgeous. Jaw-droppingly so, but the more he got to know her, the less attractive she became. And it wasn’t just that her inner beauty couldn’t compete with her outer shell. There was something else at work here. Lou. It wasn’t that Lou was his ideal of beauty, but rather that she’d somehow taken over that concept in a bloodless coup d’etat. Katya looked overblown next to her. Her face seemed wrong somehow, because it wasn’t Lou’s. God, he had it bad. What was he going to do if she really didn’t want him? If a parade of gorgeous women on Marrying Mr. Perfect couldn’t cure him of wanting her, what could? He would worry about that tomorrow. Right now he had to focus on getting away from Katya without getting smeared by her lipstick. Everything else could wait. Chapter Twenty-Five Marcy Henrickson was perfect and the worst part was, Lou couldn’t even hate her for it. Natalie had been nice enough—a little nervous, but sweet. Lou hadn’t been able to imagine her with Jack, but she was a lovely girl, if a little undefined, as if she hadn’t been shaped by life yet. But Marcy. Damn. The petite brunette had a sharp wit, an easy smile and a ready laugh. And worst—or perhaps best—of all, she made Jack smile. He was comfortable with her. Happy. The kids took to her immediately. Emma even crawled into her lap with her worn-to-pieces copy of The Lorax and demanded Marcy read to her. And she did. Complete with funny voices and goofy sound effects. Emma had looked at her like she was pure magic from that moment on. And Lou hadn’t even been able to work up a good bout of jealousy. Marcy was just too damn likeable. Too down-to-earth. Too sweet. And far too sympathetic. Her slightly tilted green eyes seemed to see everything, like some benevolent, omniscient goddess who just happened to have been dropped into the body of a petite and pretty romance novelist from Ohio. It was almost too demoralizing for words. Of course Jack would be three-quarters in love with Marcy by now. Who wouldn’t be? Lou was practically in love with the woman herself and she’d never swung that way. Lou sat on the stairs, watching the cozy family scene in the living room below. Marcy fit in so easily. Jack’s parents already adored her. Lou wrapped her arms around her knees and tried not to let her depression show, but it must have. Marcy smilingly separated herself from the group, weaving behind the cameras. Everyone assumed she was slipping off to find the washroom, but instead she crept over to where Lou sat in the shadows on the stairs. Marcy sat a couple steps below Lou and pressed her back against the banister. “Do you mind if I join you?” she asked belatedly. “I’m not exactly the life of the party up here, but you’re welcome if you want to hide from the cameras for a few minutes.” Marcy’s smile turned wry. “We’ll see how long they let me go unfilmed. Usually we max out at about seven minutes of privacy.” Her smile invited comment, so Lou asked, “Do you mind? About the lack of privacy?” Marcy shook her head. “It can be a pain in the ass, but the experience is flat out fascinating. Can I tell you a secret?” She glanced surreptitiously at the cameras and a pair of dimples flashed in her cheeks. “I didn’t come on Marrying Mr. Perfect expecting to fall in love. I mean, seriously, the odds are terrible, and I’ve seen these shows before. Scandal, drama, you betcha. Love? Long odds, sugar. Very long odds.” Lou had to agree. The odds of ever meeting a guy like Jack were terrible. “So why do it?” “Oh, honey. The drama. The scandal. It is nirvana itself for a girl with an eye for the ridiculous and a yen for romance. I’m a student of human nature and this is a pretty extreme example of human mating rituals. It is just fascinating.” Marcy leaned in conspiratorially. “It probably makes me a horrible person, but every time one of the girls threw a screaming fit about how her connection with Jack was more profound than some other girl’s connection, Hell, I ate that shit up. My mother would tell me I wasn’t being Christian, but I wasn’t the one pulling some girl’s hair just because we’d both been put in an awkward situation.” Lou’s eyebrows popped up. “Was there really hair pulling?” “Mostly metaphorical, but yeah, there was one actual cat fight. I thought Miranda was going to wet herself with glee.” Lou laughed in spite of herself. Marcy was so relaxed, so easy to get along with. So perfect for Jack. Her laughter died on her lips. Neither Marcy nor Jack had gone on the show expecting to meet the love of their lives. They’d just gotten lucky. That one in a million shot. Lou should be happy for them. She knew she should, but instead she just felt hollow. Maybe she could be happy for them later. After the engagement was announced and the last of her hope died. That damn bulletproof hope. Lou looked up to find Marcy watching her closely. “So, Lou, is there anyone special in your life?” A blush started on her chest, climbing north. “Sorry?” “You’re so important to Jack. I’m glad we finally got to meet,” Marcy said. “I knew from day one when he was talking about you that any girl who wanted to end up with Jack was going to need the nod from you. I was glad he had someone like that who would always have his back and I know how badly he wants you to be happy. I was just wondering if you had anyone who set you on fire.” “I’m not really a fire kind of girl.” “Honey, every girl is a fire girl with the right guy. We just need to find you yours.” Lou grimaced. “I guess I’m behind the curve. You’re supposed to be spending your twenties dating, right? And now…” “All the good ones are taken,” Marcy finished for her. “I hear you, sister. You’re preaching to the choir here. Guys like Jack just aren’t unattached out in the real world. And I don’t do unrequited passion for unavailable guys. Not my thing.” No, that’s all me. Lou glanced across the room to the man of the hour. Jack had noticed their conversation. He was watching them and for a moment she thought she caught a hint of an unguarded expression. Was that love she’d just seen as he looked across the room at Marcy? Some of the cameramen had also noticed their tête-à-tête and a crew was circling closer for a better shot. “Do you love him?” Lou was surprised to hear those words spring out of her mouth. Marcy looked over at Jack, a wry little smile tugging at her mouth. “Jack is an amazing guy. He’s the kind of guy it would be hard not to fall in love with.” Lou followed her gaze. Preaching to the choir, sister. Marcy’s hand closed over hers, pulling her attention back to the woman smiling at her side. “I do hope we can be friends,” she said softly. It was a far cry from the borderline threats the other girls had given her, as if they couldn’t get her out of Jack’s life fast enough. But which would be worse—a sudden eviction from Jack’s life or being force to watch him be wonderfully happy with someone who wanted to be her friend? A quick slice or a slow interminable burn. She must be a masochist. Endless torture seemed infinitely preferable. Lou turned her hand beneath Marcy’s to clasp her fingers. “I hope he picks you. And when he asks you to marry him, I hope you say yes.” Marcy’s eyes flared wide with a sudden flash of surprise. “Thank you,” she said, though there was a note of question under the words. Lou looked away from Marcy’s too-intuitive gaze, relieved when the Suitorette was called back into the planned scene with her future in-laws. Lou stayed in the shadows on the stairs, focusing on keeping it together as the foundations of her world seemed to shift beneath her. In some small corner of her soul, she’d expected Jack to come home unattached. She’d assumed he wouldn’t meet anyone good. That they would all be as plastic and fake as Katya. She’d assumed the show was exploitive and contrived and there couldn’t possibly be real emotion fostered in that pressure-cooker environment. She just hadn’t factored in the existence of someone like Marcy. She’d told him to look for love on the show and in two weeks, Jack could be engaged to Marcy. Lou had to prepare herself for that. Across the room, Jack laughed at something Marcy had said, rocking back and forth in his chair. Lou searched her memories, trying to pin down the last time she’d seen him laugh like that. Marcy had done that. Her romantic fantasies that he would realize Lou was the best one for him were just that. Another form of pretend. It was for the best she’d already stepped aside. He hadn’t exactly confessed his undying love in the kitchen the other night, and heaven knew they’d both been too drunk to be sensible back in the Jacuzzi. Perhaps he’d just been trying her on for size before settling down with Marcy. The show certainly encouraged that sort of thinking. As Lou sat on the stairs, a strange sense of closure came over her—like she was watching a chapter of her life end. Sad, undeniably, but there was also an odd freedom beneath the grief. Four years of fantasies and delusions. Four years of wanting someone as close as the next room who never grew a single inch closer. Had she really wanted him at all? Or had he just been a convenient fantasy? So much more convenient than taking a chance and striking out in search of her own life. He said he could never have done it without her, but that wasn’t strictly true. His parents would have helped—though they weren’t exactly warm and Gillian’s parents were more the jet-setting type than the babysitting kind. Lou could have helped. She hadn’t needed to move in. And she certainly hadn’t needed to stay as long as she had, infiltrating his life, falling in love with him and his children a little more every day. She’d been selfish and foolish and so scared. It was safe to love a man who would forever be out of reach and never return her passion. Her heart was never truly at risk because it was padded by the cushion of impossibility. She might as well have fancied herself in love with Leonardo DiCaprio—telling herself that she really did have a chance with him as long as he remained a bachelor. Cowardly. That’s what she was. All the while feeling so proud of herself for being so noble. So helpful. It was time to stop living the lie. She had to move out. # “I thought I had you all figured out, Jackson Doyle, but you pulled a fast one on me.” Jack ambled toward the street where a car was waiting to pick Marcy up, his arm looped through hers as they strode up the walk, surrounded as ever by cameras. “Oh?” “I thought you were head over heels for Katya or Natalie, but you’re not, are you? That change I saw in you last week wasn’t about them at all.” Jack felt a slow flush creeping up his neck and wondered if the cameras would be able to detect it in the dark. “Oh?” he said again, trying to keep any inflection out of his voice. Marcy grinned at him, showing him unsuccessful the attempt had been. “Oh, indeed.” They took two more steps before she cocked her head at him and murmured, “She’s crazy about you, too. In case you were wondering.” Jack almost missed a step. “Excuse me?” “Head over heels. It’s written all over her face.” Marcy tipped her head to the side and smiled knowingly. “I approve wholeheartedly. If I’m going to be jilted, I’m glad it’s not going to be Katya’s silicone perfection taking home the prize.” “What makes you think...” He wasn’t sure how to finish the sentence. “Let’s call it women’s intuition.” Marcy stopped a few steps from the limo and turned to face him. “So, what are you going to do now? She doesn’t know you care for her. It was almost tragic watching her pine for you tonight.” Jack gave up pretending he didn’t have a clue what Marcy was talking about. “I can’t say anything because of the show and she’s pushing me away because she’s worried about how it will affect the kids and everything is so complicated right now.” “Excuses.” Marcy wiped that away with a wave of her hand. “I don’t have time for love or my life is too complicated right now are just excuses women tell themselves when they don’t want to admit they desperately want to fall in love. What you need is the Grand Gesture.” “The Grand Gesture?” “You know, something over-the-top romantic. Something that screams I Love You, since you can’t say it. But in a way that’s uniquely about the two of you. There’s nothing worse than a generic Grand Gesture.” Marcy glanced at one of the producers hovering nervously in the background and grinned wickedly. “This show is all about Grand Gestures. Do you think you can use that to your advantage?” “I don’t know. Right now I’m not sure I could get her to participate in a Grand Gesture.” Marcy rolled her eyes. “You’re dating a couple dozen other women in an attempt to find someone to replace her. Don’t you think she has a little bit of a right to be conflicted right now? You just have to prove to her that she’s special. That you see her and she isn’t an invisible accessory in your life.” “I’ve never thought that.” Okay, yes, he had sort of thought that for a while, but he should get credit for not thinking it now. “It isn’t about what you think, Jack. It’s about how you can convince her.” Marcy stepped toward the limo. The driver quickly opened the door and she flashed him a smile, but paused with one foot in the car. “Try the Grand Gesture, Jack. Trust me. She’s worth it.” Jack couldn’t argue with that. He watched Marcy drive away, then turned back toward the house. He gave a five minute, “Yes, Marcy’s wonderful” recap in front of the fireplace, then the crew began packing up for the night, leaving him to his own devices. The kids were already in bed, his parents had long since left, and he had some time before they smuggled him off to the hotel so his own devices meant Lou. He found her in the kitchen, sitting in her usual chair. She didn’t seem to hear him come in as she gazed down into her coffee cup. Decaf, two sugars. He saw another cup sitting in front of his chair. The liquid inside was the tan of coffee with his favorite amount of cream. A good sign? Or just force of habit? “Marcy’s wonderful,” she said suddenly, proving she’d heard him after all. “I like her.” But he didn’t love her. Jack crossed to sit and pick up his coffee. It was still hot. “I have to move out, Jack.” He choked, nearly snorting coffee out his nose. The hot liquid scalded his nasal passages and he gasped for air. “What?” he managed, wheezing. “You could come home from the finale engaged, Jack. It wouldn’t be right for me to be here.” She was pulling away from him. It was there in her body language, the closed off tightness of her expression and the icy delivery of those words. She was actually going to leave him. His heart stuttered. “You want to move out next week?” He put down his coffee, holding up a hand to stop her. “Don’t answer that. We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Getting engaged is a big step. I may not—” “I don’t want to hold you back, Jack.” “And I don’t want to trap you here if you don’t want to be here, but Lou—” The words were on the tip of his tongue. To tell her that he wasn’t in love with Marcy or any of the other girls. To tell her that he wasn’t going to get engaged to any of them because she was the only one he wanted, but the fucking show tied his tongue. “You never trapped me, Jack. I always wanted this life. Maybe too much. I should have left a long time ago.” Hope shuddered through him. She’d said she wanted this life. How far was that from wanting him? “Lou, I don’t want you to move out. I can’t explain—” “You don’t have to explain. It’s okay. I understand. But I’m going to start looking for apartments tomorrow.” “Lou—” Fuck nondisclosure. He had to tell her. The kitchen door swung open. “Mister Perfect!” Miranda called cheerfully. “We’ve got to get you back to your hotel. You have a long flight tomorrow.” Jack wondered if killing television producers was considered justifiable homicide. “Travel safe,” Lou said, already out of her chair and halfway out of the room. “Lou!” Miranda glared at him. “Behave, dumbass.” “Have you noticed that I’m always either Mister Perfect or dumbass to you?” “All men are. It’s your curse. Come on. The car’s waiting.” He wanted to argue, wanted to chase after Lou, but Marcy’s recommendation about the Grand Gesture teased his thoughts. Lou had said she understood, but he was sure she didn’t. He didn’t want to lose her because of all this bullshit, but as Marcy had said, the show did excel at Grand Gestures. Was a Grand Gesture the best way to break through Lou’s uneven defenses and see what really lay in her heart? Could this damn show actually work in his favor somehow? He trailed Miranda out to the waiting SUV, when the door closed, sealing them both inside, he turned to her. “I want time with Lou. Away from the kids. Away from all this.” “We discussed this,” Miranda said unsympathetically, focused on her tablet. “You have to treat her like any other Suitorette. No confessions of love.” “I get two-day dates in exotic locales with the other Suitorettes.” Miranda looked up from her tablet then. “True.” “Lou doesn’t know she’s a candidate. She told me she wants to move out today. I don’t want to lose her because of this show, because you made me sign some fucking contract that I’m not allowed to tell her how I feel about her. Please, Miranda.” The producer smiled. “Honey, don’t worry. I’ve got you. I’m a pro at keeping girls who are afraid of their own feelings from running off.” “How?” “We romance them. It’s what we do.” Chapter Twenty-Six Miranda glowered at the budget, trying to find a way to make the numbers bend until she could cram an extra two-day luxury date into the shooting schedule. It wasn’t the flights and hotels—those were always comped in exchange for the publicity. It was the crew salaries and overtime hours that weren’t in the original budget. But she’d promised Jack that she was going to make this happen, and if it worked out the way she expected it to, it was going to make her show the most talked about reality television show in years so she was going to make it happen, no matter what it took. Executive Producer, here I come. Her cell phone rang and she reached for it automatically. “Miranda Pierce.” “Have dinner with me.” Bennett’s raspy voice made her shiver. She rocked back in her chair, fidgeting with the hotel brand pen on the desk. “I’m in Chicago.” “So am I. I’m at the Palmer House. ADS is doing auditions here this week. Have dinner with me.” “Can’t. I have a work problem to solve.” “If I solve it for you, will you eat with me?” Tempting. So tempting. On so many levels. “I need a full camera crew for two days in Paris and I can’t pay them. Solve that.” He didn’t miss a beat. “Unpaid audition.” “Come again?” He did not just solve in five seconds what had been giving her trouble for the last hour. “Use it as a way to audition new local crews—if they perform well they have a chance to be on your roster of local crews in the future.” “Won’t the unions object?” “If you were doing it the U.S. you might have trouble—and I’m not sure about the laws in France, but you might be able to get away with it as a foreign production. Run it past your lawyers. After you have dinner with me.” “It isn’t solved until I talk to my lawyers.” But it was as good as solved and they both knew it. “Going back on your word?” There were good choices, bad choices, terrible choices, and then there was Bennett. She’d never been able to resist Bennett. “Where?” # “How are the auditions going?” The restaurant at the top of the Hancock Building boasted the best views and most expensive cocktails in Chicago, but since Bennett was buying Miranda sipped her martini without an ounce of sticker shock. He looked better than she remembered. More silver in his hair, more lines around his eyes, but he’d always worn his age well. One of those disgustingly gorgeous men who got sexier with the years. “They’re going fantastically,” he said, studying her over the rim of his scotch. “Every year they get more amazing. I think this might be our most talented batch of dancers yet.” Miranda smile nostalgically. “I always loved that part. Seeing the future contestants perform for the first time and realizing that one of them was going to be the next American Dance Star.” “You had an incredible eye. You always knew who America was going to love before anyone else.” He took a linger sip. “I never understood why you left ADS to go to MMP.” Of course you didn’t. Because I left to get away from you. “More opportunities for advancement. I’d never have the chance to make EP so young at ADS.” Bennett frowned. “That’s a bald faced lie. You were already on track for it.” “But it will always be your show, whereas with MMP I have the chance to make it mine. Wallace doesn’t want to be involved in shaping the show. As long as I keep him updated, I have free rein.” “And that’s satisfying for you? Feeding America’s hunger for love-starved wanna-be-stars having emotional breakdowns on television? Manipulating them into giving you drama?” “You’re awfully high and mighty, considering we have the same job,” she said tightly. “Your job is to manipulate people into being happy they made the choice to be on a show that exploits their emotions. Mine is to give people an opportunity to be on a show that can genuinely change their lives for the better. See the difference?” Miranda put her martini glass down with a decisive click. “Did you invite me to dinner to insult me?” “It’s a compliment, not an insult. You’re better than what you’re doing at MMP. Come back to ADS.” Her stupid heart lurched. Damn it. She’d actually wanted him to be asking her out because he wanted her. Not because he wanted to offer her a job. “No.” “You won’t get an executive producer credit right away, but it wouldn’t be far off for you. Not the way you work.” “I’m not interested, Bennett.” “Why not? We could be making amazing television together again. Why wouldn’t you want that?” Because I’m halfway to being in love with you, you idiot. “I’m already making amazing television and I don’t need your patronage to do it.” He frowned. “I’m not trying to be patronizing.” “It just comes naturally to you, does it?” “You always did have a smart mouth.” His eyes drifted to her lips. She waited for him to say something else about her mouth—or what she could do with it—but he just looked away, out over the skyline, sipping his scotch. She should have known when he didn’t want to have dinner someplace closer to his hotel that this wasn’t that kind of date, but she was still stupidly disappointed. “Aren’t you going to ask me how my season is going?” she prompted. He shot her a frustrated look. “Oh, thank you for asking, Bennett!” she mocked. “It’s been really brilliant actually. Very outside-the-box. I think this one might land me an Emmy and if I don’t screw it up, I’m a lock for EP. I really appreciate your help with that budgeting issue too. I’ll be sure to thank you in my acceptance speech.” “Just remember to speak slowly,” he said dryly. “It’s easy to rush under all those lights.” She grimaced. She’d forgotten that he’d actually won an Emmy. Four of them, if she remembered correctly. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He sighed. “You really won’t consider coming back? I’ll match whatever you’re making at MMP.” “You have a lot of great producers. I don’t see why you need me.” His gaze held hers, and again that stupid hope that this was more than a business dinner rose up. Then their food arrived and the spell was broken. “You’re the best,” he said, as he poked at the delicate tilapia with his fork. Heart healthy. Was Bennett watching his cholesterol? It was discomfiting how badly she wanted to know the intimate details of his diet. “Thank you.” She cut into her lamb. “I’m also unavailable.” In more ways than one. His eyes held hers for a moment. “My loss.” Miranda smiled. “Damn straight.” But she had a feeling it was hers too. Bennett Lang wanted her. If only it was the way she wanted him to… Chapter Twenty-Seven Lou was up to her elbows in Kelly’s oven when her cell phone vibrated in her pocket. She managed not to fling the tray of blueberry scones for Emma’s snack day across the kitchen, dropping them hurriedly on the cooling rack. She threw off Kelly’s borrowed oven mitts and dug into the pocket of her jeans for the buzzing phone, but her new jeans were so tight her hand got stuck. Lou hopped around in a circle, cursing Kelly for talking her into buying the tight jeans in the first place. “What are you doing?” Kelly stood in the doorway. Behind her, the children shrieked as they played tag through the halls of Kelly’s house. Luckily, Kelly was wise to the ways of hooligan children and had long since packed away all breakables into storage until the twins hit puberty. Outside, the rain that had been falling all day drummed against the window panes. The phone finally jerked free of its denim cage. Lou hurriedly flipped it open before voicemail could catch the call. “Hello?” she said, a little breathless from jumping around like an idiot. “Lou? Thank God I got you.” Her heart skipped a beat at the sound of that voice. Stupid heart. “Jack? Where are you?” Tahiti, Venice… he was bound to be somewhere disgustingly romantic and exotic. Kelly perked up and stepped farther into the room. “Is that Jack?” “About where I am... that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.” “Is something wrong? Do you need me to send you something? Did they send you to Antarctica or something and you didn’t pack the right clothes?” Kelly’s eyebrows flew up questioningly. Lou waved her away. This was her conversation, but it was Kelly’s kitchen—necessary since her oven was still out of commission. So much for privacy. “It’s Paris.” Lou’s breath whooshed out and her knees turned to jelly. Kelly quickly guided her down onto one of the stools at the breakfast bar. “Paris?” she whispered. Her Paris. Of all the places around the world that she’d dreamed of seeing, that one had always topped the list. The one city more than any other in the world that she wanted to see before she died. The most romantic city in the world. Jack was there. With someone else. She’d resolved to let him go, but Paris. She hadn’t factored France into the equation. Why did he have to tell her? Why couldn’t he have let her live in ignorance? She liked ignorance. It was bliss, dammit. She realized Jack was still talking and keyed back in on the conversation. “…need to hurry. My folks said they could take the kids, but the only flight I could get you leaves from O’Hare in less than three hours.” “Wait. What flight?” “The overnight to Charles De Gaulle. It leaves at 6:30. Can you make it?” Lou felt as if every molecule of her body went still. She held her breath, bracing against the bulletproof hope that rose up in a fierce wave. “You want me to come to Paris?” “Omigod!” Kelly squeaked. “Yes! Tell him yes! You have to go! The kids can stay here with me.” Lou shushed her so she could hear Jack. “I know you’ve always wanted to see Paris and… I owe you Europe, Lou. Just you. No kids.” There was a short pause, as if he was hesitating, trying to decide what more to say. “I want to give you this after all you’ve done for me.” Lou ignored Kelly’s chants of “Say yes say yes say yes” and tried to force her brain to consider this rationally. “Miranda says this is okay?” He gave a slight groan. “Actually, there will be some camera crews. Miranda is using it as a chance to audition some new camera crews or something.” Being followed around by camera crews was less than ideal, but it was Paris. Part of her hesitated. Every time she’d tried to go overseas before some disaster had happened to stop her. Her mother’s cancer. Gillian’s death. Bad things always seemed to chase away her dreams. “I don’t know, Jack.” “You never take anything for yourself. Let me give you Paris. Please.” Please. It was Jack. And Paris. Right there, sitting in Kelly’s kitchen with the kids screaming like maniacs in the next room, surrounded by the smells of freshly baked blueberry scones, Lou’s heart melted into a puddle of wax, taking her will to resist with it. “Okay,” she heard herself say, before Kelly’s squeal temporarily disabled her eardrums. She scribbled the details on a pad Kelly shoved under her hand and hung up, feeling dazed and overwhelmed. And wondering what had just possessed her to agree to meet Jack in Paris. Her handwriting on the pad looked foreign. Lou looked up and met Kelly’s eager gaze. “Oh God,” she groaned. “What did I just agree to?” “Paris!” Kelly bounced on her chair. “L’amour, baby!” “I’m supposed to be looking for apartments this week. I need to get a job. Resumes. I should be thinking about resumes.” Kelly looked at her as if she’d started speaking in tongues. “Louisa Renee Tanner, if you do not go to Paris tonight, I am going to disown you as my best friend. Now, stop being an idiot and grab the kids. We’ve got to get you packed and on that flight!” With Kelly acting as Field Marshall, they were back at Lou’s house—Jack’s house, not hers, she reminded herself—in less than ten minutes. Five minutes after that Lou stood in the middle of her bedroom feeling inexplicably lost as Kelly bustled around her throwing toiletries into an overnight bag. “Did he say how long you’d be gone?” Kelly asked. Lou caught the brush Kelly flung at her and dropped it into the bag. “Just over two days, including the flights.” “So just one day and one night in Paris. Where’s your lingerie?” “Kelly!” “Oh, don’t pretend to be shocked. I know you’ve got something naughty stashed somewhere. I didn’t take you to Victoria’s Secret so you could admire yourself in the mirror. Get your naughty bits and throw them in the bag.” Lou obligingly grabbed her “naughty bits”. She still couldn’t quite wrap her head around the fact that tomorrow she would be in Paris, France. After nine years holding onto her passport, it would finally get a stamp in it. For all that Paris still felt surreal, it was a lot easier to grasp than being in the most romantic city on the planet with Jack. After she’d resolved to let him go. “Kelly, what am I going to do? Tell me what the Plan is.” She needed Kelly’s strategy right now. “No plan. Where are those cute red heels we got you? They looked kinda French, didn’t they?” “They should be in the closet. What do you mean there’s no plan?” “No plan. Oh! Here they are.” Kelly emerged from the closet, holding a pair of red heels above her head like trophies. They found their way into the bag. Lou had no idea what else had ended up in there. She’d just have to trust Kelly. “I should pack up a bag for Emma and TJ.” They’d spent the night at their grandparents’ once or twice and had been begging to be allowed to stay over with the twins, but she’d never just dumped them off on anyone so precipitously. Kelly zipped Lou’s bag and pushed it into her hands, sliding the strap over her shoulder. “Don’t worry about Emma and TJ. Between your folks and Jack’s folks and me, they’ve got more people wanting to look after them than any two children could ever want. We’ll just pick up whatever we need later. I’ve got a key. Right now, we have to get you to the airport.” She herded Lou out of the room and down the hall. Lou caught her arm, stopping her at the top of the stairs before they got back in range of the kids. “Kelly, seriously. What do I do? I need a plan.” Kelly put her hand over Lou’s on her arm and gave a gentle squeeze. “No plan this time. No games. No strategies. Just enjoy him. Enjoy being with him.” Lou swallowed thickly and nodded. It remained unspoken that this would probably be her last chance to be with him. Her life suddenly felt very Casablanca. They would always have Paris. Lou closed her eyes for a moment. Paris. She was really going to Paris. “Come on, Aunt Lou!” Provided she made the flight. Lou leapt down the stairs, taking them two at a time. # Jack paced in the lobby of the Hotel Pont Royal. He barely registered the rich dark wood paneling and ornate marble floors. He was too consumed with agitation as he waited for Lou to arrive. Her flight had landed over an hour ago. Shouldn’t she be here already? Jack hoped she slept on the plane because he had a full day of Parisian thrills planned for them. Miranda had pulled numerous strings to arrange it all, but he knew it would be worth it to see the look on Lou’s face when she finally got her dream day in Paris. The last few days of his life should have been amazing. He strolled with Marcy through the Prado museum in Madrid and drank sangria while they watched a private flamenco show. And the entire time, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Lou. She had consumed him. Worry ate away at his enjoyment. If only things were settled between them. If only she knew how he felt and he could be sure of the same. She’d always been there at his side and if he asked her to stay he knew she would, but he had to know she was staying because she loved him as more than a friend and not because she felt obligated to help him. He’d always taken her presence for granted, but now he needed to woo her into staying. Paris was his trump card. He’d known she wouldn’t be able to resist the city of lovers. Now all he had to do was find out how she really felt about him, get her out of her head, and woo his way into her heart. All before he was supposed to fly off to the Swiss Alps to ski and sip cocoa with Katya. Love on a clock. So his impatience was justified. Then Jack looked up as the doorman opened the door and there she was. The camera crew that Miranda had arranged swarmed around them. Her coat was unbuttoned, revealing a simple black dress that hugged her curves. She fiddled with the bright red scarf twisted around her neck as she scanned the lobby. Her eyes lit on him and a wide smile burst across her face. She looked chic and sophisticated—gorgeous enough to be picked as a Suitorette any day of the week—but it was that smile that squeezed a vise around his heart. Jack grinned back and quickly crossed the distance to her side in long strides. “Welcome to Paris.” Lou’s grin grew even wider, if such a thing were even possible. “I don’t think I’m ever going to get tired of hearing people say that.” She closed her eyes, basking in the moment. “Paris. I can’t believe I’m really here.” “Believe it.” Jack grabbed the shoulder strap of her bag, meaning to carry it upstairs for her, but Lou jolted away from his hand on her shoulder, her eyes flying open again. The bag started to slide down her arm. He caught it and swung it over onto his own shoulder. She took a quick step away from him. Her smile never wavered, but he knew they’d both noticed how skittish she was. The wooing thing wasn’t going to be as easy as he’d hoped. “So what are we going to do first?” she asked, her cheer a little forced. “First we drop your bag in the suite upstairs and get some breakfast. Can’t see Paris on an empty stomach.” She brushed away that suggestion with a wave of her hand. “Oh, I’m fine. Let’s just get started. I’m not here long. We don’t have a second to waste.” “It won’t take a minute,” he insisted, taking her elbow and holding it even though she shied away from him. He guided her into the elevator, squeezing to make room for the camera, and pushed the button for the top floor. Jack let go of her elbow as the rickety elevator lurched upward. She sidled away, as much as the cramped quarters would allow, under the pretext of admiring the paneling on the far wall. She’d never avoided being touched by him before. He hoped this meant she was more, rather than less, aware of him physically, but he’d have to tread carefully today. Lou was holding herself back, trying to keep the boundaries between them intact. The way she pulled away from him frustrated Jack, but he could be patient. He had Paris—and if Marcy wasn’t mistaken, her own heart—on his side. He had all day. # When the elevator doors opened on the top floor, Lou burst into the hall, needing to put some distance between herself and Jack. She pulled up short when she realized there was no hallway, just a small foyer and a large, ornately carved door. Jack appeared at her side, key in hand. His nearness sent little shivers rocketing through her body, eroding her will to resist. Why had she decided they shouldn’t be together? She’d had a reason, she was certain of it, but now, with him standing so close and his body heat pressing against the outside of her arm, she couldn’t remember all of her carefully thought out reasons why they had to keep things strictly platonic. She’d made a list of her reasons on the plane—in between being pampered with every possible luxury and sleeping like a baby in the cocoon-like seat of international first class. It was a good list. A rational list. Emma. TJ. Something about making an idiot of herself on national television… Jack reached past her and Lou focused on the key, trying to get a grip. The old fashioned key matched the elegance of the old hotel. It was gorgeously European. Then Jack pushed the door open and Lou gasped. The penthouse was massive and every inch of it defined luxury. Jack nudged her into the room and she stalled just over the threshold, gaping like a hick. As Jack slipped through one of the pairs of double doors leading off the main room to dispose of her bag, Lou walked dazedly through the main room, trailing her fingers along the back of a Louis XVI chair. When Jack came back into the room, she turned to him with wide eyes. “Jack, this place is amazing.” He grinned, a twinkle in his bright blue eyes. “You haven’t seen the best part yet.” He strode toward her and grabbed her by the shoulders. Her heart jumped in her chest and for a brief moment she thought he was going to kiss her. That would be the best part. But then he turned her around and marched her toward the floor-to-ceiling windows—which she suddenly realized were a series of sliding doors leading out onto the most massive terrace she’d ever seen. A pair of comfortable-looking wicker chairs cozied up to the railing. A small table in front of them held a basket overflowing with flaky croissants. And the entire cozy scene looked out over Paris straight toward… “The Eiffel Tower,” Lou whispered, breathless. “Not a bad view, eh? And see there? That’s Notre Dame.” Lou heard a little squeaking sound she was pretty sure was coming from her own throat, but she couldn’t form actual words. “You can see Sacre Coeur from the other side.” Jack’s hands slid down from her shoulders along her arms, wrapping around her as they went until she was cuddled in front of him, facing the most gorgeous view man had ever created. His chest pressed against her back and he gently rested his chin on her hair. “Jack,” she finally managed to whisper. “Do you like it?” “I never dreamed it would be this beautiful.” Or that everything would feel this perfect. The most wonderful man she’d ever met had his arms warm around her and Paris was laid out at her feet. She wanted to hold onto this moment for the rest of her life. At that exact second, the first strands of La Vie en Rose drifted up from the street below. It was worth it. Whatever came later. Whatever heartache was in store it was all worth it for this moment. She would never regret a second of the path that had brought her here—even if the damn show tore them apart. “Today is for you, Lou,” Jack said softly, his breath ruffling her hair. “No kids to distract you, no one else’s desires to worry about but your own. It’s all about you, Louisa.” Lou hugged the arms wrapped around her middle a little closer, then stepped away, albeit reluctantly. “Then let’s get started.” Chapter Twenty-Eight “That is the single most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.” “Ditto.” Lou glanced over at Jack to find him gazing steadily back at her. He wasn’t even looking at the sculpture. The line was cliché, but coming from Jack, it still made her heart race. Her cheeks heated and she averted her eyes. They fell back on the white marble in front of her. “You’re bored out of your mind, aren’t you?” she asked without taking her eyes off the Canova. They’d already done a quick visit to the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame—though she’d foregone going up in either one since they were tight on time. She’d debated between the Musee D’Orsay and the Rodin Museum before deciding to go with the famed Louvre, and she was delighted with her choice—but Jack had never had much patience for classic art. She was amazed he wasn’t climbing the walls. “Believe it or not, I’m having the time of my life. You’re so engaged in every moment—to use show parlance. How could I be bored when we aren’t wasting a single second?” He came to stand at her back again, wrapping his arms around her from behind and cradling her close. “So. What’s so special about this sculpture? I thought we’d be over at the Mona Lisa for sure.” “Honestly? The Mona Lisa’s never really done it for me and trying to see her through five rows of people and three inches of bulletproof glass just doesn’t appeal. But this…” She gestured to the life-size lovers held forever in white marble just inches in front of them. “This is Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss.” “And who were they?” he asked. “Remember, I was a math and science nerd. You’re the one with the classics minor.” Lou grinned to herself, glad she was facing away from him and he wouldn’t be able to see how foolishly delighted she was that he remembered what she’d minored in at college. “Cupid was the god of love and Psyche was the mortal girl he fell in love with.” “I have a feeling there’s more to it than that.” “With the gods, there always is.” “Why did he have to revive her? Is this like an early version of Sleeping Beauty or something?” “Something like that.” Lou settled herself more deeply into his arms, as she remembered more and more of the myth associated with her favorite sculpture. “See, Venus was the jealous type, and she decided Psyche was too beautiful, so she sent her son Cupid to trick Psyche into falling in love with something awful. But… something happened, I forget what, and Cupid ended up hitting himself with one of his arrows and falling in love with Psyche himself. He has the west wind carry her away and marries her, but he only visits her at night when she can’t see who he is.” “That’s kind of skeezy.” Lou shrugged. “No one said the gods weren’t pervy. So anyway, Psyche’s sisters talk her into finding out who her hubbie is by lighting a lamp after he falls asleep one night, but the light wakes him and he takes off, mad at her for not obeying him or something.” “So he’s not only a perv, he’s a dickhead.” “Pretty much. Psyche searches for him everywhere, but the gods don’t have to be found if they don’t want to be so she’s out of luck. She decides to go to Venus herself, but Venus is still pissed because she’s too pretty. Venus gives her all these impossible tasks that are supposed to kill her, but she keeps surviving. I think she even goes into the Underworld and comes out again alive, all in an attempt to get Cupid back. But then she opens a box—which is always a bad idea in mythology—and an unnatural sleep rises out of it and knocks her out.” Lou looked up at the sculpture of a winged Cupid waking a sleeping Psyche with a kiss. “That’s when Cupid flies to the rescue. He still loves her, you see. So he kisses her and she wakes up, becomes immortal and they live happily ever after for all eternity. And this,” Lou said, pointing to the statue, “is the moment when she opens her eyes and sees him. The moment when she knows all the trials are over and love has conquered all.” Jack bent until his cheek rested next to hers. “Why, Miss Tanner,” he murmured, “I had no idea you were such a sappy romantic.” Lou twisted out of his grip, giving him a wink as she tugged him by the hand out of the sculpture hall. “I’m just full of surprises, Dr. Doyle.” But the truth was, she herself had forgotten about the part of her with a passion for romance and mythology and art. It had been a long time since she’d felt this way. Was it Jack? The reminder of who she used to be? There wasn’t much demand in the carpool sector for a minor in classical studies. Her passions had just sort of faded away in the face of practicality. And that practical side of her nature had grown and grown over the years until it felt like that was all she was. The only outlet for her fierce romanticism had been her childish infatuation with Jack. But her fantasy of him hadn’t been any more real than the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Now things with Jack were all too real—this fantasy day just brought that home all the more clearly—and reality was much more frightening than fantasy. Reality could hurt. Practicality had taught her how to build walls around her heart, each brick a rationalization, the mortar made of excuses. She was safe behind them, but she didn’t want to be safe any more. Love was a risk she had to take, even if it broke her heart wide open. Jack was worth it. And maybe it would work out. She had a stamp in her passport and the world hadn’t fallen down around her ears. Maybe love could conquer all. Jack had snuck through the cracks in the walls over the years, taking up a place in her heart. Paris had punched an even bigger hole in the wall, making her defenses all but useless. But did she need defenses with Jack? She could trust him, couldn’t she? “What’s next?” she asked as they threaded through the crowds at the museum’s exit. “I thought you’d like to see the Arc de Triomphe, then we have dinner reservations at a cafe on the Champs Elysees. Sound good?” “Heavenly,” she admitted. A dream day in Paris. “Just promise me we’ll go walking along the Seine at night.” He grinned and linked their arms. “I think that can be arranged.” # The lights of Paris glimmered, twinkling off the river. A light rain had started while they were at dinner, but Jack was as good as his word and took her strolling along the Seine in spite of the drizzle. Every once in a while, the thin sliver of the moon would find a break in the clouds and cast a silvery glow over the already magical city. The cameras followed them, but Jack was right, after a day being trailed by them, she’d almost forgotten they were there. And this was all just practice footage. She didn’t need to feel self-conscious because why would the show ever use this material? Jack’s arm was wrapped around her shoulders and she was tucked so snugly against his side, she barely felt the chill. Lou leaned her head against his shoulder and sighed, not wanting this day to ever end. They didn’t speak much, but Lou didn’t think any words could possibly have been more beautiful than the sounds of their footsteps and the voices of the people passing by. A couple passed them, walking quickly and arguing, and a giddy bubble of laughter rose up in Lou’s throat. “What?” Jack asked quietly. “Everyone’s speaking French,” Lou explained, knowing how ridiculous and inane that comment sounded, but too delighted by being in France, where everyone spoke French, to care. “I’m eavesdropping in French.” “Have you thought about going back to teaching?” “French?” Jack stopped them at the apex of a bridge that arched over the river. He turned Lou to face him, gently tugging the collar of her jacket up against the rain. His thumbs brushed along the line of her throat. “You obviously still love languages. When you love something that much, you don’t walk away from it, Lou.” Her breath caught. Were they still talking about art? “I never get to see you like his,” he murmured. “When you see the magic in everything.” Lou felt the urge to apologize, as if she’d let him down by letting the magic in her life get swallowed by practicality. She opened her lips to speak— —and he sealed them with a kiss. It was not the frenzied rush of the Jacuzzi, nor the tentative, accidental brush from weeks ago. The touch of his lips was sure, coaxing a rush of warmth through her body from the top of her head all the way down to her toes. A Parisian kiss. He took his time with each smooth, slow, drugging pull of his mouth on hers, drawing her deeper until her entire world narrowed down to his lips, so much so she almost didn’t feel his arms closing around her to hold her closer to his warmth. When he lifted his head, Lou’s eye flickered open to meet his. The piercing blue was almost as dazed as she felt. “Are you ready to go back to the hotel?” he asked, his voice scratchy and low. She knew he was asking her so much more than if she was ready for her day in Paris to end. The entire day had been leading up to this, a slow, unavoidable slide to the point of no return. If she said no, they would keep walking. When they were ready to call it a night, they would head back to the hotel and their separate rooms in the penthouse suite. If she said yes… Yes meant no more hiding her heart. It meant risk and kisses and adventure. Yes was leaping into love with both feet and damning the consequences. Yes was terrifying. Lou took a deep breath and jumped off that cliff, free falling and hoping Jack would be there to catch her. “Yes.” Perhaps she was pretending again, but maybe Jack was pretending with her this time. Chapter Twenty-Nine Anticipation was their silent companion on the ride back to the hotel. Jack sat close, his thigh pressed warm against hers, as the car zipped through the late night Parisian traffic. Lou wanted to savor every moment; she was almost disappointed when the car pulled up under the awning of the Hotel Pont Royal. Jack quickly stepped out, extending his hand to help her from the car. She set her fingers on his palm, feeling that small contact far more than she should have. He didn’t release her hand as the doorman held the door for them, nor as they waited for the elevator, or rode in silence up to the top floor. The entire time, his thumb traced patterns on the back of her hand, and she felt each swirling touch keenly. Four years of foreplay could do that to a girl. He had to release her hand to unlock the door. He held it open, his palm grazing the small of her back as he guided her inside in front of him. Neither of them reached for the light, leaving them in the ambient glow of the city lights through the floor-to-ceiling windows along the wall. The camera crew had followed, but now—just like with the overnight dates on the show—they stayed outside as the door clicked shut. The sound of the door closing was unnaturally loud in the hush. Lou waited, her breath short and her heart hammering noisily in her chest. Want stretched like a tether between them. She felt the connection through his hand on the small of her back, like he’d wrapped his hand around the most essential parts of her and would never let go. Lou hesitated, unsure what came next. Should she step farther into the room? Turn to him and kiss him? Perhaps they should have a glass of champagne on the balcony first? That had certainly loosened things up in the Jacuzzi. But she wasn’t certain she wanted to be loose. She liked the delicious tension coiling in the room too much to want to do anything to dissipate it. Lou leaned back slightly against the palm splayed across the small of her back. That was all the encouragement Jack needed. Suddenly he was there, spinning her, his hands cradling her face, holding her steady for his kiss. And what a kiss. Lou’s toes curled in her shoes. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. Her breasts suddenly felt heavy and her nipples tightened, though he hadn’t even looked at them yet. Her entire body responded to the call to action in that kiss. He commanded. He consumed. And she was right there with him. Her hands burrowed into his hair, clinging to his scalp. Her tongue tangled with his, stroking into his mouth. When he applied a little suction to the tip of her tongue, drawing it between his lips, Lou felt the tug straight down to her womb. Heat pooled between her legs in a sudden rush. Their jackets hit the floor and he kicked them aside, backing her farther into the suite with his hands bracketing her hips. Lou couldn’t stop kissing him. She didn’t care where he was leading her, everything she needed was right here in front of her, driving her to distraction with each touch. They stopped moving and his hands brushed over her back and her sides, the quick skimming touches so teasingly erotic it took her a moment to realize he was searching for the fastenings on her dress. Lou broke the kiss and pushed back out of his arms. She bumped into the back of the sofa, her hands falling to either side to brace herself. “Lou?” Jack took a step toward her, but she put her hand up to stop him. He obeyed instantly, though confusion scrunched his brows. Lou reached beneath her arm and drew the hidden zipper down the side of her dress. It wasn’t exactly the sexiest way to strip, but Jack didn’t seem to mind. His eyes stayed locked on that zipper like his life depended on it, even as his hands went to work unbuttoning his own shirt. When the dress was loosened enough, Lou shimmied it off over her head, relieved she’d given in to Kelly’s demands to wear the sexy lingerie when Jack’s eyes went dark and his fingers froze on the next to last button. “Let me help you with that,” Lou murmured, barely recognizing the sultry rasp of her own voice. Apparently she was the kind of girl who could do sexy after all. She drew her nails gently down his chest until she reached the buttons, slipping each one free slowly, ensuring her fingers rubbed frequently against the undershirt-covered abs beneath. She then slid her hands back up across his chest and over his shoulders, shoving the shirt over Jack’s shoulders until it fell to puddle on the carpet. He toed off his shoes, but she kept her heels on. The difference in their height was too great without them and Lou didn’t want anything to stop her from kissing him. She leaned up and pressed her mouth against the stubbly underside of his jaw. She breathed in the raw, masculine scent of his skin. No cologne. Just Jack. His hands found their way back to her body with the feather light touches, but now the skin of her back and stomach was bare and she knew he was teasing her on purpose. Two could play at that game. She untucked his undershirt and slipped her hands beneath, tracing her nails across the plane of his abs in a random pattern. He sucked in a hissing breath whenever her touches spiraled down toward his zipper, but she made him wait four passes before she pressed her hand against the ridge straining against the fabric of his trousers. Jack groaned and dropped his forehead down to rest against hers. “If you want to do this in a bed, pick one and get there fast,” he growled. A delectable shiver shot down her spine at the command. She twisted away from him, darting toward the nearest bedroom door. She kept looking over her shoulder and half-turning to watch him prowl after her. He yanked his undershirt over his head and tossed it aside. The sight of Jack shirtless never failed to make Lou’s knees go wobbly. He looked so damn sexy with his hair mussed by her hands, his abs so damn tight and his eyes honed in on her like blue lasers. Then he started to unfasten his trousers as he stalked in her wake and Lou remembered to hurry. She stopped gawking and made a break for the bedroom. She threw open the French doors, sparing barely a glance for the opulent furnishings of the room. Jack was right on her heels. She almost made it to the bed before he caught her. Jack spun her around and snared her mouth in another mind-numbing, bone-melting kiss. He pressed against her until the back of her legs hit the mattress and he fell with her onto the downy soft comforter, their arms and legs tangled around one another. Her bra and his boxers seemed to vanish between one thought and the next—but she wasn’t exactly thinking clearly. The only words streaming through her brain were mine, yes, and Jack. Luckily, she didn’t need more words than that. Jack knew exactly what she needed. Never breaking the kiss, he hooked one of her knees over his hip, opening her to him. A slow stroke up her inner thigh found her wet and ready beneath the peek-a-boo lace of her panties. He circled her nub with his thumb, gently flicking it through the fabric until she arched up off the bed, tearing her mouth free of his to gasp his name. She quickly shimmied out of her panties to hurry him along. A girl could only take so much. She reached down between them to take him in her hand. Jack cursed and leapt off the bed. In the sudden chill without him, Lou twisted onto her side. “Jack?” She heard him swearing in the darkness at the other end of the room, then a low grunt. “Found it.” He appeared back at the side of the bed, rolling a condom into place. Lou didn’t have time to wonder that safety had completely slipped her mind. Jack was already pulling her to the edge of the mattress. He guided her to bend her knees, her legs splayed with a wild disregard for modesty. Lou had a moment of squirming insecurity until Jack leaned down and licked into her heat with a firm swipe of his tongue. The shout that ripped out of her throat at the jolt of pleasure was probably heard in Marseilles. Standing at the edge of the bed, with her spread like an offering atop it, Jack fitted himself to her. Lou closed her eyes as every particle of her being focused on that one point of connection between them. With a slow, sensuous thrust, he slid high inside her, and Lou lost her grip on reality. There was only Jack, pulsing deeper into her with each rocking thrust, the friction of their bodies tightening a spring inside her until she felt like her soul was on the verge of splitting apart at the seams. Then she opened her eyes and saw him, the dark curl falling over one eye, his jaw tight with effort, his eyes piercing her with their focus and heat. Jack. Her release sprang free, coils of sensation breaking through her body in waves. He leaned over her to take her cries into his mouth, giving two more hard thrusts before his own climax hit and he shuddered against her. Now that’s what I call Mr. Perfect. # Jack tugged on jeans but left his shirt unbuttoned as he crept silently out of the bedroom, leaving Lou sleeping amid the tangled sheets. Between time zones, jet-lag, their busy day in Paris and the fact that he hadn’t let her get much sleep last night, she deserved the chance to sleep in before her flight back to the States. He felt a smug smile curling his lips as picked up the phone and called down for room service. The woman who’d been a part of his family for years had taken over his heart. He couldn’t actually say the I-love-yous yet, but he knew Lou wouldn’t be going anywhere—except moving from the guest room into the master with him. They could get married right away, just a quick, private ceremony with a few family and friends. Or, if Lou wanted, they could do the big white wedding in a few months. The details didn’t matter. If life got any better than this, he didn’t know how. He was debating sneaking back into the bedroom to wake Lou up with a kiss—though he’d promised himself he’d let her sleep—when a sharp knock sounded on the penthouse door. Jack crossed to the door, expecting the world’s fastest room service. What he got was a much less pleasant surprise. “Miranda.” Talk about a buzz kill. The producer smiled. “Sorry, Mister Perfect. Lufthansa waits for no man. You’ve gotta get your ass on a flight to Switzerland.” “Do I really need to go through the motions? We both know I’m not going to pick Katya. Lou isn’t even awake yet—” “You still can’t profess your undying love yet. When she’s standing in front of you at the final ring ceremony, you can do whatever you want—personally I vote for a big sappy proposal—but until then, you have to go to Switzerland. You don’t have to lead Katya on. Since this will all be part of the final episode you can actually dump her as soon as you arrive if you want, but you have to do it in person. That’s for your own good. Public opinion would kill you if you get rid of her via text or some such bullshit.” Jack frowned. “What do you mean about Lou and the final ring ceremony?” Miranda smiled innocently—and he knew he was in trouble. “Didn’t I mention that? You have to pick a winner and give her the final ring. It’s in your contract. But I read the fine print and it doesn’t have to be one of the original Suitorettes. You’re welcome to use that time to propose to Lou. Unless you want Lou to watch you pick one of the other girls.” “Lou won’t want to be a spectacle.” “Would she rather you proposed to someone else?” Jack glared. “Are you descended from Macchiavelli?” “Probably. So we’re good?” He didn’t like it. He’d never been the kind of guy who thought proposing on the jumbo-tron at a ballgame was romantic. It was a private decision, it should be a private moment. But he couldn’t afford to have the show’s lawyers come after him. TJ and Emma’s college funds would be a fond memory if he broke the contract. “Fine.” “Excellent!” Miranda crowed. “I always liked you, Jack. Now, let’s get you on a plane.” The last thing he wanted was to leave Lou now that he’d finally succeeded in breaking down her walls—even if it was only for three days until the final ceremony. He didn’t want her questioning his affection while they were apart. But the next time he saw her, he could tell her the truth. He could say those three little words. In three days it would all be over and hopefully he’d be engaged to Lou—if she could forgive him for dragging her into the show—and free to go back to the life he loved. Chapter Thirty Lou woke in the softest bed on the planet, which only amplified the feeling that she had died and gone to heaven in the last twenty-four hours. Angels didn’t have it this good. The feeling was only somewhat diminished when she opened her eyes and realized she was alone. She heard voices in the main room of the suite. Jack must have slipped out so he wouldn’t disturb her. Lou arched in a spine-popping stretch, reveling in every delicious ache she’d acquired last night. Jack had been everything she could have wished for in a lover and then some. She blushed as she remembered his inspired use of her red silk scarf. Blindfolds really did make every other sense come alive—not that Jack needed any help awakening her senses. She rolled out of the bed, bundling herself in a hotel bathrobe and padding toward the door in search of Jack. Judging by the clock on the bedside, they had a good hour before she had to go to the airport and she planned on making good use of that time. The door to the main room was cracked open. Lou realized a second before she pushed it open farther that the voice in the other room was definitely not Jack’s. It was female and familiar. Miranda. So much for a morning quickie. Lou hesitated behind the mostly closed door, debating hiding out in the bedroom until Jack came to find her. Then what Miranda was saying—seemingly to herself—registered. “Are you kidding? This has been in my back pocket from the beginning. In three days, the best season of Marrying Mister Perfect ever will be in the can and I’ll be an executive producer.” Miranda seemed downright gleeful, which never boded well for the rest of humanity. “I am officially a genius. If I don’t get an Emmy for this, there is no justice in the world.” She laughed, the sound high and bright—and in sharp counterpoint to the heavy feeling congealing in Lou’s chest. “Jack is completely on board. I’ve never seen a Mister Perfect more ass over ears in love. It’ll be sappy in the extreme, but it’s going to make fantastic television.” Lou leaned against the door frame. She’d known he would go back to the show. Of course she’d known. This had just been their little day of pretend. He’d never said he loved her. Never made any promises. He’d only told her that he wanted to give her Paris. Wanted to give her what she wanted. And she had wanted him. Miranda continued blithely, not realizing her every word was digging into Lou’s soul. “Marcy? I know! She’s perfect, isn’t she? We really struck gold with the romance writer angle. Viewers are going to love her, but it’ll be hard to top a real, down-on-one-knee, emotional outpouring, on-camera proposal. Jack is going to make the housewives cry buckets, darling. And that’s before we bring the kids out.” Lou backed away from the door, her arms wrapped around her middle, trying to hold the pieces of herself together. Jack was going to propose to Marcy. Right. She’d known that. Why hadn’t he told her he was going to propose to Marcy? She’d just slept with another woman’s almost-fiancé. He’d turned her into the other woman. Another gullible Suitorette suckered in by Mr. Perfect and a dream date. Had he figured out that she had a crush on him after the Jacuzzi? Had he just slept with her out of, what? Sympathy? He had managed to give her what she wanted without impacting the kids. He’d gone with the moment and taken what she threw at him—she’d known it was pretend, hadn’t she? Lou stared out the window at the rainy Parisian morning. The sound of the door to the bedroom opening barely penetrated her fog. “Lou!” Miranda chirped happily. “You’re up. Good. We should get you packed. The traffic to the airport is a bear with this rain.” “Is Jack still here?” She didn’t know why she asked. It was the bulletproof hope’s fault. The little sliver of her heart that insisted she’d misheard Miranda and Jack would never propose to someone else after last night. “No, sorry, hon. He had to rush off for an early flight to Switzerland for the two-dayer with Katya.” The memory of him kissing Katya seared through her brain. And the bulletproof hope finally fell over dead. “I see.” She closed her eyes. She couldn’t look at Paris right now. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.” And really, she wasn’t. Nothing was real in reality television. She’d had her dream day in Paris. Now it was time to wake up. Though it hurt that he hadn’t even said goodbye. “Lou?” Miranda asked when she remained facing the window. “You okay? You’ll see Jack again in just a couple days. You’ll barely be in Chicago at all before we fly you and the kids out for the big finale in Los Angeles.” The finale where he would propose to Marcy. God, how could she watch that? “Are you sure you need me there?” Miranda hesitated. “You’ll want to be there, hon. Trust me.” Right. She should see it. Kill that last stubborn hope in person. “I guess.” She heard the tapping of Miranda’s nails against her tablet. “You get packed. Long flight today.” “Right.” Lou looked around the room. Her bag was there, but most of her clothing was strewn around the suite. Evidence of debauchery. Taking a deep breath, she started getting dressed for the flight. She had a lot of planning to do before Jack got home after the finale. More than ever, she needed to find an apartment and a job to pay the rent. And the kids… her heart plummeted. She didn’t regret sleeping with him, but she couldn’t do it again. She couldn’t be his live-in friend with benefits. Certainly not if he was going to be engaged. God, how would she face him again? Would they just pretend nothing had happened? That Paris didn’t even exist? Just a lovely dream. And it was time to get back to reality. Chapter Thirty-One Lou had argued with herself for hours about whether or not she would come to LA for the finale. She had vowed a dozen times not to torture herself by watching all of her dreams go up in flames. But here she was, nonetheless, herding Emma and TJ in their Sunday best, getting ready to smile for the camera in the final family shot. Jack himself was on the beach under a flower-draped trellis, waiting for the girls to arrive so he could propose at sunset with the waves of the Pacific crashing behind him. Lou felt like she was going to be sick all over the lovely hardwood floors of the beachfront cabana where she and the kids waited. Crew members scurried around them. Usually they didn’t fuss with Lou much—she was only background, after all—but today the hair people had poked and teased and sprayed, the make-up people had smeared more paint on her face and the wardrobe people had draped a glittery sapphire necklace around her neck. Lou was of the never-wear-anything-on-your-neck-worth-more-than-your-head camp, but it was too much effort to protest. She felt drained of all energy. No matter how much she slept, she’d been tired ever since Paris. Dave, her friendly sound guy, appeared at her side and clipped a small microphone to the shoulder strap of her dress. “For the reaction reel,” he explained when she looked at him questioningly. Lou didn’t think her reactions to today were suitable for primetime, but it would have taken too much energy to argue. She just nodded numbly and waited. Soon the girls would arrive. Soon he would pick. Soon he would propose. Soon it would be over and she could go about the business of healing her heart. A round-faced girl with a headset appeared at her side. “Miss Tanner?” Of course. Now they would get her name right. “Yeah?” “Dr. Doyle would like a word with you before we begin. Would you follow me please?” She was tempted to say no. She was tempted to tell them all where they could shove their show and take off down the beach, running until she hit Mexico. She didn’t want to watch Jack propose to someone else. She couldn’t. But Emma was watching her with wide blue eyes and TJ knelt on the floor, seemingly engrossed in his Nintendo DS, but with his head tipped to the side to show that he was listening. They’d noticed something off about her in the last couple days and she didn’t want to do anything else to upset them. This transition was going to be difficult enough for the children as it was without her freaking them out unnecessarily. So Lou obediently stood, smoothed out the skirt of her cocktail length cream-colored chiffon dress, and walked calmly after the PA, for all the world as if she wasn’t on her way to face the man who had inadvertently ripped out her heart and used it as a racquetball. The path down to the beach was lined with red rose petals—of course it was. Lou followed the PA around a curve in the walk and suddenly the beach came into view, a long sprawling golden swath of sand to keep the ocean at bay. Down a short flight of stairs and across a short stretch of sand, Lou saw the flower-covered trellis and the tall, dark haired man waiting beneath it. Her heart squeezed tight as a fist, as the PA stepped aside to let her continue alone. Jack looked amazing, decked out in a dark tailored suit and gilded by the last few rays of the evening sun. Lou had a moment’s thought that the producers ought to hurry and get the girls down here before they lost the perfect light, but it slipped away as soon as she was close enough to see Jack’s face. He looked nervous. And contrite. And he was sweating way more than the cool evening called for. Between one heartbeat and the next, Lou realized she would always love him, even if he married someone else. He hadn’t made her any promises. She’d built her dreams with a fairy tale ending, but he never promised there would be a happily ever after. He’d given her Paris. He’d given her one amazing night she would never forget. That would have to be enough. In a few hours, maybe only minutes, he would belong to someone else. She couldn’t be angry with him, just because he hadn’t wanted what she had wanted. She would find a way to continue their friendship. She would find a way to stay in his life and be a part of Emma and TJ’s lives. And then she would find a man of her own. One who could give her more than a twenty-four hour fantasy. Out of the corner of her eye, Lou saw cameramen tracking her walk down to meet Jack— probably doing a test run for when the future-fiancé made the walk. She shook her head, banishing all thoughts of the other women. This moment was just between her and Jack. Even if it was going to be among their last. As she approached the trellis arch, her heels stuck in the sand—clearly whoever had designed this dream proposal had forgotten to factor for high heels and beaches. Jack stepped forward, extending his hand to help her. Lou grinned, a wry little self-deprecating twist, and gratefully took his support. He was still the guy who opened car doors and carried groceries for little old ladies. She should have known the show wouldn’t change who he was at heart. No matter how many grouper kisses Katya smacked on him. Jack helped her onto the little pedestal beneath the trellis arch and turned to face her, holding both her hands. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you this in Paris—” “No, there’s nothing to say. I understand,” Lou interrupted. “Louisa,” he said sternly, formally. “This is my big speech. Just hear me out, okay?” Lou rolled her lips inward, making a show of absolute silence. Jack took a deep breath and gave her hands a gentle squeeze. “There are things that should have been said in Paris and things I should have said a long time ago.” His eyes held hers, the piercing blue solemn. “You’ve been the cornerstone of my life for the last four years. I felt guilty for relying on you. I felt like I abused your kindness and your affection for me and the kids. I worried that you would stay with me not because it would make you happy, but because you knew it would make me happy. I told you when I agreed to go on this show that I wanted to do it because you deserved to be loved, but what I didn’t realize until I was a thousand miles away, what it took a dozen other women and every possible ridiculous reality adventure for me to finally figure out, was that I wanted to be the one loving you.” Lou gasped and then stopped breathing entirely. He wasn’t saying this. She was hallucinating. “You’ve been my best friend and the best mother anyone could hope for to my kids, but I don’t love you because my life doesn’t work without you. I love you because my heart doesn’t beat without you.” Holy wow. He’d just said that. Lou’s knees turned to jelly. She clung tighter to Jack’s hands, her only link to the surreal reality of this moment. He still wasn’t done with his speech. “I don’t know when I started loving you as more than a friend. Now that I do, it feels like I’ve always felt this way, but ever since that night in the Jacuzzi…” A wicked glimmer entered his bright blue eyes. “I haven’t been able to stop wanting you.” Still holding her hands, Jack sank down onto one knee in front of her. Lou began to tremble. “I went halfway across the country and all over the world looking for love, only to realize the love of my life was right in front of my face all along. My entire life I’ve tried to do everything right, to be Mr. Perfect, and you’re the only one who’s ever made me feel like it was all right if I was just me. I don’t want to ever risk losing you again.” He looked up at her, his blue eyes earnest. “I have a question for you. An important question. But I don’t want you to tell me what you think I want to hear. I want you to answer for yourself. I’ve stolen a lot of your adventures and I’ll try to give some back to you, but you know how it is with the kids, so if this isn’t the life you want, you have to be honest about that, okay? So really think about your answer—” “Jack,” she interrupted again. “Will you ask me already?” He grinned, those unfairly blue eyes twinkling. “Louisa Renee Tanner, will you marry me?” She was dreaming. She had to be. But it felt so real. His hands. The sand. The sunset. The cameras. “You aren’t proposing to Marcy?” Jack’s smile had begun to fade into a nervous grimace, but now it widened again. “You are the only woman I’m proposing to today. Or ever again, if you say yes. I sent Katya home as soon as I got to Switzerland and Marcy already knew. I’ve known for weeks that you were the only one I wanted to be with, but I couldn’t say anything because of the show. Turns out I signed a contract saying I couldn’t tell anyone I loved her before today and I had to pick a winner. Which reminds me.” Jack dropped her right hand and dug into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a small, blue-velvet jewelers box. He flipped it open, one-handed. Inside, a beautiful diamond engagement ring sparkled in the setting sun. It looked nothing like the plain gold bands he gave away at the ring ceremonies and it was the most perfect ring she’d ever seen. “I know reality TV isn’t reality, but trust me when I say that this is real. What we have between us is no fantasy. And it’s not going anywhere once the cameras stop rolling.” His thumb gently rubbed across the third finger on her left hand. “Lou, will you accept the final ring? You’re the only Suitorette I want. If you’ll have me. No pressure.” Out of the corner of her eye, Lou saw the cameras circling closer. There was a microphone on Jack’s lapel and another clipped to her dress. Miranda was doubtless somewhere rubbing her hands together with delight. And none of that mattered. Jack knelt in front of her, his heart in his eyes, her dream man, her Mr. Perfect, saying the words she’d never imagined possible. It was the fantasy—and it had nothing to do with the beach, the flowers, or the stunning sunset lighting the water. It was all Jack. She looked into his eyes, those unfair Paul Newman-blue eyes. “You kept trying to give me space to take an adventure, but you guys are my adventure. You, Jack, are the only adventure I want. All of you. But especially you, Jack. You have been for years and I wouldn’t trade a second of the life we have together for all of Europe. I love you.” “So that’s a yes?” Her smile felt like it would split her face. “Yes. Of course. Now get up here.” His smile made the little lines around his eyes crinkle and her heart flip over. He slipped the ring onto her finger, straightened to his feet and tugged her into his arms. Jack’s gaze flicked to the cameras and he arched one brow, as if asking her permission. “America’s watching,” he said softly. Lou twined her arms around his neck, going up on her tiptoes as she drew his head down to hers. “Let ‘em look.” # Miranda watched Lou fall into Jack’s arms and almost got a little teary. That shit was beautiful. “Great shot.” Miranda jerked at the sound of the voice. Freaking Bennett Lang. “This is a closed set. Who let you in?” “Haven’t you heard? I’m a legend in this business.” On the beach below, Jack and Lou still hadn’t come up for air and some of the crew members were starting to catcall—which was unprofessional, but they’d all been pulling for Lou and Jack, so she’d just have the sound guys put some orchestral music over that part of the make-out session. “Do they mind that you’ve made their lives into a soap opera?” She shot Bennett a glare out of the corner of her eye, no longer the least bit weepy. “They’re together and they wouldn’t have been if not for me.” And she had no qualms about taking credit for their happily ever after. Lou was too self-sacrificing and Jack too oblivious for them to have ever gotten together without an act of God. Miranda was perfectly willing to count herself as an act of God. “I got the job,” she told him. “You’re looking at the new executive producer of Marrying Mister Perfect.” He held her gaze for a long moment and then nodded. “Let me know if you ever want a change.” It felt like he was offering her more than a job—which was part of why she would never accept it. “You’re supposed to say ‘Congratulations.’” “Congratulations. Can I buy you a drink to celebrate?” She eyed her former mentor. “Thanks, but I’m not looking for career advice right now.” “I was asking for a date.” A slow flush stole across her cheekbones and her mind went stunningly blank. “Well. Okay, then.” Epilogue Six months later… Lou sat cuddled against Jack’s side on the couch. If not for the blazing hot lights and live studio audience, she might have been able to convince herself they were at home watching this fiasco on TV. The host of the Marrying Mister Perfect reunion show leaned forward in his chair, his eyes, like everyone else in the room’s, locked on the pair of them. “Jack, Lou, this season of Marrying Mr. Perfect is already being hailed as the most ground-breaking season of reality television yet. Audiences fell in love with you as a couple and our fan boards lit up with pro-Lou campaigns from the very first episode. And I think what all of your fans are dying to know right now is how is your relationship now that the show is over? Lou, I notice you’re still wearing the ring. Have you set the date yet?” As Jack smiled and smoothly answered that their relationship was stronger than ever and dodged the date question, Lou fidgeted with her engagement ring. The contracts Jack had signed prohibited him from getting married before the reunion show aired—it was too easy for marriage licenses to leak to the press and spoil the surprise—but they had picked a date. None of their rabid online fans, nor anyone on the crew of the show had any idea that a pair of matching wedding bands were tucked in the inside pocket of Jack’s jacket right this instant. No one knew about their tickets on the overnight flight to Paris tonight or that both of their families were already waiting there with the kids. A quiet ceremony in a French hotel wouldn’t draw much attention here in the States. At least, that was their hope. “Lou!” Josh Pendleton’s cheery voice startled her out of her musings. “Jack tells us you watched every episode together. What did you find most surprising about seeing your romance unfold week by week?” “I think I was most surprised by the number of hidden cameras you guys had squirreled away around the mansion. Particularly around the Jacuzzi.” The host gave a jolly old elf of a laugh. “Audiences really admire your candor, Lou, even though you sometimes had some rather unflattering things to say about Marrying Mr. Perfect as a route for finding true love. Since the show has been such a success for you, are you ready to change your tune?” “You do realize I wasn’t actually a Suitorette, don’t you?” Josh rocked in his chair with his over-enthusiastic laughter. “Of course! But you stole the show, capturing American hearts and minds. To what would you attribute your success?” Lou could have cited her long-standing relationship with Jack or the authenticity of emotion the viewers saw when they looked at the pair of them, but this was one question she knew exactly how to answer. She looked straight into the camera and smiled. “My best friend Kelly taught me everything she knows about Marrying Mister Perfect. She wrote the book on this show.” The host gave another fake, jolly laugh. “Oh, no, our contestant Marcy wrote the book.” He turned to the camera with a cheesy grin. “Tune in next season for Romancing Miss Right, ladies and gentlemen, when Marcy Henrickson has her pick of thirty of the most eligible bachelors in America on the quest for her own happily ever after!” Lou met Jack’s eyes, nearly laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of the spectacle. All the things that had driven her crazy in the beginning were now just jokes they shared. She’d suffered through watching the other girls kiss him, and he’d made each kiss up to her a thousand times over. The kids had squealed with delight whenever they saw themselves on screen—and seemed not emotionally scarred in the least by their brush with child-stardom. They’d withstood the media spotlight while the show aired by staying in most nights, away from the curious glances and paparazzi lenses. Their life had more or less returned to its normal routine. The kitchen remodel was finished and looked amazing. They had no plans to sell the house, though they were discussing a few changes. First among them turning the little guest bedroom upstairs, the one no one ever used anymore, into a nursery. Lou grinned at Jack as the audience cheered. Yeah, he was Mr. Perfect, but even more importantly, he was perfect for her. No fantasy could compare to that reality.

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