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The Summer of Jake is loosely connected to The Finn Factor.
At five past midday, my phone rang, and—based on the laws of Murphy—I knew it had to be more bad news, so I was glad I hadn’t changed out of my pajamas yet.
Yesterday’s feat of being fired on my twentieth birthday from my first post-graduation job at Rodrigo’s Fashion Studio, which was admittedly a placeholder job until my own designs hit it big, would be hard to top, but I had faith in Murphy and his bad luck laws to bring it.
I stood, dislodging onto the floor an unimpressed, stripy cat, half a packet of chocolate-coated licorice, and the dream collage I’d been working on, and answered. “Hello?”
“Annalise? It’s Jake Maxwell.”
My heart stopped stock-still. Unfortunately, my brain simultaneously froze, and my body gave a good imitation of paralysis. Jake Maxwell, surfing phenomenon, son of Australian rock star royalty, and my best friend’s older brother, did not call me. We’d never had the sort of relationship that allowed for phone calls. In fact, it’d rarely allowed for one-on-one conversations, which made this call all the more unexpected.
Probably taking the silence to mean I didn’t remember him, he added, “Kelly’s brother.”
His voice was as deep and smooth as a cup of hot chocolate. Being a chocoholic, I should have recognized that as a warning. I mean, what self-respecting addict doesn’t know the path to hell is paved with chocolate-shrouded temptation?
Through a remarkable act of willpower, I regained control of my frozen bits. “Oh, Jake. Hi. Um, how are you?”
Then, as my brain re-engaged, I realized why he must’ve been calling. “Is it Kelly? Is something wrong with Kelly?” His sister was all we had in common.
“Kelly’s fine. And I’m fine, too, thanks. Truth is, I want to ask a favor. Nothing too extreme.” I could hear a smile in his voice, which made me wary about any favor he could want from me. Jake had always had a way about him—well, a way with me—and I wasn’t promising anything without details.
“What sort of favor?”
“Ah, it’s a bit awkward. How about I explain over coffee?”
I may have been apprehensive, but, honestly, refusal was never the easy option with Jake. Besides, it was just a coffee date. With a gorgeous man. What was not to like? “Sure.”
“When do you have time?”
I paused, but it was more for effect than having anything even remotely resembling a prior engagement. Though my previously frozen bits were starting to warm to the idea of meeting Jake Maxwell again, I didn’t want him to know. That would be handing him too much power. “How soon do you want to do this?”
“Today would be good. Can you meet in an hour?”
“Um,” I stalled. Now that my schedule had opened, I had all the time in the world, but I remembered again about handing him the power. “Let’s make it in two hours. At Coffee For You in Bondi Junction. Do you know it?”
“Sure do. I’ll see you then. Thanks, Annalise.”
I held the receiver, listening to the tone, playing the conversation back over in my head.
Jake Maxwell called me. Wanted to meet me. Until that phone call, I hadn’t been certain he knew more than my name, rank, and serial number. Rank: sister’s best friend. Serial number: 1-8-little-kid.
That fact didn’t bother me now—well, almost didn’t—but when I’d been an awkward, gangly teenager with a huge crush on my friend’s older brother, the knowledge had been devastating.
For two summers, I’d tagged along with Kelly to Jake’s surfing practice and occasional competitions, mooning over his bronzed physique, my eyes not even straying to the other competitors. To my sixteen-year-old fanciful imagination, he’d been a love god.
I remembered him emerging from the surf, brown hair slicked back, muscles pumped up, running across the sand with his surfboard under one arm. He’d often stop at our towels, and Kelly would jump up to congratulate him, throwing her arms around his neck, leaving me blushing in jealous embarrassment.
Then he’d turn to me, give me one of his slow, seductive smiles, say, “Hey”, and jog off to his waiting fan club.
For those two summers, and the intervening winters, I’d watched Jake, dreamed of Jake, obsessed about Jake.
I’d been reluctant to tell Kelly at first, but soon found Kelly had a secret of her own—she was just as wrapped up in Jake’s friend Adam. It became a common bond, the mutual need to watch Jake and Adam surf all summer and talk incessantly about them.
I smiled at the memory. I couldn’t remember ever being as close to anyone as I’d been to Kelly as a teenager, and I supposed, to some extent, I had Jake to thank for that.
Sighing, I finally hung up the phone. And came crashing back to present-day, appalling reality.
This was the absolute worst time for a first-ever coffee date with the overachieving, uber-successful Jake. Being fired the previous day had left my ego a little bruised. Not to mention my pockets. The job as an assistant at a designer’s studio—basically, cutting out fabric to make other people’sdesigns—had been useful for making contacts, keeping a finger on the fashion-pulse, and affording groceries.
Now I had nothing.
Well, not quite: I had Rover, a cat who, through no fault of her own, thought she was a dog. A bright yellow ancient Mini with half a tank of gas. A pair of slightly disapproving parents. A collage covered in my dreams. And a stockpile of food devoid of nutritious value.
And I had a coffee date with Jake Maxwell for some unknown—possibly nefarious—reason.
I looked down at my purple polka dot pajamas, complete with chocolate and licorice smudges, and sighed. It was going to take the full hour and a half before I needed to leave to make myself presentable.
Part of me wanted to go all out, to knock him off his feet. But the part that had been crushed by his lack of attention in the past wanted to slap the preening part. I wasn’t a kid now, and his voice certainly hadn’t taken on that warm sexiness I’d heard him use with a dozen other girls.
After a moment’s consideration, I decided to go the whole enchilada. It wasn’t for Jake’s benefit. I’d do as much before meeting anyone. Yes, indeedy.
After showering, I slipped on my lucky tan skirt with a mint green blouse. The lucky tan skirt worked its magic—I immediately felt more confident. Which was good. One day of wallowing was all I could afford. Tomorrow I’d have to start looking for a new job. Money for rent and cat food had to be my number one priority. And then I’d set about making every one of the things on my dream collage come true.
I poured some food into Rover’s bowl as she bounced around my feet like the Jack Russell terrier she thought she was, then patted her head, and left.
It was warm outside with the Australian summer setting in. Despite living in a beachside suburb, I was too far away for a sea breeze. One day I’d live in an oceanfront place.
Mindy, my yellow Mini, started with her reassuringly familiar rattle-tat-tat sound, and I drove the five minutes to Bondi Junction. When I’d parked and locked her door, I paused to absorb the seaside atmosphere. Pelicans and seagulls sat on the streetlights, looking out to sea. The smell of surf spray filled the air. The sounds of waves mixed with traffic created an exciting medley.
The breeze caught my hair, and I reached to grab it as I made my way toward the café. The feel of my hair in my hand reminded me of one of the biggest disasters of my teens, which, of course, was connected to Jake.
I’d decided my thick brown hair would never catch his attention, so I dyed it blond to emulate the girls he hung around with. I’d known my tall, skinny frame could never fill out a bikini the way theirs did—theirs seemed made for bikinis—but at least I could do something about my hair. So, Kelly and I bought a bottle of peroxide, turned the music up loud in my bathroom, and proceeded to turn my chocolate hair into an interesting shade of orange. It was certainly eye-catching. When my mother arrived home, she almost fainted then took me to a hairdresser who dyed it back to chocolate. I’d left it the same ever since, with only a few highlights. Professionally appliedhighlights.
Walking into the Bondi Junction café, I looked around. He wasn’t there. Excellent. That would give me a few moments to pull myself together. I was feeling decidedly un-together, and I knew it was important not to be carried away by old memories. It’d been a good four years since the height of my crush on Jake-Love-God-Maxwell. In that time, I’d completed a two-year fashion design course, dated other men, and even had a two-year relationship with one. I was definitely over Jake. Oh, yes.
Feeling centered again, I picked up my glass of water and was pleased with the graceful movement I was able to pull off. Unfortunately for the effect, I almost spilled the water when I saw Jake walk in.
He glanced around the tables until he spotted me then gave me his slow, seductive smile. He looked the same—his caramel hair a little long, shaggy and sun-bleached on the ends, dark eyes, athletic build encased in a gray T-shirt and faded jeans.
I was sixteen again.
This was bad. I was an adult, for pity’s sake, not some lovesick teenager.
I gave a little wave, which may or may not have resembled a five-year-old’s, and tried to hide my shock when he kissed my cheek before slipping into his seat. Several patrons of the cafe were watching us, probably having recognized Jake.
“Annalise Farley.” Jake grinned, and his eyes captured mine. I was a rabbit caught in headlights. “I don’t think I’ve seen you since Kelly’s wedding last year.”
Yes, the wedding—the less said about that, the better. I wrenched my eyes from his to focus on my water glass. “Mmm, it’s probably been about that long. Kelly and I drifted a little after she married Adam. And my designs take up so much of my spare time, it hasn’t left room for much else.”
“From what I hear of your talent, I’m glad you’re spending time on your own work.” He picked up a glass and watched me over the rim as he drank, ice-cubes clinking.
“Hmph.” I wrinkled my nose. Having repeatedly heard him use his smooth talk on women, I didn’t believe him for a second. “How could you know that?”
He shrugged, a teasing glint in his eye. “I have my sources.”
The waitress arrived to take our orders, and I allowed myself a sidelong look at Jake. He was still as gorgeous as he’d been at nineteen when he broke my heart—without even realizing it, because I’d been so invisible to him. Now, not only were we alone in a coffee shop, but he seemed to know about my fashion design work. Maybe he was more observant than I’d realized?
“How’s Jake Maxwell Surf going?” I asked after the waitress had left.
Unlike me, he wasn’t surprised that I’d been following his career. Or maybe he just realized his career was public knowledge. “Good. Great, really. I’ve got three JMS stores now, each with a surfing school, a retail outlet, and a board manufacturing operation. The main office is still here in Bondi, with the administration and board design section.”
“Wow, that does sound great.” Great, but predictable. Jake was destined to succeed at whatever he tried.
“In a way,” Jake said, “it’s the business that’s brought me around to asking you for a favor.”
He looked at me with puppy dog eyes—and with those eyes of darkest brown, the effect was fairly significant. And I bet he knew it. Time to focus. I needed to be absolutely on my guard. “So, what’s the favor?”
He leaned back in his chair, linking his hands behind his head. “I’ve met my future girlfriend.”
“Oh?” There was that strange freezing thing again. Twice in one day was probably bad.
“Scarlett, one of the receptionists from the law firm that handles JMS.”
“Oh.” Maybe I should check these symptoms with a doctor—paralysis of body parts could be a precursor to a stroke.
“Yeah, only problem is she’s pretty classy.”
“Oh?” Yep, brain, heart, hands—everything seized. I prayed I wasn’t going to have a stroke there at the table. Although, the mouth-to-mouth might make it worthwhile…
“And I’m not. I’ve always been a bit laid-back. More worried about catching the first waves of the morning than remembering to shave.” He ran his hand over his day-old stubble to prove his point.
My eyes followed his hand as if it were a hypnotist’s pendulum. I couldn’t believe there was one thing about Jake Maxwell that needed changing. He was already so sexy that it was an effort to drag my eyes away.
“Thing is,” he continued, “I want to make a move on her, but I think I’m a bit too rough around the edges for her taste.”
“Oh.” If someone had asked four years ago how I’d react to this news, I’d have said “panicky.” But instead, a strange hollowness spread through my chest, engulfing my insides. Was that another symptom of a stroke?
“Which is where you come in.”
“Oh?” And what had happened to my vocabulary? I was sure I’d had one earlier.
“I want you to help me clean up a bit. Not too much, just what fork to use first at dinner, maybe some clothes to wear places other than the beach, that sort of thing.”
“Oh.” Vocabularies probably froze before a stroke, too. I was sure I’d read that somewhere.
“You haven’t said anything other than ‘oh’ for a while now. Should I take that to mean you’re not interested?”
Not interested? My teenage crush appeared to have come back in force, just in time for him to tell me he’d met someone else. “Out of curiosity, is she blond?”
He frowned. “How did you know?”
“Just a guess. Jake, why are you asking me? You barely even know me.”
“Of course I know you. Practically watched you grow up. Besides, you’re the most sophisticated woman I know.”
“You think I’m sophisticated?” The words fell out before I could catch them.
“Yep.” He grinned. “And Kelly told me about your job working for that big fashion designer—you’re the perfect person to help me. Besides, I have eyes—you wouldn’t look out of place modeling some of those designs.”
“Oh.” The pleasure of finally being complimented by Jake was greatly outweighed by his earlier comment that Scarlett was blond. And did it have to be a Scarlett? That name spelled trouble. I knew from experience.
“We’re back to ‘oh’, are we?”
I tried the remarkable willpower thing again on my brain, but ended up having to shake my head to get it to work. His plan sounded fabulous. Except for that teensy detail of helping him attract another woman while in the midst of my newly re-surfaced teenage crush. That part wasn’t quite so fabulous. “I’m not sure.”
“Say yes, Annalise. It’ll be fun.”
His gaze was so confident that I realized he was positive I’d agree. Of course. This was The World According To Jake, where everything always worked out just the way he wanted. “Why would I consider this, let alone agree to it?”
“I was hoping you’d ask that.” He lifted one eyebrow the way only movie stars were supposed to and grinned with cocky self-assurance. Damn, even his cockiness was sexy. “I’d owe you a favor.”
A favor? I considered asking if he had some grocery vouchers in his back pocket or maybe a spare room for a girl and her stripy cat. But then I realized something. This man was rich and needed something from me. And he owned shops. I designed things for shops. This could be the break to kick-start my career. My whole body snapped to attention.
“What sort of time frame do you have in mind?”
He leaned back in his chair in a lopsided slouch, one shoulder higher than the other. “I’ve got two weeks to get ready for a dinner Scarlett’s company is holding for ‘valued clients’. That’s where I’ll make my move.”
At the mention of Scarlett again, I wavered, weighing my options: starvation… Handing Jake to a blonde. Starvation…
“Okay, here are my terms. You pay me an hourly consultant’s fee. You also take on two of my casual wear designs in your retail outlets. If they don’t sell, you cut them. If they do, you increase the number of designs.”
He tapped an index finger on the table. “I have a buyer who chooses what goes in the shops, but I’ll pay you the consultant’s fee.” His smile crinkled the corners of his intense, dark eyes. He was laying on the full charm, and even the knowledge it was aimed at getting another woman didn’t give me immunity.
But, feeling the thrill of the negotiation, I decided to flex my business savvy. “Have you considered trying a charm school for this?” I bit down on a grin at the irony—like he needed more charm.
“Nope, I want you. Please?” His bottom lip nudged out almost imperceptibly.
He must have practiced that move a lot over the years, because he was exceptionally good at it. I didn’t have a choice. If he’d asked me to sing “I’m a Little Teapot” standing on my head, I probably would’ve done it. Especially after hearing those three little words on his lips: I want you.
I was about to settle for his compromise when our coffees arrived. I sighed in relief at the familiar aroma wafting toward me—since Jake had kissed my cheek, I’d only been able to smell his blend of surf spray and masculine skin.
Coffee was far safer.
I took a sip and, free from the snare of his persuasive gaze, I regrouped and plotted my next move. I needed more than Jake’s compromise—I wanted the whole shebang. Getting my designs in shops had to be my number one priority.
Under the guise of taking a sip of coffee, I took a good look at Annalise. I hadn’t spoken to her much when we were younger—she’d just been my kid sister’s friend. Sure, with that long hair and ocean-green eyes, she’d always been good looking, but I’d realized at Kelly’s wedding she’d become an absolute stunner. So good that thoughts about kissing her had crossed my mind when we’d done the best-man-maid-of-honor dance at the reception. Of course, we’d both had dates, and kissing my sister’s best friend would have been stupid. But still, if I had to have help now, it may as well come packaged in a body like hers.
Smiling, I sat back in my chair and waited.
“Even if I wanted to agree,” Annalise said, seeming to choose her words with care, “transforming you for this Scarlett will take time away from marketing my designs to other shops.”
I met her eyes squarely. “Kelly’s told me your designs are great, and she’s even shown me a couple of things you made for her, so I know they’re good, but it’s not my area. Tracey, my stock manager, would freak if I upset her plans.”
Tracey was pretty easygoing, but I’d never interfered in her area before.
“I guess that’s the advantage of being the boss,” she said, fluttering her lashes. “You get to make decisions.”
A grin threatened, but I wouldn’t let it out. Instead, I acknowledged the hit with a tilt of my head and brought my attention back to the negotiating table. Well, the speckled Formica table. “Okay, I’ll pay the hourly consultant’s fee and take one design.”
Annalise took a sip from her cup then set it down carefully on its saucer. “Jake, I’d love to help you, really I would, but I parted ways with my job yesterday, and I need to prioritize. I only have enough kitty litter to last until next week. I need to be 100 percent focused on kick-starting my design business.”
This time, I couldn’t help myself. I grinned. Annalise was adorable when she bargained. Spending time with her was going to be fun—I was glad I’d picked her. Not that there had been anything scientific in the choice. My female friends tended to dress as casually as I did, and I didn’t want to ask anyone who worked for me in case they felt uncomfortable telling the boss what to do. My mother and sister would take far too much pleasure in making changes, and it would probably have snowballed until they were offering opinions on everything.
I’d needed someone I knew well enough to trust they knew what they were doing, but was removed enough that they wouldn’t either be intimidated or getcarried away. Annalise was perfect. When we’d danced at Kelly’s wedding, she’d outshone every other guest, but we’d never had anything more than a few basic conversations. Just the combination I was looking for.
And so, there was really no other decision to be made about her demands.
“Okay, two designs and the consultant’s fee. We can’t have you short on kitty litter on my account. But as to whether they sell well and JMS increases the lines, all future negotiations need to go through Tracey.”
“Okay, deal.” She looked all polite pleasure on the outside, but her eyes were shining with excitement. It was sweet.
“How about you come over to my place at ten o’clock tomorrow morning? We’ll work out our plan of attack then.”
Her eyes widened a fraction. I’d obviously caught her by surprise, but then she nodded. “Sure.”
“And to sweeten the deal,” I said, “you can still ask me a favor.”
She flicked her wrist. “No need. I already asked, and you gave.”
“That was a business negotiation. A fair trade. This is a personal favor. So…what do you want?”
Suddenly, there was something extra in her gaze, an awareness, and my blood began to hum in response. Maybe Scarlett wasn’t the one I should be focused on…
I drew in a sharp breath. Nope. Annalise was attractive, sure, but I couldn’t screw around with Kelly’s best friend. My sister—and mother—would kill me when any fling with Annalise ended. And it would end, because I didn’t do long-term. It was in my genes.
Everyone knew the apple never fell far from the tree, and every person in Australia knew what a rotten tree my father had been. Sleeping around on his wife, not bothering to hide it from the gossip magazines, not turning up for gigs because he’d found something—or someone—more interesting, disappearing for weeks at a time, leaving people worried and searching for him, only to reappear, wondering what all the fuss was about.
He usually realized his mistakes later, begged for forgiveness, and was forgiven all in time to make the next lapse in judgment. By the end, he’d been so drunk all the time, the band couldn’t tour. He’d managed to destroy his own career.
Sure, I’d never make those exact mistakes, but I had the same restless spirit, the same inability to make a relationship work. The principle was the same.
Luckily, Kelly hadn’t taken after our father at all—she was our mother all over, from her looks to her good heart—but I’d long ago accepted that my genes were stacked against me.
Annalise glanced down at her watch. “I need to get going,” she said, clearly avoiding the question about a favor.
The smart thing would be to let her, and, for one of the rare times in my life, I did the smart thing. After scribbling down my address on a napkin, I pushed the chair back and stood. “See you tomorrow.”
She smiled and waved. As I strode out of the cafe, I had to wonder if I’d been wrong. This entire plan might not have been the smart thing.