He had been trained to lie, to manipulate a situation to his advantage. But now, thanks to his loving but sometimes too involved mother, Max Carter—grown man, functioning human being, and damn good FBI Agent—needed to find a fake girlfriend for the holidays.
Max dragged himself up the steps to his building. The doorman held the door open for him with a friendly smile. “Evening, Mr. Carter. Did you enjoy your Thanksgiving?”
Ten-day-old turkey warmed over probably had a better holiday than he did, but Charlie was one of those genuinely nice guys, so Max swallowed a sarcastic response and limited himself to a white lie. “I did. Thanks.”
He ducked into the building without reciprocating the question. The doorman tended to chat, and all Max wanted was to fall into bed for a week.
Make that five weeks, he mentally tacked on as he was confronted by a massive Christmas tree in the center of the elegant building lobby, its flocked branches bedecked in reds and silvers with glittering white lights. The monstrosity was real, filling the space with the sharp scent of pine.
Max stalked past the offending tree and stabbed the button for the elevator. The doors opened with a welcome whoosh.
He had nothing against Christmas in general, just Christmas this year. Maybe he’d come down with the flu between now and the big day. Nothing bad enough to land his ass in the hospital, but a bout of walking pneumonia, or maybe bronchitis, would work. Something that laid him up without killing him would be preferable. Then he could avoid the holiday with his family.
You know it’s bad when you’re debating which disease will help you the most.
He thumped his head against the wall. Why the hell had he blurted out, in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, that he had a girlfriend?
His reflection stared back at him accusingly from the perfectly polished mirror inside the elevator as holly, jolly Christmas music piped over the speakers. Max only heard the sounds of the nails in his coffin. His mother was going to kill him when she figured out he’d lied, and his sisters would hold the hammer.
He shook his head. He knew exactly why he’d said what he had. Sheer fucking desperation and the need to shut down the constant matchmaking foisted on him at every family event.
All he’d accomplished was making things worse. His family—large, boisterous, kind, and constantly with their noses buried directly in everyone else’s business—had concluded years ago that a woman would “cure” his iron-fisted control on life.
Case in point, Thanksgiving.
On Thursday, he’d walked into his parents’ house—all warm and cozy and filled with the smells of a fully loaded turkey dinner—only to come face to face with a curvy blonde who was no relation whatsoever.
The woman had smiled. “Hi.”
Max was sure she was perfectly nice, but he could scent a trap laid by his family a million miles away.
“Nice to meet you,” he’d said. Or something along those lines. What he’d wanted to say was, “Are you on the menu, too?” but his family’s machinations weren’t her fault. With effort, he kept his thoughts to himself and ducked into the kitchen where his mother hovered over the stove.
Beside her stood his youngest sister and two other women he didn’t know. Turned out his mother invited not one, but three, of his sister’s single friends to dinner. She’d claimed altruistic reasons, not wanting the “poor dears” to be alone at the holiday. Yeah, right. She clearly held on to hope that he’d find a happily ever after…over a romantic platter of turkey carcass, no less.
Max didn’t want or need a relationship. He preferred to keep things…uncomplicated. He stuck to women who played in the same sandbox and understood that his “happily ever afters” followed three simple rules:
Rule One: One night only.
Rule Two: No sleeping over. Too messy.
Rule Three: No personal information exchanged.
Even he could acknowledge he was too rigid to successfully maneuver a lasting relationship. He told himself he didn’t want one, even if he envied the easy devotion between his own parents, or even between his best friend, Drew, and his new girlfriend, Cassie…but that wasn’t an option for Max. The rules kept things operational.
However, the speculative looks in the eyes of all the women in that house were not simple or uncomplicated. He’d pictured himself laid out with the Thanksgiving feast like a roast pig with an apple in his mouth. Even the blonde, gorgeous and witty as she was, held zero appeal. Any woman who offered to feed him from her own fork was not for him.
After several hours of polite chitchat peppered with flirtatious looks and expectant watchfulness from his mother as well as his aunts and sisters, he did the most out of character thing he’d ever done.
With a mouth full of pumpkin pie, he announced he had a girlfriend.
To which, after choking around her initial shock, his mother replied, “That’s wonderful! We’ll set a place for her at Christmas, then.”
His mother’s powers of deduction would do Sherlock Holmes proud. He’d semi-expected her to stand up from the dinner table, point an accusing finger at him, and shout, “Liar.”
Instead she’d done something far worse and called his bluff.
“Fuck,” he grumbled. The word had become his mantra over the last three days while he avoided questions about his fictitious girlfriend and tried to work a way out of the mess he’d landed himself in.
The elevator reached his floor with a ping, and the doors whooshed back open. Lost in thought, he slowly made his way down the long, curving hallway, tastefully decorated with hardwood flooring, pale gray walls, and framed black and white prints. The space was softly illuminated by the evening light filtering through windows at the end of each hall in a way he usually found soothing. Not tonight, though.
Rolling his shoulders to relieve the tension in his neck, he blew out a long breath. What he needed right now was a good long run on the treadmill down in the gym, but he needed to unpack first. He’d go later, at his usual time.
The thought of slipping back into his normal routine after a week of chaos already had the knot in his stomach loosening up.
His life was exactly how he wanted it. He went to work. He had exactly four cups of coffee throughout the day as he investigated white-collar criminals. He came home. He ordered takeout from one of the dozen restaurants in the neighborhood. They knew exactly what he wanted when he called because he didn’t deviate. When insomnia inevitably struck, he’d go to the building’s gym and work out alone. Add in regular workouts with Drew four days a week, along with beers with friends over a good game or a night of poker, and he had the perfect setup. No wife needed.
The long drive home had produced a pitiful list of ideas. I’ll either have to fabricate a breakup before Christmas—which was guaranteed to bring more potential love matches out of his mother’s woodwork—or I’m going to have to produce a real, live girlfriend.
There were women he could approach, ladies who he’d shared a bed with but nothing else, but that produced its own set of complications. Or he could just pick up a new woman…only he was getting bored with the revolving door of his sex life. Not that he planned to change it any time soon. Casual sex with women who got the rules was better than no sex at all. Besides, introducing one of them to his family would break his personal rule of no information exchanged, so that was out.
The beginnings of a headache pinched behind his eyes.
While there might be any number of undercover agents he could tap for the job, the years of jokes that would generate at work shoved that option right off the table.
Maybe someone separate from his team? The receptionist at the field office was nice. Slender and pretty in a girl-next-door kind of way, perfect for deceiving matchmaking mamas. She had never indicated any interest in him, which could work. Maybe he could ask her out for a drink and hope…what—she’d pretend to be his girlfriend long enough to get his adoring, misguided mother off his back, then return to being a passing “hello” as he badged in and out of the building each day?
No. He shoved the key in his door, missed, and had to try again. Asking out a colleague, even one he didn’t interact with much, violated every dating rule he had. Whoever he got needed to stay separate. Impersonal. Neutral.
He was going to have to find an unknown, and fast.
Maybe an actress? They were a dime a dozen in this city. Couldn’t be that hard, could it?
With a click that sounded loud in the blessed silence of his building, he finally managed to unlock his unhelpful door, but paused in the entryway when he heard the strangest squeaking sound.
Max cocked his head and listened. After a silent wait, a noise that sounded like a whimper echoed from a few doors down.
The door in question opened a crack, then swung wider, and a woman wearing a neon pink hoodie and blue yoga pants crept out into the hallway. Her hair, long and dark, hung in a thick braid over one shoulder.
His neighbor was a blonde, so who was this?
Interest aroused both by the decidedly luscious curves on display, thanks to the skin-tight clothes, as much as by her odd behavior, Max stepped farther into his apartment, out of sight, and waited, watching.
After carefully closing the door behind her with a barely audible click, the woman tiptoed down the hall toward where he stood. His interest cranked up a notch as he got a better look at her face—wide brown eyes, high cheekbones, honey-tinted skin, and lush lips.
Wow. A bolt of awareness shot through his curiosity. He stepped out in the hall, intending to introduce himself.
But as soon as she spotted him, she skidded to a halt and froze in place, guilt written all over her face in a passable imitation of a five-year-old who hoped that if she stayed still enough and closed her eyes, the monster under the bed wouldn’t get her. Even her dark-chocolate eyes stilled as she stared back without blinking. The bulge concealed inside her hoodie, however, had other plans.
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