Two days and seven men later, Hope scowled at the guy walking out the door of the café, and then dropped her head on the table.
This act was getting to be a habit with Jon Thompson's favorite new customer, and he couldn't hold back his curiosity any longer. He had to find out what was going on with the lovely siren.
Hope tapped her forehead against the manila folder resting on the dark wood and groaned loud enough for him to hear across the floor. When she lifted her beautiful face, her hair fell back and she met Jon's gaze. Twirling a finger in a long, shiny lock, she sent shockwaves through his body.
Damn! She was sexy when her teeth scraped over her bottom lip. Jon stared, anticipating the little flicker of her tongue that usually followed. She didn't disappoint him. She wet those sweet lips, and his jeans grew uncomfortably tight. He should've worn his signature black, double pleated slacks for some privacy, but no, he'd reached for a fucking pair of stiff jeans that made him miserable around her.
Jon approached the striking department store employee who rented the apartment above his café, pretending to clear the cup bachelor number seven left behind.
"How's it hanging, Hope?" Jon smiled, gazing into her drop-dead gorgeous eyes as he wiped the mahogany surface. One day, one day soon, he'd learn what those green eyes and long brown hair looked like when she woke up from a very satisfying sleep. One day very soon. Patience was not one of his virtues, and when he wanted something, he got it.
He wanted Hope.
Jon stood over her table with the tray in his right hand and tapped his foot. He'd gaze at those eyes for hours if he could understand what was up with her. But it wouldn't help. Looking at her was more like diving into the warm waters of a Bahamian beach, a secluded location, where he'd have her all to himself. He wouldn't be able to think.
"You're the man in this conversation," she said, extending her arm toward his groin. "You should know how it's hanging."
"Good point," he replied, chuckling and placing the tray on the neighboring table. Lifting and twisting the chair, Jon straddled the seat and lowered himself to her level so he could enjoy the view properly. "In that case, it's hanging a little to the right and long."
He smirked, crossed his arms over the back of the wooden chair, and managed to get a smile out of the pensive woman. "However, it seems like something is bugging my foxy latte lover. Care to share?"
"I don't know." Her gaze skimmed over him, fueling his need for her.
No matter how much he wanted to yank her out of that seat and take her on the counter, Jon had to wait. He hadn't even asked her out. Actually, he'd made a very conscious choice not to show sexual interest in the woman who had him walking around with a hard-on each time she strolled through his door.
Hope projected a confident, cool, and sexy front, but there was something about her that shouted, Proceed with caution. Fragile. As if she'd been wounded and was vulnerable to any attention. Jon sensed her hesitation in getting to know him better, but she kept coming in and hanging around. Five days in a row to be exact.
Knowing that their joining was inevitable, he'd decided to give her time to acclimate to his interest and the attraction between them. When Jon took her, it would be explosive, and the moment needed to be absolutely perfect. He'd give her no room for regrets.
"I can't seem to get anything right. It's one thing after another." Hope sank against her seat and dropped her clenched fists into her lap. "I moved to the city because I was running away from something back home."
"Yeah, a cheating asshole."
Hurt colored her face, and he wanted to gather her in his arms and make it all go away. Hope was too good to be put through something like that.
"His loss," he said. "You're gorgeous, and you can have any man you point your little finger at."
"Thanks. But it is a bit more complicated right now." As she took a deep breath, her lips formed a tempting pink pout. "I lied to my family, and now I'm screwed."
Tracing the gold outline on the table top with her index finger, she made little circles at each corner. "Last month, I opened my big mouth and messed it all up. I couldn't take all that true love and romance crap being thrown in my face all the time. You see, my ex was still around and involved in the family's business."
"That makes it hard."
Hope threw up her arms in exasperation. "The lies started over Thanksgiving because I couldn't face seeing him across the table."
"At the family dinner table?" He shook his head. The ex was in her home even after he had hurt her. Jon's blood rushed through his veins and his pressure spiked at the thought.
"Yes," she replied, shaking her head. "The plot thickens. He was constantly at my parents' house, and mom wouldn't stop talking about it. She insisted that what Charles and I had was a college romance that just burned out, and that I should be over it." Her fingers intertwined in her hair and it was clear that she wasn't happy with the situation.
"Are you over him?"
"Oh, yeah. I'm done with him. It was over in July. Charles is not the problem."
Jon scratched his chin. "Then why are you so upset?"
"Mom's attitude had me cornered." Hope's face clouded with thought. "She kept saying that it was hard to choose who you love, and that I was better off finding out that Charles wasn't meant for me before we had made a lifelong commitment. Mom used her teacher voice, and instructed me to grow up and face reality."
A pang jolted through Jonathan, and this time it had nothing to do with lust. He empathized with the woman sitting in his café, sipping her second latte of the night like it was some kind of courage juice. He knew exactly what she was talking about when it came to a parent's interference. The search for love had messed him up over the years. Hence, the birth of Jon: the hard-working and struggling café owner.
If only a woman would want him, and not what his family owned. Then, he could live his life in the open. No pretending, no need to hide the truth, just a real and honest living. Jonathan Thompson wasn't opposed to having things, but he didn't allow material possessions to define him. And most definitely, he didn't want them to determine whom he settled down with.
Jon studied her features. "Hope, maybe it's time for you to put yourself back on the market and start dating?"
"That's exactly what my mother said." Her voice laced with anxiety as her eyes grew dark. "And maybe you're both correct. But, instead of agreeing with her, I created a whole alternate reality."
What had she just said? An alternate reality? Had she figured him out? No, she was talking about herself. She'd better not tell him she was getting down and dirty with an alien, or he'd lose it. He didn't have to be politically correct and accept a little green man doing the woman he wanted.
Females were so difficult to deal with and impossible to live without. It seemed like a burden he'd have to carry forever. Actually, a willing burden if it had anything to do with Hope.
"Okay." Jon decided to gamble with his sanity and pushed the words between his teeth. "Explain what you mean by alternate."
"I told mom that I couldn't go home for Thanksgiving because I was spending the holiday with my new boyfriend. As far as my family is concerned, we went to Vermont so I could meet his parents."
"I guess you never went to Vermont." Jon blinked hard, as if he could get rid of the confusion settling around him.
"Nope. I worked that weekend as Santa's number one elf, and hung around my apartment the rest of the time in my red velvet outfit, eating candy canes." She sighed and her breasts rose under her sweater, her pebbled nipples taunting him.
He tried not to stare at her chest. Tried to control his hard-on. But, damn, he was just a man.
"Mom thinks I was in Waterbury," she said, releasing her breath so her breasts returned to their normal position.
Jon shrugged. "Okay, you've sworn me to secrecy. I'll never reveal your secret life in red velvet. Just tell her you broke up with the boyfriend and she'll never know any better."
"That would have been good advice two days ago." Hope propped her elbows on the table. "I sort of embellished the trip to Vermont much more than I originally mentioned."
His gaze dipped back to the robust curves of her breasts and the hard nipples peaking through the cashmere. The woman was driving him crazy. His reaction to her was like a love struck teenager. He had to do something about it. Maybe he'd ask her out tonight and alleviate his problems while taking her mind off the demon ex who wouldn't go away.
"In this alternate reality..."
"Yeah," he encouraged her to continue, rolling his hand in an urging manner.
"I got engaged three nights ago."
What the fuck?
"In Vegas," she added. "I put off the wedding for my mother's sake."
His face must have displayed what he thought, because she tapped his arm and bent across the table, crooking her index finger to pull him close. "Of course, this is all bullshit that I told my mother so that she could pass it along to the rest of the family."
"Is that why you've been interviewing all these men?" Jon asked.
"Yes. I need a fiancé for the holidays." She flipped her hair over her shoulder and shrugged as if she'd just announced that she needed to go shopping for a new pair of shoes. "Mom does the family dinner for Christmas. Everyone comes over. Christmas dinner isn't something I can get out of. How would it look if I arrived without my soon-to-be-hubby?"
"Like he doesn't exist." The ideas churning in Jon's head created an intriguing story. "Like you lied because you're not over the no-control-dickhead." If the situation were handled properly, it could be a fun scenario. Maybe Christmas wouldn't be so stuffy and boring this year.
"That's why I need to find a man to bring home on Christmas Eve."
"Sweetheart, you could have any man you choose. Just let him know you're interested." Let me know you're interested. "You don't need to pay for love or sex."
"Love is overrated, and sex is doable in a variety of ways that don't include all the emotional baggage. I don't need to be dumped on by a man for all that stuff."
"I think you've definitely been with the wrong guys." He let out a deep breath and shook his head. "Okay." He stood and snapped a towel at the chair. "I'll take on the challenge and alter your beliefs."
Shrugging, she smiled. "Good luck. Know where I can get a tall, dark, and handsome holiday man?"
"I'll do it," Jon announced. "I'm your fiancé for Christmas."
"What?" Her mouth dropped open and her eyes widened. "You?"
"Why not?" Taking a small bow, he turned in place and displayed his goods. "Aren't I tall enough, broad enough, or charming enough?"
"No." She shook her head. "I mean yes. You're perfect. It isn't about looks or anything. But..."
"But what?" He feathered the back of his fingers over her silky hair. "You know I'm perfect. We'll have fun together, and I promise to make it a memorable week. I'll carry your bags, make your coffee, and most importantly, make you look good."
"Yeah," he said, raising his shoulders in order to discount any display of his desire to be with her. "You'll look good beside me." He waggled his brows and grinned. "I've had my share of compliments from the ladies. So together, we'll be amazing. We're both dark and tall. I'm broad, you're curvy, and we fit. You know, we make a handsome couple as the old timers say."
"That's sweet." She glanced at her hands and rubbed her fingers. "It wouldn't hurt to have a good looking fiancé."
Point scored. She thought he was good looking.
"Plus, I know how you take your coffee," Jon pressed. "None of those men you've been interviewing do. What would your family think about that? I mean, how would it look if your future husband was a complete stranger?"
"You're right, but I can't impose--"
"It's Christmas, so consider me your present." Jon bent and tangled his fingers in the hair falling on the nape of her neck. "Unwrap me, Hope. I'm yours," he offered, brushing his mouth over her soft lips.
He wanted to strip off each layer of what he was and reveal his history-which meant nothing to him, but so much to every other woman. Hope had to be different. He felt it in his bones, and he was determined to discover the truth.
She raised her chin toward the door as the bell chimed. "You have company."
There was poor Jeffrey, trying desperately to do his father's dirty work. "Let me just deal with Jeff. I'll close when he goes, and we'll iron out the details."