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Susan Mallery, NY Times bestselling authorSusan Mallery, NY Times bestselling author

Fool's Gold Series
May 2010

Chapter One

Chasing Perfect, a romance novel by Susan Mallery

Charity Jones loved a good disaster movie as much as the next person—she would simply prefer the disaster in question not be about her life.

The sharp crack of an electrical short, followed by a burning smell, filled the conference room on the third floor of City Hall. A thin wisp of smoke rose from her laptop, pretty much ending any hope of her Powerpoint presentation going smoothly. The presentation she'd stayed up nearly all night perfecting.

It was her first day on the job, she thought, breathing deeply to ward off panic. The first official hour of her first official day. Didn't she get at least a sixteenth of a break? Some small sign of mercy from the universe?

Apparently not.

She glanced from her still smoldering computer to the ten member board from California University, Fool's Gold campus, and they did not look happy. Part of the reason was they'd been working with the previous city planner for nearly a year and still hadn't come up with a contract for the new research facility. A contract she was now responsible for bringing to life. She would guess the unpleasant burny smell was the other reason they were shifting in their seats.

"Perhaps we should reschedule the meeting," the head guy said. He was tall, with graying hair and glasses. Mr. Berman. "When you're more..." He motioned to the smoldering computer. "Prepared."

Charity smiled warmly when what she really wanted to do was throw something. She was prepared. She'd been on the job all of—she glanced at the clock on the wall—eight minutes, but she'd been prepping since she accepted the position as city planner nearly two weeks ago. She understood what the university wanted and what the town had to offer. She might be new, but she was still damned good at her job.

Her boss, the mayor, had warned her about this group and had offered to put off the meeting, but Charity had wanted to prove herself. Something she refused to let be a mistake.

"We're all here," she said, still smiling as confidently as possible. "We can do this the old fashioned way."

She unplugged her computer and took it out into the hall where it would no doubt stink up the rest of the building, but her first priority had to be the meeting. She was determined to start her new job with a win and that meant getting California University at Fool's Gold to sign on the bottom line.

When she stepped back into the conference room, she walked over to the dry erase board and picked up a thick blue pen from the small rack attached to the board.

"The way I see it," she began, writing the number one and circling it, "There are three sticking points. First, the length of the lease." She wrote a number two, "Second, the reversion of improvements on the land. Namely the building itself. And three, the freeway off-ramp signal." She turned back to the ten well-dressed people watching her. "Do you agree?"

They all looked to Mr. Berman, who nodded slowly.

"Good." Charity had reviewed all the notes on the previous meetings and talked to the mayor of Fool's Gold over the weekend. What Charity couldn't figure out was why the negotiating process was taking so long. Apparently the previous city planner had wanted to be right more than he wanted the research facility in town. But Mayor Marsha Tilson had been very clear when she'd offered Charity the job—bring businesses to Fool's Gold and fast.

"Here's what I'm prepared to offer," she said, making a second column. She went through all three problems and listed solutions, including an extra five seconds of left turn time on the signal at the top of the off-ramp.

The board members listened and when she was done, they once again looked at Mr. Berman.

"That does sound good," he began.

Sound good? It was better than good. It was a once-in-a-lifetime deal. It was everything the university had asked for. It was zero calorie brownie with ice cream.

"There's still one problem," Mr. Berman said.

"Which is?" she asked.

"Four acres on the county line." The voice came from the doorway.

Charity turned and saw a man entering the conference room. He was tall and blond, good-looking to the point of being almost another species, and he moved with an easy athletic grace that made her feel instantly awkward. While he looked vaguely familiar, she was sure they'd never met before.

He gave her a quick smile. The flash of teeth, the millisecond of attention, nearly knocked her into the wall. Who was that guy?

"Bernie," the stranger said, turning the mega-watt grin on the group leader. "I heard you were in town. You didn't call me for dinner."

Mr. Berman actually looked interested. "I thought you'd be busy with your latest conquest."

Blond guy shrugged modestly. "I always have time for anyone from the university. Sharon. Martin." He greeted everyone else at the table, shook a few hands, winked at the old lady at the end, then turned back to Charity.

"Sorry to interrupt. You come highly recommended and under normal circumstances could deal with this problem without breaking a sweat. But there's something you don't know. The reason we don't have a deal isn't the lease reversion or the traffic light." He moved close and took the pen from her hand. "It's the four acres the university has been offered by a very wealthy alumni family. They want their name on the building and they're willing to pay for that privilege."

He flashed another smile at Charity, then turned back to the Board. "I'm going to explain why that's a bad idea."

And then he started talking. She had no idea who he was and probably should have told him to get out, but she couldn't seem to move or speak. It was as if he projected some space alien force field that kept her immobilized.

Maybe it was his eyes, she thought, gazing into the hazel green depths. Or his sun-bleached lashes. It might have been the way he moved or the heat she felt every time he walked by her. Or maybe she'd simply inhaled some weird gas when her computer had sparked, flamed out and died.

While she enjoyed a boy-girl encounter as much as the next woman, she'd never been mesmerized by a man before. Certainly not during a professional meeting that she was supposed to be running.

She knew the type, though. Had seen the power of the havoc they brought with them everywhere they went. Self-preservation stated she should stay far, far away. And she would...just as soon as the meeting was over.

She squared her shoulders, determined to regain control of herself and the meeting. Then her mystery invader's words sunk in. A gift of prime real estate would be hard for any university to refuse. No wonder Mr. Berman hadn't been interested in her solution. It didn't address the problem.

"The research you're talking about is important to all of us," blond guy concluded. "Which is why the city's offer is the best one on the table."

Charity forced her attention to Mr. Berman, who was nodding slowly. "You're made some good points, Josh."

"Just showing you a few things you might not have thought of," blond guy said modestly. Blond guy who was apparently named Josh. "Charity's done all the work."

She frowned. He was taking over her nervous system and her meeting and trying to give her credit?

"Not at all," she said, relieved the power of speech had returned. "Who could compete with your excellent points?"

Josh actually winked at her, then reached for the folder on the table. "This is the letter of intent. I think the signing has been put off long enough, don't you, Bernie?"

Mr. Berman nodded slowly, then pulled a pen out of his suit jacket pocket. "You're right, Josh." Then, just like that, he signed the paper, giving Charity the victory she'd so desperately wanted.

Somehow she'd hoped it would be a tiny bit sweeter.

In a matter of minutes, everyone had shaken hands, murmured about setting up the next meeting to get the planning going and left. Charity was left alone in the conference room, only the lingering smell of burned plastic and a signed document proof that anything had happened at all. She glanced at the clock. It was nine seventeen. At the rate things were happening around here, she could cure several diseases and solve world hunger by noon. Well, not her. So far her accomplishments seemed limited to frying innocent electronics.

She collected the paperwork, went out into the hall and picked up her cold, dead computer. Had it really happened? Had some guy blown into her meeting, saved the day, then disappeared? Like a local superhero or something? And if he was so in the loop, why hadn't he taken care of the problem weeks ago?

There was no way she could have known about a private donation—no matter how much research and pre-work she had done. But Charity still had a vague sense of dissatisfaction. She preferred to win through her own actions. Not because of a rescue.

She made her way to her new office on the second floor. She hadn't had much time to get settled, what with moving to Fool's Gold over the weekend and the presentation preparation taking up all her free time. She'd brought in a box of personal items and dumped it on her desk shortly before six. By a minute after six, she'd been in the conference room, going over her presentation, wanting it to be perfect. A complete waste of time, she told herself as she entered the second floor. Between the computer death and the mystery guy, she need not have bothered.

That morning, the open space in the old building had been empty and quiet. Now half a dozen women worked at desks. Doors to offices stood open and the sound of conversation spilled out to create murmured background noise.

She turned toward her office. Her assistant should have arrived, so they could meet face-to-face for the first time. Technically they'd been working together for a couple of weeks now, with Sheryl faxing and e-mailing information to Charity in Nevada.

Charity had visited Fool's Gold during her interview process. She'd met with the mayor and a few members of the city council, and toured the area. She'd never lived in a small town before. The closest she'd come was Stars Hollow, from watching Gilmore Girls while still in college. She'd liked everything about Fool's Gold and had been able to imagine herself putting down roots in the lakeside town. She had even been in this building, had looked around. But apparently she hadn't noticed the giant poster on the wall.

Now she stared into a larger-than-life-size picture of her mystery guy. He smiled down at her, a bicycle helmet under one arm, a tight shirt and bike shorts leaving very little to the imagination. The print underneath the picture proclaimed: Josh Golden—Fool's Gold's favorite son.

She blinked, then blinked again. Josh Golden as in the celebrated bike racer Josh Golden? Youngest winner of the Tour de France and possibly hundreds of other bike races? She'd never followed the bike racing circuit or whatever it was called. She didn't follow any sports. But even she had heard of him. He'd been married to somebody famous—she couldn't remember who—and was now divorced. He endorsed energy drinks and athletic stuff. He lived here? He'd come to her meeting and had saved the day?

Not possible, she told herself. Maybe she'd fallen and hit her head and now couldn't remember the event. Maybe she was in a coma somewhere, imagining all this.

She walked past the poster and moved toward her office. Just outside the open door, she saw a thirty-something woman on the phone. The woman, dark-haired and pretty, looked up and smiled. "She's here. I gotta go. Love you." The woman stood. "I'm Sheryl, your assistant. You're Charity Jones. Nice to finally meet you, Ms. Jones."

"You, too, and please call me Charity."

Sheryl grinned. "I just heard you got the university to sign. Mayor Marsha will be doing the happy dance. They've been slippery little suckers, but you nailed them."

A flash of movement caught Charity's attention. She glanced over her assistant's shoulder and saw Sheryl's screensaver had come on with a picture show.

The first shot showed Josh Golden on a racing bike. The second showed him shirtless and grinning. The third photo was a very naked guy in a shower, his back to the camera. Charity felt her eyes widen.

Sheryl glanced over her shoulder and laughed. "I know. He's gorgeous. I downloaded these from the internet. Want me to put them on your computer?"

"Ah, no. Thank you." Charity hesitated. "I'm not sure naked pictures are appropriate for a business office."

"Really?" Sheryl looked confused. "I hadn't thought of that. I guess you're right. I'll take off the shower picture, even though it's my favorite. Have you met Josh? He's what my grandma would call dreamy. I've told my husband if Josh ever comes calling I am so outta here."

So every other woman on the planet also reacted to Josh the way Charity had. Fabulous. Nothing was as thrilling as being part of an adoring crowd, she thought as she made her way into her office.

But it wasn't a problem. She would simply avoid the man until she figured out how to control her reaction to him. She liked nice, normal, safe men. Her mother had always been attracted to the Joshes of the world. Too handsome men who were adored by women everywhere. She'd gotten her heart broken regularly and painfully. Charity had been determined to learn from her mother's mistakes.

After putting her dead laptop next to her box of personal things she had yet to unpack, Charity glanced through the open door toward Sheryl.

"Would you call the Mayor and ask if I can stop by and see her this morning?"

Sheryl shook her head. "This isn't the big city, Charity. You can pop in to see Marsha anytime."

"All right. Thank you."

Charity took the folder with the signed letter of intent with her as she walked to the end of the hallway. Mayor Marsha Tilson's office was behind huge carved double doors, both of which stood open.

There was a big desk, two flags—U.S. and State of California—and a small conference table that seated six by the window.

Marsha sat in the small conversation group in the corner. As Charity entered, she saw that Josh was already there, lounging on a sofa, looking breathtakingly handsome and completely at home.

Marsha, an attractive, well-dressed woman in her sixties, smiled and rose to her feet. "We were just talking about you, Charity. You've had a busy morning. Congratulations. Josh here tells me you convinced Bernie to sign the letter of intent."

Charity moved toward them, doing her best to appear friendly without actually looking at Josh. When she made the mistake of meeting his hazel green eyes, she could have sworn she heard the theme from Gone with the Wind playing softly in the background.

Josh stood and gave her a lazy grin. One that made her toes curl inside her pumps. "We haven't been formally introduced," he said, holding out his hand. "I'm Josh Golden."

She so did not want to shake his hand, given the symptoms she'd already experienced. Actual physical contact might lead to heart failure, or something even more embarrassing. She swallowed, sucked in a breath, then braced herself for it.

His large hand engulfed hers. Sparks even bigger than those that had killed her computer jumped between them. Her stomach flipped, her privates cheered and she half-expected to see fireworks shooting up by the ceiling.

"Mr. Golden," she murmured, withdrawing quickly, then sinking into the seat behind her. She did her best not to think about the fact that, thanks to Sheryl's screensaver, she had now seen his bare butt.

"Josh, please."

And how many women screamed that on a regular basis, she wondered, turning her attention to the much safer mayor.

"Josh is exaggerating my role in the meeting," she said, pleased to find out she could speak in a complete sentence. "He knew about the other offer of land, which was the problem with getting the university to sign. Once that was dealt with, the other problems were easily solved."

"I see." Marsha looked at Josh, who shrugged modestly.

Given the fact that Josh was obviously a famous athlete and comfortable flashing his butt for the camera, she would have expected him to jump at the chance to make himself the star of the moment. Oddly enough, he didn't.

"We have the letter of intent," Charity continued. "I'll have Sheryl set up a meeting to move forward. With the construction bids already in place, we can streamline the process and get the research facility built quickly."

"Excellent." Marsha smiled at her. "Why don't you go get settled? You've had a busy first hour. Are you free for a working lunch?"

"Sure."

"I'll be by your office around eleven-thirty."

"I'll see you then."

Charity rose. "Nice to meet you, Josh," she said, backing away so there was no chance for him to offer the shake hands again.

Once she was safely back in her office, her first order of business would be to give herself a stern talking-to. She had never once, in her whole life, reacted to a man this way. It was beyond embarrassing—it had the potential to interfere with her ability to do her job. She could accept that some flaw in her make-up made her always pick exactly the wrong guy. She probably came by it genetically. She didn't like it, and she wouldn't allow herself to act like a freaked-out groupie or sex-starved crazy person when she was around Josh. Fool's Gold was small. They were bound to run into each other. She had to get a grip on herself and her hormones.

There had to be a reasonable explanation, she told herself firmly. She hadn't been sleeping that well. Or she could be missing a B vitamin or not eating enough broccoli. Whatever the cause, she would figure it out and fix it. She refused to live her life all quivery and weak. She was strong. She was self-actualized. She was not going to let a little thing like a gorgeous man with a butt like a Greek god mess up her day.

#

"Well?" Marsha asked when Charity had left.

A single word with a thousand meanings, Josh thought grimly. What was it about women and language? They could make a man squirm without putting much effort into the task. A skill he both admired and feared.

"She's smart and fair," he said.

Marsha raised her eyebrows. "You don't think she's pretty?"

He slumped back in the chair and closed his eyes. "Here we go. Why do you feel a compulsion to pair up everyone you meet? I've been married, Marsha. Remember? It didn't go well."

"Not your fault. She was a bitch."

He opened one eye. "I thought you liked Angelique."

"I was concerned that if she stood in the sun, the heat would melt all the plastic she'd had put into her body."

He laughed. "Very much a possibility." His ex-wife had been born beautiful, but hadn't rested until she was extraordinary.

"So you like her," Marsha asked.

He had a feeling they weren't talking about his ex anymore. "Why does my opinion matter?"

"Because it does."

"Fine. I like her. Are you happy?"

"No, but it's a start."

He was used to the matchmaking. It went with the innuendo and not very subtle invitations. He supposed if a man had to live under a curse, his was easy to live with. Too many women all offering whatever he wanted. Too bad being with them didn't fix what was really wrong with him.

He stood. "I said I'd watch out for her and I will. I don't know what you're worried about. This is Fool's Gold. Nothing bad happens here." Which was why he'd come home. This was a great place to escape. Or it had been. Lately it felt as if his past was catching up with him.

"I want Charity to be happy," Marsha said. "I want her to fit in."

"The longer you don't tell her the truth, the more pissed she's going to be."

Marsha's mouth twisted into a frown. "I know. I'm waiting for the right time."

He crossed to her, bent down and kissed her soft, wrinkled cheek. "There's never a good time, kid. You taught me that."

He straightened and headed to the door.

"You could take her out to dinner," Marsha called after him.

"I could," he agreed as he left.

He nodded at the women he saw as he moved toward the stairs and the main floor. He could ask out Charity, but then what? In a matter of days she would have heard enough about him to think she knew everything. After that, she would either be eager to find out if all the talk was true, or she would think he was scum on the pond of life. Judging by her sensible shoes and conservative dress, he would guess she would put him on the side of scum.

He crossed through the lobby, ignoring the glass case off to the side, the one containing the yellow jersey he'd won during his third Tour de France race. He stepped out into the sunny morning, then wished he hadn't when he saw Ethan Hendrix getting out of his car. Ethan who had once been his best friend in the world.

Ethan moved with ease. After all this time, the limp was nearly gone. For anyone else, it wouldn't even be worth noting. But Ethan wasn't like everyone else. He'd once been a ranked cyclist. He and Josh were supposed to take on the Tour de France together while they were still in college. They'd spent hours training together, shouting insults back and forth, each claiming he would be the one who would win. After the accident, only Josh had entered, becoming the second youngest winner in the history of the race. Henri Cornet had been younger, by all of twenty-one days, back in 1904.

Ethan looked across the street and their eyes met. Josh wanted to go to his former friend, to tell him that enough time had passed and they both needed to get over it. But despite the phone messages Josh had left, Ethan had never once called him back. Never forgiven him. Not for the accident—Ethan had been at fault. But for what had happened after.

In a way, Josh couldn't blame him. After all, Josh hadn't forgiven himself.

#

Charity unpacked her small box of personal items, then dove into her morning. She had brainstormed several ideas to bring businesses to Fool's Gold, and wanted to run them past the mayor. After printing out her preliminary reports, she familiarized herself with the city's cranky e-mail system and was surprised to look up and see the mayor standing in her doorway.

"Is it eleven-thirty already?" Charity asked, not able to believe how quickly the time had flown by. So much for solving all the world's problems by noon.

"You look intense," Marsha said. "Should we delay our lunch?"

"Of course not." Charity pulled her handbag from the bottom drawer of her desk, then stood and straightened her tailored jacket. "I'm ready."

They walked down the wide staircase and out onto the sunny street.

City Hall was in the middle of downtown, with old fashioned streetlights lining the wide sidewalk. There were mature trees, a barbershop and a soda fountain advertising old fashioned milkshakes. Tulips and crocuses grew in window boxes in front of the various businesses.

"The town is beautiful," Charity said as they crossed the street and headed for the restaurant on the corner. They walked around an open manhole cover where two female city workers set up equipment.

"Quiet," Marsha murmured. "Too quiet."

"Part of the reason you hired me." Charity smiled. "To bring in businesses and with them employment."

"Exactly."

"I've brainstormed some ideas," Charity told her, not sure if this was a working lunch or a get-to-know-you lunch.

"How many of them are run by and employ mostly men?"

Charity paused in front of the restaurant, sure she'd misunderstood the mayor's question. "Excuse me?"

Marsha dark blue eyes danced with amusement. "I asked about men. Oh, don't get frightened. Not for me. For the town. You haven't noticed?"

Charity slowly shook her head, wondering if the otherwise together mayor had hit her head or taken some questionable medication. "Noticed what?"

"Look around," the mayor told her. "Show me where the men are."

Charity had no idea what she was talking about. Men, as in men?

She slowly scanned the street around them. There were the two female city workers, a woman in a postal service uniform delivering mail, a young woman painting a store window.

"I don't see any."

"Exactly. Fool's Gold has a serious man shortage. It's part of the reason I hired you. To bring more men to our town."

 

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