Scene 1 - The Rendez-Vous

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Cassie Ames stepped off the elevator and sighed in disgust. The worst part of her job was the trek through the mall-level of GameHard’s downtown San Diego office building to get to the street. After the previous year’s Valentine’s Day horror, the last thing she wanted to see was yet another fat Cupid armed with a bow-and-arrow, advertising show-her-you-care specials for guys with no imagination.

Walking beside her, Noah Jensen leaned close. “Something wrong, Cassie?”

His warm breath swept her neck, making her shiver. What was going on? Was all this Valentine's Day corporate propaganda getting to her? As the assistant director of marketing for GameHard, she knew better than to fall for a bunch of meaningless marketing hype. Noah was a friend, a good friend. And she didn’t want that to change.

She waved at the storefront displays of red chocolate-filled hearts, stuffed animals, and coffee mugs with “romantic” sayings on them. “I can’t believe women fall for this stuff.”

Stopping at a rack in front of Love In Pink, she picked out a mauve lace teddy and held it up. “If a guy gives this to his girlfriend or his wife, what is he saying?”

Noah glanced at the teddy, then up to her face, holding her gaze for a moment. His cheeks reddened, and he looked away. She almost laughed. One of GameHard’s top engineers, Noah was a sweetheart, shy and a bit of a nerd, especially around women. Which was why she loved hanging out with him. His lack of testosterone was refreshing.

“Come on,” she coaxed. “You’ve probably given something like this to a girl before. What did it mean to you?”

He looked back at the lingerie. “Okay. To me it says: roses are red, violets are blue. I love Valentine’s Day. And you.”

She rolled her eyes and wiggled the teddy. “This does not say I love you.”

He tore his eyes from the shimmying lace and lifted a dark brow. “All right, what do you think it says?”

“When a guy gives something like this to a girl, he’s saying: roses are red, violets are blue. Put this on ‘cause I wanna screw you.”

A broad grin bloomed on Noah’s face and he held up his hands in surrender. “That pretty much sums it up.”

Something flipped in the pit of her stomach. She’d expected him to argue, to insist Valentine’s Day was all about romance. Like Drew had. “You admit I’m right?”

“I wouldn’t go that far. A lot guys forget to let their women know how special they are. And once a year, we’re reminded to tell them.” He stopped and shrugged. “But yeah, sometimes, it’s just a good excuse to get in a girl’s panties.”

She set the lingerie back on the rack and eyed him warily. “Are you a closet romantic, Noah?”

“I’ve done the flowers and candy thing more than once.” He held up a shopping bag. “In fact, I’ve got some here for my mom and my sister.” When she widened her eyes, he flushed and started to stammer out an explanation. “No, no. I didn’t mean that I wanted to… That came out so wrong. We are not that kind of family.”

“I should hope not.” Cassie laughed, taking in his perpetually tousled brown hair, his full lips, and the exceptionally long lashes framing his dark brown eyes. Expressive eyes he kept hidden behind unfashionable thick black eyeglasses. Noah was as sweet as the candy in his bag. “No special girl this year?”

He shot her a lopsided grin. “There is this one girl I like, but she doesn’t know I exist.”

She frowned. “Someone I know? Maybe I could help.”

He laughed and threw an arm around her shoulders, drawing her toward the exit. “I can handle her on my own. A little time is all it’ll take.”

Cassie looked up into his smiling face and sparkling eyes. Her chest tightened up and a feeling of loss swept through her. “She doesn’t stand a chance. What do you have planned?”

After squeezing her arm, he let go and pushed open the heavy door leading out to the street. A gust of wind buffeted her, blowing her hair into her eyes. He gripped her elbow to steady her. “She’s not ready for me yet. What about you? Any plans?”

“None, and I refuse to feel bad about it. Valentine’s Day has no meaning. It’s just a Hallmark holiday.”

Sliding his hand to her shoulder, he swung her around to face him. “I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we both take the day off and hang out together?”

If he thought he’d wine and dine her just so he could get her in bed, she had news for him. “If you’re thinking pretty clothes and fancy restaurants, count me out.” Last Valentine’s Day, Drew had bought her a beautiful dress and sent a limo to bring her to Marvello’s, a high-end Italian restaurant. Throughout the entire meal, she’d watched him expectantly. When he’d excused himself after they’d ordered dessert, her pulse had raced, certain her dream was about to come true. Her prince charming was going to sweep her off her feet and whisk her away into a future of wedded bliss.

But while her heart had been banging in anxious anticipation of a marriage proposal, he’d been banging their waitress in the employees-only restroom.

Gentle fingers pressed under her chin, forcing her to look up into Noah’s concerned face. “Hey, you okay? You seemed a million miles away.”

She averted her eyes, blinking back the traitorous tears that blurred her vision. “I just really hate Valentine’s Day.”

“Whoever he is, I’d love to beat the shit out of him.”

Her lips twitched. “That’s something I’d pay to see.”

“So, you’ll do it? I promise, no romance. We’ll just hang out together like two friends and have fun—the opposite of Valentine’s Day.”

She hesitated. Noah should be spending his energy on that girl he liked, not wasting his time coddling her. “Why are you doing this?”

“I don’t like seeing shadows in your eyes.”

Well, crap. That was already the most romantic thing a guy had ever said to her.

“Okay, but if I see one candied heart or hear one sappy love song, you’ll be buying me coffee for a month.”

He grinned and crossed his fingers over his heart, then held them up in a Scout sign. “We’re going to have a blast. I’ll give you the best Un-Valentine’s Day ever.”

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