A Friendly Flirtation ONLY
a Friends First novel by Christine Warner
Allison Hall is fed up with being a social outcast. Even at the tech company where she works for her brother and his best friend, Jared, she’s the invisible nerdy girl. What she needs is confidence—and that requires a makeover and dating tips. And she knows just the man to help…
Jared Esterly is shocked when Allison asks for his assistance and turns her down, knowing that her brother—his business partner and best friend, Nick—would kill him if he dated her, even if it is just for practice. But when Al’s attempt to make changes on her own fails spectacularly, Jared reluctantly steps in. Things heat up quickly, and soon lessons move from the salon to the bedroom.
When overprotective big-brother Nick discovers Jared is dating Allison, their friendship and business partnership sour. Allison, consumed by guilt, must make a choice: stay with Jared, even though that means ruining his friendship with Nick and possibly his career, or leave the one man who sets her on fire.
Title: A Friendly Flirtation
Series: Friends First, #3
Author: Christine Warner
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 275 pages
Release Date: February 2016
Imprint: Select Contemporary
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
An Excerpt from:
A Friendly Flirtation
by Christine Warner
Copyright © 2016 by Christine Warner. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
“It’s not like I asked you to devirginate me.” Allison Hall’s frustration level rose with the pitch of her voice. What the heck had made her say that? She wanted his help, but she didn’t plan on asking him to extend his help quite that far. Of course, there was no denying that if he agreed to assist her, the virginity issue would take care of itself. Hopefully. But at the moment she had bigger fish to fry—as Gramps would say.
“Devirginate? Is that even a word?” Jared Esterly’s eyebrows shot up toward his hairline, and he cleared his throat. Not often had she witnessed him out of his element.
“Does it matter?” Heat spread across her face as quickly as butter melted on warm toast. She pushed her glasses farther up the bridge of her nose and then locked her hands together in front of her, lacing her fingers so tight the muscles in her arms ached. “I know I don’t approach you with stuff like this often—”
“I’m asking you because you’re the one person I can trust. The one person I don’t have to worry about laughing me out of the room.” The one person outside of my family I consider safe.
He held up his hand, and she swallowed. “What about your brother?”
“Nick?” she squeaked. “Yeah. Already tried that. He told me in his overbearing brotherly way that I don’t need to make changes. I’m perfect the way I am.” Just like I figured he would.
He nodded, a glimmer of a smile touching his lips as he crossed his arms over his chest and rocked back and forth slightly in his chair. “I can almost hear him now.”
“I’ll bet.” Her rib cage tightened, and she fanned her fingers across her chest as if that would calm her pounding heart.
“Wouldn’t know the first thing about helping me with any of this.”
“Have you thought about asking another friend?”
She laughed outright at the desperate look on his face. “Isn’t that what I’m doing? You might be my boss and, although we aren’t as close as you and Nick, we’re friends. At least I thought we were.”
His smile vanished to be replaced by a somber expression. One that hardened his jawline and made her legs rubbery.
“Like you said, I’m your boss. Hell, I’m your brother’s best friend—”
“And my friend, too. We practically grew up together. Not that we share secrets, play poker, or hang out after work, but…” She shrugged, hoping in the process to shrug off some of her apprehension. “We are friends,” she whispered, as if trying to convince herself.
She fumbled with the black and white penguin buttons on her black sweater, twisting one tightly as she blinked to clear her somewhat foggy vision. Don’t you dare tear up. “I know our past conversations consisted mostly of is-that-software-ready, or pass-me-the-green-beans at Sunday dinner. That’s my fault because I suck at conversation, but that alone should prove to you how much I need your help.”
“So you decide instead of easing into some conversation, you’d jump in headfirst?” Humor flecked his eyes again.
What the heck didn’t he get? She wasn’t playing around. Her stomach did a little dance as she licked her lips. “I’d think you’d consider that I came to you a huge compliment.”
“Compliment?” Jared’s laugh came out hollow and uncertain. “I never expected anyone, especially you”—he ran one hand roughly through his hair—“to come to me with a request like this.”
She’d laugh at the absurdity of this conversation if she didn’t take it so seriously. “That’s probably because you don’t know anyone else who has my problem. You’re surrounded by beautiful people, and none of them are in need of—”
“A makeover?” He stood and came around to the front of his desk. “You need a makeover about as much as I need to grow a few inches.”
This time she did laugh. Not just any laugh, but the one that threw a soft snort in for good measure. She slapped her hand over her nose and gave him credit for acting like he hadn’t noticed her less than gracious reaction to his comment.
Instead, he towered over her, regarding her through his incredibly blue eyes. Besides his confidence, height, complexion, and perfect hair, his eyes were his best feature.
“Please don’t go into the same spiel as Nick. I can’t take that speech two days in a row.”
His lips twitched. “Nick’s a smart man.”
Even though she was standing, she actually had to tilt her head back to meet his gaze. Not that she was short by any means, but his six-three height and broad shoulders always made her feel small, and for the first time since she’d known him, a little breathless. How come she’d never seen him as intimidating until now?
“You’re not looking at me as a woman—”
“Of course I am. I see you almost every day. I’m pretty sure I know you’re a woman.”
She shook her head and mentally rolled her eyes. “No wonder you fit into my family so well.”
“Now that I take as a compliment.”
“You drive me as crazy as Dad, Gramps, and Nick.” Did none of them understand a woman’s feelings or fears? Why would they? She’d only recently started to understand them herself.
“You need to stop looking at me as your best bud’s little sister. An employee you see around the office day in and day out. The way everyone sees me, if they notice me at all.” She pinched the penguin button until she winced, then rubbed her fingers along the seam of her pants to soothe the sting. “I’m tired of being the background noise that nobody really notices,” she whispered. A tug of emotion pulled at her chest, and she swallowed the threat of tears at the back of her throat. She’d peptalked herself all the way to his office about not allowing her emotions to take control. She didn’t want anyone’s pity, especially Jared’s. But she did need his help.
Maybe she’d been insane for thinking she could go to him. Confident people like Jared didn’t get it. But he’d always seemed approachable and willing to lend a hand.
He rubbed the side of his neck and sighed. A sound so deep and full it resonated around the walls of his office and almost made her feel guilty for interrupting his work day.
She closed her eyes and forced herself to take a few deep, calming breaths. Last night, after Nick had shot down her request for help, she’d played around with her idea—her deepest wish—and had taken it one step further. Over her Lean Cuisine dinner for one, she’d jotted down ideas to implement a plan of personal change that would hopefully alter her life. She wanted, no needed, a chance to fit in and shine. But to do that she’d need help. An advisor of sorts. Someone the complete opposite of her.
Which is why she’d approached Nick first. He’d always been popular. The athlete, the man in charge, with charisma and friends from all over the world. But he’d shot her down—blah, blah, blah—and another picture formed in her mind.
A picture of Jared.
Although Nick was everything she wasn’t—confident, good-looking, charming, funny, comfortable in his own skin—so was Jared. Maybe even more so. He oozed confidence. From the way he stood, walked, spoke, and even rode his motorcycle. And it didn’t hurt that he was easy on the eyes. The perfect, unbiased person to help.
Then, while eating lunch—had that really only been fifteen short minutes ago?—as she studied several of her coworkers chatting and laughing in the break room, the idea she’d tossed around the night before hit her square between the eyes. Somehow, in that moment, it hadn’t seemed too silly or crazy.
Desperation to fit in seized her as she sat at a round table for six—five of the chairs empty—in the center of the sun-filled room. She’d picked at her salad while groups around her chatted about happenings, made plans to meet after work to kick off the weekend with drinks, or talked about an upcoming date with someone new. Conversations and laughter swirled around the room, but nobody noticed her. Nobody ever did. Not at work or anywhere else. If she wanted to fit in, score an invite now and then—a date, for Pete’s sake—she needed to get noticed. She needed change.
Now. Not later.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she’d chucked her barely touched salad into the trash and made her way to Jared’s office. Now, here she stood. Her stomach growling and her heart pounding so hard and fast it just might punch a hole in her sternum. She studied his concerned expression and patted the small notebook in her pocket as if it would give her all the answers to persuade him to help. Instead her newfound and short-lived confidence fell away and puddled at her feet. Her head swam, and panic rose in her chest. She fought to gain some control, but the blood rushing through her body vibrated inside her ears, and she closed her eyes.
“I don’t understand, Al.”
His soft words—and the fact he used her nickname—dragged her back to the present. She let out a breath.
“You don’t need my help. Or anyone else’s for that matter. You can do anything you set your mind to. You’ve proven it again and again. You work in a male-dominated field, and you own it. You graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and then went on to college and earned not one but two degrees.” He punctuated his statement by holding up two fingers, as if that would make his words more effective. “Those are two examples that take some level of confidence. You’re selling yourself short.”
She wouldn’t bother correcting him. Not only had she double majored in computer science and information technology, but she had also minored in business. Hello, I’m the biggest geek in the land. Or maybe the fact that her nonexistent social life had left her plenty of hours in the day to study played into the equation of overachievement.
His intent gaze had her shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She’d never been comfortable being the center of attention. It was clear he hoped she’d suddenly realize he was right and she didn’t need to be made over. She hated to disappoint him, but that wasn’t going to happen.
She had to make him understand. Not that she didn’t have a backup plan—because come hell or high water, thanks for instilling another cliché into my life, Gramps—she’d find a way. With or without help. But she’d prefer help.
“You need to look at me through the eyes of a stranger.” Allison challenged him with the lift of her chin as she brushed her hand down the length of her body. Her own gaze flickered across the front of her beige blouse and even more beige slacks, then down to her feet. What possessed you to wear white sneakers with slacks? To work no less. And beige clothes? Really? At least her sweater gave her a splash of color. Yeah, black. Loads of color there. And penguin buttons, too? How old are you? Six? She’d taken over her mom’s collection of penguins when she’d been a teen and over the years had grown to love everything about them.
As for the lack of color, she’d always dressed this way, blending into her surroundings like a chameleon. But lately it’d become a huge irritant—she didn’t want to blend in. She took a step toward Jared, thanking her lucky stars her klutzy habit of tripping over her own feet when she was nervous didn’t make an appearance. It was bad enough she’d snort-laughed. She rested her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders to give herself added height—and hopefully conviction. “Look at me. What do you see?”
Blood pounded in her ears as a heavy silence filled the room. His gaze took a leisurely walk down her front and then back up until their eyes locked. Heat devoured her flesh as if he’d actually touched her. And she liked it. She pushed her thoughts aside. Now wasn’t the time to go all weak-kneed because someone looked at her longer than three seconds. This is Jared, for Pete’s sake. He may be good-looking, but they were from opposite ends of the universe. All she wanted from him was his help.
She swallowed as she waited for him to say something. At the same time she feared hearing the B word. Boring. But that was exactly what she was.
“Allison Hall. Little sister to my best friend and business partner. An exceptionally smart woman who always gets the job done. A hard worker. Dedicated. Loyal. Smart. A little quirky, master of mashed potatoes, and confident with a capital C.” Jared dropped down onto the edge of his desk, folding his arms as he studied her through narrowed eyes. As if he dared her to argue his appraisal.
Silly man. Of course she’d challenge him—even though he liked her mashed potatoes.
“Then you’re blind. I might be confident when it comes to discussions about computers, or anything to do with my job, because I know what I’m talking about, but when it comes to the real world, I’m lost. I need an extreme makeover. Maybe one of the extremist. And I’ve decided you’re the person to help.”
He grinned, shaking his head. His slightly too long dark brown hair rubbed against the collar of his striped shirt. “I think you’re exaggerating.”
“Would you have noticed me in a crowd?” Heck, there were days she didn’t even see her own reflection in the mirror when she passed by one. Yes, she even bored herself. “I’m sure over the years there have been times when you’ve been at my dad’s and forgotten I was in the room.”
Her heart sank when he didn’t deny it.
“If you were older, I’d think you were having a midlife crisis.”
“And if you were funnier, I’d laugh.”
The tension in her shoulders evaporated when he grinned. “Touché.”
“Maybe I’m having my midlife crisis early.” Her lips twitched as humor flecked the lines around his eyes. “I didn’t come up with this idea over my lunch break, you know. It’s been brewing for a while. Only I didn’t know how to fix it until now.”
“And I’m the golden-ticket holder?” He smirked.
She sighed. Her fingers ached to shake him until he could see her point. “Look at how I’m dressed. My makeup, or lack thereof. My hair. My nonexistent social skills…everything. This isn’t normal; I’m not normal. But with your help, I can be.”
“Bullshit. You’re the most normal person I know.” The laugh lines disappeared, and his face sobered.
“I don’t feel normal.”
He rubbed his chin. “I think—”
“Come on, Jared. I need to make some changes, but I have no clue how or where to begin, except to ask for your help.” A thick curtain of hair settled across her face as she paced and then swung back around to face him. She refused to hide behind it, no matter how much she wanted to. She flung the long, unmanageable length over her shoulder and swiped her sweaty palms down the pleat of her pants. I can do this.
Maybe if she’d had a woman role model in her life things would have been different. But being raised by Dad, Gramps, and Nick—who was only a few years older but decades advanced in his ability to act like a protective adult—she hadn’t stood a chance of learning anything remotely feminine. And the few friends she had weren’t much help. They’d all been cast from the same nerd mold and were as socially inept as she was. None of them—including her bestie, Colleen—would be able to dole out advice on makeup, clothes, or flirting.
If only her mom were here.
Her heart clenched. Amanda Hall had been taken in a tragic car accident when Allison had barely been two. Although Gramps and her dad kept pictures around the house and shared stories, Allison had no memories of her own. She wished she remembered the woman with whom she shared the same hair and eyes. But there the similarities ended; all the pictures of her mother showed a woman who radiated confidence from the way she stood, smiled, and the look in her eyes. No wonder her dad still mourned her. She must’ve been extra special.
“You can’t even fathom what it feels like to be me, Jared. I’m a total mess.”
His eyes softened. He reached out as if to offer her comfort, but before he touched her his hand fell away, and he sighed. “You are not a mess.”
“You should consider getting your eyes checked. I’m the stereotypical girl-geek that you see in every movie. If we were in a horror flick, I’d be the first to get the ax.”
His laugh—deep, rich, and from the gut—gave her the courage to continue.
“I’m through being the predictable, boring woman you can set your clock by. If I want to get ahead in my professional life, as well as my personal life, changes need to be made. Those changes start with boosting my confidence. And confidence starts with looking and feeling better about myself. A makeover from head to toe.”
He sat tall, his shoulders stiffening. “Like I said, you’re fine and—”
“I’m not like you.” She swallowed hard, her mind racing to find the words to convince him to help. She blew several wayward strands of hair from her eyes as she pushed her heels together. “I can’t just walk into a room of strangers and win them over with a witty comment or a bright smile. People don’t hang on my every word. The only reason I don’t get yawned out of Firstline Security functions is because I’m related to one of the bosses. Who’d be crazy enough to offend Nick’s little sister at the office Christmas party? I’ve considered doling out toothpicks so that people can at least look like they’re awake when I’m talking.” She sucked in a gulp of air in an attempt to lower the pitch of her voice. “But that wouldn’t stop the way people’s eyes glaze over whenever I approach. That wouldn’t stop me from eating lunch alone day in and day out.”
He cleared his throat. “You have a great sense of humor. Use it to your advantage. You just need practice. You need more—”
“Confidence?” She shifted her weight to one leg, fighting the urge to tap her foot.
“It’ll just take time. Nothing happens overnight.”
His sympathetic voice gnawed at her gut. “Overnight? I’ve had my quota of overnights. Don’t you think by the age of twenty-three some level of confidence and social know-how should’ve kicked in?”
“Our conversation right now is going just fine. You don’t seem uncomfortable in the least.” He held up his hands and stared at her wide-eyed. “And look, no toothpicks.”
She rolled her eyes and choked out a laugh. “Of course I can talk to you. You’re practically family. Plus, we don’t have an audience.” She spread her arms before her, encompassing the room with her glance. “What I need help with are social situations with coworkers, business associates, anything that involves a group larger than two and isn’t business-related. You’re the one who suggested I push for a few independent consultant jobs to add to my résumé, but how can I do that if I freeze up at the idea of approaching someone?”
“I’ve seen you conduct hundreds of meetings. You always sound confident.”
She growled in frustration. “Because I’m talking shop. I know my job. I’m uber-confident there, but the whole idea of approaching someone on a personal level scares the heck out of me.”
“I can help you get business contacts. I told you that already.” He released a barely audible sigh when she pursed her lips. “As long as you don’t let them lure you away once they find out how amazing you are at your job.”
They stared at each other in silence until Allison plopped down in the chair before his desk and groaned, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose again. “You still don’t get it.”
“I don’t. I can’t help you with your confidence. It’ll come with exposure. Keep putting yourself out there. Read some current events so you have something to talk about. Look up some jokes. Take the first step here at work. Don’t wait for an invite but extend your own.”
“You make it sound so easy. It’s not.” The mere idea of approaching her coworkers to ask them out for drinks or coffee sent her mind and heart racing out of control. Even now her palms grew sweaty. She’d always lacked confidence, but deep inside she knew if she made a few changes on the outside it would result in even bigger changes on the inside.
He rubbed the side of his neck. “I don’t know. I’m no confidence expert. And what the hell would I know about makeup or women’s clothes?”
The fact that he thought about it so seriously gave her hope, and she sat forward.
“You know what a man likes, don’t you? I’d think a man would be the best shopping buddy in the world to help out a woman like me.” She shrugged. “As for makeup, through the years you’ve dated some of the most beautiful, poised, and elegant women I’ve ever seen. The best part is that you’ve remained friendly with all your exes.” She had no clue how he pulled it off, but none of his splits had been bitter. Once he dated a woman he had a friend for life. “Can’t you introduce me to one or two of them who’d be willing to share some secrets?”
“With a new wardrobe and hair and makeup skills, I’d be golden. Ready to tackle the world in heels.” She followed his gaze south. He lifted his brow as he took in her well-worn, white sneakers—complete with scuffs and bright pink shoelaces with dancing penguins. She rubbed one foot over the other as if that would hide them. “Or at least something besides sneakers or flats.”
“Why now? After all these years, why are you so focused on making changes? You always seem happy.”
A shiver wrapped around the length of her spine and squeezed. She swallowed the ball of emotion working its way up the back of her throat and closed her eyes for a second to stop the sting of tears from her own tortured thoughts.
“Like I said before, this didn’t just pop into my head. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve embarrassed myself in social settings. I know that my fashion sense is about two decades behind. I tried to make changes on my own, but I don’t know what to wear with what, which colors to put together, fabrics to choose, flattering styles…” She threw her hands out to her sides and fell back into the chair, focusing on the wooden beams crossing the ceiling to keep the threat of tears in check. She pulled herself up and sat forward. “Look at me. Beige is the safest color combo I know. But I don’t want to be safe. Not anymore.”
“I want to eat lunch with my coworkers. I want them to ask me to meet after work for a drink. I want to walk down the street and feel awesome because I’m wearing something flattering, colorful. I want to feel like a woman, act like a woman, look like a woman. Not just any woman, but someone people won’t forget three seconds after they meet me.” She stood, pulling in a lungful of air. “When I enter a room, I’d like people to sit up and take notice. Respect me. I want them to want to talk to me, listen to me. Basically, Jared, I want to be the female version of you. When you walk into a room you command attention. You know what to say and do. How to dress. Not that I need to have all eyes on me all the time, but once in a while might be nice.” Her insides felt inflamed with her wants and desires, her desperate need for acceptance. If she looked feminine, she’d act and feel feminine. She took another deep breath, twisting her hands in front of her as her attention shifted from the floor to his face. “I want to fit in.”
“Everyone loves you. You fit in. Looks aren’t everything.”
“Looks aren’t everything,” she whispered to herself. Her chest tightened, and she laughed dryly, only registering the last part of his comment. “Maybe not in the long run, but you have to admit that first impressions are invaluable.”
He opened then closed his mouth, and another tiny spark of hope filled her chest that maybe finally he’d get it.
“You’re one of those people, Jared. I want a little of what you have. Come on, even the women you date prove that confidence wins. They all have beauty, brains, talent—you name anyone with those attributes and Jared Esterly has probably dated her, or will shortly. I’ve never seen you with someone like me. Quiet, mousy, invisible.”
He furrowed his brow. “Are you calling me a snob?”
“No. I’m saying opposites may attract but not when it comes to confidence. Confident people stick together, and I want some of that.” The air in the room grew thick. “All I’m asking for is your guidance. Teach me.”
The hard edges of his face softened. “So you want me to take you shopping and then introduce you to some of my lady friends who’ll help you with makeup?”
She nodded, trying to quash the excitement in her gut at the acceptance in his voice. Would he finally say yes?
“Yes. And there’s one more thing.” The idea to ask him for this added bit of help hadn’t occurred to her until now. Her face roared with heat, and beads of sweat dotted the back of her neck. Her fingers automatically found one of her buttons again and twisted.
“My life’s been so involved in getting an education and building my career I’ve barely dated.”
“It’s not like you’re over the hill, Al.” His eyes sparkled with mischief.
“I need to play catch-up. Not only am I asking for your help with a makeover, but…” She could feel her throat closing off. How could she say this?
His face sobered, but even his obvious interest and relaxed attitude didn’t make what she had to say any easier.
Just say it. She took a steady breath and blurted, “I want to find someone special. I want to find love. Build a future.”
“I can see all of that for you.”
“Good, because I want you to give me some dating advice. Through example.”