A Tricky Proposition

By: Cat Schield

One

Ming Campbell’s anxiety was not soothed by the restful trickle of water from the nearby fountain or by the calming greenery hanging from baskets around the restaurant’s outdoor seating area. With each sip of her iced pomegranate tea she grew more convinced she was on the verge of making the biggest mistake of her life.

Beneath the table, her four-pound Yorkshire terrier lifted her chin off Ming’s toes and began her welcome wiggle. Muffin might not be much of a guard dog, but she made one hell of an early warning system.

Stomach tightening, Ming glanced up. A tall man in loose-fitting chinos, polo shirt and casual shoes approached. Sexy stubble softened his chiseled cheeks and sharp jaw.

“Sorry I’m late.”

Jason Sterling’s fingertips skimmed her shoulder, sending a rush of goose bumps speeding down her arm. Ming cursed her body’s impulsive reaction as he sprawled in the chair across from hers.

Ever since breaking off her engagement to his brother, Evan, six months ago, she’d grown acutely conscious of any and all contact with him. The friendly pat he gave her arm. His shoulder bumping hers as he sat beside her on the couch. The affable hugs he doled so casually that scrambled her nerve endings. It wasn’t as if she could tell him to stop. He’d want to know what was eating at her, and there was no way she was going to tell him. So, she silently endured and hoped the feelings would go away or at least simmer down.

Muffin set her front paws on his knee, her brown eyes fixed on his face, and made a noise that was part bark, part sneeze. Jason slid his hand beneath the terrier’s belly and lifted her so she could give his chin a quick lick. That done, the dog settled on his lap and heaved a contented sigh.

Jason signaled the waitress and they ordered lunch. “How come you didn’t start without me?”

Because she was too keyed up to be hungry. “You said you were only going to be fifteen minutes late.”

Jason was the consummate bachelor. Self-involved, preoccupied with amateur car racing and always looking for the next bit of adventure, whether it was a hot girl or a fast track. They’d been best friends since first grade and she loved him, but that didn’t mean he didn’t occasionally drive her crazy.

“Sorry about that. We hit some traffic just as we got back into town.”

“I thought you were coming home yesterday.”

“That was the plan, but then the guys and I went out for a couple beers after the race and our celebration went a little long. None of us were in any shape to drive five hours back to Houston.” With a crooked smile he extended his long legs in front of him and set his canvas-clad foot on the leg of her chair.

“How is Max taking how far you are ahead of him in points?” The two friends had raced domestic muscle cars in events sanctioned by the National Auto Sports Association since they were sixteen. Each year they competed to see who could amass the most points.

“Ever since he got engaged, I don’t think he cares.”

She hadn’t seen Jason this disgruntled since his dad fell for a woman twenty years his junior. “You poor baby. Your best buddy has grown up and gotten on with his life, leaving you behind.” Ming set her elbow on the table and dropped her chin into her palm. She’d been listening to Jason complain about the changes in his best friend ever since Max Case had proposed to the love of his life.

Jason leaned forward, an intense look in his eyes. “Maybe I need to find out what all the fuss is about.”

“I thought you were never going to get married.” Sudden anxiety crushed the air from her lungs. If he fell madly in love with someone, the dynamic of their friendship would change. She’d no longer be his best “girl” friend.

“No worries about that.” His lopsided grin eased some of her panic.

Ming turned her attention to the Greek salad the waitress set in front of her. In high school she’d developed a crush on Jason. It had been hopeless. Unrequited. Except for one brief interlude after prom—and he’d taken pains to assure her that had been a mistake—he’d never given her any indication that he thought of her as anything but a friend.

When he headed off to college, time and distance hadn’t blunted her feelings for him, but it had provided her with perspective. Even if by some miracle Jason did fall madly in love with her, he wasn’t going to act on it. Over and over, he’d told her how important her friendship was to him and how he didn’t want to do anything to mess that up.

“So, what’s up?” Jason said, eyeing her over the top of his hamburger. “You said you had something serious to discuss with me.”

And in the thirty minutes she’d sat waiting for him, she’d talked herself into a state of near panic. Usually she told him everything going on in her life. Well, almost everything.

When she’d starting dating Evan there were a few topics they didn’t discuss. Her feelings for his brother being the biggest. Holding her own council about such an enormous part of her life left her feeling as if a chunk of her was missing, but she’d learned to adjust and now found it harder than she expected to open up to him.

“I’m going to have a baby.” She held her breath and waited for his reaction.

A French fry paused midway between his plate and his mouth. “You’re pregnant?”

She shook her head, some of her nervousness easing now that the conversation had begun. “Not yet.”

“When?”

“Hopefully soon.”

“How? You’re not dating anyone.”

“I’m using a clinic.”

“Who’s going to be the father?”

She dodged his gaze and stabbed her fork into a kalamata olive. “I’ve narrowed the choices down to three. A lawyer who specializes in corporate law, an athlete who competes in the Ironman Hawaii challenge every year and a wildlife photographer. Brains. Body. Soul. I haven’t decided which way to go yet.”

“You’ve obviously been thinking about this for a while. Why am I only hearing about it now?” He pushed his plate away, abandoning his half-eaten burger.

In the past she’d been able to talk to Jason about anything. Getting involved with his brother had changed that. Not that it should have. She and Jason were friends with no hope of it ever being anything more.

“You know why Evan and I broke up.” She’d been troubled that Evan hadn’t shared her passion for family, but she thought he’d come around. “Kids are important to me. I wouldn’t do what I do if they weren’t.”

She’d chosen to become an orthodontist because she loved kids. Their sunny view of the world made her smile, so she gave them perfect teeth to smile back.

“Have you told your parents?”

“Not yet.” She shifted on her chair.

“Because you know your mother won’t react well to you getting pregnant without being married.”

“She won’t like it, but she knows how much I want a family of my own, and she’s come to accept that I’m not going to get married.”

“You don’t know that. Give yourself a chance to get over your breakup with Evan. There’s someone out there for you.”

Not likely when the only man she could see herself with was determined never to marry. Frustration bubbled up. “How long do I wait? Another six months? A year? In two months I turn thirty-two. I don’t want to waste any more time weighing the pros and cons or worrying about my mom’s reaction when in my heart I know what I want.” She thrust out her chin. “I’m going to do this, Jason.”

“I can see that.”

Mesmerizing eyes studied her. Galaxy blue, the exact shade of her ’66 Shelby Cobra convertible. He’d helped her convince her parents to buy the car for her seventeenth birthday and then they’d spent the summer restoring it. She had fond memories of working with him on the convertible, and every time she drove it, she couldn’t help but feel connected to Jason. That’s why she’d parked the car in her garage the day she started dating his brother and hadn’t taken it out since.

“I’d really like you to be on board with my decision.”

“You’re my best friend,” he reminded her, eyes somber. “How can I be anything but supportive?”

Even though she suspected he was still processing her news and had yet to decide whether she was making a mistake, he’d chosen to back her. Ming relaxed. Until that second she hadn’t realized how anxious she was about Jason’s reaction.

“Are you done eating?” she asked a few minutes later, catching the waitress’s eye. Jason hadn’t finished his lunch and showed no signs of doing so. “I should probably get back to the clinic. I have a patient to see in fifteen minutes.”

He snagged the bill from the waitress before she set it on the table and pulled out his wallet.

“I asked you to lunch.” Ming held her hand out imperiously. “You are not buying.”

“It’s the least I can do after being so late. Besides, the way you eat, you’re always a cheap date.”

“Thanks.”

While Jason slipped cash beneath the saltshaker, she stood and called Muffin to her. The Yorkie refused to budge from Jason’s lap. Vexed, Ming glared at the terrier. She was not about to scoop the dog off Jason’s thighs. Her pulse hitched at the thought of venturing anywhere near his muscled legs.

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