Fool's Gold Series
"You know why I'm here."
Mrs. Nancy Owens made the statement with a firm voice and an unyielding stare. All of which were impressive.
Unfortunately for Jack McGarry, he didn't have a clue as to what she was talking about.
He knew a lot of things. He knew the LA Stallions wouldn't get to the Super Bowl this year, that his right shoulder ached when it was going to rain, that were was a saucy merlot waiting in his kitchen and that while every part of his being wanted to bolt right now rather than have this conversation, he couldn't. Because Mrs. Owens was Larissa's mother and even if she wasn't, she was old enough to be his mother and he'd been raised better.
Mrs. Owens sighed. "I'm talking about my daughter."
Right. But the woman had three. "Larissa?"
"Of course Larissa. Who else? You moved your business to this God-forsaken town and my daughter moved with you and now she's here."
An excellent recap, he thought, struggling to find the point.
"You don't like Fool's Gold," he said, stating was what probably the obvious.
"I neither like nor dislike the town." Her tone implied he was an idiot. "It's not the point. Larissa is here."
He knew that, what with signing her paycheck—figuratively rather than literally—and seeing her every day. But Mrs. Owens already knew that, too.
"She is here, with you." Mrs. Owens sighed heavily. "She loves her job."
Ok, fine. He was willing to admit it. He was just an average guy. Maybe a little taller, with a used-to-be better throwing arm and a strong desire to win, but at his heart, he was pretty much like every other beer-drinking, truck-driving man in America. Ignoring, of course, the merlot in his refrigerator and the Mercedes in his garage.
Nancy Owens, an attractive woman in her early fifties, smacked her hands palm down on the table and groaned. "Do I have to spell it out for you?"
"Apparently so, ma'am."
"Larissa is twenty-eight years old, you moron. I want her to get married and give me grandchildren. That is never going to happen while she's working for you. Especially not after moving here. I want you to fire her. That way she'll move back to Los Angeles, find someone decent to marry and settle down."
"Why can't she do that here?"
Mrs. Owens sighed the sigh of those blessed with intelligence and insight most could only aspire to.
"Because, Mr. McGarry, I'm reasonably confident my daughter is in love with you."
Larissa Owens stared at the blue-eyed cat standing in the center of her small apartment. Dyna was an eight year-old Ragdoll, with big, beautiful eyes, a sweet face and a thick coat. She had white fur on her chest and front paws and bits of gray on her face. She was the cat equivalent of a supermodel. It was kind of intimidating.
Larissa's instinct was always to rescue. Cats, dogs, butterflies, people. It didn't matter which. She knew her friends would claim she jumped in without thinking, but she wasn't willing to admit that. At least not without prompting. So when she'd heard about a cat in need of a home, she'd offered to take her in. She just hadn't thought she would be so gorgeous.
"You're a little overwhelming," Larissa admitted as she crossed to the small kitchen and put water into a bowl. "Should I dress better now that we're roommates?"
Dyna glanced at her, as if taking in the yoga pants and T-shirt that were Larissa's work wardrobe, then continued to explore the small apartment. She sniffed the sofa, checked out corners, studied the full-sized mattress in the bedroom and totally ignored the small bathroom.
"Yeah, I know," Larissa said, putting the water on a placemat by the back door and then trailing after her. "The bathroom is really tiny."
There wasn't a counter—just a pedestal sink, a toilet and a stall shower.
Okay, so the apartment wasn't grand. Larissa didn't need much. Besides, the place was clean and the rent was cheap. That left her with more of her paycheck to give to her causes. Because there was always a cause.
"The window sills are wide and you'll get a lot of light," Larissa told the cat. "The morning sun is really nice."
The small apartment came with one unexpected feature—a laundry room. She'd tucked Dyna's litter box next to the dryer. The cat pursued the facilities, then jumped lightly onto the kitchen counter and walked to the sink. She glanced at Larissa, her gaze expectant.
Larissa knew this was why she'd always resisted actually adopting an animal before. She'd told herself it was her lifestyle—that she was so focused on saving them all that she couldn't be with just one. But in her heart, she'd been afraid she simply didn't have it in her. Now, as she stared into big blue eyes, she knew she'd been right.
"What?" she asked softly. "If you just tell me what you want, I'll do it."
Dyna looked at the faucet and back at her.
"From the tap?" Larissa asked, then turned on the cold water.
The cat leaned in and delicately lapped at the water. Larissa grinned in triumph. Maybe she could conquer this pet thing after all.
She waited until Dyna was done, then picked her up. The cat relaxed in her arms, gazing at her for a second, before letting her eyes slowly close. From deep inside, came a soft, rumbling purr.
"I like you, too," Larissa told her new roommate. "This is going to be great."
She settled Dyna on the sofa, then glanced at the clock. "I hate to bring you home and run," she said, "but I have to get to work. It's only for a couple of hours and then I'll be home." She grabbed her battered handbag and headed for the front door. "Think about what you want to watch on TV tonight. You get to pick."
With that, she closed the door and raced down the stairs to the ground level of her apartment building, then out onto the street.
She'd only been in Fool's Gold a few months, but she loved everything about the town. It was big enough to be thriving, and small enough that everybody knew her name. Or at least enough people to make her feel as if she belonged. She had a great job, friends and she was a comfortable four hundred and twenty-five miles from her family.
Not that she didn't love her parents, her step-parents, her sisters, their spouses and kids, but sometimes she felt a little overwhelmed by so much family. She hadn't been sure about leaving Los Angeles, but now she knew it was the right thing to do. Her mother's two day visit, while enjoyable, had been an intense campaign to get her to move back home.
"Not happening," Larissa told herself cheerfully.
Ten minutes later she walked into the offices of Score, the PR firm where she worked. The foyer was huge, with high ceilings and plenty of life-sized pictures on the wall. There was a photo of the four principles of the firm, but the rest of the wall space was devoted to all things Jack, Kenny and Sam.
The three guys had been NFL stars. Sam had been a winning kicker, Kenny a record breaking receiver and Jack was the brilliant and gifted quarterback.
There were pictures of them in action on game day and others of them at various star-studded events. They were smart, successful, good-looking guys and didn't mind exploiting themselves for the betterment of their company. Taryn, their lone female partner, kept them in line—something of a challenge, considering the egos she was dealing with. Larissa was Jack's personal assistant. She was also the guys' private masseuse.
She enjoyed both aspects of her job. Jack was easy to work for and not overly demanding. Best of all, he supported her causes and let her manage all his charitable giving. As for being the company masseuse—each of the men had played a rough sport professionally. They all had injuries and on-going pain. She knew where they hurt and why and when she got it right, she made them feel better.
Now she headed directly for her office. She had phone calls to return. There would be a Pro-Am golf tournament in Fool's Gold in a few weeks. She had to coordinate Jack's schedule with the publicity folks from the tournament. Later she would go over requests from a charity that helped families with a member in need of an organ donation—the cause Jack supported the most. Sometimes he was asked to reach out to a family personally. Other times he provided direct funding for the family to stay near a child in the hospital. He'd done PSAs and been in several print and internet campaigns. Larissa was his point of contact. She could gauge how much he was willing to do at any given time and when it was better for him to simply write a check.
Her other duties were of a more personal nature. He was between girlfriends, so there were no gifts to buy, or flowers to send. Because in that respect, Jack was a fairly typical guy. He liked women and they liked him back. Which meant there was a steady stream of them through his life. Lucky for him, his parents lived on the other side of the world. So he didn't have a mother demanding that he settle down and produce grandchildren.
She'd barely taken her seat when Jack walked into her office.
"You're late," he told her, sitting across from her and stretching out his long legs. His words sounded more like a statement than a complaint.
"I told you I would be. I had to see my mother off and then go pick up Dyna."
One dark eyebrow rose. "Dyna?"
"My new cat." She rested her elbows on her desk. "I told you about her, remember?"
Which was so like Jack. "That's because you weren't listening."
"She's a rescue."
"What else would she be?"
She waited for him to say more, or tell her why he was here. There was only silence. The kind of silence that she understood as clearly as words.
She'd first been hired in 2010, when Jack had left the LA Stallions and joined Score. He'd been a silent partner since the firm's inception and Larissa would love to know how Taryn had reacted to Jack moving from the guy who had fronted her the cash to an actual working member of the team. She would guess there had been fireworks. Or maybe not. Jack and Taryn had a past.
Larissa had graduated from college with plans to work for a non-profit. Paying jobs in her chosen field had been impossible to find and she'd quickly learned she couldn't support herself on volunteer work. So she'd gone looking for a job in the business world.
She hadn't lasted long. She wasn't the type of person who enjoyed faceless corporations and having her soul sucked out on a daily basis. She'd decided business wasn't for her and had settled into waitressing while putting herself through massage school. Then a friend had told her about a job as a personal assistant at a PR firm. That had sounded less soul-sucking than her entry level finance position and better paying than her shift at the diner.
Her interview had been with Taryn. It had lasted two hours and had ended with words that Larissa had never forgotten.
"Jack is a good-looking guy with beautiful eyes and a great ass. But make no mistake. He's not interested in more than a couple of nights with any given woman. If you fall for him, you're an idiot. Still interested?"
Larissa had been intrigued. Then she'd met Jack and she'd been forced to admit Taryn hadn't been lying about Jack's appeal. She'd taken one look at his studly manliness and had felt the shivers clear down to her toes. But instead of flirting with her, the former quarterback had rubbed his shoulder and sworn.
She'd recognized the pain and reacted instinctively. She'd dug her fingers into the scarred and tense muscles, all the while explaining that she was only a few weeks from graduating from massage school. She'd gotten a job offer thirty seconds later.
In the past four years Larissa had become a part of the Score family. By the end of the second week, she'd ceased to see Jack as anything but her boss. Six months later, they were a good team and close friends. She regularly chided him about his choices in women, made sure he used ice and anti-inflammatories when his shoulder acted up and offered a daily massage to any of "the boys" and Taryn. She loved her job and she loved that they'd moved to Fool's Gold. She had a new kitty waiting at home. Life was very, very good.
She returned her attention to Jack and waited. Because that was the kind of silence in the room. The one that said he had something to tell her.
"You seeing anyone?"
The question surprised her. "You mean like a man?"
He shrugged. "You never said you dated women, but sure. Either sex will do."
"I'm not dating right now. I haven't met anyone in some time and besides, I'm too busy."
"But it would be a guy?"
Amusement danced in his dark eyes.
Jack was one of those men blessed by the gods. Tall, handsome, athletic, charming. He pretty much had it all. What very few people knew was that there were demons he carried around with him. He blamed himself for something that wasn't his fault. A trait Larissa could relate to, because she did it to herself all the time.
"Yes, it would be a guy."
"Good to know." He continued to study her. "Your mother is worried about you."
Larissa slumped back in her seat. "Tell me she didn't talk to you. Tell me!"
"She talked to me."
"Crap. I knew it. She stopped by, didn't she? On her way out of town. I knew there was something going on." Her mother was nothing if not determined. "Let me guess. She wanted to know if I was seeing anyone. I hope you told her you didn't know. Or did you tell her I was? Because that would seriously help."
"She didn't ask me if you were seeing anyone."
"Oh." She straightened. "What did she ask?"
"She wants me to fire you so you'll move back to Los Angeles, fall in love, get married and give her grandchildren."
Larissa felt heat flare on her cheeks. Humiliation made it hard to think, let alone come up with something reasonably intelligent to say.
"She already has two married daughters," she muttered. "Why can't she leave me alone?"
"She loves you."
"She has a funny way of showing it. Are you going to fire me?"
Jack raised both brows this time.
She drew in a breath. "I'll take that as a no. I'm sorry. I'll do my best to keep her away from here. The good news is Muriel is due in three months and the new baby will be a distraction." In the meantime Larissa would figure out a way to convince her mother that she'd moved to Borneo.
"Anything else?" she asked.
"Yeah, there is. Your mother said you're never going to settle down and get married because you're secretly in love with me."
Jack hadn't known how Larissa was going to react, but he'd guessed it would be a show. She didn't disappoint. Her face went from red to white and back to red. Her mouth opened and closed. With her jaw tightly clenched, she muttered something like, "I'm going to kill her," but he couldn't be sure.
Nancy Owens' words had hit him like a linebacker. Larissa in love with him? Impossible. For one thing, she knew him better than anyone except Taryn and to know him was to understand he was all flash and no substance. For another, he needed her. Love meant a relationship and having a relationship meant she would eventually leave. No. There was no way Larissa could be in love with him.
But he'd been unable to shake the words and had realized he had to get the truth from the only person who actually knew.
Larissa drew in a breath. "I don't love you. We're friends. I like working for you and the charity work is terrific and I know you have my back, but I'm not in love with you."
Relief eased the tension in Jack's always aching right shoulder. He kept his expression neutral.
"You sure?" he asked.
He shook his head. "I don't know. I'm pretty hot. I could understand you having a thing for me. You've seen me naked. Now that I think about it, your reaction is inevitable." He sighed. "You love me. Admit it."
Larissa's mouth twitched. "Jack, you're not all that."
"But I am. Remember that fan who had my face tattooed on her breast? And the one who begged me to father her child? And the woman in Pittsburgh who wanted me to lick her—"
Larissa rested her arms on the desk and dropped her head to her arms. "Stop. You have to stop."
"Stronger women than you have been unable to resist my charms."
"In your dreams."
"No. Apparently in yours."
She looked at him then, her blue eyes wide, her mouth smiling. "I give."
"In the end, they all do."
The smile faded. "I'm sorry about my mother. She shouldn't have said that. I swear, I am not, nor will I ever be in love with you. I love my job and you're a big part of that. But we're friends, right? That's better. Besides, you have terrible taste in your 'let's end this now' gifts."
"Which is why I let you buy them." He hesitated a second. "We're good?"
"The best." Her smile returned.
The last of his worry faded. This was the Larissa he knew. All funny and earnest. Hair pulled back in a ponytail and not a speck of make-up on her face. She wore yoga pants and T-shirts and always had some cause to discuss with him. She believed the world was worth saving and he didn't mind if she used his money to try. They made a good team. He didn't want to have to do without her and having her love him... Well, that would have changed everything.