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Excerpt: All Fired Up

Excerpt: All Fired Up

Book 1: DreamMakers Series

Chapter One

“This needs to be big. No, it needs to be huge. I’m talking flowers and candles and sunset helicopter rides and—whatever the hell it is you people do. If she says no, I’ll… I don’t know what I’ll do. She has to say yes. She has to. Got it?”

The grade-A douchebag on the black leather couch crossed his arms over the front of his tailored suit jacket, his cobalt-blue eyes daring the two men across from him to challenge his final remark.

From their respective armchairs, Parker Wilson and Dean Colter exchanged a brief glance. In the three years DreamMakers Inc. had been in business, Parker and his colleagues had met with a lot of asshole boyfriends, but Parker could honestly say Phil Shotelle was one of the worst. From the moment the sharply dressed executive had sauntered into their office, Parker had been attempting to hide his disdain for the dark-haired man. Something about Shotelle rubbed him the wrong way. Probably the air of self-entitled importance the dude exuded in spades.

Dean, whose poker face was most definitely lacking, addressed their client with an unmistakable smirk. “You seem mighty worried your lady is gonna turn down the proposal. Any trouble in paradise we need to be aware of?”

Phil’s expression clouded over. “No,” he said in a tight voice. “Our relationship is rock-solid—and, frankly, none of your concern. I’m hiring you to plan a fantasy date, not to play therapist.”

Parker leaned back in his chair and tried not to grin. Clearly Dean had hit the nail right on the head—there was trouble in paradise, and the panicky glint that kept flashing in Phil’s eyes confirmed it.

But the douchebag was correct. DreamMakers didn’t provide counseling services, or matchmaking. The business had been designed to help clueless men plan the most romantic dates that said clueless men weren’t able to conceive of on their own—a job a battle-hardened soldier like Parker would never have imagined himself doing, not in a million years.

After his stint in the Rangers, he’d figured he’d wind up working security or taking an instructor gig on one of the army’s training bases. Instead, he’d founded DreamMakers with two of his fellow Special Ops soldiers, and somehow their little operation had transformed into a booming business, offering a service that was in surprisingly high demand in the San Francisco area.

Unfortunately, the influx of clientele meant jerks like Phil Shotelle were bound to cross their path.

“All right, why don’t you tell us a bit about your girlfriend?” Parker said in his most diplomatic voice, all the while fighting the urge to kick their new client right out of the office.

Phil shifted awkwardly on the sofa. “What do you want to know?”

“Her name would be a good start.” Dean’s tone was laced with humor.

“Ah, right. It’s Lynn. Her name is Lynn Davidson.”

“Okay. And what does Lynn do?”

“She works at the Bay City Press. We both do. I’m the junior vice president of advertising. She does the layouts for the paper.” Phil’s lips curled in a sneer. “She’s declined three opportunities for promotion in the last two years.”

Parker didn’t miss the note of scorn. In fact, he didn’t sense an ounce of love or warmth coming from the guy in relation to the woman he was going to propose to.

“How long have you been together?” he asked briskly.

“Almost five months.”

Dean’s dark eyebrows shot up. “And you’re already planning on popping the question? You must really believe she’s the one, huh?”

Phil offered a blank stare. “What?”

“The one,” Dean echoed. “The woman of your dreams, the fabled Mrs. Shotelle, your one and only, etcetera, etcetera.”

The other man blinked. “Ah. Right. Yeah, sure, she’s the one.”

It took all of Parker’s willpower not to gape at the moron sitting in front of them. “Yeah, sure, she’s the one” was about the most half-assed response he’d ever heard in his life. He didn’t normally root against his clients, but damn, he found himself hoping Phil’s main squeeze rejected the proposal. He didn’t know this Lynn, but he already felt pretty fucking sorry for her.

“So, what does she enjoy?” Parker asked. “What are her hobbies?”

Cue another blank look.

He smothered a sigh. “What about favorites? Favorite color, movie, music?”

Phil shrugged.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. The man was about to propose to the woman and he couldn’t even name her favorite color?

“You know what,” Dean spoke up, “why don’t you take a few minutes to think about it? We’ll need you to fill out some forms anyway, including a questionnaire about your woman. And there’s also a couple of waivers you’ll need to sign.”

“What kind of waivers?” Phil asked suspiciously.

“Standard 374-9. Release of liability for performance of services. Then we have the 17-4 regarding transportation.”

Phil’s eyes glazed over as Dean rambled on, spewing a list of numbers and techno jargon that sounded damn impressive. When Dean stopped and flashed his grin, Parker covered his mouth with a hand to hide his amusement behind a cough.

“I beg your pardon?” Phil blinked a few times. “Release of liability?”

Dean cleared his throat. “Means you acknowledge and understand that while we’re planning the date, it’s your job to woo your woman. If it’s a proposal, we can’t guarantee she’ll say yes, and we won’t be held liable if the answer is no.”

A nod. “Fair enough.”

“Just head to the lobby and ask Didi for the paperwork, and you can take as long as you need with it. We’ll talk fees and ideas when you’re done,” Dean added.

Looking relieved, Phil rose from the couch and nodded. “Sounds good.”

A moment later, the heavy oak door closed behind him, leaving Parker and Dean alone in the office.

“That poor woman,” Parker declared.

“Tell me about it. If she marries that idiot, she’s dooming herself to a life of douchebaggery. And did you see his nails? The dude totally has a manicurist on standby.”

Parker snorted. “Says the guy who got a mani-pedi last weekend.”

“Only because I was trying to bone the esthetician,” Dean protested. “I have a weakness for redheads.”

Parker rolled his eyes, because they both knew it was a load of bull. Dean Colter had a weakness for women, period. Redhead, blonde, brunette, short, tall, curvy, skinny. Didn’t matter. If she was cute and willing, Dean was gonna get with her, end of story.

Not that Parker was one to talk. He damn well realized he was as big a playboy as his colleague. So was Jack Hunter, their other partner and Parker’s longtime friend. He and Jack, in fact, had been best friends long before they’d met Dean, who’d been assigned to their Rangers unit.

The three of them had witnessed some seriously grisly things during their time in Special Ops—and they’d scored some seriously hot women when they were off-duty. Going into business together had been a natural step. Dean and Jack were the only people Parker trusted implicitly and the only ones, aside from his family, he’d lay down his life for without hesitation.

“You know what?” Dean’s gaze lingered on the doorway before focusing on Parker. “I think we should pass on the gig. All jokes aside, I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy.”

“Ditto. But let’s wait and see what he writes on the questionnaire. It might end up being an easy job.”

“Well, we’re charging him double regardless. He deserves to pay the asshole fee.”

“Duh. I told Didi to prepare the asshole forms the second I spotted the Armani suit.”

Dean snickered. “Who wears Armani for a job at the Bay City Press? Doesn’t he know print is dying? He’ll be out of a job in a year, two tops.”

As Parker chuckled, Dean drifted over to the mini-fridge on the other side of the office. “Beer?”

“Can’t you at least wait until the client leaves the building, bro? To give off even a modicum of professionalism?”

Yet for all his protests, Parker accepted the Bud Light that Dean handed him. Truth was, DreamMakers was no uptight Fortune-500-type company, and that was probably why their clients loved them. They were three former soldiers who liked cold beers and warm female bodies. They’d made their company easy to find on Google, and they catered to the average man—the guy who forgot to buy his lady flowers on her birthday and wanted to make up for it with a whirlwind date, the poor sucker who didn’t know the difference between roses and peonies, the football-loving husband who mistakenly scheduled his fantasy draft on the same day as his twentieth anniversary.

And, apparently, the junior VP of advertising who knew diddly-squat about his prospective fiancée, as the two men confirmed twenty minutes after Phil the Douche finally finished the paperwork and left the building.

They stood by their receptionist’s desk, studying the questionnaire Shotelle had hurriedly filled out, unable to believe the results.

“Sweet baby Jesus,” Dean grumbled, his head bent over the paper. “He wrote ‘not applicable’ on the line asking for her birthday!”

Parker peered closer, a groan of disbelief escaping him. “For favorite flower he wrote ‘red ones, or maybe yellow’.” He paused. “Huh. At least he knows her middle name—Elizabeth.”

A long red fingernail tapped the bottom of the page. “Check out what he wrote for favorite animal,” Didi Lorge said, an unrestrained grin stretching her lips.

Parker read the answer aloud. “‘One time she said something about whales’. Oh, for the love of…”

Their receptionist laughed in delight and spun her computer chair, far more amused by the situation than Parker. Didi had been working for them since they’d first opened DreamMakers, and she was the bubbliest, most flamboyant fifty-year-old he’d ever met in his life. Her husband Teddy was a veteran who was friends with Parker’s father, and when he’d heard his best bud’s son was starting a business, he’d all but pleaded with Parker to hire his wife to “give her something to do so she quits dragging my ass to the mall”.

Parker’s doubts about the sassy, big-haired blonde had long since faded, and he couldn’t deny Didi was fun to have around. Besides, not only did she work hard, but all their clients adored her.

“We can’t work with any of this,” Dean declared. “This guy wouldn’t be able to pick his girlfriend out of a fucking lineup.”

“Language, Mr. Colter,” Didi said sternly.

Dean was instantly shame-faced. “Sorry, D.”

“Good boy.”

Parker, who wholeheartedly agreed with Dean’s assessment, reached for the sheet of paper beneath the questionnaire and gave it a quick read. “Shit, he’s willing to pay the asshole fee. And he said he’ll pay extra if we can arrange the date for this weekend.”

“That’s four days away, man. We can’t do it.”

Parker rubbed the perpetual stubble coating his jaw. “We might be able to swing it.”

“How?” Dean countered. “Gee, I know, let’s set up a romantic dinner and serve—wait, what’s her favorite food?—” he glanced at Phil’s answers, “—and serve bread, load the table with red or maybe yellow flowers then top it off with a visit to an aquarium so she can see a whale. She’ll be putty in his fucking hands.”

“Language!” Didi snapped.

“You didn’t reprimand Parker when he said shit,” Dean grumbled. “See? I knewyou played favorites, and don’t bother denying it, D.”

She batted her lashes. “I love you all equally, only Parker signs my checks.”

Parker chewed on the inside of his cheek as he considered. “We can make this date happen. It means we have to do a little sleuthing.”

Dean’s eyes twinkled. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Recon,” they said in unison.

Didi laughed again. “You boys are too easily amused.”

“We’ll go tonight,” Parker decided. “Didi, call our guy at the precinct and tell him to get us an address for the girlfriend. And we’ll need some gear.”

Dean started to walk off, but Didi’s stern warning stopped him. “Oh no, you don’t. No running off until we go over the rules.”

Both men sighed. “Must we do this every time?” Parker grumbled.

“If we want to avoid a lawsuit, then yesiree.”

Dean dropped into the chair opposite her, threw his feet up on the desk and began reciting in a singsong tone like a student repeating the times table. “One. No recording devices. Two, all interactions must take place in public. Three, there—”

“Parker’s turn,” Didi cut in.

God. It was like they were back in preschool. “Aren’t you going to give Dean his gold star first?” Parker taunted.

His receptionist’s gaze turned icy cold.

Okay, then. “Three. There will be no discussion of personal details of clients except as it pertains to arranging the date.”

“Which is total bullshit,” Dean interrupted. “Not that we’re about to go blabbing information, but face it—if we find out shit, it’s because someone said it in public. You know the kind of crap people talk about these days? Hell, this asshole in the restaurant waiting line yesterday—he gave his girlfriend’s address, phone number and measurements out loud while talking on the phone.”

Didi swatted Dean’s feet off the desk. “Yes, people are stupid, but that doesn’t mean you boys have to be. DreamMakers will rise above the stupid and stay on the straight and narrow. Set a good example for the world.”

“You’re a dreamer, Didi.”

While Didi and Dean went off on a tangent, Parker read over the questionnaire again, but the details provided were so vague it was impossible to get a sense of Shotelle’s girlfriend. Ah well. Hopefully after tonight, they’d have all the details required to knock the lady’s socks off with a date for the ages.

As much as it pained him to bring even an ounce of joy to a douchebag’s life, the money was too good for Parker to ignore. Which meant by the end of the job, he was going to know Lynn Elizabeth Davidson inside and out.

***

Her computer monitor flickered for the fifth time in the last hour, and Lynn swore softly, palms pressed to the desk on either side of her ergonomically correct keyboard as she mentally urged the disruption to vanish like it had every time before. She glanced at the overhead lights, but they were still on full. A quick peek over the pale purple cubicle dividers at her coworkers proved they were still hard at it.

Nothing wrong with their screens or power sources.

Lynn pushed her computer chair aside and leaned under her desk to follow the cables. If she lost the past four hours’ work because her power failed, someone’s head was going to roll.

The back of the desk had a protective metal panel on it, but she figured out if she lifted and pushed it to one side, she could get on her hands and knees and poke around. A quick examination was enough to discover the cord didn’t end at a power strip. Instead, the thick black cable joined a half-dozen others and disappeared under the cubical edge toward the hallway.

Great. More investigating needed. She was in the middle of backing out of her awkward position when a familiar voice interrupted her.

“Is this the new office exercise routine Marti was raving about in the lunchroom today?”

She jerked upward in surprise, smacking her head on the underside of the desk hard enough to see stars. “Jeez, Suz, warn a girl next time.” Lynn crawled into the clear, hand going to rub the rising knot as she scrambled to her feet. “A call, a wave…”

“It’s hard to wave hello when all that’s aimed outward is a butt.” Lynn’s BFF since high school, Susanna Jones, leaned her curvy hip on the desk edge as she settled neon-yellow-clad arms across her chest. “And you have so little butt, damn you, that makes it even tougher. Did you lose an earring?”

Lynn shook her head even as she blinked to stop her eyes from watering. “Where did you get your sweater?”

Suz popped up and pirouetted like a tipsy music-box dancer, with her arms flung to the sides. The position only emphasized the black lines running through the gaudy fabric in horizontal streaks, rising and falling over Suz’s ample breasts as if someone had painted racing stripes on her chest. “You like?”

It had to be a trick question. Nothing was this simple with her friend, not even clothing choices. Lynn stuck to her usual modus operandi and told the truth. “You look like a molting bumblebee.”

Sheer delight streaked across Suz’s face, making her green eyes sparkle with mischief. “Really?”

“On your last wings. Liable to crash and burn into the next flower patch in a pollen-induced stupor. Where did you even get it? No—” Lynn held out a hand, “—more important, why did you get it, and why are you making my eyeballs bleed?”

Suz cracked the gum bubble she’d blown. “It’s not for you, silly.” She checked around before leaning in closer and lowering her voice. “I was informed I have the fashion sense of a turnip. I thought I should prove her wrong. I’m much worse than a turnip.”

“Because you don’t give a hoot about high-fashion clothes, and with your figure, you don’t need to.” Lynn didn’t mind being trim and in shape, but every now and then she’d kill to own Suz’s curves. Ever since high school, their girls’-night-out pictures had showcased them like human salt-and-pepper shakers—Suz the fair-skinned blonde with knockout curves, Lynn with her dark hair and dark complexion showcasing slim but feminine lines. Her best feature was her shockingly light eyes—“moonlit crystals on a Mediterranean beach”, a silver-tongued date had once informed her.

No, Lynn was happy with her body but still pissed on Suz’s behalf. “Who was the smartass who insulted you, or do I need to ask?”

“It was Dana Hastings, of course.” Suz adjusted the raggedy cuffs on the ancient monstrosity as if she were on a Paris fashion runway. “I’m on my way back from her desk. You should have seen her recoil in disgust.”

Lynn couldn’t help but snicker in response even as she double-checked her work was still in place and her computer screen hadn’t done another vanishing trick. “Please don’t wear it to yoga tonight, or we’ll be banned for life for disturbing the delicate balance of the universe.”

“Hey, what do you think caused the big bang in the first place?” Suz paused. “Speaking of big dicks, I mean small dicks…”

Damn. “That was a very cheesy segue. I’m going to ignore you.” For some reason, Lynn’s on-again, off-again dating situation with Phil Shotelle, one of the upper management at Bay City Press, was a source of constant annoyance to Suz.

“Tell me you’ve seen the light and dumped the stiff, and I’ll float my bright little wings toward my desk.”

Lynn sighed as she pulled her fingers through her long hair, attempting to straighten not only the tangles caused by the excursion under her desk, but the tangles in her brain. It was a good thing she had work she loved and Suz to distract her, because her current dating relationship wasn’t lighting the night on fire.

And that was fine.

She supposed.

A sense of guilt struck. Poor Phil. He hadn’t done anything to deserve getting dumped on, and she found herself defending him yet again. “He’s not a bad guy, Suz. Really, he’s not.”

Suz took a step forward, finger extended in accusation. “But you’ll admit he’s not a good guy either, right? Or not the right guy for you. He’s boring and old and never ever makes your heart pound.” She clutched her hands together. “Come on, pretty please admit that much.”

“Thirty-nine is not old,” Lynn insisted, dragging her hair into a ponytail and securing it in position with an elastic. Suz had a point, though. Her relationship with Phil wasn’t one of passion. It was more one of…

Convenience. Or reliability. Familiarity?

Shit. Those definitions were too close to boring. Lynn shook off the strange sadness the topic always wrapped her in. “Face it. You’ve never liked Phil.”

“Because I have good taste in men.”

Lynn couldn’t speak for a moment, the constant chain of guys Suz had enjoyed over the years flashing through her brain and making her blink. Her friend was careful not to hook up with axe murderers, but she didn’t resist temptation as far as enjoying herself. Lynn would have been jealous if she didn’t love Suz so hard, and besides, she wasn’t looking for a different lover every night.

Although one who knew where her clit was would be a nice change of pace. Or one who even seemed remotely interested in at least searching. Phil’s chivalrous behavior was positively puritan.

Meanwhile, she lived vicariously through Suz’s escapades. “So you’re insisting you’ve only dated absolute princes among men,” she teased. “All of them. Every. Single. One.”

“Yip,” Suz gloated. “If you let me help pick a guy for you, you too would wear a smile like mine in the mornings instead of needing four cups of coffee before you’re halfway human.”

“Come on, you’ve had a few duds.” Lynn scrambled for an example. “Say…your boxer?”

Suz blinked then shivered hard. “You mean the one who tied me up and made me orgasm so often and so hard I passed out? Yeah, he was such a loser.”

Jeez. “How about the pilot?”

That suggestion brought a heavy sigh from her friend, but the reason for the reaction wasn’t what Lynn expected. Suz lifted a hand and fanned her face. “You talking about Kakeru? The San Fran to Japan-based pilot who brought his copilot along for the ride—nom nom, I might add—or the KLM pilot who taught me all the dirty words in Dutch, or the—”

Lynn’s computer monitor flickered again. “Shit. Sorry to cut this scintillating conversation to a close, but I’m ten minutes away from completing my revisions on the layout, and I need to get them done.”

Suz shook her head sadly. “He’s no good for you.”

“We’ll talk about it after yoga.”

Her friend made a low clucking noise. Lynn whipped her head up, then realized Suz wasn’t commenting on her lack of willpower to call it off with Phil.

Dana Hastings was marching past, four-inch stilettos flashing as she strode forward in her expensive suit. Her nose visibly twitched as if she smelled something funny in their vicinity.

She’d only gone a half-dozen steps past Lynn’s cubicle before Suz turned. “Gotta run,” she muttered. “We will talk about this more tonight.”

She took off after Dana, the long, uneven ends of her sweater flapping behind her like tail feathers, and Lynn giggled. God, she loved that woman.

Turning back to her computer screen wiped the smile off her face. “You, I don’t love. Come on, computer, behave.”

At the moment, solving the power-source problem was more important than mentally debating, again, her love life. Lynn found the electrical cables where they popped up on the far side of the cubicle wall. She followed the black bundle as it slithered along the edge of the moveable wall, finally crossing a structural dip in the hall and vanishing around a corner.

It was like running an obstacle course. Only when Lynn rounded the corner she had the joy of one more obstacle. The left side of Dana Hastings’s desk stood directly in front of the bundle, and no amount of searching on either side exposed a new escape route.

Somewhere under the desk was the issue.

Lynn glanced around, but the manager Dana clerked for was out of her office. After making sure no one else was looking, Lynn fell to her knees and once again crawled into the close confines of under-desk dwellers.

She wasn’t going to even think about spiders.

Fortunately, she’d already figured out the back-of-the-desk trick, and she had the cables in sight in less than thirty seconds. The source of her troubles became perfectly clear—a main power breaker was set along the wall, and one of the plugs had worked partially free. She shoved the head in tightly, a satisfying click sounding as the prongs locked into position. Good. Now she could finish her job.

She gasped in pain as her hair caught on something, the ponytail she’d put it in snagging on a loose screw. Her head throbbed for the second time that day as she stilled, reaching upward in an attempt to loosen the knot without ripping out part of her scalp.

At least no one was around to see her humiliation—

Click.

Click.

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

High heels. Rapidly approaching. Lynn resigned herself to being caught. She worked carefully on her hair while waiting for the perfect moment to announce her presence.

“Of course, Mr. Shotelle,” Dana purred.

Lynn froze. Phil was here on the production level? He never came down from—

“It’s never a problem for you to call me,” Dana said in a teasing voice. “That’s why I gave you my cell number.”

A flirty little laugh followed, but all Lynn could focus on at first was that Phil was on the phone, not on the floor. Her heart thumped once, hard, then stopped completely as Dana’s shiny gold shoes paused two paces from where the desk chair had rolled after being shoved aside.

Stuck with her head twisted to one side, Lynn’s only line of sight was through a narrow crack. Dana’s legs from feet to mid-thigh was about it for a view, but it wasn’t so much being stuck under the desk as the overheard conversation that turned Lynn’s blood to ice.

Dana’s shoes rotated toward the wall, her voice dropping to an intimate whisper. “Do I get to see you for another…emergency…tonight, sugar bear?”

Emergency? Seeing Phil?

Comprehension hit in a rush. Lynn dropped her head in exasperation, and the lock of hair still caught on the screw yanked a bunch of strands free. Only sheer frustration stopped a scream from escaping as her scalp throbbed in protest.

Phil’s emergency, the one he’d sorrowfully told her about as he cancelled their Sunday date, had involved Dana Hastings calling him sugar bear?

Only the click, click, click of Dana walking away saved Lynn from being tossed in prison for murder. She wouldn’t have minded scaring the bejeezus out of Dana before marching upstairs to Phil’s office to bludgeon him to death with whatever advertising plans lay strategically placed on his desk. The ones she swore he propped up every morning to prove how important he was.

Fucking bastard. So much for being reliable and…and puritan. All his sweet talk about respecting her and being old-fashioned regarding sex was one hundred percent horse hockey—he was dipping his doughnut in someone else’s coffee.

Ass.

Jerk. Butthead.

Making up insults passed the time as she undid her ponytail, carefully escaping the trap she now welcomed having crawled into. By the time she’d regained her freedom, Lynn was over her rush of anger. She’d needed a good solid reason to move on, and this was it, baby. This was it in spades.

Forget killing him. Phil Shotelle wasn’t worth the energy to even bother tossing him a kiss-off. Maybe she’d take Suz up on her offer of helping Lynn find a date.

In a month.

Or a year.

When she was no longer sick of the entire population of Y-chromosome carriers.

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