just_friends_finalCHAPTER ONE

     Clint Carmichael wondered if he was a fool. On the eve of his hard-won freedom from the gender, he was seeking out a woman.

But Rosalie Missen wasn’t exactly a woman, he decided as he guided his pickup downtown. At least, she wasn’t the kind a man had to watch out for. Clint looked forward to surprising her this evening.

He found a parking spot across the street from one of the few mid-rise professional buildings that graced the high desert California town of Palmwood. As a craftsman, he didn’t care for the sleek, off-green monolith of reflective windows where Rosalie worked, but he smiled up the height of the cold-looking building with the sun in his heart. Today everything looked beautiful. In his pocket he’d printed out the proof of that: the judge’s order granting him a status divorce.

Two-and-a-half years ago he’d been stupid enough‑‑and horny enough‑‑to sleep with Judy Dawson. Two weeks later she’d tearfully called with the news she was pregnant, despite their use of two different types of birth control. Three days after that, and after viewing the stick with the two red lines, Clint decided to act the hero and asked her to marry him.

But no child ever arrived, and his grand gesture turned into the biggest mistake of his life. Judy wanted absolutely everything, and he hadn’t been able to give that to her. Six months ago, she’d walked out on him and had proceeded to persecute him so badly he’d been forced to file for divorce.

Clint accepted his share of the blame for the failure of the marriage, but tonight all he was thinking about was how damn relieved he was. It was over. Releasing a very happy sigh, he crossed the street and entered the office building’s granite lobby through the fancy revolving glass door at its base.

It was after six. He hoped Rosalie would be able to leave the office, but he knew she often worked overtime and sometimes even all night. She was conscientious and a bit proud. As the IT coordinator, she was the only employee at the big development corporation who could fix the various computer issues that came up. Some might call her a nerd, but Clint called her his very best bud. He really wanted to celebrate his milestone with her.

While in the hushed elevator cab riding to the tenth floor, Clint heard his phone receive a text. Taking it out of his pocket, he smiled at the name of the sender: Tom Gearson. Clint had met with Gearson yesterday to discuss some custom built-in cabinets for a bedroom remodel. Clint thought his portfolio had impressed the other man.

Sorry. Going with another carpenter. Please don’t call.

Clint frowned. Wow, he’d been sure Gearson was going to hire him. And what was this bit about “please don’t call”? Had Clint given the impression he was going to pester the guy if he changed his mind?

Shaking his head, Clint turned off the phone and stuck it back in his pocket. You couldn’t win them all, and today he’d won enough. Divorced. Clint grinned as the floor indicator hit the number nine.

Okay, his attorney had reminded him this was only a status divorce, giving him the ability to marry someone else should he wish. There was still the matter of property to be settled. But, come on. He and Judy hadn’t had any ‘property.’ She was dreaming if she thought she could get her claws on his deceased father’s house just because Clint happened to live there now. In no way was that community property.

The elevator slowed at the tenth floor and the doors slid apart smoothly. A set of big double doors stood open, revealing a large reception desk, unmanned. Beyond the desk, two halls stretched.

Nobody was visible down the halls, but the main doors were open and the lights were all on. Clearly, at least a few employees were still working even if the receptionist had apparently gone home.

Clint headed down the hall on the left toward Rosalie’s little closet of an office. The anticipation of seeing her raised his happiness quotient even higher. She’d understand exactly what this news meant to him. She’d supported him through the entire two years of his miserable marriage. And she would be happy to indulge him in exactly the kind of celebration he’d like.

Rosalie’s office door was open. Grinning, Clint stepped around the frame, but the little carpeted square with her desk, a filing cabinet, and two computer monitors was otherwise empty. No short, frizzy-haired bunny rabbit.

Rosalie would be horrified if she knew Clint thought of her as a round, cuddly little bunny rabbit, so he kept the image to himself. He’d come up with it the first time he’d ever seen her, though, in his junior year of high school. As the teacher’s assistant in the Sculpting I class, he’d taken on the task of helping the terribly out-of-place math nerd Rosalie figure out what to do with her virgin block of clay, the art assignment she could not seem to handle, quite literally. With her long baggy shirts and her flyaway hair, she’d looked to him then like a disgruntled little rabbit. She hadn’t changed much about the baggy shirts or the flyaway hair in the intervening ten years, and the picture of her in his mind remained.

The overhead light and computer monitors were all on, which meant Rosalie was somewhere in the building even if she weren’t in her office. Clint paused a moment and then decided to go look for her. It was after hours. Nobody would blame her for having a personal friend drop by.

Most of the doors down the hall were closed, but a few were open with the light from inside spilling out. Clint ambled toward the first such room and peered inside.

A tall, sloe-eyed woman turned from her perusal of her computer to regard him. She looked like a model, from her shiny black heels to the elegant twist of her mahogany hair. In between was a sleek body wrapped in a skirt suit that glided precisely over every slender curve. “Yes?” she inquired in a throaty voice.

Clint met her frank regard and felt…nothing. He experienced not even the twinge of a sexual response to this veritable paragon. As a twenty-six-year-old man, he probably should have felt some concern over this lack of interest. Instead, he felt profound relief, if not triumph. There wasn’t a sexual impulse left in his battered soul.

Fantastic. Since sexual impulses were what had gotten him into the tornado his life had been for the past two-odd years, he hoped he never had another one in his life.

He didn’t have to worry about that with Rosalie. The bunny rabbit woke not a ghost of such a thing.

“I’m looking for Rosalie Missen,” Clint told the paragon with the almond eyes. “Do you happen to know where she might be?”

The siren moved her head slightly to the left. “She went down the hall to take ‘an important call.’ I don’t know what’s more important than getting my Excel spreadsheet to work when I have a deadline tomorrow, but she thought something was. Apparently.” The woman half closed her eyes, as if daring Clint to disagree with her assessment of the situation.

Oh, it’s the B-word lady. At least that’s what Rosalie always called her when she related stories about the office. Rosalie didn’t like using the actual word bitch because it was something her older brother had called her too often. Her brother had relished trying to get her goat, goaded on by a father who himself rarely had anything nice to say about her. In consequence, Rosalie was sensitive about using the word on any woman, even one who did her best to make the work environment unbearable.

“I’ll see if I can find her,” Clint said.

The siren shrugged.

Clint continued down the hall slowly and checked the next open door he found. A young man with a crew cut did not look up from his work.

Where would Rosalie go to take a call if not her own office?

Her voice stopped him before he saw her. Rosalie had a deceptively sweet, high voice. Deceptive because the sharpest barbs could be carried on that dulcet tone if she were exercised enough to state her true opinion about something. She appeared to be talking behind some closed door‑‑Clint wasn’t sure which one.

Not that he would have gone around opening doors to interrupt her private conversation. In fact, he was about to retreat down the hall back to her office to wait for her when her next words stopped him, unfortunately clear despite the closed door.

“…is an interesting, in fact, amazing opportunity. Working on website algorithms is exactly what I’ve trained for. The only thing that concerns me is relocating to Boston. I’m going to need to think about that. When do you need a decision?”

Clint’s heart turned to stone in his chest. Relocate? To Boston?

Forcefully, he drew in a breath to get his heart working again, turned on his heel, and walked quickly back the hall in the direction from which he’d come.

Rosalie had supposed she was private, slipping into the first empty office she could find. She had no idea Clint‑‑or anyone else‑‑could overhear her conversation.

Meanwhile, a two-ton weight latched onto his chest. Hell, he hadn’t even known Rosalie was looking for another job. But apparently, she’d done more than merely look. She’d found one. That meant his very best friend, the one on whom he’d counted all these years, particularly the last two during his marriage‑‑she was maybe leaving.

Unnerved, Clint ducked into the office of the siren with the attitude. He didn’t want Rosalie seeing him out in the hall and didn’t want to take the time to walk all the way back to her office.

“Oh. Hi, again,” he told the paragon, who turned with the same slow regard to look at him. “Couldn’t find her, so I’ll wait for her here to finish her call. Uh, if you don’t mind.”

She blinked lethargically. “Why should I mind? I only work here.”

Her sarcasm bounced right off of Clint. He was too busy trying to process what he’d overheard. Rosalie might leave.

He bit his lip and tried to shift the painful weights in his chest. Hell, Rosalie didn’t owe him a damn thing, certainly didn’t owe him staying in some job that wasn’t ‘what she’d trained for’ in podunk Palmwood.

But he felt like he’d been hit by one of the two-by-fours he kept in his carpentry yard. When had she planned to tell him? Had she ever planned to tell him?

Shit.

~~~

Rosalie was in a state of shock. She’d just gotten offered her dream job, the one she’d fantasized about during the tough four years of a computer science major at UC Berkeley.

As she made her way down the hall toward Emily Weaton’s office, she should have been walking on air. Instead, she felt dread and anxiety.

The job would involve moving to Boston. Admittedly, Rosalie was not particularly attached to the mid-sized town of Palmwood or even to the presence of her mother still living here and certainly not to the residence of her father nearby‑‑but she didn’t want to move away. Even back when she’d been choosing a college to attend, she’d made sure to pick one within reasonable driving distance of Palmwood. She’d wanted to be able to touch base here during school vacations.

Rosalie paused a moment before reaching the open door of the office where Emily was waiting for help with her computer problem. With a deep breath, Rosalie worked to even her expression. It wouldn’t do for anyone at Blaine Development to know Rosalie might be leaving for a better job. That is, she might leave if it weren’t for that one factor that kept her in Palmwood.

That one person.

Sighing at her own obstinacy on the subject, Rosalie stepped around the frame of the opened door and abruptly stopped dead. “Clint.”

And there he was, the one person. Clint Carmichael. Straight dark hair, caramel brown eyes, not too tall‑‑but neither was she‑‑and movie star smile. He was shooting that lethal thing at her right now, destroying any semblance she might have of dignity or poise. Ever since she’d first seen him across the quad in high school, Clint had been able to discompose her this way.

And instantly, just as it had then, his unconsidered masculinity robbed Rosalie of any pretension she might have to a feminine bone of her own. She felt awkward and heavy and pre-pubescent.

It wasn’t his fault. He simply was the epitome of romantic and sexual desire, sweet and strong and lovely. And she was the exact opposite: sexless and a nerd.

“Hey.” Clint smiled, apparently unfazed by, or possibly familiar with, the blank expression Rosalie sent him when she hadn’t had time to prepare a better one. “Thought I’d drop in and surprise you. I, uh, hope that’s okay.” He threw a humorous glance toward Emily, who was glaring bullets at him.

He clearly had no idea how thrilled Rosalie was to see him. He never did, thank God.

Quickly, Rosalie assumed her ‘friends-only’ smile, the one she’d created especially for Clint. Even if she could have attained a spot on the long list of girlfriends he’d had before his marriage, she wouldn’t have tried for such a place. All of those women had ended up passing right out of his life.

Rosalie hadn’t wanted to pass out of his life. She liked him too very much. So she kept things platonic and never let Clint guess her true feelings.

They were so obviously not returned.

“Of course it’s okay to drop by.” Isn’t that why Rosalie was living here? Wasn’t that why matters had never clicked with the handful of men she’d managed to date during college and over the past couple years? Because nobody else made her feel the way that Clint did.

“We’re not done,” Emily coldly put in.

“Oh. Sorry.” Turning to Emily, Clint went straight into soother mode. He was expert at that; he’d always been the peacemaker in his own, sometimes turbulent, family. “Absolutely Rosalie will help you get your spreadsheet working. I wouldn’t dream of interrupting.”

His words put a satisfied smile on Emily’s face. She was going to get her own way, as usual. She probably thought it was because Clint thought she was cute. She might have been correct. He had a hard time turning down a pretty woman.

In this case, however, Rosalie wasn’t about to let Emily drive Clint away. “It shouldn’t take all that long for me to get Emily’s software to work.” In reality, the software was operating beautifully. It was Emily’s technophobia that was the problem.

“Then I’ll wait for you.” Beaming, Clint touched the pocket of his shirt. “I’ve got some really fantastic news I want to share.” His lashes lowered a little. “I thought maybe, you know, after you’re done here, we can, you know.”

His invitation sounded utterly sexual, but Rosalie knew what he was actually suggesting: takeout from the China Trade restaurant and over to his house for two back-to-back action adventure movies. It was their favorite hangout thing to do.

But that smile‑‑had he gotten finalization of his divorce? Exhilaration swept her‑‑she couldn’t help it. When Clint had called her two-and-a-half years ago to give her the news he’d just eloped, Rosalie had been devastated. It would have been too low, though, to wish he’d divorce. Rosalie had resisted such a desire even when she’d deduced later that Clint himself wasn’t so thrilled about the marriage.

But when, six weeks after the wedding, Clint had grimly informed Rosalie that Judy’d had a miscarriage, Rosalie had stopped feeling guilty about hoping for a divorce. She suspected what Judy must have done to get Clint to marry her in the first place.

It still made her a pathetic person, however, to hope the man who’d never date her even if he were single would get divorced. That’s why she’d applied for this job in Boston almost a year ago. To get out of this rut and move on. Who could have guessed that after so many months the company would actually get back to her? Or that Clint would get divorced…

“It’ll probably take about fifteen minutes.” Rosalie shaved some off her actual estimate, not wanting Clint to give up on her and find someone else with whom to celebrate. “Is that okay?”

“I’ll go wait in your office.” Still smiling brilliantly, Clint backed out of the room, waved, and departed.

Rosalie had to pause a moment to allow his effect to attenuate enough that she could return to work. The exercise didn’t take long, probably hastened by the chill presence of cranky Emily Wheaton.

Putting on what she thought of as her bedside manner, Rosalie turned to her coworker. “Now, then. What’s the problem going on with Excel?”

But Emily leaned back in her chair and regarded Rosalie with a slight smirk. “I’ve seen him before, haven’t I?”

“Maybe.” If Emily thought she could crack Rosalie on her true feelings for Clint, the woman was deluded.

“Cute,” Emily prodded.

“Oh, yeah.” Why not admit such an obvious fact? “Move over and let me drive.”

Lowering her lashes yet more, Emily got up from her seat in front of the computer.

Rosalie took the other woman’s spot and regarded the warning onscreen that had caused Emily to call IT in a panic right at the end of the workday. Fifteen minutes had actually been an overestimate. It took about a quarter of a second to spot the problem.

“Look.” Rosalie pointed onscreen while Emily leaned over her shoulder. “You put text instead of a number into this field.”

“Crap. Why didn’t it tell me that?”

The warning icon pretty much had told her, but Rosalie didn’t say as much. With two key strokes, she corrected the issue. She might have concluded Emily was a birdbrain, but Rosalie’d been at Blaine Development long enough to have learned the other woman was a shark when it came to wheeling and dealing. She only appeared to be an idiot when it came to things with electrical cords.

“There you go. Should be working fine now.” Rosalie got up from the chair.

“If you say so.” Emily reluctantly sat back in her seat and sullenly regarded the monitor.

“Good night, then.” Rosalie moved toward the door.

“What? No!” Emily swiveled her chair and widened her eyes at Rosalie. “You can’t leave. What about the problems I’m going to have later?”

Rosalie wasn’t paid to sit here all night and hold Emily’s hand. “You’ll be fine.”

“You should stay.” Emily looked truly panicked. “Your job depends on me doing my job.”

While there was some truth to this statement, Rosalie gave the other woman a hard look. Was it possible Emily somehow knew about Rosalie’s offer of employment, the one with more interesting work and higher pay? Was she fishing for information?

“If you’re really stuck,” Rosalie offered slowly, “you can call me.” She decided Emily could not possibly know about the job offer. Nobody could. Rosalie had deliberately used one of the empty offices, the fancy ones, and closed the door.

“I will call.” Emily looked certain. “And I won’t care how late it is.”

If you have a problem,” Rosalie warned. As she left Emily’s office and went down the hall, she wondered if Emily were simply determined to ruin Rosalie’s evening with Clint. Maybe she should turn off her phone.

But if she did that, and if Emily really did have a big enough problem to jeopardize the proposal she was giving tomorrow, then Rosalie would look pretty bad. And she wasn’t yet prepared to jump for this job in Boston.

Over the ten years of their friendship, Clint had never lifted a finger, raised an eyebrow, sighed a sigh, or done anything whatsoever to indicate he could have romantic feelings toward Rosalie. In fact, he’d spent two years married to another woman. His divorce, if he was divorced, probably wouldn’t change that.

Even so, Rosalie wasn’t yet ready to move away and give up on him.

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