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“I can see him through the window,” Amber reported eagerly through her mic. “He’s sitting in that exclusive section that nobody without connections can get. Dang! You’ve got yourself a cute date for the night. Perks of the job, right?”

I’m so not ready for this.

There were downsides to being an outspoken outcast her entire life, and that was Lauren’s complete helplessness in the social scene. Strange that the boldest girl on the internet was a wimp when it came to love.

She pushed her thick brown hair around her shoulders to try to hide as much of that dress as possible, regretting the flashy scarlet for perhaps the hundredth time since she’d gotten here.

“Nope, nope!” Amber tsked. “Don’t cover up the pendant.”

Oh yeah! That was Amber’s camera. Reluctantly, Lauren swept her long hair back, uncovering the pendant and showing off more of her dress than she wanted.

Just own it already!

Stuffing the makeup back into her purse, she snatched up the soft red leather and headed out the bathroom door. “I’m going in.”

“Okay, going dark. In one, two, three…” Amber’s voice cut off when she muted her side as promised. They both agreed that shouting orders into Lauren’s ear would be too distracting, but it now felt eerily still. Soft harp music drifted through the restaurant.

Lauren caught sight of West at his table across the way. He seemed to be sending off a text before slipping his phone into his pocket. He glanced up at her, almost stopping her breath with that chiseled jawline. Dah! He was heart-wrenchingly gorgeous.

This is for truth. Truth. Remember that! I’m doing the world a favor. My name will go down in history as one of the great supporters of freedom—John Hancock and Samuel Payne and…

She swept forward, the ends of her red dress sliding across the floor. She did her best to not jostle anything as she walked… like a certain zipper. It almost felt like walking with a book on her head.

The guy had no right to look so good. But those eyes of his were the culprit behind her runaway pulse. They seemed to stare into her soul and tear out her heart all at once.

Lauren had no idea how to fight back. She was like an awkward clown sent in to tame the lions.

And that kind of defeatist thinking wouldn’t get her anywhere! She was supposed to be the strong woman who toppled corrupt empires on a daily basis.

I can do this. Just pretend that this is a business interview. I’m good at those. Or-or it’s like talking to children. It’s not like I don’t have enough nieces and nephews running around underfoot… or students. I can talk to chil…

She groaned at the turn of her thoughts.

Actually, don’t talk to West Slade like he’s a child… ugh! He’s a professional businessman… one of the best PR guys out there. He’s represented guys like the notorious country star, River MacKenzie, for goodness sake!

And she was going out with him, and on false pretenses. What was she thinking? And why was West Slade even bothering to look at her?

He rubs elbows with Iced Bro and uses and throws away socialites like Nicole Kate and Chocolate Sugar and—and even Trout’s daughter! Of course, Eva Trout had practically left him at the altar with how fast she’d run from that playboy… and he had no problems replacing her. And who cares? That makes him a worm. I don’t care. He’s just a guy.

West stood as she approached, like a lazy tiger in his slow, languid way, like he was both bored with the evening, but hoping it was looking up with some good company. She noticed that he was taller than her, even in her heels, but only barely. What he lacked in height, he made up in confidence… or was that arrogance?

His lips twisted into a smirk that was already becoming familiar to her. “Great entrance. I like a woman who shuts my brain off the instant she walks into a room.”

Her face went hot… hotter than it was before. Was this how his part of the world talked? Or was he just super bold? Amber had handled all messages back and forth with him. A strategic mistake. Lauren didn’t know what to expect or how to keep up.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she blurted. “I hope you weren’t too… uh, lonely.”

Did she really just say that?

He didn’t miss a beat. “You were worth the wait.” He leaned over her to brush a kiss against her cheek.

Wait. Already?

His pleasant musky scent invaded her nostrils the instant his smooth lips met her already heated skin. It was bad enough he saw her blushes, now he’d feel them. His touch was casual, yet promised more.

Yeah, he was used to a scene that moved at a faster pace than she was comfortable with. He’d be sorely disappointed when she didn’t follow along… well, mildly disappointed… no use thinking this eager reporter meant more to him than she really did.

Steeling herself, Lauren took the seat that he’d pulled out for her, feeling breathless, perhaps more so because she was trying not to set off that zipper on her tight dress. She allowed him to tuck her in before he sat on the other side of her, proceeding to watch her under heavy lids. He hadn’t stopped smirking.

He was the worst! How could he not know what he was doing to her pulse with that look?

Her source had told them that West was the key to finding everything about Trout, since the two worked so closely together. What secrets were hiding in that intense gaze? One thing she could read—he was fascinated with her. Riveted!

A shiver ran through her at that burning smolder.

Oh, Amber! What had her friend recklessly told him when she’d masqueraded as “Lauren”?

A server came to the table and set their menus in front of them. The main courses were priced in the hundreds. West glanced over the menu at her, his forehead wrinkling as he asked her about any dietary restrictions.

“None… I mean, I should…”

“No, you shouldn’t.” His brilliant smile took a break from that smirk and almost melted her into the ground. Lauren tried to pull herself together as he turned to the server and ordered the most expensive drinks and appetizers in the restaurant.

Her fingers froze over her napkin as she realized how much going undercover would cost him, and she couldn’t say a thing without giving herself away. She scanned the menu to find the cheapest thing on there and saw a fifty-two-dollar lobster soup.

So not good.

She turned back to him and noticed him checking her out.

Lauren tried not to jump. Was he really? He could also be mesmerized by the sequins of her dress or put off by that scar between her brow or…? Well… Amber had really gone overboard with her makeover. Lauren let him know that she’d caught him in the act by meeting his gaze evenly.

He didn’t even look bashful, just owned his scandalous behavior with sparkling eyes.

Jerk! Those eyes were his most dangerous weapon! No wonder he was such a heartbreaker. Women must stand in line for their turn to get played and thrown away.

Lauren desperately tried to think of how to even the playing ground. “It’s a great dress,” she said flatly. “I’ll let you borrow…” it…? No, no, that didn’t sound right coming from a date… in fact, her intended set-down would sound like an invitation that she didn’t mean. “I’ll let you borrow…” She was stuck. “… my fashion sense sometime.”

This night was not going well.

Now she was insulting his fine Arman-whatever suit, but it was better than giving him any false expectations about what kind of girl she was.

In an instant, the smirk that had taken possession of his lips curled up in appreciation.

Buddy, you won’t stay impressed for long.

She could just imagine Amber snorting out her amusement in her car while she listened in. Her friend wouldn’t keep her promise to stay silent for long if she kept messing up. Lauren was supposed to go into this date acting like an airhead—everyone blabbed to the cheerful, easily impressed woman—but she was accidentally sounding like her true self.

“I’m looking forward to borrowing your fashion sense,” West said, saving them both from her blunders with just a touch of a drawl—she found herself oddly intrigued. He must’ve picked it up from that backwoods hometown he came from. “I’ve been missing a feminine touch in my life. I have to say I can’t wait for yours.”

That man had a big dose of flirtation with that drawl!

She laughed, despite her best efforts. The server was back, plying them with drinks and setting the luxurious appetizer in front of them. Yeah, this was how the other half lived—curbing no appetite and giving in to every temptation. Never in a million years would the preacher’s daughter have said “yes” to a date like this. West’s quips only confirmed that.

“Now, wait a second…” she said. As long as he was throwing out sexist comments; she had a few of her own. “If I’m going to lend you my ‘feminine touch,’ I’ve got to see how well you change a tire first.”

“I’m on it,” he retorted. “Where’s your car?”

Did he mean her getaway car?

“Not so fast,” she retorted. Banter was something she was used to with her brothers, and he made it far too easy. “You don’t have to slash my tires just to prove your manliness, I can see your muscles from here, tough guy.”

His brow arched. “Are you checking me out, Ms. Lauren Garcia?”

She swallowed at his playful, confident teasing. How could she possibly keep up with this? It was taking everything in her to channel her inner socialite for this interrogation. She let out a laugh to signal her surrender. “I guess you caught me. You’re all man.” She needed to avoid further arguments that revealed too much of her true nature, but to her chagrin, more of her personality leaked out against her will: “Too much of a man,” she muttered.

He tossed his head back with a laugh.

Did he actually like the real Lauren? He was leaning closer to her now. How had that happened? She needed a clear head for this.

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