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.