How could a man of the twenty-first century think he could arrange a marriage for his daughter? Was he insane? Then again, it was her father she was talking about, and Raymond Fairchild was in a league all his own.
"Certifiable, that's what he is. My father has completely lost it. Thinking he can marry me off like this is the freakin' eighteenth century or something." Lucy Fairchild stormed the sidewalk with her relentless pace, kicking at the rocks in her path. She knew she was talking to herself, but didn't care. Not that anyone could hear her with all the noisy construction going on.
She ignored the sounds of jackhammers and maneuvering cranes. Coupled with the daily mix of trolley cars and traffic forever permeating San Francisco's financial district, the sounds were just more white noise in an ever-busy city. Besides, her mind still whirled from the argument she'd just had with her father. Raymond Fairchild may be the president of one of the city's most prestigious law firms, but that didn't give him the right to control her life.
Right. Like that had ever stopped him from trying to control and otherwise lead her around as if she were too stupid to make her own decisions. She'd always gone along with him before. One, because he was her father and she loved him, and two, sometimes it was easier to do as he asked so he'd quit hounding her. Typically his machinations were harmless.
But marriage to a man of his choice? That's where she drew the line. The entire notion was positively medieval. She'd pick her own damn husband. Some day. When she was ready.
"Careful, darlin', you might trip and break one of those pretty legs."
She halted at the voice shouting at her, her ire rising by the second. Lifting her head, she spotted a group of men loitering near a construction trailer, smiling in her direction. This she did not need today.
"You lost, honey? I can help you find your way."
She should just walk past, ignore them. But their catcalling made her feel more like a piece of meat than her father's ludicrous statement that he'd just found the perfect husband for her.
Ignoring the clumps of dirt scuffing her black suede pumps, she stomped over to the group of five men, leveling her best courtroom glare.
"Do you know how insulting it is to be spoken to that way?"
One of the men, surely old enough to know better, grinned at her. "We're just bein' friendly."
"Those are not compliments." She shook her finger at his nose. His eyes widened and he backed up a step as she closed in on him. She heard the laughter of the other men, but ignored them. If necessary, she'd deal with them all, one at a time. "They're demeaning, harassing, and I have half a mind to report you to your boss."
"Report away. I'm right here."
She turned at the sound of the deep, resonant voice behind her and watched him stroll toward her. Obviously, the boss. Darn fine looking one, too. Mid thirties, she'd guess, with dark hair that ruffled lightly in the late afternoon wind. His dusty jeans and work shirt couldn't hide the muscular physique that was most likely due to hours working on a construction site.
"Call off your dogs," Lucy said. For a moment, she'd been so mesmerized by the man heading toward her that she'd forgotten all about her irritation at the cavemen who worked for him. His smirk brought all her frustration back.
"They're just playing with you, having a little fun." He turned to the group still loitering and hooked a thumb at the gigantic steel structure across the street. "Break's over. Back to work."
With a great amount of laughter, elbow jabbing and mumbling, all obviously at her expense, they turned and headed toward the building.
A red haze of fury blinded her. "Can't you do something about your men? Every day I walk this way to get coffee, and every day they whistle and call out to me."
He shrugged. "They think you're good looking. Is that a crime? Believe me, they're harmless."
What a Neanderthal attitude. Were all men this dense? "Not to me they aren't."
He raised a dark brow and pulled off his sunglasses, giving her a knock-her-to-the-floor gander at his warm, whiskey-colored eyes. Eyes a woman could get lost in. She'd bet they'd probably turn a molten amber when filled with passion.
Okay, where had that come from? She tamped down the thought and focused on what he was saying.
"--and if you weren't so uptight about it, you'd just let it go."
"Excuse me? Uptight?"
"Yeah. Uptight. You know, like those pointy-toed shoes that I'll bet are pinching your feet right now. And that skinny skirt that's probably cutting off your breath. Want me to spell it out for you?"
She followed his gaze to her designer shoes that were squeezing her toes, and tried not to agree that the mid-calf skirt was a little more than uncomfortable. The man was beyond irritating. Coupled with her father's treatment of her, she'd just about had it. "Look. I don't have the time to stand here and argue with you. Just keep your animals on a leash in the future."
With a swift turn of her heel on the gravel, she made to leave, but her foot slipped on the rocks and she went crashing into his arms.
Nothing like hitting a rock-hard chest to knock the breath out of a girl. At least she could focus on her breathing instead of the horrendous embarrassment flooding through her.
"You okay?" he asked, his minty breath ruffling the side of her hair.
"Yeah. I think so." What a klutz. He should be laughing at her right now. All full of righteous indignation the moment before she almost fell on her butt.
He still held her, much too close. And she was way too aware of how good it felt, which irritated her more than the catcalls from his crew. Then she made the mistake of making eye contact and saw the amusement crinkling the corner of his eyes.
"Are you sure?"
Even his tone spoke of laughter. At her expense.
She wrenched her arms away. "I'm fine."
He dropped his hands and jammed them into the pockets of his jeans. "You're welcome. Next time I'll let you fall on your ass."
"You're just like those heathens over there," she shot back, then instantly felt a stab of guilt. He had kept her from falling. She could have at least thanked him. Mortal embarrassment obviously outweighed politeness.
His eyes hardened, darkening to a rich, coffee color. "Wait just a damn minute. These guys might not be the refined upper crust that you associate with, but they're decent, hardworking men. Just because you don't have a sense of humor is no reason to look down your nose at them."
Lucy straightened the jacket of her suit and lifted her chin. "I've never looked down my nose at them. I just think it would be more appropriate if they kept their comments to themselves."
He crossed his arms and leaned against the light pole. "Why? Can't take a compliment?"
She sniffed. "I can take compliments just fine, thank you, when they're positive as opposed to degrading."
"I heard what they said. Nothing degrading about it. You're just a snob."
How dare he call her a snob? She was the least snobby person she knew, and she knew plenty of people who could easily be classified that way. His comment cut deep, because she'd always prided herself on trying to get to know people in all walks of life. Unlike her father and grandfather, who turned up their noses at anyone not in their small social circle. She found that type of elitist attitude appalling.
And she wasn't like them. Not at all.
"I am not a snob. I just don't appreciate being ogled and harassed while walking down the street."
"First off, you weren't being harassed. Second, yeah, you were being ogled, and why would that bother you?" Amusement colored his eyes back to that dreamy whisky shade. "Not used to the attention? Understandable, considering your attitude."
Why was she even having a conversation with this idiot? He was baiting her, she knew it, and still she stood her ground. If she had any sense at all she'd simply walk away.
But something about him got to her. "I get plenty of attention."
He snorted. "Yeah right. From those uppity suit types who wouldn't know what to do with a woman if she fell right into the middle of their balance sheets."
Lucy resisted the urge to smile at that comment, knowing several men who fit that description. She'd even dated some of them. Boring as financial statements, too.
Instead, she decided to turn the tables. "And I suppose you know exactly what to do with a woman?"
Oh why couldn't she learn to keep her mouth shut?
His full lips curled upward, transforming his tanned face into a work of art. A strong jaw sprinkled with a sexy dose of stubble lent him an outlaw look that made her pulse race faster. She felt the heat like a slap of lightning.
"Damn straight I know what to do with a woman. Would you like me to show you?"
She'd walked right into that one. Suddenly at a loss for words, her idiotic mind conjured up images of him doing just that. She shook her head, vehemently expressing her denial to both him and herself. "No, thanks."
"Too bad." He dug his well worn work boots into the dirt along the side of the road. "You'll never know what you missed."
"Doubtfully anything," she lied, unable to believe she was still there. But something about him compelled her to stay. Maybe it was the pure enjoyment of sparring with someone who wasn't stuffy and boring. He had a generous wit and intelligence that belied his occupation. Plus he wasn't half bad to look at.
"You're not my type, anyway." His eyes twinkled with amusement in the afternoon sun. He was enjoying this.
This was her own fault. She'd stayed. Now it was a game of one-upmanship. And she hated to lose. "And, what, exactly, is your type?"
"Someone who wants to have fun. You're too straight-laced and tight a-- Uh, uptight to enjoy anything but high tea or a rousing game of bridge."
She wrinkled her nose at the thought of having to endure either of those activities. He knew so little about her. "I'll have you know I am tons of fun." Yeah right. When was the last time she actually had a good time doing anything? She couldn't remember.
"Prove it. Go out with me."
Her heart thudded against her ribs before skidding to a complete halt. It took her a second to find her voice before she could say, "Excuse me?"
"Go out with me. Take a walk on the wild side. Or are you too afraid you'll get your perfectly manicured hands a little dirty?"
She looked down at hands that fit his exact description, then back up at him. For a brief second she had actually felt guilty because of who she was. "I'm not afraid of anything."
Great. She'd dug herself one incredible hole now. It would be easy to claim she'd been joking and merely walk away. She didn't even know the man's name, nor anything about him. Except the fact he was fine looking and had sent her hormones speeding in a direction they'd never been before.
He nodded, wiping his hands on his jeans. "Thought so. See you around." He pivoted toward the nearby trailer.
Oh God, had she just said that? He stopped and turned his head. Lord was he sexy, giving her that half-lidded gaze over his shoulder. And what incredible shoulders they were. Now that she'd opened her mouth, what was she going to do?
No, Lucy. Walk away. Do not do this. But that little niggling reminder of her father's excessive control over her life pushed her into doing something that was completely out of character for her.
"I'll go out with you." She waited for the feeling of dread to settle over her, but instead it felt right.
He tilted his head and smiled, then walked back to her and held out his hand. "Well, aren't you brave? Jake. Jake Dalton."
Jake. Now he had a name. She slid her hand in his and immediately felt the searing contact. His rough, callused palms scraped against her sensitive skin, sending shivers up her arm. "Lucy Fairchild."
"Okay, Lucy Fairchild, we'll have a date and see how it goes," he said with a charming grin.
Obviously he wasn't taking this any more seriously than she was. And besides, what was the harm? It wasn't like they were a love match or anything. It was a just a date. Really, more like a challenge. A dare. Like playing chicken--see who flinched first.
She pulled out her business card, scribbled on the back and handed it to him.
He took the card and read both sides, his eyebrows lifting when he looked up. "Esquire, huh? You're a lawyer?"
She nodded, eager to get away from this man who made her think too much about what was lacking in her life. What she'd never experienced, but wanted to. "Yes. I really have to go. My home address is on the back of the card."
"Fine. I'll pick you up at eight."
She started to walk away, but his words stopped her. She pivoted.
"Eight?" She swallowed. "Tonight?"
"Yeah. Tonight. You busy?"
"Um, well, that is..." Good heavens. Tonight? She hadn't really thought about doing it so soon. Or really, at all.
"Yes or no?"
He was waiting for her to back down. Chicken. Flinch. No way. "Eight works for me."
"Fine," he nodded. "See you then. Dress casual. You do know what that is, don't you? No evening gowns? Leave the tiara at home?"
She tilted her head and sighed. "Yes. Casual. Whatever. Eight it is."
With as much dignity as she could dredge up, she walked down the street, shaking her head and muttering to herself again.
"A date. With a stranger, and an annoying one at that. I must be insane. This is all Father's fault. If he hadn't upset me with his ridiculous marriage idea, I'd have never stopped to confront those men. Which means I'd have never engaged in conversation with Jake, and wouldn't be having a date with him tonight."
She stopped at the coffee shop, her original destination after she'd stormed out of her father's office. She'd merely wanted a chance to cool off, to gain some perspective, and needed to get out of Fairchild's stuffy offices to grab a cup of coffee.
Then she'd run into those men. And Jake.
After ordering her latte, she took the steaming brew and sat at one of the small metal tables near the window, watching the red steel structure that would someday be a new high rise. Men worked on the upper levels of those skinny beams, walking the narrow steel structure with finesse and grace. She sipped her latte and watched for awhile, wondering if one of those figures up there was Jake.
Jake Dalton. Now there was expert construction. She'd known many handsome men, men with athletic bodies owed to hours in the gym with a high-priced personal trainer. Men who went for weekly facials and had their hair cut by the best stylists San Francisco had to offer. They even got manicures and pedicures. All phony perfection that didn't do a thing to turn her on.
But never had she seen a man so well put together as Jake. His lean body was a result of hard hands-on labor, his tanned skin not from a booth with ultraviolet lights, but from hours spent working outside. His hair was unkempt and mussed, not perfectly combed and styled. The kind of hair that would be soft, that a woman would want to run her hands through and know that her fingers wouldn't get stuck in some kind of styling goo.
But he was utterly and completely wrong for her. They had nothing in common. He was more annoying than a summer fly in the house and she'd probably want to swat him by the end of their date tonight.
Unfortunately, she'd never been more attracted to a man in her entire thirty years of life.
Which was the precipitator of her father's conversation with her this morning that had set her off in the first place.
Her advancing age, as he'd informed her. The fact she wasn't getting any younger and hadn't once dated a man who was worthy of merging with the Fairchild family and producing an heir.
Merging. Like anyone she'd marry would be a business deal, not a love match. She'd like to show him a merger. Wouldn't he just have a fit when Jake Dalton showed up at the door tonight?
That alone would make the date worthwhile.
Though it wasn't really a date.
"I hear you got a date for tonight."
Jake cringed when he walked through the door of the construction trailer to find Bob Dixon grinning like he'd just won the lottery. The old man never failed to find ways to annoy him.
But without Bob, God only knows what would have happened to Jake. From day one Bob had been both his mentor and fiercest persecutor, ever since Jake had left home at sixteen and lied his way onto the construction crew Bob supervised.
Back then Jake had wondered if he'd even get hired on anywhere, and if not, how he'd manage the eating and roof over his head part.
All those years alone had made Jake resourceful. Bob had taken pity on the skinny kid with no skills and trained him. Bob Dixon had been more father to Jake than his own had ever been. So he put up with the old man's bizarre sense of humor.
"And they say women are gossips?" Jake threw his clipboard on the desk and faced the other man.
Bob laughed, a big belly laugh that fit his lumberjack-sized frame. "Men are bigger gossips than women, sometimes. So, tell me about her."
"Not much to tell."
Bob raised a bushy brow. "You liked her enough to ask her out."
"What? Am I wired for sound here?"
"Nah, the guys just listened in, and then, ya know how they talk."
"Unfortunately, yeah. I know how they talk." Their talking was what had gotten him involved with Miss High on the Hill in the first place. Just what he didn't need in his life right now.
His mind should have been on business--on this job which was so critical to his fledgling company. The high rise was his first huge project, and if they did well there'd be more business coming their way. Enough that Jake would have to expand and hire more people.
Which meant growth, and that's what he aimed for. Building his business was all he ever thought about. Usually, anyway. Except at the moment his mind was occupied by a petite wildcat in lamb's clothing.
"Heard she gave them a hard time," Bob said, spitting tobacco juice into a nearby cup.
Jake smiled and leaned back in the chair. "Yeah, she sure did. Took them on with no fear. I've never seen anything like it."
And they'd well deserved it. Idiots. Bunch of grown men leering at a beautiful woman, and then shouting at her like teenagers out for a joyride to pick up chicks.
Not that he'd behaved any better. He shook his head, amazed at his own big mouth. Like he didn't have enough to worry about, he'd gone and asked the little tigress out on a date. He was way out of his league with that one. But her snobbish attitude got to him.
"Just the kind of woman you need. Somebody with a little fire, maybe light one under your too-long-a-bachelor rear end." Bob winked at him, the wrinkles around his eyes smiling.
"I don't need a woman at all." Women were complications that he didn't have time for. And he especially didn't need a woman like Lucy Fairchild. He'd spent his entire childhood listening to someone rail at him about not being good enough, about not measuring up.
His father's constant barrage of degrading comments still lived inside him, just waiting for failure to rear its ugly head and prove his father's words true. How he'd never amount to anything. How he was useless and stupid, and as worthless as his mother.
Even years later, despite building a successful business, those words stayed with him, haunted him. They hid inside him, not growing, but never going away. He'd spent all these years trying to prove his father wrong. He might be a blue collar worker, but he'd make a success of his life.
"Come on, Bob. You know how busy I am. The last thing I have time for is a woman."
"That's where you're wrong, boy." Bob lifted his heavy girth out of the chair, which creaked in relief at its offloaded burden. On the way past Jake's desk, he squeezed his shoulder. Jake looked up at him. "You've spent a lifetime runnin' from that ghost of your daddy. You need to put that to rest. It's time to find a good woman who'll appreciate what you got to offer."
Maybe Bob was right. Jake had spent all these years learning the trade, saving his money, working toward the day he could start his own business.
And when he had, he'd worked like the devil was chasing him trying to build it up. Now he was thirty-five years old, and if he was going to get married and have kids, he probably should get out there and find a woman.
But Lucy Fairchild certainly wasn't going to be that woman.
"She's not my type."
Bob laughed and spit. "That's what we all say. Right up until they lead us down the aisle."
"She's a rich career girl. You know I don't date girls like that." He'd never let anyone make him feel the way his father had. No, he stuck to his own kind. Girls who weren't born into money, who wouldn't look down on someone whose blood wasn't blue like theirs.
"Hey, you're the one who asked her for a date. I guess you're stuck."
True enough. Talk about a disaster. She'd probably expect some fancy, expensive restaurant that wasn't in his budget. Too bad. She'd have to make do with the kind of place he liked to eat.
"Lemme ask you a question," Bob said.
"If this woman's such a snob, if she stands for everything you hate, why did you ask her to go out with you?"
"Hell if I know."
But he did know. After Bob left the trailer, Jake sat at his desk and propped his feet up.
He knew exactly why. Because she was gorgeous. The first thing he'd noticed were her long legs and curvy body. Then her wild, curly hair that flew everywhere around her face, the tawny strands glittering in the sunlight.
Plus, she was interested in him. He'd been with enough women to recognize when one was attracted to him. Her sea green eyes had studied him, held him, measuring, assessing.
He knew all about want. There were a lot of things he wanted in life. Some he'd managed to get. Some he hadn't gotten yet, and some he never would.
Not a betting man, he'd still lay a wager that he could get Lucy Fairchild. Maybe not permanently, but at least for a while. Which was all he had time or inclination for, anyway. Going out and having some fun with a woman was great. A woman who wanted anything more from him could look elsewhere. He didn't know what Lucy wanted. Probably nothing. She didn't even really want to go out with him in the first place, any more than he'd wanted to go out with her.
The fact she wore a painful vulnerability on her face like some women wore hot red lipstick wasn't his problem. If he spotted something in her akin to the aching loneliness he occasionally acknowledged within himself, then tough. He wasn't her savior. As it was, he could barely save himself.
She represented nothing but a challenge. And he liked challenges.
So, he'd show up at her doorstep tonight and see what happened. Take the rich girl out and show her a slice of life she'd probably never seen before. If nothing else, the night should be interesting.