Anything For You
Sam Kirk sat back on his haunches and surveyed his handiwork. Not bad, even if he did say so himself. Smiling, he pushed himself to his feet and rubbed his hands on his jeans to clean the chalk dust off his fingers. The smile turned into an out-and-out grin as he admired the full result of his labours from a bird’s-eye viewpoint.
Outlined on the industrial navy carpet in front of him was a classic crime scene body outline depicting a form sprawled halfway across his business-partner-cum-best-friend’s office. To add to the CSI look, he’d rifled through her filing cabinet, pulled a few books off her bookshelf, and left all her desk drawers open. Highly satisfied with himself, he retreated to the doorway and began unrolling the police tape he’d wheedled from his mate in the Force. Fixing one end to the doorframe, he stretched the tape to the opposite side and stuck it in place.
“Delaney is going to flip when she sees this,” their receptionist, Debbie, said from behind him.
“I know. It’s going to be great,” Sam said with relish.
Debbie shot him a look designed to let him know she thought he was weird. She’d only been with their extreme sports magazine, X-Pro, for a month, so she wasn’t up to speed yet on the office dynamic. When she’d been around a little longer, she’d understand that playing practical jokes on each other was just how he and Delaney operated. Every year when she went on holidays, he came up with some outrageous stunt to surprise her when she returned.
One year, it had been cajoling their printer to bind a single copy of the latest edition of the magazine inside out, then just casually leaving it on Delaney’s desk on her first day back. She’d gone ballistic when she found it, and it had taken him twenty minutes to convince her that the full 60,000 editions of the magazine hadn’t been mailed out to their subscribers in the same condition. Then there was the time he’d glued all her stationary accessories to her desk. Stapler, hole punch, computer mouse. Hell, he’d even stuck her wheelie chair to the carpet. Remembering the bewildered look on her face still brought a smile to his lips.
Stuffing the debris from his scene-setting into a carrier bag, Sam eyed his gathered staff of five.
“Remember, serious faces. She’ll only buy this if no one laughs,” he warned them.
“Sam, man, you’re so deluded. She’s going to know it was you the moment she sees it,” their lay-out artist, Rudy, said.
“But she can’t be sure. All I’m looking for is a moment of doubt,” Sam said.
Checking his watch, he crossed to his office and looked out the window to see if Delaney had arrived yet. Her car space was still empty, and he frowned. She lived in the apartment beneath him, and he hadn’t heard her come home last night. But, he reminded himself, he didn’t always hear her door open and close, and her car had definitely been in the space allocated to her apartment when he left early this morning, keen to get in and prepare his little surprise.
It wasn’t like her to be late, especially on the first day back from two weeks off. Normally she was champing at the bit to get back into it. That was one of the great things about owning their own business. Work wasn’t a burden or a drag – it was something they enjoyed, even if sometimes it could be stressful or boring.
He was about to call her on her cell phone when he caught himself. Feeling a little foolish, he dropped into the chair behind his desk. He was carrying on like a dog who’d been locked inside all day, waiting for his master to come home. Delaney had only been away two weeks, but the truth was, he’d missed her like crazy.
His gaze fell on the photo frame occupying the one clear space on his desk. Two teenagers filled the frame - one a tall, chestnut-haired lout, the other a slim, brown-haired girl who was sporting a shiny black eye. Both wore lycra rash vests and baggy board shorts, and their faces were tanned from long days at the beach. The boy was grinning hugely, his arm slung around the girl’s shoulders, and the girl was looking furious and grumpy and determined. It had been taken when they were both sixteen, the summer he’d taught Delaney how to surf. She’d scored the black eye on the first day when her board flipped and clocked her in the face. She hadn’t even cried, he remembered – just took a moment to get her breath before she started paddling again.
That was the thing with Delaney – when she wanted something, she bloody well went for it, both barrels blazing. Perhaps it was why they’d hit it off the moment her family moved into his street when he was just twelves years old. The moving vans had barely started disgorging their contents before a scrappy, skinny girl had gravitated to the game of cricket he and his buddies had been playing in the street. She’d waited until the ball came her way before catching it deftly and asking if she could join in. The other neighbourhood kids hadn’t wanted to let her play, but she’d offered them a deal – if she could bowl them out, she was in. If not, she’d walk away without another word. She’d bowled a blindingly fast bouncer that almost took one kid’s arm off before it hit the wicket, and all the others had hastily passed on their turns to bat, readily conceding that she could play.
It had been the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one that had survived every test thrown at it, from his insanely jealous girlfriend in his early twenties, to the stress of starting a fledgling magazine on the smell of an oily rag. She was the one constant in his life, the only person who got him – his jokes, his silences, his need to sometimes just get away and surf or skate or travel. Hell, she even shared the same address, since they’d bought warehouse apartments in the same building. She didn’t constantly ask him what he was thinking or how he was feeling. She didn’t need reassurance twenty times a day that she was an important part of his life. And she didn’t play games and sulk if she didn’t get her own way.
As though some all-knowing feminist deity had read his thoughts and decided to punish him, the phone on his desk buzzed.
“Sam, there’s a Coco here to see you,” Debbie said.
Sam groaned. “Could you tell her that - ,” he began to cajole, but Debbie cut him off.
“No, I couldn’t. Delaney said when she hired me that under no circumstances was I to ever make excuses for you to one of your girlfriends. It’s in my contract,” Debbie said brightly.
Before he could counter this argument, the line went dead. A moment later, a wave of cloying floral scent preceded Coco as she minced her way to his office doorway.
“Hi ya, bub,” she said in her signature baby voice.
Sam barely controlled a cringe. How had he ever found that voice sexy? His eyes dropped to Coco’s two best assets, clearly defined by the skin-tight white tank top she was wearing.
Right. Now he remembered.
Sadly, however, the sight of her generous D cup no longer sparked an ounce of interest from Little Sam, the man in charge of social activities. Perhaps it was the squeaky voice. Or the fact that Coco had a highly-manicured white poodle that he’d caught her kissing on the mouth recently. Or the way she had of calling him bub. Or maybe it was all of the above, combined with the fact that he’d yet to have a single conversation with her that hadn’t included the words “when I do a photo spread for your magazine.” She seemed to think he was the man who was going to launch her modeling career, despite the fact that he’d told her over and over again that X-Pro wasn’t that kind of publication. He’d been trying to ease his way out of their casual three week relationship for the past few days, only returning every second call and manufacturing overtime at work to keep his nights unavailable. So far, so good – until now.
“Hey,” he said, trying to inject a note of welcome into his voice. He might be a feckless love rat, as Delaney had told him many a time, but he wasn’t a cruel, feckless love rat.
“Hey yourself. I was just in the neighbourhood, and I thought I would drop in and see if you were free for lunch,” Coco pouted.
Sam frowned and flicked a glance at his watch. “Um, it’s ten in the morning, Coco,” he said.
“So? You’re the boss, aren’t you?” she said, eyes busy scanning the front covers of X-Pro that covered one of his office walls. Her wide blue eyes darted from image to image with increasing rapidity, taking in the skate boarders, snow boarders, BMX bike riders and surfers who had graced the magazine’s cover over the past year.
“Is this the only magazine you publish?” she asked incredulously, the baby voice miraculously disappearing.
“Yep. Extreme sports, like I said,” Sam said.
“Triple X, you said,” Coco corrected him, eyes narrowing sharply.
Sam snorted his amusement. “X-Pro, Coco. I’m no Hugh Hefner. Although I wouldn’t mind a visit to the Bunny Palace.”
“But I thought…” Coco said, clearly disappointed.
“Like I said the other night – ” the night he’d picked her up and she’d practically tongue-kissed her dog goodbye – “I’m more than happy to hook you up with a photographer friend of mine. I’m sure he could help you with your, um, ambitions.”
Sam held his breath as Coco frowned, obviously thinking things over. Slowly.
“Can you call him now?” she asked after a looooonnnggg pause.
Sam smiled. “Sure I can. Hell, he might even be free for lunch,” he added.
Without wasting another precious second of Coco’s time, he reached for the phone.
That was the thing Delaney didn’t understand about his love life, Sam mused as he dialled. She thought he left a trail of broken-hearted women in his wake, but all the women he went out with were tailor-made for the kind of no-strings fun he specialised in. As he waited for his photographer buddy to pick up, he registered that Delaney still hadn’t shown up for work. Where the hell was she, anyway?
Delaney Michaels sat in her parked car, staring blankly out the windshield. If she drove around the corner, she’d see the bright aqua street sign that announced the offices of Mirk Publications in the inner-city Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. She’d find her reserved parking spot, along with an office full of people waiting for her return from holidays.
And, of course, Sam.
The thought of facing Sam was what had made her pull over nearly half an hour ago. She’d been doing really well up until then, staying focussed on her end goal, reminding herself over and over that she’d made the right decision – the only decision. And then she had flashed forward to how his face would look when she told him, the confused, hurt, baffled expression he would get in his eyes. That was when she’d had to swerve to the kerb and take half a dozen deep, calming breaths to stop the panic tightening her chest.
She didn’t think she could do this.
She had to do this.
Or she might as well just sign up for the old spinsters club now and avoid the rush when she was sixty and grey and still ridiculously, besottedly, pathetically in love with Sam Kirk.
Gritting her teeth, Delaney scrunched her eyes shut and made an angry, frustrated growling sound in the back of her throat. She had been over and over and over this decision. The better part of the last week of her holiday had been spent facing the sad truth of her life and formulating a plan to change things. She wasn’t a coward. She had never backed away from a challenge in her life. And she wouldn’t back away from this. It was just…hard.
When a woman had been in love with the same handsome, ne’er-do-well, charming, funny, sensitive, generous, incorrigible rogue for the better part of her life, it was probably only natural for her to feel a little… shaky about how she was going to cope once she’d pruned him out of her world. But that was all it was – stage fright, pre-match jitters. Nothing was going to stop her going through with her plan, because there was too much at stake.
If she hadn’t decided to go on vacation with her sister’s family, she might have let a few more years slip away before she made the vital break. Watching her sister’s life from a prime courtside seat, she’d had a cosmic revelation. She wanted a family. She wanted a husband, and kids. She wanted snotty noses and tears-for-no-reason and snuggling in bed with small, warm bodies. And she was never going to get any of it while she was in love with Sam.
How was she ever supposed to find someone she liked enough to marry while Sam filled her whole world? Even the fact that she thought in terms of liking someone, not loving them, was testament to how long Sam had been her everything. It was pathetic. Especially since the big dope didn’t have a clue. Even when she’d been a doe-eyed teen, mooning around after him, he’d never gotten wise. Thank God. She’d swiftly learned what happened to the love interests in Sam’s life – a few blissful, heady moments in the warm sunshine of his attention, then a lifetime of exile in the land of shadows once he’d moved on. She’d soon worked out that it was far better to be his ever-present buddy and side-kick than to risk all for a few fleeting moments of perfection. And it was a compromise she’d been happy with the bulk of her adult life.
It wasn’t like she wasn’t getting any action of her own. She had needs, after all. And there were only so many Sam-fuelled fantasy sessions a girl could host in the privacy of her lonely bedroom. She’d had lovers, off and on, over the years. None of them had so much as put a dint in her love for Sam, of course. And she’d hurt some of them, she knew, with her emotional unavailability. But she hadn’t been celibate, pining in a tower somewhere over her unrequited love.
In all honesty, she’d thought she had it worked out. Sex when she needed it, and Sam in her life forever. Perfect. Right?
Except now it was time to grow up and face the facts: if she wanted children and a husband, she had to get Sam out of her head and heart.
She knew herself well enough to know that that meant excising Sam from her life. Just the thought if it made tears well up in her eyes as she stared bleakly out her windscreen. She couldn’t imagine her life without Sam in it. He was her best friend. Her business partner. The one who finished her sentences. He could always make her smile, and he could infuriate her like no one else on the planet. It would be like losing an arm or a leg.
Or a heart.
But there were no half measures with this thing, she could see that. She’d be cheating her future husband if she remained friends with Sam. She had to at least be open to the possibility of loving someone else.
She felt sick to her stomach. Their lives were impossibly intertwined. She lived beneath him, for Pete’s sake. She worked with him. No, not just worked – she owned half the business, he owned the other half. It really would be like lopping off a limb. But she didn’t see that she had much choice. It wasn’t like her love for Sam would just curl up and die of its own accord one day. It had been nearly sixteen years and it showed no signs of waning. So, she was faced with a choice – Sam, or a family of her own.
Sitting in her car, Delaney felt the panic rising again. She forced herself to think practically and push the panic away. It was nearly a quarter past ten. She needed to get into work. At the very least, there would be a big pile of paperwork in her in-tray that needed to be dealt with.
Starting her car up, she drove the remaining short distance to the office and parked in her spot. Taking a deep breath, she exited the car and beeped it shut. For the first time ever, the sight of her red and white Mini Cooper didn’t bring a smile to her face.
“That bad, huh?” she asked herself wryly as she turned toward the entrance to the building.
She blinked as a startling vision almost plowed into her.
“Careful!” the woman said, pursing hot pink lips.
Delaney’s gaze swept from the woman’s honey blonde mane of tangled hair past impossibly blue eyes, a cute little ski-jump nose and neon mouth, only to come to a grinding halt on the woman’s truly spectacular breasts. Whoa! They were so large and so tightly outlined by a white singlet that Delaney could barely pull her gaze away. And she was a woman! She felt a small stab of pity for the male of species. Against breasts like these, most men were powerless.
“Sorry,” she muttered, stepping aside to let the other woman pass.
Jessica Rabbit flashed a tight little smile before strutting away, ass wiggling in her high stiletto heels and short leather mini skirt, despite the fact that there was no one but Delaney to notice.
A true professional, Delaney thought. Always committed to the cause.
She couldn’t imagine what it must be like to look like that and walk like that and behave like that. She and Jessica Rabbit might as well come from different planets. Delaney glanced down at her own slim, boyish figure. If the bra manufacturer was on the generous side with their measures, she was a B cup. But more often than not she was an A. And where the other woman’s waist swerved in and out again like the corner of a race track, her own body just sort of ran straight down, sidestepping the need for such womanly accoutrements as an hourglass waist or child-bearing hips. Narrowing her eyes, Delaney decided that she might rival the other woman in the legs department, however. She had a good four inches in height on Jessica, and much of that was leg. And she’d been told she had a nice ass, firm and small.
She sighed and pushed her fringe off her forehead. Why was she standing on the threshold of her business taking stock of herself like this?
Because you know what that woman was doing in this building, she told herself. Or, more accurately, who.
Steeling herself, Delaney pushed open the door and strode into the reception area of their small offices. Debbie looked up from her computer screen and broke into a welcoming smile.
“Hey, Delaney! Thank God you’re here - Sam has been driving us crazy, asking if anyone’s heard from you,” Debbie said.
Delaney’s treacherous heart leapt in her chest, but she barely gave it the time of day. She was used to the damned thing lurching around inside her whenever Sam was in the vicinity. Occupational hazard of having an unrequited crush on her best friend.
“He’s highly excitable,” she said, and Debbie blushed a little.
Delaney gave Debbie an intent look. Yep, all the signs were there - Debbie had a crush on Sam. The poor fool.
Great. Another receptionist bites the dust.
Delaney wondered how long it would take before Sam had to deliver the “I don’t dip my pen in the office ink” speech to Debbie, leading their receptionist to quit so he could go out with her. Judging by the depth of Debbie’s glow-on, not long.
“Your messages are in your office. Sam handled most things, but a few clients only wanted to speak to you and they said they would wait until you got back,” Debbie said. Delaney nodded her acceptance of this. She was largely responsible for the advertising sales side of the business, while Sam supervised and wrote for the editorial half of the magazine. While he could step into her shoes on occasion and schmooze with the best of them, it wasn’t his natural element.
“About time, lazy bones,” a deep male voice said from behind her, and all the small hairs on her forearms stood on end.
“Sam,” she said, bracing herself for the first sight of him after two weeks away.
As usual, absence had made the heart grow fonder. He looked taller, broader, sexier than ever in his worn, faded denims, crumpled t-shirt and scruffy skate shoes. His skin was always tanned thanks to his weekly surfing sessions, and he was still sporting the ridiculously clichéd dreadlocks that he’d been cultivating for the past year. A mixture of his natural chestnut and sun-bleached blond, they hung to his shoulders in thick, matted ropes. On any other thirty year old man dreadlocks might look like a pathetic attempt to cling to their youth, but Sam pulled it off with ease.
Bright blue eyes sparkling with pleasure, he stepped forward.
“Laney!” he said, scooping her into his embrace.
For a few heady seconds she was held tight against his hard, hot chest, and his smell swamped her – a mixture of sun and pine forest and spice. Probably soap and laundry detergent, knowing Sam. He famously decried aftershave as being “one step too close to being a she-male” for his tastes, and any scent he had was all his own.
If Calvin Klein bottled it, he could buy himself the World Bank, she figured.
“Sorry I’m late. I had some stuff to take care of,” she said evasively as she extracted herself from his embrace. She swallowed a lump of lust and forced a smile. “How’re things? No problems while I was gone?”
“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Sam said.
He was wired about something, she noticed, studying him. A bit too perky, a little too shiny-eyed.
“Okay, what have you done this time?” she asked resignedly. She pretended to hate the practical jokes he played on her, but she secretly loved the trouble he took to amuse and annoy her.
“Nothing. Although there was an unfortunate incident while you were away…” Sam said, doing his best to sound solemn as he steered her toward her office.
She registered the “crime scene, do not cross” tape across her door with a blink. Then she saw the chalk outline on the carpet, and her paperwork strewn all over her desk. “We’re not sure how they got in, but it appears there must have been a falling out between thieves, and there was a bit of a struggle…” Sam said with admirable composure.
Delaney rolled her eyes. “Puh-lease. As if you wouldn’t have called me on my cell phone if someone had bitten the big one in my office. And you’re tidying up my desk, mister,” she said, poking a finger into his chest.
He grinned, clearly proud of himself.
“Admit it – had you going for just a second,” he said.
She shook her head. “You’re too transparent, Kirk. I can read you like a billboard.”
He shrugged a shoulder. “Just like I can read you, Michaels – and when you saw that police tape, you had your doubts,” he said.
She quirked an eyebrow at him as she unceremoniously tugged the crime scene tape loose and let it flop to the floor. Entering her office, she dumped her briefcase and turned to face him, propping her butt on the edge of her desk. He hooked his hands over the top of the door frame and grinned at her. God, it was good to see him. Unable to help herself, she fished to confirm her guess about the woman outside.
“So who was the pneumatic blond?” she asked, careful to keep her tone light and disinterested. She had a PhD in light and disinterested. It was almost an artform for her.
“Coco,” he said, waving a hand dismissively.
And that, thought Delaney, is the end of that. She almost pitied Coco, but the other woman hadn’t looked heartbroken in the least.
“How long this time? A week? Two weeks?” she asked.
“Three. With time-out for bad behaviour,” he said.
“Yeah. Caught her kissing her dog on the lips,” Sam explained with a grimace. “Had to wait for the cooties to settle.”
“Eww. That’s just plain wrong, as well as giving the dog false hope,” Delaney said. Sam threw back his head and let out a crack of laughter, and she felt a warm surge of pleasure that she’d amused him.
She realised she was staring at the strong, tanned column of his throat, her eyes caressing the firm, muscled planes of his chest and shoulders, nicely defined by the soft material of his T-shirt and his hanging-off-the-doorframe posture. She could feel her nipples tightening, and she crossed her arms over her chest. Occupational hazard number two: unruly body parts that always seemed to be on the verge of betraying her.
But not for much longer, she promised herself.