One Real Man

By: Coleen Kwan

“Uh, I’m not sure.”

“I saw Astrid Sherwood in town the other day. Weren’t you two best friends at school?”

Astrid? Christ, not Astrid. Not in a million years. Back in high school she’d been flattered when Astrid, the undisputed queen bee of their class, had allowed her into her elite circle of friends. For a while, Paige had led a charmed social life, but after the fiasco of the school dance, she and Astrid had avoided each other, their friendship over without a word exchanged.

“That was a long time ago. I don’t want to bother her.” Paige shrugged. “I’ll check into a hotel.” And use up a few more of her precious dollars.

Owen fell silent again. Unnerved, she turned to pick up her handbag, which she’d tossed on the bed.

“You can stay the night.”

His abrupt offer had her swiveling back. “Excuse me?”

“It’s late,” he said gruffly. “Stay the night. You can organize something in the morning.”

She pursed her lips. “You don’t have to sound like you’re having your teeth pulled.”

“You know me. Mr. Charming. Well?”

What choice did she have? “I’ll stay, then.” Slowly she inclined her head. “Thank you.”

A dimple flashed in his cheek for a second. “Now who sounds like she’s having her teeth pulled?”

Paige blinked. “Did you just smile at me?”

“Me? Smile? Nope, must have been a muscle tic.”

He had smiled at her. Owen had never been a big smiler. But just for a second there, his smile had transformed his face, making him younger, friendlier, sweeter. Oh Lord, what was she thinking? Owen was not a sweet guy. When she was sixteen, he’d pulled her behind the ferns in the pool house and kissed her without warning. For weeks he’d shadowed her, repeating that kiss, and then he’d gate-crashed her high school dance and embarrassed her in front of her date and her entire class. He was not sweet. He’d been a pox on her adolescence.

“You’re giving me the stink eye.” His voice cut through her turbulent memories. “You should smile more often.”

“I smile plenty when I have a reason to.”

“No need to get all snippy. I just offered you a bed for the night, remember? I even brought your suitcases upstairs. They’re outside the door.”

“So you suspected I might need a bed?” That was sweet of him—no, she had to stop thinking that.

“It’s a big house. Plenty of spare bedrooms.”

“And where are you sleeping?” A disturbing possibility crossed her mind. “You’re not…you’re not using my parents’ bedroom, are you?”

The corner of his lip curled. “Don’t worry. Your parents’ bedroom felt like a concert hall to me. I’m using one of the smaller guest suites. Does that make you happy?”

“I’m sure you’re more comfortable there.” Her words came out more stiffly than she’d intended.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to put on too many airs and graces. Who knows when I might lose everything?”

She gritted her teeth. “Precisely. You never know what might happen in the future.”

“True. But if I suddenly became penniless, I could always go back to cleaning pools. I haven’t forgotten that.”

The dangerous sheen in his eyes warned her. He hadn’t forgotten anything that had passed between them fourteen long years ago, even though she’d made such an effort to erase the events from her memory. Why couldn’t he let the past go like she had? Why did he have to needle her with it? She’d suffered too, thanks to him.

Words burst from her mouth, born of frustration, humiliation, exhaustion. “Once a pool boy, always a pool boy, I suppose?”

The pupils in his eyes shrank to pinpricks as his expression chilled. Why was she so mean to Owen? Suddenly her heart was pattering all over the place. Was he going to change his mind and throw her out of the house? His mouth flattened to a thin line.

“Good night, princess,” he bit out and left the room.

Chapter Two

He was a first class idiot. But then, Paige Kerrigan had always had that effect on him.

Owen punched his fist into one of the cushions strewn across the couch. He was in the den at the back of the Kerrigan mansion. When he’d hired his interior decorator, he’d been too busy—and not interested enough—to give her more than brief instructions and a tight deadline. She’d chosen furnishings in keeping with the grand mansion, but some of the touches were too fussy for him, like these silly scatter cushions.

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